Thursday, April 26, 2018

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs - 2nd Round Picks

Ok, that first round wasn't great. A lot of blowout games. Only four series got to a Game 6, and only one got to a Game 7, which saw that effing Boston team rip the hearts out of Toronto again. That all said, the first round fun died so all of us could enjoy what looks to be a great second round. Only one lower seed team won, the Sharks. We have what looks like four great series on paper.

Metro Division Title

(M1) Washington Capitals  vs.  (M2) Pittsburgh Penguins

State of the Teams: Well, well, well, we got round 3. It almost seems pre-ordained. The rest of the Metro helped out this year by not being as good as last year. The Caps got their first round scare, just like they did the last two years. The Penguins got there easily - just like the last two years. Anyway, for the first time, the Caps probably don't have expecatations. They are healthy, they are under the radar somewhat - not the President's Winner, just an ordinary good team. Might be nice to have a good Nicklas Backstrom in the playoffs for once as well. The Penguins? Well, they're here, ut they shouldn't have needed such lengths to beat the Flyers. The usuals were all great, but the defense was a disaster, and Matt Murray had by far the worst playoff series of his career. This will be a step up. the Capitals may be many things, but a defensive sieve like Philly is not one of them.

The Matchup: Call me simplistic, but I do think the series comes down to which of the two usually great goalies finds their game. Braden Holtby in theory came in and saved the day, but he too let in more soft goals than usual. I touched on Murray above. The teams themselves are fairly well matched, with the Pens offensive depth matched by the solid D of the Caps. The Capitals PP is great as always, and having a Backstrom with a pulse is a nice help this time. The Penguins penalty kill has to really step it up. We can say the Pens have the mental edge, but I do sense a more carefree attitude with this Capitals team, not having the pressure of a President's Trophy, and many pundits actually buying in that this year is their year.

The Pick: Call me crazy, call me stupid, I like the Caps. It has to happen this way, right? The year after they pulled all their chips in. Capitals in 7

Atlantic Division Title

(A1) Tampa Bay Lightning  vs.  (A2) Boston Bruins

State of the Teams: The Lightning were the league's best team of the first half. Then struggled for a few months, including their previously Vezina-capable goalie going to shit. The Bruins were not hte team of the second half (that was Nashville), but they were the East's version. They ended the season one point apart. That one point was game #81 for both teams, one that might end up really telling - the Lightning hammered Boston, held onto the division, and seem to have catapulted from that moment. Vasilevsky found his form. The top guys all were great. JT Miller has been incredible on tha tline. Victor Hedman hasn't even broken out offensively yet - though he was incredible on defense. Alternatively, the Bruins nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, and Tukka Rask seemed eminently beatable. For all the momentum the Bruins gained in the second half, two weeks of playoffs, including a nice extended break for Tampa, seemed to reverse it all.

The Matchup: The Bruins were arguably the surprise of the league, rising from wild card fodder to a dominant team, but the glass slipper seemed to come off late in the year as they blew the Atlantic Division, and then nearly lost to Toronto. They also just don't match up well. Their lack of team speed will be sorely exposed, and while they have a slight size advantage, the Lightning have done well to bulk up - having Thor Himself in Hedman helps. The Lightning cleaned up a lot of their defensive issues, and have mutiple active lines they can throw at the Bruins depth that usually gives Boston an edge - not here.

The Pick: I would like to pick Tampa in 5 - first of all, far enjoy their game to Boston, but the Bruins are too good to go away that easily. Still, the Lightning seemed to correct their ills late in the season, and if Vasilevsky continues the strong play this seems rather easy. Lightning in 6

Central Division Title

(C1) Nashville Predators  vs.  (C2) Winnipeg Jets

The State of the Teams: This is the matchup every hockey purist has been waiting for. Two excellent teams two fun teams; two great crowds; two great atmospheres. i want this series to go 11 games. I don't want either to lose. I'll join the chorus of people claiming this is the real Western Conference Finals. I want all of it. The Jets were great in the first round, and got their feet wet in the process. Laine was great, as always, but the real revelation was how much their defense controlled the pace. The Preds were actually a little disappointing, getting more issues from Colorado than what was called for. That said, the defense is still amazing, the offense is still incredibly deep - though it would be good if Kyle Turris steps up. ''

The Matchup: Again, hard to really break this down. Both teams are great. Winnipeg's offense is slightly better. Nashville's D and goalie are slightly better - though Rinne has a habit of "tiring" late in the season. The Jets power play is incredible, and the Panthers took a few too many penalties in the first round, so that scares me, I do think though that defense does more often than not win out here, and the incredible puck possession of Nashville's D can do wonders against a team that doesn't push as much as normal.

The Pick: I'm going to pick this to go seven - only partially because I want it to go seven. Nashville I think is slightly better, slightly more safe at back and in net (hard to fully trust Holleybuck - no matter how good he's been this year). Predators in 7

Pacific Division Title

(P1) Vegas Golden Knights  vs.  (P3) San Jose Sharks

The State of the Teams: Oh, Golden Knights. How is this still happening? Actually, it is happening because that team is fairly good. They can roll four lines, have six adequate D-men, if no true star, and a healthy, locked-in Marc Andre Fleury. Honestly, they are a very good team. For the Sharks, it truly is commendable how well they've done to pivot away from the Thornton / Marleau era, and doing it by not just giving the reins to Couture and Pavelski - instead bringing in guys like Evander Kane, who was great. The blue-line has always been nice, and if they get Thornton back they can really start cooking.

