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SIMMONS: Game 5 couldn't possibly top the previous two for drama, could it?

Auston Matthews' overtime goal on Friday capped wild back-to-back finishes in the Leafs-Jackets play-in series.
Auston Matthews' overtime goal on Friday capped wild back-to-back finishes in the Leafs-Jackets play-in series.

It can happen once. Maybe twice

But two times in two nights by the same two teams? In the same building, same pandemic?

It’s as impossible as hockey can be. Two teams, playoff opponents, blowing 3-0 leads late, losing in overtime on consecutive nights. The offensive star of each team scoring the winning goal both times.

There is no clear explanation for what happened to the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and Friday night, games won and then lost on the very same night. It was hockey at its most random.

It was heart-breaking on Thursday for the Leafs. It was worse on Friday for the Jackets, who were an empty-net shot away from advancing to the first round of the real portion of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, hero of Game 3, hat-trick scorer, had the series won with 98 seconds to play when he barrelled down the left wing and shot from 56 feet out at the empty Leafs net. Under normal circumstances, it’s an easy goal and game over for Columbus. Not only did Dubois miss, his shot stuck on the mesh beside the goal post, causing a neutral zone faceoff. Just 75 seconds later, Zach Hyman sent Game 4 into overtime.

Instead of series over, it became game on, Sunday night.

Who knows what will happen in Game 5? How can you have any idea?

After Thursday and Friday and the three-goal leads left behind, how can know what to think anymore?

THIS AND THAT

Before the late comeback and the crazy emotion of Friday night, this was a fair question to ask: Has any Leaf played great in this series? There have been some moments, although not many before the final four minutes of Game 4. But individually, who was has been transformative, the way Shea Weber and Jeff Petry were for Montreal in its round against Pittsburgh? The answer for now: Nobody …. Crazy stats: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander — the Leafs’ $40-million men — had combined for seven points in the first 10 periods against Columbus. In the final 17 minutes and seven seconds Friday, the four scored 10 points … Nylander had three goals in his first 20 playoff games as a Leaf. He has two in four games in the Columbus series … Wow, does Boone Jenner ever work hard and does he ever miss a lot of great scoring opportunities for the Jackets … I’ve spent so many years around Mike Babcock that he’s in my head at times. And I hear his voice, telling players that nothing happens on most shifts, and you have to be patient and smart and take advantage when the opportunities come. Their best players did that Friday night … I have no problem with John Tortorella’s short post-game availability after the collapse in Game 4. He had nothing to say. The questions he was asked weren’t particularly effective. His interview ended quickly. He wasn’t rude. He wasn’t nasty. I do have a problem with Tortorella not being available on Saturday. That’s bush … If the Leafs can’t beat Columbus, who can they beat? … And completely unrelated, has anyone read the novella, Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth. A decent movie, too, with Richard Benjamin.

HERE AND THERE

Elimination Friday was a fabulous day of hockey and had the feel of excitement that comes along with a great day in the NCAA basketball tournament. That was the good part. The bad part: So long Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Roman Josi and Evgeni Malkin. In one day, the two biggest stars in hockey were gone along with the likely Hart and Norris Trophy winners … No general manager has been more bold in the trade market over the years than Nashville’s David Poile, but not only are the Predators out before the real playoffs begin, and looked rather lost against Arizona, but among the best players in the post-season have been Seth Jones in Columbus and Weber in Montreal. Both traded away by Poile. Imagine a defence with Jones, Weber, Josi. It’s not exactly Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, but by today’s standards, it would be pretty darn close … I keep hearing that Dale Tallon will be out as GM of the Florida Panthers. I hope it’s not true. And if it happens, I hope it’s because he wants it to happen … One secret to watching post-season hockey: Discovering a player you didn’t know that well, who is way better than you believed him to be. My early choice: Anthony Beauvillier of the New York Islanders … Nobody loves restaurants more than Lou Lamoriello or TSN’s Gord Miller, working for NBC these playoffs and both have been smart enough to take advantage of one bubble secret: They can’t leave the bubble, but they can order in food in from their favourite Toronto restaurants. Wonder if Tomas Kaberle would deliver to the bubble from his wife’s restaurants?

SCENE AND HEARD

I’ve been fortunate enough to play golf with McDavid, been at tournaments with him, had enough conversations with him over the years to see his personality, witness his sense of humour. I’ve even seen him dancing the horah at an anniversary party. What I don’t want to see: McDavid doing in-game interviews. Clearly, he hates them. Clearly, he’s not comfortable doing them. Those who handle his career should make it clear: No more in-game interviews. It only makes him look miserable and tightly wound and he’s neither of those … No matter what happens Sunday night, this has proven to be true: The Maple Leafs were harder to play against with Nazem Kadri in the lineup than they are without him … Tyson Barrie scored 73 goals in six seasons in Colorado — an average of 12 goals a season playing defence. He’s had five for the Leafs, three of them coming in Sheldon Keefe’s first three games as Toronto coach. He has gone 23 games without a goal now, with no points against the Blue Jackets … What never made sense to me: The Leafs wanting to trade Kadri to Calgary for T.J. Brodie, who was a pending free agent, and then turning around instead and trading him for Barrie and Alex Kerfoot, with Barrie being a free agent, as well. Kadri has two years left on his value deal in Colorado. I understand why the Leafs traded Kadri and agree with the notion of moving him. The fact that Barrie hasn’t fit in with the Leafs has made the deal look worse than it should have been.

