Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Goal scored by ... Methuselah!

I'm not here to go into the ins and outs of the NHL's decision Wednesday to reject the 17-year, $102 contract that Ilya Kovalchuk signed with the New Jersey Devils. To make a long story very short, the league's stance is that the pact is a blatant attempt to circumvent the salary cap because its front-loaded nature would be less of a cap hit in the latter seasons of the deal, and that nobody actually expects Kovalchuk to still be playing by the time the pact was to expire after the 2026-27 season, when he'll be 44 years old.

Nobody except Kovalchuk, apparently.

"I've played with guys who played at a pretty good level at that age," Kovalchuk told the Newark Star-Ledger during the Devils' press conference Tuesday to announce the deal. "I hope I keep myself in shape and can still play."

Kovalchuk wasn't lying. As a member of the Atlanta Thrashers before being traded to the Devils, he was a teammate of 44-year-old Chris Chelios, who played seven games with the Thrashers in what was likely the final act of Chelios' 27-year career, which began in Montreal in 1983, when Chelios was 21.

According to, there have been only TWO players in NHL history who played at the age of 44; Chelios is one, and the other is Hall of Famer Doug Harvey, who played in 70 games with the St. Louis Blues in 1968-69. Harvey, however, played in only two seasons after the age of 39. He retired for two seasons before coming back to play two games with Detroit in 1966-67 at the age of 42, and took the next year off before finishing his career with the Blues.

Chelios and Harvey were both defensemen; should Kovalchuk actually hit the ice as a 44-year-old, he would be the first forward in NHL history to do so. Igor Larionov and Claude Lemieux were both 43 in their final NHL seasons; Larionov played 49 games with the Devils in 2003-04, and Lemieux appeared in 18 games with the San Jose Sharks in 2008-09, but that was a comeback attempt after a five-year retirement.

Of course, none of this even approaches what the immortal Gordie Howe accomplished in 1979-80, when he ended a nine-year retirement in order to play alongside his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Hartford Whalers. Howe the elder played 80 games that season, with 15 goals and 41 points.


I didn't post anything following the death of George Steinbrenner because although I've heard plenty of stories about him from "insiders" over the years, I never had any interactions with him myself. I do, however, have a good story about Bob Sheppard, the Yankees' legendary PA announcer who passed two days before Steinbrenner (those of you who are my Facebook friends got a preview of this).

I played football at William Paterson College as a freshman back in 1978, but injured my ankle early in the season. Because I knew all the players and numbers instantly without having to look them up, I became the PA announcer at our home games, and sat in the press box at road games as the spotter for the opposing teams' PA man.

Our final game of the season was at St. John's. I trudged up the bleachers to the press box, and was stunned to see Sheppard sitting behind the microphone. Turns out he was a professor of English at St. John's and doubled as the football PA announcer. He was so nice to me, going over our roster before the game and after each play, he waited for me to give him the name of the William Paterson player who carried the ball or made the tackle. I sat right next to him the entire game.

I don't remember who won that day, but my two-plus hours with Bob Sheppard are something I'll never forget.

Friday, July 9, 2010

His disloyal highness

Here's a few things we learned now that LeBron James has finally announced his long-awaited "Decision," which now returns us to our regularly-scheduled lives.


The Cavaliers owner dragged out the heavy artillery in a letter to Cleveland fans on the Cavs' web site, referring to James as "our former hero," who's guilty of "cowardly betrayal" and perpetuated "this shocking act of disloyalty." But the best part was this paragraph, written all in caps:


Gilbert even went on to bestow a "curse" on LeBron, saying that "until he does 'right' by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma."

Geez, Dan. Tell us what you really think.


I happened to watch the spectacle unfold at a restaurant bar, with most of the TVs tuned to ESPN, but one set on CNN. Judging from CNN's coverage, you'd think you were watching the Oscars. They had split screens of live crowd shots from Miami, Cleveland and New York while their "experts" prattled on about the "big decision" that was coming in just a few moments.

To ESPN's credit, they had been reporting for some time that "all indications" had LeBron heading to South Beach, which obviously threw a wet rag on their one-hour televised "exclusive." But that didn't stop the competition from turning the James informercial into "breaking news."

As soon as James uttered the word "Miami," CNN flashed "IT'S MIAMI!" on the bottom of the screen with somewhat predictable crowd reactions. The folks in South Beach started dancing and preening. The people in New York silently left the screen and went back to watching the Yankees.

But the feed from Cleveland was puzzling. One woman could only stare at the screen, mouth agape like a wax statue. And what was with the guy who reacted as if he were punched in the stomach and screamed, "NO!" Could he have possibly been that shocked? Or even mildly surprised? Really?


This may be the biggest deciding factor. Sure, the thought of playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had a lot to do with it, but if you were a single, 25-year-old professional sports superstar with the ability and opportunity to make such a choice, where would you rather be? Clubbing it up in the sand and surf or shoveling snow? Ice in your cocktail or under your feet? When you're cold, putting on a sweater or a parka?

Makes it a lot simpler, doesn't it? Now, let's put this dog and pony show behind us, crack open a cold one and watch some baseball.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seventh heaven ... or hell

There's a legend that somewhere underneath the floor of the old Boston Garden, there were "dead spots" under the parquet that only seemed to affect the opposing team, that invisible leprechauns cavorted and connived to make sure their Celtics would emerge victorious.

The old Gahden is gone, and the game that will decide the 2010 NBA championship will be played 3,000 miles away. But that doesn't stop the talk of tradition, legend and history, a chapter of which will be added to tonight when those two bitter and storied rivals, the Lakers and Celtics, meet in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

"Personally, I've never seen a leprechaun growing up in Little Rock or any of the years I've been here in L.A.," said the Lakers' Derek Fisher. "I've only seen them on T-shirts and commercials. I don't want to see one (tonight), that's for sure."

After all the ups and downs of the first six games, the season has come down to a final 48 minutes. The intensity will be palpable on both sides by tipoff, and the emotions were evident on both sides as the teams held off-day practices for the last time this season.

"I don't want to be sitting around in July having to ask myself, 'Did I do everything that I could have done? Have any regrets?' " said the Celtics' Ray Allen. "I don't want to be that person. I want to do everything I can to leave it all on the floor.

"When it comes to Game 7, it's like this is what we were born to do. It's like if we were born, our mothers said we would be in Game 7 of the NBA Finals someday and nobody would blink an eye because we would say that's where we're supposed to be."

Said the Lakers' Lamar Odom, "(It's) historic, when you're talking about these organizations and these teams, what they stand for, the pride. This is what you envisioned when you were a kid playing in your backyard. This was what it was all about."

Clearly, there are issues on both sides. Both starting centers are battling knee injuries; the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins is out for Game 7, with the Lakers' Andrew Bynum hobbled at best. Boston will turn to either Rasheed Wallace or Glen "Big Baby" Davis to start in Perkins' place -- look for the experienced and battle-tested Wallace to get the nod -- while the Lakers will look to build momentum after the stellar performance of their bench in Game 6, which outscored their Celtics counterparts 25-13 and 24-0 through the first three quarters.

Perkins' absence underscores one significant factor -- rebounding. Throughout this series (and most NBA games in general), the team with the edge on the boards has won the game. As Pat Riley used to say, "No rebounds, no rings."

L.A. will also look for another strong offensive effort from Ron Artest, who scored 15 points in Game 6 after averaging 7.8 points in Games 1 through 5.

But if we've learned anything from this series, you can't build on momentum. In reality, it all comes down to who brings the best effort, works the hardest, is more efficient -- plainly, just plays better -- in Game 7.

"It's basketball," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has won a record 10 NBA titles as a coach, but who has never coached in Game 7 of the Finals. "You may be moving at a faster rate, you may be playing at a quicker elevation, spirit, but if you're not going to be able to do the most basic things, if you come out of your skin, if you're out of character, things are going to happen awry. So you have to stay in character."

Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "Before the year, I'm sure if you had asked the Lakers, 'Would they take a Game 7 at home?' They would have taken a Game 7 anywhere for the championship. And we would have said 'yeah,' as well. We would have obviously loved it at home more, but we're not there.

"So we're both probably in a game that we'd like to be in. If you told the teams that that's where you had to be, I think we'd both take it."

This will be the fifth time the Lakers and Celtics will meet in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Boston has won the previous four times (including once on L.A.'s home floor in 1969). In all four cases, the game's high scorer wore Lakers' purple and gold.

The Celtics, don't forget, are 11-0 all-time in the Finals when they hold a 3-2 series lead. But the all-important home court is pivotal: In NBA history, the home team is 13-3 in Game 7 of the Finals.

Year / Result / Venue / High scorer
1962 / Celtics 110, Lakers 107 (OT) / Boston Garden / Elgin Baylor, 41 pts.
1966 / Celtics 95, Lakers 93 / Boston Garden / Jerry West, 36 pts.
1969 / Celtics 108, Lakers 106 / The Forum / Jerry West, 42 pts.
1984 / Celtics 111, Lakers 102 / Boston Garden / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 29 pts.