The Matchup: Speed often wins in the playoffs, but there is no real difference here. The Sharks have more 'experience', but then again they too are a fairly young team. I give an edge to the Sharks because I just can't imagine an expansion team making hockey's final four in their first season, but there's really no specific reason to think they can't do it. Call it trust. Call it East Coast bias with me not really having a good opinion on either team. I just think the biggest edge the Knights had in the first round was overall speed which will not be a real edge against San Jose.

The Pick: Sharks in 6

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rafa on Clay

Image result for nadal wins monte carlo 2018

10 years ago, Rafael Nadal won his 4th French Open, and did so in a run that was almost comical in its ease. He beat three-time slam quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen 6-1 6-3 6-1 in the third round. Then two-time slam Semifinalist Fernando Verdasco 6-1 6-0 6-2 in the round of 16. He then schooled four time slam quarterfinalist Nicolas Almagro 6-1 6-1 6-1 in the quarters. Finally, he got "pushed" in the semis by a man named Novak Djokovic 6-4 6-2 7-6. he ended his campaign humiliating Roger Federer 6-1 6-0 6-3. He ran away with the French Open. At that point, we all realized he was truly the best Clay Court player ever. The only question would be would his grinding, matador style burn him too quickly, and that chances were he would burn out at some point.

10 years later, Rafael Nadal is #1 in the world, and not only that, he's set do make a mockery of the clay court season again. He won his 11th Monaco Masters series title, winning all 10 sets he's played (he's won 38 striaght sets on clay - including all 21 he played in last year's French Open). The closest anyone got to him was 6-4. He embarrased multiple top players. He;s set to do the same at Barcelona - he's going for his 11th title there too. He'll likely add a trifecta of 11th titles in six weeks at the French Open. There is no real end in sight.

Rafael Nadal on clay is not real. The most incredible part is that he was the best clay court player we've ever seen twelve years ago, changed a lot of his game, and is still the best clay court player, if not an even better one. A lot has been mentioned about his transition to being more of an all court player, one that has afforded him six slams on non-clay surfaces (and seven more finals). He hits harder, plays more offensive, doesn't gallop around the court like some horse or jackrabbit, running down balls and attempting impossible shots. Doesn't matter. He's still humorously better than anyone else on clay.

It is so incredible that he is still doing this when he is about to turn 32. The one failing of Rafa in his prime was always that the way he played would inevitably lead to an early demise. And to some degree that happened. Following his 2014 French Open win, he spent a good two years either injured and missing, or hurt and a shell of his former self. He openly struggled with confidence, dropping five-setters left and right against worse players. He lost easily to Novak Djokovic at the 2015 French Open. Hard to remember that ever happened - in large part to what's become of both players.

Nadal is not only better now than he was three years ago, he's the last one left (robot Federer aside), He always seeemed more elderly than the one year that separates him with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but given the latter two's injury concerns, and Rafa turning aside 'next-gen' players like small speed-bumps in his path, its weird to think of Nadal as the older one.

There has never been a marriage of surface to player like this. Forget the 11 wins at Monaco, or the 10 at Barcelona and the French Open; or the fact that he's had five different instances of winning 30+ straight sets on clay, three times winning the French without dropping a set. Even if you expand past tennis, it is hard to find a case in a major sport of a player so thoroughly dominating one aspect of the sport - the closest in recent years seems to be Cristiano in the Champions League, but we can have that comparison if CR7 is doing this in 2025.

At some point this will end. Though you do get the sense Rafa can do a reverse Federer and only play the Clay Season and succeed until he's 38. When he does, we'll probably lose all perspective on what a clay court specialist is like. We'll never know again, because Rafa has completely skewed that perception.

Watching Nadal on clay has been one of the sports joys of my life. The way he effortlessly slides on that surface. The way he does the impossible. The way he's used every inch of Court Philippe Chatrier to hit passing shots. The way he still seems enthralled with it all. These are his courts - literally in the case of the Barcelona tournament that named their main court after Nadal last year. This is his time. For someone who publicly admitted struggling with confidence, he suffers no shortage on clay recently, having joy in his preoardained romps.

Writing this may come back to haunt me. It will only take one bad day, or one tweak of a hip or wrist (like the one that knocked him out of the 2016 French open after dominating the first few rounds) to end his run at the French Open. But it is more about Nadal still doing this ten years later, still managing to own clay thirteen years into his career as a Top-2 player. Still at #1, and still at home on the red dirt.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 11 - The 2014 NBA Playoffs 1st Round (all of it)

If there is one downside to the rise of the Warriors (other than Kevin Durant going there), it is the end of the parity era of the NBA. The last great year of the NBA playoffs, aside from a few select series (the 2016 Western Conference Finals & NBA Finals, mainly), was 2014, when we had one of the great two week periods of basketball we've ever received, and I was seated deep in Queretaro, Mexico, to enjoy it all.

I still remember the day I was told I had to venture down to Mexico for a project. To be fair, I wasn't told; I was asked, with a full expectation that I was supposed to say yes. It was a pretty good posting for someone less than a year into the job, to go on a short term assignment in a foreign country for an office that was just beginning to grow. It was exciting. For someone who picked the job I did largely because I could travel, this is not onyl what I signed up for but what I wanted. Still, Mexico, with all its uncertainty, was not a destination I would have volunteered for.

Little did I know, Queretaro was a perfect little town, the posting offered me the opportunity to meet some incredible people, eat some incredible food, find a new favorite drink, and go to Mexico City a few times. Oh, and to watch some incredible basketball on some jacked-up semi-legal streaming service. I mean, that is what I signed up for.

