Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs Primer: Eastern Conference

Yesterday, we looked at the Western Conference's slate of playoff matchups. (Western Conference) Today, we're going to break down the inferior...I mean Eastern Conference playoffs. 

Washington vs. New York
It’s incredible that the Capitals are in the number one position. For much of the season they struggled to find their identity and the HBO documentary, “24-7 with the Penguins and Capitals” happened to catch the Caps at their darkest hour. The cameras showed up just in time to document the 9 game losing streak that was tormenting the Washington hockey team. Since beating Pittsburgh at the Winter Classic the season has looked up. The Capitals come in trying to shed the playoff chokers label. They’ve lost home game 7’s in each of the last 3 seasons. In the case of 2010 they were the President’s Trophy winners and held a 3 games to 1 lead on Montreal before blowing three straight.

The only team Washington’s beaten in the playoffs since Ovechkin’s arrival was the New York Rangers, and even that was a brutal 7 game series. New York snuck in on the last day of the season thanks to a loss by the Carolina Hurricanes, but the blue-shirts did go 3-1 against the Caps in the regular season.

Guys to Watch:
Alex Ovechkin – Ovechkin had a down year in production, but his mere presence on the ice changes the way other teams operate. The scurvy Russian will be an impact player with or without a boatload of points.

Jason Chimera – the former Blue Jackets’ great is the kind of role player who can make or break a playoff run. He’s huge, and one of the fastest skaters in the league. If he can help provide secondary scoring and shut down the energy line of the other team then the Capitals will have an improved chance of going deep.

Bruce Boudreau – The Capitals head coach gained fame during “24-7” for creative use of the ‘F’ word and indulging in a Miller Lite tallboy after the Winter Classic. Boudreau is one of the more entertaining coaches in the league, but if Washington fails to advance deep in the playoffs he could be sweating his job.

New York
Henrik Lundqvist – The Rangers goaltender is one of the best in the game. If he gets hot, the Capitals could be in trouble.

Sean Avery – the pest of all pests. There’s a rule about blocking a goaltender’s vision named in his honor. Avery can get under this skin of the Washington players and take them off of their game or at least try very hard, either way, it’ll be entertaining.

Philadelphia vs. Buffalo
A year ago the Flyers made the playoffs on the last day of the season thanks to a shootout victory over the Rangers. The Eastern Conference’s 7 seed then won three series before dropping the finals to the Blackhawks. Carrying that momentum the Flyers played most of the season in first place before going into coast-mode and falling behind Washington. Philadelphia has 3 solid defensive pairings that could all be the top pair on any team. They also have depth at forward, and a relatively unknown, but capable goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky.

The Sabres on the other side are on fire. 9-1-2 in their last 12 games took them from bubble playoff team to a team that may do some damage in the playoffs.

Guys to Watch:
Chris Pronger – Pronger is no stranger to deep playoff runs. He helped Edmonton reach the finals in 06, won a cup with Anaheim in 07, and was a big part of the Flyers’ run last year. Pronger turns it on during the postseason and is not only a shut down D-man, but also a threat to score from the point on the power play.

Philadelphia forwards – the Flyers had 6 guys score more than 20 goals in the regular season. Shutting down the top two lines will be key to upsetting Philadelphia.

Ryan Miller – the team USA goalie, Miller will determine how far the Sabres go in the playoffs.

Boston vs. Montreal
This is an interesting matchup because Boston-Montreal is one of the game’s most historic rivalries and this will be the third time in 4 years that the two teams have met in the playoffs. Expect a very intense matchup.

The Bruins were a game away from the Eastern Conference finals last season…for four games. They led Philadelphia 3 games to none, blew games 4, 5, and 6. In game 7 they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in front of their home crowd, and in one of the all-time greatest choke jobs, gave up 4 goals in the second half of the game and lost the series. The sting of that series should be at the forefront of Bruins fans minds coming into this postseason and against last year’s Cinderella darlings, it’s important they don’t fall into the same trap again.

The Canadiens won two series last year as the 8 seed, both coming back from 3-1 deficits to take out Washington and Pittsburgh. They placed all of their chips on goaltender Carey Price and let playoff hero Jaroslav Halak walk to St. Louis. Can Montreal complete another surprising run or can perennial playoff contender Boston finally advance past the second round?

