Sweeney’s Corner – Sept 30th

Wow, where did September go?  Where did summer go?  I always find that Green Day song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” annoying to me.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I have always had a mixed emotion love for September.

Back in the day, I was never one to hate the start of school.  Yes, I was kinda that kid that liked school.  I liked seeing friends again…liked all the extra-curricular activities that came with it.  I have always loved hoodies, and September is the time when you get to break out the hoodies again.

It is a great time in sports too…for me it is the end of baseball season (ya, I survived, mostly!) and start of hockey season!  In terms of spectator sports, I am not sure there is a busier time of year!  So much to talk about, so let’s get to it!

Golf

My good friend Mark Mancini expressed his disappointment last week with my lack of golf coverage.  I am nothing if not a people pleaser, and what a great week to talk some golf!

There can only be one lead, which of course would be the passing of Arnold Palmer.  For my two cents, “Arnie” was more than a legend in this game.  He was as iconic an ambassador for the game as any man in any sport.  You can argue that he brought golf to the mainstream, and brought with it the start of golfers as great merchandisers as well. They trail only Nascar in number of endorsements per square inch of  fabric worn.  He was all class, yet a fierce competitor.  And maybe some of the best quotes in golf.  Two that really struck me;

Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.

I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s golf game: it’s called an eraser.

And how do you talk “Arnie” without talking about “Arnie’s Army”, which really was the conduit to golf as a spectator sport, and ultimately a televised sport.

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Important little piece of trivia for you too!  Arnie’s first PGA win was the Canadian Open, in 1955.  That’s cool.

And of course, there is the drink!  When you have a drink named after you, you have established a legacy!

 

Also in the world of golf, the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup were both won this past weekend by Rory McIlroy (a good Irish lad!), and added a little more heartache to the legend that is Dustin Johnson.  DJ really only needed to have an OK day Sunday to secure the FedEx, but his Sunday stumble of 1-over 73 at the Tour Championship cost him a cool $10 million dollars.  To put it in perspective, Arnie won $2500 for that first Canadian Open Title!  All these young guys should be paying homage to Arnie, Jack, and Tiger, for creating the environment where they can make $10 million dollars over a weekend.

Don’t feel too bad for DJ…he is just under $10 million in earnings for the year, and is a new Dad.  Me thinks he is still winning in life…and he has done OK in the stepfather category too!

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Has golf ever been better though?  Yes, I for one miss Tiger, and am still clinging to an increasingly foolish belief that he will return to form, and win another major.  Golf has never been this competitive or compelling though.  Rory, DJ, Jordan Spieth, and Jason Day have all shown moments of dominance over the past 12 months.  And there are countless great golfers in contention to win any given week.  With all due respect to Tiger, he never faced fields this deep in his prime!

Ryder Cup is this weekend, if you need a golf fix. Always interesting how it turns out (and who the American’s blame for losing!), but it has always been missing something to me.  Of course, the “secondary” theme will be how the crowds behave, which has always been my problem with professional golf.  A little uptight maybe?  This guy scored a win for all of us!

World Cup of Hockey

A few takeaways as the World Cup of Hockey ends, with Canada hoisting a trophy much less impressive than Lord Stanley’s gift.

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  • The word I kept using for this Team Canada was “clinical”.  I will admit to being a little behind on my watching, as “adult life” kept me from seeing all of the final, and a blissful weekend at Killbear kept me away from the semi-final versus Sweden.  While they at times appeared “disinterested” or “sleepy” I don’t think they were ever rattled.  Even down late 1-0 in game 2.  Surgeons, despite completing operations where their patients life is in their hands, are calm.  That is the demeanor I saw with this team.
  • If you are a Montreal Canadiens fan, you have to be pretty stoked about the return of Carey Price.  Little doubt that he is back in elite form. He was tested too, this wasn’t the Sochi Olympics, where I may have been able to play goal behind that team.  Price was his usual steady, calming presence.  His return instantly changes the Canadiens’ outlook in the Eastern Conference.
  • Most men would find it a little depressing, going from coaching a ridiculous Team Canada roster, to coaching a young, rebuilding Maple Leafs team.  I don’t think that is the case with Mike Babcock.  I think he relishes the challenge, and is starting to assemble the roster he wants in order to compete.  I don’t think it is this year, but there is more hope than normal for this Leafs team that they will do this rebuild right.
  • These tournaments are so often some lesser known player’s coming out party.  Word Cup 2016 presents Brad Marchand.  Up until now, he was a good Bruin that the rest of the league loved to hate.  He is still on my “Clothesline in an Airport List”, but his skill level is undeniable.  Don’t underestimate the impact this tournament had on his contract negotiations either.  They too saw the chemistry he had with 87, and the stories popping up about him joining him in Pittsburgh.  My initial reaction was that it was a bit far-fetched, but when you contemplate how many wingers have NOT fit with Sid, would it not be almost impossible to “overpay” for a guy who clearly shows that kind fit?  Yep, I think this may have played in the Bruins minds too.
  • Speaking of “Uncle Sid”, not a bad little run he is on the past few months?  Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe, World Cup, MVP?  Yep, I’d say those reports of his demise last winter were a little premature.  I also heard Steve Kouleas make a great point following the game last night on SiriusXM NHL Radio.  He thinks Sid may just be motivated to hold his place as the face of the NHL for a little while longer.  We all know that it will soon be McDavid’s crown, but maybe Sid isn’t quite ready to pass the torch yet.

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Blue Jays

Not much good to say here.  This team just has not been able to find that same spark that carried them on their magical run last year.  What is so disappointing is the offence.  This was supposed to be a “murderers row” batting order, but it really has struggled.  And now, the bullpen is coughing up wins again.  When the year began, it was starting pitching that appeared to be the biggest concern.  Stroman has been a little off, but could we have expected much more from Happ, Estrada and Sanchez?  Liriano now appears to be finding his form to.  But the bats, other than Edwin, Donaldson and Devon Travis, have simply been consistenyl inconsistent all year.

To me, the hitters mindset is just off throughout the lineup.  Too many strikeouts, and to many pop tart fly balls.  At their best last year, they were putting together hits and then hitting the deep ball.  Remember “stir the pot”?  Where did that energy and enthusiasm go?  If this weekend continues to go sideways, you can always look back on the magic of 2015 here.

So what is it?  What is wrong with this team?  Their issues with hitting with runners in scoring position is my biggest frustration – it ultimately cost them in the Divisional series versus KC – and just seems have deteriorated this year.  How many times have they had runners in scoring position, no outs, and not cashed the runner?  Yes, not good last year, as the team batted 0.269 with runners in scoring position.  They are worse this year, at 0.249.  That is a pretty big difference.

The stats don’t lie on this team.  The Jays offence, while still decent, is scoring 4.71 runs per game, well off the 5.5 runs per game of last year.  They have managed just 53 stolen bases, down from 88 last year.  Not that this team ever ran much, “small ball” is a foreign concept to Gibby, who thinks it is a comparison of softballs and hardballs. The big statistical difference though – strikeouts.  The Blue Jays have gone down on strikes 1343 times this year, versus 1151 for all of last year.  There is a reason they now spell Justin Smoakkk’s name with 3 K’s.

I thing the issue is bigger than on field performance though.  I think the mood changed this year, when Alex Anthopoulos was allowed to walk, replaced with Mark Shapiro.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the Shapiro/ Atkins combo has done a pretty good job in baseball terms.  They shored up the bullpen with the additions of Grilli and Benoit, and bringing back Darwin Barney has been a under-rated boost.  What I mean by the mood changing is the lack of movement on contracts for Edwin and Jose.  I think maybe these guys had assurances from AA that they would get taken care of, and new management has not followed through on those assurances.  I believe Edwin has become the emotional heartbeat of this clubhouse, and when he is a little off, that mood is felt.

What is saddest about this is that Edwin very much wants to be a Blue Jay for life.  He has spoken openly about joining the Blue Jays greats on the ring of honor.  I seriously hope that Blue Jays management can find a way to make this happen.  In my opinion, if only one can stay, it should be the man with the parrot.

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Final thought – anyone feel good about the Jays chances in a one game playoff?  I would argue, as good as their starting pitching has been as a group, that any team they face in the Wildcard game will have a better starter going. So it will come down to whether the big bats can send a few deep. Swing away right Gibby.

NFL

Another wild and wacky week in the NFL…and I saw none of it.  Not a game. Strange for me, for sure, but it was too nice a weekend not to enjoy outdoors!

I did get caught up of course on the goings on for the week, and as always will pass on a few random thoughts.