AND ANOTHER THING

How not baseball is this? The St. Louis Cardinals have played five games this season. The Cincinnati Reds have played 14. They’re in the same division … I don’t know, with hockey playoffs on television every night, with NBA playoffs not far from beginning, I wouldn’t mind the occasional afternoon baseball game. There don’t seem to be many of those these days … You can’t blame Charlie Montoyo for the lineup card screw-up the other night, just as you couldn’t blame Pat Quinn for the lineup card mess-up when he was coaching the Leafs. So I wonder who is filling in as the Jays’ bench coach these days, Rick Ley? … I don’t think I ever had more fun than working the first year of sports radio at the FAN1430 (Foster Hewitt’s old numbers, now 590). I had the 10-noon shift, alongside Mary Ormsby and neither of us knew what we were doing. I bring this up now because the delightful Ormsby worked her last day at the Toronto Star on Friday. She and her husband Paul Hunter have retired. Wishing both of them nothing but happiness and lots of time to blow dry their hair … This kid, Dan Shulman, used to hang around the FAN back then, so did Gord Stellick, Joe Bowen, Bob McCown, Stephanie Smythe and Norm Rumack. Wonder what became of them? … I’m not crazy about a 24-team playoff round in the future, but I think the NHL should look long and hard about developing some kind of all-hockey playoff format days. This has worked wonderfully well for most fans … Are you surprised by how few hockey players have taken a knee for national anthems? I thought post-Matthew Dumba speech, more would comply. But you know hockey, it’s not a game of individuals. It’s a team game and few want to step out of what their team is doing. The Leafs wore ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirts because they were given to them. But no one has yet to take a knee … Happy birthday to Rod Laver (82), Bob Cousy (92), Ken Dryden (73) Brett Hull (56), Deion Sanders (50), Pat Mahomes (50) Rod Brind’Amour (50), Doug Williams (65), Marcello Simmons (49), Alvis Woods (67), Tyson Gay (38) and Sable (53) … And hey, whatever became of Frazer McLaren?

EXPERIENCE NOT THE ISSUE WITH LEAFS

The Maple Leafs like to sell themselves as a young team. By age, they might be that. By experience, they are not.

This is John Tavares’ 11th big league season. This is Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen’s seventh. Same for Cody Ceci. Jake Muzzin, now out with injury, is in his ninth season and won the Stanley Cup in his second.

The big money kids — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — are all in their fourth full-time season, as is Zach Hyman. And the fourth line has fossils such as Jason Spezza in his 17th year and Kyle Clifford in his 10th.

There is experience in almost all the key positions on the club. And when you look around the NHL, this is what you see: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane won their first of three Cups in Chicago in their third NHL season. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin played in a Cup final for Pittsburgh before winning their first the following year: That was Year 4 for both of them. In his fourth year, Drew Doughty won in Los Angeles.

The Leafs have more than enough experience to win a Cup. Question is, do they have the right roster, the right mix of players, enough talent, enough sandpiper, enough smarts, enough battle, enough good coaching and goaltending, to win?

NHL LOTTERY MESS CAN’T HAPPEN AGAIN … EVER

On Monday, some lucky NHL team will become home for Alexis Lafreniere.
And before we know which team it is, understand this: However the NHL expected its lottery draft to work out in this crazy interrupted season, they didn’t anticipate this mess.

If I were GM Steve Yzerman in Detroit, in need of talent almost everywhere, or Pierre Dorion in Ottawa or Rob Blake in Los Angeles, I would be furious that Lafreniere, the clear No. 1 choice and projected superstar, would be going to a team ahead of mine in the standings.

Imagine Lafreniere in Pittsburgh, for example, along with Sidney Crosby. Imagine him in Edmonton, beside McDavid or Leon Draisaitl? Imagine him with the New York Rangers, with Artemi Panarin or Mika Zibanejad? The matter is enticing for the teams eliminated in the play-in round of the post-season.

But go back in history, look what Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby meant to Pittsburgh, the franchise and the team. Look what Patrick Kane meant to Chicago. Look what Connor McDavid has done in Edmonton, although playoff success will be here one of these years.

The NHL needs to make certain that nothing like this can ever happen again — the wrong team winning the lottery — and hope that a team such as Minnesota winds up with Lafreniere. Now that’s a franchise in need of a star.

SPORTSNET LAGGING, BUT ONLY AT CERTAIN TIMES

What an opportunity this has been for Rogers Sportsnet to strut its stuff during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Hockey is on every day, all day in some cases. And what you’re seeing from Sportsnet are some great things and frankly, too many not so great things.

The play-by-play teams, led by Jim Hughson and Chris Cuthbert, have been top-flight. They are both top five in the industry at what they do.

The problems have come between periods, after games and occasionally leading into games. If Elliotte Friedman is on — and please, can we lose that beard? — or Brian Burke is on, or the impressive rookie, the anecdotal Kevin Bieksa is on, good stuff tends to be happening. (Although we’re not getting enough Burke — or enough Burke antagonism.)

The other panels at times, though, look and sound too much like Rogers Cable games rather than a major sports network.

All you have to do is turn to NBC between periods to see how much better their intermissions have been than what Sportsnet is offering.

Television is not easy to do well. You find only so many Ray Ferraros or Craig Buttons out there who have important things to say. Sportsnet has Friedman or Bieksa or Burke or host David Amber who do that. And Kelly Hrudey, who hasn’t been on enough. But after that, the lineup is thins out.

Hockey is what we are supposed to do best on television. Sportsnet should be better than it is.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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