Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Blackhawks: The True Dynasty

I picked against the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals (Ducks in 7) and the Stanley Cup Final (Lightning in 6). I was wrong both times. I'm not upset to be wrong. I hold nothing against the Blackhawks; they shoved their dominance in my face, in the NHL's face, in everyone's face. The Hawks won the Cup again, doing what they've always done in their three cup runs: grinding teams away in the later stage of the series, pulling away when everyone else is pulling back.

There are a lot of amazing fact and facets to the Blackhawks dynastic last 6 years - and there is no argument, this is a modern dynasty. There's the facet of their core 7 guys, the top seven players that were on each team - Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa, Sharp, Hjalmarsson. That's one top center, two solid two-way wingers, one dynamic winger, and three great defenseman that fit together perfectly. There's the facet of their goaltending, with Corey Crawford now twice outplaying goalies who were Vezina finalists in recent times in the Final without truly being trusted. There's the facet of Coach Q, who's incessant line-switching not only reenergized that team series after series; a game of line switching that he got so good at he at times started dictating matchups on the road. But my favorite as a fact, this fact: In this era, when tied 2-2 in a series, the Blackhawks are 18-1. So not only have they won all those series, only once did they even have to go to Game 7.

The Blackhawks have no real weakness. They aren't the biggest team, but they have the speed and will to get by without being hit happy. The Blackhawks can do basically everything else. They can dominate possession, they can light up the scoreboard when pressed to do so. They can win without their top offensive guys scoring goals. On the other side, they can squeeze offenses down about as well as any other team that prides itself on defense. Note that the last two times the Blackhawks won the Cup they ranked 2nd and 16th in goals scored, but 1st in goals allowed both times. The Blackhawks really could do it all, the logical and geographical heir to the Red Wings from 1995-2008.

The top names have become familiar enough that it underrates how well the Blackhawks have done filling out that roster a few times over. The tear-down the Hawks had to endure after their first Cup is pretty legendary by this point. Back then, before Toews and Kane started getting 'Paid', the Hawks loaded up their roster and built a super team. The 2010 club was amazing, it ran through the playoffs 16-6 (three times sweeping games 5-6 after being tied 2-2), but they knew they were entering cap hell. Gone that offseason were Dustin Byfuglein, Brian Campbell, Andrew Ladd, John Madden, Troy Brouwer, Thomas Kopecky, and Brent Sopel. That is a lot of depth to lose. It showed as the next two years the Hawks struggled with depth issues, and lost in the 1st round to Vancouver and Phoenix. But in those two years they started developing the new depth that would take over the 2013 and 2015 teams.

Brandon Saad, Brian Bickell, Michael Roszival, Andrew Shaw, Johnny Oduya, those are the names of draftees and signings that made up the depth today. They supplemented these with hired guns like Brad Richards or Antoine Vermette. It all worked, though. Toews and Kane were largely shut out of the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals, but Tuevo Teravainen and Antoine Vermette decided to go on a scoring binge. They rotated in the bottom two defenseman, and while they didn't ask much of them they were able to not be totally overmatched in the 15 minutes they had to play. Everything worked, again, for a team that seems to know no bounds when it comes to manufacturing wins.

That last line 'know no bounds when it comes to manufacturing wins' was once said about my New Jersey Devils after they beat the Ottawa Senators in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals. That Ottawa team won the President's Trophy as the top team in the NHL. They had the league's top offense, and a solid defense. The Devils beat them in Game 7, on the road, after blowing a 3-1 series lead. It truly was the Devils manufacturing a series win. That year capped off a 9-year stretch when they won three Stanley Cups and an additional trip to the Cup Final. The Devils were these Blackhawks. I know what it is like to root for that type of team. And not matter how business-like the Devils were then or the Blackhawks are now, it is still special when they pull this type of thing off.

People are saying that the Blackhawks are unlikely to get back next year with another impending cap crunch coming up, and in a way that is true as the Core 7 will almost definitely be broken up for the first time, whether it is Sharp getting moved, or even Seabrook. Some of the other rentals will likely leave, but will it really matter? Sharp was basically a 3rd line player. They can just move Shaw up, or hope, and more likely than that expect, guys like Teravainen to just get better and make up for it. And of course they still have Toews and Kane.

The franchise's fortunes basically depend on them tanking early in the 2000s, drafting Patrick Kane 1st overall in the 2007 draft, a year after picking Jonathan Toews 3rd overall in the 2006 draft. That 2006 draft is ending up like another famous draft that ended with a Chicago team picking an all-timer with the #3 pick. Right before Toews, the Pittsburgh Penguins, having already gotten Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the previous two drafts, decided to pick Jordan Staal - a nice player, but in no way Jonathan Toews. I don't know if Toews would have become the player he did if he went to Pittsburgh, but Chicago definitely wouldn't have become Chicago if they had to take Staal instead.

You can say then that Chicago tanked and got lucky, but it is more than that. Apart from Hossa and Sharp, the core 7 was drafted and developed (and Sharp was nowhere near the player pre-Chicago). They built that team a lot like the 1996-2000 Yankees, which were about as good of a dynasty as I've seen in my lifetime. Those Yankees had their core that they drafted and developed, and then had a bunch of depth and rentals that they bought beacuse they could. It worked a little too well, as the Yankees then turned into a team that basically bought and rented everyone, but the 1996-2000 run was special, and 15 years later this hockey fan has seen another special run.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Cheer for A-Rod? Boo Tiger? Or the Reverse?

