North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Archive for May 2013

Not the Finals we expected, but that’s cool

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At year’s start, I’m not sure anyone would’ve guessed San Antonio would be the team to come out of the Western Conference. Even at the start of March, I doubt many thought the Miami Heat would be tested so hard by Indiana. And as the Finals gear up, this is not the outcome anybody expected. And it’s probably the best outcome we could’ve hoped for.

All the way back in November, the smart money was on the LA Lakers to win the West. They’d taken an already talented team – Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, etc – and augmented it. Steve Nash was the point guard who’d mesh with Bryant, freeing him from bringing the ball up court and directing play. And Dwight Howard was the center that Andrew Bynum was always supposed to be. Concerns? No way! As Sports Illustrated said on their cover, “This is going to be fun!”

It was fun, just not in Los Angeles

But what happened wasn’t much fun. Nash, who struggled with injuries when surrounded by the best training staff in the NBA, was hurt and played in just 50 games. When he did play, he was nowhere near as effective: his scoring dropped to under 13 points per game while his assist numbers, long his bread and butter, fell through the floor. It’s almost as if Bryant is a playmaker himself and best functions when he can dictate the offence, usually through the triangle.

Howard, meanwhile, struggled in his role. He scored fewer points per game than he had since 2005-06. His rebounding numbers were almost as bad: the lowest since 2007. Even his PER – a stat all but tailored to big men like himself – plummeted down to 19.4, his lowest in years. And how, it looks like Howard’s ready to leave. Bill Simmons went on at length about this, especially about Howard’s decline. I’m inclined to agree: he was a tremendous bust this season, all things considered. The Lakers lucked into the postseason, scraping in as Utah fell apart in the late part of last season. They fired a coach, seem likely to let another go soon and were soundly swept by San Antonio in the first round. Do people still think the SI Jinx is a thing?

If you didn’t have the Lakers, you probably had Oklahoma City getting to the Finals. It wasn’t a bad risk: they had the duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, both of whom were both some of the best players in the NBA and still improving. And they did have a very good season winning 60 games, their division and holding the top seed in the conference. And then, in game two of their first round series, Russell Westbrook hurt his knee and was done for the playoffs. Without him, Oklahoma City roughed out a series win against Houston and fell in five games to Memphis. There goes another Smart Pick.

So it’s been San Antonio who slugged it out through the postseason. After sweeping the Lakers, they slipped past Golden State in a pretty fun series, especially the double OT game one thriller which I’ll probably rewatch next time it’s replayed on NBA TV. In the conference finals, they swept Memphis in a series I bet most people won’t really think about much, other then to call it ugly. It’s too bad: two games went to OT, one of them featuring an insane Memphis comeback, and game four was pretty close, too.

If Miami gets past Indiana, as I hope they do, it’ll set up one hell of a NBA Finals: the closest thing to a real dynasty the NBA has had in years against the a new style of dynasty; the best player of one generation (Duncan) playing the best player of another (LeBron James); the team everyone likes to hate because they’re “boring” playing the team everyone likes to hate because of the way they came together.

It’s the best Finals we could’ve hoped for: there’s real storylines here, not the kind TV producers would’ve kicked up for a OKC/Miami series. There’s the idea of generational conflicts, or at least the kind that happen in pro sports. There’s Gregg Popovich going for his fifth championship, which puts him in the same class as people like Pat Reilly, Red Auerbach and John Kundla. I haven’t been as excited for a series all through these playoffs. I hope you’re feeling the same way.

Written by M.

May 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm

One and Done: Six Canadian Bands That Only Released a Debut Record

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Editor’s Note: Originally published Feb. 6, 2012 at Flashfact.org. A postscript has been appended to the bottom.

It’s harder than you’d think to find bands that only released one album. Generally, if a band is any good they have a little staying power. Sometimes even if they’re not any good, too. Even one-hit-wonders seem to stick around for a little while: did you realize Len released five albums? That The Odds released four? Even Jale – a band that only seemed to be around for a matter of weeks – released two albums.