In the end, you can analyze all you want, but the bottom line is quite simple.

"This is why the 82 games in the regular season matter," Fisher said. "Now it's just about going out and playing the game."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Passing the Stras test

Stephen Strasburg may be the most heralded and hyped rookie to take the big league mound in a long time -- OK, maybe ever -- but he has a long way to go to stand alongside the most prolific rookie pitchers in Major League history.

Sure, Strasburg has been eye-popping in his first two career starts with the Nationals -- a 2-0 record, a 2.19 ERA and 22 strikeouts -- but there are several rookie benchmarks that may be out of reach of the 21-year-old righthander. Let's look at a few:


Hooks Wiltse, 12, 1904. Born George Leroy Wiltse, he won his first 12 starts as a rookie with the New York Giants between May 29 and Sept. 15, 1904. Wiltse finished 13-3 that season, the best of his big-league career from a percentage standpoint (.813). Wiltse was a two-time 20-game winner, going 23-14 in 1908 and 20-11 in 1909, and finished his 12-year career in the Majors with a 139-90 record, 11 with the Giants and his final season with the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the short-lived Federal League.


Hall of Famer Albert Goodwill Spalding, 47, 1876. The pitching records pre-1900 will never be touched, simply because in those days, starting pitchers took the mound just about every day, with rest a rarity and a luxury. Consider in 1876, Spalding started a staggering 60 of the 66 games played by the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association -- roughly twice the number of starts by today's pitchers. The Tigers' Justin Verlander led the Majors in starts last season with 35.

In the modern era, Russ Ford won 26 games as a rookie with the New York Highlanders in 1910. Strasburg would have to win virtually every start the rest of the season to even come close, but in reality, it's another unreachable mark.


Dwight Gooden, 11.4, 1984. Gooden burst onto the baseball scene like a meteor, as he led the Majors in strikeouts with 276 as a 19-year-old. Voted Rookie of the Year, he finished 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA. He was even better the following season (24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 Ks). His problems began when he "slept in" during the Mets' World Championship parade in 1986, and his career was soon dogged by injuries, drug abuse and arrests. He never came close to duplicating the eye-popping the success of his first two seasons, when he won 41 games and lost only 13. He finished his big league career 194-112.

Strasburg actually has a shot here, given his quick start. A lot will depend on pitch counts, his health and if batters can figure him out. It promises to be a fun ride.

Monday, June 14, 2010

C's the moment

For some unique perspective on the NBA Finals, we go to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who doesn't want to play the role of Debbie Downer with his team one win away from the 18th championship, but has a message worth considering.

The TD Garden was still shaking from the cheers following Boston's 92-86 triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night, which gave the Celtics the upper hand in the series as it shifts back to the Staples Center in La-La Land for Games 6 and 7 (if needed). Granted, the Celtics are 11-0 all-time in this very scenario -- holding a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals. And in the previous 25 instances when the NBA Finals were tied 2-2, the team that won Game 5 went on to capture the series 19 times.

It was the last time the Game 5 winner DIDN'T go on to take the title that gives Rivers and the Celtics pause. In the 1994 NBA Finals, the Knicks held a 3-2 lead over the Rockets in the Finals, but Houston won Games 6 and 7 to win the championship. Rivers was a member of that Knicks team, but did not play in the Finals due to a knee injury.

"I thought about that the other day when John Starks called me and reminded me of that," Rivers said in the interview room Sunday night. "You know, that's a bitter memory, obviously, for me. I was injured, sitting on the bench, so it just felt like you couldn't help individually.

"As a team, we had a lot of great opportunities in that series, in Game 6 (when Starks scored 32 points in an 86-84 defeat) and Game 7 (when Starks went 2-for-18 from the field, 0-for-11 from 3-point range in a 90-84 loss), but it just didn't happen.

"For me, obviously, a learning experience, but I can't use that experience for the players on this team. Hell, half of them are too young to remember, and half of them probably don't care."

Still, Rivers' remembrances are worth noting, because the rest of this series -- however long it lasts -- will be played on the Lakers' home turf.

"We lost our wiggle room by losing (Game 3)," Rivers said. "The Lakers played well enough to have home-court advantage all year, and so it's to their advantage."

Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, "It's basically home court, home court. Now we're going back to home court to win it. That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it? Unfortunately, we couldn't get this win here but we got the one we needed to bring us back home."

LA may be on its heels a bit, down in the series, with center Andrew Bynum clearly not himself because of a knee injury and with Lamar Odom and Ron Artest MIA on the offensive end. But if you're looking for a chink in the Lakers' armor, don't expect to find any dents on Kobe Bryant, who scored 38 points Sunday, a season-high for him.

When asked how confident he was that his team could win Games 6 and 7 on its home floor, Bryant, with a wry smile, responded, "I'm not very confident at all," and managed to laugh.

"Just man up and play," Bryant said. "What the hell is the big deal? I don't see it as a big deal. If I have to say something to (his teammates), then we don't deserve to be champions. We're down 3-2, go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that."

Perhaps not quite so simple, given the fact the Lakers are not firing on all cylinders and are at a disadvantage in the battle of the boards, particularly with Bynum ailing. The team that wins in the rebounding category has taken every game in this series, and there's no reason to think that won't change in LA on Tuesday.

With his team on the cusp of beating the Lakers for the 10th time in 12 NBA Finals meetings in their storied rivalry, Rivers is doing his best to keep his team in the moment.

"I think it would be special in any situation," Rivers said when asked about the prospects of closing out the Lakers in enemy territory, but I'm not even going to go there right now.

"We got off of that early on, looking at the big picture and all that stuff. That makes it fuzzy for us. I think our team has a very good ability to just focus on the next game. Through the playoffs that's been very good for us, and that's the way we have to stay."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There will be (new) blood

Two things we know for sure heading into the Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks, which begin on Saturday: The winners will be ending the longest current active drought in the Cup Finals, while the losers will have that champagne-starved run all to themselves.

Consider the Blackhawks, Flyers and Boston Bruins have all gone five straight trips to the Cup Finals without a victory; Philadelphia hasn't won since the "Broad Street Bullies" lifted the Cup in 1975, and Chicago hasn't hoisted the chalice since 1961.

That's a long, long time since celebrations. How about these fun factoids:

* In each of their last voyages to the Finals, the Blackhawks and Flyers were both swept; Chicago was beaten by Pittsburgh in four straight in 1992, and Philadelphia suffered the same fate at the gloves and skates of Detroit in 1997.

* Flyers captain Mike Richards was 2 years old the last time the Flyers won a game in the Finals (a six-game defeat by Edmonton in 1987).

* Flyers veteran Chris Pronger was seven months old when Philadelphia last hosted a Cup-winning parade in 1975.

* Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were tykes the last time Chicago made it to the Finals in '92 (Toews was 4 and Kane 3), and neither were born yet when the Hawks last won a game in the Finals in 1973 (a seven-game ousting by Montreal).

* John Madden, at 36 the oldest member of the Blackhawks, was four days old on May 8, 1973, when Chicago beat Montreal 8-7 -- the last time the Hawks won a Finals game.

* Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was 14 on that day in 1973, and was only 2 years old when Chicago raised its last Cup in 1961.

Here's a closer look at how these two teams have sputtered once reaching Lord Stanley's stage:

Chicago Blackhawks' last five appearances in Stanley Cup Finals
Year / Opponent / Result
1992 / Pittsburgh / Lost 4-0
1973 / Montreal / Lost 4-2
1971 / Montreal / Lost 4-3
1965 / Montreal / Lost 4-3
1962 / Toronto / Lost 4-2

Philadelphia Flyers' last five appearances in Stanley Cup Finals
Year / Opponent / Result
1997 / Detroit / Lost 4-0
1987 / Edmonton / Lost 4-3
1985 / Edmonton / Lost 4-1
1980 / NY Islanders / Lost 4-2
1976 / Montreal / Lost 4-0

The Blackhawks and Flyers have met only once in the postseason, when Chicago triumphed in a four-game first-round sweep in 1971. Chicago won easily as it outscored Philadelphia 20-8. Bobby Hull (11 goals in the playoffs) and Jim Pappin (10 goals) led the offense, while Tony Esposito had a 2.19 GAA in net that postseason.

Simon Nolet scored twice, and was the only Flyer to pot more than one goal in the series.

The Blackhawks came close to ending their drought -- only 10 years long at that point -- in the '71 Finals, as they held 2-0 and 3-2 series leads on the Canadiens. But Montreal won a pair of one-goal games, capturing Game 7 3-2 as rookie goaltender Ken Dryden flashed the form in what became a Hall of Fame career.

Similarly, the Flyers had a shot to exorcise their demons in 1987, but had to go up against the Edmonton Oilers, who were on the way to winning their third of five Stanley Cups. Philadelphia fell behind 3-1 in the series and actually won Games 5 and 6 to force a deciding seventh game, but Edmonton was triumphant in Game 7. Wayne Gretzky scored only five goals in the postseason that year, but led all playoff scorers with 29 assists and 34 points. Meanwhile, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri combined for 41 playoff goals to more than pick up the slack.