Guys to Watch:
Zdeno Chara – He’s a 6’10 Slovak, but his skills seem to have faded. Montreal’s quick forwards could take advantage of his slow skates.

Tim Thomas – the favorite to win the Vezina (best goalie), Thomas has played less than stellar in the playoffs in recent years. So Thomas goes, so go the Boston Bruins.

Mike Camalleri – the University of Michigan product was a key player in the Canadiens ride to the conference finals last year. One of those players that seems to step up their game in the playoffs, Montreal will need him to come up big again.

PK Subban – Last year’s playoffs were his coming out party, and his first regular season this year showed he has the skills to be a superstar. The defenseman can snipe from the point on the power play or join the rush.

Carey Price – There may be no job in sports more demanding than Montreal Canadiens goaltender and early in his career it looked like Carey Price couldn’t deal with the pressure. This season he’s been the reason for the Canadiens’ success, but he still needs to prove that he can perform in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay
I’m not even going to try to be unbiased here. I’m rooting for Tampa Bay, which is hard because of the way their first year head coach, Guy Boucher, spurned the Blue Jackets offer to be the bench boss in Columbus. But Pittsburgh, and their fans, are responsible for the worst game I’ve ever been to in ten years of going to Blue Jackets games. (read about that here Sports Weekend From Hell). I can’t even try to be impartial towards that city or one of their teams.

The Penguins will probably have Sidney Crosby back, who hasn’t played since January 5 after sustaining a concussion. Crosby has been practicing in full contact drills without any ill side effects. It’s probably safe to say that he’ll be on the ice for the playoffs. The Penguins are also without Evgeni Malkin and have played just two games all season with their “big three” intact (Crosby, Malkin, Stall).

Tampa is making their first playoff appearance since 2007. They have a high powered power play and potent offense, but are weak on the back end and the question remains, will 41 year old goaltender Dwayne Roloson have enough in the tank for another playoff run?

Guys to Watch:
Sidney CrosbyCrosby is the best player in the world, but will he show any rust after not playing for 3 months?

Tampa Bay
Steve Stamkos – the number one overall pick from a few years ago has blossomed into a deadly sniper, especially on the power play.

Martin St. Louis – St. Louis is like 4’8, but incredibly skilled and in the latter part of his career is trying to win Tampa their second cup in franchise history.

Dwayne Roloson - If he doesn’t get hurt in game 1 of the 06 Finals, the 8 seed Oilers probably win the Stanley Cup with him. He’s a very capable goalie, but the Tampa defense will need him to make a lot of big saves on his own. He could be hung out to dry often and he’ll need to come up big if the Lightning have any hope of knocking off the Penguins. 

Stay tuned for more playoff coverage as they unfold. 

There you have it. If you agree, disagree, or have thoughts of your own. Share them with us at sportshatemeSHM@gmail.com OR follow us on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/SeanofUnionBlue

Monday, April 11, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs Primer

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/SeanofUnionBlue) know that hockey is kinda my thing. I’d tweet all day-errday about hockey if I could (and some days I have), but I know most people only follow for the poop and fart jokes. Well it’s about to get even worse, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us. The only way the playoffs could be any more awesome is if my Blue Jackets could figure out a way to qualify for them again; sports hate me.
I'm asking, how can you not love this?
 Judging by the numbers, and people literally telling me, I know that most of Sports Hate Me’s readers skip through the hockey stories I write. Well this article is designed to describe and educate so you know what the hell I’m talking about when I make a Twitter joke about Joe Thornton’s propensity to disappear in the playoffs or how the Coyotes are playing out their last days in Arizona.

I won’t be making picks. That never works out well and in a league where the 8 seed has beaten a 1 seed in three of the past five seasons, it’d almost be irresponsible to attempt to predict this beast.

So here it is, your Sports Hate Me Stanley Cup Playoffs primer starting with the Western Conference. 

Vancouver vs. Chicago
Despite winning their first President’s trophy (the trophy given to the team with the best regular season record in the NHL) in franchise history, Canucks fans have to be feeling some nervousness over facing a Blackhawks squad that has eliminated them in each of the past two seasons. The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season. Their championship roster was downsized with guys like Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, and Ben Eager getting shipped out of town. Still, the core of Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathon Toews, and Marian Hossa remains intact and this team could be a dangerous 8 seed.