But it still happened. Each of the following bands here were, and in one case still are, very good. But somehow, they left just one album for their legacy, at least while they were still together. And when I say album, I’m talking a full length: something substantial, with more than a couple songs. EPs, compilations and remix albums don’t count. Neither do records released well after the band broke up: do those reflect the bands intent, or was it a way for a label to recoup costs? I’m not counting stuff released if the band went through substantial changes, either: if they added new members and changed their name, I’m considering that a different band.

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Two Game Sevens, Two Heartbreakers

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The cool thing about sports is how it makes you care about stuff you really have no control over and no real stakes riding on. The outcome doesn’t really mean anything to you or me or anyone without a stake in the team itself. And even then, their stakes aren’t really all that huge. Toronto wasn’t going to go into the red if they didn’t make the second round.

But still: I cared about the Colts and the Maple Leafs. And on Monday night, both teams lost heartbreakers in game seven of their respective series. The Colts were down most of the game, tied it up late and right as the period wound down, London forward Bo Horvat scored and put the Knights ahead, so late the faceoff was just a formality.

It was as close as a buzzer-beater as I’ve seen in hockey in a long, long time (since maybe that Canucks/Flames series in the late 80s). It was that old line from ABC Sports: the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of victory, all that. The ref waved it off, then it went upstairs and the goal was allowed as the London crowd collectively lost their shit. Within a few minutes, the Colts cleared the ice, the Knights were posting team photos to Instragram (what a brave new world we live in) and I focused on the Leaf game.

And here too was, I suppose, agony. Toronto went ahead early and kept scoring on Rask. Kessel had a goal, then so did Kadri. Soon it was 4-1, Toronto. Later in the third, Boston cut it to 4-2 and with just under two minutes left, they pulled Rask for an extra man.

A little postscript for this season: Toronto was bad in their own end all year long. How many games did they have where they got pounded by shots and only Reimer kept them in the game? Shit, even against teams like New Jersey, the Leafs could barely keep the puck out of their own end. When you read tomorrow about how great they were at hitting the other team, remember that you don’t hit players when you have the puck. As I noted before this series, Toronto had one of the worst Fenwick Close numbers heading into the postseason.

So it shouldn’t have been a giant surprise when Toronto coughed up the lead, when Boston controlled the puck late, when the Bruins could just fire off shots as it looked like all the Leafs hung around in front of the net and couldn’t clear it out of their own end. Reimer just looked overwhelmed and, God bless him, he was. He faced more shots than anyone else in the NHL so far. And he got peppered again on Monday night: the boxscore has him facing 35 shots.

What’s there to say about overtime? Toronto came out strong, got a couple of chances and the same thing happened: Boston started forechecking, kept the puck in their hands and fired off shot after shot. And this time Reimer was literally overwhelmed: he was falling over and all outstretched when Patrice Bergeron put one past him six minutes into the extra frame.

Sure, it sucks, but this series was a fun ride. That’s the cool thing about sports: they’re fun as shit. After all, the Leafs were the also-ran in Toronto for a long time. The Jays have a longer playoff drought, but they had the excuse of Yankees/Red Sox payrolls, too. The Raptors haven’t won much in the past nine years, but they made the postseason a couple of times and even won a division title. And the Argos? They just won a Grey Cup, maybe you remember that. It happened on their home turf.

The Leafs lost, but they got into the playoffs. If nothing else, that’s something to hang on to: this season’s been better than any since the 2005 lockout. Things are slowly getting better for the Worst Sports City in the World (TM). I’m just happy they got this far. And besides, I picked Boston to win in six.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Two Game Sevens In the City

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It’s an interesting day today, as the two hockey teams I enjoy watching both have game sevens tonight: the Barrie Colts have game seven of the OHL Finals in London while the Toronto Maple Leafs play game seven of their first round series in Boston. Both games are at the same time, so it’s going to take some creative remote-work to fit them both in, but it’ll be worth the effort.

