A bunch of logjams to be cleared away on the final night of the NHL. Randy Johnson pitching against the Jays. The Clippers – yeah, really, the Clippers! – against the Memphis nee-Vancouver Grizzlies in one of those lose-or-go-home games (I’ll explain later). What a night for a guy to have NHL Centre Ice, timeshifting and a working remote. I show up a little late. But I’m game and I quickly make up for it.
7:52 pm Alex Rios turns on a very weak looking Randy Johnson pitch that’s a little high and a little inside and not very fast – it doesn’t really do anything good at all, and Rios rips it into the third deck in left. This comes after Troy Glaus had homered earlier. You expect Glaus to do that sort of thing, but not Rios. Two thoughts: If this kid keeps it up, there’s an ingredient that any team needs to get to the clichéd next level: career years, and it sure helps when they come from young players who haven’t reached their ceiling. Second thought: Why didn't I take him in either of my leagues?
8:02 Switch over to Buffalo-Carolina, the Sabres up 2-0. Two of the NHL’s major surprises of this season. And here’s something these Leaf-saturated eyes haven’t seen too much of this year: fast, flowing 5-on-5 hockey, at least until Eric Staal goes off for crashing into the goalie and the Sabres are on the PP. The Hurricanes miss Cole – the Sabres look like they might be good enough to come out of the east with a few breaks. I really jinxed this one. Just as soon as I mention the joys of full-strength shinny, two more penalties come up. Martin Gerber – remember him, Canada? – makes three solid, standup saves and just seconds after wondering about the ‘Canes defence come the playoffs, here’s the best defence of all this time of year: A hot goalie.
8:11 Flyers still trailing 1-0 halfway through the second. A much more sedate tempo here with lots of scraping along the boards. Here’s one team I won’t cross the street to watch at playoff time.
8:12 Spoon “I Turn My Camera On” is now part of a Jaguar ad. *Sigh*.
8:14 Over to Rangers-Ottawa, the Sens up 1-0 in New York on a goal set up by a bad Rangers turnover in their own zone.
8:15 Commercial break in New York, so I’m over at Detroit-Nashville. The Wings are undeniably skilful, but it seems every time I’ve watched them this year I’ve seen the same kind of thing: fast, and quick, but the next time I see a bodycheck thrown will be the first time. I don’t think that’s going to play in the playoffs. I keep wanting to see evidence of dirt under the Red Wings fingernails. Where is it?
8:18 Back to Canes-Sabres, just as Biron makes a splendid reflex save on a tip of a point shot by Doug Weight. Sabres have the hot goalie too. I’m now convinced – they are sooooo coming out of the east.
8:23 The Canes announcer just talked about how the Sabres are creating good shots “off the dribble”. This is just a while after he talked about the “edge rush” the Sabres’ Grier managed as he busted in from the left wing.
8:24 The worst kind of Centre Ice moment: every game has a commercial on. How does that happen?
8:28 Alfredsson pops in a rebound on a PP, 2-0 Ottawa.
8:29 The Caps are up 2-0 on Tampa Bay with a goal 12 seconds into the second period.
8:30 Red Wings up 1-0, Draper putting in a rebound off a Mark Mauer setup. Back over to the Rangers game and they’ve scored, 16 seconds after that last one, and it’s 2-1. Lundqvist stops a breakaway. I phone my friend Donnie in Brooklyn, a fierce Rangers and Mets fan juggling a lot on his plate. “I’m watching three games,” he said. “Rangers are a much better team with Lundqvist than Weeks. I can’t see the Islanders wanting to do the Rangers any favours, and Jersey is losing too. But I can’t see all three of these teams losing, so they have to take care of their business.” Jersey? I lost track of them. I find them. He’s right. It’s 2-0 Montreal. “You forgot about the Yankees,” I tell him of the Jays game, now 7-4. “I did forget about that one,” he says. “I’m taping the Mets. Don’t tell me the score.” Me and my friends, we lead such well-balanced lives.
8:38 I immediately go to the Score. Mets are losing. I think of phoning Donnie back to tell him the score, then slam down the phone, but decide against it.
8:43 You can tell the Yankees are in town. The rotating advertising behind home plate is in Japanese, a nod to the vast television audience following Hideki Matsui. Chacin gets out of a jam and through 4 ½, it’s 7-4 Jays.
8:46 Hey, the Leafs! And just as I find them, Wade Belak is putting one into his own net then delivering a snootful of leather to a Penguin in front of the net. An own goal, and a 5-minute penalty afterward – great shift, Wade. Still, Leafs are up 5-1. They’ve got some serious momentum to carry them out on to the golf course.
8:50 Pee break. Decide to stretch it out, with Rangers and Canes in intermission, by gathering up the recycling and putting it out on the curb. A nice night. Fill up the dogs’ dish and water.
9:01 Another round of domestic chores completed, celebrate by pouring a couple of fingers of Grouse on the rocks. Back to the basement, where Montreal is up 3-0. Donnie doesn’t have to worry about Devils, it seems.