So no matter what, the Cup Finals will result in new blood enjoying their finest hour. Who am I rooting for? Chicago, for two reasons: When push comes to shove, I'll take the Original Six team every time, and having grown up a Rangers fan, there's no way I can ever cheer for the Flyers (the only time I ever did when when Philly beat up on the Soviets in 1976; check out HBO's excellent documentary, "Broad Street Bullies" for more details).

For a prediction, let's say, Blackhawks in six.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hitting the Lottery Wall

As the time gets closer to following the bouncing ping-pong balls for the NBA Draft Lottery Tuesday night, we already know the chance each team in the lottery has for winning the first overall selection, and thus showing the money to the consensus No. 1 pick, Kentucky guard John Wall (above).

Based on their performance -- or lack thereof -- this season, the New Jersey-soon-to-be-Brooklyn Nets have the best shot of securing Wall's services, 25 percent. The Minnesota Timberwolves are second (19.9 percent) with the Sacramento Kings third (15.6 percent).

The official NBA odds of each lottery club getting the first overall pick:

1. New Jersey / 25.0 percent
2. Minnesota / 19.9
3. Sacramento / 15.6
4. Golden State / 10.4
5. Washington / 10.3
6. Philadelphia / 5.3
7. Detroit / 5.2
8. LA Clippers / 2.3
9. Utah / 2.2
10. Indiana / 1.1
11. New Orleans / 0.8
12. Memphis / 0.7
13. Toronto / 0.6
14. Houston / 0.5

OK, fine. But during my morning ritual of exploring, I found a page that simulates the Lottery, and with a click of the mouse reconfigures the ping-pong ball combinations that make the Lottery results. I decided to make my own sample of 100 Lotteries and played 100 times. Yes, I do have a life, but not to worry -- it only took a few minutes; try it yourself at:

What I found was that while the first four spots played pretty true to form, there was a bit of rejockeying of positions beginning with the fifth spot. While the Washington Wizards have the fifth-best "official" chance at nailing down No. 1 (5.3 percent), my sample had the Detroit Pistons in that spot, which came up nine times (9 percent).

The woebegone Los Angeles Clippers, the Rodney Dangerfields of the NBA, can't get a break in my sampling, either. They have the eighth-best "official" chance at 2.3 percent, but their logo didn't show up once in my 100 tries. It was interesting that the Utah Jazz (ninth, 2.2 percent), Memphis Grizzlies (12th, 0.7) and Toronto Raptors (13th, 0.6) never came up, either.

Conversely, the New Orleans Hornets (11th, 0.8), popped up three times (3 percent) and the Houston Rockets (14th, 0.5) made one appearance (1 percent).

My unofficial odds of each lottery club getting the first overall pick, based on playing ESPN's NBA Lottery mock draft 100 times:

1. New Jersey / 22 percent
2. Minnesota / 20
3. Sacramento / 17
4. Golden State / 14
5. Detroit / 9
6. Washington / 7
7. Philadelphia / 6
8. New Orleans / 3
9. Indiana / 1
10. Houston / 1
11. LA Clippers / 0
12. Utah / 0
13. Memphis / 0
14. Toronto / 0


Thanks to my old high school friend and faithful blog reader Steve Conklin for pointing this out -- remember all the talk at the end of the NBA regular season about the Celtics and Doc Rivers parting ways? Funny that after the Celts' vanquishing of LeBron and the Cavs, all that talk has vaporized? It was Doc himself who once famously said, "When you win, you're a genius, and when you lose, you're an idiot." Lots of high IQ scores for Doc and the C's these days ...

On the flip side, not so high praise for Claude Julien and the Bruins (OK, so I was wrong about the B's). That loss is going to sting Boston for a long, long time. At least my personal quest for an all-Original Six Final is still alive, so I'm rooting hard for the Hawks and Habs.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

B's can still get an "A"

Not to despair, Bruins fans. Sure, you all want to jump off the Zakim Bridge, or maybe impale yourselves on the Bunker Hill Monument (both within visual contact of the TD Garden, for you out-of-townahs).

But it says here the Bruins will not become a footnote for posterity when they take the ice Friday night for Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Flyers -- for history's sake, if nothing else.

First, there would be the ignominy of becoming only the third team in Stanley Cup Playoff lore to lose a seven-game series after gliding to a 3-0 lead. For the record, the only teams to accomplish that dubious feat were the 1942 Red Wings, who were overtaken by the Maple Leafs in the Cup Final, and the 1975 Penguins, who were similarly victimized by the Islanders in the quarterfinals.

By the way, it should be noted the Islanders lost the first three games and stormed back to force a Game 7 twice in consecutive rounds in '75. After they stunned the Pens, they forced the Flyers to a deciding contest in the semifinals, but lost Game 7. The "Broad Street Bullies" went on to down the Sabres in the Finals to win their second straight Stanley Cup.

From the Bruins' perspective, they've already staved off such an embarrassing defeat once in their history. In 1939, they jumped to a 3-0 series lead on the Rangers in the Cup semifinals before being forced to a Game 7 by losing the next three. But the B's won Game 7, and led by Roy Conacher and the "Kraut Line" of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, beat the Leafs in five games to win the Cup.

Here's a historic look at the six times we've found ourselves in such a situation, with the Team that forced Game 7 listed first:

Year / Team / Opponent / Result
2010 / Flyers / Bruins / ?
1975 / Islanders / Flyers / lost
1975 / Islanders / Penguins / won
1945 / Red Wings / Maple Leafs / lost
1942 / Maple Leafs / Red Wings / won
1939 / Rangers / Bruins / lost

The 2010 Bruins are also carrying the standard for the Original Six Clubs. Should they repel the Flyers and advance, they would face the hated Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals, marking only the third time since 1980 that two O-Six clubs would meet in a conference final, and it would also be the first time since 1979 that three Original Six teams would reach the conference finals, with the Canadiens and Blackhawks already holding their stamped tickets.

Original Six teams in Stanley Cup conference finals since 1980:

2009 - Red Wings def. Blackhawks, 4-1
1995 - Red Wings def. Blackhawks, 4-1
1986 - Canadiens def. Rangers, 4-1

So, Bruins, it's all up to you. The spirits of Eddie Shore and Dit Clapper wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Original idea

Somewhere, the ghosts of Jack Adams, Toe Blake, Eddie Shore and King Clancy are smiling. That's because for the first time under the NHL's current playoff format, instituted in 1993, four "Original Six" teams -- the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings -- have reached the Stanley Cup Conference Semifinals.

And a chance exists that we could see our first "Original Six" final since 1979, when the Canadiens bested the New York Rangers in games. Albeit not a terrific chance, as the Bruins are the only Original Six squad still alive that led their playoff series on Sunday morning, following their thrilling OT triumph over Philadelphia in their series opener on Saturday.

Just as interesting, should the Canadiens, Bruins, Blackhawks and Red Wings all manage to win their respective series, it would mark the first time in the expansion era that the Conference Finals would consist solely of Original Six franchises -- not to mention that a Hawks-Wings battle would feature two of the best uniforms in sports (see above).

It was a common occurrence for four or five Original Six teams to advance this far in the early years of the post-expansion era, which began when the NHL expanded to 12 teams before the 1967-68 season. But since the playoff format was changed in 1981-82, as teams now had to advance by defeating teams within their own division, then conference, only once -- in 1991-92 -- did five Original Six clubs (Rangers, Bruins, Canadiens, Blackhawks, Red Wings) advance this far.

In 1993-94, another switch was made to the current format, which seeds according to the top eight seeds in each conference, and until this postseason, there had never been a time when more than three Original Sixers had survived this long in this format.

Here's a closer look:

Original Six teams in Conference Semifinals
2010: Canadiens, Bruins, Blackhawks, Red Wings
2009: Bruins, Blackhawks, Red Wings
2008: Canadiens, Rangers, Red Wings
2007: Rangers, Red Wings
2006: None
2005: Lockout, season cancelled
2004: Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Red Wings
2003: None
2002: Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Red Wings
2001: Maple Leafs
2000: Maple Leafs, Red Wings
1999: Bruins, Maple Leafs, Red Wings
1998: Canadiens, Red Wings
1997: Rangers, Red Wings
1996: Rangers, Black Hawks, Red Wings
1995: Rangers, Black Hawks, Red Wings
1994: Rangers, Bruins, Maple Leafs

Times Original Six teams have reached conference semifinals since 1994
Red Wings: 12
Rangers: 6
Canadiens: 5
Blackhawks: 4
Bruins: 4
Maple Leafs: 4

Original Six Stanley Cup Finals in expansion era (since 1967-68)
1979: Canadiens def. Rangers
1978: Canadiens def. Bruins
1977: Canadiens def. Bruins
1973: Canadiens def. Blackhawks
1972: Bruins def. Rangers
1971: Canadiens def. Blackhawks

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Capital offense

Back on March 31, I wrote about the possibilities of first-round upsets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, focusing on the matchups between first-seed and eighth-seed teams. The focus was on the chances of the Montreal Canadiens, who squeaked into the playoffs, taking out Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, who won the President's Trophy for the NHL's best regular-season record.

