Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Random MLB Musings Two Months In

I've avoided writing about the MLB season partially due to the fact that I don't want to jinx the Best in Record Astros, who, as I write this, are 31-15, seven games up in the division, and cruising despite not getting great starts from either Jose Altuve or Carlos Correa (admittedly, both have been good on the whole, just not great). The Astros are great. But so is so much else that is going on in the current season it is about time to look wider. So let's get to some quick-hit thoughts 30% through the season:

= This season has had more surprise stories than in many recent seasons, at least from my immediate reflection. We have the dueling NL West surprises in Colorado and Arizona, to the mashing Brewers, to the somehow still 25-18 Twins, to even the continued nonsensical Orioles being way over .500. None of this really makes sense. Neither does the Cubs languishing around .500, and not really performing much better either, and the Red Sox doing the same.

= The NL being upended is really surprising, given that the field seemed really locked in before the season. The Nationals are doing what everyone expected and the Dodgers are probably going to run away with the NL West, and the Cubs will probably snap out of it, but the supposed Wild Card contender Giants and Mets have flamed-out, leading way to my two favorite non-Astros stories of 2017, the Rockies and D'Backs

= The D'Backs are doing what Dave Stewart and Tony LaRussa thought they would, just one year too late, after both of those two gentlemen were shoved aside (probably for the best). Greinke was a disaster of a signing last year and has been impeccable (arguably best pitcher in teh NL so far this year). The offense has a healthy AJ Pollock matching a still great Paul Goldschmitt, who's quietly put together an insane handful of years to no real fanfare. The D'Backs may have more staying power than the Rockies since they have more established players. I even love that their weird 'let's get all of the 2010 pitching prospects' together has worked reasonably well, with Robbie Ray, Tijuan Walker and Patrick Corbin. If other 2010 phenom Shelby Miller ever turns things around they could be pretty special

= As for the Rockies, the biggest irony is that they really haven't hit all that well. Charlie Blackmon has been great, but defending batting champ DJ LeMahieu is languishing in mediocrity, and Carlos Gonzalez has done nothing. Luckily for them this is the year their pitching takes a massive step-up. There is legitimate concern it is not sustainable, but the indicators are that the Rockies at the very least have a cogent plan that makes sense and is working: they've collected a bunch of ground-ball heavy young pitchers which is perfect for an environment where any fly ball is a risk. Senzetella (22), Freeland (24) and Marquez (22) are probably not this good, but if even two of them hit, and Jon Gray comes back from injury soon, they may have something long-term, which is a statement that has never been said about the Rockies pitchers, and barely any more often for the team as a whole. Denver is a great sports market, and they deserve a good baseball team that can sustain a run for a while. They have a gorgeous ballpark that deserves more love again.

= Eric Thames has cooled off a bit, but the Brewers are still mashing, and when your name is connected to alcohol, it makes sense that the Brewers are a perfect collection of beer-league sluggers. Whether it's Braun, or Broxton, or Santana, or no names (to me at least) like Travis Shaw, my word can the Brewers mash. Now, yes, their pitching is a disaster, and given the sleeping giant in the division, I can't imagine them staying afloat for long, but man is it fun to see them mash, and Bernie Brewer have to take run after run at that slide.

= The AL has far less surprises, and their surprises aren't as fun. There's a fairly non-descript Twins team that probably won't keep this up, and two AL East teams, one being a perennial over-achiever who's best element (Manny Machado) is actually not doing all that much, and the effing Yankees. The fact that the Yankees are the plucky underdog in the AL is hilarious. Have to credit them though. Brian Cashman went about this 'rebuild' well, capitalized on overvalued relievers to restock the farm, drafted well and rode out a bunch of long-old contracts. That patience paid off masterfully. This team still has the #1 farm system in baseball even after graduating Aaron Judge so he can do his best Mike Trout impression. Hard to imagine that Starlin Castro or Chase Headly (or Matt Holliday, or Aaron Hicks) keep this up, but then again Gary Sanchez has barely played either and the last time we saw him in major action, he was doing a great Aaron Judge impression. The fact that they are shedding payroll, have the league's best farm system, and are already good enough to make a division or wild-card push, it is not a good time to be a Yankee hater.

= Quick shout-out to Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, who continue to be fantastic and all-time good like they always are. Trout is, so far at least, on pace for the best offensive year of his career. He is squarely now in the territory where if you project out his career he ends up somewhere between Mantle and Mays. For Kershaw, he's having a relatively "down" year, with just a 2.31 ERA, just 72 strikeouts in his 71 innings (of course, the 72-8 K-BB ratio is as good as ever). Let's just remember that he has been so good that this year is actually HURTING HIS CAREER NUMBERS. In what has been, so far, his worst season since 2012, he is still basically the best pitcher in the NL. What madness. From a GOAT perspective, LA is the center of the baseball universe.

= He was shelled in his last outing, and that might be the beginning of the end of his renaissance, but man was it fun to see Jason Vargas have a Kershaw-esque start to his season. Actually, that is not accurate. Vargas wasn't anywhere near as good as Kershaw. He struck-out less than a guy an inning. His WHIP was unremarkable. Nothing about his performance was special other than that 1.13 ERA. You know what, those are the types of randomess I love about baseball, especially early in a season. Sometimes, guys with completely unremarkable stuff just put a few good months together for no real reason whatsoever. More than anything, that is the beauty of baseball.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Can Zizou be a good Coach?....


Honestly, I could probably just stop this piece there, with that single three-letter word. I probably could have done the same last year when the rookie coach led Real Madrid to an 11th Champions League Title after taking over a team in disarray. But there were doubters out there. They said Madrid got lucky, that they had a cake draw to the Final, that they played ugly, that Zidane didn't know tactics if they smacked him on the face. Those doubters should go away now. Zidane is a good coach. The question turns now to will he be a better coach than he was a player?

Now, that question is somewhat facetious. He will likely not approach his legend as a player during his time on the sides. He may not even want to work long enough to do so. But after winning La Liga in his second year, and one win against Juventus from doing something no manager has ever done (win the Champions League back-to-back years), Zidane's first 18 months will rank right hp there with anyone else in the history of the game. Even if he doesn't lead Madrid to European glory (again, wouldn't be a surprise given no one has repeated yet) Zidane has firmly answered the question of whether he is a good coach. The more interesting question is exploring why he is.

I wrote a piece three years ago, when he was Carlo Ancelotti's right-hand man, on whether Zidane would be a good coach. I brought up a few strengths he had shown, including an actual commitment to being a coach, taking his training classes, working as an assistant coach, not wanting to just be handed a job like fellow all-timer Diego Maradona was. I also brought up a big roadblock, in that there are so few examples of all-time talents like his actually succeeding as coaches. Oddly enough, his largest strength is fueled by the legendary stature he still holds, and while he took all the classes, it is still acceptable to critique his tactics.

Let's start with the negative. I am nowhere near smart enough about soccer tactics to really give any good analysis on Zidane's ability in that regard. I have generally seen a team that is always well structured, that has good balance, that has shifted formations and strengths game-to-game and even half-to-half. The preparedness and energy of the Madridistas in their key Champions League matches showed Zidane to have a keen understanding of game tempo and strategy. Sure, he is not revolutionizing football like Pep Guardiola did. He may not seem as tactically perceptive as Jose Mourinho, but he's also far more conceited to ever admit such facts. And of course, Zidane has and will continue to improve in these areas. But let's to move what makes Zidane already a great manager, his mastery of teh tougher, more subjective part.

Zidane man management started out excellent and has only improved since. He commands that team, he has instituted such emotional change. Other than the peak of the Ancelotti years (where again, Zidane was the key assistant), Madrid has always been emotionally disconnected and shallow. No longer. His ability to connect to his key players, to convince Ronaldo to sit out of a dozen games (imagine any non-Pep Barca manager trying this with Messi!?), to rotate players in and out, to get evreryone to buy into performing. Sure, there were a few examples of players not liking being rotation players, most notably James and Morata, but let's realize in a normal squad rotation they would have gotten even less playing time. Zidane kept them integrated, motivated and they performed.

Zidane had the confidence to go on the road and rotate out 7-8 players from his best 11, going with a full-fledged B team knowing they needed results, and had those reserves playing at a ridiculous level to where people debated if the 'B' team was better than the 'A' one. Zidane's rotation worked, it kept Ronaldo fresh to where he's dominated the Spring instead of the Fall, a welcome change to when in past years his play would notably slip late in the season. Zidane has done what few managers could, manage the egos in that room to make them a cohesive unit.

