“Loserville” Finds Another Level

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 27) — The Toronto Raptors yielded nearly 70 points in the first half of an elimination game Sunday night at Washington en route to a lurid beat–down by the Wizards. In the 2014–15 National Basketball Association regular season, only 11 of 30 teams averaged 101.5 points or more per game — Golden State leading the way with 110. The Wizards had 102 points at the end of the third quarter on Sunday.

You can therefore imagine how humbling it must be for local fans to concede that the Raptors are this city’s best professional sports team — and by quite a margin. The Blue Jays, at 9–10 after 19 games, are offering every hint they will again reside in the mushy middle of Major League Baseball. The football Argonauts have been a snowballing disaster since their 2012 Grey Cup win. Toronto F.C. should translate to “Forever Crappy” given its interminable struggle in Major League Soccer. And, the frightful Maple Leafs barely ranked as “professional” while winning 11 of their last 51 games in the National Hockey League.

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THE TORONTO RAPTORS HAD NO ANSWER FOR THE WASHINGTON WIZARDS — PARTICULARLY CENTER MARCIN GORTAT (4), WHO CONTROLLED THE PAINT AT BOTH ENDS OF THE FLOOR. WASHINGTON ROUTED TORONTO, 125–94, AT THE VERIZON CENTER SUNDAY NIGHT TO COMPLETE A FOUR–GAME SWEEP IN THE OPENING ROUND OF THE NBA PLAYOFFS.

Yes, this remains — undeniably — “Loserville” among sports cities in North America. The Blue Jays entered the current season with the longest playoff drought (21 years) among all teams in the four major professional leagues (MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL). At 48 years (and counting), the Maple Leafs own the lengthiest Stanley Cup drought. The Raptors, conceived in 1995, have never won a best–of–seven playoff round. And “playoff” is a foreign word to Toronto F.C. through eight abysmal years.

The antithesis to our city is Boston, with nine professional championships since 2001 — four Super Bowls by the New England Patriots (2001–03–04–14); three World Series by the Red Sox (2004, 2007, 2013) and one victory by the Celtics (2008) and Bruins (2011).

So, folks, bring your money to Toronto.

Just leave your pennants at home.

WEEKEND THOUGHTS: If goaltending is truly the decisive factor in the Stanley Cup playoffs, how can it be possible for Montreal and Minnesota to not meet in the Cup final this spring? I picked the New York Rangers and Anaheim to be the last teams standing and they were the first teams to advance beyond the opening round. The notion, however, of Carey Price or Devan Dubnyk losing four of seven games is rather nonsensical at the moment. It will ultimately happen to one of them, but can it happen before the title round? If Dubnyk continues to perform miraculously, Minnesota will knock off Chicago in the Western Conference semifinals. And, the Canadiens may have won the Stanley Cup last spring had Price not been injured in Game 1 of the Eastern final against the Rangers. Dubnyk is the story of the year in the NHL — tossed aside by one of the league’s most inept teams (Arizona) before landing in St. Paul for a third–round draft pick on Jan. 15. He established a Minnesota team record by starting 38 consecutive games, compiling a 27–9–2 record; a 1.78 goals–against average and .936 save percentage. The Wild stood at 18–19–5 when Dubnyk came aboard. Coach Mike Yeo was clinging to his job by a thread. No one could have envisioned the club registering 100 points and soaring into the Western playoffs as the No. 1 Wild Card. Price was simply the best performer in the NHL this season at any position and will undoubtedly become the first goaltender since Jose Theodore (also of Montreal) in 2002 to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. The Canadiens and Wild in the Stanley Cup final? Not sure I’d put a lot of money against it right now…

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I TOOK THIS PHOTO OF FELLOW SASKATCHEWAN NATIVES DEVAN DUBNYK AND LUKE SCHENN DURING THE WARM-UP OF A MAPLE LEAFS GAME AT EDMONTON IN FEBRUARY 2012. DUBNYK NOW STARS IN GOAL FOR MINNESOTA; SCHENN WAS TRADED TO THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS FOR JAMES van RIEMSDYK ON JUNE 23 OF THAT YEAR.

