In the spring of 2015, the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers went head-to-head in the Eastern Conference Final. The two teams, at the time, were in very different places – the Lightning were just emerging as Cup hopefuls with Jon Cooper at the helm, while the Rangers were desperate to keep their window open.
Seven years later, these clubs meet on the same stage once again. And, fittingly, they’ve taken two very different paths here. The Lightning arrive as back-to-back Stanley Cup champs, while the Rangers are emerging from a complete roster and front office overhaul since their last trip to this stage.
This year, the Rangers have bested Tampa in all three regular-season meetings, and are playing a particularly thrilling brand of hockey – their best games come when their backs are against the wall. The Lightning, meanwhile, coasted through Round 2 and have had plenty of time to rest… and we’re about to find out whether or not that’s a good thing.
As different as their paths to get here have been, these teams show plenty of similarities: We’re about to see a clash of two high-scoring offences whose arsenal of weapons is deep and includes some impressive special teams performances. But perhaps most importantly, we’re about to find out what happens when the Lightning match up against a goalie that could, potentially, be as good as their own.
Seven years ago, it was the Lightning who came out on top, sending the Rangers packing at Madison Square Garden in Game 7 and effectively shutting down that core’s last best chance of winning. What story will this series tell?
Here’s what you need to know about this Eastern Conference Final between Tampa Bay and New York.
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
What we’ve learned about the Lightning
The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions are still hungry, and they’re proving once again they can defeat clubs in any fashion.
Against the Maple Leafs, offence was on full display before Andrei Vasilevskiy (almost completely) shut the door in Game 7. Against Florida, Vasilevskiy resembled a brick wall, the Lightning suffocating the Panthers’ once-potent offence.
Against the Rangers, who boast offence in spades and a goalie also capable of stealing games, they might need to implement both.
The team’s success through two rounds of play follows a similar template to that of the past two years, leaning on the elite offence led by Nikita Kucherov, a smart blue line with Victor Hedman at the helm, a hard-nosed group of depth scorers that can bring the skill when the top lines are tied up, and otherworldly goaltending from 2021 Conn Smythe winner Vasilevskiy. There are even parallels to be made in the obstacles they face — two years ago, the team had to play nearly the entire playoff run without captain Steven Stamkos. This year, it’s Brayden Point that’s missing time. Point missed the entire second round after suffering an injury in Game 7 against Toronto. It’s not yet clear whether Point will be made available at any time in this conference final, but it doesn’t feel optimistic.
Head coach Jon Cooper has said that overall, they’re a lot more banged up this year than in previous playoffs at this point in time. Easing the burden brought on by the bumps and bruises is the depth the team once again possesses. The presence of middle-six acquisitions like Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul, who have already dressed up and down the lineup alongside the likes of Ondrej Palat, Corey Perry, and Ross Colton has already proven to be worth the trade costs, and as the team’s depth continues to be tested they’re likely to continue coming up big just as the club’s previous third-line trio of Yanni Groude, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman did before.
The biggest question here isn’t really about the lineup or style of play – it’s the age-old debate of rest versus rust – something which, in the team’s first two Cup runs, they haven’t dealt with.
So swift was their defeat of the Panthers, they’ve found themselves with more than a week off between series considering the Rangers needed a full seven games to best the Hurricanes.
“It’s a little different, actually. We’ve had a pretty good run here over the past almost decade and unfortunately I’ve been on the side of the sweep — the bad end — a couple of times, but never on the good end. So, this has been a little different for us,” Cooper said during an appearance on The Jeff Marek Show last week.
“I don’t know if I love having this huge break, just because yes, you get the kind of physical aspect of it to kind of try to heal up as much as you can, but as much as that there’s this mental aspect that you worry about and the edge and being in the fight and all those things that, naturally, you just lose when you have this much time off,” he continued.
We’re about to get our answers.
What we’ve learned about the Rangers
Forward Chris Kreider is better known for his goal-scoring than his post-game soundbites, but he summed up the Rangers’ post-season efforts perfectly following New York’s Game 7 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes Monday night:
“We don’t go away.”
