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Lightning’s Steven Stamkos still watching as his knee heals

The calvary might not be in a hurry to rescue the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Although injured center Steven Stamkos took part in a full practice Friday, he still has no timetable for his return. He might not make it back before the end of the regular season, which has 12 games to go. The Lightning continues to exist just beyond the final wild-card berth,

“When it’s 100 percent, I’ll be back,” Stamkos said Friday to the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s a question I can’t answer. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in this rehab process, where it feels like it’s never going to get better. Then you have a week where it goes through the roof in regards to how you’re feeling.

“I’ll be playing when it feels ready. And I can’t say it feels ready right now. But it was a start.”

Stamkos said the Lightning’s recent stretch — going 12-3-3 to get back into the playoff conversation — has given him a lift in his rehab.

“This has been the toughest by far,” Stamkos said. “I think mentally, you know what to expect. Physically, this one was the toughest with the type of injury it was. It was a grind. There were a lot of days, especially when it happened. Hopefully, that’s it, the string of bad luck is over.”

Stamkos was off to a strong start when he was injured.

“There’s a lot of what could have been,’ Stamkos said. “But that’s life. Things like that happen. You get tested in a lot of different ways. It’s tough to watch the guys struggle. I see the season unfold the way it has. It’s encouraging the way things have gone lately. It has helped me in the process as well.”

Stamkos said he’ll be back when he is ready.

“When there’s no restrictions, where you feel like you did before surgery,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, even when I came back from the broken leg, there was the curve that goes with coming back, the inflammation, the little bit of pain after. There shouldn’t be any uncomfortable moments on the ice. Obviously, some of that is mental too. I’ve been through this before, I have a good understanding of what my body needs to feel like in order to be back on the ice.”

Tampa Bay plays Washington Saturday.

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Lightning clobbered by Toronto in its race toward the NHL playoffs

Think of the ice at Amalie Arena as a giant windshield.

Now think of the Tampa Bay Lightning as a bug.

Splat.

Got it?

The Lightning, playing so well as of late, were clobbered at home in Thursday night’s game, losing 5-0 to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bolts, who had just passed the Leafs in the standings, now are playing chance once again.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said it was his team’s defense, which had been good lately, that led to the defeat.

“The thing that was missing was the defending of shots,” said Cooper. “That’s the thing we weren’t doing. There is a spot 10 feet out, this little 10×10 area in front of our net. That was the only area of the ice we didn’t play. Clearly, that’s the most important part (on the ice.) We’ve been so good defending as of late. That’s why we’ve had success, and tonight, we didn’t (defend.) It looks bad on (goalie Andrei) Vasilevskiy, but there’s not much you can do when guys are tapping them in and winning battles.”

Vasilevskiy, who was 6-0-1 in his previous seven games, was pulled after giving up his fourth goal on 15 shots in the second period. Cooper said, however, the problem was the defense. “It was a rest pull more than anything,” he said.

It was only the third time all season the Bolts had lost by five goals and it’s first since a Jan. 5 loss to Columbus.

Twelve games remain for Tampa Bay. If the team is going to salvage this season, it needs to take advantage of Saturday night’s home game against Washington.

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Devin Robinson, others step up to help Gators avoid upset

Listening to the “experts,” the Florida Gators sounded like underdogs to East Tennessee State heading into Thursday’s NCAA Tournament first round game at the Amway Center in Orlando. Despite being a 10-point favorite with odds makers, several pundits had the fourth-seeded Gators on “upset alert” against the 13th seed Buccaneers.

To be sure, the pressure is on the higher seed in games like these. Double-digit seeds have low expectations.

Since 1985, 13th seeds have beaten fourth seeds 26 times. With that in mind, plus the fact the Gators were on a three-game losing streak and were missing center John Egbunu, perhaps there was reason for Florida to among those considered vulnerable.

Sometimes this Gator team has a great deal of difficulty shooting the ball, or will turn it over too often. What they have shown is a respectable degree of mental toughness to be called upon when things are not going their way.