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DUBNYK SHAKES HANDS WITH ALEX STEEN AND VLADIMIR TARASENKO OF ST. LOUIS AFTER CLOSING OUT THE BLUES IN GAME 6 OF THE WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS SUNDAY AFTERNOON AT THE XCEL ENERGY CENTER IN ST. PAUL. NBC TV IMAGES

Throughout the Raptors playoff evisceration, Jack Armstrong of TSN cemented his place — in my view — as the best TV sports analyst in the country. And given the number of proficient pundits we have north of the border, I don’t consider that faint praise. Armstrong is a natural on TV. He speaks neither up nor down to his audience and he nails the tricky amalgam of emotion, intellect and balance. Though he’ll boost the Raptors when they’re playing well, Jack pulls no punches when they stink — as the club did exponentially during the series against Washington. It became clear just minutes into Game 4 Sunday night that the visitors would go down with a whimper. Armstrong (alongside broadcast partner Matt Devlin) spent virtually the entire telecast censuring the Raptors for their lack of gumption and leadership. Late in the game, he quoted French historian Voltaire: “Good is the enemy of great,” Armstrong said, pointing to the Raptors valiant display against Brooklyn in last year’s NBA opening round — a seven–game skirmish Toronto lost by missing a shot in the dying seconds. “We all figured that series was something for the club to build on. Obviously, it wasn’t.”… Has any playoff opponent fired as many daggers into a Toronto team as veteran Paul Pierce of the Wizards? They could have blindfolded Pierce and he would’ve continued to nail his timely rainbows from beyond the arc. As Armstrong repeatedly pointed out, he’s the caliber of playoff warrior the Raptors sorely lack… Pierce annoyed some people north of the border when he claimed he wanted to sweep the Raptors to avoid going through customs for a second time here in Toronto. Heck, can you blame the poor bastard? There are few more unpleasant travel burdens on Earth than passing inspection at Pearson Airport… As someone who spent 23 years in radio trying to not sugar–coat, I enjoy watching and listening to those that do the same. Armstrong; Sportsnet Blue Jays analyst Gregg Zaun and Sportsnet/Hockey Night In Canada rink–rat Glenn Healy top my list. Given the cross–pollination of media and sports ownership today, speaking one’s mind over the airwaves is a challenge. Many announcers choose the path of least resistance and become shills for the home team. The truly great ones — such as Armstrong — understand that the most poignant remark can be made inoffensively… In my opinion, the task of TV color–commentator is the most demanding in the industry. It requires instant and accurate recognition of patterns and key moments; made all the more difficult in hockey by separation from the play–calling partner (most analysts are between the benches at ice level). Healy, Pierre McGuire and Ray Ferraro have long mastered the art. Hugely underrated in our land is TSN lead–football analyst Glen Suitor — the Troy Aikman of Canada. No one understands the flow and intricacy of the Canadian game as well as Suitor, nor can anyone point it out as efficiently in layman language…

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JACK ARMSTRONG (LEFT, ALONGSIDE RAPTORS BROADCAST PARTNER MATT DEVLIN) BRINGS IT EVERY NIGHT AND IS THE BEST TV SPORTS ANALYST IN CANADA. TSN IMAGE