9:04 Gionta scores for the Devils. Okay, it’s on again.
9:06 Just as I arrive on the scene, Mike Fisher scores a beauty shorthanded goal, going deep into the corner on the left side, cutting back as Straka just waves at him – pathetic, that, including Jagr and the other defender not even bothering to come over to cover. But full marks to Fisher as he finishes the 1-on-3 with a deke around Lundqvist and it’s 4-1 Sens. There seems to be a definite class edge here.
9:10 Biron stops another breakout by the Canes. I tell you, this Sabres side, now up 3-0 – they’re going places.
9:11 A corner box tells me that Philly has gone ahead of the Islanders 2-1. If it holds, the Flyers will go from 6th seed to third on this final night.
9:16 The Canes are on the power play, last chance with five minutes to go and the top seed in the east just about gone for them. There’s a few boos in the house in Raleigh.
9:19 Briere slides a perfect pass to Afinegenov between two Carolina defenders, but Gerber stands up and turns his breakaway aside. Gerber’s been good. Biron’s been great.
9:21 JP Dumont ices it with a power play goal. I can forget about this one, safely content in the knowledge that the Sabres are going to the Stanley Cup finals.
9:22 Ottawa’s wrapping it up, leading 5-1. I’m just flipping now and end up at the Flyers, nursing a one-goal lead with a minute to go. Esche is punching Jason Blake in the head after he covers up.
9:23 Gagne empty netter. Flyers are going to win the division, Rangers take the apple, and Devils are down 3-1 going into the third.
9:28 Finals: Philly and Buffalo win, Rangers and Carolina lose. Ottawa’s top seed in east, Canes No. 2, Flyers No. 3 (for now, pending Jersey final), Buffalo No. 4, Rangers 5, Jersey 6, Montreal 7 (pending result), Tampa Bay 8 (losing to Washington 3-1 right now).
9:31 Over to the Jays: two on in the 7th, up 9-5, none out – they could seriously bust this one open. Lyle (Turn Me Loose) Overbay flies to centre, runner moves up from second to third. Must be a big crowd. They’re actually making noise.
9:35 Crazy Chacon wild pitch bounces 4 feet in front of Posada, scores a run, 10-5 Jays.
9:39 Back to Montreal-New Jersey.
9:42 Finally it’s Clippers-Grizzlies and all the Clippers need to do is lose -- for them, that's as easy as falling off a lottery. As the sixth seed, they will get home court over the division-winning Nuggets, who have the third seed but also an inferior record. As the fifth seed, the Griz would face Dallas, only two games back of top western seed San Antonio, but alas, the division winners get the top three seeds, so the Mavericks are fourth. Griz up by 11 after three quarters. None of it makes sense.
9:45 Back to Montreal just in time for another Gionta goal, so it’s 3-2 and the Devils are coming on. Don’t give the Rangers that five seed just yet.
9:49 Elias scores and the Devils have tied it! Two passes and Elias is beating 51 Montreal, goes in and from close in beats Huet. I rather doubt this Montreal sag job has anything to do with the score in Washington – 4-1 Caps over Tampa Bay, one point behind the Habs – but it won’t hurt them in the standings.
9:53 The Leafs, remember them? Up 5-3 with a handful of seconds left.
9:54 McCabe misses on a long shot from his own corner toward an empty net, his second try at goal No. 20. After the icing call, Quinn looks on stonily: Tomfoolery, thy name is Bryan.
9:55 (Eastern time) The Leafs season is officially over. Everybody exhale. Stand up. Stretch. Re-introduce yourself to spouse/significant other/dog.
9:55 Back to Montreal – just as the Devils have scored again! Langenbrunner finishes a 3-on-1 counterattack by beating Huet shortside. And with that, the Devils have vaulted from 6th to 3rd. For now.
10:00 Boos in the Bell Centre as the siren goes, Habs blow a 3-0 lead, Jersey comes back and finishes third in the east. Don’t count them out in the playoffs, either.
10:02 Jays win 10-5.
10:04 Grizzlies are up by 10 with five minutes to play. “Don’t tell me these guys don’t want to win,” says the excited Clippers announcer. “They’re playing hard.” Well, that’s Bobby Jackson (24 Mem) bringing the ball up with all the energy of a sunning garter snake. And that’s Sam Cassell on the bench, laughing – and why not? He has been excused from playing tonight, along with Chris Kaman and Corey Maggette. They’re all not-playing hard.
10:09 “Clippers haven’t led since the opening moments,” says excited announcer. Amazingly, Clippers are only down five with 2 ½ minutes to play.
10:13 “At least we’ve seen some spirit and some spunk,” says excited announcer. Good night, Clippers, assured of hosting Denver as Memphis wins the boobie prize of a matchup with Dallas. Good night, Rangers, now facing the Devils – except, they’ll start by crossing the Hudson.
And of course, good night, Leafs.
Final eastern conference seedings (unofficial):
3 New Jersey
6 NY Rangers
8 Tampa Bay