We are finally here ! The season has started, and now just a few weeks in baseball has another mark in history, and another perfect story. There has been a great mix of great plays, stats and story lines. I like the way things are shaping up so far. The thing I like the most is that Albert Pujols, the newest Los Angeles “el hombre” is getting off to a slow start. Now I know its only the beginning of the season, but Im sure there are some testy Angels fans wanting to see their new 240 million dollar man perform. On the other hand last years NL MVP Matt Kemp is … well showing he is the NL MVP. Kemp is hitting .474, with 9 home runs and 22 RBI’s through 15 games. Just simply impressive.
Here are some basic stories from around the league worth mentioning in case you missed them:
A) Justin Morneau-
After battling since 2010 with multiple concussions, Morneau reported to Twins spring training with doubts that he would never be the same player he once was. As a 25 year old he hit .321 with 34 HR’s and 130 RBI’s. If he could repeat anything close to that this year it would be valuable for a Twins organization that desperately needs to get back to its winning ways. So far Morneau is batting .271, with 4 HR’s and 9 RBI’s. He has played 13 games, and is being monitored by coach Gardenhire. Im not going to lie as a fellow Canadian myself I had a big shit eating grin on my face when he hit a couple homeruns in the Yankee series. Hopefully he can get back to what once was an MVP season.
B) AL East-
There have been strange things than the start to the shaping of the AL East division. But it was fun to watch the Orioles and Jays show that they have some pitching up their sleeves for the 2012 season. The Bronx bombers look strong. The Red Sox have started 4-10. Its important to remember that they have a new coach, and their are a shit ton of games left. They already have all of the pieces in place to make the playoffs. But this is a team that started slumping at the end of last season. Hopefully Valentine can turn the corner with his new ball club, because every other team in the division is looking sharp and dangerously young & talented. The Blue Jays have looked strong, and need to get some bigger bats from Jose Bautista. But the arrival of Colby Rasmus and the re-surging Encarnacion have boosted the Blue Birds offence. Tampa Bay has a great knack for developing pitchers. There rotation is in my opinion the most deadly in this division, and possibly the best in the AL.
C) Alex Rodriguez-
A Rod hit his 631st homerun this week… . Clap…Clap…Clap. Well done Alex, too bad we will never know how many you cheated for. But I guess when it comes down to the technicality’s, he was “allowed” to cheat. You see I used to be a Seattle Mariners fan mostly because Ken Griffery Jr is one of my baseball heros. I guess I’m a little bitter. Rodriguez said after the game that it was a special feeling, because Griffey Jr was one of his mentors, and friends, after playing many seasons together in Seattle. A Rod passed Griffey on the all time list and is now behind only Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Willy Mays for the most all time.
D) Justin Verlander-
Quick to note that just because Verlander lost his first game of the year, doesn’t mean he isn’t the best pitcher in the bigs. Verlander in a game last week vs Kansas City threw 130 plus pitches. On the last pitch of the game he threw 100 MPH fastball for strike three and the final out of the ball game. Don’t be bamboozled by the high pitch count this early in the season. Its Justin Verlander, the guy is just one of those rare workhorses that can take that much work. Guy’s like Verlander, Hallady, Lee, Billingsley, Shield, all thrive on high pitch counts, and duelling batters for outs.
The Knicks are 30-28 and currently hold the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern conference. They showed that they are competitive and have the drive to hold that position, as they fended off the Milwaukee Bucks last night. The Bucks are in 9th and were only a game back playing the Knicks at home last night. Even with the high flying tandem of Monta Ellia and Brandon Jennings, the Bucks lost to a strong offensive performance by the Knicks. Between the two Buck guards they compiled 57 points, 17 assists, and 10 rebounds. Other than those two elite players, no one on Milwaukee showed up with support. However that being said when you score 107 points in a ball game, most of the time you expect to win. . But not when you play the Knicks. Milwaukee blew a huge opportunity to close their 9th place gap last night, and failed.
(Photo: Knick Superstar Carmelo Anthony)
New York is a team that everyone has expected to win over 75% of their games. Since making big trades in recent past, that brought the likes of Carmelo Anthony, and Amare Stoudemire to the big apple, the Knicks have not lived up to expectations. I will be the first person to admit that the expectations for the Knicks were high, and probably a little off. But they are certainly supposed to be better and more elite, than a near .500 basketball team. The fact that they even flirt with not making the playoffs has to be frustrating for head office, fans, and probably everyone in the organization. However I think that with the players they still have in place, and not injured, and their up coming schedule, plus the falling off of the 76ers, the Knicks will be in the playoffs come the end of the season.