It’s been a while since I felt so invested in a hockey game. Long enough that I don’t have anything in my archive here I can easily compare it to. I suppose there’s this 2006 post and another from 2007, but both were about the regular season. I’ve written here since 2005, which is just enough time to cover the Leafs postseason gap. So this is new and uncharted territory for this organ.

The first round’s been a mix of rad James Reimer goaltending and Tuukka Rask looking either impregnable  or soft. The series opened with four games with the winning team scored at least four goals, including an overtime game that I regrettably fell asleep watching (because I’m an old man). But in the last two games, it’s  tightened up considerably: games five and six were 2-1 affairs, each won by the Leafs.

They’ve been nerve-wrecking affairs, especially last night when Toronto didn’t score until the second and Phil Kessel put in the eventual game-winner on what looked like a giant fluke: a rebound that bounced to a rushing Kessel, who flipped it into an open net. As I might have said back in my sportswriting days, he took advantage of an opportunity. And truth be told, I didn’t think there was a great many of them; Boston’s defence has been pretty strong through six games and mostly kept Toronto’s scorers in check. For example, through six games, Kadri’s picked up just two assists and hasn’t scored on any of his 13 shots on net; this season, he scored on nearly 17 per cent, fourth-highest on the team.

At the same time, Reimer’s had a bunch of good games. His save percentage is tied with Rask at .932, despite having more goals allowed. This comes from how Reimer’s been peppered with shots through every game: the 237 shots he’s faced is most of any goalie so far. He’s had four games where he faced at least 40 shots and the 43-save performance in game five was one of the best Leaf goaltending performances in recent memory. It’s an easy thing to say about goalies, but he’s been the best Leaf on the ice for nearly every game so far. Watching him this spring has been a blast.

About an hour north of Toronto, the Barrie Colts have also gone through a tear this postseason. They  made quick work of both Kingston and Oshawa, but the series against Belleville was wild, with games swinging back and forth and both Malcolm Subban and Mathias Niederberger making big saves. Two of those games went to overtime and Barrie nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, including a third-period collapse in game six. But they won game seven on the road and moved to the OHL Finals, facing the London Knights.

You may remember how good the Knights were this season. Earlier this year, they went on a tear through the OHL, winning 24 games in a row. They’d finish the regular season with 50 wins, most in the league. Until the finals, they’d lost just two games in the postseason (one of them in double OT) and had two of the league’s best scorers in Max Domi and Bo Horvat, who have combined for 25 goals in 20 games. That’s a pretty good pace.

But Barrie’s has its own scoring monster: Mark Scheifele. Through this postseason he’s come into his own, scoring 41 points in 21 games. The other night, he scored four times in the third period as the Colts came from behind to win. He’s been a beast all season, especially after he returned from a short stint with the Winnipeg Jets. More than anyone else in the series, he’s stood out on the ice: number 19 is usually the guy with the puck and almost always the tallest guy on the ice. Even if Barrie loses tonight, he deserves serious consideration for series MVP.

In all, it’s a blast for as fair-weather a hockey as myself. I mentioned it earlier this season, but this year I’ve really dived into the OHL and this Colts team has been a blast. For one, Scheifele’s one of those players who’s bigger than everyone else and can just dominate on the ice. But there’s also Niederberger, who’s been a standout in net (.927 save percentage and two shutouts) and Zach Hall, who’s picked up 20 points in 18 games. There’s also Anthony Camara, who’s hitting is questionable at best.

These Colts have been a great team to get into junior hockey through; I certainly hope they advance to the Memorial Cup, but I’d be satisfied no matter tonight’s result.

Same thing for the Leafs. It’s been so long since they’ve played a playoff game that I’m just happy they’re even in the postseason at all. That Reimer’s been so much to watch and extended this series to seven games is a bonus. I’m nervous about the games, but it’s a nice feeling. I haven’t felt this way about hockey in a long time.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Arts & Crafts at ten: their ten best releases

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Ten years ago, Broken Social Scene released their second record You Forgot It In People. With some help from Paper Bag Records, it was the first album on the Arts & Crafts label, with the iconic bar of color down the side. The label started as a way to release music made by the band it’s associates, but within a few years it started releasing albums from outside talent: The Most Serene Republic, New Buffalo and American Analog Set, among others.