What he also did was have the right mindset. What may be Zidane's favorite word as manager is 'suffer', in that his teams would have to suffer to get results. Sure, some of this is coach-speak, the futbol equivalent of football's 'Any Given Sunday', but he mentally approached games right. He wasn't about dominating opponents into submission (rarely if ever did Madrid have >70% of possession), but they were clinical. They fought. They performed. Last year, he was a little too defensive in their Champions League run (somewhat understandable given Ronaldo's injury), but this year they opened up more. The fact Madrid has gone 13 months without getting shutout speaks wonders to a changing mentality.

More than anything, Zidane is set up for the future. As he continues to grow as a tactician, he has already protected himself with such a strong position. Not only does he have the resume of a legendary player who is beloved in the capital as a player, he's done the same as a manager. It is arguable he has gained enough political clout at Madrid to win power struggles with Florentino Perez - at the very least, he has to really underperform for Perez not to get tons of blowback for canning him. Zidane has earned this with his performance, and now he really gets to shape his team.

Zidane entered a team stock full of talent. It is fairly accepted that James and Morata are out, and a few others may join them. Madrid's transfer ban will be lifted. Zidane will really get a chance to shape the team, and the rumors are that he will get a significant amount of sway on transfer decisions. He's said to want N'golo Kante, or another defensive midfielder, someone to be the Claude Makalele of his Madrid, to match with Casemiro, give depth to the one area of the team without much. This practical approach is what Madrid should be doing, and what Zidane is laser focused on.

Zidane's playing career was defined by a sad bipolar nature. He was such a beautiful, graceful player, often soft-spoken and courteous, but he had an awful temper that showed itself with a surprising amount of red-cards (including, of course, his final match). Luckily for Madrid, Zidane has seemingly driven out the temper and is only the steely, focused, soft-spoken, humble, graceful man he was on the ball. Zidane's mindset is truly perfect as a coach.

It is hard to say where Madrid goes from here. If they do win the Champions League, Zidane will have accomplished so much in his first 1.5 seasons he may see it as the right time to leave. Though that is doubtful, however long Zidane stays he probably won't match these first 18 months in tterms of results. It even seems somewhat inevitable that he will take the France National Team job at some point, try to do something no one has ever done, with the Champions League and World Cup as both a player and manager. Zidane's future is as bright as his club, and because he's gone about this the right way.

Madrid's future has never seemed brighter, and maybe that is because they found their coach, found their way of playing, found their players. Ronaldo seems reborn in his more #9-heavy role. Isco has been unearthed. The defense needs some bolstering to support the aging of their core guys, but the future is so bright at Madrid, and that starts with their calm, creative, pragmatic, handsome bald man on the sidelines.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 3: 2009 NCAA Sweet 16 - Villanova beats Duke

Most of these random games have some connection to random events in my youth. This game was at the end of my last Model UN (MUN) Conference I would attend in high school. Villanova's blowout win in the Sweet 16 was on the Friday Night of the conference. As a Senior, my role within MUN was different. I wasn't a 'leader' perse, not being an officer in the club, but I was one of the two Seniors to go on the trip, the other being my good buddy who was the club's president. MUN is an institution at my high school, and my year was, in a relative sense, not all that great. Most of my fellow seniors had dropped out of the club overtime (there was a lot of politics and drama - not too surprising for a club that has teenagers pretend to, you know, play politics) and by the end it was basically me and him. If you made a few conferences through Sophomore year, you basically stopped having to try out, and you just made it - specifically when your good friend is the club's president.

My friend and I were the technical leaders of the fun side of the weekend, including running the token game of Mafia (a staple of MUN conferences), and trying halfheartedly to steal a few beers (unsuccessful). Villanova's more dramatic game was the day we returned from the conference, an incredible game that ended with a Scottie Reynolds buzzer-beater to beat conference-rival Pittsburgh. But this game stands out because it was a great time to hate Duke and hate Duke with a bunch of other high schoolers who, for no real reason, hated Duke, during a damn fun MUN conference.

I actually remember very little about the game - as I remember similarly little about the actual MUN Conference. I have to admit I gave a half-assed effort during that Conference, there more for fun and to be a Senior with major Senioritis with an expense-paid (by my parents, mostly) trip to Washington DC with a good friend and lord over the younger kids. There is so little, in reality, separating Seniors from Juniors, from Sophomores, etc., but it was a lot of fun to actually be a Senior, to pretend to have more life experiences, more wisdom, more assertiveness. I remember forcing my way to have the Villanova game on in the TV we all crowded in to play Mafia. I had to put in on mute (compromises) but still forced it on and was giddy as Villanova blew the shit out of Duke.

Why did this game stick with me apart from just happening to be on during what was an underratedly seminal weekend of my high school career was that the buddy who was on the trip with me told me he got rejected by Duke (don't cry too much, he ended up at Brown and is now a promising doctor-to-be). That just added to the drama, as there was some personal connection to the 'Fuck Duke' of it all.

WWP South MUN mafia games were basically just excuses for the older kids (who played 'God') to make up ridiculous stories about each player who 'died', and the rest to basically make fun of each other for hours on end as they debated who killed whom. I took  my role as God/Storyteller very seriously indeed. Not really sure if I suceeded, but it was damn fun to regale this kids with my genius takes, all the while Scottie Reynolds and Alan Cunningham shat on Duke with all their might.

Quickly on the game, which I guess I should talk about a bit. Duke was a #2 seed, with largely the same roster that would win the title the next year. Villanova was a #3 in a year where the Big East ran train on the rest of College Basketball (UNC of course would win the title). Villanova started the game close but pulled away before half before embarassing Duke. It was the fourth straight year of Duke embarassments. During my high school life, they were seeded #1. #6. #2. #2, and lost in the Sweet 16 (to LSU), 1st Round (VCU), 2nd Round (West Virginia) and now Sweet 16 again. Duke's repeated failures were lapped up by pretty much everyone at my high school. This was before any of us were actually in college, of course, but still the hatred for Duke was palpable, and their crushing by Villanova was the perfect cap to 4 years of Duke infamy.

That MUN Conference ended with my buddy giving a quick speech on the bus-ride home (a standard for a Senior on the trip to do). It was a weird end to my MUN career. I had been a fairly good-but-not-great performer. I knew a lot of the club leadership over the years and used that to every advantage I could, but I also was banned for a year (on appeal shortened to 6 months). So was my buddy (who ended up club president anyway).

There is a whole story behind this, where everyone at the Conference during my Freshman year were in one room after hours, and when our club counselor came to check on my room (which we were not in), the loser in the room who was 'asleep' told the counselor we were downstairs (when we were not which he knew). When the counselor came to the room we were all in, the two Seniors told us to hide in the bathroom, exacerbating the problem. The counselor went down, couldn't find us, and eventually lost his shit and drove home (we were in Philly), leaving us the next day with the Assistant Counselor and a guillotine hanging over our heads. Ultimately everyone involved (other than the fucking rat who was 'sleeping' who lied in the first place) got banned for a year, reduced on appeal. That was my entry into the club. Three years later, in March of my senior year, I was one of the elder statesman - Irony is great in a way.

There were a lot of strings connected to that weekend that hold a tenuous connection to my current life. The buddy I was with moved out West after college and while we keep in touch, I haven't seem him too much. But we'll always have that weekend where we got to lord over the underclassmen like the cool seniors that we were most probably not in reality. It was a great weekend, a great capper to my MUN life, one of the few clubs I actually cared about in High School (not enough so to do it in college - probably a mistake in hindsight). The fact that Villanova pounded Duke into submission while I was pounding underclassmen with jokes on how they killed one of their own in Mafia was just a great, joyous coincidence.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 2: The 2012 UEFA Champions League Semifinal - Bayern vs. Real

I have a sleeping problem. It's not insomnia. It's not some ruinous issue that adversely impacts my life. Basically, I find it hard to sleep without something (tv, radio, etc.) on. It probably started back in middle school. I got my parents to get me a walk-man (yup, I'm that old) that had a radio tuner. Each night I would put in WFAN and listen to Steve Somers (10 - 1) and Evan Roberts (1 - 6, if I had a tough time sleeping). That eventually became putting on TV shows, or sports, or podcasts. I would rarely stay awake for more than 30 minutes (or one episode, or one 20/20 update on The FAN). Generally the headphones would fall out of my ears at some point. In the end, I would sleep, but I need some stimulation.

It's not too serious, and if I tried hard, I can probably rid myself of it, but habits that start when you are a kid are really hard to break. My wife one day probably won't like it too much so I'm sure there will be an expiration date on this at some point. So, what exactly does this have to do with sports? Well, there are certain go-to games that I'll put on my computer and go to sleep to. And there might not be any better than the 2012 Champions League Semifinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich - preferably the 1st Leg in Munich.