Surprise of the Week

Fly Eagles Fly!  After calling out the ridiculousness of the Carson Wentz “love in ” on Monday Night Football, Wentz and the Eagles went out and crushed the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-3.  I guess that puts me in my place!  Oh and Wentz went out and threw for 301 yards and 2 TD’s.  Color me impressed.  I am not sure I am happy that the “KC East” Eagles gave us a wealth of film to study as my Chefs prepare to face those same Steelers this week…or be angered that we will get a “butt hurt” Mike Tomlin and Big Ben.

Something That Really Bugged Me This Week

Let’s just say the “Football God’s” seemed to be foil me at every turn last week.  My second week in a row going 7-16 in picks.  I guess that is why I don’t post them here.  The fact that the Dolphins needed a missed FG and OT to beat the Browns for my Survivor pick was right up there.  Having to scramble to replace my TE Antonio Gates Sunday morning from the beach…and getting it way wrong by choosing Jared “unfulfilled promise” Cook instead of Jimmy Graham.  And then to top it off Monday Night, I needed a very pedestrian 50 yards from stud Julio Jones to win my week…and getting 1 catch for 15 yards.

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Something That Made Me Smile

This week, I smiled for Coach Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings.  I am sure at some point, this Vikings team will find a way to put my boy Trevor Waldron on a watch list.  They always do. He literally had all his Vikings gear packed in a box for the United Way last year after the playoff loss.  In the Osborne days, I was always entertained by the weekly rants to fire the Offensive Co-ordinator, or Denny Green, for their failures.

But this week was a make-up day for years of suffering.  The Vikings went into Carolina, with no Adrian Peterson, no Bridgewater, no Kalil, no Floyd…and stomped a mud hole in the Panthers.  And they did it with the D!  Eight sacks of Cam (what happened to Superman anyway??), 3 interceptions.  This is what good coaching does, and I think they Vikings have it in Coach Zimmer.  He waited too long for his chance to be a head coach, but he is making the most of it.  Where Bruce Arians gets so much love for his unconventional calls and long path to a head coaching gig, Coach Zimmer does it the old fashion way.  They are good on D, and take care of the football on offence.  And they can beat anybody.

That trade for Bradford was costly, but it looks more and more like money (and assets) well spent. It didn’t just fill a hole at the Quarterback position.  It instilled in the whole locker room that this was not a lost season.  That is so important in a short NFL season.

A Few More Things I Think I Think

  • Have to throw a little love in a direction I really don’t like to, but looking good Denver Bronco’s.  There was no denying that D was going to be good. And lets just say it right here, Wade Phillips is a great D-Coordinator.  He failed as a head coach, but he can coach up a D.  Do you read my column Rex – Wade is the ghost of Ryan’s future!  But more importantly, I see you over there John Elway, you and your brass balls.  Good on you for holding firm to what you believed was Brock Oweiler’s  value, and not caving.  We know that Trevor Siemian is not the second coming of –  well, John Elway – he doesn’t need to be.  This team won the Super Bowl with barely competent Quarterback play, and Siemian is giving them better than that so far.
  • Hey Ryan Fitzpatrick, how is that holdout looking for you now?  Maybe the Jets were right, and you are not a world beater?  Or maybe that Harvard education didn’t cover the difference between green and red.  You may also want to tell your quarterback friends to not throw towards Marcus Peters. Six Picks, that can’t be good!
  • The NFL is a little less fun with JJ Watt shelved.  He is a generational defensive player, a one man wrecking crew from the defensive line.  Get well JJ, a back is not something you want to mess with!
  • Nice to see the Packers look like an offense again…but can somebody introduce Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb?
  • Just when you are ready to write them off, the Bills emerge from the dumpster to win a game they shouldn’t.  This is Rex Ryan in a nutshell.  He simply won’t go away quietly.  I am not sure Rex can go anywhere quietly.
  • Bad news this week that they are finally admitting Sammy Watkins is not right, putting him on IR-designated to return.  Can’t see this offense putting up much without Watkins.
  • Speaking of the Bills, do you think they want a re-do on that Watkins draft trade.  If you recall, the Bills moved up from 9 to 4 in the 2014 draft, giving Cleveland their first and fourth picks in 2015.  Good news – Cleveland hasn’t exactly rebuilt the franchise with those picks.  Bad news – Buffalo, you gave up 2 picks to move up 5 spots in a draft where you could have just selected from a list that includes Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. (wouldn’t he be fun at the Rex Ryan circus?), Brandon Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin.  And that is just the first round guys.  Also entering the league in this draft were Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry.  Sorry Bills Mafia, I feel your pain.

rex

  • Maybe I am gambling a little too much, but I have some upset specials going this week in my picks.  Homer pick of my Chefs over the Steelers, I have the Jaguars beating the Colts in London in a get well game, the Jets beating the East Coast hating Seahawks (who need to sit Russell Wilson and get him healthy!), and the Chargers beating the Saints, who also don’t love the road.

 

I’ve said it all.  I’ve said too much.  Thanks for reading.  And I will leave you with the earworm that is in my head now!

 

PS – Extra marks if you pick up the irony in this song choice?  Not sports related.

 

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Random Thoughts from Sweeney’s Corner – Sept 20-something

I want to apologize to my faithful reader(s?) in advance, this may not get out in time for your Saturday morning read.  It may get out early, but my strong procrastination gene will likely not allow that.  It may not get out until Sunday evening…which would be nearly pointless. Well, if there was a point in the first place.

Truth is, this is a form of therapy for me. I find myself missing the days when I could talk sports nearly all day.  Adulthood gets in the way now.  I am no less a sports nut, I just see many of my fellow sports addicts far less often.  So you, readers, are an outlet for me.  I am sure that is why it is so gratifying to get positive feedback, though in reality, I would write it even if nobody read.  Thank you Doug Millar again for infecting me with this bug.

Without too much preamble, let’s jump right into it, there is so much to get to!

NASCAR

Updating my lead from last week, Fastline Motorsports had some celebrating to do, as by starting the race in Kawartha, Cayden Lapcevich secured the Pinty’s series championship, and title of youngest touring series champion in NASCAR history.    And I am sure it was a celebration worthy of the decades of effort in getting there.  It was pretty cool watching this ride from the couch, and often twitter feed, throughout the year.

Cooler still hearing Cayden interviewed on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio today during the “Trading Paint” show.  Hosts Chocolate Myers and Jim Noble showed genuine joy for this great story, and Cayden’s whirlwind media tour.  For those of you who are SiriusXM junkies, it is available ON-Demand if interested.

Switching to the Sprint Cup Series, the Chase has started, and sadly, not without controversy.  I will admit, I do like the Chase, which is NASCAR’s version of a playoff system.  I didn’t like it at first, but will admit NASCAR got this one right.  Goes against the traditions of racing, but certainly creates excitement, and as close as you can come to a “sudden death” scenario in this sport.

The controversy however, comes from another rules change, and it seems NASCAR can’t get out of their own way sometimes.  This time, it is due to the winner, Martin Truex Jr. (and his Canadian Crew Chief Cole Pearn – whoop whoop) failing post race inspection.  I am not sure I can do this one justice, but let me try.  The team (along with the 48 team of Jimmy Johnson) failed post-race technical inspection.  NASCAR has added a Laser Inspection Station to their tech process, which measures the geometry of the rear wheels of the car.  This became necessary as teams were essentially twisting the rear drive wheels of the car to improve handling (there are more technical terms to be used here, but I don’t think it will improve the explanation).  Essentially, the left rear tire was out of alignment  approximately ten-thousandths of an inch, which was likely caused by contact during the race.  Please keep in mind two things:

  • this is a very small deviation.  It requires laser measurement, and would not be measurable by the human eye.
  • The car passed pre-race technical inspection, so the team brought a legal car to the racetrack.

So, many will say “cheating is cheating”, how does he still win.  This is not cheating folks, this is a rules infraction, that will be punished suitably by fines and/ or point penalty, but is NOT deserving of losing the win.  Taking away the win, and potentially eliminating Truex from the chase, would be as draconian as Mr. Goodell’s suspension of Brady for deflategate.

I understand the angst though – how can you cheat and still win.  Best way I can say it is this. In hockey, you can get a high sticking penalty and still win the game.  You take your punishment and move on.  Same as football, it is essentially a holding call. Illegal, but not cause for disqualification.  In my opinion, NASCAR should not be doing these measurements post race, limit these measurements to pre-race tech only.

And this opinion is not based on a certain ruling at a Delaware CASCAR race in May of 1994, for a quarter of a CC in one cylinder, costing a team a race win.  Nope, just reinforces my opinion that there are gross and minor infractions.

World Cup of Hockey

Once again, a lesson has been learned.  Always trust your gut!  And my growing gut was right on this one initially.  Where to start?

The obvious place is the whole Team North America phenomenon.  What a thrill ride this team has taken us on, and sadly a 2-1 record MAY not get them beyond the round robin.  Game 3 against Sweden, won in OT by Nathon MacKinnon, was an instant classic, that would be diminished somehow if it doesn’t get the young guns in.

