By Lori Bennett
National Sports Columnist
The Toronto Maple Leafs sure know how to test the psychological sturdiness of their fanbase.
The Leafs entered their first round matchup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning with home ice advantage. The advantage wasn’t immediately obvious as the Lightning trounced the home team 7-3 to open the series.
Leafs fans immediately had that familiar feeling in the pit of their stomachs. But in Game 2 the Leafs stormed back with a 7-2 win on the strength of a John Tavares hat trick, and the series was tied at one game apiece.
In Florida, Toronto turned things around. In Game 3 they were outplayed by the Lightning, but a goal by Ryan O’Reilly with one minute left in the third period sent it to overtime. Morgan Rielly was the overtime hero and the Leafs claimed a 4-3 win.
In Game 4, the Leafs fell behind early and were down 4-1 heading into the third period, but Auston Matthews scored two goals to get the Leafs back in the game. Rielly scored the tying goal with less than four minutes left in the game and Alexander Kerfoot was the overtime hero for a 5-4 Toronto win.
The Leafs headed back to Toronto with an opportunity to finish the series on home ice, and three chances to win the series.
On Thursday night, it was Rielly leading again, scoring the opening goal early in the first period. Tampa Bay scored three goals and late in the third the Leafs were down by two. Matthews scored with the Toronto net empty to make it close, but with just five seconds left in the game, Alex Killorn sealed it for a 4-2 Lightning win.
That’s where press deadline left us – with the Leafs heading back to Tampa Bay for another chance to claim the series in enemy territory. It feels like déjà vu all over again for Toronto fans.
Also on Thursday, the Winnipeg Jets became the first team to be eliminated from this year’s playoffs. The Jets were the clear underdog entering their first round series against the Vegas Golden Knights. They surprised Vegas with a win in the opener, but then Vegas won four straight games to end Winnipeg’s season.
At the end of the day, injuries were the factor that did the Jets in.
The loss of centremen Mark Scheifele and Cole Perfetti were hard blows, but it felt like losing puck-moving defenseman Josh Morrissey killed any chances Winnipeg might have had for an upset.
In the other series involving a Canadian team, the Edmonton Oilers took a lead in their series against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night.
Coach Jay Woodcroft reunited Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on a line together for the first time in the series and it paid off. The Oilers won 6-3 to take a 3-2 series lead.
The NHL scheduler gets two minutes for bad timing in this series – the teams had three days off between games five and six, with them getting back at it on Saturday night.
The series that has Montreal Canadiens fans in knots is the matchup between the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers.
The long-standing rivalry with the Bruins makes it very uncomfortable for Habs fans to cheer for them, but the Habs hold the Panthers’ pick in the NHL Draft this summer. If the Panthers are eliminated in one of the first two rounds, that pick will be at number 17, the latest of any playoff team.
The Bruins had a chance to eliminate Florida on Wednesday, but a sloppy play by goaltender Linus Ullmark behind his net blew their chance. Boston was due to try to end it again on Friday night, with Game 7 slated for Sunday if needed.
Another noteworthy series has the Seattle Kraken, in just their second season in the NHL, facing the Colorado Avalanche. On Wednesday night, the Kraken won to take a 3-2 lead in the best of seven series against the Stanley Cup Champions. Nathan MacKinnon said this was the hardest first round series he has ever played in.
The teams were due to get back at it on Friday, with the Champions on the brink of elimination.
The Toronto Raptors saw their season expire on April 12th, but the post-mortem was delayed. Raptors Vice President and Chairman Masai Ujiri waited nine days before he held his annual end-of-season press conference.
The reason for the delay became clear when, immediately before the presser, it was announced that Coach Nick Nurse had been fired. Nurse initially joined as an assistant coach in 2013 and was named head coach in June of 2018. Fans have been fond of Nurse, who led the Raptors to their first and only NBA Championship in 2019.
But as Ujiri said in his presser, this past season was a disappointing one where the Raptors were, at times, hard to watch.
“To watch us play this year was not us. I did not enjoy this year watching this team play… It bothered all of us. It bothered Coach, too. But sometimes we have to make a change and have to move forward. We’re about winning here”.
Ujiri was asked if more change was coming, and he was very blunt in his response. He said GM Bobby Webster would be evaluating all options and that we can expect big changes this off-season. Ujiri identified the need to address complacency and selfishness in the team culture, and said they needed to improve their shooting.
Who will fill the coaching role in Toronto?
On Thursday evening, rumours surfaced that the Raptors had obtained permission to interview Becky Hammon for the position. Hammon, who was previously an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich, won the WNBA championship with the Las Vegas Aces in her first season coaching the team.
The Raptors are expected to name their new coach in advance of the NBA Draft on June 22nd.
Blue Jays Babble
Last week the Toronto Blue Jays welcomed the Chicago White Sox for a three-game series.
In Game 1 on Monday, Chris Bassitt allowed just two runs in six innings, the batters had a big fourth inning and the bullpen held the fort in a 5-2 win.
On Tuesday, Jose Berrios took the mound and pitched seven scoreless innings. Danny Jansen had a big game, with three hits and three runs scored, and Toronto shut out Chicago with a final score of 7-0.
Then on Wednesday, the Blue Birds completed the sweep with another shutout, this one finishing 8-0. Yusei Kikuchi had another solid start, and aside from a Bo Bichette homer the Jays won playing small ball.
This is a very good thing for a team that has been too reliant on power hitting in recent years. The series ended with the Jays holding a 16-9 record.
Toronto was due to welcome the Seattle Mariners for a three-game weekend series.