Sports roundup: The Lightning and the Bulls charge ahead this week

When the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated their Stanley Cup win last summer, they did so 2,800 miles away from home in Edmonton’s empty Rogers Place.

The way the Lightning have been going about their business so far, in this year’s playoffs, they may get a chance to celebrate a Cup win in a packed Amalie Arena.

Sure, there is work to be done. However, a 2-0 win over Carolina on Tuesday night sent the Lightning on to the semifinals where they will play the New York Islanders.

The Lightning will appear in the semifinals for the fifth time in the last seven years. Twice during their current run they advanced to the Stanley Cup final, winning it all last year when they defeated the Dallas Stars in six games, and losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in 2015.

“We have been down this road,” said coach Jon Cooper, following the win over Carolina. “There is a formula in place, you need players to execute it and they go out and do it. I am proud of them. I am proud of their effort. I am proud of them making plays under pressure. If you want me to throw a whole bunch of cliches out there, I can. But take them all and ball them up into one and that is the effort that these guys gave. You need that if you want to advance.”

A team also needs tremendous goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy has provided just that and his shutout of the Hurricanes was a prime example of a goaltender snuffing out an opponent’s momentum, while giving his team a jolt.

The 26-year-old goaltender also understands that the postseason is a different animal and playing at a consistently high level is paramount. To have that consistency, everybody has to be on board this time of year, which is something Vasilevskiy spoke about following Tuesday’s game.

“In the playoffs, it has to be a different (level of) effort,” he said. “I think last year and this year so far, we have been very consistent. It takes everybody to win in the playoffs. It can’t be just one or two guys. All the guys have to put in the best effort every night.”

Speaking of having everybody on board, the Lightning did not have the services of Nikita Kucherov during the 60-game regular season. Kucherov, who was the NHL’s MVP in 2018-19, had hip surgery in December and started skating in March. He was ready to go when the Lightning opened the playoffs last month against the Florida Panthers. He has responded with a playoff-leading 18 points in 11 games.

Furthermore, captain Steven Stamkos missed the final month of the regular season due to injury. He returned at the start of the postseason and is among the leading playoff scorers. A couple of other players were also banged up, though everybody has been on board since the final game of the series against the Panthers.

Despite key injuries, the Lightning had a solid regular season. It set the stage for what has taken place in the playoffs so far.

“I thought we had a pretty good regular season, where we were kind of building to this,” said Brayden Point, whose eight goals were tied for the playoff lead. “We got some guys back in the lineup and that definitely helped, but it is just a belief in our group. We have four lines, great defense and great goaltending. So, we just feel confident.”

Of course, the hope is the Lightning can keep the good times rolling.

“This is not the end goal,” said Point. “There is still so much work to be done. We can’t get too high here.”

*****

The University of South Florida baseball team has been on a historic run the past couple of weeks.

A 6-4 win over South Alabama on Monday in the Gainesville Regional lifted the Bulls to their first-ever appearance in the Super Regional, which is college baseball’s Sweet 16.

The Bulls travel to Austin to take on the Texas Longhorns in a best-of-three series starting Saturday night. The second game will be Sunday and, if necessary, a third game will be played Monday.

Courtesy of USF Athletics

“This is such a special group of guys and they’ll forever be remembered as the team that got it done,” said Billy Mohl, who is in his fourth season as the Bulls’ head coach.

USF was not expected to do much this season. The Bulls were picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference preseason coaches poll. While they did not finish last, they had a rather ho-hum regular season in going 24-26, including 14-14 and a sixth-place finish in the eight-team conference.

The Bulls, however, got hot at the right time. They entered the conference tournament in Clearwater as the No. 6 seed. They left with their first conference championship since 1995 when USF was a member of the Metro Conference. An 8-7 win over rival UCF on May 30 clinched the title.

The win enabled the Bulls to advance to the regionals for the 14th time. However, they had never advanced to the Super Regional.

Until now.

Wins over host Florida, Miami and South Alabama in Gainesville paved the way for another victory celebration.

Mohl referred to Monday’s regional-clinching victory over South Alabama a “gutsy” win.

There have been a lot of those of late for his USF Bulls.

Monday’s win followed Sunday’s rain-shortened game against South Alabama, which had to be completed early Monday afternoon and resulted in a 4-0 loss. That set up a decisive final game between the two teams, the only game during USF’s four days in Gainesville that was not interrupted by rain.

The win over UCF to capture the conference championship was another gut-check performance. It was the Bulls’ third game in less than 24 hours and followed a win over Tulane that went well past midnight the previous evening. A 6-0 lead against the Knights dissolved into a one-run nail biter. Alas, the Bulls held on.

Whether it was having to withstand late starts and very late finishes during the conference tournament in Clearwater or enduring the repeated inconvenience of Mother Nature in Gainesville, the Bulls charged on undeterred.

“We’ve got a group in that locker room that believes in each other, and plays for each other,” said Mohl, following the win over South Alabama. “There was no quit in them, despite all the rain delays and that first loss to South Alabama.”

As great as this ride has been, it is no time to be content. Instead, this group of Bulls feels the journey is just beginning. And who can blame them? After all, the Bulls have won seven of nine since the end of the regular season and have demonstrated a knack for coming up with the big hit or big pitch at the right time.

Sure, defeating No. 2-ranked Texas twice in their home park and advancing to the College World Series in Omaha will be a daunting task. However, nobody should put anything past the Bulls. Not with how they have been playing.

“As they’ll tell you, they aren’t done yet,” Mohl said of his team. “They want to be the first (USF) team to get to Omaha and we have the leadership in that clubhouse that believes in that.”

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