What is really clear in watching this North American Team is the evolution of the game.  Hockey over the past 5 years has seen a rapid move away from the size and “truculence” game to a speed and skill game.  Don’t misunderstand that point.  Hockey will always be a “grit and desire” game, it takes a certain amount of courage to play this game at high speed, and go to the areas where you know you are going to get hit. This North American squad is exhibit A in the transformation though.  They are not going to run around the ice and try and outhit anyone.  They are going to play a game of “catch me if you can” at speeds that are simply breathtaking. They do however make and take hits to make plays, and that is the true definition of “hockey tough”

Exhibit B of course is the failed “Tortorella Experiment”.  Game 1 of the exhibition appeared to be Team USA’s holy grail.  I came away feeling a mixture of “could this really work” and a “Canada looked a little annoyed that these guys in red, white and blue didn’t get the memo that this was an exhibition”.  The latter became reality two nights later when Canada seemed to say “OK, we will play this game tonight” and was in bold and underline for the real game.

TJ Oshie was quoted as saying (and it is all over Twitter):

If it comes to 100% skill, they win.  100% grit, we win”

That’s the problem with this Team USA team in a nutshell; this game has never been 100% skill or 100% grit, it has always been a healthy mix of both.

Exhibit C of course is the final exam in this text, Team Canada.  This team, even more so than the Sochi Olympic squad, has been clinical in it’s domination.  It was almost humorous watching Team USA try to “out tough” Canada, and watching Crosby, Thornton, Getzlaf and the boys seemingly ignore them like annoying little brothers.  This Team Canada has that look that can play the game any way you want to .  Speed game, down low game, cycle game…no trouble, we’ll just be better at it than you.  Having said that, still a lot of hockey to play, and don’t for a second think that Sweden, Russia or Team North America will give them a much harder test in the semi-finals than the have seen so far.CANADA US.jpg

 

And I was wrong about another thing too…in a rare occurrence, I think Mr. Bettman was right to give us eight highly competitive teams instead of eight national teams.  This has truly been great hockey!

Oh, three more quick random thoughts:

  • How great is that Ron McLean “intro” or whatever you call it, which goes on to tell us to truly understand Canada, you need to sit down in front of a TV on a Saturday night.  So true.  And just reminds us how great it is to have Ron back in the host seat of Hockey Night in Canada.  The hockey world seems back on it’s axis.  Now just keep Glenn Healy out!
  • Love those commercials which paste together a bunch of great hockey goals/ calls together with kids playing street hockey and re-enacting them.  Pretty much describes my childhood!

Somehow I can’t find either video to insert!  @#(*@#*&@*(&(*

  • Phil Kessel – you won Twitter last night. Well played sir!  (And Grapes you are dead wrong on this!)

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Of course, several players (I hear you TJ Oshie, you too David “did you play in the tournament” Backes) from Team USA were butthurt by Phil’s tweet.  Boys, let me speak for Phil.  He had no ill-will for any guy wearing that Team USA jeresy.  This was a well crafted shot a the management of Team USA.  And it hit the mark with GM Dean Lombardi, who I quote:

If your talking Justin Abdlekader…Brandon Dubinsky…David Backes, I’ll take those guys any day”

That’s the point Dean.  You brought the wrong team.  You don’t need guys that are “tough to play against” in a best on best tournament, where one game can get you knocked out. You need your best players. You need to score goals!  I don’t think Team USA had a good view of what this tournament was going to be.  They didn’t win the last iteration in 1996 “out hitting and out gritting” anyone.  They had the more skilled team on that occasion.  Maybe this also gives us some insight into the slow decline of the LA Kings?

NFL Week 2

I am going to have to hit my quick thoughts here, no surprise I have went a little long.  Any wanna-be editors looking for some pro-bono work?

Surprise of the Week:

Plenty to choose from here, but I am going to save my second for a rant elsewhere.  Has to the LA Rams once again confounding all logic and beating the Seattle Seahawks. As good a coach as I think Pete Carroll is, and as consistently mediocre as I think Jeff Fisher is, why does this keep happening.  Four of their last five against Seattle for the Rams?  Defies logic.

fisher

Thanks Coach Fisher, I am now out of the “Loser” pool!

Something that Really Bugged Me This Week?

This will not always involve the Chiefs.  Mostly because I dont always get to watch the Chiefs.  I am too responsible (read cheap) to buy Sunday Ticket anymore.

No, my beef this week, sort of a new take on last week, was the Monday Night Football broadcast.  Seems John Gruden is trying to be more profanely profuse in his praise than Chris Collinsworth now.  This weeks target was Carson Wentz.  It seemed like a legend was born in a terrible game that saw the Philadelphia Eagles (fly Eagles fly!!!) dismantle the Chicago Bears.

Don’t get me wrong, Wentz has had an impressive start to his career, and is making Howie Roseman and Coach Doug Pederson look really smart. Not only did they draft this kid (hey Cleveland, want THAT draft pick back!) but they traded their starter, Sam “driving range QB” Bradford to Minnesota.  Bradford of course was Collinsworth’s “Man Crush of the Week” Sunday night, and set a high bar on the “blowing smoke meter”.

But if you tuned in to the fourth quarter of the Monday Night Broadcast, you would think he had 450 yards and 5 touchdowns.  Kid threw for 190 yards and a touchdown, for an 86.6 QB rating.  Took care of the ball.  Won.  But C’mon man…lets see how Dennis Green feels.

 

Something That Made Me Smile

Nothing.  It was an awful football week.  Out of the loser pool.  8 of 16 picks right.  Did get through Survivor week 2.  Lost all 3 of my Fantasy Football leagues.

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A few more things I think I think?

  • OK, after the Thursday night victory by New England (another wrong pick), can we just hit pause for a minute. I think the league actually should stop everything, carve a Belichick bust, and put him in the Hall of Fame before another game is played this season.  Also, award him the Coach of the Year trophy right now.  The Patriots are now 3-0 on the season, after dismantling the previously 2-0 Houston Texans.  And he did it with:
    • No Tom Brady, due to the Roger Goodell “prove I am the Man” suspension.
    • With a 3rd String Rookie QB who hurt his thumb at some point in the game.
    • A leaky offensive line
    • A token decoy appearance by Gronkowski.
  • I give him credit, as I usually bash Michael Irvin.  He did a bit in the pregame where he said “if New England wins tonight, I will no longer call the Super Bowl the Lombardi trophy.” and followed up post game with a picture from home that night with his “3 Belichick Trophies!
  • irvin.jpg
  • Thats Twitter Gold right there!
  • I think Cleveland is suffering from the “Curse of Firing Belichick!”  See below for a live look at Browns practice.  Rookie QB, lost their best WR this week in practice. Not good!

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  • Should be a good time for the Adam Gase and the Dolphins to get into the win column.  Spoiler alert – they are my Survivor Pick this week, so you’d be wise to stay away from this game!
  • Can it get any worse for San Diego…now Antonio Gates, the only guy on the offence left who Phil Rivers even knows by name?  Talk about an injury bug!
  • The Anti-Belichick is Rex Ryan.  Just a clown show, he has his bearded lady (brother Rob), the only thing missing from a full on carnival is a Merry-Go-Round and some cotton candy.  No point me going to much deeper on this, except to say “Poor Mr. Pegula.  Please end this insanity.  At least you have the Sabres!  I will leave you with “he’s my guy” Adam Schein, who will give you the full Rex Ryan joke in the link below:

http://www.newyorkupstate.com/buffalo-bills/index.ssf/2016/09/buffalo_bills_rex_ryan_are_a_comedy_show_says_nflcoms_adam_schein.html

Other than that folks, I got to hit send on this thing.  It was opening night Thursday for my hockey season, as the Staggered Edges resumes their spectacular losing ways at the Gateway Center.  Nothing like starting with a 10:30pm game.  This guy is out of shape, and to quote Pierre McGuire, I was “sucking dirty pond water” most of the night.  I will get this posted Friday at some point for your reading pleasure, as I head north for the weekend.

I’ve said it all.  I’ve said too much.  Thanks for reading.

 

 

Random Thoughts from Sweeney’s Corner – Sept 17th

OK, week 2 of this blog thing.  Lots on the mind, but on a rainy and gloomy day, it is a good time to bang out these thoughts.  Trying to add a couple of “running themes” this week, as I am sure that will aid me in writing this…or at least give me a little structure as a launch point.

Such a crazy time of year, with CFL in the second half of the season, MLB in the stretch run, NFL kicking off, and NASCAR entering playoff season.  In the “real” world we get into the kids school routines (which for us means the craziness of dance and hockey is upon us!) and the days get a little shorter.