Two all time greats, two players that have defined their respective sports over the past 20 years, are in headlines this week. Both players have had their careers tarnished beyond belief - one for his transgressions of the field heightening his strange antics on; the other for transgressions on the field heightening his strange antics off.

Alex Rodriguez has been to hell and back over the past 7 years. 2008 was the first year Alex Rodriguez seemed human. Well, his AL leading .573 slugging would suggest otherwise, but it was the first time since 2000, his last year in Seattle, that he hit the DL. He had just won three MVPs in 5 years. He was the best player in the sport. He then started a long journey to where we are today.

That journey was filled with steroid accusations, steroid admittances, strange times when he tried pinning it on his cousin, and then the revelation three years ago that he had run the 'most disciplined doping cycle' the sport had seen. Despite never failing a drug test, A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season. He was missing his year 38 season. Him breaking the HR mark, which seemed so inevitable when he signed that massive contract during the 2007 World Series, now seemed so far away.

Yes for all the trouble that has befitted A-Rod, Tiger Woods probably has him beat. His life also changed in 2008. That was the year he got hurt, seriously hurt, for the first time. It was also the year he last won a major title. He won the 2008 US Open on one leg, his 14th major win overall, and 12th in 34 tries since 2000. That streak had two ridiculous stretches. The '08 US Open capped off a stretch where he won 6 of 14. Of course before that he won 6 of 9. He left the sport for the rest of 2008. The only thing he's done more of since 2008 than get hurt is have former mistresses turn on him.

Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez are similar in a lot of ways. Both, of course, were prodigous talents. Tiger Woods blasted onto the scene as a pro in 1996, winning his first major at 21 in the 1997 Masters. A-Rod, who is the same age, blasted onto the scene as a pro in 1996 as well, putting up a 161+ OPS as a 20-year old.

They are also similar in the boring perfectionism, their manicured persona, their ability to always seem like they're reading off of a teleprompter. They've both had their love lives splattered all over the tabloids - Tiger's having been far more toxic, while A-Rod's far more strange (remember when Cameron Diaz was spotted feeding him in a box during the Super Bowl?). And now, they're both at pivotal moments in their career. A-Rod fought through suspension, fought through the Yankees basically admitting they wanted him gone, only to come back and be the best player on a 1st place team. Tiger fought through his own scandals, but is losing the fight to his body. He just shot an 80 in the 1st round of the US Open, the 3rd worst score of anyone. The thing is, who am I supposed to be upset at, and who am I supposed to pity?

I didn't like the old A-Rod. I found him descipable and laughable in all the ways eeryone else did; and add that on top of being the ultimate sign of the Yankees greed. But through his steroid scandal, through him being made a paraiah, in a way that everyone tried to distance themselves from a man they all profited off of, I grew to like him. I grew to like the way he doubled down on his worst qualities, on his blind faith in his own innocence, on his vapid personality.

A-Rod became the worst version of himself through the suspension, and that drew me to him. I'm not rooting for A-Rod, but it is hard to not root for a guy for whom the Yankees are going to attempt to withhold millions of dollars on performance bonuses for no reason. A-Rod's latest assualt on a hallowed mark, this time 3,000 hits, will be greeted with joy for me.

Tiger on the other hand I feel bad for. I don't feel bad that he got caught cheating, that he had his perfectly fake life crash all around him, that he had his life torn apart. He deserved all those things. He also deserved for the scandals to show his true personality for what it was - a laborious bore off the course, and a cussing jackass on it. What he didn't deserve was then for his body to betray him the way it did. Tiger has rarely been healthy since 2009. The few times he has - most of the 2012-13 seasons - he was the best golfer in the world. He just hasn't been able to win a major.

I pity seeing Woods now. His amazing play from 2000-2008 was so indescribable, so unlike anything golf had seen, it was awful at the time but looking back we didn't appreciate enough. Same with A-Rod really. There is nothing Alex Rodriguez likes to do, or is more natural at, than hitting a baseball. He's been doing that at a ridiculous level his whole life, and at a 'he's one of the best 10 people to do this thing' level for 20 years. Seeing them fight age, fight scandal, and try to do it all over again has been invigorating in the case of A-Rod, and saddening in the case of Tiger.

But then I think, shouldn't I feel happy that Tiger is getting what he deserves, or upset that A-Rod flaunted and cheated the game and is returning a conquering hero? Doesn't Tiger deserve his fate and A-Rod not?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I Watch Game of Thrones

Soon after the image of Jon Snow’s blood enwrapping his lifeless body finally left my head, I did a quick checklist of why I still watch this show. This season definitely tested the viewers more than any previously. It broke a few, with quite a few thinkpieces popping up saying ‘I’m done with this show’ after the rape of Sansa committed by Ramsay. That wasn’t the reason why I contemplated my connection to the show. No, I did it because I really wanted to know if it was worth 10 hours (and many more hours reading/listening/researching/debating). Five seasons in, was it really worth it anymore?

