February 01, 2007

A Prosperous January

It's not every year I want January to last, but it was quite the month for the Raptors and Leafs.

The NBA announced the winners of their monthly awards today. Chris Bosh is the Eastern Conference Player of the Month. Andrea Bargnani is the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month. Sam Mitchell is the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.

How's that for you?

The Raps are hot, and spanked the conference leading Washington Wizards for the second time this season. They went 10-5 in January and are now at .500, and leading the Atlantic Division. We all expected the Raptors to be improved, but I don't think anyone expected it to happen this fast. They've been an exciting team to watch and the second half should be just as good as the first.

TJ Ford returned to the lineup last night, but told Mitchell to let Calderon start, so Ford could ease his way back. Ford, like the rest of us, has seen how well Calderon has played recently, and it was the right move, as Jose had a stellar game. It shows the maturity of Ford - he put the team first. Not only is he a great player, he's also a team player, and you can never have enough of those on your team. It's refreshing, especially after Vince Carter's antics of the bad ol' days.

Bosh was on fire again. He even hit a shot from half court. Winning the Player of the Month award is just icing on the cake after he brought the Raps to .500 and made the All-Star game.


Last January, if you recall, the Maple Leafs went on a horrid slide, lost eight in a row, and effectively killed their season.

The Leafs entered 2007 with a lot of question marks, and as they head into February, they've somehow managed to climb back into the thick of the playoff race. They played great hockey in January, going 8-4, all while missing Tucker, Peca and Wellwood, and Poni and Antropov at the start of the month.

What makes their January even more impressive is the fact that six of their eight wins came while on the road. Their only road loss in January was in Pittsburgh. In their six road victories, they only let in 10 goals against. What does that tell you? Yes, they're finally getting some goaltending. Raycroft stole two games on his own, and was solid in the other contests.

All Razor has to do is be as good as the goalie at the other end of the rink. That's all the Leafs want out of him, and in January, he was certainly up to the task. He's definitely stepped up his game, and the Leafs needed that from him. I'm not going to find anything negative to say about him right now. He's playing solid, and he's doing his job, and that's what he has to do.

Yes, the Leafs have issues playing on home ice - especially Razor. It just seems like everyone's trying to hard - especially Razor. But the Leafs open February with three more road games, so they'll want to finish this road trip strong, especially after getting off to a good start.

Raycroft has started the last 13 games for the Leafs. It's clear he is the number one man. Maurice gave him the ball to run with, and he has. He's turned his game around after the laugher against Vancouver. JS Aubin is not going to see any ice any time soon either. I've heard rumours that Aubin and Maurice don't get along, so that's not helping Aubin's cause either. But to be fair, Aubin had his chance. Unlike last year, when he took full advantage of his opportunity when Tellqvist couldn't handle the job, Aubin has struggled mightily this season. When Raycroft was crappin the bed in December, Aubin came in and didn't turn heads. I guess last year was a fluke. There's a reason why Aubin is a backup, and has been for most of his career.

Raycroft is the man right now. If the Leafs get to the playoffs, it's on him. His statistics aren't amazing, but he's winning, and that's all that matters in Leafs Nation.

Shoutout to the one and only, Mats Sundin. Scored number 20 Wednesday night against the Rangers, to give the Leafs a 2-1 win. It was a beauty, top shelf over Lundqvist's glove. It was the kind of goal that just made me feel all good inside; the kind of goal that makes me love the beautiful game of hockey.

Ian White made a great pass to Mats, who was streaking down the middle of the ice. He was all alone. I jumped out of my seat when he went in past the blue line, and when he put it up top past Lundqvist, I pumped my fist a la Tiger Woods.


That's what Sundin is - money. He's been in the NHL 16 years, and has scored 20 goals in each of those 16 years. Twelve of those 20 goal seasons have been with the Maple Leafs. He is the true model of consistency, and continues to get the job done. Another game winning goal to add to his stellar resume. No Leafs player has even been as clutch as Mats Sundin - he's scored 74 game winning goals with the Leafs, the most in club history. He is the greatest player to ever wear the Maple Leafs jersey.

The Leafs improved play in their own end in January was a product of Raycroft playing better, but also better team defense.

Ian White returned to the lineup from his shoulder injury and the Leafs top six defenseman are all healthy and playing together. The results are showing. With everyone healthy, Kaberle and McCabe's ice-time have gone down. They both played less than 23 minutes against the Rangers - thats a hefty drop from their usual 28 or 29 minutes. Kubina is now playing upwards of 20 minutes a night, while Gill, Colaiacovo and White are playing about 17 or 18 minutes each.

This was the defense Ferguson put together at the start of the year, and it's looking like a solid one now.

Speaking of White, he's clearly made a name for himself this season. He's definitely made this team for good, as the 5th or 6th defenseman. Brendan Bell played ok while White was injured, but Maurice doesn't give Bell the same amount of minutes, and just doesn't trust him enough. White and Gill have good chemistry playing together, and White made his mark immediately when he came back into the lineup. He got an assist in his return against the Canes on Tuesday, and set up Sundin on Wednesday. He's second in rookie defenceman scoring. Not too shabby at all for a guy who was supposedly way below on the depth chart. The future on defense looks pretty bright with Colaiacovo and White.

Big game Saturday night against the Sens. They've been on fire recently and it will be a great test for the Leafs and Raycroft.

And I've got to mention the play of Chad Kilger. I don't know how he does it, but he throws at least two or three bodychecks on every shift. He is the Leafs best forechecker and bodychecker. He's an amazingly hard worker. It's been a total team effort of late, especially in the physical play department. Guys like Belak, Newbury, Green and Kilger have been tremendous on the forecheck. Everyone's contributing.

Antropov has been great since he came back. He really is a big fella, and he's dominating downlow when he's using his huge frame. Him and Poni are great on the cycle.

To say the Eastern Conference is tight is the understatement of the year. Paul Maurice said back in September it was going to be a race, and it's shaping up to be just that. A great race, actually.

I'm looking forward to it, and hopefully, to playoff hockey at the hangar.

And playoff basketball too.

Goodnight, Toronto...