NHL Three Stars: All hail Jake Allen in Blues’ win

 

No. 1 Star: Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues 

With due respect to overtime game-winner Joel Edmundson, it was all Jake Allen in the Blues’ 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild in Game 1. He made 51 saves (and admittedly had some luck) in carrying St. Louis to victory. For those worried about his playoff mettle (raises hand), this was impressive.

No. 2 Star: Melker Karlsson, San Jose Sharks

The Sharks forward completed their rally against the Edmonton Oilers, sniping a goal at 3:22 of overtime for the 3-2 Game 1 win.

No. 3 Star: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

The King made goals by Tanner Glass and Michael Grabner stand up with a 31-save shutout, out-dueling Carey Price in the Rangers’ 2-0 Game 1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Honorable Mention: Brad Marchand scored at 17:27 of the third period to give the Boston Bruins a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators in Game 1. … Bobby Ryan had the Ottawa goal. … Rookie Charlie McAvoy was solid in skating 24:11 for Boston. … Vladimir Sobotka scored his second goal in two games for the Blues. … Cam Talbot made 41 saves. … Marc-Edouard Vlasic had two assists and helped limit Connor McDavid to one. … Marc-Andre Fleury made a surprise start for the Pittsburgh Penguins in place of the injured Matt Murray, making 31 saves in their 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1. … Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist, the latter coming on a nifty kick-pass:

Did You Know? It was Lundqvist’s 10th career playoff shutout in his 116th consecutive postseason start for the Rangers. (NHL)

Dishonorable Mention: Zach Parise evened things out, scoring a goal after preventing one for his team. … Andrei Markov was given a misconduct for this spear on Rick Nash at the end of the game.

Erik Spoelstra bids emotional farewell to Heat season: 'It just doesn't feel right'

Erik Spoelstra is sad to see this season end. (AP)

The Miami Heat defeated the Washington Wizards 110-102 on Wednesday night to complete a stunning second-half turnaround, finishing the season 41-41 following a 11-30 start. After beginning the season so poorly, contending for a playoff spot on the season’s final day represents a meaningful accomplishment for Miami. When second-year forward Justise Winslow went down for the year in early January, it didn’t feel like too much to say the season was already lost. Now they’re set to enter the offseason with optimism and meaningful progress to show free agents.

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Unfortunately, that feel-good story was not enough to bring the Heat a playoff berth. The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls also won on Wednesday night, which forced the Heat into a tiebreaker with the latter for eighth place in the East. Miami lost the first two meetings in their three-game season series before the end of December, so a team everyone greatly enjoyed watching is now out of the playoffs for one that seemed to suffer from infighting every five days. The rules are the rules and the Heat didn’t exactly dominate in April, but it’s still a bummer to see them go fishin’.

No one appears to have felt that pain more than head coach Erik Spoelstra. The Coach of the Year candidate spoke to the media following Wednesday’s game and elimination, and he did not hold back the emotion. He’s going to miss this team a lot.

And here’s that post-silence statement as a few blocks of text:

I don’t if I’ve ever felt this way about a team before. I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted something more for a team. Any one of us wanted to get into team sports, it was to be around a team like this. We went through so much together in just a few months and really got to know each other. And through everything we’ve made it each other better. It was such an honor to be around a group like this, you know, it really was.

I wish I had something for this team to keep this thing going. I think the hardest thing for any of us to wrap our minds around is that we don’t have practice tomorrow at 12. It just doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t feel like the basketball gods shined down on us. I think probably our group wants to be in there as much as any team in the playoffs.

It’s just an extremely tough thing to wrap our minds around right now. This was a great group. Everything that we went through together brought it out. It was the most vulnerable group I’ve been around. It’s basketball but it really became a family. It became a group that really cared and loved each other, and we weren’t afraid to tell each other that.

It’s an affecting statement made all the more remarkable for the fact that Spoelstra went to four NBA Finals and won two championships with a group that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. For him to talk in such warm tones about a team that finished ninth in a conference full of disappointments speaks volumes about what this group must have gone through and meant to him.

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An outsider is never going to understand everything about an NBA locker room, but the way the Heat banded together after a rough start and turned things around (complete with a record winning streak) was impossible not to notice given how most teams that start a season so poorly finish out the campaign. It’s all too rare to see a team with a winning percentage around .250 pack it in, rest its best players, and angle for the best draft pick possible. Most players begin to look out for themselves — not out of malice, but because it takes a lot to establish a career in a league with so much turnover.

The Heat were obviously different. They only grew stronger when things were going poorly, and they deserve lots of credit for accomplishing what they did. Even on playoff win would have been a well-earned prize for this group, but it’s safe to say that the lack of a postseason appearance won’t change the value of this season. It certainly won’t for Spoelstra.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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George Springer can't stop hitting leadoff homers

It’s only nine games into the regular season for the Houston Astros and already teams are learning how dangerous their hitters are.

Well, ok, one particular hitter. In one particular spot.