On paper, it was a complete mismatch. But as the legendary King Clancy used to say, "Hockey's a slippery game -- it's played on ice." And so it was for the Caps, who have slid into the abyss of summer after being eliminated by the upstart Habs.

It was truly a monumental collapse; not only did the Caps become only the ninth 1-seed to be upset by an 8-seed in 34 series under the current NHL playoff format (26.5 percent), but became the first 1-seed in league history to lose a first-round matchup after holding a 3-1 series lead, as the Canadiens stormed back to win the final three games.

The Caps also became the fifth President's Trophy winner to succumb in the first round since the NHL moved to its current playoff system in 1994. That, after scoring a league-leading 318 goals during the regular season (Vancouver was a distant second with 272 goals) and netting a league-high 79 power-play goals.

In their seven-game loss to the Canadiens, the Caps were a woeful 1-for-33 on the power play (3.0 percent) and scored only one goal in each of the last three games of the series, all won by Montreal.

The series was clearly divided into two parts; through the first four games, when Washington took a 3-1 series lead, they averaged 4.75 goals, as Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak had a pedestrian .880 save percentage (139 saves in 158 shots). But in Games 5 through 7, Halak was a hero as he stood on his head for a .978 save percentage and allowed only three goals in 134 shots.

There will be much finger-pointing in the nation's capital, most in the direction of Ovechkin, who has yet to translate his pulsating, exhilarating talent and style of play into postseason success, and has failed to make a dent into the territory firmly held by Sidney Crosby.

"There wasn't much I could tell them," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said in the interview room. "I told them I feel exactly like they did. I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year. I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row. We all feel as low as we can possibly feel, and we'll meet in a day and we'll discuss the shoulda beens, the coulda beens at that time."

Perhaps Washington forward Jason Chimera said it best.

"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head, that's how I feel," Chimera told "You come for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen. It's tough. Right now, it's weird."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The curious case of Terry Crisp

On Monday, Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement as an NHL coach, thus laying cement on his legacy as one of only 14 men in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup as a player and then as a head coach.

The list is awe-inspiring, containing some of the sport's most legendary and mythical names -- Jack Adams, Toe Blake, Hap Day, Lester Patrick, Al Arbour and Larry Robinson. In fact, of those 14, no less than 13 have a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Which leads us to the strange scenario involving Terry Crisp (above) -- the only man in NHL annals to win a Stanley Cup as a player -- twice with the "Broad Street Bully" Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s -- and as a coach, with the 1988-89 Calgary Flames -- who is not a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Crisp played 11 seasons in the NHL with four teams, and never scored more than 13 goals in any campaign. He was an effective defensive forward, who was once second in the league in short-handed goals, and faded a bit into the background on a team known for the offensive firepower of Bobby Clarke, Rick MacLeish, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber, the pugilistic prowess of Dave Schultz, Bob Kelly and Andre "Moose" Dupont, and the stellar goaltending of Bernie Parent.

Crisp retired in 1977, coached in Canadian Juniors and the minor leagues, and was named head coach of the Calgary Flames in 1987. He led Calgary to three first-place finishes, including the Flames' hoisting of the Cup in 1989, a team bolstered by 51-goal-scorers Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk. Despite the team's success, Crisp bickered with some of his key players, and he was dismissed as coach in 1990. He was the first coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992, and coached the team for six seasons, never finishing higher than fifth place. Crisp is now a color analyst for Nashville Predators games.

Crisp is the co-holder of another NHL playoff record that's a statistical oddity; until last year, he was the only player in league history to play in the most Game 7s without a loss -- six. Alex Kovalev of the Canadiens tied that mark last season.

Here's the complete list of those who won Stanley Cups as players and coaches:
Name / Cups as Player / Cups as Coach
Jack Adams* / 2 (Tor. Arenas, Ottawa / 3 (Detroit)
Al Arbour* / 3 (Chicago, Toronto) / 4 (NY Islanders)
Toe Blake* / 3 (Mtl. Maroons, Montreal) / 8 (Montreal)
Frank Boucher* / 2 (NY Rangers) / 1 (NY Rangers)
Terry Crisp / 2 (Philadelphia) / 1 (Calgary)
Hap Day* / 1 (Toronto) / 5 (Toronto)
Cy Denneny* / 4 (Ottawa, Boston) / 1 (Boston)
Eddie Gerrard* / 2 (Ottawa) / 1 (Mtl. Maroons)
Tom Johnson* / 6 (Montreal) / 1 (Boston)
Jacques Lemaire* / 8 (Montreal) / 1 (New Jersey)
Lester Patrick* / 1 (NY Rangers) / 2 (NY Rangers)
Joe Primeau* / 1 (Toronto) / 1 (Toronto)
Larry Robinson* / 6 (Montreal) / 1 (New Jersey)
Cooney Weiland* / 2 (Boston) / 1 (Boston)

* Hall of Fame

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The NFL QB domino effect

Quarterbacks were a hot topic all weekend -- from Sam Bradford being selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, to Tim Tebow going in the first round, to Jimmy Clausen waiting until the second round, to Colt McCoy going in the third, to the Raiders filling their hole at the position by trading for Jason Campbell, the erstwhile Redskin.

So hot, in fact, that when the NFL kicks off the 2010 regular season, no less than eight teams -- one-quarter of the league -- will be opening the campaign with new signal-callers. The biggest name that will go under center in a different uniform is Donovan McNabb, who was dealt from the Eagles to the Redskins in a rare trade between division rivals April 4. But there will be similar scenarios all over the league's landscape next season, with each move causing its own countermove -- a domino effect of sorts.

When Washington acquired McNabb, Campbell suddenly became expendable, and he was thus shipped to the Raiders on Saturday, ending the brief and pathetic JaMarcus Russell era (or is that error?) in Oakland. Campbell is also expected to start ahead of Derek Anderson, who signed with the Raiders as a free agent after finishing last season with the Browns.

Cleveland, in turn, drafted McCoy in the eighth round this weekend, but the Browns were quick to state McCoy will not start in his rookie season; that duty is expected to be performed by Jake Delhomme, who was beset by injuries and poor play with the Panthers next season.

Carolina took advantage of an opportunity by selecting Clausen in the second round of the draft. The Panthers, who finished last season with Matt Moore at QB, aren't tipping their hand, but with head coach John Fox in the final year of his contract, there will be plenty of pressure from Charlotte fans and media to give Clausen a shot.

In St. Louis, the Rams are trying not to put similar pressure on Bradford, but it would be shocking if he is not behind center on the opening play from scrimmage Sept. 12 against Arizona. The immortal Keith Null was the Rams QB in their final game last season. As for the Cardinals, Kurt Warner's retirement opens the door for Matt Leinart, known more for his playboy reputation off the field than for his performance on it.

And the Lions will turn their reins back to Matthew Stafford, whose rookie season was hampered by knee and shoulder injuries. Veteran Daunte Culpepper, who played out the string last year, is an unsigned free agent.

Here's a closer look at the NFL QB carousel:

Team / Starter, Week 17, 2009 / Projected starter, 2010
Arizona / Kurt Warner / Matt Leinart
Carolina / Matt Moore / Jimmy Clausen
Cleveland / Derek Anderson / Jake Delhomme
Detroit / Daunte Culpepper / Matthew Stafford
Oakland / JaMarcus Russell / Jason Campbell
Philadelphia / Donovan McNabb / Kevin Kolb
St. Louis / Keith Null / Sam Bradford
Washington / Jason Campbell / Donovan McNabb

Saturday, April 24, 2010

For McCoy, third round a charm

Pop quiz, hotshot: What does Colt McCoy, the newest member of the Cleveland Browns, have in common with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana, Dan Fouts and Fran Tarkenton?

If you said that all were selected in the third round of the NFL Draft, you get a gold star. And after much consternation and hand-wringing in the McCoy camp after the former Texas QB fell to the 85th overall pick, he's clearly sitting among very good company.

It could well turn out that Cleveland is the ideal place for McCoy; he will get a chance to compete for the starting job with free agent Jake Delhomme -- whose skills declined last season with the Panthers -- and former Seahawks backup Seneca Wallace. Considering the new Browns president is famed quarterback taskmaster Mike Holmgren -- who presided over the careers of Brett Favre and Matt Hasselbeck -- that's even better.

There have been a host of successful quarterbacks in NFL history who fell to the third round. Leading the list are Hall of Famers Montana (49ers, 1979), Fouts (Chargers, 1973) and Tarkenton (Vikings, 1961). Others in the club include Matt Schaub (Falcons, 2004), Neil O'Donnell (Steelers, 1990), Jeff Hostetler (Giants, 1984), Danny White (Cowboys, 1974), Ken Anderson (Bengals, 1971), John Hadl (Chargers, 1962) and Don Meredith (Cowboys, 1960).

Not too shabby.

"We love his leadership. We love his track record," Holmgren told the Associated Press. "He runs well. He's intelligent. He's fiery. He's everything you look for in the position."