This season, it shared a 2-hour block of time with Veep and Silicon Valley. I have no pains in saying that in the last handful of weeks, I looked forward to and enjoyed more the two comedies than Game of Thrones. This was not true in the beginning of the season. I really enjoyed the beginning of Season 5. I thought it was more acute, more structured, more focused, and more themed than any previous season. Cutting out the Bran storyline, limiting the time with the Boltons, opening up Mereen and pairing characters together all over the place. This helped. Overtime that gave way to the same milestone-based show that is brilliant but a bit cold. So, with five seasons in the books, why do I still watch this show?

Actually let’s start with the counter: Why do I have issues when I watch this show:
  • The Plot: George RR Martin constructed a breathlessly complex world, with cities and states and regions that all house their own distinctive features and themes. He penned all of this, but in the meantime he forgot to really care about the plot. That’s not always a bad thing. Seinfeld had no plot, after all. But the plot here is so stretched, so circular, that nothing is really getting solved despite so much happening. Take this finale, so much happened, but all that happened is feuds thought dead were re-opened, and stories that were getting fuller took a step back. Two characters with years of lead-up were (likely) killed off. It is more accurate to say, really, that this story has great filler but bad endings.
  • The Overall Theme of Negativity: Few great shows have positive world-views (something that made Parks & Recreation so amazing), but few are so negative as Game of Thrones. My all-time favorite show is similarly negative in its general theme (The Wire), but hidden between the decay of Baltimore were so many great moments. Game of Thrones used to have a lot of these moments, and it still does but with the cast of characters and plotlines expanding so much there’s not much time for them
  • The War overtaking The Politics: The show was at its best when it becomes about the politics of this magical land, the family drama and connections and marriages and all of that. The show is not at its best when it focuses on the actual warring. Some of the scenes of War are amazing (Blackwater in Season 2, The Watchers on the Wall n Season 4, Hardhome this year) but overall the warring is tiring. It never ends. And now with Hardhome, I have to think that is the endgame here anyway.

But all that said, why do I still watch a show where I don’t much like the plotlines and how they end, the overall theme and the significance given to military strategy, because of the following:
  • The Artistic Brilliance: At the end of the day, Game of Thrones is a tv show, and it is made about as spectacularly well as any TV show ever. Each year seemingly the videography becomes more incredible, the special and practical effects more daring, the sets more enchanting. A lot is made of the fact the show has a blockbuster-movie sized budget, but they at least put it to great effect. The camera work displayed by their directors is always unbelievable. The landscapes, the buildings, the details, and even now the CGI, is such an overpowering aspect of the show.
  • The Actors and Acting: Not every actor is great on Game of Thrones, but all the ones we are made to care about are, or have their moments. Pretty much everyone with the last name Lannister has been the benefit of a marvelous acting performance. Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage have been unendingly brilliant. Charles Dance was captivating as Tywin. Was so good at making Joffrey so hateable. We’ve seen great performances by so many other actors. Stephen Dillane’s work as Stannis this year was awesome. The actors playing Davos, Melisandra, Jorah, Varys have all been various levels of awesome. Quick repeat shoutout to my man Stephen Dillane. Show Stannis was a boring character, but his performance this year was amazing. Obviously, the killing of Shireen was about as dark as the show gets, but Dillane was awesome portraying the various levels of emotion in that decision, and the realization that it all failed and he was about to send himself into death
  • Those Special Moments: On season 4, I said that while it wasn’t my favorite season, it had maybe the most ‘Holy Eff’ moments; just great memorable stuff like the entire Purple Wedding, Tyrion’s trail, and the fight between the Mountain and the Viper. All those things happened in King’s landing, and while Season 5 didn’t have as many moments, it had enough. The ‘Come at me Bro’ moment of the Night’s King staring John Snow down was one, Drogon flying high over Valyria was another. Game of Thrones because of the budget, the actors, the directors, and the source material, has more perfect social media moments than any other show I’ve ever seen.

To me those last three things far outweigh the first three. Who cares that Jon Snow is dead? Who cares if the plot is a little aimless? I don’t watch Game of Thrones to see the good guys win, or to see who sits on the Iron Throne, or to see how in the hell anything matters when the White Walkers are coming to kill em all. I watch for the artistry, for the photography, for this group of people working together to put sequences on television that are so imaginative it is amazing it is on TV. Game of Thrones is far from the perfect TV show. I think Season 5 on the whole was one of the weaker seasons (probably better than Season 2, but that may be it), but it was still worth giving 10 hours of my time to.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Van Halen Playlist

1.) Eruption (Van Halen)

2.) Panama (1984)

3.) Somebody Get Me a Doctor (Van Halen II)

4.) Romeo Delight (Women and Children First)

5.) Ain't Talking Bout Love (Van Halen)

6.) Dirty Movies (Fair Warning)


8.) You Really Got Me (Van Halen)



11.) Fools (Women and Children First)

12.) Unchained (Fair Warning)


14.) Dance the Night Away (Van Halen II)

15.) Big Bad Bill... Is Sweet William Now (Diver Down)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Barca: Is this the Super Team that lasts

A funny thing happened in the aftermath of Barcelona's 3-1 (in reality, 2-1) win over Juventus in the Champions League Final - a compelling, well played game that while definitely going to the better team, could have fairly easily gone to Juventus without too much complaint. In the middle of extolling Barcelona's win, I heard the Fox Soccer team say that this could be the greatest collection of talent ever on a team - something I heard about Barclona 4-5 years ago. And in a way, they are right. And Barcelona became that by embracing what they couldn't do and what they failed to beat. Soccer, more than any other sport, loves to call teams teh greatest of all time, but through the way that title has passed along hot-potato style from team to team in recent years and ended up back with Barcelona shows both how tenuous that title is, and how odd it is that Barcelona has re-acheived it.