George Springer has continued hitting leadoff this year and it seems to be working out quite well. Four times this season he’s gone up to the plate for his team’s first at-bat and smashed the ball out of the stadium.

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His latest work occurred Tuesday night in Seattle on the first pitch he saw from Ariel Miranda. And that’s already the second time Springer hit a leadoff shot off Miranda this season.

It’s not just that Springer is getting the ball over the fence — he’s absolutely crushing them. The 27-year-old currently owns the second-longest home run this season (454 ft.), and he has two of the hardest hit balls this year at 114.2 mph and 114.6 mph, respectively, according to Statcast.

With his first inning shot Tuesday night, George Springer now has four leadoff home runs on the season. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
With his first inning shot Tuesday night, George Springer now has four leadoff home runs on the season. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

And if seems like he’s either starting games with a bang or ending them that way, that’s cause he is. Springer’s only other home run this season was a walk-off shot in extra innings. He followed that up the next day by becoming the first player in 27 years to hit a walk-off and leadoff homer back-to-back.

If “leadoff batters going deep” is the “new pitchers going deep,” fans will need to take extra measures to make sure they don’t miss the first pitch. Until then, practice with Astros games. George Springer is more than enough reason to tune in, anyways.

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Blake Schuster is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at blakeschuster@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

 

 

NBA Playoff Picture: Everything at stake on the season's final day

Either the Celtics or Cavs will end Wednesday with the East’s top seed. (AP)

The NBA’s regular season ends on Wednesday, which means that there’s only one day left to set the final standings and determine the shape of the playoff bracket. Fourteen of 16 playoff berths and six of eight first-round series have already been determined, but there are still plenty of seeds left to sort out.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

The following seeds have already been set:

3. Toronto Raptors
4. Washington Wizards
5. Atlanta Hawks
6. Milwaukee Bucks

That leaves four spots to be decided, including the final two playoff berths in the conference. But we’ll start at the top, where the Celtics and Cavaliers must sort out which team gets homecourt advantage through the conference finals.

Boston Celtics

No. 1 if they beat the Bucks OR the Cavaliers lose to the Raptors
No. 2 if they lose to the Bucks and the Cavaliers beat the Raptors

Cleveland Cavalies

No. 1 if they beat the Raptors and the Celtics lose to the Bucks
No. 2 if they lose to the Raptors OR the Celtics beat the Bucks

Useful notes: It is probably in the Raptors’ best interest to rest players to better the Cavs’ chances of nabbing the No. 1 seed. Toronto can avoid playing the defending champions until the conference finals if they finish first. Or maybe it won’t matter — the Bucks will not play several rotation players, including Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, in Boston:

Three teams are vying for two spots for the most complicated scenarios of the season’s final day. If the Heat nab one of these berths, they’ll have completed a stunning turnaround following an 11-30 start.

Indiana Pacers

No. 7 if they beat the Hawks OR the Bulls lose to the Nets and the Heat lose to the Wizards
No. 8 if they lose to the Hawks, the Bulls lose to the Nets, and the Heat beat the Wizards OR they lose to the Hawks, the Bulls beat the Nets, and the Heat lose to the Wizards
Eliminated if they lose to the Hawks, the Bulls beat the Nets, and the Heat beat the Wizards

Chicago Bulls

No. 7 if they beat the Nets and the Pacers lose to the Hawks
No. 8 if they beat the Nets and the Pacers beat the Hawks OR they lose to the Nets and the Heat lose to the Wizards
Eliminated if they lose to the Nets, the Pacers beat the Hawks, and the Heat beat the Wizards

Erik Spoelstra figures to get Coach of the Year consideration. (AP)

Miami Heat

No. 7 if they beat the Wizards, the Pacers lose to the Hawks, and the Bulls lose to the Nets
No. 8 if they beat the Wizards, the Pacers lose to the Hawks, and the Bulls beat the Nets OR they beat the Wizards, the Pacers beat the Hawks, and the Bulls lose to the Nets
Eliminated if they lose to the Wizards OR the Pacers beat the Hawks and the Bulls beat the Nets

Useful notes: The Nets have the NBA’s worst record but already played spoiler to the Bulls in a surprising win on Friday. However, Brooklyn will sit six rotation players on Wednesday — Brook Lopez, Trevor Booker, and Jeremy Lin will rest, and Quincy Acy, Joe Harris, and Sean Kilpatrick will all miss out on the game due to injury. Those absences should clear the way for the Bulls to clinch a playoff berth.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

All four first-round matchups have already been determined in the West. The only matter still to be resolved is which team gets homecourt advantage in the series between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds.

The following seeds have already been set:

1. Golden State Warriors
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Houston Rockets
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Portland Trail Blazers

Will Blake Griffin and the Clippers have homecourt advantage? (AP)

And the Clippers and Jazz still need to figure out where they’ll play four of their seven games.