(Photo: Amare Stoudemire)
However if that is going to happen they will need some key elements of their game to be there. 1) Carmelo Anthony has to play and perform the way he acts… Like a superstar. He is undoubtedly one of the better scorers in the league, but he has been hurt at periods of time, and a little bit in consistent. But when he’s on and scoring 30 points a game with double digit rebounds, the Knicks more likely than not win the game. Something I have realized, is that when Anothony feels as though all of the pressure is on him, he elevates his game to new heights. Thats a pretty interesting trait to possess. 2) A healthy Amare Stoudemire. If he can get back from his back problems and fulfill his role, the Knicks are a far better team. Tyson Chandler is a big man, with incredible drive and passion. He plays angry out there and is a good off the bench performer for the Knicks. But they need Stoudemire to win and go deep in the post season. He does so many fundamental things right, that open up opportunities for the rest of the team. 3) Shumpert needs to fly. The rookie sensation needs to continue playing well. New York found themselves with a great situation when Jeremy Lin started playing lights out. They had already drafted a potential All Star in Shumpert, in the first round of last years NBA draft. Shumpert brings a big rebounding element to his guard play, and is already regarded as one of the better defending guards in the league. That is a great reputation to start building on. He plays aggressive, and at 6”5 220, he’s a definite threat when he drives inside. If he can maintain his pace, and keep improving his game, the Knicks have a found themselves a great guard for the future. 4) Bench players need to do their jobs. The addition of JR. Smith was a huge success for the Knicks. He adds much needed depth for them and is a proven scorer. The Knicks have a ton of support in the back court, from proven players who understand the game. More importantly they understand the importance of establishing Carmelo and Amare. Then when Shumpert is in, he can take more shots. They have a nice mix at the guard position off the bench, and it could pay dividends.
(Photo: Iman Shumpert displaying his already superior defensive skills)
The upcoming schedule for the Knicks is fair to say the least. They do however get to test their abilities against some top opponents, in the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, and LA “Lob City” Clippers. There are 8 games remaining for the Knicks, and 4 of those games are against teams with losing records in the bottom half of the standings. New York needs to win all of the games against sub .500 teams, and will need to win at least 2 of the 4 against the teams mentioned above. If they can win 6 of the next 8 they will be a sure in for the playoffs. The Knicks have to worry about the Bucks behind them, but get to a little less because of last nights win. The Bucks have a tough schedule coming up as well. Also working in the Knicks favour is the drop off by a Philadelphia 76er team that opened up the season so strong.
The season is ending in a matter of days and there will be playoff hockey next week. Its been a long and very interesting season that saw some new teams arise from the ashes and make the elite 8 of their respected conferences. This is a look at those eight in the Western conference and how the playoff picture would look if the season ended today.
Vancouver Canucks vs 2)
San Jose Sharks
There are no secrets as to what the Canucks hockey club brings to the table. They are fast, talented and always defend and attack well organized. As they showed last year during their cup run, they are also physical and do not shy away from battles in all areas of the ice. Vancouver is a deep balanced team, and have the Western conferences best goal differential at +48. The Canucks only have one thing to worry about, and its making sure that they keep that fire burning from last years heartbreak. The playoffs are a new season, and their are very good hockey clubs in this conference that they need to get through. I think its safe to say that Vancouver has been waiting to get back here since the day it all ended nearly a year ago. The Sharks on the other hand will need great play from everyone who is dawning their uniform. They are not as balanced as their opponent, and are also weaker in the goaltending department. The Sharks have some aging stars on their team, and for a few of them, this could be their last chance to succeed. Guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau will need to play their best hockey, and leave it all out on the ice. The Sharks have the 8th and final playoff spot for now, but play the Kings tonight to see if they can move ahead. If they don’t beat the Kings they will retain the 8th spot, and have to play a very good Canucks hockey club. . I think the Canucks will be too over powering for the Sharks… Canucks in 4.
