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Blue Jackets lacked difference-maker vs. Lightning in East First Round – NHL.com

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The Columbus Blue Jackets were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-4 in overtime in Game 5 of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round on Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the East hub city.

The Blue Jackets were the No. 7 seed after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Columbus was the No. 9 seed in the Qualifiers after finishing the regular season with a .579 points percentage (33-22-15). 

Here is a look at what happened during the 2020 postseason for the Blue Jackets and why things could be better next season:

The Skinny 

Potential unrestricted free agents: None

Potential restricted free agents: Josh Anderson, F; Pierre-Luc Dubois, F; Ryan MacInnis, F; Devin Shore, F; Kevin Stenlund, F; Jakob Lilja, F; Gabriel Carlsson, D; Vladislav Gavrikov, D; Matiss Kivlenieks, G.

Potential 2020 NHL Draft picks: 5

What went wrong

Can’t close: The Blue Jackets are known for their defense but stumbled when it counted. They were eight minutes away from forcing a Game 6, but the Lightning rallied from down 4-2 to tie Game 5 and eventually win in overtime. The Blue Jackets failed to eliminate the Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the Qualifiers, blowing a 3-0 lead in the final 3:57 of the third period and losing in overtime.

Worn out: The Blue Jackets’ heavy forechecking game is fatiguing under normal circumstances. Combine a compacted schedule, numerous overtimes and the Lightning’s ability to match their physicality and the result was not unexpected. The Blue Jackets played the equivalent of 12 games in 18 days. Their lack of energy was most telling when they were held to 17 shots in a 3-2 loss in Game 3 that gave the Lightning a 2-1 series lead.

Not good enough: After scoring 13 goals and losing in five games in the 2017 East First Round to the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach John Tortorella said the Blue Jackets needed a game changer to make a difference. They acquired Artemi Panarin in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. He scored 169 points (55 goals, 114 assists) in two seasons, but signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent July 1, 2019. His absence was felt: All four losses to the Lightning were by one goal, and they and were 1-5 in one-goal games during the postseason. “Unfortunately, we didn’t come out on the right side of the big moments,” defenseman Seth Jones said.

Video: Lightning advance on Point’s OT winner

Reasons for optimism

Youth being served: Dubois leads a young group that is looking to make major contributions next season. The 22-year-old led the Blue Jackets with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 10 postseason games. Among others expected to step up include forwards Emil Bemstrom, 21; Alexandre Texier, 20, Liam Foudy, 20; and defenseman Andrew Peeke, 22. It’s easy to forget that Zach Werenski, who led NHL defensemen with 20 goals in 2019-20, is 23.

Goalies galore: The Blue Jackets are deep at the goalie position, beginning with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, who was unfit to play after Game 4 against the Maple Leafs. Each of the 26-year-olds is under contract through the 2021-22 season. Korpisalo was a 2020 NHL All-Star Game selection, and Merzlikins’ five shutouts were tied for second in the NHL (Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights; Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins), one behind Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets. Kivlenieks, who turns 24 on Aug. 26, was 1-1-2 with a 2.95 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in six regular-season games this season. The Blue Jackets are also high on Veini Vehvilainen, 23, and Daniil Tarasov, 21.

Organizational depth: Columbus led the NHL with 419 man-games lost and went through long periods in the regular season with at least six players out. The Blue Jackets were able to qualify for the postseason with help from players such as defenseman Dean Kukan (15:58 ice time per game in 33 games) and forwards Eric Robinson (12 points in 50 games), Nathan Gerbe (10 points in 30 games), Stenlund (10 points in 32 games) and MacInnis (9:21 ice time in 10 games). 

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Murray blows minds, but Lakers’ defence shines late in Game 4 vs. Nuggets – Sportsnet.ca

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The Denver Nuggets must really like being down 3–1.

On Thursday night, they became the first NBA team — and will likely remain the only team for at least a very, very long time — to go down 3–1 three separate times in the same playoff run. 

Not that it was an academic win for the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, however. The game was tight throughout before the Lakers came up with a huge three-and-a-half minute defensive stand at the end of the fourth quarter to seal it 114–108.

Here are a few takeaways from the game:

All eyes on Murray

After Jamal Murray‘s performance in Game 3 — 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in 48 minutes — Nuggets head coach Mike Malone and Nikola Jokic both called him a “superstar,” and a bunch of national media seemed to agree. That’s as big a “reading his own press clippings” trap as there ever was. But it didn’t seem to affect Murray at all.

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He started 3-for-3 for six points in the game’s first four minutes en route to 32 in the game. 

Anything you can do…

Yes, Murray is a superstar. But the Lakers have two of those, too, and one of them came out of the gate even hotter than the guard from Kitchener, Ont. Anthony Davis scored the Lakers’ first 10 points, and started the game hitting his first seven shots.