The service was called XMBC, a weird streaming & hosting service that housed tons of 'channels' airing movies and shows on demand, and of course a few live TV options. This was before the days of Reddit's NBA Streams sub, or other services that were more above board. There were a few normal streaming sites I used when in college without cable services, but most of those had already started down the path of being infected with computer aids with endless ads. My second cousin had sold me on XMBC, something of a streaming all-in-one platform. Their sports streams were iffy at best. Each game had 4-5 links, one of which would be good. The WiFi alternated between spotty and perfect at the Hotel Real de Minas in the heart of Santiago de Quereatro. It was an interesting setting that would house my nightly routine.

A quick recap of what the NBA was like a scant four years ago, the postseason tournament that would end with the San Antonio Spurs unleashing three of the most perfect games of basketball than can be played. But a couple months before that basketball nirvana, the Spurs struggled through a 7-game series to put away the Mavericks. That series had everything, close games, patented Spurs blowouts, game winning shots by Vince Carter - a feat that seemed ridiculous given his age FOUR YEARS AGO. Including that Spurs series, there were five different series that went the full seven games. Three of them out West, with the one exception being the Blazers beating the Harden-led Rockets, a series that ended with a Dame Lillard series-winner as time expired in Game 6. It was madness. That whole first round was.

This was a time when the Thunder were in all their glory, but more than that the Grit 'N' Grind Grizzlies were too, and they played a fascinating 7-game series, somewhat marred by suspension to Zach Randolph keeping him out of Game 7. The Clippers and Warriors played a seven game series, the last time the Warriors would be anything other than prohibitive favorites - and it played out against the backdrop of the Donald Sterling scandal. It was a great time to be alive as an NBA fan. The styles were varied. No team had Rockets-ized and shot 40+ threes You had big post teams like the Blazers and Grizzlies, great passing teams like teh Warriors and Clippers, and whatever the hell the Thunder called their dual iso offense. It was magic.

It was nice that the Western Conference Playoffs were so fantastic, as being in Central Time Zone, the games were perfectly timed, starting anywhere between 8 and 9:30 local time, ending latest at 12:30. I used to watch them during dinner and after - the during being mostly the Eastern Conference (far less fun, with the two series that went the distance being the top-seed Pacers struggling against the Hawks, and the Nets beating the Raptors in their last moment of relevance). After used to be back at the Hotel Real de Minas, my home for two months, in their courtyard near the pool at the bar. I took my place at a table in a comfy chair, and ordered Alfonso XIII's while I fired up XMBC.

What is an Alfonso XIII (Trece)? It's a mixture of Kahlua, Evaporated Milk and Brandy, with one or two ice cubes. They were refreshing as hell. I swilled those down - telling the bartender to make it lighter than normal, as I was dug into my chair until the battery forced me back to my room. It was an ideal setting, the thin, cool Queretaro air making the evenings rather sweet.

The games made it even better - to be honest, I was watching the NHL playoffs at this time as well. Somehow, the internet at times was strong enough to do it simultaneously. But while the NHL playoffs were featuring the Sharks blowing a 0-3 lead to the Kings, the NBA playoffs featured close game after close game. The level of play was unreal. The competitiveness of the games was insane.

The Thunder and Grizzlies played a seven game war that featured four straight OT games in Games 2 through 5. The series was somewhat sullied by Zach Randolph's (deserved) suspension for punching Steven Adams forcing him to miss Game 7, but those four straight OT games, including final margins of 3, 3 and 1 on the last three, were enough to remember forever.

The Clippers Warriors series may be overshadowed by teh Sterling issue, or it being the last moments where the Warriors were mere mortals, coached by Mark Jackson, but it featured games that ended with margins of 4, 2, 1 and 5 - the last being a 126-121 Game 7 win that I can still remember to this day, a game filled with peerless execution by the Clippers during probably their best season in the CP3-Blake era.

Finally, the only West series not to go the full seven might have been the best, as it featured another three OT games in its six games, going the extra five in Game 1 (2 point Portland win), Game 3 (5 point Rockets win) and Game 4 (3 point Portland win). Of course, the series would end in the best game, with Dame Lillard hitting a series winning three as time expired to win Game 6 by one point, taking the Blazers to the second round.

The level of play was fantastic all around, about as good as those damn Alfonso XIII's. It may seem like my lasting memory from this project is the fact I got semi-buzzed nightly drinking a milk-based cocktail watching streamed basketball. Fear not, my real memories from Queretaro are the restaurants, including a Mexican Churascaria right next door, or the other really nice restaurant across the road. The other memories are the perfect little town center; the trips to Mexico City, which included a 2.5 hour bus-ride on the most comfortable bus I've ever been in. The fact I could also watch basketball semi-legally a country away was just an added bonus.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Threepeat

There are two competing three-peat efforts going on right now. I haven't really lived through this, at least during any sentient part of my life as a sports fan. I guess there was the 2000 - 2002 Lakers, or the 1998 - 2000 Yankees, teams I have vague memories of, but those were, in the sports sense, lifetimes ago. No, right now I'm living through it for the first time in a sense, or at least the opportunity for one. Both the Pittsburgh Penguins, as a write this up 3-1 in their first round series, and Real Madrid, as I write this setting up for their Champions League Semifinal tie against Bayern, are on the chase, and I can't wait to see if they pull it off.

Obviously, I have a more vested interest in Real Madrid, and if they can pull it off, it would be incredible. Until last year, no team had even repeated in the Champions League era, so for them to do it, even in a year where they've struggled in La Liga, would be unbelievable. For the Pens, in a way the same. No team had repeated for 19 years until the Penguins did last year. No team has done three in a row since Gretzky's Oilers. Odds are against either for pulling it off - even Madrid who is one out of 4 left, but I'm just invigorated to see it happen.