In the beginning it was mostly football games, but that graduated to all games (my previous nostalgia episode is one of them as well), and almost nothing puts me to sleep, in the best way, as this great tie between two great teams, the beginning of a modern era of Champions League football.

The game pitted Jose Mourinho's best Madrid Team, the one that would win La Liga with an all-time record of 32-4-2, with 100 points, 121 goals scored and 32 goals allowed. They met a Bayern team that surprisingly didn't win the Bundesliga (the last season that would happen), but with Jupp Heynckes in charge, and their collection of superstars entering their primes, they were about to enter into a period of sustained dominance. The collection of talent on that pitch was amazing. Madrid had many of the key pieces that still play today (Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric, Marcelo, Pepe, Ramos) but a few forgotten Merengue stars (Angel Di Maria, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and of course, captain Iker Casillas).

Bayern entered with, again, a host of current Bayern greats (Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm, Manueul Neur, David Alaba, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery) but even more ex-greats (Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jerome Boateng). These two teams both played similar styles. They were both the anti-Barcelona (as Bayern would show, of course, the next year by hammering them 7-0 in the UCL Semifinal). They played direct, they played physical, they played fast. They were perfect counterparts across ultimately 210 minutes and penalty kicks, but it started with a really fun night at the Allianz.

The Champions League is just a perfect competition, and no this is not because I am a Real Madrid fan (it is, after all, Our Competition). The battling of nations, of styles. The two-legged knockout format. The great night-time atmospheres across the cathedrals of European Football. The Allianz is not long on history, but high on atmosphere, with pulsating noise, music and cheers from starting whistle to final. The Bernabeu, if anything, is even better. With its high walls that trap noise, there may be no better setting for a Champions League game. I have great connections to both.

The first leg is the one I will put on more because the drama was just so intense. The second leg was the first sporting event I watched as a legally-able-to-drink adult in a bar. I cut class (that in itself was not a surprise when I was in college) and went to a local LES bar to watch the game among some friends, some drunken European hooligans, and a progressively drunker bartender (he was European as well, he really didn't give a fuck). The second leg was a strange game. Ronaldo got a penalty early, then scored a great goal and within 20 minutes Real was 2-0 up. Bayern got a penalty of their own to level the tie (level on away goals as well), and then it was 90 minutes of slightly cagey play with Bayern taking more and more chances when they got deep enough into the tie that a goal for them was worth close to double a goal for Madrid. Again, for various reasons, the first leg was better.

The away goals rule sometimes ruin ties, but sometimes it makes them as well. Mourinho and Real wanted that away goal in the first leg. Bayern wanted all the goals. The openness and eveness of the game created an incredible spectacle. As with any great UCL games, it began with that unforgettable Champions League anthem. That is the perfect way to enter into any tie, especially with the crowd like it was at the Allianz. It felt different. This was a meeting of two titans and they played like it.

The goals were scored by three of the 'lesser' stars in Ribery, Ozil and Mario Gomez (of all people). The Gomez goal was in the 89th minute. Mourinho fell to his knees. Heynckes celbrated like nothing else. It was a beautiful moment in the Allianz. I keep coming back to the energy in the stadium, and for good reason. My favorite sports memories, especially when you move away from football, all have great crowds, buzzing energy and a feeling of the moment that builds as the game goes on. This was no different.

Over the years, the crowds at the Allianz got more entitled, less invested; this was especially true during the Pep Guardiola years, but even now with Ancelotti, the Allianz isn't the same. At that point, Munich was on the ascendency. They made a spirited run to the 2010 Champions League final but that was more of a Cinderella journey. This was them about to become a dominant force. This was the first of five straight trips for Bayern to the Semifinals (ended this year by, of course, Real Madrid). They were ready, and they sang and sang and sang throughout the incredible, up-and-down 90 minutes in Munich.

The tie ended with a dramatic, if awfully executed, penalty shootout. Madrid missed their first two attempts with great saves by Manuel Neuer. Bayern missed their 3rd and 4th. Then Sergio Ramos, the man who a half-decade later would be known more for his ridiculous clutch goals, skied a penalty ludicrously over the bar. At this point,, Jose Mourinho was kneeling, powerless for what was about to come. This may have been the best team he ever had and they were going to go down. Bastian Schweinsteiger, with German precision, ended it - allowing Bayern to play the Final in their home stadium (they would lose to Chelsea, but that is another story).

It was a great 'moment in time' match. This was the height of Madrid's dominance this decade, but of course they would win the Champions League two other years when they weren't as good domestically. Bayern was just about to become the world's best team, a title they held until the 2013-14 Real Madrid humiliated them in the Champions League Semifinal. But more than anything, for me personally, it was a continuation, and a rebirth, of my love for the tournament. In the preceding years, it was dominated by Barcelona and Manchester United. The shock loss for Barcelona to Chelsea (Torres' EUR 80MM Goal) helped, but this tremendous tie is what turned the tide. For once, one team didn't have 70% of possession. I didn't have to hear how one team deserved it over the other. Instead, it was a throwback to the 2006 FIFA World Cup (also in Germany), with great matchups, great pace of play, and more than anything, even play. And really more than anything, in front of rhapsodic crowds lending a tremendous backdrop to it all.

It is ironic that the game I turn to the most to, in effect, put myself to sleep, would be one that also has an indelible impact on me. But so is my life with my terrible addiction to needing stimulation to put myself to sleep. But why does it put myself to sleep? Maybe it is the eveness of play, the sing-song nature of the crowd, and just the fact that the level of competition, the level of intensity, is a calming reminder of how great the Champions League can be.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 1: Game 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals

Let's take a trip down memory lane, to a place in time that was recent enough to be this decade, but long enough ago to when the Warriors were a mess of a franchise, the world hadn't heard of Kawhi Leonard, Derrick Rose was the reigning MVP, and Dwight Howard probably should have won it. Yes, now all of these diary entries can start with a similar 'back in the day' lineup of events not to have occurred yet. But this really was a different time. LeBron James was the most hated athlete in America. The Mavericks were the perennial chokers who with a band of random aging ex all-stars thrown together like the Expendables fought back against the Heatles for the good of America. It all crested in one of the best NBA finals games ever, a back-and-forth, dagger-filled game of multiple 'Bang's' a signature 'Hand down, Man down!' and the world of basketball coming together behind Dallas as it took on the world.

37-year old Jason Kidd had never won a title. Jason Terry was 33, Peja Stojakovic was 33, Dirk Nowitzki was 32 and Shawn Marion was 32. But in NBA terms, after tons of deep runs they were all, in normal terms, in the great twilight of their effective NBA careers (Nowitzki excepted, of course). That they, with a 28-year old Tyson Chandler, and aging role players in Deshaun Stevenson and JJ Barea, could beat the Heat seemed impossible. They won Game 2 of the finals with an all-time quick-hit comeback, goign on a 20-3 run to end the game after falling down by 15 with six minutes left in the 4th quarter. They won Game 4 by playing a ridiculous level of defense. Actually, the first four games of the series were defined by defense. No one scored 100 points in a game. Hell, no one even scored 30 in any quarter until Game 5. It was 2-2, entering Game 5, back in the days of the 2-3-2 series. Dallas needed that game. Miami wanted it. Dallas won it, in the best way possible.

Until that series, Dallas had never really been an underdog, a place where the crowd had to get behind their raggedy team, but playing the Heatles changed that, and that Dallas crowd was all in, from the beginning with a quick start by Dallas giving them a 15-6 lead. Miami came back, but never pulled away, and the crowd was riotous the whole way through. What defined the game was what the crowd cheered for more than anything, a complete, unmistakable, before-its-time barrage of threes.

Dallas finished the game 13-20 from three. This is in a pre-Warriors, pre-Rockets era when that was fairly unheard of. Each one was better than the rest. There was aging, balding, custodian-like in every way Brian Cardinal, to DeShaun Stevenson mean-mugging a pair, to Jason Kidd, to so many others. Some were just audacious. Jason Terry hit a bank three off balance falling backwards. JJ Barea hit a pair, including one of the highest-arcing threes I've ever seen. If ever there was a three that could compete with the height of Barea's it would be the one that Dirk Nowitzki hit a few minutes later.

