SAINT JOHN, N.B. — A championship season came to a crashing end for the Edmonton Oil Kings at the 2022 Memorial Cup.
TORONTO — He started his remarkable journey alone in a hotel room in a new city and a new country, trying to do what no one expected was possible except him.
And in those moments Fred VanVleet would close his eyes and hope that others would see what he believed he could be.
“In training camp as an undrafted rookie… [I remember] just literally being on my knees praying before I went to bed to make the team, like every night,” said VanVleet, one of the most unlikely all-stars in NBA history. “[I was] just pouring out everything I got during practice and workouts and things like that and just praying that somebody was seeing it.
“It’s not really about praying that I’ve done my job, it’s more so for the recognition because I’ve always believed in myself but you know, I’ve never had someone else believe in me like this… that moment right there is something I circle back to as a positive memory for me because I’m a man of faith and just having those times where you’re by yourself and you gotta get through those situations — everything comes full circle.”
VanVleet got through it.
“I had a pretty good first day of camp,” he said of his rookie year in 2016-17 when he didn’t have a contract and was in a crowd, battling for the 15th spot on the Raptors roster.
“[But] you never know what they’re looking for, I wasn’t even sure we needed a point guard at that time but some of these things are just written before you even go out there.”
The storybook keeps getting better.
On Thursday night when VanVleet learned he had become just the fourth undrafted player — and the first point guard — in NBA history to become an all-star, he wasn’t alone.
He heard it first from the crowd — even if there were just 500 people allowed in Scotiabank Arena, they were able to share the news. They chanted his name.
“They were loud, and you could hear every conversation that’s going on,’” said VanVleet. “So, somebody started screaming right before the anthem or something like that, and that was it.”
He was instantly surrounded by his teammates and then embraced by Chicago Bulls All-Star DeMar DeRozan, one of the veterans that helped VanVleet find his way early in his career. Not that it took too much. VanVleet was a quick learner.
That first day of training camp? He went right at Kyle Lowry, then the Raptors’ all-star point guard, opening eyes and getting noticed.
“I think the first play he baited me into a foul like he used to before they changed the rule, a little grab foul,” said VanVleet. “I come down and score, he scored, I scored, he scored, I scored — it was like a couple of those in a row and you could kinda see everybody in the gym like, ‘OK, this kid can play a little bit,’ and it was on from there.”
VanVleet and DeRozan duelled a little bit on Thursday night — there was after all a game that interrupted the brief pre-tip All-Star celebration.
“’Don’t spoil the night, don’t spoil the night,’” joked VanVleet. “I thought we played extremely hard.”
The Raptors emerged as 127-120 winners in overtime over the Bulls. In a close contest a long three and a long two by VanVleet seemed to split things open as the Raptors went up eight with 4:35 left in the fourth quarter. DeRozan helped the Bulls come back and force overtime with a quick six-point burst and added two more quick buckets early in the extra period. But a pair of threes by OG Anunoby in overtime helped blunt the Bulls’ momentum before VanVleet whipped a cross-court pass on a rope to a wide-open Gary Trent Jr. who cashed it from three for the difference-making blow with 16.5 seconds left.
The win was the Raptors’ fourth straight, improved their record to 27-23 and lifted them into seventh place in the tightly packed Eastern Conference. They finish a difficult stretch of five games in seven nights Friday against Atlanta. The Bulls dropped to 32-19 and into a tie with Miami for first place in the East.
VanVleet had 21 points and nine assists on his big night, while Pascal Siakam — who could easily have been named an all-star with the way he’s been playing since early December — added 25 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Trent Jr. all had 21. Chris Boucher had 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench for Toronto who took 23 more shots than the Bulls thanks to a 22-12 edge in offensive rebounds and a 17-10 advantage in turnovers.
The Bulls got 28 points, six rebounds and seven assists from DeRozan, while Nikola Vucevic had 30 points and 18 rebounds.
But it was VanVleet’s night. He was one of seven Eastern Conference reserves voted on by the league’s coaches, joining the five starters voted in by fans, media and players announced last week.
It’s the ultimate respect.
“That’s what I play for,” he said. “I never sought out to be a fan favourite, certainly respect and admire the passion and obviously the fans are a large part of what we do in this business, but I always sought out to be respected by my peers first and foremost and the coaches right after that.
“That one would have stung a little bit (to be passed over by the coaches) considering the season that I’ve had if they didn’t pick me but… it definitely means a little bit more coming from them.”
VanVleet’s journey never gets old. In the retelling: the underdog kid from Rockford, the small city west of Chicago that is no place for the meek. Raised in a blended family after his father died when he was five. Overlooked and underestimated and yet eventually triumphant, at every level.
