By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 20) – If you aren’t altogether sure of the immense gulf that exists between the Maple Leafs and any of the Stanley Cup contenders, watch Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. After two minutes, you’ll have an answer.
You may, of course, consider that one of the great “well d’uh!” statements of recent time. Obviously, Chicago and St. Louis were light years ahead of the Leafs well before the playoffs began. Still, there is nothing like first-hand evidence. With its new post-season format, the National Hockey League is already providing us the de facto Stanley Cup final. Almost never will we bear witness to the two best teams in a major professional league squaring off in the opening round. With an apology perhaps to the Boston Bruins, it is happening right now in the Interstate-55 showdown – Chicago and St. Louis merely 295 miles and four driving hours apart. Convert that to the Maple Leafs’ universe and you come up with the distance between Earth and Saturn.
ST. LOUIS BLUES WIN AGAIN IN OVERTIME vs. CHICAGO. CBC IMAGE
After two scintillating overtime matches, the Blues and Blackhawks have proven to hockey fans in Toronto a number of inarguable points:
? As I’ve pounded on through the years, no Stanley Cup contending team can be devoid of a Norris Trophy candidate. A lack thereof is among the reasons Pittsburgh has mostly underachieved in the Sidney Crosby era. Kris Letang is a fine player, but never in the Norris conversation. Watching Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and even the unheralded Niklas Hjalmarsson, it is beyond evident that Leafs also have nothing close to an answer. If Morgan Rielly and/or Jake Gardiner develop such acumen, they will never accrue the nastiness required of a legitimate No. 1 defenseman. In today’s tightly policed NHL, Keith is somehow able to control play and wield his stick like a surgeon’s blade. And, we all know about crossing the path of Zdeno Chara. At the moment, rival shooters have nothing to be concerned about when they enter the Toronto zone.
? There is an enormous difference between “Leaf” toughness and playoff team toughness. So, the Leafs can fight when so inclined – which isn’t often anymore. Big deal. From-the-heart toughness is a team like Chicago blocking half-a-dozen slap shots in less than 90 seconds while skating with a two-man disadvantage. It’s a club like St. Louis routinely and spontaneously clogging the area in front of the opposition goal – regardless of which players are on the ice. Leafs have James van Riemsdyk to carry that entire load. Team toughness doesn’t include taking a stupid revenge penalty when one of your better players absorbs a clean and/or questionable hit. It involves another of your best players following that opponent to the bench and verbally recommending that he cease and desist. With all his bending of the rule-book, Keith looks after that chore perfectly well for the ‘Hawks.
? A true Stanley Cup threat offers virtually no discrepancy between shifts. It does not rely on a particular forward line to carry it over the span of a month, as the Bozak-Kessel-van Riemdsyk troika did the Leafs during their pre-Olympic hot streak… before inevitably running out of fuel. On a contending team, there is a smooth and imperceptible transition among forward units during the course of a game; a level of energy that doesn’t waver. All too often during a Leafs telecast will my pal Greg Millen point out when a Toronto threesome has a “good shift.” Such an occasion is rather apparent with the Blue and White. Almost never will you be treated to such commentary in a playoff match between Stanley Cup-caliber teams. The imbalance does not exist.
? Contending teams want the puck. There is an intrinsic desire among virtually all players to maintain possession and create difficulty around the opposition goal. These teams do not customarily “shoot the puck in” from the neutral zone – the football equivalent of throwing a deep interception. Leafs do this with alarming regularity and compound the mistake by refusing to fore-check. Good teams make plays and frequently score goals off the rush. Turnovers are almost always forced rather than committed. The player on a bad team is more content to trail a rival puck carrier and to happily relinquish possession for the benefit of a line change. Again, watch two minutes of the Chicago-St. Louis series and you’ll notice the glaring Maple Leaf contrast.
If there’s a silver lining for the Blue and White, it’s that new president Brendan Shanahan is keenly aware of playoff-caliber hockey. Sadly for the Leafs, Shanahan can neither come back to play nor clone himself. And, acquiring such personnel is a helluva lot more difficult than recognizing its value or watching it on TV. So, Brendan has a sh*t-load on his plate this summer. Perhaps he could start by making a call on the Maple Leafs coach for next season. If he and Dave Nonis want Randy Carlyle to stick around, they sure aren’t making it obvious. Maybe they’re still “evaluating” the situation. Of course, I could easily do that for them with 90 second’s worth of Chicago-St. Louis footage.
Blues are leading the best-of-seven series 2-0 but the defending champions will be heard from. I predicted a St. Louis triumph in seven games and there is no reason to change my mind. Unfortunately, these teams aren’t playing a best-of-19. I could watch them battle endlessly.
NO FOOLS AT THE CORP: The hockey gurus at CBC – led by Joel Darling – may be losing editorial control to the Rogers behemoth next season but they still have all their marbles. What better way to attract disgruntled Maple Leaf fans to playoff telecasts than bringing aboard the club’s loosest cannon. I love Nazem Kadri for his hockey skill and his willingness to answer a question forthrightly. He may not be ready for Don Cherry’s pulpit but he did earn a kiss from the coach last season and I enjoyed watching him on the intermission panel Saturday. Speaking of which, I’m hoping the Hockey Night In Canada crew remains intact. A television neophyte such as Kadri moved in so seamlessly in large part because of the professionals with whom he was surrounded. Ron MacLean, P.J. Stock, Glenn Healy, Kevin Weekes and Elliotte Friedman can stay in my living-room forever…
RAPTORS ALSO IMPRESSIVE: Though losing their first playoff game in nearly six years on Saturday afternoon, the Toronto Raptors provided a lesson to their hockey brethren. Since the trade of Rudy Gay to Sacramento – a move widely considered as waving the white flag on the season – Raptors have found terrific chemistry under coach Dwane Casey and a no-quit perspective that belies their lack of experience. Brooklyn Nets pulled away late in Saturday’s opener at Air Canada Centre but not without a mighty struggle. Just as gnarly was my old friend, Jack Armstrong, on the TSN telecast. As the Nets built their decisive, fourth-quarter advantage, Armstrong’s Niagara University coaching blood began to boil over a dearth of fouls on the visitors. Such bellyaching is atypical of Armstrong, though it has long been a theory that Canada’s lone NBA team rarely “gets a call” late in the game. I don’t buy it and neither, I suspect, does ol’ Jack. It’s a cliche but the great teams tend to make their own breaks – regardless of locale.
STANLEY CUP HISTORY
IT HAPPENED SUDDENLY AT 10:45 P.M. EST SATURDAY – MATT CALVERT LIFTING A SECOND REBOUND OVER MARC-ANDRE FLEURY IN DOUBLE-OVERTIME TO GIVE COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS THEIR FIRST-EVER PLAYOFF VICTORY. JACKETS AND PITTSBURGH ARE TIED 1-1 HEADING TO COLUMBUS FOR GAME 3. CBC IMAGES
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