The Heat came to play as well. Mario Chalmers, before he became the starting PG for two title teams, high three threes. Mike Miller added a few. This was the year before the Heat really figured out their rotation, when hilariously, Juwon Howard and Mike Bibby were rotation players. So many small moments in the game stay with me the few times I've rewatched, but nothing more than this being an intersection between the game as it would become (jacking threes from all over) to the game of the past that I'm really nostalgic for (Peja, Kidd, Terry, Matrix, Bibby, etc.). The first half was an incredible back-and-forth run of threes and jams and fast breaks, ending with Dallas up 60-57. The pace slowed in teh second, but the intensity remained and the legacy grew.

The Big 3 of course made their mark in such different ways. LeBron only really took the alpha dog role in Miami the next year, and in this series you had to wonder who was the actual alpha. Wade was far better than LeBron in the 2011 Finals, and this game featured that odd dynamic to a tee. Wade injured his hip in teh first half, and twice needed to recede back to the Heat locker room for treatment. He twice came back, fueling Heat runs both time. LeBron was healthy, but mentally impaired. He continued arguably his worst playoff series of his career. James was absent, so often standing behind the arc catching and passing off the ball in one continuous motion. His few drives seemed lazy and uninspired. James learned so much from this series, never taking a playoff series off in his life again. He learned, we all did.

The game hit its apex late in the game, with the Jason Terry three heard around the NBA world. The Mavs were up 105-101 but a few stops and the Heat had a chance. Haslem walled off and denied Nowitzki well, leaving the Jason's Kidd and Terry to pass the ball back and forth. With the shot clock hitting five, Terry pulled him, dribbled a few times and launched. Launched it over James, over the NBA aristocracy that was supposed to make the season a foregone conclusion, and nailed in. Breen gave an All-Time bang. JET, despite saying he wouldn't do it until the series was over, ran down the court, arms extended in his trademark pose. He popped the Jersey. He earned it. The Mavericks as a whole earned it.

The game returned to Jackson pounding James defense in a way only he can ('Hand down... Man DOWN!') and Van Gundy called it the best finals game he had ever seen. Van Gundy isn't one for hyperbole but he was right, this was truly a special game. It was still to date, the last stand for the old non-Big Three / Superteam driven NBA. With a style that would become in vogue but a team far from it, the Mavericks showed what depth, what drive, what passion could do. They would wrap things up in Game 6 in Dallas in a surprisingly easy road win, but this game was the true legacy one. It was a show for a city that embraced basketball for years getting their due, with a handful of players who have Hall of Fame cases collectively getting theirs.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Introduction

I realize I've slown down on the blog in 2017. Not because I don't have anything to write about, or that I like to write less. No, it is a combination of not having as much time after starting a new, more demanding, job, and still feeling internal burnout after that Super Bowl (yeah, that scar won't heal for a while). I've enjoyed the NHL playoffs this year tremendously (the NBA, by the way, has been hot garbage). I've loved the Astros quick start. I've reveled in the renaissance of Nadal (and to a far lesser extent, Federer). Things are on the whole good. But weirdly enough, I've started thinking about the past. I've lived long enough that I can distinctly remember a ton of elements, games, teams, players and moments over the past 12-13 years of sports. Probably starting with around the 2003 sports year, from Super Bowl XXXVII, to the Devils Stanley Cup run, to the first Manning and Brady season. From that moment on, sports, for better or for worse, ruled my life, and what I'm left with is a decade-plus of memories, of games, of moments that I love to relive, to rewatch, to re-examine. Some of them are cut out of the mid-2000s, a weird time indeed, before 3-and-D took over the NBA, before baseball became a 3-true-outcomes game, and before every NFL team had a QB that threw for 4,000 yards. This is a series about those moments, those games, that changed my sports life.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Do I Still Love Football?

I haven't written about football since before the Conference Championship Games. I didn't write anything about the Super Bowl. I, in truth, have tried my hardest to and done a fairly good job at not even thinking about the Super Bowl. That night ended in a shivering horror. But a combination of travel for work and other aspects of my life made it a whole lot easier to not care about that game, that league, and this sport. Three months later, it was my first real test. The NFL draft. And I didn't really care. I didn't know any of the players, I forgot what free agents went where, and I just had an apathy to the draft, to the idea of a new season in general. It really led me to ask if I truly love Football anymore.

I loved football to an unhealthy level for a long time. Shit, I started this blog close to eight years ago because of football, because I wanted an outlet to write about the game, about who I thought the good teams were and who I thought would win each week. Over time the blog traipsed along to various different subjects, notably travel, TV and other sports, but football was its backbone. For a good seven years, football owned my life from September through January. It casted a shadow over every Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday). It was a tremendously entertaining, fun and annoying weekly vice. I truly had an unhealthy love of football. Can that really just disappear?

Like most things on this blog, I would have to bring up Manning. The noticeable difference of both last season and this offseason, is that there is no Manning title to long for. He's gone. The league has moved on, and so have I. I couldn't watch him play last year. I couldn't follow the offseason to see how the moves would help his team and hopefully hurt his competitors. No, Manning is gone. Brady is somehow still here and still better than ever. The through line of every past NFL season was  Manning and Brady. One half of that duo is gone, the more meaningful half, and I would have to admit my interest fell off without his presence there.

I've only once before done a full blackout of NFL consumption during an offseason. That was actually right after my first season writing the blog. After the Colts lost Super Bowl XLIV to New Orleans, I was devastated. I couldn't look at football. I turned all of it out. I decided to read a book a a week - probably kept that up for a month or so. It was fun. But come the draft, or come training camp and definitely come September, I was right back there on my couch in my basement each week. I really do wonder if that will happen this September.

My love for Raiders is reborn, but that isn't as strong as it was for Manning and the Colts (and Broncos, though there I really only cared about him). My love for the league just isn't though. I still find football to be the best sport. The strategy is incredible. The human emotion is great. The stadiums, the energy, the environment, the cosmic energy of a cold January night. It is all so special - but is that enough anymore.

I've dug into this baseball season more than any in the past decade probably (quick aside, the Astros are really good!). I'm enjoying the hockey playoffs like I have any other year. I've followed La Liga and the UCL more than in years past with my old Manning-esque love in Zinedine Zidane back in the spotlight (another quick aside, if Manning were to take a Team President role, that would truly be a game-changer), and I have a feeling these other interests will not abate once football is back.

In a dark moment, I may get close to admitting that the Patriots ridiculous comeback has a part to play as well. I didn't watch the Super Bowl. Really, I didn't. I couldn't. Actually, I rpobably could have. I just didn't want to. Instead, I cooked a lamb roast and watched My Cousin Vinny (100% serious). Given what happened, this was a better use of my time. I've gone past hating the Patriots to just being bored and accepting of them. I wrote years ago that I yearn for a post-Manning/Brady league where each week isn't a re-examination of that rivalry. Given Manning is gone, and Brady has seemingly won that argument forever in the minds of 95% of the public (I still hold firmly 18>12) maybe I just don't care anymore.

Instead of examining why this disillusion occurred, I've started just wondering what my life would be without football as such a central figure. I've thought about what I could do with my fall Sundays suddenly available. I've thought about what podcasts I could listen to during my drives instead of listening to umpteen football ones. I've thought about what it may mean to not be so invested into the results of each Sunday that it makes my case of the Mondays even worse than it should be. Life without football playing a leading role may actually be more rewarding on the whole.

I don't look back at my football quasi-addiction with a sense of disappointment. I do ask 'was it all worth it?', but in the end I think it was. I have an addictive personality by nature and if it wasn't football, it would have been something else.  Football taught me a lot. It gave me an opportunity to interact with a lot of incredibly interesting people on various football and Colts-specific blogs. I don't regret these things. I will always remember watching the great games of the past 15 years. I also don't feel bad knowing that I may not catch all of the great ones of the next 15.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 2nd Round Picks

That was one of the more interesting 1st Rounds I've seen in a long time. For the first time that I can remember, we had no Game 7s, and only four Game 6s. But we also had a ridiculous amount of OTs, including three six-game series that had 5, 4 and 3 OT games. That first one, the Caps-Leafs series, again, had 5 of their 6 games go to OT!

The NHL, and more so, NBC, is probably not all too happy to lose Chicago and Boston in the first round, but they keep New York, and maybe can grow US interest in Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers - which they probably should try to do given they'll probably a fixture in these parts of the playoffs for years to come. 

Even to me, this is a weird set of series. The only team I'm really disappointed to see lose is Minnesota, as they play a much more attractive brand of hockey than the Blues, and also, as Bruce Boudreau correctly surmised, vastly outplayed St. Louis in that series only to lose in 5 games because Jake Allen became Marty Brodeur (who himself quietly became Allen's goalie coach this year) for a series.