In the 2010-11 season, Barcelona could have made their claim as the best single-season team of all time. They romped through La Liga, losing just two games, scoring 114 goals and conceding 29. They won the Champions League going away, never seriously challenged apart from one badly-timed 2nd yellow against Arsenal, a tie they likely would have won anyway. Messi wasn't yet 'Messi', but that was the height of the Guardiola era Barcelona. Xavi and Iniesta were still brilliant. Players like Pedro and Alexis had their best seasons. The team was amazing. By record, better than this years team. They were far and away the best team in the world, likely the best team ever. And then it just ended.

They didn't win La Liga the following year (Mourinho's Real Madrid team did), and crashed out of the Champions League losing to Chelsea 2-3 on aggregate. The following year, they took back La Liga in a down year for the league, but were humiliated losing 0-7 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the Champions League Semifinal. That loss is the first turning point.

Up through that tie, Barcelona was driving more and more into the all-possession skid, and turning the team more and more into one that needed Lionel Messi to be his best self to win. Messi was not his best self against Chelsea and they lost. He was playing at 50% against Bayern, and they were demolished. The team had peaked. There was a new 'best team in the world' and that was Bayern Munich.

That Munich team went on to win the Champions League, finally winning after being runners up in 2010 and 2012. They had the ability to play possession, but they were deadly on the counter. They were strong everywhere, a perfect 11 that blended singular talents (Robben, Lahm) with steely determination (Muller, Schweinsteiger), and excellent role players (Ribery, Mandzukic, Neuer). They were the top team, with the physicality and speed to swallow Barcelona's possession machine. Of course, Pep Guardiola was about to take over the Munich squad the following year.

He didn't change them into Barcelona, but definitely limited their countering and focused on possession. Bayern was too talented for it not to work, but in the Champions League semifinal, they ran up against a team who did to them what they did to Barcelona, defended and countered them to death. This time it was them being humiliated, losing 0-5 on aggregate to Real Madrid. It was this win for Madrid that swung the 'best team in the world label' over to the Bernabeu.

Real Madrid ended the 2013-14 season with the Champions League title, finally winning 'La Decima', and started the 14-15 season as clearly the best team in the world. They won 22 straight games in all competitions. Opened up a 6-point lead on Barcelona in Janaury in La Liga, and was flying in the Champions League. Then injury struck. Carlo Ancelotti did a great job fitting a lot of great players in a structure that worked, but impulse buys James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos took some of the defensive proficiency away, and injuries ruined their dominance. They eventually crashed out to Juventus in the semifinal, lost La Liga by two points, and Barcelona took back over pole position.

How did Barcelona take it back? By shedding away some of the possession tactics that ruled their first spell on top of world football, and moving slightly towards with Bayern and Real Madrid were able to do during their seasons on top: counter with speed and excellent skill. But forget tactics, it comes down to personnel.

Barcelona loves to tout La Masia, and for good reason. That 2010-11 super team was built basically off of homegrown talent. However, the reason Barcelona lays claim to 'Best Team in the World' today is because of their checkbook. Getting Neymar last year, and doing underhanded business dealings to do so, was step 1. Getting Luis Suarez after Liverpool soured on 'the biter' was step two. Barcelona loves to tout itself as more than a club, but their resurgence was helped by being just another club with a big bank account. 2010-11 was the start of a period where Barcelona grew increasingly dependent on Lionel Messi, as striker after striker failed to adjust to Barcelona's tiki-taka system, and the core grew older. When bringing in Neymar and Suarez, they stopped adapting to Tiki-Taka, let them play as we saw, and we get what we got.

The best example was against Bayern Munich. Munich, coached by Guardiola moved towards the Barcelona style, while Barcelona moved towards Munich's style. The results was a semifinal that emulated a lot to the 7-0 thrashing. It wasn't as one-sided, but Barcelona swallowed up an injured Munich team and destroyed them.

In the final, we saw what makes Barcelona so scary right now. On the first goal, it was right out of 2010-11 Barcelona, slow build up, a looping Messi pass, great off-the-ball movement, beautiful passing, and a good finish. The second goal was a counter, against the run of play, with Messi driving towards and Suarez backing him up for a tap-in. It was a goal that likely wouldn't be scored that was in 2013. It was scored that way on Saturday, and it made Barcelona champions.