Vancouver has lost a ton of man-games this season to its defensive corps making their finish in the standings even more impressive. Most of their defense is coming back healthy for the run, but perhaps the biggest blow was losing former Blue Jackets’ great and faceoff wizard, Manny Malhotra to an eye injury. Also, the playoffs can be an unpredictable time when Roberto Luongo is your goaltender. Which Roberto will show up is always in question. Here's something to keep in mind though, the Canucks led the league in goals scored, goals against, and power play percentage. They're dangerous. 

Guys to Watch:
Vancouver Canucks
The Sedin Twins - Henrik won the Hart Trophy for league MVP last season and his brother Daniel could do the same this year. Their olsen-like telekinesis has to be seen to be believed.

Ryan Kesler - The former Ohio State Buckeye was 4th in goals and a +24 all while playing under the skin of opponents. He’s an agitator with top level talent. Kesler will be an impact player in every series the Canucks play.

Roberto Luongo - Will we see the Luongo who won a gold medal with team Canada or will we see the Luongo of playoffs gone by? An improved Canucks D should help alleviate some of the pressure on Roberto.

Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathon Toews – He was the Conn Smythe winner (playoff MVP, all the NHL trophies have cool old-timey names) a year ago, and makes an impact whether he’s scoring or not.

Patrick Kane – He scored the cup clinching goal last season and is always dangerous.

Blackhawk goaltenders – Marty Turco is over the hill and hasn’t played all that much this season. Corey Crawford is untested in the playoffs.

San Jose vs. Los Angeles
This is the playoff series these two franchises have been waiting for since San Jose came into the league 20 years ago. Norcal v. Socal. The Sharks are the team with endless potential that always seems to come up short in the playoffs. They shrugged a reputation for choking in the playoffs by reaching the conference finals last season, but were promptly swept by Chicago. Neither the boys in teal nor their fans will be pleased with anything but a cup championship.

The two basically split their season series and the Kings had only two fewer wins than San Jose, but 10 of their wins came via the shootout. Playoff games don’t end in shootouts so LA will need to figure out how to win games by putting the puck in the net in normal game situations.

Guys to Watch
San Jose Sharks
Joe Thornton – a reputation for fading in the playoffs that he earned while playing for Boston and then followed him to California will loom over every game he fails to score in. Can Thornton rise above it like he did last year or regress to previous seasons’ performances?

Logan Couture – the Sharks rookie is a strong candidate for rookie of the year and scored 32 goals on the season.

Antti Niemi – Niemi won a cup with Chicago last year, but a lot of critics credited the Blackhawks victory as  being despite Niemi rather than because of him. This season however, he had a fairly strong goals against average of 2.38. Plus, Niemi will look to end the Sharks tradition of poor goaltender play in the playoffs started by Evgeni Nabakov who is no longer with the team.

Los Angeles Kings
Anze Kopitar – what’s that? He’s not playing, oh…

Drew Doughty - The 21 year old defenseman played for team Canada in the Olympics and will log big minutes for the Kings.

Ryan Smyth – I don’t think there’s a more Canadian guy in the NHL today. His nose is crooked, he’s 35 years old, he was a big part of the Oilers surprise run in 06, and he’s got some of the best flow-bucket in the game today. (Flow bucket: when long hair flows out of your helmet aka "bucket")

Detroit vs. Phoenix
 Is it possible to have nobody win this one? The Red Wings are in the playoffs for the 20th straight season. It’s almost gotten to the point where Red Wings fans don’t even watch the regular season. In Detroit the regular season is referred to as, “6 month preseason”. What is there to know about the Red Wings? Well they have solid forwards, solid defense, solid goaltending and they somehow did this all without experiencing any down years, ever. They don’t rebuild, they reload. They are extremely annoying.

The Phoenix Coyotes are in embarrassing financial straits, have been league owned for two years now, and it’s likely as soon as the season’s over they’ll be moving back from whence they came, Winnipeg, Manitoba. That’s Canada. The Coyotes built an arena in Glendale, Arizona where no Phoenixites dare venture. Their attendance is second to last in the league despite being a playoff team these last two years. If Columbus had their success, Nationwide Arena would be sold out every night. The Coyotes are extremely annoying.

Guys to Watch:
Detroit Red Wings
Nik Lidstrom – the Defenseman for the Red Wings is like 50 years old, and still a solid contributor. I wouldn’t be surprised if he played another 5 years.

