By Lori Bennett
National Sports Columnist
The elation of winning a playoff round was somewhat short-lived for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon – when a team has struggled for a long time to overcome a hurdle, finally doing so can eat away a lot of emotional energy. Sometimes it eats away too much.
I recall a series several years ago when the Montreal Canadiens eliminated the Boston Bruins in the first round. It was a hard fought series, and the Bruins had been their formidable foe for so long. The Habs finally overcame the Bees, but then were quickly eliminated in the second round by a lesser team.
At the time it just felt like they had spent all their emotional energy in that one round. I wonder if that dynamic was present for the Toronto Maple Leafs this year.
It was a battle against a battle-tested team, but the Leafs finally managed to win the first round of the playoffs, eliminating the Tampa Bay Lightning to do so. It was a giant hurdle cleared, and it took every ounce of intestinal fortitude they could muster to pull it off. Would they find any for the next opponent?
There wasn’t a lot of time to collect themselves. The Leafs were right back at it, welcoming the Florida Panthers to Toronto.
The Panthers came out with more oomph than the Leafs in Game 1, and the result was a 4-2 loss for the hometown team. The final score was closer in Game 2, but the outcome was the same as the Leafs lost 3-2. To make matters worse, rookie Matthew Knies was lost to a concussion, and the boys in blue were headed to Florida for two games.
The Leafs had already won three games in Florida this post-season in their series against the Lightning. Fans were hopeful they could pull it off again.
But the Leafs came out with less urgency than you might expect in Game 3. They took a 2-2 tie to overtime, choked in the extra frame and went down three games to none.
In three games, the big four – Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander – had combined for exactly zero goals. Also problematic was that goaltender Ilya Samsonov had to leave Game 3 due to injury.
Things did not look good for Toronto. On Wednesday night, May 10, it was do or die, with Joseph Woll in net. The Maple Leafs needed a win to avoid the sweep.
William Nylander opened the scoring for Toronto, and then Mitch Marner doubled the lead. The Panthers pushed in the third but could only score one in a strong defensive effort for Toronto. A 2-1 win was the result for the Leafs.
They were headed back to Toronto for Game 5 on Friday, with hopes of returning to Florida on Sunday. Their fate rested on whether their stars could play like stars.
In the other second round series featuring a Canadian team, the Edmonton Oilers drew the Vegas Golden Knights.
The series has not exactly been a goaltending duel.
In Game 1, Vegas came out flying and quickly took a series lead with a 6-4 win despite an outstanding four goal performance from Leon Draisaitl. Coach Woodcroft knew they could not afford to go down two games, so he reunited Draisaitl with Connor McDavid for Game 2. Both players scored twice, and the result was a 5-1 win for the Oilers.
The teams were headed back to Edmonton for two games. In Game 3 the seesaw tipped the other way, and it was the Golden Knights dominating. Jonathan Marchesseault scored twice in a 5-1 win. The McDavid-Draisaitl duo was held off the score sheet.
On Wednesday night, the Oilers sought to tie the series before heading back to Sin City.
They scored three in the first period of Game 4 to take control of the game. Edmonton added a goal in the second, and Vegas was only able to respond once.
The Oilers tied the series at two with a 4-1 win. McDavid and Draisaitl did not score, but each assisted on goals.
Late in the game, Draisaitl was focused on the Vegas empty net when Alex Pietrangelo lost his mind a little. He came at Draisaitl, delivering a two-handed slash from above his head. Pietrangelo received a five minute major and a game misconduct for the incident, but at press deadline we were waiting for a decision about supplementary discipline.
The two teams were due to get back at it on Friday in Vegas, and then head back to Edmonton for Game 6 on Sunday.
As the Toronto Raptors continue their search for a head coach, rumours continue to circulate about the changes that might be coming over the off-season.
There are three ways to build a professional sports team – drafting, free agency and trading.
The Raptors currently have their own draft pick, but the odds are low that they can win the draft lottery on Tuesday, May 16th. They have less than 5 per cent odds to win a top-4 pick.
Realistically, this year’s pick is not likely to be the missing piece to bring this team back to strength.
Free agency is also not likely to be very busy for the Raptors, with limited cap space to work with, and limited elite talent available for purchase.
That leaves the trade option, and Toronto may be forced to part with some popular names to try and improve their team. Pascal Siakam, a fan favourite, has just one year left on his contract and may be the most likely to move for picks and younger assets.
It will be an off-season of change in Toronto.
Blue Jays Babble
The Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in a very familiar position – neck to neck with a handful of teams in a very strong American League East.
Last weekend the Jays were in Pittsburgh for a three-game series, and it was not an enjoyable weekend for the Pirates.
In the Friday night game, Chris Bassitt pitched seven stellar innings en route to a 4-0 shutout win. On Saturday the bats were active, and Jose Berrios pitched a solid six in an 8-2 whipping. Toronto completed the sweep in convincing fashion on Sunday, with the bats driving in ten runs and Yusei Kikuchi having another strong outing in a 10-1 win.
The Blue Birds headed to Philadelphia and hoped to continue the streak against the Phillies.
On Tuesday night starting pitcher Alek Manoah allowed three runs in four innings, and then the bullpen allowed five more in an 8-4 loss. Wednesday’s game was a much closer affair, requiring extra innings. The Jays scored one in the fifth, and the Phillies tied it in the bottom of the ninth. Then in the bottom of the fifth the Phillies scored on a throwing error by Bo Bichette, and the Jays lost 2-1.
The Jays went from sweeping to being swept.
They were due to welcome the Atlanta Braves for a three-game weekend series.