"I told (Holmgren and Browns coach Eric Mangini) I can't wait to be a Cleveland Brown and that we're going to win a lot of games," McCoy said. "Cleveland has a little orange in their jerseys just like UT.

"It's a perfect fit."


After the fourth overall pick of the Draft Thursday night, there is now an alternate following line to the above, with apologies to Louis Gossett, Jr., who uttered something very close to that in "Officer and a Gentleman."

Consider that when the Redskins selected OT Trent Williams of Oklahoma with the No. 4 overall selection, it marked the first time in NFL Draft history -- which spans 75 years -- that three players from the same college were taken in the first four picks in the Draft. That, after the Rams took QB Sam Bradford No. 1 overall and the Bucs made DT Gerald McCoy their man at No. 3 overall.

Kudos to the Sooners, who can now boast something no other school can. There had been two instances when a college had three players selected with the top five picks of the NFL Draft; it happened in 1967 (the first NFL-AFL joint draft), when Michigan State's Bubba Smith (1st, by the Colts), Clint Jones (2nd), by the Vikings) and George Webster (5th, by the Oilers ) were selected. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1946, when Notre Dame's Boley Dancewicz (1st, by the Boston Yanks), Johnny Lujack (4th, by the Bears) and George Connor (5th, by the Giants) were tabbed.

Michigan State's impact in the 1967 Draft was even greater, given the fact Gene Washington was selected by the Vikings at No. 8, which means the Spartans accounted for four of the first eight picks.

There have been two other occasions when players from the same school were taken in the first two picks of the Draft; in 2000, Penn State's Courtney Brown (1st, by the Browns), and LaVar Arrington (2nd, by the Redskins) were selected, in 1984, Nebraska's Irving Fryar (No. 1, by the Patriots) and Dean Steinkuhler (No. 2, by the Oilers) were tabbed.

The 2010 Draft order is significant for another reason; when Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh was taken by the Lions with the No, 2 overall pick, it marked only the second time in Draft history that four players from the same conference -- in this case the Big 12 -- went in the first four selections.

The only time that had ever happened was in 1945, when the opening four picks were all players from SEC schools -- Charley Trippi (Georgia), Paul Duhart (Florida), Joe Renfroe (Tulane, which left the SEC in 1966) and Eddie Prokop (Georgia Tech).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Just sin, baby: Raiders good fit for Big Ben

According to, the Steelers are considering trading Ben Roethlisberger in the wake of the NFL suspending the embattled QB six games for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Reportedly, the Steelers have reached out to teams that own top-10 selections in Thursday night's opening round of the NFL Draft to gauge interest in a deal for Roethlisberger, with at least one team, and perhaps more, discussing the possibilities of such a trade internally.

It's pretty easy to figure out which teams Pittsburgh might have reached out to, and it's even easier to identify who might be the "at least one team" seriously thinking about making a move for the embattled QB who fell from grace with a crash.

Don't be surprised if before the eighth-overall selection in the first round, the team owning that pick sends a note up to the stage in New York, and commissioner Roger Goodell says, "There has been a trade."

Which would mean that Roethlisberger would still be wearing black, but would trade the gold trim of Pittsburgh for the silver trim of the Oakland Raiders.

Think of it -- Al Davis' traditional haven for miscreants and outlaws would welcome yet another one to the fold. And I'll bet as we speak, Tom Cable is punching out an assistant coach who disagrees with the logic of such a move.

The Raiders are one of four teams with Top 10 positioning and a glaring need at quarterback (more about the other three in a minute), and what better way for the angry and embarrassed Steelers to expel Roethlisberger to purgatory than to ship him to Oakland? Remember, the Raiders were part of the conversation to acquire Donovan McNabb before the Eagles inexplicably traded their QB to the Redskins. And Roethlisberger -- even with a six-game suspension -- would probably put up better numbers in 10 games than the Raiders' current QB threesome of Charlie Frye, celebrated draft bust JaMarcus Russell and Bruce Gradkowski could dream of in a full season.

Consider that Roethlisberger passed for 4,328 yards and 26 TDs last season, while Frye, Russell and Gradkowski threw for 2,875 yards and 10 TDs COMBINED.

Oakland brought free agent Kyle Boller into the mix to compete for a spot, but on his best day, Boller could never come close to what Big Ben can do on even an average day.

The other three teams with Top 10 Draft picks that could consider adding Roethlisberger are the Bucs (No. 3 overall), Browns (No. 7) and Bills (No. 9).

Tampa Bay's QB is youngster Josh Freeman (1,857 yards, 10 TDs in 2009), and Cleveland's anointed starter is Derek Anderson (888 yards, 3 TDs) after Brady Quinn was traded to the Broncos. Buffalo has Brian Brohm, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards, who combined for 2,737 yards and 15 TDs.

But Ralph Wilson, who has owned the Bills since their inception, is probably too conservative to consider such a move. The Bucs are a bad team, but their owner, Malcolm Glazer, may be too focused on his other, more profitable sports venture -- Manchester United -- to give the American version of Big Ben much thought, and Browns owner Randy Lerner has come under much scrutiny on the shores of Lake Erie after the perhaps-too-quick hiring of Eric Mangini as coach last year, and may be a bit gun-shy.

All of which adds up to a very possible scenario come Thursday night that could make Roethlisberger a Raider.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Thunder not in forecast

We're not suggesting that Kevin Durant back down from Kobe Bryant when the Thunder takes on the Lakers in their first-round NBA Playoff series beginning Sunday. But a quick look at the past performance charts says the boys from LA shouldn't have to worry about bringing their Wellies and yellow slickers to the Staples Center. Besides, it never rains in Southern California anyway, right?

On one of my recent posts, I wrote about how eighth-seeded teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs have about a 25-percent success rate in their opening-round matchups against the top-seeded clubs. In the NBA, the chances of a first-round upset are far less -- only 5.76 percent.

Consider that since the NBA adopted its current postseason format in 1984, the No. 8 seed has beaten the No. 1 seed only three times in 52 series (27 seasons times two series in each playoff year).

It hasn't happened since 2007, when the Baron Davis-led Warriors stunned the Mavericks in six games in the Western Conference first round -- the only time this has occurred in the current best-of-seven opening round format.

The other two first-round upsets were registered by the 1994 Denver Nuggets, led by Dikembe Mutombo, shocking the Seattle SuperSonics 3-2 in a best-of-five series; and the 1999 Knicks, powered by Latrell Sprewell in a 3-2 ousting of the Miami Heat 3-2 in their best-of-five meeting. That Knicks squad remains the only eighth-seeded team to reach the NBA Finals, where they lost to Tim Duncan and the Spurs, the first of San Antonio's four NBA titles.

Home-court advantage in the NBA has traditionally been formidable, mostly because of the proximity of the fans to the court and the extra intensity the postseason brings. And clearly, the numbers are even more sobering, going a long way to quiet the talk of upsets. So while the Thunder and their Eastern Conference brethren, the Chicago Bulls -- who take on the top-seeded Orlando Magic -- will definitely show up this weekend, chances are we won't be seeing them for very long.


Speaking of sobering numbers, the darkness inside Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum and the Izod Center is especially so this year, for this marks the first time that four of the five New York Metropolitan-area professional teams failed to make the playoffs in the NHL or NBA. The Rangers, Islanders, Knicks and Nets will all be watching the postseason on TV; since the Devils came on the scene in 1983, there had never been a playoff year when more than three teams from Gotham did not qualify for the playoffs. Certainly, baseball season began early in the Big Apple. Given the Mets' sputtering start, maybe it isn't too early for New York sports fans to look ahead to the beginning of NFL training camp.


Saw that the TV informercial "voodoo priestess" Miss Cleo -- remember her? -- was recently on ESPN giving her forecast on what team uber free agent LeBron James would sign with next season. She exhorted the host to "throw away" the Knicks and Bulls jerseys she was holding up before exclaiming that King James' next home will be in Washington, with the Wizards.

But being that "Miss Cleo," who spoke with a Jamaican accent, was outed as a native of L.A. and whose employer was shuttered due to, shall we say, less-than-scrupulous business ethics -- you may want to draw your own conclusions.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rewriting Tiger's tale

Over my morning coffee, I wanted to take a closer look at Tiger Woods' scores after the first two rounds of The Masters. So I was Googling "Tiger Woods Masters," but never got that far.

Say this much for Google analytics -- they sure are topical. After typing in "Woods," the autofill provided several directions for me to click, including "scandal," "affair," "jokes" and "women."

Go ahead, try it yourself. I'll wait.

After a chuckle, I then continued. The M in "Masters" led me to "mistress," "mistress count," "mistress list," "mother-in-law" and "marriage."

Let me propose a different direction. How about "masterful" or "mind-boggling?" Because if Woods, only two strokes off the lead halfway through The Masters, finishes with one of his patented closing charges to win this thing, this HAS to be the sports story of the year.

It's simply amazing that after 14 months away from the game, with everything he has done and been through, to come back -- at Augusta, no less, where he has won four times and finished second twice -- and be lurking so close to the lead? I mean, how much better is this guy than anybody else out there?