Along with missing the injured Egbunu, sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen struggled mightily, making only one of 11 shots from the floor and scoring just seven points.

Canyon Barry, the SEC’s 6th Man of the Year, made only one of four shots and also scored only seven points. The Gators also turned the ball over 15 times.

Yet, they found a way to win.

Junior forward Devin Robinson filled in the gaps by tying his career high with 24 points. Kasey Hill, not known as a strong outside shooter, scored 14 points on five of eight shooting. Kevarrius Hayes, filling in for Egbunu, scored seven points, but had a game-high six steals.

“That’s kind of who we are,” said Gators Coach Mike White. “KeVaughn’s not hanging his head right now. KeVaughn is happy we won. Devin would be the same way if KeVaughn were sitting here (in the interview room) right now.”

Robinson helped lead the offensively struggling Gators from a five-point lead midway through the second half into a double digit lead they would not relinquish. The defense played a huge role in building that lead by creating turnovers and holding the Buccaneers to 40 percent shooting.

Next up is the fifth-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who rallied from a 15-point deficit to down North Carolina Wilmington in Thursday’s first game at the Amway Center. Perhaps the Vaughn that Florida is used to seeing will emerge.

If not, someone else will probably step up. With a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, White and the Gator faithful certainly hope so.

 

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Joe Henderson: Miami trial shines light on smuggling Cuban baseball players to U.S.

It is not unusual when a Major League Baseball team signs a Cuban defector. There is a lengthy list of players who fled that island nation so they could barter their skills for the considerable cash that comes with playing in the United States.

Usually, those stories have been treated as valiant escapes from a repressive government and the search for a better life.

A trial that concluded Wednesday in a Miami courtroom though painted a different story. Instead of something heroic, the way some players escaped was judged to be a felony.

The trial pulled back the curtain on how that process works — or at least worked in the case of agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada. Both men face five years in prison after being found guilty of smuggling Cuban players to this country in return for receiving a big chunk of their contracts that could total in the millions of dollars.

The Miami Herald reported that Hernandez and Estrada deceived the U.S. government into granting visas to two dozen Cuban players. The players were transported by what the Herald called “an underground pipeline” that included Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Testimony showed Hernandez and Estrada paid off boat captains and falsified immigration documents. In return, they charged players up to 30 percent of their contracts.

Players include Leonys Martin, who signed a $4.8 million contract this season with Seattle, and Jose Abreu, who signed a $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. Abreu testified that he ate pages from his fake passport and washed it down with a Heineken beer while on a flight from Haiti to the United States.

He admitted he was traveling illegally because, he told jurors, “If I had not been there on that particular day, the deadline, then the contract would not be executed and would no longer be valid. We had to be in Chicago to sign the contract.”

By contrast, defense attorney Jeffrey Marcus told jurors players in Cuba might receive as little as $20 per month.

In addition to showing what risks players are willing to take to achieve their baseball aspirations, it highlights the still-thorny relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Immigration hawks have been pushing to roll back attempts by President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba. Last spring, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first MLB team to play a game on that island when they defeated the Cuban national team.

That move generally was hailed as a breakthrough in relations between the two nations. This trial showed that reality remains something different.

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FSU Safety Derwin James comes back strong from knee injury

For so long, he watched. He waited.

FSU safety Derwin James had become a memory. The former star for the Seminoles, perhaps one of their best defensive players, waited for 176 days – and 11 games – as his left knee healed.

Now, James is back.

And, yeah, it was worth the wait.

“I remember the long days, it was like an everyday thing, where they would tell me, ’no no no, just take it day by day’” James told the Tallahassee Democrat.

“I’m happy I’m back out here now, though.”

Going into last season, James was expected to be the best player on the FSU defense. But he tore ligaments against Georgia Southern and was unable to come back.

Throughout his journey, James said he has learned something.

“Don’t take nothing for granted,” he said.

“Football is a gift. I learned a lot just by watching it. I just take everything even more serious now. Working harder.”

He has also picked up a new role for the Seminoles, lining up to return punts on special teams.