To be fair, I've watched teams attempt it, but few even came close. The first was the 2005 Patriots, of course with any Patriots team I would be actively rooting against it. Their run ended in a weird night in Denver where they made every mistake possible. The next was the 2011 Lakers, who were hilariously swept by the Mavericks, fit with Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum getting ejected in the 4th quarter of the Game 4 blowout that coupled as Phil Jackson's last game. The next was the 2014 Heat, who again due to their opponent being the Spurs, I was rooting against, and their run ended with the most devastating three game stretch of basketball ever.

These two feel different, in a way, though. We are still far away from either actually doing it, but I have a feeling both will give good runs. The Penguins look absolutely unstoppable, tossing aside Philadelphia like nothing (game 2 aside), with their offense humming, their top two guys playing as well as ever (honestly, how good are Crosby and Malkin?), and Matt Murray getting two shutouts in the first four games.

For Madrid, it is a bit tenuous, getting somewhat lucky to get past Juventus in the Quarterfinals, but at some point these lucky wins become more of a sign of their mental strength. I truly believe that Madrid believes that this is their competition, opponents be damned. Even in the face of  Bayern Munich, they have the mental edge (it helps they've knocked out this iteration of Bayern twice recently), and of course they have Cristiano, soccer's nice answer to Sidney Crosby, a player far too hated for someone so incredibly good.

Looking past whether they can, I want to talk about whether they should. Are dynasties, especially ones like this where it is three in a row, actually good? Sure, some of the reaction is skewed by my feelings about the teams, but in these cases, sure, excellence is great at times. Especially here. No hockey team has done this in 35 years. No soccer team has done this in close to 45 years. Every now and then we need this type of dominance. To remind ourselves what greatness is. For both, these are grueling competitions, especially hockey where the length you go in the playoffs directly reduces the length of the offseason. For both teams to be potentially on the cusp of it, and with the same core each of the three years, is remarkable.

We are too often annoyed by such success, and sure there is a certain societal gain by spreading the wealth, but too often we overlook what incredible dominance can teach. For the Penguins, it is just how good Crosby and Malkin are historically - specifically Malkin who was hilariously left off of the NHL's league-sanctioned Top 100 players list in 2017 commemorating the league's 100th(-ish) season. Sidney Crosby, a man so maligned for years despite being the league's best, most gifted player throughout, reaffirming his status as truly one of the best ever.

For Madrid, it is that raised even higher, for Ronaldo, who is as good at soccer as Crosby is at hockey and far more maligned than Sid the Kid, finally getting the respect by blowing out the competition in the Champions League to a truly hilarious degree. We can debate who the best player is or who is better between Messi and Ronaldo, but there is no debate in Champions League play.

Even with the coaches, it is interesting to note that neither has gotten the requisite credit even at this point. Oddly, both were hired mid-way through the first title season, and sheperded their teams as something of a hired hand. That is somewhat understandable. What is less so is after both Mike Sullivan and Zinedine Zidane won the second straight title, they still lag behind in credit. As someone who follows these types of debates too much, it is glaring how little either man is mentioned in 'Best Coach' in his sport - specifically Sullivan (it is somewhat easy to overlook Zidane since he is still Ziendaine Fucking Zidane - it is still unnatural to think of him as a great coach). Their time will come.

This may be all for not. There is, again, a decent chance neither team pulls it off, but as someone who railed against these types of streaks, it's odd how much I want both to do it to some degree. Again, with Madrid I openly just want them to do it as a Madridista, but with the Penguins, ostensibly a division rival of my team, I'm fully in support of them doing it. In Crosby increasing his trophy case, in Malkin doing the same - and hopefully getting the credit he so readily deserves as being closer to Crosby historically than people think. I won't be too sad if they don't get it done (and to be clear, I did pick them to lose to Philly), but there is a lot to like about the Penguins rise these last three years.

In the end, this is just a continuing theme of me being drawn more and more to sustained greatness as I've gotten older (again, Patriots being a giant, glaring exception). It happened with Federer, with LeBron, with Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw. Greatness in sports should be celebrated, and the rarest of achievements, the threepeat, even more so. We were spoiled by Phil Jackson, thinking this is somewhat natural. It still has never happened in the NFL. The few teams that have done it in baseball and hockey are among the most celebrated groups ever. It has never happened in the modern Champions League, and when it has in the prior iteration that was the European Cup, it too were clebrated groups. We may just be having two more, with more similarties than you would thin, about to do it both at the same time.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What the NBA playoffs can learn from the NHL and vice versa

The debate of when the best time of the year is in the sports calendar is a hotly debated one, but most, especially those that like either/both basketball or/and hockey seem to agree the period of April - June when both hold their playoffs in parallel is right up there. And it is, both sports having 2-4 games on a night for weeks on end, until each coalesces to Conference Finals and true Finals. This truly is a special time, especially since both give such different advantages. I'm not going to argue for one over the other. Of course, the NBA is more popular. Hockey is probably more celebrated for being a grueling tournament. I just want to point out a few areas where each seems to excel, not even necessarily over the other, but just in general. Things one would be good to pick up from the other.

First let's start with the shorter list (sadly), what the NBA can learn from the NHL in their playoff format:

= An actual functionally appropriate schedule

It is mindless how long the first round of the NBA playoffs takes. I get they want to avoid having 4 games on per night, and limit it to 2-3, but that means so many teams have two days off in a row throughout the first round. There's one series that started Sunday (yesterday, as I write this), will have its Game 2 on Wednesday, and Game 3 on Saturday. Yeah, there's no reason for this. The NHL will rarely have two off days, but most of the time it is one night off. It creates more of a rhythm, takes away the idea that 1st round games will be played 19 days into the playoffs of certain series go seven games. The endless length of the hockey playoffs is hailed, for basketball, it is mocked, partly due to this initial malaise.