Anyway, on to the serieses:

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

(A2) Ottawa Senators (98 pts)  vs.  (A-WC) New York Rangers (102 pts)

The State of the Teams: The hockey-world (particularly Canada) would have probably wanted to renew Bruins vs. Canadiens for the umpteenth time (they've met in the playoffs in, get ready, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2014), but instead we get what could end up being a really interesting series. The Senators are, by any measure, the worst team to make the playoffs this year, with their negative goal differential. The Rangers are definitely not that, but they are also not a conventionally great team. They have ridiculous team speed, and depth at forward to roll three lines, but have regressed mightily on the blue-line (Ryan McDonagh got old quite fast). Both goalies are capable of stealing the series. Craig Anderson, already a crowd favorite given his wife's struggle with cancer, was great against Boston. Henrik Lundqvist had the worst season of his career, but turned back the clock five years against Montreal. Looking deeper at the Senators roster, they probably should have done better than they did. They have one of the league's premier players in Erik Karlsson - who was outrageously good against Boston - and a nice stable of forwards. The Rangers? Well they are right where they should be. They'll probably never admit to feeling happy to be #4 in the Metro division and moved into this part of the bracket, but it is working out perfectly.

The Matchup: One way to look at the series is which goalie remains hot. Anderson has always been very up or down. Lundqvist played at a higher level in the playoffs than he had all season. Both have a likelihood of slipping. However, I could write "which goalie plays better?" for all series. Beyond the masked men, the Senators were more impressive top to bottom in the first round. Erik Karlsson, despite his two heel fractures, was insane. Derick Brassard - former Ranger - was solid. Bobby Ryan turned back the clock as well. Even older depth guys like Dion Phaneuf and Clarke McArthur were great. They can now match the Rangers depth better than I would have thought.  The Rangers were not nearly as good on paper against Montreal, but have some advantages. They are very fast - which the Senators first round opponent most certainly was not - and they have a huge edge on the power-play. The Rangers depth at forward can hurt the back-half of the Senators roster. The series will come down to, more-so than the goalies, if the Rangers 3rd/4th lines can outplay Ottawa's by a greater margin than the Sens top-two lines can outplay New York.

Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on the Series: The last time these two met in the playoffs was when the 8th seeded Senators took the top-seed Rangers to 7 games in 2012. That series was not beyond much controversy, including Carl Hagelin getting a three game suspension for elbowing Daniel Alfredsson in the head, and the Senators responding with Zenin Konopka punching Brady Boyle in the face. Fun times!

The Pick: I'm going with Ottawa for a few reasons. First, I have more faith in Anderson to retain the first round performance than Hank. Second, the Senators top guys are firing on all cylinders right now. Third, their bad special teams is less of an issue in the playoffs - and the Rangers aren't great on special teams, just merely better than Ottawa. And finally, I don't want a Metro Division team to win the Atlantic Division playoffs. It will happen eventually, and this is only 1% of the reason I am picking Ottawa, but still let's not go there yet.

Senators in 6

Metropolitan Division

(M1) Washington Capitals (118 pts)  vs.  (M2) Pittsburgh Penguins (111 pts)

State of the Teams: It's the series everyone wants - and once again they are the two best teams in hockey. Now, people said that last year - I heard a lot of 'this is the real Stanley Cup Final' when they met. But this time they were literally by point total the two best teams in hockey. They are deep, fast, a great mix of youth and experience. The Capitals had the best overall season by a team in some time. The Penguins had the best offensive season by a team in some time. Both teams are fairly healthy, though missing key pieces. The Penguins overcame these absences more easily than I expected, but not having Kris Letang will be a bigger issue against Washington's great depth. Similarly, any continued absence of Karl Alzner for the Caps will pose the same challenges. Like always, the Penguins start with Crosby and Malkin, who are both in great form in the playoffs again. Especially Malkin, who had an insane 11 points in the 5-game win over CBJ. Crosby is turning randoms into stars again (Jake Guentzel). Kessel is performing as per usual. And now Marc-Andre Fleury is doing his best Matt Murray impression - and I imagine he stays in net until they falter, if that even happens. The Capitals actually got good performances from all their key pieces in the first round. Justin Williams remains playoff dynamite. Kuznetsov was far more engaged this year. Their issue seems to be the back-end and Holtby struggling in the playoffs for the second straight year. Key issues if you are playing the best offensive team in a half-decade.

The Matchup: I've never bought into curses or one team owning an other. That often is true until it is not. That said, how can you overlook the way these two have played in the playoffs. Of course, the 'Penguins great in the playoffs' story is just a year old, as prior to 2016, most people considered them playoff chokers ever since their Cup win in 2009. In the regular season, the Capitals were 2-0-2, winning by huge margins (7-1, 5-2) and losing twice in OT (including a class 8-7 Penguins win). The key in those games was the Capitals depth outskating the relatively slower Penguins, and also awful performances by Matt Murray, who may not factor in this series. The Capitals have on paper the deeper team, but I am starting to worry about Holtby. He was not that good in the playoffs last year and had huge issues against the Penguins. Fleury seems in a much more calm state than he used to be. The Penguins power-play was phenomenal in the first round, and the Capitals took too many penalties. This is the best Capitals team to play the Penguins in the playoffs, but let's remember this is also the same team that needed to go to OT in five games against an average Toronto team. I would think the injuries on Pittsburgh's side (Hagelin is out, Kunitz is iffy to come back) will hurt them against a deeper team. But it really is ever hard to trust the Capitals is it?

Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on the Series: I've heard a lot of complaints this year on the new playoff format, with essentially two divisional tournaments in each conference with potential for Wild Cards to shuttle between divisions. I've heard those complaints renewed when these two have to play each other. But let's remember in the preceding format (3 divisions), this would be the #1 seed vs. #4 seed as the division winners were seeded #1-3.

The Pick: That said, I have to pick Washington. Part of this is simply that I want it. I want to see Ovi win the Cup so he never has to hear that he can't again. But I also think they are just better. The Capitals are more or less as good as Pittsburgh on offense. They are far better on defense. They have, on paper, the edge in goal though they desperately need Holtby to step up his level. They have home ice. They are healthier. Now, most of these statements were equally true last year and the Pens got them in 6, but this is a better Capitals team and that series last year basically came down to Holtby getting outplayed by Murray. I don't think that happens this time.

Capitals in 7

Western Conference

Central Division

(C3) St. Louis Blues (99 pts)  vs.  (C-WC) Nashville Predators (94 pts)

State of the Teams: If ever there was a poster-child series to the cliche that the teams that enter the playoffs hot wins, it is this one. Both of these two teams were among the league's largest disappointments for much of the season. The Blues almost indicated they were giving up on the season when they traded away Shattenkirk, and had a goalie in Jake Allen who was lost. The Predators were everyone's darlings in the preseason and were mired around .500 for much of the year. And now they meet in the 2nd round. The Predators are doing this mostly by just being the team everyone thought they should be. They have a great core of young forwards (Forsberg, Arvidsson, Johansen the stars in the group) and a ridiculous top-4 on defense (Subban, Josi, Ekholm, Ellis). And now they are getting vintage Pekka Rinne (3 goals allowed against Chicago). They had the potential to dominate possession with their puck moving defenseman and speed up front. The Blues made their run by basically getting Jake Allen to find himself. Their skaters aren't playing markedly better, and other than adding Vladimir Sobotka back to the mix, it's mostly the same group playing at the same level that got Ken Hitchcock fired. Turns out when you get Vezina-level goaltending from February onwards you can go on a nice run. Better yet when that run continues in the first round.

The Matchup: The Blues were massively outplayed on the ice against the Wild apart from goalie. Devin Dubnyk wasn't actually that bad for Minnesota, but Allen was heroic. And yet, I don't even know if we can give the Blues the edge in goal in this series given how good Rinne was. In many ways, the Predators are similar to the team that the Blues just beat. They have the same deep forward crew the Wild did. If anything the Predators are better on the blue-line. It is sad they sleep-walked through the regular season, but it is clear this is not the same Nashville team. The Blues will have to depend on getting a lot of non 5v5 time in the series, as they were very good on both the PP and PK, but very much average 5v5. The Predators are basically the opposite. That tends to work better in the playoffs when penalties are called at a much reduced rate. Jake Allen apparently got into a much better mental state once Brodeur became more involved, but again there is no indication he's even better than Rinne - though Rinne's brilliance only dates back to this series as he was very average throughout the regular season. Neither team has much injury concerns at this point, so we should get both teams close to their best. It just seems now that the Predators have found their best, it is as impressive as well thought it was going to be.

Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on this Series: This is the 4th year of the new playoff format, and the 3rd time the Central Division will have the #3 seed play the #4 seed. In the first two iterations, that #3 seed was Chicago, so it was more understandable (they beat St. Louis in 2014 and Nashville in 2015). In fact, in general out of the 16 matchups we've gotten so far in the 2nd round, there have been just 7 between the top two seeds in their division, and four of those have come in the Metro which has so far always been 1v2.

The Pick: It became fairly obvious, but I'm going with Nashville here. The Predators we see now are playing so much better than a 94 point team. They are playing like the team we all expected them to be, with the added bonus of having vintage Pekka Rinne. That last part is crucial because the Blues won in the first round essentially only due to Jake Allen being ridiculous. Well, there is no clear indicator they'll have the goalie matchup here. The Blues will need a lot of penalties called to keep this close, which I can't really see happening. Plus, after seeing the Blues win the division last year, would be nice for the other snake-bit Central Division team to join them this time around.

Predators in 6

Pacific Division

(P1) Anaheim Ducks (105 pts)  vs.  (P2) Edmonton Oilers (103 pts)

State of the Teams: This might be my favorite second round series. The Ducks have been my pet team for a while now. The Oilers should be everyone's favorite team right now as we can enjoy them before Connor McDavid replaces Sidney Crosby as the league's best player leading to anti-Oiler sentiment becoming pervasive. The two teams play enjoyable hockey - that Ducks/Flames series was underrated in its manic nature and was fully enjoyable despite being a sweep. The Oilers were probably my favorite home atmosphere in round 1, and now their fans can legitimately have Stanley Cup Final aspirations. Both teams are healthy. The Oilers have barely anyone on the injury report. The Ducks have loads, including all their three key defenseman (Fowler, Lindholm, Vatanen) but all three are expected to play in Game 1. This should be a good one. The Ducks were derided for replacing Boudreau with old-school Randy Carlyle, but the team has done really well under him, didn't mutiny like everyone expected, and have gone 15-0-3 dating back to the regular season. The Oilers have more young talent than anyone (including Toronto), have the league's MVP who is only 20, and are just a joy to watch given their free-wheeling nature. Again, this should be a good one.

The Matchup: Much like the Blues and Oilers, the Ducks were relatively disappointing for much of the year before turning it on late. Unlike those two teams, people expected the Ducks to be slightly disappointing. However, they still have tons of talent on the team, with two premier, if entering their post-prime phase, forwards on the top-line, a great 2nd line (Kesler-Silfverberg-Cogliano) and those three talented puck-moving defensemen. John Gibson also had a really nice season in net. The Oilers on the other hand have the top-flight guys we know about, but have shown more depth and more non-Connor McDavid sourced scoring in these playoffs, even mixing and matching lines to spread out their top guys across the lines rather than concentrate on one (splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl has done wonders). Both teams are similar 5v5, as the Ducks have never been a possession-hungry team, and they have opposing specials strengths (Oilers great PP, Ducks great PK). The Ducks have the more known goalie but they were basically equally good this season. As shown by their point totals as well, not much separating these two.

Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on the Series: The last time the Oilers made the playoffs, they beat the Ducks in the Western Conference Finals on their way to that miracle Cup Final appearance in '06. While the Ducks lost the series in 5, that was the breakout for them in a post-Babcock world, with it being the first taste for Getzlaf and Perry (2nd liners back then). The Ducks would then steal the Oilers best player (Pronger) and win the Cup the next year. In the 10 years after they met in '06 (2006-07 through 2015-16), the Ducks made the playoffs eight times, including winning a Cup and making another Western Conference Finals appearance. The Oilers on the other hand won the lottery four times.

The Pick: Ultimately, I favor the Ducks. The Oilers are just not deep enough, and the Ducks 2nd line has as good a shot as any defensive-leaning line in the playoffs left to slow McDavid. If that forces Edmonton to join McDavid and Draisaitl together it will only amplify the lack of options the Oilers have. The Ducks also have a large edge on the blue-line assuming the key three are back and healthy. Whatever edge the Oilers have on PP is neutralized by both the general lack of penalties and the Ducks strong PK. The Ducks are not a great team, and the Oilers are definitely faster, but I do think it isn't time for them just yet.

Ducks in 6

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bye, Bye Blackhawks

By the end of it, they looked slow and old and, more than anything, tired.

The Blackhawks were swept aside, this from a team that had never gone away without a fight. This isn't the first time the Blackhawks have lost in the playoffs, in this run as a modern dynasty. But the first time they looked outmatched, and outworked. They lost in 7 games to a, frankly, better team in 2011, but there they came back from 0-3 down to force a game 7 against the President's Trophy winners, and even forced OT in that Game 7 before Vancouver finally beat them. That was the height of the Blackhawks fight, forcing a Game 7 with probably the worst team in this run.

The next year they lost in 6 to the then Phoenix Coyotes, but four of the games went to OT. In 2014, they fought back from 1-3 down to force Game 7 against the LA Kings, and while they somewhat blew Game 7 (they were up 2-0 and 3-2 in the game), they lost to the team that won the Cup. And then last year again down 3-1, again forcing a Game 7 against St. Louis. The Blackhawks have been very good for a long time. They were a dynasty, becoming something the league tried to marshal away during the 2005-06 lockout. They did it anyway, and now it is over.

For the first time, the Blackhawks did not have any answers. Their lack of depth has been a problem for a while, but in the past their stars could make up for it, and they would summon 3-4 imports and random rookies and have them contribute more than anyone could expect. The vets struggled, the rookies even moreso. In the end, the Blackhawks bag of tricks was empty and crinkled as the Predators feasted on the older, tired, shallow Hawks in four quick games.

When the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup they were something of a superteam. They brought in a bunch of veterans to supplement a ridiculously good young core (the same core that would headline the team ever since). That was a great risk but a brilliantly calculated one. The Hawks knew how good, and how cheap, their core was at that moment so they brought in free agent after free agent (Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell, John Madden, Thomas Kopecky, Brent Sopel, and on and on) to provide ridiculous depth. That team cruised, and then they had to face the music for the first time with a summer cap crunch immediately following that forced all of those names along with other homegrown talents (Dustin Byfuglein, Troy Brouwer) out the door. The Hawks had to rebuild.

Of course, rebuilding is easier when you have the core they did, and while it took them a couple years to shore up the depth, when they did the Hawks had the most dominant season we've seen. It was a lockout season so the dominance was hidden, but the 2012-13 Blackhawks got 71 points in 48 games - a pace for 131 which would be the most in the post-lockout NHL. They had their core at a perfect age, a new wave of younger, cheaper but sitll great depth (Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Nick Leddy, etc.) and that wave crested that year and the next where they came so close to making back-to-back Cup Finals (and in all probability back-to-back Cups). The team that won in 2014-15 was mostly the same, but now with a more glaring depth problem (especially on the blueline) washed over by a still in-their-prime core group. That third Cup was the one that was most 'won' by the stars. And that lies their biggest problem: those stars aren't good enough any more to mask holes.

There were seven players on all three Blackhaws cup teams. The names float easily off the tongue for most hockey fans: Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson. Six of the seven are still here - with Patrick Sharp sacrificed after the 2015 Cup Win to Dallas. Those six are all great players. They include four guys that are essentially locks for the Hall of Fame (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith), and another that may make it with a pro-Blackhawks bias (Seabrook) and another quality player (Hjalmy). However, the biggest issue with the Blackhawks come down to these three lists of numbers:

Jonathan Toews: 28, 10.5 MM, through 2022-23
Patrick Kane: 28, 10.5 MM, through 2022-23
Marian Hossa: 38, 5.3 MM, through 2020-21
Duncan Keith: 33, 5.5 MM, through 2022-23
Brent Seabrook, 31, 6.9 MM, through 2022-23
Niklas Hjalmarsson: 29, 4.1 MM, through 2018-19

Those six players, the six guys that were (Hossa aside) youngsters for Cup #1, square in their primes for Cup #2, and about to leave their primes for Cup #3, are now at a point where their salaries will start outmatching their production, and the length of the deals along with the hefty price tag will make it really hard for the Blackhaws to reload like they have in the past. This was a calculated risk to keep this core together, and in some cases overpay for long-term contracts partly to reward the key guys that made this renaissance possible. It is always hard to fault that approach from a moral point of view, but when a team has no money to get additional players in it puts a huge onus on player development, one area the Blackhawks have struggled mightily in.

Player development as much as the key seven won the Blackhawks the 2012-13 Stanley Cup, and for Saad and Terevainen, the 2014-15 Stanley Cup. But now, with those guys shipped out as cap casualities (with very little in return), the Hawks had to try to do it again and it didn't work. This was especially stark on the blue-line, with Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson looking tired at best or old at worst. In truth, the Blackhaws defense core was 3-deep in 2014-15 as well, but two years is a big difference - the difference between Keith in his prime to starting his decline.