Each new chapter builds the legend.
Even after training camp the rewards came slowly for the seventh Raptors’ all-star. He played 26 seconds in the first 16 games of his career and didn’t get a bucket until the 19th. His first start came in his third season, and he didn’t become a starter until this fourth. Two years later he’s part of the league’s elite.
The message is simple: Believe in yourself first and don’t waver. It’s easy to say, and it makes for a cool slogan — “Bet on Yourself” has been VanVleet’s — but it’s hard to live it day by day.
— Fred VanVleet (@FredVanVleet) February 4, 2022
But when you do start from that premise and you’re willing to commit to an endless project of self-improvement on the simple belief that good things will happen, oh the places you can go.
Now VanVleet is going to Cleveland — “Big Rockford,” he jokes — as an NBA all-star.
“These are just dreams and goals that you have as a kid and you put them on a wall, and you aim high, and you hope for the best,” he said. “Sometimes you land on them, sometimes you don’t, it’s not always pretty, it’s not always easy, but I’m just blessed to be a part of the conversation and it’s just the beginning for me in year six.”
The Stanley Cup was in the building and just waiting to be paraded around the ice.
Pack it up. It’s heading back to Tampa Bay.
The resilient Lightning spoiled Colorado’s party to stay in the hunt for a third straight Stanley Cup title, beating the Avalanche 3-2 on Friday night in Game 5.
“That’s what good teams do — you find a way,” Lightning forward Corey Perry said. “Keep plugging along. This is fun. This is what hockey’s all about, different guys stepping up at different times.”
Game 6 is Sunday night in Tampa. The Lightning trail the best-of-seven series 3-2.
“Listen, this is a huge challenge for us,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “An exciting challenge, too. You’ve got to be excited for this challenge and embrace it.”
The Cup was all shined up and ready for the moment — almost beckoning to the Avalanche from the side. It’s back on the road for the Avalanche, where they’re 8-1 so far in their playoff run.
WATCH l Palat’s winner keeps Lightning’s Stanley Cup three-peat bid alive:
“We have belief in our room that we can win every game we go out and play,” defenceman Devon Toews said. “We feel like we had a decent game tonight, pretty good game. Obviously it wasn’t enough tonight.”
Nikita Kucherov and defenceman Jan Rutta also scored for the Lightning. Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar had goals for Colorado. Makar’s third-period tally bounced off the skate of Erik Cernak and through the pads of Vasilevskiy to tie it at 2.
That set the stage for Palat, whose shot slipped through the pads of Darcy Kuemper. It was Palat’s 16th career go-ahead playoff goal, which trails only Brayden Point (18) in franchise history.
“I thought I played it well, slid over,” Kuemper said. “It just found a little hole.”
WATCH | Should Kadri’s goal have counted?:
Tampa Bay regrouped after an emotional Game 4 loss at home on a overtime goal from Colorado forward Nazem Kadri. The Lightning felt the Avalanche might have had too many players on the ice on the winner.
A similar too-many-players-on-the-ice scenario unfolded Friday — and this time it was called. With 2:43 remaining, the Lightning went on the power play and made it so that Colorado couldn’t pull Kuemper until the final moments. They weathered the Avalanche’s late barrage.
Just the Lightning showing their championship mettle. They’ve already rallied back from a 3-2 deficit to Toronto in the first round, and climbed out of a 2-0 hole against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals.
This is a gritty Lightning squad that’s showing no signs of slowing down against a speedy Avalanche team and even after all the contests they’ve logged. Tampa Bay has played in 67 postseason games since the start of the first round in 2020, nearly an entire extra season.
Their resolve has impressed Lightning coach Jon Cooper. His team improved to 3-0 this season when facing potential elimination games.
“The mental fortitude you have to have to play in the environment they just played in, there’s a reason these guys have a couple rings on their fingers,” Cooper said.
“It’s not supposed to be easy and it’s not going to be easy,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “We knew that coming into this. We knew that coming into tonight. … Short memory in the playoffs and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Avalanche are 2 for 2 in their visits to the Stanley Cup Final. They also won in 1996, which was their inaugural season in Denver after relocating from Quebec.
Soon after Nichushkin tied it at 1-apiece in the second, Kucherov knocked in a goal off the post. The power-play goal was with Alex Killorn in the box for holding, along with J.T. Compher (holding the stick) and Makar (tripping), making for a 4-on-3 situation.
“There was no intent there. I don’t even think he was checking that guy,” Bednar said. “Look to me like he kind of tripped over a stick. It’s a tough one.”
Kuemper finished with 26 saves.
“He was OK,” Bednar said. “I’d like to see him get the first one, obviously.”
