One Year Later, It’s the Raptors

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 28) – One thing we can say about teams that call Air Canada Centre home: When they make the playoffs, they tend to overachieve. Of course, it is all relative. Neither the Maple Leafs last year nor the Raptors this spring were expected to advance beyond the opening round. We all remember how agonizingly close the Leafs came to upsetting Boston in Game 7 (sorry for the reminder) and now wonder if a second round of basketball playoffs is in the cards for the first time since 2001.

Yes, the World Trade Center towers were still standing in New York when the Raptors defeated the Knicks in a best-of-five series 13 years ago. The club then came to within a rim-and-out shot by Vince Carter at Philadelphia of advancing to the Eastern Conference final. Since then, there have been only four playoff appearances: First-round losses to Detroit (2002), New Jersey (2007) and Orlando (2008)… then the current series with Brooklyn – a barn-burner tied at two after four games.

Which is terrific for basketball here in Toronto and particularly good for the Raptors – at this moment, the antithesis of the hockey Leafs. While the latter withered and could not recover late in the season, the former has beaten back injury and inexperience to theoretically re-capture home court advantage against the Nets. Of course, there really is no such thing in a best-of-seven series between evenly matched clubs; neither the Raptors nor the Nets have held serve at home in the first four games, splitting at the ACC and Barclays Center. It is very much the same every year in the Stanley Cup playoffs – home ice guaranteeing only a lucrative gate. But, the Raptors have earned at least two more games in this series and will be a prohibitive favorite going back into Brooklyn if they capture the pivotal fifth match on Wednesday night.

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DeMAR DeROZAN OF THE RAPTORS IS APPROACHED BY KEVIN GARNETT OF BROOKLYN (ABOVE) DURING GAME 1 OF NBA SERIES IN TORONTO. RAPTORS CELEBRATE DYING SECONDS OF SUNDAY NIGHT’S GAME 4 TRIUMPH AT BARCLAYS CENTER (BOTTOM-LEFT) WHILE FANS REJOICE IN RAPTORS SQUARE OUTSIDE THE ACC. TSN IMAGES 

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With the Leafs dreadfully disappointing their fans once again, the Raptors have stepped up to fill the void. Perhaps not entirely, as Toronto remains a hockey-first city. But, clearly in a way that has captured the imagination of sports fanatics here. A year ago, they packed Maple Leaf square on the west plaza of Air Canada Centre to watch the Toronto-Boston Stanley Cup series. Now, they are jammed together in Raptors Square – turning it into a sea of red and black; showing why the NBA has survived in this city while the Vancouver Grizzlies were moved to re-locate in Memphis. These are halcyon moments for basketball in Toronto and it’s anyone’s guess how big a monster this will become if Raptors march into Round 2 of the playoffs.

On a personal note, I am especially happy for friends of mine whose solid work has never been fully appreciated: Those that call Raptors games on TV and radio. You can hear and feel the enthusiasm of Matt Devlin as he describes the action on TSN; of his broadcast partner, the always loquacious Jack Armstrong, and of analysts Rod Black and Leo Rautins. Then there are my former colleagues at Sportsnet-590 – Paul Jones and Eric Smith – who have suffered through enough losing in half-a-decade to last a career. These are the people that bring the NBA to life in this city and it’s wonderful to see them enjoying center-stage.

BLACKHAWKS COULD BE UNBEATABLE… AGAIN: Heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs, I picked St. Louis Blues to represent the Western Conference – against Boston – for the league championship. Having watched St. Louis all season, I didn’t think it had a weakness. But, obviously it does: Hanging onto a 2-0 series lead in the opening round.

For the second consecutive spring, the Blues won the first two games of the Conference quarterfinal at home… and didn’t win again. Last year, it was the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings rebounding to win four straight; this year, the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks did the same. Clearly, the Blues should try and arrange for a weaker first-round opponent next spring. When reflecting on how Chicago eliminated St. Louis in six games, it’s evident the series wasn’t that close. Had Blues not escaped the opening matches at Scottrade Center with tying goals in the last minute of regulation, this thing could have gone four straight.

So, the question now is: Which team can beat Chicago four out of seven games? Anaheim advanced to the second round with a remarkable late comeback and overtime win at Dallas Sunday night. San Jose, though having dropped two in a row, can eliminate Los Angeles tonight at Staples Center (if the shaky Sharks lose again, who will bet against L.A. becoming just the fourth team in Stanley Cup history to rebound from a 3-0 series deficit?). And, Colorado has a leg (or, at least, a big toe) up on stubborn Minnesota in the other Western battle, leading 3-2 with an elimination game tonight in St. Paul. Is it possible for any of these clubs to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks?     