Los Angeles Clippers

No. 4 if they beat the Kings OR the Jazz lose to the Spurs
No. 5 if they lose to the Kings and the Jazz beat the Spurs

Utah Jazz

No. 4 if they beat the Spurs and the Clippers lose to the Kings
No. 5 if they lose to the Spurs OR the Clippers beat the Kings

Useful notes: The Clippers obviously have the more favorable matchup, but Gregg Popovich played his key players for roughly 20 minutes apiece on Monday against the Blazers and probably won’t push anyone too hard. There’s an argument to be made that the Kings are a more difficult opponent given that they have nothing to play for and could relish the role of spoiler.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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Heat rally to beat LeBron and Kyrie-less Cavs in OT, keep stunning playoff chase alive

Hassan Whiteside smiles like a man who knows he's still got a shot. (Getty Images)
Hassan Whiteside smiles like a man who knows he’s still got a shot. (Getty Images)

After the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls each won on Monday night, the Miami Heat had to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers to keep their playoff hopes alive. Even with superstars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving getting the night off after logging heavy minutes in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks, victory didn’t come easily or quickly … but eventually, an extra five minutes later, the Heat got what they needed.

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After falling behind by double-digits early and by 14 in the third quarter, the Heat rallied to take a seven-point lead midway through the fourth with a hellacious 26-8 run fueled by point forward James Johnson and reserve shooter Wayne Ellington. The Cavs came back, though, with vets Kyle Korver, Kevin Love and Deron Williams hitting big shots down the stretch to put Cleveland up by two with one minute left, forcing a tough Goran Dragic jumper to knot the score at 108 heading into the closing seconds of regulation.

Cleveland had the chance to win it, but Heat center Hassan Whiteside blew up a Deron Williams-Kevin Love pick-and-roll to give Miami a chance of its own …

… which amounted to nothing, sending the game to overtime. Miami came out hot in OT, scoring the first six points of the extra session, but the 3-ball got Cleveland back on track … or, for the sake of accuracy, the 4-ball:

With 13.6 seconds left in overtime, Heat guard Tyler Johnson stepped to the line for two free throws that could give Miami a three-point lead, setting the stage for a wild final possession:

Johnson made his pair, and with no timeouts, the Cavs had to push the ball in pursuit of a game-tying answer. But Miami guard Josh Richardson hounded Williams into not only giving up the ball, but running straight into Korver, eliminating any chance of a quick-release 3 off a dribble handoff.

Korver passed to Frye, who looked to pitch the ball to J.R. Smith, but Dragic was in his hip pocket to stop any handoffs, forcing Frye to work against Whiteside from beyond the 3-point arc, straight away, with less than five seconds left on the game clock. Frye eventually spun free and rose for a triple fading to his left, but the shot went wide, sealing a 124-121 overtime win that kept Miami in the hunt for a once-unthinkable playoff berth into the final day of the season.

Playing without their two top scorers, the Cavs got a surprising turn-back-the-clock performance from Williams, the former All-Star point guard turned veteran backup, who led the way with a game-high 35 points on 14-for-25 shooting, nine assists (albeit with 10 turnovers), seven rebounds, a steal and a block in 46 minutes:

But despite Williams’ throwback game, 25 points and 10 rebounds from Love (who was listed as questionable with an illness prior to the game) and 21 points from Frye in his fourth straight start in place of the injured Tristan Thompson, the Cavs didn’t have enough to put away a Heat team that has just kept scratching and clawing its way back toward the light for three straight months. The loss dropped Cleveland to 51-30, a full game behind the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Tyler Johnson made four critical free throws in the final 30 seconds, and finished with a team-high 24 points on 7-for-12 shooting with five rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes off the bench. Whiteside added 23 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks, while Richardson turned in a stellar two-way game (19 points on 14 shots, six rebounds, five steals, four assists, and a block in 46 1/2 minutes) for the Heat, who have gone a stunning 29-11 since falling to 11-30 on Jan. 13.

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Only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have a better record or net rating (whether you outscore your opponent over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa) during that stretch than the Heat, who now sit at 40-41, one game behind the seventh-seeded Pacers, and tied on record with the Bulls for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Chicago occupies the No. 8 spot by virtue of holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, but by winning on Monday, Miami gave itself a chance that nobody in their right mind would’ve given the Heat after Miami fell 19 games under .500 in mid-January.

Now, if they can beat the Washington Wizards — who are locked into the East’s No. 4 seed, but that can reach the 50-win mark for the first time since 1979 by knocking off Miami — and if either Indiana or Chicago loses their final games of the season, the Heat can make the playoffs. And if they both lose and the Heat win, then Miami, which beat Indy twice in three meetings this season, can even rise to the seventh spot:

Indiana, winners of four straight, will finish out the season against the Atlanta Hawks, while the Bulls will face the Brooklyn Nets, the team with the worst record in the NBA. (But also, to be fair, one that has played near-.500 ball and boasted a top-10 defense since the All-Star break, and that just knocked off Chicago on Saturday.)

The odds are not in Miami’s favor, but that’s been true for the last three months, and it hasn’t stopped the Heat yet.

“We think it’s meant to be,”‘ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the game. “But we have to take care of business.”

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!