“We put the ball with the guys that have the best hands, and the best ability to run with it,” Jimbo Fisher said. “There are not many positions he can’t play.”

Said James: “I like the ball in my hands. I joke with Coach [Fisher] all the time like ‘Coach, I can do something for the team that could help us.’ Coach is just giving me the opportunity.”

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CBS experts say Florida, Florida State ripe for first-round upsets in NCAA Tournament

When the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced on Sunday, the CBS crew of Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis analyzed the 68 teams and picked an upset or two. Davis, as usual, was the most outspoken, calling out two teams of interest to Florida viewers.

Looking toward Thursday’s games in Orlando, Davis emphatically predicted that 14-seed Florida Gulf Coast will knock Florida State out of the West region. In one of the earlier games to be played at the Amway Center, he also feels that 13th-seeded East Tennessee State will crush the hopes of the Florida Gators in the East region.

Davis is not alone. CBS’s bracket wiz Jerry Palm and colleagues Matt Norlander and Dennis Dodd believe the Buccaneers will send the Gators back to Gainesville for good on Thursday afternoon.

In addition to Davis and Dodd, Florida Gulf Coast has fans among CBS experts Chip Patterson, Kyle Boone and Howard Megdahl. The Eagles made their mark with a captivating run to the Sweet 16 in 2013 as a 15 seed.

It is not that such an upset is impossible. Florida Gulf Coast can take comfort in the fact that a 14 seed has defeated a three seed five times over the last four years.

Gator fans can worry about the ability of the 13 seed to wreak havoc. From 2008 through 2013, a four seed lost to a 13 seed at least once each year. Last year, Hawaii knocked out California.

Florida’s other tournament team, Miami, earned much more respect. Of all the CBS experts, only Boone picked the ninth-seeded Michigan State Spartans over the eighth-seeded Hurricanes in the Midwest on Friday in Tulsa.

Despite having a higher seed, perhaps picking Miami is a daring choice. Playing Michigan State in March is always a dicey proposition. Further, Megdahl predicts Miami will dump top-seeded Kansas in the second round on Sunday.

The Gators are 10-point favorites over East Tennessee State, while the Seminoles are a 12-point choice over Florida Gulf Coast. Miami is a two-point pick over Michigan State.

The Florida vs. ETSU game is the second game of the day in Orlando starting at 3:10 p.m. while Florida State vs. FGCU is the final game of the day slated for 9:20.

 

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ESPN’s football bracket has Alabama beating FSU for championship

Consider it a wee bit of fun here in March.

The folks at ESPN, not content to just fill out their basketball brackets, decided to also fill out a 64-team college football bracket for the fall.

Of course, the college football playoffs are only four teams deep, so there is quite a bit of whimsy in the brackets. But they’re interesting to discuss.

For instance, ESPN had Nick Saban’s Alabama team beating Jimbo Fisher’s FSU squad, 35-31, for the national title. It would be a rematch of the season’s opening game when the schools meet in Atlanta. The two got to the title game when FSU beat USC and Alabama beat Michigan.

The University of Miami was strong in the Midwest Regional, beating BYU and Duke. The Hurricanes lost to Ohio State in the regional semifinals.

FSU beat Minnesota, Northwestern, Georgia and Washington State.

In the South Regional, Florida beat Utah and TCU before falling to Alabama in the regional semifinals.

In the West, South Florida beat Louisville before falling to Michigan in the second round.

Quick observation: There are too many teams and too many rounds. But for the sake of conversation, ESPN could do a lot worse.

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Tampa Bay Rowdies finalize 2017 Opening Day roster

The Tampa Bay Rowdies round out their roster by signing three more players ahead of next weekend’s season opener, pending league and federation approval.

Forward Martin Paterson, goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald and defender Kyle Porter have all earned contracts after lengthy trials with the Rowdies. The trio arrived in February to train with Tampa Bay and play in preseason matches.