If you are anything like me, I hang on to the last breath of summer as long as I can.  I refuse to wear pants outside of work for as long as I can, leave my pool open a little too long (hey, as long as it is in the 70’s, life is good for this polar bear!), and generally squeeze as much golf in the next 6 weeks as I did the months of June thru August.

Have found myself feeling a little nostalgic this weekend.  I think the coming fall always brings that mindset for me.  This summer has seen me make a couple foray’s into my past, as for the first time in several years, I went to the racetrack.  For those that don’t know, stock car racing was the playground of my youth.  Most summer weekends from the time I was 5 or 6 through my mid twenties I was at the track.  And then, as I hit my mid-twenties, I burnt out.  It is funny, because I have watched so many of my friends who were in minor hockey hang up the skates, and I couldn’t understand it.  Hockey has always been a love of mine, and I didn’t play any minor hockey.  I played a ton of ball hockey, but never had the joy of being handed a jersey and socks from “the team”.  Yet so many of my friends who played Rep no longer skated, and here I was playing twice a week.

And then recently it hit me…it was the same burnout that took me out of racing.  Sometimes, when you sacrifice all the other joys of youth in pursuit of something, you reach a point of life where you seek balance.  You try to discover all those other things that you missed.  It is not that you don’t still love your childhood sport. It is not even a sense of regret.  I know for me, I loved every minute I spent at the track.  Then I hit a wall…and little things started to bug me.  I saw “what others were doing” and sort of wished I was doing some of that.

But this year, I found myself being pulled back towards the race track.  I still have plenty of friends in that world, and I found myself interested in the events again.  Two distinct storyline’s had me following along with great interest.

The first has been building for a couple of years, but really “redlined” this year.  My old racing team, Fastline Motorsports, has had a phenomenal year.  The seats have been turned over to Jeff’s two sons, Cayden and Treyten, and the results have been historical, and that is not hyperbole.  Cayden at 16 years old is just waiting for the call of “Drivers, start your engines” to claim the Nascar Pinty’s series title.  This will make him the youngest touring series champion in Nascar history.  That is not “Nascar Canada” history, but Nascar history.  He will break Joey Logano’s record by almost a year.  It is big folks.

cayden

I could write an entire article on this historic run, but I know that this is not my audience.  Few of my friends follow racing. What I will say is this – the narrative will be about the age at which Cayden has accomplished this, beating a roster full of racing lifers to take this crown.  And that is a great story.  Some will cite “overnight success”, and that is where I would disagree.  This story has been decades in the making at Fastline Motorsports, going back to the days when Jimmy and Jeff (Cayden and Treyten’s father)  were 16, and paying their dues racing across the country.  This is the vision of “Papa Joe” finally coming to fruition. It is a story of immense sacrifices of the Lapcevich family, and all the “guys back in the shop” who put in the late nights (and early mornings) to get cars to the racetrack over the years.  Having been part of that, a long time ago, I can tell you that the amount of work that goes into the sport at this level is on par with the life of the hockey parent. Instead of “early mornings in the rink” it is “late nights in the race shop”, but the same dedication and perseverance is present.

And all the while, Cayden’s younger brother Treyten has wrapped up a rookie season at Sunset Speedway that will see him finish third in points, and breaking Cayden’s previous record for youngest winner in the Super Stock division.

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The picture doesn’t lie folks. Treyten is 12 years old.  He is winning features against adults, in perhaps the most competitive division in the province.  And you will not find a more well-spoken, humble 12-year-old anywhere.

To say it has been an amazing run simply sells it short.  And I will have to sell it short, because I am running out of time.  Let’s just say I am proud to be a “Fastline Alumni”!  I hope that corporate Canada will step up and help these two young men pursue their dreams.

I will also admit, going back to the racetrack a couple of times allowed me some chance to reflect.  It was my Dad that brought me to the racetrack.  So many hours each summer, when I worked with him, were spent talking about racing.  I wish I could have spent some time this summer talking about these runs.  He wanted to go to Sunset this year, I wish we could have done that.  I miss him greatly, and today is his birthday.  I hope he enjoys my ramblings.

OK, I better get back into my lane, which is “stick and ball sports”, before l lose the last of my four readers.

World Cup of Hockey:

Was amazed the other night on my 2 night stay in Detroit to find hockey on TV.  I know, for a Canadian, this is a universal right to see hockey on television every night.  We have talk shows that go year round.  TSN shows repeats of hockey all summer.  Training camp draws TV crews.  In the U.S. however, finding a hockey game on TV is a challenge. I have spent many a night driving around U.S. cities (especially come playoff time) to find a bar with a game on.  Hotel TV – good luck!  It simply doesn’t happen. As much as my good friend Gary Bettman goes on about his great TV deal in the U.S., NBC Sports is NOT a cable network.  It is a specialty channel in the U.S.  So finding the game on a TV is a challenge.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel…maybe, if Bettman doesn’t mess it up.  ESPN has jumped in to cover the World Cup. I am sure they are trying to gauge interest of the american viewer.  I saw both Team Canada and Team U.S.A pre-tournament games on live TV.  They have Chris Chelios and Brett Hull as in studio analysts, which brings some cache and entertainment value.  And the broadcasts have been excellent.  One can only hope that this succeeds, because the game needs a presence on ESPN. Last spring, trying to find highlights or updates on scores even across the ESPN channels was akin to finding a full set of teeth in the Come by Chance.  If you waited around a couple of hours, it might happen. But you were more likely to get a 7 minute segment on Lebron James breakfast than a playoff update.

In terms of the tournament, I am going to have to change-up my predictions on this tourney a little bit, as I was unaware of the pools or the structure.  I couldn’t find a proper image, but here are the groups:

Group “Easy Street”

  • Canada
  • USA
  • Team Europe
  • Czech Republic

Group of Death

  • Finland
  • Sweden
  • Russia
  • North America

So based on these groups, and top 2 teams moving on, I am compelled to go back on both of my previous bold predictions: the USA will not miss the playoff round, and Team North America will.  If you switched their places within the pods, or simply swapped Europe and North America, I would stick to my guns.  The tournament organizers clearly want Canada and the US going deep in this tournament, as that is the best case for ticket sales.  And make no mistake, this tourney is all about:

So, here is the way I now see it.

Group “Easy Street”:

Canada is first, USA is second.  After that, I expect that Team Europe has a little more juice than the Czech’s.  I know it is always dangerous to count out the Czech’s, they have a long history of upsets in these formats.  I just don’t see it here.  I think the only question here is will the US be able to upset Canada in the round robin.  For the answer, I turn to Meghan for the answer:

 

The Group of Death:

I so badly want to be call Team North America here.  I do.  It would be great for hockey.  It would (sadly) justify this farce of a tournament on some level.  I just hate the odds.  It would require this team of limited facial hair to knock of 2 of the Russians, Swede’s and Finn’s.  Mr. Bush, what say you?

Are they going to end one of those countries dreams though?  Yes, yes they are.  I feel it.  They are not going 0-fer here.  Who is it going to be?  That is where I struggle.

OK, are y’all ready for this.  (Yes, that song is playing in my head!)

Russia.  They are going to beat Russia.  I think their defence is better than Russia, and i think they can score with Russia.  However, it wont knock Russia out.  It’s the Finn’s who are going to be the victim, because when Russia loses to McDreamy’s crew, they will then be in a must win versus Finland.  And they will sneak in the back door, as the Russian’s so often do.

I think this group could be very close.  I can see goal differential coming into play here, as I can foresee all of Russia, Sweden and Finland finishing up 2-1.  In fact, there is still a part of me that wants to put North America through.  I just don’t see them sneaking up on these good teams.  So I will go Sweden first, Russia second, both knocking off Finland on goal differential.  North America though will give these teams some scares.  They could just as easily knock off Sweden or Finland, as neither team can dangle with them…but neither team will try!

CFL:

OK, what in the name of Montford is going on with the Ticats.  Labour Day has passed, it is time to get serious about this season.

OK, last video I promise.  I am getting carried away.  But really, last second field goal to beat Montreal.  Me you and 10 friends (CFL, 12 guys on the field dumb dumb!) can beat Montreal.

I think there are a couple of issues.  The secondary is bad.  Has been for a long time.  The bigger issue though, in my opinion, is the offence.  There are too many mouth’s to feed.  On top of that, I think the loss of Coach Condell is proving bigger than anticipated.

I think it is a year of transition, we know Coach Austin is a control freak, and has his finger’s deep in the offence.  I do think he gave Condell a lot more freedom than he has given new Coach Ptaszek, which is difficult.  More than X’s and O’s (I am resisting the urge to add a song here), it is the relationship side that “haunts” Austin.  I think Tommy Condell was a buffer for the players for the very intense Austin.  I think Coach Ptaszek is cut from the same cloth as Austin. They are blunt, and demanding.  The players are not getting any break from these two coaches now.  And it is hurting the performance on the field.