St. Louis Blues vs 7)
Los Angeles Kings
What an amazing NHL story the St.Louis Blues have been. First of all, in my opinion, they deserve to be in the playoffs more than any other team in the NHL. This is a team that has been a long time coming with steady development. The Blues have been consistent since day one and have not really ever ventured outside of playoff contention all year. They are two points out of first in the West, and play in the NHL’s most competitive division, the Central. 4 teams in the Central have 100 or more points… Woah, true story. The Blues have quite possibly the best goalie situation I have ever seen heading into the playoffs. They have a strong backbone to rely on, between the pipes in Jaroslav Halak (1.97 GAA, .925 Save %, and 25 wins), and Brian Elliot (1.56 GAA, .940 Save %, and 23 wins). They do not have to worry about a goalie contraversy in the playoffs, both net minders are content with their roles on the team, and the main focus of everyone in the locker room is about getting W’s. The Blues are the NHL’s best defensive team, and those goalies have 15 shutouts between them. They are physical, and they are ready to make some moves in the playoffs. Their opponent is an LA Kings team that lost its way in the middle of the season. This Kings team is defensive focused, and they will need to match the Blues physcial play if they expect to win any games this series. The Kings have arguably the best player on the ice offensively in Anze Kopitar, and defensively in Drew Doughty… That might not be enough, but its a hell of a good start. In my opinion the key factor in this series will be goalie Jonathan Quick. It will be his ability to endure a battling series and a high amount of shots. The Mike Richards signing will be more important now than it has been all year. He is a player who has been here before, he’s a great leader, he’s physcial, and he knows what it takes to win rounds in the playoffs. I expect him to be a big factor if the Kings are to be successful in round one… Blues in 6.
Phoenix Coyotes vs 6)
Returning to the playoffs is an impressive feat for any team to accomplish. But for a franchise that nearly sold in the recent past … Bravo Phoenix. This is a team full of grinder type hockey players who just get the job done. They have enjoyed a stellar goalie performance by Mike Smith, who has exceeded expectations winning 37 games, with 8 shutouts, a 2.23 GAA, and a save percentage of .930. They are up against a very, very tough opponent in the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks are loaded with front end talent, and have two of the NHL’s better defenceman in Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. There are goal scorers at every position for Chicago, and they expect to get their captain and Conn Smythe trophy winner Jonathan Toews back for game 1. This is a team who has been in this situation before, and they have to like their matchup. The thing about Chicago that scares the piss out of me is that their goaltending situation is anything but solid. Yes Corey Crawford has won games for the Hawks, but has looked shaky at many points this season. They will be a team that needs to rely on their talent more than any one else in the post-season. Good news for the Hawks, they have tons of talent. At least enough talent to get by the first round…Hawks in 6.
Nashville Predators vs 5)
Detroit Red Wings
Just like the Eastern Conference 4 vs 5 matchup, this is my favourite series in the West. Both of these division rivals have great depth. They are both extremely well coached groups who have recent playoff experience. I expect this series to be a physical one, considering both teams know each other quite well by now. The Preds have one of the NHL’s most balanced attacks. They despite compiling 102 points thus far, have not one 30 goal scorer on the roster. This is another one of those teams that applies a “do your job” mentality. On the back end there is strong young defensive talent, led by Shea Weber, and Ryan Suter. However with all that being said the Preds best player is in net. Pekka Rinne could easily win the Vezina this year with the season he has had. He has played 72 games, and has compiled 43 wins, a GAA of 2.40 and a .923 save percentage. This team looks good. The Detroit Red Wings are a worthy opponent, and would be a nightmare for any team they are put up against. There may not be a more well coached team in the NHL. Many players on the Red Wing roster have been in the post-season, and many of them have won in the post-season. They are physical, talented, and enter games with the right mindset(a product of good coaching). They also have Pavel Datsyuk…who can literally start, stop, pass, make shit happen, all the time… Just a great, great player. The thing that is a little rattling about Detroit’s unit is its goaltending. As you can see that is a common topic in this NHL playoff preview, because of all positions, goalie is the most important in the playoffs. Jimmy Howard is the Red Wings cage protector, and they will need him to be solid in order for them to not only get by Nashville, but to win in any other round. Endurance will be key for both teams because I see this series going to 7… Predators in 7.
The season is ending in a matter of days and there will be playoff hockey next week. Its been a long and very interesting season that saw some new teams arise from the ashes and make the elite 8 of their respected conferences. This is a look at those eight in the Eastern conference and how the playoff picture would look if the season ended today.
New York Rangers vs 2)
This has the making of a very high intensity type of series. Although the Rangers are clearly the better team statistically, they will have to play at their best to beat a surging Capitals team. It appears as though Ovechkin has found his stride a little more this past month, than he did during the entirety of 2012 season. The physical play of Ovechkin in the playoffs will be a nice boost for that Capitals team that should be praising the heavens they made the dance. Unfortunately they have to play the Rangers who aside from the St.Louis Blues have the best statistical defence in the NHL with 183 total goals against. New York has been consistent all season and loves to play in the big games. They are a well coached, and well led hockey team that is backed up by arguably the best goalie and potential Vezina trophy winner in “King” Henrik Lundqvist. If the league ends this way, this series will be extremely entertaining to watch, and played at a very high tempo. I don’t think the Caps have what it takes defensively to slow the consistent attack of the Rangers, who always bury on opportunities late in games. I do think the Caps will scare them though, and take game 2 in the Gardens and another at their building in DC. But thats bloody it … Rangers in 6.
