By Lori Bennett
National Sports Columnist
The third round of the Stanley up playoffs is already underway, so it’s time to recap what went down in the second round.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, finally making it out of the first round after a long drought, were an easy obstacle for the Florida Panthers in the second round. Leafs fans barely had a chance to enjoy the winner’s high before being nailed with a loser’s low.
The series opened with a Florida win in Toronto, and suddenly Game 2 was a must-win for the Leafs. Their spirits were broken when they could not sustain a lead and went down by two games heading to Florida. Toronto lost Game 3 in overtime, before finally claiming a win in Game 4.
Last Friday night in Toronto could have turned the series around, but it was not to be. An overturned goal by Morgan Rielly may have been the kick in the teeth that did the Leafs in, and the series ended in just five games. Where do the Leafs go from here?
The core four – Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Nylander – were simply not good enough in the second round. Forty million dollars spread over two lines should not be shut down that easily. Matthews could not get going. John Tavares looked every day of his 32 years, and then some. Marner contributed a little, and Nylander was both the cheapest and most effective playoff contributor of the lot.
Tavares is going to be a very expensive winger, which is exactly what he should be going forward. Who will be his centre? That question screams about the error it was to sign Tavares in the first place.
The 2018 deal put a bookend on the Leafs window and tied up cap space like the knots in that old gold chain you find in the bottom of your dresser drawer.
Can the Leafs afford to keep the other three, who have deals coming up in the next year or two? Would the money be better spent on a defenseman rather than tackling another post-season from the bargain bin?
Were the cap and the window the only problems the Leafs created in signing Tavares?
Morgan Rielly looked like a captain in Game 5, trying to take the team on his back. Perhaps some of the younger leadership would have emerged differently if Tavares wasn’t brought in to do the leading.
The question around goaltending looks closer to resolved than it has in some time – Samsonov and Woll could be a solid tandem moving forward. But first they will need to move Matt Murray – will the Leafs have to deal another high pick to make that happen?
Will Dubas even be back as general manager?
In the end of season press conference, Dubas did not sound like a man who was sure about his future. He said he would have to discuss his situation with his family, but he would either be back in Toronto or taking a break from hockey. So all of those Pittsburgh rumours can simmer down.
If Dubas does return, surely he knows it’s time to bring in a highly skilled coach to match the group of players he’s been blessed with. Sheldon Keefe does not appear to be that guy, having been outcoached in two playoff rounds, including the one they won.
Then on Sunday night the Edmonton Oilers were eliminated and the final four will not feature a Canadian team.
The Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights split the two games in Vegas, and then split the two games in Edmonton. After Vegas claimed the close win in Game 5, momentum was on their side and they ended the series in the sixth game in Edmonton.
As has been the case in Edmonton for years, it all came down to goaltending. Last summer GM Ken Holland signed free agent goalie Jack Campbell to a big contract, and Campbell did not live up to it. He struggled in his first year in Alberta and eventually lost the starting role to rookie Stuart Skinner.
In the post-season, Coach Jay Woodcroft mostly went with the guy who got them there, and that decision may have proved costly. Skinner struggled, and with perfect hindsight it’s easy to suggest Campbell should have been called upon for Game 6.
End of season commentary has been less dramatic in Edmonton than in Toronto, but the teams face a similar issue. Both have superstar players who dominate in the regular season but can’t get over the post-season hump. In the meanwhile, the timer on their window is ticking away.
The other big event from the second round was the NHL Draft lottery.
The Chicago Blackhawks won the first overall pick, rewarded for stripping their team down to the studs in the summer – a deliberate tank. The strategy worked, and they own the right to claim Connor Bedard.
The Montreal Canadiens will be the first Canadian team to pick at fifth overall.
The Vancouver Canucks are up next at 11th overall, and the Ottawa Senators would have picked at 12 had they not traded the pick to the Arizona Coyotes in the Jakob Chychrun deal.
The Calgary Flames will pick 16th overall.
With all Canadian teams eliminated from the playoffs, their draft spots are also confirmed. The Winnipeg Jets will pick at 18th overall. Toronto and Edmonton both traded their first rounders, but Toronto picked up another first from Washington in the Rasmus Sandin trade. They have the 28th overall pick..
The NBA Draft Lottery took place this past Tuesday. The San Antonio Spurs won the lottery and are expected to select French phenom Victor Wembanyama. The Toronto Raptors will select at 13th overall.
Blue Jays Babble
Last weekend the Toronto Blue Jays welcomed the Atlanta Braves for a weekend series.
On Friday night, Chris Bassitt was the hero in a 3-0 win. The starting pitcher, who was acquired via free agency this past winter, pitched a complete game to become one of a handful of pitchers to do so this season. Jose Berrios got the 5-2 win on Saturday, allowing two runs over six innings and on Sunday, Yusei Kikuchi and the bullpen pulled off a 6-5 win to complete the sweep.
The weekend ended with the Jays in third place in the American League East with a 24-16 record. But on Monday the Jays welcomed the New York Yankees for a four-game series, and immediately found them to be a more hostile opponent than the Braves.
The series began with a 7-4 loss on another poor outing from Alek Manoah. The ace of last season has had a worrisome start to this year.
The Jays need Manoah to turn things around if they hope to stay competitive. Kevin Gausman pitched a solid game on Tuesday, allowing just two runs in seven innings, but it wasn’t enough in a 6-3 loss.
Extra innings were necessary to solve a scoreless tie on Wednesday. In the bottom of the tenth inning, Danny Jansen hit a walk-off three-run homer to claim the 3-0 win. It was his second walk-off in four days. The Jays went into Thursday’s game hoping to split the series.
The Baltimore Orioles were due to be in town for a three-game weekend series.