= Re-Seeding

Look, I applaud the NBA for taking a practical approach to some of the seeding issues that have crept up over the years. First, after teams tanked to get the #6 seed in 2006 to play the #3 seed-by-right-of-winning-a-division Denver team, they decided that the #3 seed would not automatically go to a division winner - instead, the division winner would at worst be #4. Then, in 2015, the Trail Blazers ended up with the #4 seed despite a weaker record than all other playoff teams. Now they are seeded 1-8 by record. The only issue left is there is no re-seeding, something the NHL nicely did for years before going to their new NCAA Tournament-esque regional format (which has its own problems). 

= Get a better trophy

Look, the NBA trophy will never have the cache of the Stanley Cup, but the Larry O'Brien trophy is incredibly bland. It is not a memorable shape, has no real redeeming qualities. They need to re-design it. I realize trophies rarely get re-designed, but it's not like anyone considers the current trophy untouchable. The also need a better name. 

= Get some better branding about the tournament in general

Look, the NHL is not popular, I get that; but if you ask anyone to describe the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they will likely say something about how grueling and tough it is, how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup, to earn it, and all that stuff. For the NBA, the length is mocked. The early rounds are seen as a bit of a bore - the lack of upsets (relative) hurts. Anyway, they need some better branding of it is a tournament rather than a series of inevitable matches until LeBron vs. some Western Power happens.

Now the reverse

= Schedule your games better

Look, I'm against the scarcity approach of the NBA (2-3 games a day) but it does allow the games to be played independently. The NHL does the opposite, staggers them in such a dumb way. First off, before we get to the staggering, over the weekend they literally twice started two games at the exact same time. This makes absolutely no sense. Then, when they do decide to stagger, it is 30 minutes apart, which way too often ends up with games running concurrently way too much. Look, the hockey overload (3-4 games a night) is great, but the NHL is so stupid in their scheduling patterns.

= Better halftime/post-game shows

OK, this is a huge gripe in general, but the NHL's between period and post-game production is just so terrible. I'm not saying they should copy the NBA on TNT approach - that's a once in a lifetime combination that just works too well for the NBA. But apart from the comedy, what the NBA also does is focus on other games, not the one we were just watching like the NHL does. Oddly, the NHL's B team of Kathryn Tappen, Anson Carter and Random Third Guy (it rotates) is so much better than the main crew. Anyway, just do a better job NHL.

= Better team playoff branding

We The North. Fear The Deer. The current 76ers Snake. The NBA's annual playoff branding that teams take up is so well done. The NHL does a bit of this ('Rock the Red'), but it is usually just limited to the shirts they hand out to fans. The NBA takes on a collective approach, things that permeate just the game action. That is the way it should be done.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs - 1st Round Picks

Atlantic Division

(A1) Tampa Bay Lightning (113 pts)  vs  (AWC) New Jersey Devils (97 pts)

Cool Fact: The Lightning's 296 goals this season is the most since the 2010 Capitals, who rolled to a President's Trophy with over 300, and summarily lost in 7 games to the Jaroslav Halak show. Somehow, I think the Lightning will fare better here. Actually, even as a Devils fan, I don't want to ruin this Tampa season. Let them win. We'll have our fun in future. I don't think they'll need luck anyway.

Lightning in 5

(A2) Boston Bruins (112 pts)  vs  (A3) Toronto Maple Leafs (105 pts)

Cool Fact: People obviously will point to the 2013 1st Round series, when the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in Game 7, which they probably should. But I'll go with a different one. With this series, the Bruins will have played every Original 6 team in the playoffs since 2013, including three of them (Leafs, Canadiens, Rangers) twice. If they lose here, they'll actually get a chance to lose to a fourth original 6 team since then. I think the Leafs pull it out. Just haven't really trusted the Bruins all year.

Maple Leafs in 6

Metropolitan Division

(M1) Washington Capitals (105 pts)  vs  (MWC) Columbus Blue Jackets (97 pts)

Cool Fact: John Tortorella has played the Capitals in the playoffs a lot. Like a whole lot. One came before Ovechkin was around (2003), but then they played again in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014 and now this year. Each series has been entertaining in their own way, specifically those Capitals vs. Rangers series. I think this one will be interesting, because the Capitals find it impossible to ever win a series cleanly anymore, but ultimatley in a year where they seem to have little real pressure on them, I think they'll still pull it out.

Capitals in 6

(M2) Pittsburgh Penguins (100 pts)  vs  (M3) Philadelphia Flyers (98 pts)

Cool Fact: These two haven't met since 2012, a memorable series where goal upon goal was scored, Marc Andre-Fleury gave up 8 goals in a game (and that wasn't the worst goalie performance), and the Penguins memorably lost their mind, with Aaron Asham cross-checking a guy in the neck, James Neal taking run after run on Flyers players, and even Sidney Crosby getting penalized. I don't expect that many fireworks, but I do think the Flyers can win it. They're offense has been on fire of late, and something seems off about the Penguins.

Flyers in 6

Pacific Division

(P1) Vegas Golden Knights (109 pts)  vs  (PWC) Los Angeles Kings (98 pts)

Cool Fact: Obviously, this is the first expansion NHL team to make the playoffs in its first season. Of course, they draw the team that still seems to have some Stanley Cup mysique despite having a resume since their last Cup win of missing the playoffs twice and getting drummed by the 2016 Sharks in five games. Not really anything much to say about the series, but it will be interesting to see a notoriously night-life loving Kings team in Vegas for the playoffs. I think the Kings, and Jonathan Quick, will show up, but the Knights are this good for a reason.