Boston Bruins vs 7)
Its always a beautiful thing when divisional rivals match up against each other in the playoffs. Its also a beautiful thing for myself a Leaf fan to watch the Sens battle one of the NHL’s toughest teams in the 1st round. However I will give the Sens credit. They have talent at both ends of the ice, and can get the job done. They have not had a problem scoring goals this season, and play with a chip on their shoulder. Playing like that is a dangerous tool, that has been known to fuel success. But were talking about the Bruins… This team will hit you, and hit you again when your down. They are relentless physically, and I don’t think Ottawa and the likes of Sergei Gonchar have what it takes to slow Boston down. The Bruins are incredibly balanced physically, and with a surplus of offensive talent. They had the NHL’s best goal differential all year long. The only thing that concerns me about the Bruins is goaltending. It would be remarkable for Tim Thomas to repeat what he did last postseason, and I saw no evidence of that during the regular season. He will need to be on his game especially in this series as the Sens have some talented goal scorers. This series will be an interesting one to watch, especially becuase these two teams saw each other multiple times this year. In my opinion the Bruins will be too much of a physical force and I can only see the Sens winning one game this series…Bruins in 5
Florida Panthers vs 6)
New jersey Devils
Eeeee… . The Florida Panthers have made the playoffs. I saw this morning on NHL.com a title that read “Sunny Side Up”… (that’s cute). I must say congratulations to the Panthers for making the playoffs, that as any fan from Toronto knows and understands, is an impressive task to complete. The Panthers rode their goaltending for much of the season. That goaltender is Jose Theodore. The Panthers of all of the teams who made the Playoffs both in the eastern and western conference have the worst goal differential at -27. Eeeee I just don’t think that they have what it takes to get past the Devils in the 1st round. The Devils have to enjoy being healthy and where they are in the standings heading into the playoffs. They have a formidable matchup, and have been enjoying some stellar rookie surprises. Ilya Kovalchuk has been the player he needs to be in order for them to succeed, but in my opinion its been Patrick Elias whose been the key factor for them this season. Elias was healthy all year, and his experience and leadership had to have made a difference in that locker room. Not to mention he is second on the team in points with 77 points. The only question I have about the Devils is their physical play, which may not be a factor when playing the Panthers, but it will soon in the playoffs. As well as the goaltending. Martin Brodeur is one of the best all time in the cage, but he is definitely getting too old for this shit. These are going to be high pressure, high intensity games, and if he can last and play his game the Devils have a good shot to win a lot of games this spring…I see the Devils cruising in this series and winning it in 5. (By the way, the Devils form of cruising is one and two goal games).
Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5)
Well the Penguins had a tremendous second half of the season, and have now had the best player in the world return to their line up. The Penguins have been called many things, and most recently “the most arrogant organization in the NHL” by Rangers coach John Tortorella. Everyone seems to want a piece of the Penguins, and I bet the Flyers are dying to get their chance. This all in all will be the most physical series in the East. These two state rivals hate each other. The Penguins have no doubt when healthy the most prolific offence in the NHL, and with Crosby back their power play is virtually unstoppable. It will be important for the Flyers to play physical, but disciplined in order for them to win. Ilya Bryzgalov will need to be impressive. Hopefully he can remain healthy, and be ready for a ton of action all throughout this series. If the Penguins can do one thing better than score, its generate scoring chances. The Flyers will need to get their scores going as well, and there is no reason they cant light it up also. To me the key will be how well the Flyers forwards back check… This is my favourite series for sure … Pens in 7. (Also just imagine how much better you would feel as a Flyer fan with a healthy Chris Pronger suiting up for the series… just saying)
**Western Conference preview to be published tomorrow.
Ahhhh… the month of March is over and we are into April… But its worth talking about the quality of this years NCAA March Madness mens basketball tournament. In my opinion this was a dandy of a bracket, full of excitement, upsets, and great basketball in the final four. Personally thats what Im looking for in these collegiate hardwood wars. I want some fierce competition, I want bodies flying everywhere for lose balls, I want to see the pain in players eyes when their seasons have come to an end, and potentially for some, their careers. Of course I want to see some upsets, but Im more of a fan who likes to watch dominant talent, dominate. I want to hear the crowd go insane when that game winning shot is drilled, I want to see the madness in every which way.