Throughout the night, the Nuggets threw several defenders at him — from Jokic to Mason Plumlee to Paul Millsap — but none of them had much success. And when the Nuggets doubled, Davis found a couple of open shooters, leading to one clean early LeBron James look that resulted in three points.

He also had a hand in keeping Jokic’s contributions low, putting him in foul trouble and getting to the line a ton. Davis finished with 34 points on only 15 shots from the field — which is pretty damn good.

This is just a really nice pass

Did we mention Murray had a nice game? With the Lakers absolutely terrified of him putting the ball in the air in the first quarter, he drew the defence to him and did this:

Point: Vogel

I don’t want to say it, but here it is: the playoffs are about adjustments. The Lakers got killed on the glass in Game 3, getting outrebounded by the Nuggets 44–25. In that game, starting centre Javale McGee and backup Dwight Howard combined for two boards. 

So ahead of Game 4, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel moved Howard into the starting lineup, and was rewarded handsomely. Howard set the tone early in the first quarter with four straight points off putbacks. And he was just getting started. In the first half, he totalled 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting with 10 rebounds. 

And Howard wasn’t the only one getting in on the offensive glass. The Lakers outscored the Nuggets 18–2 on second-chance points in the first half alone — essentially nullifying Denver’s super-hot shooting performance — and went into the break up by five.

By the end of the game, the Lakers had bested their previous game’s rebound total by 16 and outboarded their opponents 41–33.

Yes, but back to Murray

Oh my:

After Murray hit that layup with 2:30 left in the second quarter, Reggie Miller said on the TNT broadcast that he’s going to get some Michael Jordan comparisons, and Chris Webber started laughing. He was going to say the same thing but thought he’d get killed for it. Guess not. So we’re officially in the “legitimate comparisons to MJ” stage of Murray’s insane playoff run.

The surge in appreciation for Murray isn’t just due to the consistency, efficiency and fourth-quarter bankability — it’s those things coupled with the degree of difficulty on a surprisingly large number of his shots. Spinning layups into shot-blockers? Faux-Euro-step straight-on bankers? Abrupt, no-lift floaters from in-between distances? He’s got all that and more, and he’s one of the most exciting players in the NBA because of it.

Shooting guards

Danny Green has taken some heat from Lakers fans and general NBA watchers for his poor shooting in these playoffs, but what if I told you he hasn’t even been the worst-shooting starting shooting guard in this series?

After averaging 10.7 points on 50 per cent shooting (41.7 percent from deep) with nearly two steals per game in the Clippers series, Nuggets guard Gary Harris is putting up 4.5 points on sub-25 per cent shooting against the Lakers. He put up just three points Thursday in a playoff-low 19 minutes.

Suddenly Green’s 7.8 points on 28.6 per cent shooting in the first three games don’t look that bad. (Sort of.)

Shutdown defence

Despite the fact that Jokic had a rare quiet performance, the Nuggets kept this game within reach thanks to Murray — seriously, did we mention him? — and solid contributions from Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris, who finished with 17, 13 and 12 points, respectively.

But in the waning minutes of the game, James took over primary defence on Murray, and forced him into two missed running bank shots, which, given his performance to that point, was kind of jarring. (Full disclosure: Slow-mo replay of one of the shots made a James block look like a foul, but it wasn’t called.)

After the game, Vogel told reporters James asked for the assignment.

“LeBron asked for the assignment and obviously I granted it. He did a great job down the stretch,” Vogel said. “Nothing was really working to slow him down until LeBron took that assignment, so game ball to him.”

The Nuggets managed to shrink the Laker lead to three points on Morris’s and-one at the 3:28 mark, but missed all five of their shots afterwards. Game, Lakers, and now the Nuggets are left trying to come back from 3–1 — for a third time.

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Clutch for the clinch: Ryu brilliance stymies Yanks as Blue Jays lock up playoff spot – Toronto Sun

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays dives safe to home plate as Kyle Higashioka of the New York Yankees misses the tag during the sixth inning at Sahlen Field on September 24, 2020 in Buffalo, New York. Photo by Timothy T Ludwig /Getty Images

When Alejandro Kirk ripped a two-RBI double into the left-field corner to score two more in the sixth, not only did the legend of the 21-year-old catcher grow yet again, the Jays had doubled their lead to 4-0 and the socially-distanced (somewhat) celebration was that much nearer.

The anticipation was tantalizing the rest of the way and when reliever Rafael Dolis got the final out, the Jays spilled out of their dugout to celebrate. The ear-to-ear smile of manager Charlie Montoyo could be seen beneath his mask as the players and donned t-shirts that blared “Respect Toronto.”

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” an emotional Montoyo said on a post-game Zoom call. “The ups and downs, the tough games. we kept believing in ourselves. “It’s awesome I’m the happiest guy right now.”