Knights in 7

(P2) Anaheim Ducks (101 pts)  vs  (P3) San Jose Sharks (100 pts)

Cool Fact: They haven't actually met in the playoffs since 2009 (the other two 'Battle of California' series have happened multiple times), a year where the Sharks won the President's Trophy and lost in the 1st round to the Ducks in six games. The Ducks are the team with, in some ways, more experience than any other in the West, making the playoffs for a 6th straight season. The Ducks should be able to take advantage from a Sharks team that is still recovering.

Ducks in 6

Central Division

(C1) Nashville Predators (117 pts)  vs  (CWC) Colorado Avalanche (95 pts)

Cool Fact: The Predators won their first President's Tropy, and get to play the first NHL team ever to go from lowest points one year to the playoffs the next year. The Predators will have to duck history. The last team to lose the Cup Final and make it back was the 2009 Penguins. Thing is, they are too good to get tripped up here. And the world wants to see Predators vs. Jets.

Predators in 5

(C2) Winnipeg Jets (114 pts)  vs  (C3) Minnesota Wild (101 pts)

Cool Fact: This used to be one of the great rivalries, when it was the first incarnation of the Jets and the Minnesota North Stars. Of course, neither of those franchise still exist technically (Dallas and Arizona have yet to meet in the playoffs). The Jets also haven't won a playoff game in their current iteration, getting swept away in 2015 by the Ducks. Me thinks they'll win one, and get the chance to at least get wins 5-8.

Jets in 5

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Cup Playoffs Are Here

The best playoff tournament is about to start. Yes, better than March Madness. Better than the World Cup to come this summer. Better than the NFL playoffs that triumphantly ended with New England failing to win 3 Super Bowls in 4 years (for the second time). The Stanley Cup Playoffs are better than all of these things. It may last too long (but actually does better than basketball, which hilariously makes its first round go on for like four weeks). But it never fails to disappoint. Endless and energetic, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are perfect.

There is truly nothing like the intensity of playoff hockey, or at least nothing that combines the drama and the speed. There is nothing as grueling, to a point where generally everyone in the Stanley Cup Finals is playing hurt to some degree. There is no greater test or gauntlet. There is no long playoff format that mixes both spates of upsets each year with generally having a deserving winner each time out. And there's no playoff tournament that crowns a tournament (and not finals/Super Bowl/World Series) MVP - even if that is done out of tradition than actual implementation. There really are so many incredible elements that combine to create a perfect cocktail.

My favorite part of the playoffs is the first and second rounds, when there is hockey multiple times each night. The endless celebration of the sport. I remember when I was a kid, I would stay up and watch the late games, just putting them on the background, inevitably falling asleep to the beautiful sounds of a stadium cheering and chanting. I loved learning the line combinations of the random Western Conference teams I never really watched or cared about. I learned the various goal songs and celebrations. The noises of the game, rhapsody on ice.

This year is no different, and if anything should be better. This was one of the more enjoyable regular seasons in a long time, including a sudden rise in scoring to a limit not seen since the 2007-08 season. We had a Lightning team score 296 goals, the most by any team since the 2009-10 Capitals. We had others in the 270 range. We had Ovechkin hit his usual quota of goals, but neo-Ovechkin nearly match him in Patrik Laine. And of course, we had Vegas.

The story of the Vegas Golden Knights is one of the most incredible sports stories in recent memory. There were a lot of reports that the league would be more forgiving in the expansion draft process, not wanting Vegas to be as badd as the exapnsion teams of the 90's in the first few seasons, but even then few saw them even challenging for a playoff spot. Instead, they win the division wire-to-wire, and have the best home record of any team, with the mystique of the Vegas nightlife (no pun intended) being a far better home ice factor than even the wild fanbase that showed up constantly.

There is no real bad team in this years playoffs either, with the most anonymous or fogettable of the 16 probably being my Devils, who return to the playoffs off the back of potential Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall (that Hall for Larsson trade looks a lot different a year later) for the first time in 6 years. But outside of them you have Boston getting back in, against Toronto in a great revival of a dormant rivalry. You have the battle of Pennsylvania (during a time when I'm on a project near Philadelphia, will definitely be going to a local sports bar for a few of their games). You have the Battle of California (Sharks/Ducks), the aforementioned Vegas Knights trying to beat teh Kings playoff mystique (last seen four years ago), and even a nostalgic battle between Winnipeg and Minnesota (apparently, the previous iteration of the Jets and North Stars used to be big rival). This first round should be an insane whirlwind of 8 concurrent series.

Honestly, the playoff field is great every year; but this year just seems to set up for more fun than ever. Sure, not having Chicago around feels a bit odd (what a quick, stunning drop for a team who led the Western Conference in points just one season ago), and not having Connor McDavid is sad, but everything else is there to enjoy.

Honestly, I'm just ready to sit back and enjoy. I don't even want to make picks, to try to analyze this too much, just want to enjoy the carnival of hockey, the never ending run of incredible drama, draining, endless overtimes. Playoff hockey truly is the best, and the 2018 vintage has the chance to be something special. Can Ovechkin and the Caps finally get to a Conference Final, in a year when they seem a bit under the radar for once. Can the Penguins three-peat? Can the Lightnings finish their dream season off in style, or similarly can Vegas or Winnipeg (NBC probably hopes the answer is a hard 'No'), can the Preds finish off their incredible year? All the possibilities exist, and I just want to start this drama off now.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

On Cristiano

What Cristiano Ronaldo did today, expunge any chance that Juventus was going to end Real Madrid's run of eight straight trips to the Champions League Final, doing so with a most ludicrous goal that drew a standing ovation from the crowd in Turin, and a look mixed equal parts bemusement and agape wonder from Zidane, was another sign that this man is not done yet. And with him in such imperious form, neither is Real Madrid.