That first one would be Rutta’s score less than five minutes into the game that zapped some of the energy from the crowd. It was his first goal of the playoffs.
“We’ve been here. Have we been down 3-1? No,” Cooper said. “But we’ve been in these situations where we know the feeling of being in an elimination game.”
SAINT JOHN, N.B. — A championship season came to a crashing end for the Edmonton Oil Kings at the 2022 Memorial Cup.
The Oil Kings lost 4-2 to the Hamilton Bulldogs in the final round-robin game for each team at Harbour Station arena Friday, eliminating them from the tournament.
The Bulldogs move on to the semifinal Monday against either the host Saint John Sea Dogs or QMJHL champion Shawinigan Cataractes, who play Saturday to determine top spot.
Mason McTavish scored a pair of goals, while Avery Hayes and Ryan Winterton had the others for the Bulldogs, who had lost their first two games of the tournament, but advanced with the win. Marco Costantini made 40 saves.
“It was a gritty effort,” said Bulldogs head coach Jay McKee. “We obviously got fantastic goaltending, it was one of the best games I’ve seen Cosy play, and I’ve seen him play a lot of games. We’ve got some guys that are banged up that are playing through things, like a lot of teams here, and I was just impressed with the effort; the guys left it all out there.”
Jalen Luypen and Carter Souch scored for the Oil Kings, who only needed a tie in regulation to advance with the new points system announced by the CHL on the even of the tournament. Sebastian Cossa made 32 saves.
“I thought this was actually our best game of the tournament,” said Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer. “I thought we were a lot more engaged and had more purpose to our game. We generated a lot of opportunities and unfortunately, we didn’t finish a lot of them.”
The Bulldogs needed to win the game in regulation to earn all three points for the win and move into third spot in the standings ahead of the Oil Kings. Teams are only awarded two points for an overtime loss, while the loser gets one.
Hamilton opened the scoring on the power play nine minutes into the first period. Hayes took a pass from Logan Morrison at the side of the net and was able stuff the puck in through Cossa to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead.
Hamilton increased their lead to 2-0 with less than four minutes in the period with another power-play goal.
Defenceman Nathan Staios was able to leap up and keep a puck in the zone. He slid it over to McTavish, who fired it across the ice to Morrison and he in turn, sent it back across the ice to Winterton for a tap in.
“Playing with those guys on the power play, it’s so easy to get points,” Winterton said. “It’s easy to produce because they find you so easily. It was a great goal and I’m thankful for Logan for finding me.”
In the second period, the Oil Kings took the play to the Bulldogs but were unable to cut into the deficit.
The Bulldogs sustained a big blow when Staios was injured after being hit into the corner from behind by Oil Kings defenceman Simon Kubicek, who had lofted the puck into the zone and then gave chase after it. Kubicek was not assessed a penalty and Staios watched then rest of the game from the stands.
“Nathan is already playing – like a number of guys – a little sore in some areas,” McKee said. “I mean if that’s not a hit from behind, I need to understand what is. Looking at the tape, it was directly from behind and he’s hurting, he sore.
“He clearly didn’t come back in the game and I certainly would have liked to have seen a different call there.”
Edmonton out-shot Hamilton 15-9 in the period and the best chance they had to score fell to Josh Williams, who fanned on a shot in front off a centring pass from Carter Souch.
“I thought it was the best game of the tournament for us,” said Neighbours. “That was the closest to I’ve seen all tournament since we’ve been here. We just couldn’t finish early, but I’m proud of the guys, they never quit.”
Luypen scored shorthanded two minutes into the third period to cut the deficit to 2-1. He took a drop pass from Jaxsen Wiebe just inside the Bulldogs zone and snapped a shot short side on Costantini.
The one-goal deficit made for a tense final 15 minutes as the Oil Kings poured on the pressure looking for the tying goal.
Costantini made an outstanding save on Brendan Kuny, who had been set up on cross-crease pass. The Bulldogs goaltender then somehow managed to stop Jake Neighbours at the side of the net on a tip-in attempt.
McTavish extended the lead to 3-1 with six and-a-half minutes remaining, one-timing a shot from the left face-off circle over the shoulder of Cossa.
“It was nice to get that one, we were kind of getting outplayed in the third,” McTavish said. “We expected them to have a big push there and it was their season on the line. We expected it, but it was nice to get that one.”
Souch cut the lead to 3-2 with 2:46 left in the game on a shot that found its way through traffic past Costantini with Cossa on the bench for the extra attacker.
It was as close as the Oil Kings would get, however. McTavish scored into an empty net as time expired in the contest.