Barcelona is squarely the best team in the world, but that is always a tenuous title. More teams have more money now than they did in Barca's run from 2009-12. To be honest, if not for injuries, Real Madrid may yet have won La Liga, Counter to that, Barcelona had wonderful injury luck, with none of the top three (or even top five if you include Iniesta and Rakitic) were injured. With some club exits planned and a transfer ban in effect, there is a chance that if Barcelona has normal injury luck next year they won't be nearly as deep. Overall, there is a reason why no team has repeated as Champions League winner. Both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid seemed like good bets to break that, but both lost. Let's see if Barcelona can, and do so by continuing to adapt to the superb talent they have and not be adapting the talent to their system.

All Things Tennis

So much interesting stuff in this year's French Open, I have to do this rambling style:

  • First, Stan Wawrinka. 18 months ago, he was something of a career flake. He wasn't labelled an underacheiver like Thomas Berdych, mainly because no one really saw that level of skill in him. Somehow, we fast forward to today and he has more slams in the past 6 than anyone other than Novak Djokovic. Some tried to take away from his first slam triumph after Rafa Nadal chipped a disc in his back in the final. There was no issues with teh opponent yesterday. Wawrinka just rolled through Novak. Even in the first set, Wawrinka had his moments. He stayed the course after not capitalizing on break point after break point. He finally got one to wrap up the 2nd set, and then played amazing there on out. He deserved that win, no doubt about it.
  • So what does this mean for Wawrinka? Obviously he joins one of the more exclusive clubs. The difference between the amount of men who have won 1 slam vs. those who have won multiple is stunning. You can fluke your way into one slam (though that was easier back in the day), but to fluke into two is pretty much impossible. Let's remember that Andy Murray is a nominal member of the 'Big 4' and he himself just has two slams. Murray's definitely had a better career, but Stan Wawrinka has done something that Andy Roddick couldn't do, win a 2nd slam
  • Wawrinka has also in his slam wins done some pretty unthinkable things. In both his slam wins, he took out a legend and one of the favorites in the QFs - in Australia it was him beating Novak in 5 sets, ending Djokovic's run as three-time champion. Then he took out a dangerous opponent in a 4-set semifinal that looking back he could have lost (Berdych in '14 Australia, home-favorite Tsonga here), and then took out a man going for history in the final with relative ease in 4. Obviously, Novak was going for a career slam here (and putting at least some credence to the idea that someone could win the calendar slam), but let's not forget Nadal was going for a 2nd career slam in the Australian final last year. These are two of the bigger upsets in finals this decade (2010 to now), and he has both of them. 
  • Finally, a couple trivia questions Wawrinka is one of the answers too:
    • Q: Who are the three players who have beaten both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament run?:
    • A: Rafa Nadal ('06-'08 French Open), Marat Safin ('05 Australian Open), and Stan Wawrinka ('15 French Open)
    • Q: Who is the only player to beat both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament run?
    • A: Stan Wawrinka (2014 Australian Open

  • As for Novak, this is a crushing loss, but given the circumstances one he took rather well. He was far more emotional and desolate in defeat the last three years when losing to Rafa (especially last year where he was far more 'close to tears' during the trophy presentation). In a way it makes sense, when he lost to Rafa again and again, it almost made him feel further away from winning. This time he has the knowledge that he can beat Rafa here. But still, this was gift-wrapped for him and he couldn't do it.
  • Novak Djokovic is a top-10 player all-time. But there has to be some takeaways from what is now a 8-8 record in Grand Slam Finals (3-8 outside Australia). Novak Djokovic's week-to-week consistency the last four years have only been matched probably by Roger Federer's peak, yet we've seen on multiple occassions Djokovic play passive, un-emotional tennis in major finals. This match was very similar to both Djokovic's loss last year in the Final, or his loss to Murray in the Wimbledon final in 2013. Novak lost to a player who played better, but he himself was flighty.
  • Case in point: the sheer number of drop-shots he attempted. Going for way too many drop-shots was a common theme in his losses to top players in the 2007-2010 phase of his career. I haven't seen him do it that many times in a match since. To get out-winnered 60-30 was surprising but even more suprising was to almost reach Wawrinka's error count (45 for Stan, 41 for Novak). That -11 differential for Djokovic is a clear sign of how off and relatively average he was in that match
  • For Nadal, his run of 5 straight wins came to a crashing end. This is definitely turning out to be his version of Federer's 2013 season from hell. The issue with Nadal is probably more mental than the issues that Federer faced in 2013, and he'll have the knowledge that he's basically defending nothing going forward in 2015 so that #10 ranking will be short-lived, but when you're fresh losses in every spring Clay tournament and now heading to a place where you haven't made a QF in four years, this is a really tricky time for him.
  • For Murray, he's now lost 8 straight matches to Djokovic. Now, his record and competitiveness against Djokovic in 5-set matches has always been better (another sign that Novak is slightly worse in 5-set matches against top players than best-of-three), but this trend of him falling off in 5th sets is not good. He did the same in Australia this year, Australia in 2013, and even the year before in the Australian Open. Still, he looks better now than he did a year ago.
  • Finally, for Federer, this was a missed opportunity. Sure, having to beat Djokovic was going to be tough had he made the final (even Tsonga in teh SFs was not guaranteed - he lost to Tsonga in 3-sets in the quarters in 2013), but he was given a dream draw. He was given all the opportunity and he was playing good tennis, but then got rolled in straight sets. Not a good way to lose in what may be your best chance again to win other than him pulling a Sampras at Wimbledon