There were plenty of stories that I enjoyed over the course of the tournament. Since I picked Duke to win the tournament, Lehigh walking all over the Blue Devils was not one of them for me… personally. But… I did enjoy watching CJ. McCollum undress many of Duke’s supposed elite talent for 30 points in game one of their tournament. This is a kid that most amateur fans would not notice because of the school he represents. I don’t think ESPN or any other major network broadcasts a ton of Patriot League games. But apparently they should. McCollum was 5th in the nation in scoring with an average of 21.9 PPG accompanied by 6.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. In an interview with Dan Patrick, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski explained that one of the reasons the Blue Devils were defeated was because Lehigh had the best player on the floor. He was referring to the 6”3 190 LBS guard McCollum. Many project McCollum as a late first round pick.
Being Canadian I feel as though I have to touch on the career high 27 points for Baylor Bears guard Brady Heslip. Heslip a native of Burlington Ontario is the nephew of former NBA bench boss Jay Triano, and the son of former University of Guelph basketball legend Tom Heslip. Brady came out in the biggest games of his life, and performed like he deserved to be there. Most notably when he drilled nine three pointers against one of the nations best defences in Colorado, in game two of their tournament. Its definitely an amazing accomplishment considering he only averaged 9.6 PPG during the course of the 2012 season. Even bigger of an accomplishment is that he did it when it mattered. Thank you Mr. Heslip for putting Canadian basketball on the map during the tournament. It appears as though good Canadian basketball players are coming to a television set near you, and thats pretty damn exciting for us north of the border.
That final game yesterday … Let me just say that the two best teams in the country tipped off last night at 9:23 ET. I was literally entertained the entire time. In the beginning all ten players on the floor looked like hungry dogs on rare pieces of fine USDA meat. Both Kentucky and Kansas were flying down the court, plying high tempo transition basketball. It reminded me of the old NBA films I watch sometimes from the Bird vs Magic era. Just a whole bunch of back and forth attacks at full speed, with sometimes hard fouls. Both coaches said that in order for their teams to be successful in the big game, they needed to be physical and it showed. Anthony Davis is a premier talent, both offensively and defensively. He showed last night that he doesn’t have to be a point producer to be effective. In the biggest game of his life he shows this …? Thats pretty damn alright with me. Davis was highly effective with his blocking and rebounding, to the point where it was virtually impossible for Kansas to make an attack at the basket in his vicinity. Davis finished with 6 blocks, 16 rebounds, and 6 points. But lets face it Kentucky has a ton of talent. They have an amazing starting five and they remained healthy which is obviously always a HUGE advantage for any sports team, at any level. Michael Kidd Gilchrist portrayed that he has what it takes to start developing his game at the next level. In the first half last night it was him who led the attack against the Jayhawks. And how about those Jayhawks. Quite clearly this was the team who gave Kentucky the biggest scare heading in. Look no further than big man Thomas Robinson. This is a 6”10 forward from DC. This is also a beast… Robinson definitely will have what it takes to have elite potential in the NBA. Robinson led the Jayhawks with 17 rebounds in the national championship and added 18 points. Now although he made some key turnovers late in the game I thought Elijah Johnson is also one hell of a talent for Kansas. He portrayed great quickness, and superior ball handling skills for most of the game. Although he was inconsistent, and he did commit major turnovers, which are traits not overlooked by NBA scouts. All in all this was a great game to watch, and I congratulate the Kentucky Wildcats on their 8th national title.
Early in the tournament just about when Duke got knocked out I listened to an interview with Coach Krzyzewski. In the interview he talked about what it took to win the NCAA tournament. He said, “You have to be tough to get into the tournament.” He went on, “Toughness is a tool that can be coached, but only mastered by players during a season. It’s only mastered with strong leaders at the helm.” Leadership is a solid tool in any sport, and it is amazing what is accomplished with a strong sense of purpose from great leaders. Although Duke was knocked out in the first round Coach K told listeners that nothing compared to the elation of winning a tounrnament. Not even the deflation of losing in the first round. He explained that there are many 1st round losers in the tournament, but only one winner of the national title. In explaining the loss to Lehigh he said one thing that stuck with me personally. Teams get accustomed to winning heading into the tournament. Whether its Lehigh, Duke, VCU etc… Teams get used to winning games all the time. So when their down in a game early against a Duke, or whatever opponent, they get a huge sense of urgency to come back and win. Coach K explained that Duke lost becuase they didnt “get into the moment.” What he meant was, they didn’t seize the oppurtinty, and mentally get into the moment for which they dominanate an opponent.
To me personally seizing those moments are what separate champions, from losers. In sports and in life. What defines us is our ability to seize opportunities, what ever they may be. And this tournament is a great reminder of what can happen you seize those opportunities, and when you don’t.