Paterson, 29, has appeared in four matches as a trialist and scored the Rowdies’ game-winning goal against the University of Tampa March 4. Paterson is a Northern Ireland international that brings Premier League experience to the Rowdies, having played for clubs including Stoke City and Burnley, among others.

Fitzgerald, also 29, arrives in Tampa Bay after spending the previous six seasons with the Carolina RailHawks, now known as North Carolina FC. He appeared in four matches as a trialist, including keeping a clean sheet against the University of Tampa Spartans March 4. In his 229 minutes of preseason action, Fitzgerald just conceded just two goals from open play, one each against the Philadelphia Union and Jacksonville Armada.

Porter, 27, appeared in four matches as a right back for the Rowdies this preseason. His playing career includes stints with FC Edmonton, the Atlanta Silverbacks and Ottawa Fury FC after turning pro with Energie Cottbus in the German 4th division as an 18-year old. Born in Toronto, Porter has earned seven caps with the Canadian National Team.

“These three players have been training with us for a several weeks now,” Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “They’ve fit in quickly with our group and played well in our preseason matches. With Martin, Akira and Kyle all signing, we’re happy with our roster as we head into next weekend’s USL season opener.”

The Rowdies head to Miami this weekend to take on Miami FC in their final preseason tuneup before opening the USL season at Al Lang Stadium Saturday, March 25, against Orlando City B.

For tickets, call (727) 222-2000 or click here.

Tampa Bay Rowdies 2017 roster

Goalkeepers (3): Nico Campbell, Akira Fitzgerald, Matt Pickens

Defenders (7): Luke Boden, Neill Collins, Darnell King, Damion Lowe, Tamika Mkandawire, Kyle Porter, Zac Portillos

Midfielders (9): Justin Chavez, Joe Cole, Leo Fernandes, Darwin Jones, Alex Morrell, Michael Nanchoff, Keith Savage, Marcel Schäfer, Martin Vingaard

Forwards (3): Deshorn Brown, Georgi Hristov, Martin Paterson

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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Victor Hedman scores in overtime as Lightning wins another

Just like that, they’re back in it.

The torrid Tampa Bay Lightning won again Monday night, beating the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in overtime to tie – momentarily, at least – the New York Islanders for the last wild-card slot with 77 points.

Victor Hedman scored the winning goal for the Bolts, taking a perfect pass from Ondrej Palat and scoring with 55 seconds left in the overtime. Brayden Point had scored the first goal for Tampa Bay.

Andrei Vasilevski continued his solid play in net, stopping 32 of 33 shots. Vasilveskiy is 5-0-1 in his last six games.

The Bolts have now picked up at least a point in 15 of its last 17 games.

“To be perfectly honest, we haven’t been looking ahead, it’s just, ‘Who are we playing tonight?’” coach Jon Cooper said. “Now we can sit here and say clearly the Toronto game’s a big game for us. Last night was the Rangers, tonight it was Ottawa. Those boys, man are they battling hard. It’s been a lot of fun to be behind the bench with these guys. It was a lot of fun. That was a heck of a hockey game by the way. I don’t know if you guys saw the same thing, but oh man was it fast.”

The Bolts come home Thursday night for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“The last time we played them – we haven’t played them in a while — I think we took the penalty in overtime and they scored,” Cooper said. “Does it add a little bit because it’s the Leafs and the position we’re in? It should be a fun time Thursday night. But there’s still a lot of hockey left to play. Just because it’s the Leafs and we’re battling them, we’ve just got to keep getting points, regardless who it’s against. These two are going to be just as big as the two against Toronto and the two we’ve got to play Washington on Saturday. We’ve just got to keep playing the way we are.”

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Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio to undergo surgery on his shoulder

Did Luke Del Rio just give his competition the edge they need to take his job?

Del Rio, a quarterback for the Florida Gators, announced Tuesday that he will undergo surgery on his throwing shoulder. Del Rio had already been announced as out for spring practice.

That leaves the Gators’ job, at least temporarily, in the hands of Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. Freshman Jake Allen is expected to join the race in the summer.

Del Rio was 5-1 for the Gators last fall.

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