  • A quick point about Serena, it was odd to see her so vulnerable so many times in these two weeks. She had to go to 3-set four different times. Sometimes it was her coming back from early deficits. Sometimes it was her choking away big leads. Overall, it was far from her best win. In fact, I believe I saw a stat that this represented the most games she had ever lost in any of her 20 major wins. But that last stat is what means to most: 20 major wins.
  • It is hard to remember, but there was a time when people very openly, and very rightly, questioned Serena's attention towards tennis and if her career had peaked early. This was in that 2004-2008 phase where she would miss a few majors, make random runs in Australia, and often lose in the QFs in matches that were upsets in name only. There was a 20-slam period from the US Open in 2003 through Wimbledon in 2008, where Serena won just two slams. Those were her age 22-26 years, ostensibly a players prime. How did she follow that up, in her age 27-33 years? By winning 12 of the next 27. She has now won three in a row, and a Wimbledon win would give her a 2nd 'Serena Slam', a full 12 years after the first one. She has a reasonable shot at a calendar slam. Oh, and she's just one month younger than Roger Federer. Serena has had the most strange, inexplicable career, having two peaks, one in her youth (18-21), one in what is normally a decline phase (27-33), and a valley in her prime. Add it all up and you still get 20 effing slams

The French Open is always interesting, and this year even more so. The top seed who struggled all two weeks ended up winning. The top seed who dominated through 5.5 matches, winning the first 17 sets he played, ended up losing the final, and losing 5 of the last 7 he played. A man who hadn't won a slam in December 2013 has now won two of them. The last 6 majors have given us three wins for the 'Big 4' (two for Djokovic, one for Nadal), and three wins for non-Big 4, of course, those other three weren't from the normal contenders, but from Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. I like the unpredictability that tennis offers. And nothing, I guess, is harder to predict than if Djokovic will regain that chance to win a French Open, and if Serena's second career peak will ever end?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Finals: The Pick

(W-C3) Chicago Blackhawks  vs  (E-A2) Tampa Bay Lightning

State of the Teams: Chicago still only has four playable defenseman. Another series down, a series where the Blackhawks played about two extra games worth of hockey with the OT games. The Blackhawks had this problem before the Western Conference Finals, and they still do. I guess Duncan Keith is a superman, but it will be interesting to see if he can hold up in another series playing 30+ minutes a game. For the Blackhawks, they actually played Timmonen a little more, but they really can’t get away with that against a fast team. The Hawks also went to their trump card on offense in Games 5-7, playing Kane and Toews on the same line for long stretches. It makes that first line scary-good, but really dampens their 2nd line of offensive talent. For the Lightning, they have the opposite problem, with too many defenseman! Seriously, they’ve now basically committed to this 11 forwards 7 defenseman matchup, double-shifting one of their top three (Killorn, Filpulla, Stamkos at random). That has limited the playing time of Brendan Morrow, who’s a little too slow for the NHL playoffs in 2015 (the Lightning’s version of Timmonen), and maximized the time that one of their top-6 are on the ice. It is an interesting gambit for a really top-heavy team. On the goalie side, both have had moments of insanity, like Crawford getting benched in Round 1, or giving up 9 goals in Gms. 4-5 of the last series, or Bishop’s last three games in Tampa. Bishop’s best has definitely been better though, witness his three shutouts being arguably the three biggest games they’ve played, Game 7 against Detroit, and Game 5 & 7 against the Rangers. Both of these teams are really good. Both of these teams are well coached and won’t get over-hyped or fall apart.

The Matchup: The Blackhawks are going from one challenge to the other. They’re going from playing against a very different type of team, a more physical, larger team like Anaheim, to now a team that can counter the Blackhawks’s greatest strength: team speed. The Hawks are one of the fastest teams. The Lightning are faster. In a weird way, the Lightning are going against arguably a worse opponent. The Rangers are really good. They basically are the Eastern Conference version of the Hawks. They don’t have the starpower that Chicago does (apart from goal), but they have superior depth. The Lightning actually may be relieved to now face a human goalie, after beating Price and Lundqvist in back-to-back series. Crawford is easily a step down. That said, there are a few reasons to pick Chicago that aren’t just ‘they’re battle tested!’. First, the Blackhawks have the defensive ability to neutralize a team like Tampa, that overly relies on their top lines to score. They have a Toews-Hossa duo that can go right up against the Triplets, and then fight fire with fire giving the Kane line against Stamkos. They also have a great set of four defensemen to throw at them as well. The Lightning scored 21 of their 22 goals in the Conference Finals with their top-6 forwards. That needs to change. The Lightning, though, do have the ability to score from depth lines – it just didn’t happen against the Rangers. The Hawks also have a great PK to throw against the Lightning at times dominant powerplay. The Lightning will need big series from their defense, but they’ve done it at times. This really is an even series, and when you put things like team mentality in play, you can start tipping it one way or the other.