Good news is this is the CFL, and the East division is not deep.  Only the silly boys in lumber jackets stand between our Ticats and a return trip to the Grey Cup.  I will still take my chances with that!  Would love a chance to wipe that smile off of Henry Burris’ face.

NFL:

I’m going to do a bit of a quick fire “Notes and Nuggets” from the NFL each week.  I want to start each week with a couple topics…let me know what you want to see.  Here we go.

Surprise of the week?

For me, the surprise of the week, for the second year in a row, was the San Francisco 49ers white wash of the perennial 7-9 Jeff Fisher.  28-0.  Really, is this the way we are going to welcome the Rams back to LA?  Maybe this is not the surprise of the week though, maybe the news later in the week of an extension for Jeff Fisher for another 3 years was.  Let’s just go ahead and reward mediocrity.

Trend or Aberration?

The Minnesota Vikings won their opener over the Tennessee Titans, on the strength of their defence.  That will be a trend.  Adrian Peterson being held to 31 yards, and an average per carry less than 2?  I hope that is not a trend.  Drama of his parenting skills aside, this is a generational player we are watching here, and I sincerely hope we are not witnessing the end of an era.  We will learn a lot more when Minnesota open their fancy new stadium against the Green Bay Packers.

Something that really bugged me this week?

The first half of the Kansas City Chiefs season.  Yep, awful.

Chris Collinsworth’s ability to make every player in his weekly telecast “the best in the NFL”?  Yep, I otherwise enjoy Chris as a television analyst, but please stop telling me how great (insert otherwise unknown player’s name here) is this week, on every broadcast.

Something that made me smile?

Surviving week 1 in my Survivor Pool, as I more often than not lose week 1.  My old “Stelco” pickem league makes us take 2 games in the first two weeks.  Though there were scares for both Seattle and Houston, I got through.

Scary this week too – I have Panthers and Bronco’s.  Yes, I gag in my mouth saying Bronco’s.

A few things I think I think:

  • I have grudgingly been saying it for a few weeks now, but the Oakland Raiders are on the rise.  They finally have competent management, evidenced by no longer throwing money around like drunken sailors to every free agent, and drafting well.  Khalil Mack is a legitimate difference maker.  Derek Carr and Amari Cooper are going to be making plays for this team for years to come.  A sleeper in the AFC.
  • So when I see the Patriots as 6-point underdogs last week, I thought “when did that happen last?”  Answer apparently is 2009.  Then it went to 9.5 points in Vegas.  So of course the Patriots won.  In Belichick we trust, the rest pay cash.  Of course, the rest of the AFC East lost…so already, one week in, and the AFC East is the Patriots to lose.
  • They did it with Tom Terrific sitting his first of 4 games of his “Deflategate” suspension.  This is an absolute joke, which I will not waste much of your time on.  Everyone knows this is a farce, if you don’t, go back to Mr.Yakimov’s Churchill Grade Nine science class and ask him about the Ideal Gas Law.
  • Speaking of farces, how much longer will Rex Ryan be flapping his gums and masquerading as an NFL Head Coach?  He is a clown show, and brought his brother to the show this year.  Rob Ryan’s last good defence?   2013 New Orleans.  And this has not been a trend, beyond that one season, he has been nothing but mediocre.  So Rex’s solution to an 0-2 start – fire Greg Norman, the Offensive Co-Ordinator.  Yep, it was his fault that Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker shredded your defense.

Game of the Week:

Has to be Pittsburgh and Cincinatti.  This is rivalry at it’s worst, as evidenced by the debacle that was last years playoff game, where the Bengals simply imploded in impressive fashion.  This will be a throwback game, with big hits, and a ton of chirping on both sides.  What will decide it though is which defence can do a better job of limiting the star wide recievers – Antonio Brown and AJ Green.  Let’s just hope we don’t see this again:

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I broke my promise, I couldn’t resist adding this.

Once again…I have said it all, I have said too much.

 

 

Random thoughts from Sweeney’s Corner

Going to try something a little different as we head into the fall.  I am an avid sports reader, and my favorite writers, in no particular order, are Peter King, Steve Simmons, and the now retired Jim Hunt.

If you are a NFL football fan, and not reading Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column (not to mention all the related content from his website “MMQB”) then you really are missing out.  I would equate it to an East End kid who never had a Glow Sub or Go Go’s pizza.  Sadly only one of those two options can you still correct in your life.

Steve Simmons I know is a very polarizing figure.  I don’t always agree with him, but his Sunday column in the Toronto Sun is another gem, and it is close to the format I want to take here.  Just stream of consciousness thoughts – no deep dive analysis.  I view it more as a conversation starter than a thesis presentation.

Jim Hunt was another Toronto Sun columnist, who wrote a Tuesday column “Things I think I think”.  Again, it was a fun and random ride, and generated conversation well before “social media”.

So, that is the preface.  Open to suggestions here.  I can’t promise this will be a “Saturday am” column, but I expect to get something out there most weekends.  So let’s get to it.

World Cup of Hockey:

wc

It is a strange thing for a “hockey nut” like me, but I have limited excitement for this tournament so far.  I had hoped seeing those Canada jerseys on the ice last night would have stoked the flames…and it moved the needle, but I am not stoked yet.  I know it will be great hockey, and a gift to us all given the early start.  There are a list of “potential culprits” to my “meh” reaction, in no particular order:

  • It is a blatant cash grab by Bettman, and a potential “bait and switch” to the true test of hockey supremacy, the Winter Olympics.  I don’t want this in place of the Olympics Gary.  Not acceptable.

It is a time of year when so many other sports are gobbling up my attention.  The “real” start to the CFL season (Labour Day – more on that later), the NFL kicks off this week (as does slow cooker Sunday!  Can’t wait for the first batch of chili!), and baseball is finally into the meaningful part of the season (I will also have more to say on this!).

The whole “adult portion” of my life is a little crazy, with work and back to school and back to activities for the kids.

The weather is still awesome.  It almost feels worse to be huddling around a TV now, with a precious few weeks of summer left, than playoff hockey in June feels.  Hockey is what gets us through winter, not escorts us in!

Having said all that, I am sure I will get sucked in once the meaningful games start. Canada has a great shot to win once again.  Please Canada, resist the urge to go all “Chicken Little” over the pre-tourney loss to the U.S. last night.  In my mind, the U.S. played that game like a game 7, and for the first 40 minutes, Canada looked at those blue jersey’s like they were the guy backchecking during a shinny game.  It also looked to me that the Canadian “skill game” was just a little off.  Passes just a little behind guys, puck bouncing a little.  To quote Aaron Rodgers “R-E-L-A-X”.

My only game thoughts from last night:

  • Can we dress John Scott tonight?  The U.S. seemed to go out of their way to take every cheap shot and late hit at Canada.  I say lets give John a 16th minute of fame.
  • I didn’t think I would like it, given Brad Marchand is on my “clothesline in an airport” list…but that Crosby -Bergeron- Marchand line looks very effective.
  • Nice to see Carey Price back, looking like Carey Price.  No issues there, nothing to see, move along.
  • Not sure how I feel about these jerseys in general, but I am definitely solidly in the camp of “it’s enough already with the constant jersey changes”!  In all sports.  Yes, I am becoming a grumpy old man, pull your pants up and get off my lawn!
  • I want to go on the record right now.  The North American “Young Guns” will be in the semi-final.  The U.S.A. will not.