It’s true, they don’t. They didn’t go away against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had them on the brink of elimination for three straight games in Round 1; and they didn’t against the Hurricanes, who had them right where they wanted them – at home! – in Round 2’s Game 7, delivering Carolina their first home loss of the playoffs. In two rounds, New York played five elimination games, including two Games 7, and pulled out the victory each time thanks to clutch performances throughout the lineup.
Leading the way on offence in these must-win games is Mika Zibanejad, who’s scored four goals and tallied 11 points in five elimination and series-clinching contests, and Kreider, who has twice put up multi-goal games in these matchups, including two to seal the deal Monday night against the Hurricanes. On defence, it’s Adam Fox leading the way – he’s been sensational all post-season, but is at his best in the toughest situations, tallying 10 points in five brink games. Fox leads all defencemen in goals (five) and points (13) through two rounds and is also leading all NHL peers (with eight or more NHL games to their names) in average ice time, with 26:48 a night.
Of course, we can’t talk about clutch without singing the praises of Igor Shesterkin. Shesterkin was shaky at times in Round 1 against Pittsburgh – and boy, did the fans there let him know it – but it’s become very clear since that he’s back in his comfort zone. That his comfort zone seems to be high-danger situations, with 30-plus pucks flying at him each night, is music to the Rangers’ ears. Shesterkin, who is far and away the favourite to claim the Vezina Trophy this year thanks to his regular-season heroics, has stepped up for New York in the biggest situations. The young netminder has faced 100 more shots than the next busiest netminder (Mike Smith, with 411 this post-season so far) and yet has posted the second-best save percentage among goalies that have seen action in two rounds (.928).
The goalie currently setting the pace just so happens to be the man he’s about to face across the ice, in Vasilevskiy. (More on this goalie matchup later.)
Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Lightning X-Factor: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Vasilevskiy, once again, is in playoff mode. After struggling at times in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs, the Lightning netminder has returned to his Vezina-worthy, Conn Smythe-calibre self, letting in just four goals in his past five games starting with Game 7 against the Maple Leafs. He held the Panthers to just three goals, total – one per game in the first three matchups of Round 2 – before completely shutting them out in the fourth.
The Rangers have had to conquer some impressive goaltending performances, but have yet to fix their efforts on a de facto No. 1 – injuries urged the Penguins to rotate their crease and turn to third-stringer Louis Domingue, while similar concerns saw Carolina bring in rookie Pyotr Kochetkov at times, with Antti Raanta taking over the crease without regular-season starter Frederik Andersen.
New York rose to each challenge, solving every netminder eventually, but none have the proven playoff track record of Vasilevskiy.
Rangers X-Factor: Igor Shesterkin
So, how do you solve Vasilevskiy? It’s possible that you can’t – maybe the only way to defeat him is to match him save-for-save, and the only goalie potentially capable of that is Shesterkin.
Perhaps it’s a bit too obvious to point to goaltending as the top storyline in this series, but it’s not often we get a matchup as elite as this one. If you were to hand-pick a goaltending matchup for a high-stakes playoff series, it would be this, featuring last year’s Conn Smythe winner in Tampa Bay and this year’s favourite for the Vezina – and a Conn Smythe contender himself – in New York.
Shesterkin was incredible over the course of the regular season, and the biggest reason the club made it into the post-season. Though he struggled in the first round, he’s found his stride and is playing with the kind of swagger that’s made for Broadway. The busier he is, and the higher the stakes, the better he plays – he stood on his head in five elimination games already this season, and against Carolina in Round 2 he really found his stride. He posted a combined .949 save percentage on 78 shots in Games 6 and 7 to propel New York into the ECF.
Late fumble costs Tiger-Cats in Elks win on Canada Day – TSN
HAMILTON — Tre Ford was in his happy place Friday in Hamilton.
The Edmonton Elks quarterback got a win in his first career CFL start 30 minutes down the Queen Elizabeth Highway from his hometown of Niagara Falls, Ont.