I've said this from day one -- obviously, the first tournament back, no matter when or where it took place, was going to be a feeding frenzy. Granted, Tiger's pre-Masters press conference was an attempt at closure (as opposed to his robotic statement a while back). Yes, it should have taken place a lot sooner, which would have stemmed all the tabloid crap we've seen for months.

Isn't that crisis management 101? Admit a mistake, apologize profusely, promise it'll never happen again and take steps to ensure it doesn't.

Anyway, once Tiger wins his first tournament back -- and there's a very real chance that will happen this weekend -- we'll forget about his infidelity and transgressions. Let's face it, we have very short memories, especially when it comes to our athletic heroes. Does anybody even remember the similar scenario revolving around Kobe Bryant a few years ago? Even in the height of the scandal surrounding Tiger, I don't recall any references to Kobe. How about all the drug users and other miscreants who have gotten several chances to be welcomed back to the sports society, Pac-Man Jones notwithstanding? I mean, wasn't Ray Lewis directly responsible for killing somebody? Nobody ever talks about that, either.

The point is, by golf's greatest player choosing golf's greatest stage for perhaps the greatest comeback we'll ever see, Woods is well on his way to not only forcing the paparazzi to find a new target, but also putting the finishing touches on a new chapter well worth reading.

With an exclamation point, no less.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Another Philly phlub?

There's an old saying that says those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps the Philadelphia Eagles need to take some remedial courses.

The most stunning aspect of Donovan McNabb leaving the Eagles isn't that he was traded -- although some, like Giants QB Eli Manning, openly questioned the logic of such a move -- but where he was traded to. It's one thing to make a trade in order to make your team better. It's another altogether to make a deal with a division rival, as the Eagles did with the Redskins, leading to a very real and very likely scenario that the transaction will come back to haunt them -- perhaps for a very long time.

The Eagles chose to strike a deal with the Skins, despite the historic precedent that was set back in 1964, when they traded Sonny Jurgensen even-up for another QB, Norm Snead. Jurgensen went on to win three NFL passing championships and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Snead? In seven seasons with Philly, the Eagles had one winning season.

As Jurgensen himself told Ray Didinger of Comcast Sports Net Philadelphia, speaking of the Eagles and their fans, "Those people never learn."

Jurgensen even earned the praise of the legendary Vince Lombardi, who coached Jurgensen in 1969 in Lombardi's only season with the Redskins before he died of cancer.

"He is perhaps the best (quarterback) the league has ever seen,” Lombardi once said. “He’s all man. He stays in there under the most adverse conditions.”

Getting booed by the Philly faithful would qualify in that department, something Jurgensen and McNabb can relate to. Despite being banged up at certain points in his career, McNabb still has plenty in the tank, and it is by no means a stretch to suggest the Eagles could wind up regretting this trade for years to come.

There have been several quarterbacks in NFL history who were traded in their prime and flourished with their new teams, including Fran Tarkenton, Y.A. Tittle and Norm Van Brocklin, but Jurgensen can say he's among the very few who found success playing for a former division rival.

Clearly, McNabb and the Redskins hope for the same.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

First time not always a charm

Braves rookie phenom Jason Heyward, above, joined an exclusive club on Monday, as he became the 105th player in Major League history to hit a home run in his first at-bat. Now, all the preseason reports peg Heyward as a "can't-miss" prospect, so unless every scout, scribe, teammate and opponent who ever watched Heyward play are loony, chances are he won't finish his career as a member of another club, one he probably doesn't want to become a card-carrying member of.

That would be one of the 20 players in big league annals who homered in their first at-bat, but never belted another round-tripper again. I won't recount all the names here (gleaned from, since you probably haven't heard of any of them, with the exception of Hoyt Wilhelm, whose best work was done on the mound. It should be noted that Wilhelm is the only Hall-of-Famer on the list.

Here's the quirky part of the story, though: Statistically speaking, Heyward, despite all of his potential, actually has a better chance of joining that group (20 of 104, 19.2 percent) than he does of becoming a member of the 14-player community who homered in their first at-bat and went on to record at least 100 homers (13.5 percent), or the six-player group who went on to join the 200-homer club (5.8 percent).

For the record, here are the 14 players who homered in their first Major League at-bat and hit at least 100 career dingers:

Player, career HR
Gary Gaetti, 360
Carlos Lee, 307
Jermaine Dye, 298
Tim Wallach, 260
Earl Averill, 238
Bill White, 202
Jay Bell, 195
Terry Steinbach, 162
Wally Moon, 142
Bob Nieman, 125
Whitey Lockman, 114
Brad Fullmer, 114
Carmelo Martinez, 108
Marcus Thames, 101

There are two more players on the cusp of making this list: Mike Jacobs of the Mets (99 career HR) and Miguel Olivo of the Rockies (96).

At the other end of the career spectrum, there have been 41 players in big-league history who hit home runs in their final career at-bat, the most notable being Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams in 1960 (that list also includes Albert Belle and Mickey Cochrane).

And 11 of those 41 really went out with a bang, for it was their only career round-tripper. The last player to do it was Chris Jelic with the Mets in 1990.

A big moment for Jelic, certainly, but for few others -- I'm a huge Mets fan and I don't even remember him.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It can be slippery at the top

There's plenty of hand-wringing going on among Bruins, Rangers and Thrashers fans today, not to mention a fair share of sweaty palms among Flyers and Canadiens backers too.

That's because of those five teams, only three will still be playing hockey once the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin two weeks hence. As of this morning, any of them can finish as high as sixth in the conference. We could go on and on here hashing and rehashing possible playoff scenarios, but the one slot I'm focusing on is eighth place -- the final playoff berth in the East. Much energy, emotion and blood will be expended for the privilege of landing in that spot and the right to face Alex Ovechkin (above) and the Capitals, regarded by many to be the best team in the NHL.

A fait accompli, you say? One and done? As easy as an empty-netter? Just delaying the inevitable tee time by a few more days? Granted, finishing with the best record in the conference over an 82-game NHL season is a pretty accurate barometer of how talented a team is, and a team that good should be rewarded in the playoffs by getting home ice against a team that, well, isn't as good.

But the top seed advancing into the second round of Lord Stanley's playoffs isn't as much of a cakewalk as you might think. Since the NHL adopted its current 16-team playoff format in 1994, there have been eight instances in 32 first-round series when the eighth-seeded team forced the the No. 1 seeded squad to melt their home ice much earlier than expected.

That's a 25-percent chance for a first-round upset, which might not be enough to make Alex and the Caps shake in their skates, but certainly is enough to give them pause. Here's a rundown of such occurrences:

1994 - Sharks (8) def. Red Wings (1), 4-2.
1995 - Rangers (8) def. Nordiques (1), 4-2.
1998 - Senators (8) def. Devils (1), 4-2.
1999 - Penguins (8) def. Devils (1), 4-3.
2000 - Sharks (8) def. Blues (1), 4-3.
2002 - Canadiens (8) def. Bruins (1), 4-2.
2006 - Oilers (8) def. Red Wings (1), 4-2.
2009 - Ducks (8) def. Sharks (1), 4-2.

You'll notice a few things here; in every case, each series lasted at least six games -- at least the higher-seeded team never went down without a fight. Also, the Devils and Red Wings were each victimized in this scenario twice, with the Devils unfortunate enough to suffer a stunning elimination in two successive seasons. The Sharks actually pulled off the coup twice, but are the only team to have the tables turned on them -- by the Ducks a year ago.

You may be wondering how well eighth-seeded teams fared after securing their opening-round shockers. Ultimately, not that well. The 2006 Oilers came within one game of becoming the only eighth-seed to win the Stanley Cup, but they fell in the Finals to the Hurricanes in seven games.

All of which means Ovie and the Caps better keep their heads up, else they could find themselves trading in their sticks for five-irons.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The bad seed

Admit it. When you were filling out your brackets before the Madness of March officially began, you really didn't want to hand one in that had all four No. 1 seeds headed to the Final Four. Because if you did, you'd be banking on something that has happened only ONCE since the NCAA began seeding tournament teams in 1979.

Sounds logical, doesn't it? You'd think choosing ostensibly the best four teams in the land to reach the Final Four would be the way to office pool superstar.

Fact is, we all know the only way to have a shot at ascending to that atmosphere is to be lucky enough to nail those upsets we know are coming (see Butler, Northern Iowa, Cornell and St. Mary's). It's just that nobody knows where and when the sneaker will drop. One reason is because it's simply so rare when the top four seeds in the tournament are that much better than many of the other 60 teams playing for the national championship. Also, every opponent will be playing in the biggest game of their lives, and every time a top seed takes the floor, everyone's looking to knock them off.

At least the Lehighs, Vermonts and Arkansas-Pine Bluffs made it to the party this time, which is more than can be said for the likes of frequent dancers UConn, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana and Arizona. But that's another story for another time.

The only year all four top seeds made it to the Final Four was 2008, when Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA all survived their regions, with Mario Chalmers and the Jayhawks eventually winning it all.