The second-year manager was not without company, especially from the young core of his team, most of whom played together at multiple levels in the minor leagues.

“We pictured bringing a winning mindset to Toronto and the major league level,” Biggio said. “In my mind this is just the start of it. We played with a little bit of an edge and we worked our way here.”

Even with the elevated stakes, it was clear from the outset that the Jays were playing with a sense of purpose on Thursday.

They were crisp and near flawless on defence, no more so than a running catch at the top of the wall by Randal Grichuk to end the eighth inning with the bases loaded.

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From homeless to playoff bound, Toronto Blue Jays' wild 2020 ride isn't over yet – TSN

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TORONTO — Three months ago, the Toronto Blue Jays barely had a home.

Now, they have a spot in the postseason.

Call it entertaining.

Call it fortunate.

Call it a good stepping stone.

Call it the start of a Cinderella run.

You can call it whatever you want, and assess it in many different ways.

But in the shortened 60-game sprint with expanded playoffs, the Blue Jays did what they needed to do to become one of eight American League teams to move on, and despite what looks to be an uphill battle against one of the best teams in baseball in the Tampa Bay Rays, there’s both belief internally and lots of daily evidence across baseball that absolutely anything can happen in a three-game series.

Based on how this season has gone for a young and inconsistent ballclub that authored a seemingly endless string of comeback wins, followed by a seemingly endless string of lopsided defeats, in order to clinch their first postseason berth since 2016, expecting the unexpected when the playoffs start next Tuesday is probably the smart bet.

These are the Buffalo Blue Jays, after all, and this is the year 2020.

“Man, I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” manager Charlie Montoyo said amidst the post-game celebrations at Sahlen Field.

“I think the pressure’s off. Honestly. Just go and play and have fun and enjoy it.”

It’s hard to quantify chemistry, but this team has been quarantining together since the month of July began and they believe that’s played a large role in their ability to persevere through adversity.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve had is chemistry,” said Cavan Biggio, a jack-of-all-trades, heart-and-soul player who has been tremendously important to the success of this Blue Jays team on a night in, night out basis. “We’ve been a tight group of guys this whole time. You can make it as bad as it is or as good as you want. Going into our situation, not being able to play in Toronto and coming to Buffalo and playing on the road for the first couple of weeks, we could have easily looked at it as if, ‘Man, our backs are up against the wall, it’s okay if we don’t win this year, it’s kind of a crazy year.’ 

“The way we took it is we’re here for each of us in that locker-room and I think it’s shown over the longevity of this long year with injuries and guys going down and guys stepping in and picking it right up.”

Things didn’t look good when Ken Giles went down on the opening weekend of the season, and Montoyo shouldered the criticism for leaving his star closer on the mound as he winced in pain.

It really didn’t look good when Bo Bichette was lost to a freak knee injury in the middle of August, and Nate Pearson followed with an elbow injury a few days later.

Instead, the Jays took off, going 11-5 to close out the month of August after the Bichette injury.

An extremely inconsistent month of September has followed, but the Jays had done enough to convince GM Ross Atkins to make a push at the deadline, and while they in no way mortgaged the future for an underdog run, that faith has been proven right in the end.

“We have the pieces and we have the depth, but most importantly I think our chemistry is pretty special,” Biggio reiterated.

“Kind of the cool part about this team is we’re never really out of a game,” he added.

It’s the eighth trip to the postseason in franchise history, and this one is truly unique.

From an ongoing pandemic to a 60-game season to significantly expanded playoffs, this October is much, much different than any other and the Blue Jays have without a doubt been beneficiaries.

But when you look at the big picture, it can’t be ignored that the Jays took a leap from a 95-loss team to one that is now guaranteed to finish with at least a .500 record with three relatively meaningless games to go in the regular season.

The offence has gone from one of the league’s worst to top 10 in baseball, averaging around five runs per game.

They paid Hyun-Jin Ryu $80 million over four years to be an ace and he delivered, posting a 2.69 ERA and the Jays went 9-3 in his 12 starts.

Without him, they aren’t a playoff team.

Talent-wise, Biggio, Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and now Alejandro Kirk form a lineup core that’s only getting better.

Biggio can see that a mile away.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface on what we’re going to be able to do at this level,” Biggio said. “To see it coming out this early on in our careers, it gives us a little glimpse of what we could end up doing in the future.”

Bichette saw it coming together quicker than many imagined back in February.

Before the pandemic. Before expanded playoffs.

“I expect us to compete,” Bichette said to open spring training. “I expect us to do really well. We have a lot more talent than people realize. I don’t think people are taking into account that some of our guys are going to take steps forward and become really impact players.”

The question now is how many more steps forward do they have in them this season?

They’ll start to answer that next week.​

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