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MIGHT JONATHAN TOEWS RAISE THE STANLEY CUP FOR A THIRD TIME THIS SPRING?

I’m thinking mayyybee the young, energetic Avalanche, providing they get past the Wild; Nathan MacKinnon dazzles and Semyon Varlamov is out of his mind in goal. Otherwise, I believe we’re looking at one of two scenarios: Either the first repeat Stanley Cup final (Chicago vs. Boston) among pre-expansion teams since 1978 (Montreal/Boston) or the first Cup final meeting between the Blackhawks and Canadiens since 1973.

If Chicago wins the Cup for a third time in five seasons, the word “dynasty” will be invoked – a term that was supposed to have flown the coop with the advent of a salary cap. Locking up Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp at the expense of other useful parts (Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd among them) was a prescient call by general manager Stan Bowman – the NHL’s top executive right now. Hawks will be difficult to beat… again. 

WHERE FOR ART THOU, BRENDAN? Two weeks after being officially anointed president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brendan Shanahan still hasn’t made public the fate of coach Randy Carlyle. In fact, ol’ Sherrif Shanny has yet to utter a syllable about the team. Surely, he and David Nonis haven’t needed a fortnight to “evaluate” the coaching situation, any more than a beleaguered follower of the hockey club. Which leads to a trio of conclusions: a) Maple Leafs are waiting to see which coaches become available this summer; b) Shanahan has no interest in Barry Trotz, who Nashville fired after a long and distinguished term with the expansion club of 1998-99, or c) Shanahan has been requested not to make any noise that would infringe upon the Raptors. I’ve written here that Trotz would be a very good hire for the Maple Leafs, given his ability to craft and successfully implement a defensive game-plan. But, it seems that Shanahan and Nonis either disagree or are waiting for a lull in the basketball playoffs to announce a decision on Carlyle.

TWO WEEKS AFTER ASSUMING PRESIDENCY OF THE MAPLE LEAFS, BRENDAN SHANAHAN HASN’T TOLD US WHO DAVID CLARKSON’S COACH WILL BE NEXT SEASON.

MEDIA BANTER: Hockey Night In Canada made a terrific move last year, hiring former TSN reporter David Amber. Among those that interview at ice level, Amber is the best at making his subjects appear attentive and relaxed. He does his homework and poses relevant questions in a light, jocular way. It’s easy to tell that players have instant respect for him… Providing color commentary as part of a hockey broadcast team is the most challenging role in the industry. It has been further complicated in recent years by having the analyst at ice level, between the benches. From that perspective, the game is faster than television can possibly convey; the analyst must quickly recognize a key moment and then express himself with provocative clarity. The best color commentators are knowledgeable and opinionated, which attracts the lunatic fringe of social media (perhaps a redundancy there). Glenn Healy of Hockey Night In Canada and Pierre McGuire of NBC are two such polarizing figures… and, accordingly, two of the best. In fact, hockey fans on both sides of the border are served exceptionally well in this capacity. Former Leaf Ed Olczyk does a superb job alongside Doc Emrick on NBC as does Craig Simpson with Jim Hughson on Hockey Night’s No. 1 team. In the playoffs, I have particularly enjoyed the tandem of Dean Brown and Greg Millen, which worked the Chicago-St. Louis series. Brown, the long-time Ottawa Senators TV voice, has a unique goal call – a sudden burst of noise and energy that will snap to attention any viewer whose mind is wandering. The energetic Millen is many times better an analyst when not calling local Maple Leaf games and having to continually buffer a losing team. Meanwhile, ex-NHL defenseman Garry Galley has mastered the not-so-simple art of working alongside the venerable Bob Cole, who isn’t nearly as conversant as younger play callers but is still the “voice of God” when it comes to hockey in our land.             

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DAVID AMBER OF HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA IS SUCH A FINE INTERVIEWER THAT EVEN BLACKHAWKS PHENOM JONATHAN TOEWS TIPPED HIS CAP TO HIM MOMENTS AFTER CHICAGO ELIMINATED ST. LOUIS ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON. CBC IMAGES

DEAN BROWN: DON’T BE NAPPING WHEN HE CALLS A GOAL.

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