The Pick: I’m going with the Lightning in 6 games. Sure, that might be an odd pick when the much more obvious Tampa in 7 is sitting out there, but this series I think the lack of defensive depth will hurt Chicago even more after going through the physical pounding of Anaheim for 7 games. Keith can only do so much. The Lightning are, in reality, equally skilled. They have good defensive forwards. They have multiple lines. They have their best player on a line that will likely not even have to face Toews and Hossa that much (it really is pick your poison for Quenneville). They are healthier, younger, faster, and I honestly think given the lack of defensive depth, better.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The NHL Gives Us a Classic

There’s an interesting little dynamic going on in the parallel playoffs in the NBA and NHL. Last night, for the first time in the NBA Conference Finals, we had a different team win, as the Rockets blew out Golden State to stave off elimination. It is 3-1 now out West, with Game 5 a pretty safe bet for Golden State. It is 3-0 in the East, with a good chance that series ends tonight. It is unfair to say the Western Conference Finals have been uncompetitive – the Rockets played well in each of the first two games, but neither series is likely to go beyond five games. This comes after a NBA playoffs that have given us very few good series – only one great series with the Spurs vs. Clippers first round treasure. Over on the NHL side, it is a little bit different.

Last night, while the Rockets added some intrigue into a listless round, the Ducks and Blackhawks played their second consecutive 5-4 OT game. This time it didn’t go to two OTs (or three OTs as the ‘Hawks are wont to do), but it still provided great drama, greater skill, and a wonderful, bananas ending that the NBA has at times (‘Did you call bank?’… ‘No, I called game!’). The NHL playoffs had a few memorable first round series, and at least one very good second round series (Washington vs. New York), but these two Conference Finals have both been amazing, a sign of the level of parity in the NHL that just is not there right now in basketball. The lack of competitiveness in the NBA made the league consider moving the start of the NBA Finals up. The excess of it in the NHL has allowed us hockey fans to wade in the waters of people openly saying that these playoffs are superior.

I’ll concentrate on the Blackhawks vs. Ducks series because I think that while it has been no more well played than the fantastic Eastern Conference Finals, it has been more dramatic and more representative of a great NHL series. I had high hopes for Blackhawks vs. Ducks heading into the series. These were the two best teams in the Western Conference (apologies to the Blues, who won the Central Division). It is a rare treat in hockey to actually get the two best teams to square off against, and even rarer that when they do they actually bring out the best in each other. We all remember the upsets, the darlings that make deep runs, the goalies that stand on their heads, but generally when those teams make runs they don’t always play in great series (Ducks ’03, Flames ’04, Oilers ’06, Canadiens ’10, Kings ’12). You need two powerhouse teams to meet to have a great series this deep into the playoffs. You need teams that can roll four lines and have enough great players to make up for the ones that get hurt along the way. Both the Ducks and Blackhawks have it, and they’ve shown it.

This series has had so many amazing subplots. First is if the Ducks can get over the hump. This Ducks team may have had the most points in the Western Conference, but by regular season performance this was the weakest Ducks’ team of the last three years. The last two teams had their runs ended in Game 7 losses at home. While those brought up questions about their mental ability to play in the postseason, it also hardened them into the steely team they are today. The Ducks have the talent, and the leadership (their top two guys have won a Cup, lest people forget), but hadn’t had the results. Now they are getting that.

The Blackhawks have the whole dynasty angle. They’ve won twice in the last five years, and made the Conference Finals now 5 times in 7 years. They have a core of seven guys that were on all 5 of those teams (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmersson), which is pretty incredible in today’s NHL). They have an air of calmness and unbeatable-ness that is pretty hard to overlook. They have a composure commensurate with that of a team that has lifted the Cup recently, and probably would be going for a threepeat had they not blown a late lead in Game 7 last year against the Kings. They are, in many ways, the anti-Ducks, which is what makes this series so fascinating.

People thought we were beyond 5-4 games in this NHL. There were many stories earlier in the playoffs about how goal scoring is down, and how the games needed more scoring. Aside from the fact that number of goals and excitement generated are only loosely correlated (see: any number of 2-1 wins this year), it isn’t even true (there was major news made when Tyler Seguin led the NHL in points with just 89 – of course league-wide, more goals were scored this year than last). Still, to have back-to-back games end at 5-4 and come out of thinking that those were fantastic games and not slop-fest just shows how well matched these two teams are. Game 4 was a sign of the Ducks growing up and also a sign of their amazing skill that penetrates that young roster. They turned a 1-3 deficit into a 4-3 lead in literally 37 seconds. Of course that game was also a sign of the Blackhawks resolve to hold onto their place on top of the West, tying the game late and winning their 6th straight multi-OT game. That game was exciting, end-to-end, with tons of shots and posts and great saves and continuous action.

Game 5 was a little slower, and played out in reverse. The Blackhawks did show their mental resolve and skill, but this time that came first, as they clawed back from 0-3 and 2-4 to tie the game with two goals from Jonathan Toews (of course, the captain) to send into OT. This time the Ducks showed how much they’ve grown up by scoring and winning the game, and not letting the fact that they were even playing OT take away from their ultimate goal. Game 5 was another showcase for the Ducks ridiculous skill level, with Cam Fowler (24) scoring a rocket shot, and Sami Vatanen (23) scoring another and setting up a beautiful goal. But it was also a sign of the ways this Ducks team is different – they don’t have to rely on Getlzaf and Perry for everything (just two goals this series), and they have a 2nd center to battle in the West in Ryan Kesler, who is playing Jonathan Toews to a draw.