With all the upsets in this year's tournament, it got me thinking about Final Fours that didn't feature ANY top-seeded teams. Had Baylor hung on to oust Duke in the South Region Final last night, it not only would have clinched winning the bracket pool I entered (sorry for digressing), but it would have marked the third time since 1979 that the Final Four contained no top seeds. It happened in 2006, when UCLA (2), Florida (3), LSU (4) and Cinderella George Mason (12) made it, with the Joakim Noah-led Gators winning it. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1980, when Louisville (2), Iowa (5), Purdue (6) and UCLA (9) vied for the title, eventually taken by Darrell Griffith and the Cardinals.

So, hard as it may be to believe, it's statistically more likely that the Final Four will be comprised of NO top seeds (twice) than it is to have ALL top seeds (once). Chew on that when you're handed your empty bracket for the 2011 Final Four.

As it is, the Dukies are the only top-seeded team headed to Indianapolis, a scenario that has occurred 10 times prior. Of those 10 Final Fours, the lone No. 1 seed has won the championship five times (Michigan State in 2000, UCLA in 1995, Arkansas in 1994, Duke in 1992 and UNLV in 1990). So statistically speaking, the Devils have a 50 percent chance of cutting down the nets a week from tonight.

We'll see what Michigan State, Butler and West Virginia have to say about that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Three you later

I was all set to write this morning about how the common script usually unfolds during the NCAA Tournament: Inspired, nothing-to-lose lower-seeded team takes early lead against higher-seeded, playing-on-their-heels higher-seeded team. Lower-seeded team, forgetting what got them to this point, gets greedy and begins to fire up a barrage of misguided 3-point shots that find nothing but rim. Higher-seeded team grabs rebound, ignites fast break and scores in transition, cutting into lower-seeded team's lead.

Repeat until higher-seeded team collects itself and wins.

Quick digression: I'm reminded of a scene from when I covered the Pat Riley-led Knicks in the mid-'90s. The Knicks were playing the Sixers in Philly, and our media seats were on the baseline, about 15 feet from the Knicks bench. Greg Anthony, now a commentator on ESPN and then a sometimes-undisciplined point guard, dribbled the ball up court. With about 19 seconds left on the shot clock, Anthony threw up a ridiculous 3 attempt that bricked off the rim. The Sixers got the rebound, flew down court and scored on the fast break. Riley immediately called time. As the Knicks sat in front of him, Riley said nothing, glaring at Anthony. Finally, with the 30-second break about to expire, Riley screams at Anthony, "What the f--- were you thinking?!?" With that, the buzzer sounded and the Knicks quickly retook the floor.

Back to the present. The scenario at the beginning of this post unfolded twice Thursday night; Xavier connected on only 12 of 28 from 3-point range in a double-OT loss to Kansas State (8-for-19 from 3), and the erstwhile-Cinderella Cornell was only 5-of-21 as it was ousted by mighty Kentucky (only 2-of-16 from 3).

Leave it to someone to buck the trend, though. The Butler did it.

The Bulldogs shot 6-of-24 from beyond the arc against Syracuse, but the Orange -- taking its usual bracket misstep -- fell prey to Butler's defense and was outscored 11-0 down the stretch on the way to a 63-59 elimination. Syracuse, the best 3-point shooting team in the NCAA during the regular season (7-for-19 on Thursday), thus joins Kansas as top-seeded tourney teams that will be watching the Final Four from their living rooms.

So keep a keen eye on the 3-point numbers on Friday -- especially from upstarts Northern Iowa (vs. Michigan State) and St. Mary's (vs. Baylor).

And we'll see if these longshots keep shooting short from far away.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Flipping out over overtime

This should have been easy. This shouldn't have taken hours of meetings, blocking the schedules of NFL owners and staffs for a month and reporters chasing down those same harumphing owners down hallways of hotels to get sound bites.

The new NFL rule changes regarding overtime were finally voted on by the owners between harumphs Tuesday, and passed 28-4. So what does it all mean in Week 4 of the 2010 season, when, say, the Giants and Cowboys finish regulation all tied up?

Not a thing.

For years, we heard about how the team who wins the coin flip for overtime usually wins in the NFL -- and over the past 10 seasons, that's happened about 60 percent of the time. The most common scenario is a team receiving the kickoff to start OT, drive about 40 yards or so and kick a winning field goal.

So with a chance to level the playing field, so to speak, and make OT a fairer proposition, the NFL decided to change its overtime rules, allowing the above scenario to not end games from now on. Instead, the team scored upon will then get a possession to try to tie the game with a field goal or win with a touchdown (if the team with the first possession scores a TD, the game is still over).

But that will only happen in the POSTSEASON. The regular season will still be same-old, same-old, nothing to see here.

One reason given by some owners for the status quo was that they didn't want to see the chances of injury raised by adding more time to regular-season games, but that skirts the real issue.

The NFL had a great opportunity here, and quite frankly, they booted it wide right. The obvious way to go was a direction that I've seen little written about around the internet, except just mentioned in passing on a couple of random blogs I saw.

As Lee Corso says in my favorite video game of all time, NCAA 06, "I love overtime in college football." The only argument you'll get from me here is that the NFL should have adopted the same rules used to break overtime in the NCAA since 1996 -- give each team a set of untimed downs from the opposing 25-yard-line, with ensuing possessions until the tie is broken. Starting with the third set of possessions, teams must attempt a two-point conversion rather than kicking the extra point.

Overtime in the NCAA is exponentially more exciting than the NFL variety, and remains so even after all the time and energy spent by the NFL to simply tweak their current rules. The significance of the NCAA coin toss is that the winner will most often choose to play defense first in order to get "last licks" and know exactly what they have to do in order to win on the opening possession. In succeeding possessions, the order is swapped.

I tried to research it, but couldn't find any tangible reasons why the NFL didn't simply adopt the far superior settlement of OT games used by their collegiate counterparts. Could it simply be that doing so would have made the NFL admit the college way was better all along? I really hope there's more to it than that.

The fear of injury? Over adding one or two more series a game? Come on.

There was no reason the NFL couldn't easily split the uprights on this one. But somehow, they shanked it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Diving into "The Pacific"

As a huge fan of the genre of war movies, I eagerly restored my HBO service in advance of Sunday, when the premiere of the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries "The Pacific" begins. If this is half as good as the last Spielberg/Hanks production on HBO -- 2001's "Band of Brothers" -- then we're in for something to remember.

Quick aside: This is the first time since "The Sopranos" that I've felt there was something on HBO to be a must-see, and I'm not expecting to be disappointed.

Just saw a report on CNN previewing the series. Hanks was asked if he feels the project will be a fitting tribute for the ever-dwindling numbers of surviving vets of the Pacific theater, and he said he hopes it will, given the authenticity the producers are vowing to convey to the audience.

Let's hope so. A brief preview of the series published in the March issue of Esquire warned of excessive dramatic music and a barrage of cliches.

"Band of Brothers" (a stepchild of 1998's "Saving Private Ryan") certainly did not lack for realism, taking us into the wartime lives of an entire company from their stateside training to V-E Day and beyond. "The Pacific" narrows the approach, focusing on three real-life soldiers. One is Eugene Sledge, played by Joe Mazzello (pictured above).

If you're a fan of military documentaries, Sledge's name will sound familiar -- his story was featured in Ken Burns' "The War." A native of Mobile, Ala. -- one of the four American towns on which Burns based his film -- Sledge's wartime memoirs, With the Old Breed, was part of the basis for "The Pacific." His harrowing and haunting memories of the savage and inhuman conditions at Peleliu and Okinawa -- in particular the gruesome fate of many Marines that fell into the hands of the Japanese -- are too graphic to be recounted here; we'll soon find out how authentic the producers were willing to go to tell a story that to a large degree has been historically overshadowed by films featuring the war in Europe.

Comparison to "Band of Brothers" are inevitable, but perhaps a fairer one would be to Clint Eastwood's 2006 "Letters from Iwo Jima" (a far-superior "sister film" to Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," based on the outstanding book by James Bradley). "Letters" told the horrific story of that battle from the Japanese perspective and showed the hopelessness of their soldiers, who lived their last days in tunnels and caves knowing they were expected to die with honor for the Emperor.

Sixty-five years later, that war will enter our living rooms again beginning Sunday night. I'm feeling pretty good that Spielberg and Hanks will do it justice. The remaining Marines who did the fighting hope so, too.


An odd segue, I know, but the Mets just found out that shortstop Jose Reyes will be sidelined somewhere between two and eight weeks with an overactive thyroid gland. In all likelihood, Reyes will be on the disabled list along with Carlos Beltran when the Amazin's open the 2010 season April 5 against the Marlins at Citi Field. Not exactly a great way to turn the page following the forgettable end to last season. Doctors say the long-range prognosis is good, that Reyes' thyroid levels should return to normal with rest and diet (he isn't able to eat seafood, which contains iodine, which in turn affects the thyroid).

Let's hope the Mets aren't 10 games out by the time Reyes returns.