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NFL:

It’s here, it’s really here!  NFL kicked off Thursday night with a Super Bowl rematch, and what a game it was.  A few thoughts from the game:

  • I think we may have been a little premature to right off the Broncos based on the Quarterback position.  Trevor Siemian illustrated nicely why Coach Kubiak felt no need to keep the Sanchize on the roster.  I will steel a Bill Parcell’s line, we don’t need to anoint him just yet, but he showed some moxie in tough spot to start your career.  And let us not forget, he is replacing “Cable” Peyton Manning, not “Dish” Peyton Manning.  With that defense, he doesn’t need to be top 10.  Just don’t turn it over.
  • I think I can’t believe the lack of flags on headshots to Cam Newton.  I have no skin in this game, but it seemed to me there were a lot of headshots, and I mean real head contact, not glancing or inadvertent blows, that went without flags.  I am the first one to complain QB’s are overprotected, but given the normal standard that is applied, it was a glaring lack of penalties.  Me thinks several envelopes will be delivered to Denver this week seeking cheques from Broncos defenders.
  • If there is one thing that can derail the seemingly unstoppable NFL train, it is the lack of consistency in officiating.  I will provide the caveat that I think the NFL and NHL are extremely difficult to officiate at the elite level, given the speed of the games and the ambiguity of the rulebooks.  With instant replay, HD, and slow mo, the stripes are always being second guessed.  Having said that, there are plays in every game that just baffle you.  I am so grateful for the Twitter feeds of Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) for football (he does college too!) and Kerry Fraser (@kfraserthecall) for hockey.  Both gentlemen call it as they see it (not blindly side with the game officials like some TV experts…cough cough “Mike Carey” cough cough.  Both guys have really helped me understand some baffling calls, and sometimes just confirm that I am correct and the call is baffling.
  • I am not going to do a deep dive into the weekly picks for the season. There are plenty of vastly more qualified opinions out there.  I will give my picks each week for your personal amusement:
    • Carolina (stupid kickers!)
    • Philly
    • Minnesota
    • Houston
    • NO
    • GBay
    • NYJ
    • kc
    • BAL
    • ATL
    • SEA
    • NYG
    • DET
    • PIT
    • SF
  • Obviously this is a tough opening week.  Tougher is that in my long time “Stelco boys” pickem pool, we are required to submit 2 Survivor picks for the first two weeks. This tends to cull the herd quickly.  I went Houston and Seattle in week 1.  Why am I showing no confidence in my Chefs?  I know they will win, but I have a long developed rule for Survivor picks – avoid road teams, avoid division games.  Divisional opponents tend to be more unpredictable, given the familiarity that comes naturally from playing twice a year.
  • New wrinkle for our pickem pool is a “Loser” pick each week.  Despite wanting to avoid at all costs having the same game in Survivor and Loser, I saw no better alternative to Miami.  Seattle is good, and has a huge home field advantage, being second loudest building in the league.  (Yes, Arrowhead has the record!)

arrowhead

CFL:

  • I will admit, I don’t truly follow the CFL, I am that guy that just pays attention to the Ticats.  I am a believer that the CFL season doesn’t really start until Labour Day.  And boy did the Ticats ever make a statement (or two) during the Classic.
    • They are more than capable of beating themselves, as was readily apparent in the first half.  It almost had me finding something else to watch in the second half.
    • Zach Collaros is a difference maker at QB…maybe the best QB we have had under center in black and gold since Danny Mac.  And I could make a case that he is better.  However, I think he needs to win a Grey Cup to take than mantle.
    • Is there something in the league rules that requires Ticat DB’s to be incapable of tackling, and play 20 yards off the receivers?
    • Reality is in the Hammer, if the Tabbies win Labour Day, the season was a success.  Nobody blows like the Argooooooooo’s.

Blue Jays:

  • Saving the worst for last, as this team feels like a polar opposite of last year.  They are playing their worst baseball as we enter the stretch.  Where is the energy from last year?  Why is nobody “stirring it up”.
  • I know I am amongst a chorus of detractors, but I think this team needs a true manager, not a sunflower seed spitting soundbite.  “Hit away” is not always the answer.  How many times can you have runners in scoring position with no outs, and not score?  Good teams don’t do that. It costs them against the Royals last year, and is consistently killing them this year.
  • Sign Edwin – please.  I am not ready for the Jays to go back to irrelevance for 20 years.  I am not ready to lose the Edwing.  And I certainly don’t want to see parrots in Fenway!

 

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Thanks to both of you that got to the bottom. I didn’t promise it would be short.  I hope it was mildly amusing.  Be interested to see what you think.  I doubt it will always be this long…some weeks it will be much longer.  Mr. Pyett was right all those years ago at Hillcrest middle school.  I have verbal diarrhea!

I have said it all, I have said too much.

The Chase for Lord Stanley – Pens Win, Pens Win!

Sorry friends, been a busy couple of weeks, and I felt the need to let the Penguins fourth Stanley Cup marinate for a few days in any case!

Pens Cup.jpg

 

It truly was an amazing run, and I am still not sure where I would place it in terms of the pure joy it delivered.  I know, I have to admit I am a little spoiled by this. To have seen 4 cups won in my lifetime seems obnoxious compared to many fan bases. The image below has not been updated for this years win, but I think this puts it into perspective.

cp-stanley-cups-by-team

Yes, Montreal is WAY out front and never to be challenged (at least in my lifetime).  Enjoy that Habs fans, you will always be able to say you have won the most Cups. The Pens now join the two New York teams (the Rangers being an ORIGINAL SIX team!) with four.  Only the amazing Edmonton Oilers dynasty rates ahead of the Pens in terms of post expansion Cup wins.

So many great stories from this run.  For me, the best was the run Sidney Crosby had.  It is still amazing to me the number of people who were willing to write off “Uncle Sid”early in the season.  There is no denying he didn’t look right, but to me it didn’t seem physical.  The legs were still moving, the hands were still there.  The fire was not.  I tried hard for 6 months, back to last years playoff dud, to find a story on “what was wrong with Sidney”.  I was convinced something was sour in that dressing room.  I was unable to find anything, but a murmur that perhaps there was a riff between 87 and 66?  Never firmly identified, but whispers.  However, something changed, coincidentally or not, once Mike Sullivan was hired.  The fire was relit within Sid, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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There is no doubt in my mind that Uncle Sid was fully deserving of the Conn Smythe, though it was close, apparently by the voting, and in my mind.  Story in TSN today says that Phil “The Legend” Kessel was a close second.  That is also another great story

Full disclosure, I was not thrilled to have my phone go bananas July 1 last year when “the trade” occurred.  I had seen Phil a couple of times last year in Toronto, and it was not impressive.  I will also say this, I have never seen a human come as close to a sacrificial lamb in the 21st century as Phil was last year.  Much has been said on this story, from hot dogs to his media relations, but lets face it…Leafs media eats their own.  I am on record as saying the men who bring Stanley back to Toronto will be Kings for life.  But Leaf fans may need to be satisfied knowing Phil is still on your payroll, and may bring that Cup to T-dot this summer…which would of course be the ultimate troll job.

But the Kessel that wore black and gold, especially come playoff time, was not the same man who was chased down the QEW right to the border.  Clearly the fire and brimstone of last summer, galvanized a more dedicated Phil.  Obviously, it wasn’t an instant hit, but once the “HBK” was formed, Phil truly found a new home.  I feel if Phil had buried even a couple of his game 5 and game 6 chances (their were easily a DOZEN grade A chances) he has a Conn Smythe to his name.   He was the most dangerous Penguin in many games over the past two rounds, and the effort was there in every zone of the rink.  Was he a shot blocking demon?  No, but the backcheck was there.  And you could certainly see how much this Penguins team liked Phil once he got his chance to host the jug!

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Intrigues me how history repeats itself, but just like 2009, a mid-season coaching change lit a fire in the Penguins.  It is deeper than that too!  Old coach in both cases was viewed as too structured, and was smothering the Penguins guns.  Entered new younger coach, and release the hounds.  I recognize that likely simplifies the story a little much, but the parallels are unavoidable.

The key difference to me between the Bylsma and Sully runs was that Sully not only invigorated the Penguins core, but he brought with him some reinforcements.  It is undeniable the impact the WBS Penguins callups had on this run.  Matt Murray is the obvious story, but what about the Bryan Rust goal spree to help get past the Bolts?  Connor Sheary magic?  And Tom Khunhackl was an effective part of very important fourth line.  Big contributors that were not getting a sniff under the previous coaching.

The other story I have to give some play to is the redemption of GM Rutherford. Year One was not impressive to me, but man did he make up for it in year two!  He had the midas touch this year.  Most important in-season move was certainly the Hagelin deal.  Hagelin to me personified the “speed movement” that this Penguins team transformed into.  He is so fast, and so dogged in his puck pursuit.  I admit, hated him as a Ranger.  It was Hagelin who scored the overtime goal to eliminate the Penguins one year ago.  You also have to give big props to the acquisitions of Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz.  It still baffles me that Chicago, who’s Achilles heel was the lack of a fourth defenceman.  Schultz was not as big a contributor, but he certainly provided solid minutes and powerplay performance when Daley was lost.  I would really like to see Schultz retained for another year or two.  I believe he could develop properly in Pittsburgh under the tutelage of Sergei Gonchar, and while watching how Kristopher Letang and Daley function with similar skill sets.

That brings me around to the final group I need to salute, which is the remainder of the 2009 core.  Kris Letang in my mind had a coming out party as a truly elite d-man.  He may be my favorite current Penguin.  If only I could do one percent of what “Tanger” does out there on the ice, he is so cerebral with the puck, and so often able to get the puck out of danger in his own zone, and is still more than dangerous in the offensive zone, as on the Cup clinching goal.