This has been a season of oddities at the Bernabeu. A year after seemingly conquering Spain along with Europe, setting into action a new period of Madridista rule, they are looking way up at Barcelona in La Liga, and Zidane's job seemed to be holding on for dear life. So many odd, lifeless performances. So many times when all seemed lost, a year after it all seemed like it would never end. But now that the business end of this tournament, their tournament, has reached, the old stars are back, the team is fighting, and Ronaldo is doing Ronaldo things.

Ronaldo started the season suspended, and then distracted and disorientatingly average, but once the calendar flipped to 2018, his has returned with all sorts of vengeance, looking to corral Leo Messi for the La Liga scoring crown, and doing things only he does in the Champions League. This is his tournament. There was a ludicrous stat mentioned today, that he has scored more goals in quarterfinals matches in the Champions League (22) than Juventus as a club (21). The stats are boundless, but that has always been there. What we saw today was the magic however.

The ball seemed suspended in midair, carving towards Ronaldo, who readied himself. It was over in one seamless flash, him contorting himself perfectly, striking the ball perfectly, hitting the corner of the net. For a few seconds, no one really could make sense of what happened. Gigi Buffon just stood there, Leo Bonnucci shrugged his shoulders, with a look of 'what was I supposed to do.' Ronaldo himself acted more restrained than usual, almost as if to say he let the goal do all the work for him. And then they started clapping, and clapping.

I've longed heard about this age old story of the Bernabeu crowd giving Ronaldinho a standing ovation after a goal worth of the man. I've never seen such a thing happen in my time watching, but I did today. Ronaldo had just killed off Juventus, but the fans had nothing to do but stand and applaud. Zidane's own meme-worthy, rubbing his head in amazement, was almost as good. He's a man who has scored some amazing goals in his lifetime, one in this very competition that will go down in history (a goal he would openly say was better than Cristiano's when pressed on it), but even he had no idea what he just saw.

The best part of this is Ronaldo, especially over the last three years, has become known for being the worlds greatest 'right place, right time' goal scorers ever. Optimists and fans say it is due to his preternatural sense of where to be; the pessimists call him a poacher who specializes in 'tap in' goals. That's what made this so crazy, a goal that would make the Man United Ronaldo blush at its audacity, its sheer brilliance, technically perfect and so dramatic.

Some day he really will slow down, he really will stop scoring goals. The investments Real Madrid made last offseason and probably will make this upcoming one will take centerstage. But until then this supernova star is still burning so bright, enough to bring wonder to a man on the touchline who has seen it all, and fans that have had joy beaten out of them at times. Ronaldo is still a legendary player, and moments like today's in Turin are just more brushstrokes to that perfect canvas.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

MLB 2018: 30 thoughts on the Season, Pr. 2

... Can the Astros work their magic on Gerritt Cole

Last year, the Astros signed a Pirates pitcher who had some decent stuff, had him re-jigger slightly, and turned him into a very capable #3 starter and the guy who shut the door in Game 7 of the World Series. Charlie Morton ended up exceeding expectations. Now the Astros get to try it again, but this time without someone who potentially has quite a bit more upside. Gerrit Colts was the #1 pick in the 2011 draft. He had an amazing 2015 season, but was just slightly above average the last two years. The stuff is all there, and the Astros have done a great job recently of taking damaged goods and turning them around. If they can run it back again with Cole, they might have a truly scary starting rotation.

... Strasburg's rise

Speaking of scary rotations, the Nationals best pitcher may not even be their guy who won the Cy Young award the last two seasons. Stephen Strasburg did the following in the second half: 12 Starts, 72 IP, 1.11 ERA, 82 Ks, WHIP of 0.85. Strasburg was a demon. He was even better in the playoffs with two dominant starts against the Cubs. Strasburg finally seems healthy, seems stable, and should do even better this season. His career is a strange one in that he had such outrageous hype it is hard to call him anything but a relative disappointment, but his actual seasons have been strong, and he seemed to put it all together last year. Despite being one of the 'superteams' there does seem to a bit of tension around the Nationals, probably in large part due to Harper's impending free agency, but with guys like Strasburg (and Scherzer, and Gio, and on and on), they still should shine from the mound.

... The Red Sox vs. Yankees

It's been a while since there was a real fun AL East race. I guess last year somewhat qualifies, but the Red Sox never seemed in too much jeopardy. But this year? It should be great. Both teams seem on paper better versions of the ones from last year, with the Sox getting much needed power into that lineup, and the Yankees getting even more power into theirs. I grew up on baseball in the early 00's and while there was nothing as overmarketed as the classic Sox Yanks games in 2003-2007, few rivalries actually delivered either. The best part right now, especially for a Boston hater like me (though not really regarding the Red Sox) is that the edge seems somewhat planted on the Yankees side of things. They got farther last year, got the bigger offseason acquisition, and now look set to add a major piece in the upcoming season. Oh, and they have the better farm system. NY is on the front foot at the moment.

... The Giants 2013 All Star Team

Watching the Giants last year was painful. In Spring, Bumgarner got hurt again and may miss a few months so that pain is continuing. That said, with the depressed state of the NL, the winnability of one of the Wild Card slots, and the acquisitions they made, there should at least be fun baseball in San Francisco. The idea of adding Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutcheon is a lot of fun, even if it is a few years late for both to actually make a meaningful difference. Then again, Longoria is only one year removed from a 127 OPS+ season, and McCutchen was at 121 OPS+ just this past year. The Giants, if they can get health from a few guys that were uncharacteristically down or hurt last year, have a clear path to .500, but what they really need is for the 2013 All Stars to still be good five years later.