The Elks came from behind to beat the Tiger-Cats 29-25 in front of 20,233 at Tim Hortons Field.
“To come back to Hamilton and have all my family watching me get that first start and that first win has been fantastic,” Ford said.
Among Ford’s supporters were his wife, parents, sister, sister-in-law and mother-in-law, his high school football coach from A.N. Myer Secondary, his University of Waterloo head coach Chris Bertoia, eight of his former university teammates and more friends.
Ford was shaky at times as the Elks trailed by 13 points early in the second half.
But the 2021 winner of the Hec Crighton Trophy winner that goes to the most outstanding Canadian university football player threw a game-tying touchdown pass to Kenny Lawler early in the fourth quarter.
The winning play for the Elks (1-3) arrived with 1:38 remaining when defensive back Scott Hutter tackled Hamilton quarterback Dane Evans and knocked the ball loose.
Jalen Collins recovered for a 14-yard touchdown.
“I saw him tackle him and thought, ‘please punch the ball out,” Collins said. “All we needed was an opportunity to close the game out. We were fighting all night. It was ugly.”
The winless Tiger-Cats opened a season with four straight losses for the first time since 2017 when they started 0-8.
“I want to apologize to all the guys. I put both home losses on me,” Evans said. “I just have to take care of it, and we win the game.”
Evans was 20-for-31 in passing for 197 yards and a touchdown throw. He was intercepted twice.
Ford’s numbers didn’t sparkle, although he did rush for 61 yards on six carries. The 24-year-old competed 15 of 26 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted once.
Edmonton’s defence helped out with interceptions by Sheldon Brady and Matthew Thomas, as well as the pivotal late-game recovered fumble by Collins.
“A big shout out to the defence,” Ford said. “They won us that game. They made what, three or four turnovers? They did super well.
“I have room for improvement. I’m not going to complain because we did win. But I’m going to hit the film room to see what I can critique and where I can get better.”
Hamilton went after the rookie with various blitzes in the first half.
“My legs are going to open things up for my arm,” Ford said.
Ford credited teammate and quarterback Nick Arbuckle, who started in Edmonton’s three losses this season, for advising him during the game on defensive reads.
“He’s been like that since day one, even though we’re competitors for the position,” Ford said.
He admitted to early jitters as Hamilton led 16-6 after the first quarter and 19-9 at halftime.
“I always get nervous for the first play of every game,” Ford said. “I think it’s a good thing because it means I care and that I want to win.”
Evans hit Steven Dunbar for a 21-yard strike, and Lawrence Woods returned a kickoff of 72 yards for Hamilton’s first-half touchdowns.
Edmonton’s Kai Locksley scored on a one-yard plunge.
Elks kicker Sergio Castillo made two of his three field-goal attempts, while Hamilton counterpart Michael Domagala nailed his three and gave the Ticats at lead with a 33-yarder with 3:10 remaining in the game
“We’re not good enough right now,” Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer said. “We’re not executing at the level which needs to happen. We’re just not making those plays we need to make.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2022.
Raptors sign forward Otto Porter Jr. to 2-year deal: reports – CBC.ca
The Toronto Raptors have signed forward Otto Porter Jr., who was a key member of the Golden State Warriors’ NBA championship team.
The two-year deal was first reported by Yahoo Sports, and confirmed to The Canadian Press by a source close to negotiations.
Porter was selected third overall by Washington in the 2013 draft, and played the first six seasons of his career there before being traded to Chicago in 2019. Orlando then acquired him at the 2021 trade deadline, and he signed with the Warriors in the 2021 off-season.
The Raptors have been busy since free agency opened at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, signing Canadian forward Chris Boucher to a three-year deal, and signing veteran forward Thaddeus Young to a multi-year contract extension.
Blue Jays’ bats assist bullpen, carry the day in comfortable win over Rays – Sportsnet.ca
TORONTO – The Blue Jays may have discovered the solution to their bullpen issues: score nine runs a game.