 

Chris Kunitz was also a huge part of this run, and I think his contribution was embodied by the great diving backcheck “Kuni” had in game 6.  He simply brings so much effort, so much grit to this team that they otherwise have lacked at times.  He matches the captains effort, even if he doesn’t have all of Sid’s world class skill.

Speaking of class, what else can be said about Marc Andre Fluery’s composure and attitude throughout the run.  It had to be tough, as a clear member of the core, to not be able to contribute to this run.  Regardless of his personal feelings, he put team first, and was a big cheerleader throughout.  You only saw how truly difficult it was once the Cup was won, and Pascal Dupuis rightfully passed the Cup to the Flower.  He wasn’t comfortable at that moment, and really only gave it a cursory lift.  You know he was more than happy for his teammates, but on some level didn’t feel a big part of the win.  I will say this though.  Flower was the Penguins MVP for the season, and without him the Penguins don’t make the playoffs.  Whatever happens from here, I will have nothing but respect for #29!

Final comment, as this became a lot longer than I anticipated.  Best moment of the celebration for me was seeing Pascal Dupuis lift that Cup.  No, Duper didn’t play in the playoffs, but he was an undeniable part of this team’s identity.  So many teams seem to gain strength on the “win one for Bourque” type theme. I feel this one was for Pascal as much as anything. Every guy in that dressing room had to be shaken to see a man who loved the game and wanted nothing more than to play, be forced to walk away too soon.  It reminds all of their mortality. There are so many great stories on this Penguins team, but Pascal was a pro in every sense of the world.  You could see it was a special moment for the entire team.

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You never know when the window will close.  In 1991 and 1992 it felt to me that those Penguins teams were destined to be the team of the 90’s.  And then Dave Volek and the pesky Islanders tripped them up, and they could never get back to the top of the mountain.  2009 felt like the first of many for this generation of Penguins.  Then concussions and salary cap jumped up and bit them.  All I know is that I loved this run, and loved having my six-year-old boy so much a part of it.  At his age, he will surely think this will happen all the time, and there is no way to convince him how precious this is.  But the six-year-old within me knows better!

Enjoy this one Pens fans, and for everyone else, hockey will be back sooner than we think, enjoy the summer!

The Chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup – The Final

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Well friends, its here.  The Stanley Cup Final.  I debated not writing a column for the final, because any of you reading already know; I am a die-hard Penguins fan.  Can I really be an analyst in this condition of euphoria?  So I am not going to write an analytical column here, more of an opinion column.  For those of you who liked my previous format, I am sorry!  Reality is that I was not going to pick against my Pens here, so why be disingenuous with you, the good reader.

First question I want to cover off for you is “how does a Hamilton, Ontario kid become a Penguins fan?  Well, please let me present you with “Exhibit A”:

I was at this game, the single greatest sporting event of my life, at the wonderful age of 13!  Yes, I know, by this point in history, five hundred thousand people attended this game.  I am pretty sure I still have my ticket stub, and my oldest friend Scotty Carrick was right there beside me.  It was a magical tournament, and an incredible game. Copps Coliseum was brand new back then, full of unrealized hope of an NHL dream that never came to be.  Ottawa stole what really should have been Hamilton’s franchise (along with greed in Toronto).

Do I think NHL hockey would have survived in Hamilton?  No, I am one of the few dissenters who consider Hamilton home.  Reality is that the corporate base is not there to support a team.  It would have thrived for 5 years, but then I think the glamour would have faded, and attendance dwindled.  Face it, the Hammer has always been considered a “walk up city”, and walk up attendance is not a recipe for success in today’s NHL. Ask the Ticats, the Bulldogs, and countless failed pro franchises that called this city home!

Now, if they had built the shiny new arena at Clappison’s Corners like I would have…well that is a discussion for another time.

So there I was, a lifelong hockey fan at the impressionable age of 13, mystified by this graceful giant.  66.  Yes, I had enjoyed the early Gretzky years like all kids my age. He is the Great One after all.  But anyone who has known me over the years knows I have always wanted to be a little outside the crowded bus, so the Penguins were a natural fit.  And the colors fit my background, as the black and gold was the same as our hometown Ticats.  OskeeWeewee!!!

The rest is history.  Mario became a key figure in my formative years.  That first black 66 jersey my Mom and Dad bought me Christmas of 87 may be the most worn garment in the history of mankind.  It became known later in my life as simply “The Jersey”.  It saw bush parties and countless street hockey games.  No it does not fit any longer, but I do still have it.  And 66 was my number for a long time, in fact throughout high school.  It was not until my university days that I finally decided to retire #66.  Why? Because I was now starting out on my attempt at ice hockey, and anybody as terrible as I was could not be running around the Double Rinks wearing #66. It was a travesty!

Even in my short, nondescript Bulldogs football career, 66 came calling.  Of course, entering that first tryout, I had dreams of being a corner back, which would not have worked well for that number. However, my inability to run with any speed soon saw me as a special teams ace, and backup center and linebacker.  You know, slow, smart guy positions!

And of course, I threw in my Zoids jersey, which harkens back to our Hillcrest Hockey League days.  (Why am I suddenly humming Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”?

jersey

The Stanley Cup runs of ’91 and ’92 were some of the greatest memories of my childhood.  I was finding myself in highschool, but those runs brought so much joy.  Of course, the party at Dave Whitworth’s when Kevin Steven’s had his face (and life) rearranged, and thus the Penguins dynasty, was a dark spot!

One more video clip.  Some times, I swear Bob Cole is the narrator of my life inside my head!  Oh Baby!

I loved those Penguins teams, and have come to love this one.

OK, enough nostalgia.  You asked why I was a Penguins fan, now you know!

On to the series.  As I said earlier, I would be dishonest to do anything but pick the Penguins.  So I will just move on from that, other than saying Penguins in 6!

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What I do want to say is that I expect this to be a great series.  Both teams seem to have taken a little bit of the Chicago model, trying to play the game with high speed and high discipline, but have added depth to the equation.  Of course, the early Chicago teams also preached that depth, but in a salary cap world, that is impossible to maintain.

Massive props to the Blackhawks organization for the job they have done in steering through their cap issues to maintain competitiveness. They have managed it better than the Penguins, Bruins and Kings.

The Sharks have really been a great story.  Those beards on Thornton and Burns are absolute beauties, but they may be overshadowing their play, which has been stellar.

Sharks Beards

But it has not just been the bearded ones.  Pavelski and Couture have been stellar as well, and Patrick Marleau (the Grey Beard and original Sharks pick) has chipped in as well.  Joel Ward has been the glue guy getting the unsung goals…you think Washington misses him?

I see two distinct advantages for the Sharks – their Power Play and their defensive depth.

First, the Power Play for the Sharks has been lethal at 27%.  Given the personnel they put out there, two one-time shots being fed beautiful sauce by Thornton, plus the ultimate rover in Burns, it is going to be very difficult to contain.  Which is why if I had one word for Coach Sully, it would be this “Play the series 5 on 5”.  I think that is the Pens best chance.  The Sharks special teams combined score(PP+PK), which I have sited throughout the playoffs, is 107.4%.  Surprisingly, the Penguins are slightly worse at 107%, but I think that is inflated a little by earlier rounds.  If I am the Penguins, I don’t want that to be a key in this series.  I do admit that their penalty killing has been a strength, but I would rather not go to that well too often here.

Second, I feel the key factor that could win this series for the Sharks is their defensive depth.  I could make an argument that would satisfy most fans that Burns and Letang are both great, and for fairness, call them a wash.  After that, especially with the Trevor Daley injury, I don’t think I could formulate an argument to say that the Penguins can match the next three the Sharks put out – Vlasic, Braun and old friend Paul Martin are simply better than anyone the Pens have.

Sid Pavs

So, why do I think the Penguins still prevail.  Speed kills. Both teams have shown an ability through the playoffs to dictate the game.  The biggest take away from the last two rounds for me has been that Penguins speed.  Against both the Capitals and the Lightning, the series started with a lot of “Ya, but the Penguins didn’t play a team this good, and this fast”.  And both series ended with “Wow, the Penguins at their best made the Caps/ Bolts look slow”.  I am betting that is the case here again.

I also love the newly named “HBK Line” as a key difference.

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You know at times in this series, San Jose will be able to contain the Crosby line.  You never know when Malkin will decide he wants to play.  But this HBK line gets premium matchups for that reason, and their speed has been a huge advantage.  Hagelin is so fast, and so good on the backcheck.  Bonino has embraced his role, and knows he can’t skate with these guys 200 ft, but he can get them the puck.  And my punching bag Phil “Cheeseburger” Kessel has been dare I say clutch in these playoffs.  If the Final ended right now, and the Penguins won, I am pretty sure he is holding the Conn Smythe.  And if that happens, Gary Roberts is never going to see him this summer!