An unreliable bullpen and the lack of an established closer seems like it will off–set the good work by Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who strengthened his defense and batting order in the cold months by signing free agent catcher Russell Martin and trading with Oakland for third–baseman Josh Donaldson. The club appears to have particularly messed with pitcher Brett Cecil, who hasn’t a clue which role he’ll play from one week to the next (he’s done everything but start in the first 19 games). The leaky bullpen puts far too much onus on the Blue Jays rotation — weakened by the season–long injury to youngster Marcus Stroman. Fellow phenom Aaron Sanchez has stumbled out of the gate while trying to mix speeds, as must all good starting pitchers. Sanchez has remarkable velocity and movement; he would likely solve the club’s closer dilemma if switched to that role. Edwin Encarnacion is in an early–season funk at the plate (batting .183); Jose Bautista is injured again and veteran R.A. Dickey looks lost on the mound, as per April in virtually every season… Isn’t it odd that Tropicana Field is the so–called “house of horror” for the Blue Jays, who were easily swept this weekend by the Tampa Bay Rays? After all, the domed stadium in St. Petersburg most resembles the environment of Rogers Centre here in Toronto, where the Blue Jays play 82 times per year. Both facilities have a roof; a controlled environment (during inclement weather), and are the lone remaining ballparks in the American League with artificial grass. You might think Fenway Park — the polar opposite of the cookie–cutter stadium — would present more of an issue, yet the Blue Jays have fared exceptionally well at Boston in recent years…

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TAMPA BAY RAYS DANCED ALL OVER THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS IN A WEEKEND SWEEP AT TROPICANA FIELD. PHELAN M. EBENHACK/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The New York Islanders and Washington Capitals face off in Game 7 of their opening–round series tonight at the Verizon Center (Sportsnet, 7:30). Which is fortunate, given that I just recently recovered from the last–such episode between the teams. I was 28 years old on Apr. 18, 1987 and will never forget watching Game 7 at the old Capital Center from my apartment livingroom on Marlee Ave. here in Toronto. I feared I would turn 29 before the match ended, which it finally did at 1:58 a.m. when Pat LaFontaine of the Islanders spun around and beat Bob Mason with a low slapshot at 8:47 of the fourth overtime period. At the time, it was the longest NHL game in the history of television and the first playoff match in more than 36 years to go beyond a third extra period. The final shots on goal were 75–57 for Washington. Kelly Hrudey (now of Hockey Night In Canada fame) made 73 saves in the Islanders goal. The first assist on LaFontaine’s overtime winner was credited to defenseman Gord Dineen — currently head coach of the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies. Andy van Hellemond refereed the game; Ron Finn and the late John D’Amico worked the lines. The actual heroes of the night were Bob Cole and Mike Emrick, who called the marathon for CBC and ESPN respectively. It is remembered as the “Easter Epic” — for it ended nearly two hours into Easter Sunday of 1987… The record for longest NHL game on TV lasted just more than 13 years. It was broken on May 4–5, 2000 during Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal between the Flyers and Penguins at the old Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. Keith Primeau of Philadelphia sent a wrist–shot past the left shoulder of Ron Tugnutt at 12:01 of the fifth overtime period. The match ended at 2:35 a.m. and is still the third–lengthiest game in the history of the NHL (the top two marathons were played in 1936 and 1933, respectively)… Not sure about you, but I’m rooting for the Islanders tonight. The specter of an all–New York Eastern semifinal between the Isles and Rangers is overwhelming. At playoff time, the Nassau Coliseum turns into the most barbaric environment in hockey. You would think they let people out of prison to attend the games in Uniondale. I had first–hand experience with the unruly mob while covering the classic seven–game conflict between the Maple Leafs and Islanders in 2002 for The FAN–590. Peterborough, Ont. native Steve Webb was the Islanders cult–hero in that series while Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker, Shayne Corson and the late Wade Belak mixed it up for the scrappy Leafs. The home team won all seven games — Toronto prevailing, 4–2, at the Air Canada Centre in the decisive match on Apr. 30… For a long time this past winter, I thought Raptors’ Kyle Lowry was the best of all Toronto professional athletes. For whatever reason, Lowry tailed off down the stretch and had absolutely nothing against Washington in the playoff rout. I’m not sure why he ran out of gas but I wouldn’t give up on the talented point–guard. He’s just 29 and reaching the prime of his career. He’ll be back.

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