“I think we were able to get through that with the experience we have in close games,” McTavish said. “Obviously it’s a lot different here, they’re championship teams and they have a lot of skill over there and they pushed really hard, but I think our experience helped us.”
(3A) Lightning at (1C) Avalanche
8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS
Colorado leads best-of-7 series 3-1
The Colorado Avalanche can win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001 with a victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at Ball Arena in Denver on Friday.
The Avalanche took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 4 on Wednesday. Colorado is 15-3 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including 7-2 at Ball Arena, but know this home game will be different with the Stanley Cup in the building.
“You try to treat it like another day, but you’re going to have thoughts of different things that haven’t been there all year,” Avalanche defenseman Bowen Byram said. “But you’ve just got to stick to your routine, do what you’ve done every other day you’ve come to the rink and just make sure that you’re prepared to play your best tonight.”
The Lightning will seek to become the second team in NHL history to rally from down 3-1 in a best-of-7 Cup Final. Tampa Bay came back from trailing 3-2 in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs and a 2-0 hole against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.
Now the Lightning need three straight wins against the Avalanche to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders won four straight championships from 1980-83.
“You just don’t know how many opportunities, how many kicks you’re going to get at it,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “I think for us it’s easier to think that you’ll be back every year just because of how things have been going. That’s just not the reality. There’s a lot of guys in the room that haven’t won Cups, guys that have been in a lot of situations like this in the past, so there’s a lot on the line and you just want to make sure you make the most of these situations.”
Here are 3 keys to Game 5:
Colorado started fast in winning each of the first two games of the series at home, grabbing a 2-0 lead in the opening 9:23 of Game 1 and a 3-0 lead by 13:52 of the first period in Game 2. With the chance to win the Stanley Cup in front of their fans, the Avalanche will try to jump on the Lightning early again, but they will also need to control their emotions and keep their focus regardless of how the start goes.
“Any time — a playoff game, a regular season game — you want to start well,” Avalanche forward J.T. Compher said. “We’ve done that at home, but it’s going to be 60 minutes. We’ve talked about it. The hardest one to win is the one to close out a team, especially a team like this. So we know whether the start goes our way or not the first five, 10 minutes, it’s going to be a 60-minute effort, maybe even more. We’ll be ready to play our way for as long as it takes.”
Conversely, the Lightning will need to do a better job of weathering the early Avalanche storm than they did in the first two games.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said forward Andre Burakovsky, who hasn’t played since being hit in the hand with the puck in the second period of Game 2, is “a possibility for tonight.” Things are less clear for the banged-up Lightning with forwards Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Erik Cernak.
Point returned to play the first two games of the Cup Final after missing 10 games with a lower-body injury, but was unable to play the past two games. Cernak left Game 4 in the second period after blocking a shot from Nathan MacKinnon off his leg. Cirelli returned to finish Game 4 after appearing to injure his arm in the second period, but his status is unclear for Game 5.
“This is definitely a game-time decision with a few of our guys,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “‘Cernie’ is feeling better, though. I’m pretty confident he’s going to play tonight.”
The Avalanche have been dominant on special teams in the Cup Final. Colorado is 6-for-13 (46.2 percent) on its power play and has killed 13 of 14 (92.9 percent) Tampa Bay power plays.
Failing to stop the Avalanche power play while not converting on their own has been a difficult combination for the Lightning to overcome in the series.
“We’d like to score on the power play. We’d like to be more productive,” Killorn said. “But more importantly, I think we’ve got to just keep them off the power play. They obviously have had a great power play and it seems like the way they’re going, pucks are kind of bouncing off skates and that’s what a good power play does. It puts themselves in a good chance and a good opportunity to score. So I think keep them off the power play and even if we do, we have tighten up and do a little better job getting pucks out of the zone.”
Lightning projected lineup
Ondrej Palat — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov
Brandon Hagel — Anthony Cirelli — Alex Killorn
Ross Colton — Brayden Point — Nicholas Paul
Pat Maroon — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Corey Perry
Victor Hedman — Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev — Zach Bogosian
Scratched: Cal Foote, Frederik Claesson, Riley Nash
Avalanche projected lineup
Artturi Lehkonen — Nathan MacKinnon — Mikko Rantanen
Gabriel Landeskog — Nazem Kadri — Valeri Nichushkin
Alex Newhook — J.T. Compher — Logan O’Connor
Darren Helm — Andrew Cogliano — Nico Sturm
Devon Toews — Cale Makar
Jack Johnson — Josh Manson
Bowen Byram — Erik Johnson
Injured: Samuel Girard (sternum), Andre Burakovsky (hand)
The Lighting held an optional morning skate. … If Burakovsky is able to play, Sturm or O’Connor likely would be scratched.
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