Monday, March 8, 2010

How to Fix the Oscars

It's amazing, really. In Hollywood, you have the best and brightest in the world of entertainment, but there's apparently nobody who can figure out how to put together an awards show.

OK, I'll go beyond amazing. How about mind-boggling?

I really gave this year's edition of the Academy Awards a chance. Even though, admittedly, I had only seen one of the nominees for Best Picture -- Inglorious Basterds, which I loved -- I was still looking forward to the show, especially when it was announced that Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin -- both always hysterical -- would be co-hosting.

For the first 15 minutes, it looked like we had a winner (though I could have done without Doogie Howser's dance number). Martin and Baldwin were spot-on in their mini-roast of luminaries throughout the audience, with predictable humorless reactions from many of their targets, most notably the stone-faced George Clooney, who looked like he was fighting a bout with food poisoning.

On that note, the Oscars would be so much more entertaining if Hollywood didn't take itself so damn seriously. It seemed like Martin and Baldwin were the only ones having fun -- until they inexplicably disappeared from the set for what seemed like an hour, giving way to a parade of presenters, many of whom I've barely or never heard of (and what, exactly, was Miley Cyrus doing there?), trudging out to hand out awards for best animated short film and best documentary short.

And by the way, can anyone tell me where I can even see the best animated short film or best documentary short? I never see any of them featured at the multiplex, and you sure as hell can't get them from Netflix, Blockbuster or On Demand. Has anyone seen them? Or are they just produced to send to members of the Academy at voting time?

True, there was the tribute to John Hughes, another to horror flicks and the annual recognition of those who've passed this year -- with a poignant performance of the Beatles' "In My Life," by James Taylor -- but this show seemed to lack the personality of years past. There was little to no reference of the history of cinema, no vignettes of famous scenes or actors and almost no historical perspective. It was almost as if Hollywood's time frame began in 2009. The good news was, there were no painful performances of each entry of the "Best Songs" category, usually a "see-what's-in-the-fridge" moment.

I guess the takeaways were that I do need to see "The Hurt Locker" and "Precious," probably a good thing. But the bottom line was, the show was just too damn boring. I have to admit I didn't even make it to the Best Director, Actor or Film categories, and spent a fair portion of the evening switching between The Oscars and "Saving Private Ryan," airing at the same time on TNT, thankfully with "limited commercial interruption."

Quick digression -- for me, "SPR" is one of those movies, like "The Godfather Part II," that once you see it's on, you have to watch it (even though Godfather II is on seemingly every other week). I still think "SPR" should have won Best Picture in 1998 instead of the vastly-inferior "Shakespeare in Love," but that's another story for another tine.

The big quandary last night was -- did I want to watch Private Mellish being stabbed to death for the 30th time or see who won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay? Hmm. This year, the Oscar show was clearly FUBAR.

The Oscars are Hollywood's biggest night, but it can be a hell of a lot more entertaining for the audience. My wife came up with a proposal to make the night more Oscar-worthy, and I think it's a pretty good one -- show the Red Carpet ceremony from, say, 6 to 6:30. Then take a national break till about 8 or 8:30 for either local programming or perhaps airing the Best Picture from the previous year. During that time, behind closed doors, the Kodak Theatre can host the part of the awards that most of us don't care about, like Costume Design and Editing. Then, from 8:30 to 11, air a tight, entertaining show that focuses on the major awards (Film, Producer, Director, Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor and Actress), show more lengthy clips of the nominees and delve more into Oscars history.

I'll bet right now that more time to devote to the awards that most of the audience cares about would add up to a better, must-see show.

Now THAT would be entertainment.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Meet the Mess

Being a Mets fan can be a nasty business these days. As a transplanted New Yorker (OK, New Jerseyite -- or is it Jerseyan?) living in the Boston area, at least folks allow me into the conversation when I let them know I back the Metropolitans instead of the reviled Yankees.

It's been a rough several years for those of us who don orange and blue (and reluctantly black) and worship a mascot with a giant baseball head. In 2006, the Mets came within one game of the World Series, but have not even made the playoffs since, thanks to unthinkable collapses in each of the next two seasons. Then came the disaster of 2009, when the less-than-Amazin's seemingly lost their entire team to injuries and came up on the wrong side of the box score a mind-boggling 92 times. Clearly, there was nowhere to go but up.

I was actually starting to feel good about the prospects for the upcoming season. The core of the team looked to be healthy again (Carlos Beltran's knee surgery notwithstanding), and I had just finished Lee Jenkins' piece on David Wright in the latest issue of SI, which honed in on Wright's determination to rediscover the power missing from his swing last season, and the admission he was often trying to hit to the opposite field, as per the mantra from the Mets' misguided coaching staff. I even read that the outfield fences in cavernous Citi Field will be shortened from 16 feet to 8 feet, which can only help Wright and the Mets make that ancient apple rise a lot more often this season. After only 10 dingers last season (after 27, 26, 30 and 33 in his previous four campaigns), there was nowhere to go but up. I thought I could wear my Mets camp without listening to snickers -- particularly after Wright belted a homer in his first spring training game this week. Springtime, when a young man's fancy can turn to thoughts of a pennant race.

Or so I thought.

Then came the news yesterday that shortstop Jose Reyes, who missed all but 36 games last year with a hamstring that refused to heal, was heading back to New York for tests after he was found to have a thyroid imbalance.

The fact Reyes was cleared to play by doctors on Friday was encouraging, but a major concern nevertheless, considering how much Reyes means to this team when he isn't nursing an injury or being "retaught how to run," as he was during the woeful tenure of Art Howe.

Perhaps the tests will confirm something minor that can be controlled with medication. For Reyes' sake -- and the sake of springtime -- let's hope so. Or else football season could arrive a lot sooner than Mets fans want it to.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Olympic stars still shine

NOW THAT THE NHL is officially back in business following the two-week Olympic break, I wondered whether the players who stood out in Vancouver would be able to do the same once they returned to the nightly grind, away from the world spotlight, and whether they would be able to channel the same intensity and focus.

In many cases, they seemed to pick up right where they left off. On Tuesday, Ryan Callahan of the Rangers (pictured above) scored two goals in a 4-1 win over the Senators; Mike Richards scored a goal for the Flyers in a 7-2 victory over the Lightning, and Marty Brodeur, after losing his starting job in goal for Team Canada, returned to the Devils and had to make only 17 saves in a 4-3 triumph over the Sharks.

On Wednesday, Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo -- who wore different uniforms during the Olympics -- both put on their familiar Canucks garb with positive results. Kesler scored a pair of goals and Luongo made 28 saves as Vancouver beat the Red Wings 6-3.

Not so fortunate, however, was the hero of Team USA, goaltender Ryan Miller, going in net for the first time since the Olympic gold medal game, played well and made 37 saves for the Sabres, but still wound up on the short end of a 3-1 loss to the Caps.

It was an interesting scene the night before in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins hosted Buffalo. Miller -- who didn't play -- got a louder ovation then hometown hero Sidney Crosby, who not only helped win the Stanley Cup for the hometown Pens last season but scored the OT goal that gave Team Canada the gold on Sunday. Guess national pride runs thicker than the local variety.


LeBron James has made it known he intends to change his familiar No. 23 to No. 6 next season -- whether he re-signs with the Cavs or not (the feeling here is that you'll be seeing plenty of No. 6 jerseys trudging around downtown Cleveland next season). It's no secret that King James has made it known he'd like to see the NBA retire No. 23 for posterity in honor of Michael Jordan, as Major League Baseball retired No. 42 for Jackie Robinson. There are several players in the NBA right now toting No. 23, with James easily the most notable.

A future Hall-of-Famer (I think we can safely assume that), James would wear his new number well, joining HOF residents Bill Russell and Julius Erving as superstars known for their No. 6.

Unlike collegiate and high school basketball, the NBA has no restrictions regarding what numbers players wear. Rules are in place at the amateur levels that only numbers in the ranges of 1-5, 10-15, 20-25, 30-35, 40-45 and 50-55 are to be worn, to make it easier for officials to signal fouls -- as there are only five digits on each hand. Thus, a foul on a player wearing No. 23 would be signified by the referee holding up two fingers on one hand and three on the other. Pretty simple stuff.

There have always been examples of oddball numbers in NBA lore. George Mikan, the league's first superstar, wore No. 99 with the Minneapolis Lakers. Ron Artest wore No. 91 at one point in his career as a tribute to Dennis Rodman. Artest has also worn Nos. 15, 23, 93, 96 and 37 as well, for reasons too convoluted and time-consuming to go into here. Drew Gooden donned No. 90 with the Mavericks to combine the No. 9 he wore with the Magic and the 0 he wore with the Grizzlies. Shawn Bradley wore 76 because he stood 7-6 and also happened to play for the 76ers. And the since-maligned Gilbert Arenas wore 0, because he was told that's how many minutes he would play while at the University of Arizona.

But I think my favorite example of sports numerology has to do with baseball, specifically Japanese baseball. Players there universally refuse to wear No. 4, pronounced "shi," the same pronunciation as the Japanese word for death.

Talk about a rally-killer.