Letang, who may be my favorite current Penguin, has been a pillar of strength playing half of each game for the Penguins. My fear hear is that 3 rounds already in the books, plus these heavy Sharks forwards making him pay every trip into the zone, will break him down.  He doesn’t have the dependable Daley to give him a breather and help drive play any longer.  More than any other single skater (goalies don’t count, too easy.  Goalies are always key this time of year!), “Tanger” is the linchpin to this series.  If he can drive possession and keep the Penguins from getting trapped in their own zone, well, all I can say is…start carving his name back into that mug!

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For those of you not watching playoff hockey this year, shame on you.  The hockey has been great.  And please stop the inane “but their are no Canadian teams”, because why does that matter when we have all these Canadian boys to cheer for?

Crosby

Kunitz

Letang

Thornton

Burns

Marleau

Couture

Are you kidding me?

Enjoy the games everyone, you know I will be, win or lose! And I will have to hit the booze to tolerate Glenn Healy!  #BecauseHealyWontShutUp!

 

 

The Chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup – Round 3

Well, here it is, round three.  One step away from the final.  I was correct on 3 of 4 series last round (the Lightning/ Islanders series tripped me up!), and I am once again having to write after a series has already started.  Oh well, lets get to it!

Stanley

Eastern Conference Final: Penguins vs Lightning

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Programming note:  I am a bad person.  I did not watch the game last night.  So my thoughts will be devoid of information from game 1 which Tampa Bay won.

This one has set up as a mirror image series, as both teams boast blazing speed and scoring talent throughout the lineup.

The path for Tampa Bay’s return to the Eastern Conference final has included 5 game series wins versus the Red Wings and Islanders.  The Lightning should be getting credit for efficiently taking care of business, not apologizing for their schedule.  The triplets (Kucherov, Johnson and Palat) continue to carry the load for Tampa Bay, along with the stellar play of Victor Headman.  As predicted pre-playoff preview, Jonathon Drouin has been a force as well.  You have to think this little run, without Stamkos, has made Steve Yzerman’s dilemna a little more bearable.  He can point to the success they have had without their captain as a reasonable sign of hope for continued success if they are unable or unwilling to win the Stamkos auction.

Like the Penguins, the Lightning defense does not get a lot of accolades, they just get the job done.

The Penguins run has seen them vanquish their recent playoff nemesis Rangers, and follow it up by knocking off their historical playoff punching bag, but President’s trophy winning, Capitals.  The second round upset really highlighted the Penguins improved depth, as Crosby and Malkin were held to 4 points in that series.  It was the Bonino – Kessel- Hagelin line that took care of business in the second round.  They are going to need to get bigger contributions from the “Big 2” guns if they are to reach the final.  It’s about time NBC started to acknowledge that this Penguins team is good, not just hot!  I thought Milbury was going to be physically ill when Pittsburgh eliminated the Caps.

Matt Murray continues to be a huge story for the Penguins.  The rookie is giving them cool, calm and composed goaltending throughout these playoffs, well beyond expectations for a 21 year old rookie goaltender.  But playoff history is full of these types of stories.  Cam Ward being a very similar (replaced starter due to injury and ran with it all the way to a Cup and big contract) story.  For the Penguins, they can only help it ends the same way.  I do want to throw out a cautionary comment here – I have a feeling we do see Marc-Andre Fleury here at some point.  It’s just a gut feel nothing to base it on.  And I must compliment Fleury on the way he has handled this since coming back from injury.  Absolutely pure class, a true pro and great team mate!

Keys to the Series:

  • Penguins got themselves in trouble against the Caps when they took penalties.  They were better than Washington 5 on 5, and I suspect that will be the case here.
  • Goaltending is always a key this time of year.  Will Murray continue his run of excellence, and beat another Vezina nominated goalie.  Note I am not sure what status is now of Bishop, and if he is down, we could have dueling surprise starters, with Vasilevskiy every bit as calm and capable as Murray.
  • Cliche I know, but at this point in the playoffs, your best players need to be at their best.  Past few years, the Penguins undoing has generally been linked directly to Malkin and Crosby disappearance.  That can’t happen.

Special Teams:

For the Lightning, Tampa Bay saw their penalty killing take a major tumble in round 2, from 96% rating against the Red Wings, to 87.2% following the Islanders series.  Combined PP+PK now stands at 105%, lowest among the remaining teams.

For the Penguins, both their power play and penalty kill numbers took a major slide against a good Capitals special teams.  Of particular concern, their powerplay was not real good in spots against the Caps…and got nothing done in an early 5 minute major in game 1 versus the Lightning.  PP+PK rating of 109.1% is second best of those remaining, but that is 20% worse than it was after round 1.

What could go wrong:

  • Matt Murray turns into a pumpkin in this series, and Cinderella does not get to go to the ball.
  • The Penguins big guns (Crosby, Malkin – I’m calling you out here) don’t find a way to contribute, and the Lightning find a way to control the Bonino – Kessel – Hagelin line.
  • Game is played too much on special teams, which limits the Penguins superior depth.
  • Wear and tear of 3 rounds catches up to Penguins smallish D-core.

The Pick: Penguins in 6 (yes, stubborn given I know they have lost Game 1!)

 

Western Conference Final: Blues vs Sharks

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Well, good news here.  One of these long maligned teams for their playoff performance will finally get the monkey off their back.  Bad news, one will be so close, only to hear all the same criticisms again.

The Blues are on a great run, having knocked off defending champ Chicago and Western Conference regular season champion Stars.  The worry for me is that they seemed to take the hard way in both rounds, instead of finishing them quickly.  That can be a problem this time of year, especially for a team like the Blues that must play a physical, heavy game to be successful.

On the positive side, I think the Blues are the deepest of the remaining teams, and have always seemed built for long playoff runs.  They have 4 lines that can contribute, 6 solid D that are the envy of most the league, and not one but two starter caliber goaltenders.  On the goaltending side, Hitchcock appears to have finally stopped tinkering, and Elliott has earned right to run with the job.  He has been so good for the Blues.

They are also getting contributions throughout their lineup.  We know Tarasenko and Backes would perform, but Robby Fabbri has provided another dimension to the Blues.  He has even made Paul Statsny relevant again.  Like the Penguins, it has been this “third” line of Fabbri – Statsny- Brouwer that has come up big for the Blues.

On the Sharks side, it has been a remarkable run for a team most were thinking had seen it’s Stanley Cup window close.  The kids are alright…but the vets can still play!  Logan Couture has had a coming out party in these playoffs, currently leading the league in scoring.  This kid is good, I don’t think us “Eastern time zone non-zombies” get to see him enough. He also plays in the shadow of the “Joes” in Thornton and Pavelski, who have both had stellar playoffs as well.  The wildcard for the Sharks though has been Chewie, Brett Burns.  Again, us folks who like sleep don’t see these West coast guys enough, but Burns is so good.  He is mobile, he is dynamic, and he defends.  I will say it again, a must add to any Team Canada going forward.

Martin Jones continues to provide great goaltending for the Sharks, quietly doing his thing under the hype of the Matt Murray story.  I don’t think Jones has stolen a bunch of games for the Sharks, but he has been a pillar of strength and stability back there.

Keys to the Series:

  • To me biggest key here is who can dictate the pace and style of play.  Both teams are more than capable of playing heavy or fast…but Blues would prefer to keep this game on the boards and fight it out in hand to hand combat, where Sharks would prefer a bit more of a track meet.
  • Can the Blues forward depth expose the Sharks 2nd and 3rd pair defence?
  • As always, the tale of the twine will be big also.  Elliott versus Jones will be very interesting.

Special Teams:

For the Blues, they have consistently boasted a plus power play (27.5%) but have struggled on the penalty kill (79.5%).  Their PK will need to improve greatly if they are to advanced.  Combined PP+PK rating of 107% is solid third of those remaining.

The Sharks have feasted on special teams throughout the playoffs.  They got better on the powerplay in round 2, now at a 31% rate with the extra man.  That is intimidating. Their PK also improved over the course of the playoffs, now at 82%, for a combined rating of 113.2%, easily a playoff best.

What could go wrong:

  • If the Blues take too many penalties, they will get eaten alive.  As noted above, the Sharks have rode their powerplay so far.
  • Elliott appeared to have sprung a couple of leaks in round 2, and to right now the Sharks are every bit as dynamic as the Stars were.
  • Coaching – as good as Hitchcock is, it is Peter DeBoer who has guided his team (Devils) to a Cup final most recently.  He certainly seems to have a more even keeled approach to Hitch, and really has this team playing well.

The Pick: Blues in 7

Can’t wait to watch these two series, we sometimes get a dud in the third round, as a Cinderella falls apart, but I expect both of these series to continue to exhibit great hockey.  Enjoy everyone!