The Blackhawks are not going to be a bad team next year. They will almost assuredly make the playoffs, and while they may not be the playoff favorite again, there is enough good players on the team to catch some luck and win Cup #4. It's not like they are markedly worse than some of the teams still alive in the playoffs, it is just they caught the wrong team fast enough and deep enough to expose them.

The Predators should be lauded for finally being the team we all expected them to be in the playoffs. When they brought in Subban adding him to an already great back-line (Josi, Ekholm, Ellis are all great defenseman) the Predators on paper appeared to be one of the best teams - goalies excluded. In many ways, the current Predators are a close match for the old Blackhaws, with great depth on the blue-line and deep, young talent on offense. Mostly through trade, the Predators have collected a great, deep roster that is young, fast, skilled, and while Pekka Rinne can easily turn back into regular-season Rinne next round, this team should be the favorite in any series until the Cup Final.

The Blackhawks were able to resurrect hockey in Chicago, show the league a dynasty is still possible in the post-lockout NHL, and set a stellar leading example of how to play calm, collected playoff hockey. My favorite stat for all time will be that from 2010-2015, 8 times the Blackhaws found themselves tied 2-2 in a series. Their record in the remaining games: 16-1. The Blackhawks did some unbelievable things, and participated in some of the best series I've seen in the last half-decade or so - the 2010 2nd Round against Vancouver, the 2013 2nd round against Detroit, the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals win against Boston, the 2014 Conference Final against LA, the 2015 Conference Final against Anaheim, the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against Tampa, last year's 1st round loss to St. Louis. All great series, all great moments provided by those guys in Chicago. 

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe their next set of development players turns out to be as good as the Saad/Shaw/Teravainen group. Maybe Stan Bowman pulls off some magic in the trade market, or gets someone to take one of the contracts. Maybe another year without two-and-a-half months of playoffs will help an aging, but still extremely talented core, rest up. But if not, if that was the end, it was a great ride.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Picks

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

(A1) Montreal Canadiens (103 pts)  vs  (EW2) New York Rangers (102 pts)

I for one am really glad that the Canadiens did end up with one more point than the Rangers. It would have been a little much if all four Metro Division playoff teams finished ahead of all four Atlantic division teams. The Rangers were a very good team for most of the season, essentially equal to the other three Metro division powerhouses, but tailed off somewhat over the second half to finish with a +36 goal differential. Of course, that is still a good 10 goals better than Montreal, as the Rangers offense had a great year (Top 5 in goals). The Canadiens begin and end with Carey Price period. Nothing is that great about the team apart form Price. Their supposedly next set of stars all struggled with Alex Galchenyuk having a middling 44 points in his 61 games and guys like Gallagher (29 pts), Shaw (29) and Danault (40) all doing the same despite playing a majority of the season. In the end, the Canadiens are their goalie – and Carey Price is really good. The Rangers used to be the team as recently as just two years ago who would enter any playoff series with the edge in goal. That is no longer.

The Rangers are a deep offense with quality across all four lines and great team speed (something that used to be said of Montreal fairly recently as well), but Henrik Lundqvist struggled in posting his worst season of his career. The .910 save % is not great, but the 2.74 GAA is even worse. Backup Antti Raanta far outperformed him and it will be interesting to see if Alain Vigneault, a man not unfamiliar to goalie switching in the playoffs, moves to Raanta if Hank struggles. The Rangers are the better team on paper with better performance from their four lines and more depth on defense, and neither team has any real edge on special teams. In the end, though, it is hard to go against a team with a large edge in goal.

Pick: Canadiens in 6

(A2) Ottawa Senators (98 pts)  vs  (A3) Boston Bruins (95 pts)

Let’s get this out of the way early, the Senators are the worst team in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They are the only one with a negative goal differential. They are the worst offensive team in the playoffs. Their defense depends on Erik Karlsson keeping the puck for all the minutes he is on ice and Craig Anderson performing miracles. The Bruins are living a charmed life, as the Maple Leafs loss on the last day of the season gave Boston this slot, an eminently more beatable opponent than what Toronto now gets to face (Washington). The Senators have a few nice spots, including the continued brilliance of Erik Karlsson who logged another 71 points in 77 games and continues to be underrated for his actual defensive abilities. Their top three forwards (Hoffman, Turris, Stone) all had nice years. And of course, Craig Anderson remains great. However, they have no discernable skills beyond these things, being both below-average on the PP and PK, and from a possession standpoint not too great 5v5 either.

The Bruins, on the other hand, parlayed a shockingly great season from Brad Marchand (85 pts – way above anything he’s done in his career), a breakout season from 20-year old David Pastrnak (70 points), and the continued brilliance of Patrice Bergeron into a really nice bounceback season from a team that missed the playoffs each of the past two years and fired their coach midseason. Tuukka Rask showed signs of slippage, but the Bruins did a good enough job limiting shots that it didn’t really matter as he ended up with a perfectly acceptable 2.23 GAA despite being below average in both general save percentage and quality save percentage (.493 – anything below .5 is considered bad). The Bruins were both above average in the PP and PK as well. Basically, they are way better top to bottom aside from goalie and the difference here is nowhere near as large as it was between Montreal and New York. Despite all of this, the only reason I am skeptical in the Bruins is the fact that they underperformed all these peripheral stats and performances and ended up with just 95 points. Still, gotta use my head when every indicator points to Boston.

Pick: Bruins in 6

Metropolitan Division

(M1) Washington Capitals (118 pts)  vs  (EW2) Toronto Maple Leafs (95 pts)

The Capitals were a juggernaut last year. They scored 252 goals and allowed just 193, for a league-leading goal differential of +59. If we are being honest, the Capitals were better this year. They scored 11 more goals, allowed 11 fewer, for a goal differential of +81. They were #3 in goals, and #1 in goals allowed. They had an above average power-play (4th in %) and penalty-kill (7th in %). Nicklas Backstrom had his usual great year (quietly 4th in points). Evgeny Kuznetsov an Marcus Johansson had very nice years. The defense is deep. Kevin Shattenkirk came in and had 14 points in 19 games. Alex Ovechkin’s ‘down’ year consisted for 33 goals. Oh, and they may have the best goalie in the league, as Holtby finished with a tidy .925 save% and 2.07 GAA. The Capitals are really good.

The Maple Leafs are not. With the young talent they have, maybe they become the Capitals 5 years from now – but right now they just are not there. Now, they can probably match Washington’s offensive firepower. Auston Matthews had the most goals by any rookie since Ovie (40). Their other two precocious youngsters (20-year old Wille Nylander and 19-year old Mitch Marner) had matching 61 point seasons. And they have coach extraordinaire Mike Babcock living up to all his billing. Even if they were to get swept in embarrassing fashion, this season was a rousing success. But there is a chance they do get swept in embarrassing fashion. The goaltending, and defense as a whole, is brutal even if Frederik Andersen were not somewhat gimpy. Their special teams are good, but their 5v5 numbers are below average – and their opponent can easily attest to how important 5v5 is in the playoffs. Finally, Babcock himself has had really good teams flame out in the playoffs. This should not be a close series, and if the Capitals do struggle to put Toronto away, that is a major warning sign going forward.

Pick: Capitals in 5

(M2) Pittsburgh Penguins (111 pts)  vs  (M3) Columbus Blue Jackets (108 pts)

To me, this is easily the most exciting of the four Eastern Conference playoff series. Not only are these two so close to each other geographically, and not only is there some bad blood between the two teams, but add into it myriad interesting characters from John Tortorella’s triumphant return to the playoffs, to Sidney Crosby, to Crosby nag Brandon Dubinsky, and you may get something special. The Blue Jackets had such a bizarre season. They started off on a pace that was on track to make them one of the greatest teams of all time. Everyone decried this because no one expected it, and their early-season possession numbers were middling, and their depended too much on the power play. Then, the team struggled mightily for six weeks or so, getting passed by Washington for good and then trading spots with the rest of the Metro powerhouses, and then, like magic, they became good again. At the end, the Blue Jackets were fairly good in possession, were 6th in goals scored, 2nd in goals allowed, had their power-play drop to all the way to just above average, and became a team whose performance belied a really good team. And that is what they are. 19-year old Zach Werenski is a future star on the blue-line, and their young forwards all had nice seasons, from Cam Atkinson (62 points), Alexander Wennberg (59), Brandon Saad (53) and Sam Gagner (50). But the team ill go far if Sergei Bobrovsky can continue to be the beautiful star he used to be in 2013-14, and was again this year. Bob’s season was ridiculous, with a .931 sv% and a .651 quality-chance save percentage. The Blue Jackets are a good team with a great goalie.

