HORNBY: Maple Leafs-Lightning series a boost for Bettman

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TAMPA – That most fans are enjoying this series between the two-time Stanley Cup champions and the biggest Canadian market runs counter to critics of the Gary Bettman-endorsed playoff system.

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A staunch defender of giving division leaders the advantage of facing wildcard teams while a second-place teams often gets a tough opening-round ticket against another 100-point team has some crying foul. Or wanting a return to one-versus-eight, or something else that creates a better path for a deserving teams after 82 games.

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“People are always thinking: ‘What can we do different to make it better?’ ” the commissioner said Friday night at Amalie Arena in an intermission media scrum. “What we have is working really, really well. When you look at the number of games we get in the playoffs, (excitement) in the first round and our competitive balance in the regular season, it’s extraordinary.

“I’ll put it up against anything else that’s going on in sports.”

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Into five nights of playoff games and his tour of cities in Canada and the US, Bettman said “normal is feeling pretty good” with regard to COVID-19 restrictions hopefully being in the rear-view mirror.

As for league issues, Bettman said he’s satisfied the league has turned the heat up enough on the issue of punishing Russia to the extent it can for its invasion of Ukraine.

“We condemned Russia immediately, severed our business ties, forgoing many millions of dollars. It’s fair to point out that a lot of players play for NHL teams, they don’t play for Russia, and they’re in a difficult situation with families there.

“We’re keeping an eye on the situation as it relates to the World Cup (expected in 2024) and down the road.”

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After quashing the notion they couldn’t stay with the top teams in the Atlantic Division in regular season, the focus turned to whether top Leafs Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner could carry their career-best years into May and become true playoff difference-makers. They both have had some post-season hiccups while the team has been unable to advance past the first round, Matthews coming into this series with three goals in his past 12 games against Columbus and Montreal, Marner no goals eight assists in the same span.

But heading into Game 3, both had five points, more reminiscent of Matthews’s productive series against Boston in 2019 and Marner’s 13 points in 13 games against Washington and his first Bruins’ series.

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“They’ve been great and great all year along,” winger Wayne Simmonds said between Games 2 and 3. “(Playoff questions) that’s all in the past and hopefully these first two games put that to bed. It’s up to the rest of us to match their intensity. Big kudos to those guys (in Game 2), putting their bodies on the line.”

Mark Giordano said he picked up right away upon arriving from Seattle that “they’re the guys who drive this team. It’s been pretty nice to watch.

“When you see things such as Matty back-checking, breaking up 2-on-1’s and stuff like that it goes a long way for our group.”

Marner became the 26th player in franchise history to reach 30 playoff points in Game 2, Matthews has 29.


Patrick Marleau, the NHL’s career games played leader, is expected to announce his retirement on Tuesday after he and the San Jose Sharks scheduled a news conference. Marleau, who appeared in 164 consecutive contests for the Maple Leafs as part of 1,779 total appearances since arriving in 1997, was idle through 2021-22, but there was no confirmation he was officially done.

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In 2020-21, Marleau passed Gordie Howe for most career games and remained 12 ahead at the start of this year. Joe Thornton, still with the Florida Panthers, is sixth overall at 1,714, while Islanders defenseman Zdeno Chara is seventh at 1,680. Marleau wasn’t just an ironman, amassing 1,197 points, mostly with the Sharks.


On Thursday afternoon, the Leafs took the unusual step of taking buses to Buffalo, NY, and flying from there to Tampa, skirting mandatory COVID-19 testing for air passengers as other pro teams have done. “The biggest thing at this point is to do all we can to avoid false positives or things that might come up that would impact our group,” coach Sheldon Keefe said … Marner correctly pointed out the fluid Leafs’ offense has more to lose if caught up in too many penalties that keep skilled players not on the PK anchored to the bench. “When that happens, guys lose their groove,” he said. He added John Tavares “it takes us out of our rhythm. That’s why we want to be the ones drawing them and being on our front foot. Sometimes it’s not going to go perfectly, you’re going to have to kill a few in a row” … Defenseman Ryan McDonagh of the Lightning tied Brian Rafalski for the fifth-most playoff games by an American NHLer on Friday, reaching 165 … Available in the Tampa Bay sports book market, publications covering all three Stanley Cup championships since 2004. What the Leafs wouldn’t give to be the subject of just one.

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