Sustainable? Maybe not, but the Blue Jays are hitting at their best right now, with an MLB-leading 170 runs scored in June to go along with 50 home runs last month. Wearing their red jerseys in front of a sellout Canada Day crowd of 44,445 Friday, some of that offensive output carried into July with a festive 9-2 win over the visiting Tampa Bay Rays.
“It was so special,” said starter Jose Berrios. “I’ve heard a lot about this day, but being here and pitching today was very emotional. I know a lot of Canadians enjoy it and want to be at the ballpark on a day like today.”
“It was amazing, to say the least,” added Cavan Biggio, who reached base four times Friday. “In 2020 and 2021 we definitely missed this place. Now we’re finally back and we’re experiencing that energy that we’ve all been looking forward to on a nightly basis.”
A Lourdes Gurriel Jr. home run put the finishing touch on this one, but the Blue Jays also hit six doubles, five of which came off Rays starter Corey Kluber in a five-run third inning. A three-run sixth created necessary breathing room for the Blue Jays, who were able to rest most of their high-leverage relievers on a day Berrios was not at his sharpest.
With three hits, including his fifth home run of the season, Gurriel Jr. helped drive the Blue Jays’ offence. But don’t overlook Biggio, who walked twice while also hitting two doubles on a day his season on-base percentage climbed to .385.
“Today was great,” Biggio said. “Just hit after hit. A good pitcher, a good experienced guy on the mound, but we had a plan and we were able to execute it.”
Even before a pitch was thrown, Blue Jays fans had plenty to cheer about Friday. The recently retired Russell Martin was honoured with a memorable video narrated by former teammate Jose Bautista and personal messages from the likes of former Jays manager John Gibbons and fellow Canadian Joey Votto.
As the video tributes played in centre field, most Blue Jays players watched from the dugout. The fans also responded warmly to Martin, who later threw out the ceremonial first pitch to another athletic catcher who wears No. 55: Gabriel Moreno.
“Unbelievable career,” Biggio said of Martin. “What stands out to me the most is he played 14 years in the majors and made the playoffs 10 times. That’s what this game’s all about: it’s about winning.”
As for Berrios, he was effective enough, allowing two runs on eight hits over the course of five innings. He worked in and out of trouble, though, stranding nine runners, including both of the batters he walked.
While his fastball averaged 93.6 m.p.h., the Rays weren’t often fooled by the right-hander, who generated eight swinging strikes on 98 total pitches. Still, the Blue Jays will take that from Berrios, especially considering he had allowed 14 earned runs over the course of his previous two starts.
“He’s better than what he did today,” Montoyo said. “He was missing by a little bit and that made him throw even more pitches and work harder … at the end of the day, he did the job.”
But realistically, the Blue Jays would have been in a tough spot without so much help from their offence. Adam Cimber was presumed unavailable after pitching three days in a row, and David Phelps was likely off limits given that he’d just pitched in four of five. This was not an ideal day for the Blue Jays to try preserving a one- or two-run lead.
Thanks to their lineup, they didn’t have to. With the exception of one inning from Trent Thornton, the Blue Jays were able to avoid their high-leverage relievers, putting them in a relatively strong position entering Saturday’s double-header.
“If our pitching gives us a chance, our offence is going to go and that’s exactly what happened,” Montoyo said. “We should be better tomorrow because of that.”
Sergio Romo made his Blue Jays debut with a clean inning seventh inning that featured two strikeouts and Max Castillo pitched the final two innings without incident as Toronto improved to 44-33 on the season while increasing their lead over the Rays to 3.5 games.
All told, this was pretty close to how the Blue Jays would have drawn it up. And end of the day, they’re in Toronto again, playing at home on Canada Day for the first time since 2019. In case any doubt remained as to the day’s significance, an impromptu rendition of O Canada broke out in the stands as the Blue Jays closed out the win. Soon after the fans finished singing, the players completed their 9-2 win.
“The energy and pride that this country embodies was definitely on full display,” Biggio said.
Or, as Montoyo put it: “You could tell the happiness about it.”
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