... Ichiro in Seattle

Look, Ichiro is not good anymore. He hasn't really been good since 2012, though he was somewhat decent in 2016. Overall thought, him signing and going back to Seattle is purely a novelty play by both a franchise and a player who doesn't want to let go of the past. That said, sign me up immediately. Seeing Ichiro in Seattle just seems right. He may barely play, and when he does he will be a shell of the guy who left Seattle all those years back, but having him come home is just a great story for baseball. Ichiro is the most unique baseball player I've ever seen, and he was unconscionably good back in the day, and even if he just drums up memories rather than actual value, that's more than what Seattle has been given in recent years. 

... Harper & Machado: Contract Year

No surprise here; the upcoming free agency of both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will be a landmark moment for baseball. There is a very realistic chance we have the $400 million mark broken in American sports for the first time. This is such a rarity, a player entering free agency with still many years of prime performance ahead of time. Harper will be 26 in 2019, and Machado will be 26/27. These are not the ages of guys that hit the open market, with years of good performance already under their belt. Yes, Trout would get a contract blowing these two out of the water, but that's not the place we are in. With Harper and Machado, we are in an amazing moment in time, and their performance this year, especially if either has a truly outstanding season, could make even $500 million come into play.

... Can the Rockies pitching keep it up?

The 2017 Rockies were a strange team. They made the playoffs off the back of pitching, as their offense struggled. Of course, you have to adjust for Colorado to see these things, but essentially they were a pitching-first Rockies team. Their young pitchers are all back for 2018 too. Jon Gray is the star (25 years, 136 ERA+), but Kyle Freeland (24, 122), Tyler Chatwood (27, 107), Antonio Sanzatela (22, 107) and Tyler Anderson (207, 104) were all quite good and gave the Rockies something that they haven't ever seen before, young, cost controlled, successful pitching. Some of the more stats inclined people I've read seem to think a lot of it was smoke and mirrors apart from Jon Gray, but even then there is hope in Colordao for the first time in a long while. It will be very interesting to see if Freeland and Sanzatela, two of the more intriguing youngsters (apart from Gray) can keep it up in 2018.

... The sneaky FA champion Brewers

The Brewers were the NLs version of the Twins, a team that competed well before anyone expected them to. They couldn't hold off the Cubs for the entire season, but were competitive fairly deep into September. They had a lot of guys perform well, but few seemed to be having years they would be incapable of repeating. And of course now they add Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to the mix, both still young players that can produce 3-5 WAR easily. The Brewers didn't land the one big pitcher that they somewhat desperately need (assuming Chase Anderson is not the next Roy Oswalt), but being to add good defense and contact hitting to a power-hungry lineup is a great start towards repeating the 2017 season for a team still a year or two away from when most people thought they would be competitive.

... Astros year after and the Cubs year after the year after

All we heard last offseason was how the Cubs were too goo, too stacked, to fall victim to the year after effect. Well, they did, swimming aimlessly to a .500 record in the first half of the season. They caught fire in teh second half, finished with 93 wins, but were still a disappointment compared to the perfect 2016 version. This offseason was the same, but with my Astros, again hailed as being too good to get complacent, to get tired, to believe in the hype, to do all the things that normally happen (as the narrative goes) to World Series champs. Obviously, I think the Astros are too good, but it will be interesting to see if the same thing happens. For the Cubs, with a trim Schwarber, and the addition of Yu Darvish, it will be interesting to see if they can find their 2016 joie de vivre again.

... Does the mound visit limit actually change anything?

So after much show was made of ways to improve pace of play, all that was actually implemented in 2018 is a strange limit of 6 mound visits that don't end in pitcher changes. What was interesting was the analysis showed few games actually have more than six. The ones that did that caused the stir were mostly these playoff games when Brian McCann went out every 3-5 pitches. I get that was mind-numbing at times, but it was also the effing World Series. I honestly don't see how this will make a real change on pace. But it will be interesting that first time a team forgets and runs out of mound visits. I fully expect a pitching clock to come by 2020 and start making actual meaningful Iimpact on pace.

... The wonder of bullpen cars, and will other teams follow 'Zona's lead?

Yes, the Diamondbacks are bringing back the bullpen car. It is a perfectly cute one too, with a Diamondbacks cap on the top, and a white baseball structure in the middle. It is 100% awesome. This is one of the greatest developments in recent seasons. I truly hope other teams take thsi forward and we get bullpen cars reintroduced across baseball. I have no idea if it makes it any faster. I don't understand how there is not a negative imapct on the playing field. But I care zero percent about either of those two things, just to get these great bullpen cars back in our lives. Long live the bullpen car. 

... Correa, Seager, Lindor (but mainly Correa)

The 90's were ruled by shortstops, Messers Jeter, A-Rod and Nomar. The 2010s-2020s may be as well, with Correa, Lindor and Seager, all between 23-25 for this season. Lindor is the great fielder, whose power nicely spiked along with the rest of baseball. Seager and Correa are the more truly 5-tool gifted ones, and both have a chance to be truly special. Of course, my heart is with Carlos, a preternaturally gifted player that can be the next Harper/Machado mega-contract superstar. Seager is about 80-90% as good as Correa, and has a huge market to make a name for himself. Watching these three megastars grow together will truly be a great joy.

... Watching Joey Votto Hit

Slowly but surely, Votto has beaten down the haters and has started to get the credit and adulation he's long been due.

... Watching Byron Buxton and Andrelton Simmons field

... Watching the Astros, again

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.