Johan Franzen/Tomas Holmstrom – these guys might as well be the same player. Both Swedish, both huge, both score a ton of goals seemingly by being huge and standing in front of the net. They’re the NHL equivalent of Shaq.

Pavel Datsyuk – one of the most stunningly talented players in the game. When he’s on the ice watch him with or without the puck. He has one of the best pairs of hands the game has ever seen.

Phoenix Coyotes
Shane Doan – the Coyotes captain has played his entire career with the Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets organization. No player in the league gets more excited or is more animated with facial expressions than Doan.

Paul Bissonnette – it may be hard to watch him play as it’s likely that he’ll be a healthy scratch in most of, if not all the Coyotes playoff games, but he's worth a follow on Twitter though, http://twitter.com/#!/BizNasty2point0. Easily one of the more entertaining athlete tweeters around. 

Anaheim vs. Nashville
The Ducks have the Rocket Richard trophy winner (most goals) in Corey Perry, and an impossible to hate Finn named Teemu Selanne. Selanne is 40 years old and was supposed to retire when the Ducks won the cup in 2007, but he decided there was still enough left in the tank to keep playing for another 4 years and possibly more. The endearing thing about Selanne is how much fun he has playing the game and at freaking 40 had a 30 goal season with a lot of those goals coming as the game winner or in the last two minutes of a contest. The Ducks could be the team that makes a surprise run.

The Nashville Predators are making their 6th playoff appearance in 12 years of existence though they’re still looking for their first series win. The Predators have gotten back to the postseason despite not having anything that resembles a number one line. The Predators beat you with depth, defense, and goaltending. Don’t be surprised if the Predators make a deep playoff run.

Guys to Watch:
Anaheim Ducks
Teemu Selanne – the guy has a knack for coming up big in clutch situations. If the game is tied late or the Ducks trail by 1, then Selanne will be on the ice.

Ryan Getzlaf – the Ducks’ captain is the definition of power forward and was the spur that kicked the Ducks to the title in 07.

Bobby Ryan – Ryan was the guy taken right after Sidney Crosby. He was 8th in goals and had a +15 on the season.

Corey Perry – He led the league in goals, but he’s also considered one of the games biggest irritants. The league should keep a running tally to see what happens more, goals scored or times a Predators punches him in the face.

Nashville Predators
Shea Weber – The Predators captain is the defenseman every team is looking for. He’s got size, skill, and a shot that could kill a guy.

Mike FisherNashville picked up Fisher at the deadline and he’s provided some scoring and is fitting in nicely with the Predators system. More importantly, he’s married to Carrie Underwood so there’s probably going to be at least one crowd shot of Underwood at one of the games in Nashville.

That’s it for the Western Conference. Expect the Eastern Conference set to be out sometime on Tuesday.

There you have it. If you agree, disagree, or have thoughts of your own. Share them with us at sportshatemeSHM@gmail.com OR follow us on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/SeanofUnionBlue

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lessons Football Could Learn From the NCAA Tournament

This year’s NCAA Tournament is EXACTLY why football needs a playoff.

Last week Connecticut beat Super-Cinderella Butler in what has been described as one of the worst basketball games ever. I wouldn’t know, I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoy any other basketball game. Uconn’s national title, as a 3 seed spawned the internet to ask this question, “Is Uconn really the best basketball team in the nation?” which last week existed as, “Are Butler, VCU, Uconn, and Kentucky the four best teams in the nation?” These questions were asked almost exclusively by fans of traditionally good teams that had been eliminated earlier in the tournament.
Reason for poor shooting performance against Uconn? Boogers.
To answer the questions, no, they aren’t the best basketball team in the nation, and no, those weren’t the four best teams in the final four, but that’s what makes the tournament great. Its excitement is built on the upsets and surprises. The massive single elimination tournament isn’t designed to find the best basketball team, it’s designed to find the National Champion. The national champion and the best team don’t need to be the same thing. Otherwise, what’s the point of a tournament at all? If we were looking for the best team then we should’ve just ended the season and given Ohio State a trophy, but it doesn’t work that way.

