Plenty of talking points as the NHL and NBA start their marathons in search of champions
By Bruce Dowbiggin
TORONTO – April is best known for playoffs and spring. Seeing as how spring has failed to make an appearance so far, we shall content ourselves with the playoffs, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association variety.
1) Under Brendan Shanahan, the Toronto Maple Leafs have done most everything right. Tank. Draft well. Hire the best managers and coaches. Emphasize skill. Fill the Air Canada Centre.
There’s something that normally follows all this. Winning. But as Shanny’s young Buds have discovered, winning is the hardest part. The Leafs are getting a weapons-grade thrashing from the grizzled Boston Bruins on the art of turning tanking into triumph. Anything that could wrong has gone wrong – including the three-game suspension to Nazem Kadri. It all proves that Wishin’ and Hopin’ was a great Dusty Springfield song but it will take more than that to get Toronto its first Stanley Cup since 1967.
2) This is bad news for Rogers Communications, which looks upon the Leafs the way Wile E. Coyote looks upon the Road Runner: a tantalizing prize just out of sight. A Stanley Cup to Toronto would produce dividends galore for stockholders and save the Brobdingnagian deal it signed with the NHL for Canadian national TV rights.
They’ve patiently waited for the Leafs, but you have to imagine this spring’s scuttling by Boston must be testing the executives across town. Thank goodness Rogers has a fallback position in the …
3) Winnipeg Jets. All the techniques being used in Toronto to create a winner have been followed in Winnipeg. The Jets have stunk for almost as long as they’ve been back in Winnipeg. Knowing they couldn’t attract premium free agents to the Peg the way Toronto can lure them to Hogtown, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff drafted assiduously and traded strategically to assemble a winner.
Even as recently as last season (when they finished 25th overall) the Jets’ formula seemed be souring. But this year has brought the ripe fruit to the tree. Despite a Game 3 loss, their manhandling of the Minnesota Wild in the first two games of their opening-round series shows that the Jets are – exclusive of injuries – a legitimate threat to win the Western Conference and make a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Which would be …
4) A godsend for Rogers, which needs a Canadian storyline. A loss in the first round would be … hey, how about those Blue Jays?
5) Then there are the Las Vegas Golden Knights. They’ve been in existence since last summer. They won the Pacific Division. They’re up 3-0 on Los Angeles. How does this small sample size speak to developing a winner in today’s NHL? Discuss amongst yourselves.
6) The sentiment remains that anyone in the West wishing to go to the finals will have to make a trip through Nashville. The Predators, who held serve in the two games in Nashville, are blooded in the playoffs, have a fanatical following and, if they can get Vince Gill off the road with the Eagles, the best in-arena entertainment in the league.
7) Winning Game 1 of a series means a lot. Unless it doesn’t. You still have to win 15 more games to win the Cup. As the two-time defending champs from Pittsburgh discovered. After pummelling Philadelphia in Game 1 of their Pennsylvania grudge match, the Penguins found themselves getting ripped 5-1 by the Flyers in Game 2. (The Pens then put up a 5-1 win Philly in Game 3.)
One thing is sure: the most consistent marker for any Cup winner is health. Playing too many games early is never a good thing. No one has played more hockey the past three seasons than the Pens. They don’t need to get into seven-game slugfests.
8) The Washington Capitals are the Montreal Expos of the NHL. Talented, doing things the right way, will send players to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But they lost both games at home against Columbus and appear ready for the boneyard again. Their repeated playoff failures are almost tragic. They deserve a Cup. But they look fated to fail again in 2018. Which would be sad. Very sad. That’s on account of …
9) The Tampa Bay Lightning. Steve Yzerman has assembled a terrific (healthy) squad after last year’s playoff miss. They’ve effortlessly handled the up-and-coming New Jersey Devils in the first two games of their series. And while the Devils are far from done, this looks like a Lightning year. A TB/Pittsburgh series would be ridiculous fun.
10) The NHL still allows 100-point teams to be eliminated in the first round and 90-point teams to get cozy matchups into the second round. This is because the head office still thinks it’s the 1980s and divisional rivalries are paramount. News to commissioner Gary Bettman: NBC and Rogers want the best teams regardless of division to make the final two rounds. It’s 2018. Make the adjustment.
11) Finally, everything went right for the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 against Washington. When Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan started slowly, C.J. Miles (12 points) and Serge Ibaka (23 points) rained down three-pointers. In the second half, DeRozan and Lowry re-emerged to overwhelm the Wizards and their star John Wall. Delon Wright popped in 18 to close the deal.
It was the Raptors’ formula incarnate. Depth, depth, and more depth. It worked well all season for the Eastern Conference winners. Now if coach Dwane Casey can use seven players to cover LeBron James when they meet the Cleveland Cavaliers, it might get Toronto to the NBA Finals.
Columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio, and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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