Are the Maple Leafs the powerhouse that is 7-2-1 in their last ten games or the dormant club that were a listless 0-7-1 to begin the campaign? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But what impressed me about the Buds in their latest victory, a 3-2 decision over the New York Islanders, was their commitment to rally after coughing up a 2-goal lead. Now, the Maple Leafs must continue to assert themselves on home ice after winning back to backs at the Air Canada Centre.
I know it’s early to start discussing the playoffs but Toronto is just 5 points out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. What’s unnerving is that five teams stand between them and the Montreal Canadiens. I don’t see Florida being an issue and the Islanders despite the play of Tavares, Okposo and Moulson probably aren’t a major threat either. But the Philadelphia Flyers were my pick to represent the east and are due for a major resurgence with the hiring of Peter Laviolette and a wealth of young talent despite the fact Ray Emery will be missing in action for the next 6 weeks. I think the Lightning have been energized by the blossoming play of Steven Stamkos and the New York Rangers have two major pillars in Marian Gaborik and the staunch netminding of Henrik Lundqvist. So even if the Thrashers, Senators and Canadiens all slip from their current 6-8 playoff seedings, there’s a plethora of contenders which the Leafs know have to be overcome on the road back to respectability.
Without their starting centre and starting point guard, the Toronto Raptors didn’t get the requisite lift they needed against the Milwaukee Bucks with both clubs playing in the 2nd game of back-to-backs. While the end result isn’t unexpected, it’s games like these that the Raptors need to occasionally steal if they want to make hay in the Eastern Conference standings. We’ve known for years that true dominance still resides in terms of parity and quality teams in the west but it’s laughable to realize that there’s only 5 teams currently in the east who are above .500. So the Raptors need to separate themselves from the glut of mediocrity and can only do that by summoning some resolve from their reserves, especially when two starters are missing in action. Marco Bellinelli alternates from dazzling to non-existent but I’m really expecting more from Hedo Turkoglu. Only 8 shot attempts versus the Bucks for 9 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds is severely disappointing considering the talent that Turk has. The Raptors next opponent, the Hawks, blew out the Bulls 118-83 with Jamal Crawford netting a season-high 29 points so that represents another steep challenge for Toronto in what has been a challenging schedule out of the gate.
OTHER STUFF ON MY MIND
-The National Board of Review is the first of the laundry list of critics associations releasing their top ten flims of the year and I was pleased to see Up, Where the Wild Things Are and Inglourious Basterds make the list among others. A severe brain cramp in the omission of Precious but I don’t see that affecting its Oscar chances. They did name Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air starring George Clooney as its best pic of the year and after catching a packed matinee show, I’d have to agree it’s a terrific film. Whip-smart, topical and mixing comedy and drama skillfully, Clooney gives one of his best performances as a peripatetic businessman whose job is to fire employees across the country with faux compassion and clarity. Among the standout cast are Vera Farmiga from The Departed, the wonderful Jason Bateman as Clooney’s unctuous boss and cameos from J.K. Simmons(who will always be Schillinger from OZ for me!) and Zack Galifanakis from The Hangover (on DVD Tuesday, the unrated edition). A terrific plot twist late in Up in the Air made me appreciate the movie even more for its bittersweet finale.
-Also in theatres is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival and was disappointed by. Werner Herzog is a talented director whose inspired choices can result in bravura filmmaking (check out Grizzly Man, one of the best docs of the decade) and I liked his stylized approach (including iguanas dancing on a coffee table) but thought the film was too hokey and trying too hard to really be appreciated as either a serious cop drama or a campy satire. If they’d picked one or the other, the crew would’ve been much better off. As for Nicolas Cage, he never met some scenery he doesn’t love to chew but there is one indelible scene in which he deadpans to his cohort, “Shoot him again. I can see his soul dancing.” It’s the ruby scene amidst some other rubble. Note: there’s no real link with the original Bad Lieutenant from Abel Ferrara that starred Harvey Keitel in one of the best ever ‘go for broke’ performances and is one of my favourite films of the 90’s, and also incidentally, Martin Scorsese’s as well.
-If you need a holiday gift for a soccer fan, check out Soccernomics. Tons of dazzling details including how gentlemen prefer blondes in recruiting, how soccer actually prevents suicide due to social cohesion and why Norway is the best sports country in the world. I interviewed co-author Simon Kuper on Football Today and he told me that Brazil and Spain are the co-favourites for the 2010 World Cup but watch out for the U.S. after their stirring run at the Confederations Cup. Kuper believes that population, wealth and history are the three best predictors of soccer success and thus, the Americans fit the bill. He also sees Fabio Capello’s England squad falling in heroic fashion on penalty kicks in the quarters. And yes, the Englishman did have a smirk when he said that.
-Excellent Jason Whitlock column on the Tiger Woods affair. Check it out.