Furthermore, this argument only seems to surface when a 1 seed doesn’t win the NCAA Tournament. The Green Bay Packers were the wildcard and the San Francisco Giants weren't the number 1 seed in the National League. The Chicago Blackhawks weren’t the NHL’s best team a year ago, but they and the other teams mentioned were their league champions, and yet nobody seems to have a problem with that.
"But were they really the best team?" *nerd voice, sniffles, glasses push* 

So what’s this got to do with college football? Well for one, it’s well documented that college football uses a two team playoff whose participants are decided by computers, schedule strength, and conference politics. It’s not the worst way to determine a national champion (that was the old pre-BCS system), but it’s far from the best. Think of all the excitement we’re missing out on by only having one true playoff game. Consider that an 8 team tournament would deliver 8 teams, all capable of winning a playoff game, battling it out in true and meaningful postseason play through seven intense games (I think my math is correct there). I don’t understand how any fan of college football wouldn’t love to have that.

Once a playoff is adopted these years we currently live in will be looked back on not in a fond-nostalgic sense, but as the dark ages of college football, the “why did it take so long to go to a playoff” days of college football, the “what were we thinking” days of college football.

Proponents of the BCS generally spout the same arguments and each one has a very easy solution. I will try not to bore you with my own ideal playoff alignment, but for the sake of consistency, assume we’re operating under an 8 team playoff, and I’ll address each of these as they come.

This is what a BCS fan looks like
Silly Arguments Against a Playoff:
“The regular season will be ruined. Look at college basketball, nobody cares about the regular season.”
An unintended consequence of the 64 team tournament in basketball is that people generally don’t pay attention to the regular season because the games are less important. For a lot of top tier programs the regular season is a 4 month waiting period until the tournament. I won’t argue that fact at all. That’s very true. I also won't argue that the college football regular season is unbelievable and that every week is important. What I will argue is that basketball and football are two very different sports, and that a playoff wouldn't do any damage to the regular season.

I don’t see football’s regular season being affected in any way by the addition of a playoff. One, all of the anit-climacticy of basketball’s regular season is due to the large number of teams that get into the tourny and the high number of regular season games they play. Football will never play a 30+ game schedule or hold a 64 team tournament. The football tournament will be far more selective and as a result, regular season games will still matter. Two, if you limit playoff selection to only conference champions, then the regular season will be just as important. I like the idea that you shouldn't be able to win a national championship without winning your conference championship.

“The schedule would be too long”
Right now they play 12 games, and then a conference championship game, and then a bowl game, so 14 games in all. With an 8 team playoff replacing the bowls, the schedule would grow to 16 games…for two teams. Two out of the 100 something division 1 teams will play 2 additional games. That’s not bad at all.

“They’re college athletes, what about their studies? A playoff is one more step towards professionalism.”
Thanks Gordon Gee. Let’s not pretend that high level college football cares about the scholarship of its players. This point is often trumpeted by college presidents because they can hide their desire to earn money through the current bowl system under the guise of fear that the student athletes’ academics may be compromised.

Further, if we can send our basketball players around the country for four consecutive weekends (during finals, might I add), then why can’t we do the same with our football players?

“We’d still argue about the last team picked, just like we argue about who is number 2 now.”
Yeah, but the number 3 team in the country often has a very legitimate gripe on not getting a shot at the national championship. Does the number 9 team? I’d feel a lot better about denying a shot to the 9th best team than I do the third best team, who is often excused only because of strength of schedule (which scheduled years in advance is out of their control), and conference politics (also out of their control). The 2004 undefeated Auburn team that got snubbed from the National Championship game comes to mind.

“We’d lose the tradition of the bowls”
Newsflash, the tradition of the bowls is gone. That died with the addition of the BCS, and it was given a final blow when the National Championship became a separate game unto itself. Not a single bowl game means anything anymore. We like to think they do, but really they’re all meaningless exhibition games. Each and every one, from the Rose Bowl to the Kraft Bullshit Bowl, is all for naught.

If you really want to keep bowls around then you can still play them, but with teams outside the tournament, a veritable football NIT, if you will. Or, you use the major bowls as preliminary rounds of the playoff, with an alternating schedule for the national championship game.

All I know is, I watched the basketball tournament, and excluding a disappointing title game, saw the parity and excitement that comes with deciding the champion on the field of play. How any fan of college football wouldn't love to have that is beyond me.

There you have it. If you agree, disagree, or have thoughts of your own. Share them with us at sportshatemeSHM@gmail.com OR follow us on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/SeanofUnionBlue