The Pens are a great team with an ‘eh’ goalie, as Matt Murray had a nice year for a rookie (yup, technically he’s a rookie) but not a great year overall. Never mind, though, as the Penguins raced with 282 goals, the most scored by an NHL team in 7 years, since the Capitals scored 313 in 2009-10 (the year they got Halak-ed in the 1st round). The Penguins did it in more ways than they used to as well. Crosby was great (44 goals and 89 points in 75 games), and Malkin was as good but he missed 20 games. So did Conor Sheary (53 points in 61 games). The slack was more than picked up elsewhere. The powerplay is great, and their continued ability to split their lines up keeps them as deep as the team that dominated last year. My biggest issue with the Penguins, and ultimately why I am picking them to lose, is the injuries. There’s no Carl Hagelin and no Chris Kunitz, two key Top-9 forwards for them. But worst is the lack of Kris Letang, who was dominant in the playoffs last year in possession. The Blue Jackets can somewhat match the depth of the Penguins now, and I can see a break-out series for Bobrovsky on the big stage.

Pick: Blue Jackets in 7

Western Conference

Central Division

(C1) Chicago Blackhawks (109 pts)  vs  (WW2) Nashville Predators (94 pts)

For years, the Blackhawks relatively underperformed in the regular season despite great peripheral numbers and then generally went really deep in the playoffs. For the first time in a while, they decided to outperform in the regular season. By no numbers are the Blackhawks a great team that should have had the best point total in the Western Conference. Yes, this was a down year in the West (109 pts wouldn’t have led the West in any recent year), but the Blackhawks are a team that finished 3rd in the Central three straight years, not a team that cruised to 1st place. The usual suspects all had great years (save for Toews), with Kane pouring in 89 points, Panarin having a nice encore performance, and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remaining great. The team is not deep however, and a team that can roll lines consistently has a really good shot of knocking them off. There’s no real explanation for the Blackhawks ending up with 109 points being merely good 5v5, and below average both on the PP and PK, and with both Crawford and Scott Darling having average seasons. Of course, the fact that this team normally plays better in the playoffs and is already the top seed in the West is quite scary.

The Predators are the anti-Blackhawks. They should have been better. They were everyone’s trendy Stanley Cup pick in the preseason after they added PK Subban to an already great blue-line, and had a deep set of forwards that can roll with anyone. Injuries and slow starts by Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen set them off course early but they rebounded to grab the final playoff spot (something everyone else’s preseason pick – Tampa Bay – just missed out on doing), but there’s no real indication that this is a team ready to flip the switch. Their top forwards are all young, but maybe a year away from truly breaking out (their top three point getters are 23, 24 and 22). Their defense is deep, and Subban seems to be healthy, but even their blueline can’t cover for a goalie who’s best days are years behind him. Pekka Rinne is just not a top flight goalie anymore, and while Juuse Saros is intriguing as his backup, that too is a long-term option. The Predators should have been better, and they should be better next year, but I don’t think there is some great team hiding in the 2016-17 vintage.

Pick: Blackhawks in 6

(C2) Minnesota Wild (106 pts)  vs  (C3) St. Louis Blues (99 pts)

In many ways, the fact that this matchup seems uninspiring speaks volumes about how sad the Central was this year. The Blues, Predators and Stars all seriously underperformed, and even the Wild dropped off from their ridiculous early-season pace to have a nice season. The Blues enter this series injured, on an already top-heavy roster, and still with questions in goal. They certainly improved once Ken Hitchcock was shown the door, but something still seems off on the team. Only Tarasenko (who’s really criminally underrated at this point), Jaden Schwartz and Alex Peitrangelo had anything resembling nice seasons. The largest red flag was the stagnation of Jake Allen. For years we were told he needed to be fully handed the reigns to succeed and now we see why the Blues were so hesitant to give him them. He was perfectly average, which behind a perfectly average team (12th in both goals scored and allowed), the Blues don’t pose too much of a threat.

The Wild on the other hand will really test the theory of momentum. Their beginning of the season was absolutely phenomenal. At one point, the top four players in the NHL in +/- were Wild players. In the end, still three of the top four were (Zucker and Suter at +34 and Jared Spureon at +33). The team had a goal differential on pace to break +100. Even though they noticeably slowed down in the second half to the point they gave away what was once a huge division lead, the Wil remain a very deep, very good team. Eric Staal had a crazy bounceback year, all their young talent broke out together (24 year olds Granlund, Niederreiter and Coyle all had very good years). They don’t even have the red-flag hallmarks of the usual Boudreau teams like an unsustainably good powerplay (the Wild were just good on the PP). The biggest reason for their fall-off remains the only reason for skepticism (other than Boudreau’s past history), in that Devan Dubnyk regressed quite clearly in the 2nd half of the season. He ended the year really well, but he was Bobrovsky level good in the 1st half, and merely Tuuka Rask good in the 2nd. Now, in this matchup they still have the goalie edge, but this could doom them later on.

Pick: Wild in 5

Pacific Division

(P1) Anaheim Ducks (105 pts)  vs  (WW1) Calgary Flames (94 pts)

The Ducks won the Pacific Division the first three years it existed in its current state. Because of playoff failures they fired Bruce Boudreau, hired old-school Randy Carlyle, and ended up winning the Pacific again. They maybe had the quietest 105 point season I have ever seen. The Carlyle hiring was much derided, but the Ducks continued to be what they are. They have one great forward (Getzlaf – another quiet 73 points in 74 games), a few great defenseman (though Cam Fowler’s injury hurts them, and will become more significant if they advance and he is still out), and an overall deep, large team that can tighten up when they need to. The Ducks started slow but ended great, and John Gibson put a hammer-lock on the starting job. The biggest red flag is how the players that normally wither away in the playoffs fare this time around. The pickup of Patrick Eaves has been a great under-the-radar move to add even more depth to an already deep forward group. If they can continue to roll lines the Ducks should be fine – especially in this matchup.

I was wrong when I said the Blues were the most average playoff team – the Flames are. The ywere 15th in Goals Scored, and 16th in Goals Allowed, with a differential of +5. The Flames are an average team. Like Nashville, they will likely be very good in a couple years as Gaedreau and Monahan continue to develop, and as Dougie Hamilton grows into the Norris-level player he can be (50 points and a +12 was a good start this year). But their depth is a serious issue – exacerbated by the disappearance of Sam Bennett this season. They have the team speed to give Anaheim problems, but outside of that it is hard to see where they have any edges. They’ve relied on PP and PK excellence to mask serious deficiencies 5v5, and that gets exposed like nothing else in the playoffs (as the Ducks can attest to from previous seasons), and finally their goaltending is unlikely to steal anything. The Western Conference may end up giving us great drama, but nothing is pointing to that at this point.

Pick: Ducks in 5

(P2) Edmonton Oilers (103 pts)  vs  (P3) San Jose Sharks (98 pts)

The Oilers may seem to be on paper to the Western Conference’s answer to the Maple Leafs, the team that crashed the playoff party way before anyone was ready for them to, but the Oilers are in reality a fairly good team. Their offense may be top-heavy, but when that top is the NHL’s scoring leader and likely MVP in Connor McDavid, another precocious young center with 77 more points (Leon Draisaitl), and a few other really nice pieces playing in front of the surprisingly-good Cam Talbot, that can add up to a 103-point season where the team probably should have won the admittedly soft Pacific. What’s more is that they are fully healthy, and have been for essentially the full year. There is only two areas to poke and prod at: their lack of depth beyond the top two lines (RNH did not have a very good year) and their reliance on the PP which usually spells doom in the playoffs.

The Sharks are the anti-Oilers, the team that has, outside of Chicago, more playoff experience with this core than any other. I’m going to assume Thornton plays, but even if he does, his play finally started showing some signs of slippage this year (he is 37 after all). The future can’t be too bright on a team with so many key cogs being 32 or older, and it’s never a good sign when a defenseman leads your team in goals and assists (admittedly, Brent Burns is fantastic), but experience should matter, right? Really, that’s the only reason I am picking the Sharks here. This team is a worse version of the one that made the Stanley Cup Final last year, but their relative depth (compared to Edmonton), and better 5v5 performance are advantages. Finally, I don’t like when a team plays its starting goalie so many games, and the 73 that Talbot played are glaringly high.

Pick: Sharks in 6

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.