Soon, it’d become one of the best labels in the country. Known for it’s iconic album designs, high quality of releases and a willingness to try new things; they were doing digital downloads as far back as 2005. While they’re more or less committed to a certain style of indie rock, the label’s made interesting expansions over the years. In recent years, they’ve released the lush acoustic rock of Timber Timbre, the spooky, powerful music of Cold Specks and even managed to land Bloc Party.

As the label turns ten, I’ve offered up my ten favorite records on the label. It’s something of a fluid list: most of these spots are interchangeable, depending on my mood, and on another given day, I might swap one or two out for a few others. But don’t hold that against them: by and large, Arts & Crafts has been steady in it’s releases. There’s only been a handful of albums they’ve released I’d consider subpar and off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any total flops (although I’m probably not going to be listening to Valley of the Giants any time soon). Read the rest of this entry »

It’s been a while and might only be for a while: Leafs Postseason Preview Special

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Tomorrow night, the Toronto Maple Leafs play their first postseason game in what feels like forever (although it’s been all of nine years). I’m excited, although not quite as excited as I thought I’d be, and I’m a little anxious but on the whole, I’m feeling a little pessimistic: it’s been a long time coming and while Toronto was fun this year, I don’t think any rational person thinks the world of this team.

They’re fun and Kadri’s a blast to watch and there’s usually one or two moments a month where I think Reimer all but steals a game, but I don’t think there’s any way they get past the Bruins, ya know? Toronto’s a team with some serious holes. They don’t control the puck and their Fenwick Close  at 43.80% is not good. As recently as April 22, it ranked behind Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Calgary and Florida. They’re a team that allows a ton of shots. And even with one of the better offenses in the league – they scored the 6th most goals in the league – they were scored on a bunch, too: 133 goals allowed, slighting above league average. And that was with James Reimer in net, who’s had one of the best seasons for Leaf goaltender in recent memory.

A short list of albums I like released since the last Leafs postseason appearance: Visions – Grimes; St. Vincent – Strange Mercy; Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall; Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene;  Metric – Live it Out

Still, there are a lot of things to look forward to with this series. I don’t expect much from Phil Kessel, who’ll probably have Zdeno Chara up his ass all series long, but maybe Nazim Kadri or James van Riemsdyk will explode in a game or two. Maybe Tuukka Rask won’t have it on the same night Reimer is locked in. Maybe I won’t get tired of hearing about the Kessel trade, the Raycroft trade or any other of the recent history between these two teams. Maybe I’ll even change my tune on Bob Cole once again and decide he hasn’t lost a step and doesn’t get players mixed up.

I suppose anything is possible in the second season and teams have ridden hot goalies to improbable-seeming wins. And Boston did blow a first-round series against a divisional rival not too long ago…

Some people who have died since the last Leafs postseason game: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Gerald Ford, Jack Layton, Jay Reatard, Evel Knievel, Norman Mailer, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Trish Keenan

Still, if I were going to bet, I’d take Boston. I think the series could end pretty quickly, but my gut’s telling me that Reimer has at least one standout performance in him and I’ve got enough faith in the Leafs to think their offense will better Rask once, too. I hope it’s not on the same night. My biggest worry is if something like this happens:

(CP) Toronto – It took a while, but Boston finally solved the Maple Leafs. Game four of the first round series is likely to be remembered for it’s length, with six sudden-death overtime periods making it one of the longest games in recent history. The clincher came well after midnight, when Nathan Horton put a wrister over the shoulder of Toronto netminder James Reimer to secure a  2-1 victory for the Bruins…

A low-scoring series is what I expect here, even if both teams have good offenses (and Boston’s is stacked, much deeper than Toronto’s). I’ll say Boston in six and hope I’m wrong.

Written by M.

May 1, 2013 at 9:00 am