I really want the Western Conference Finals to go the full 7 games – who wouldn’t when the collective level of play is so incredibly high. Not only is that the natural conclusion for two teams so evenly matched (four one goal games, three that went to OT, and the other was 2-1 midway through the 3rd period), but it would be the best way for either the Hawks to continue to show how special this run has been, or it would be the best way for the Ducks to show that they’re ready to move beyond the failings of the last two years and ride their even more youthful team further. This has been some of the best hockey I’ve seen – if you include the Lightning vs. Rangers series this is probably the best combination of Conference Finals since 2000. I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to only have one series to turn to. I don’t want to lose one of these two amazing teams. The Blackhawks and Ducks have done something so rare: make each other team better. They have contrasting styles, the Hawks with more speed and possession, the Ducks with more physical play and specific skills (shooting – the Ducks have had the top shooting percentage in the league three years running). But those two have combined to not cancel each other out, but supplement each other to create a higher level of intensity.

I like to mention the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals as much as I can. Not only for the obvious reason that it was a series the Devils won on their way to their most recent Stanley Cup, but also because it was similar in that sense. Here you had easily the two best teams in the Eastern Conference (arguably two best in the NHL), with contrasting styles (Senators ridiculous offense, Devils great defense) that matched up perfectly. They played 7-games, only two were anything but great, and Game 7 was a 3-2 nail-biter that ended with a goal with 2:10 to go in the 3rd period. That was a rare series where the top teams made each other better. We had that last year with the Kings and Blackhawks. We are having that again, in both conferences really, but this Western Conference series has been so special, mixing in greatness but also competing legacies, competing storylines, a dash of experienced winning vs. continuous choking, and we have ourselves a true classic.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Cultural Ignorance

Mad Men ended on Sunday. It was about 18 months after Breaking Bad ended. I watched Breaking Bad, every single minute, clinging to my seat as my body filled with tension. I watched Breaking Bad once again just to remember how amazing that ride was. For many people, Mad Men was that show that Breaking Bad was to me, and seeing it end on Sunday Night was that culmination of years of effort watching, thinking and dreaming about that show.

I've never seen Mad Men. Well, that isn't exactly true. I once saw the first 3-4 episodes. I didn't like it. Found it slow, plodding and a little too airy for my taste. Now, this was before I ever watched The Wire (and right after I started watching Breaking Bad), and there is a chance having watched and loved a show that could also accurately be described as slow and plodding, I may enjoy Mad Men before. It was not an enticing experience watching Mad Men. The only reason I thought about continuing because everyone praised that show beyond all others. I still resisted.

I continued to resist as my sister, someone who is generally against those types of shows, watched it and loved it. I continued to resist until today and will continue to do so. It isn't really because I didn't like it the first time: show's shouldn't be defined by their first 3-4 episodes. Now it is because I am quite pleased to be so blisfully unaware of a cultural landmark. There is a certain serene joy in being ignorant about this piece of work that is so omnipresent.

This isn't the first time I've blazed a trail of unawaredness. I have historically been known among my friends as someone who has never watched any of the three Lord of the Rings movies. I've read the Hobbit and not hated it. I have nothing against that genre of movies (or literature), and I readily admit that they are likely very good and likely deserving of the praise heaped upon them. Still, I've never watched them, and I have no intention to watch.

With those movies, it is even more ludicrous given I only have to give three hours of my life three times to finish them - unlike Mad Men, which requires ~50 hours. But that is a miscalculation. It isn't just the time spent watching the movies, it is the time spend debating them, arguing about them, thinking about them. The time I would have to spend reading about them and the characters on Wikipedia to make sure I know what I saw. The time I'll have to invest in watching other things that are by the actors of the movies. Three blocks of three hours can quickly spiral into an unhealthy obsession, one I want to no part of.

To relate this back to sports, I like sports in a very unhealthy way. To better state it, I consume sports in an unhealthy way. It isn't the time spent watching the games, as I usually now have the double screen going and can do other things while watching. It is the time spent reading up on the games, studying the games, listening to podcasts about the games, thinking about last weeks games and next weeks games. The larger problem for me is it is all sports. Football the most, but during the basketball playoffs I'll spend way too much time thinking about NBA, which is generally my 4th sport. This is a problem, and I don't want it extending to other parts of entertainment any more than it needs to.

I know if I watch Mad Men today and I like it, there goes 50 hours in simply watching it (chances are it is NOT the type of show where I can double screen and get anything done), but also hours reading recaps of old episodes, maybe listening to a podcast or 10 about it, and it becomes everything The Wire became to me. This may be the sign of an addictive personality, and it is somewhat, but the first step to overcoming addiction is to admit and accept it. I'll do that and curtail its reach.

Of course there are more whimsical reasons not to engage in this. I do, to some degree, envy people who are oblivious to the NFL, who can live their life not thinking about #DeflateGate, or if Peyton Manning is better than Tom Brady. Those people have what I don't, their sports innocence. I have that with Lord of the Rings, I have that with Mad Men, with The Sopranos, or with Jersey Shore back in the day (that was a big one). I feel the need to hold on to these areas of pop culture where I can revel in the fact that I don't have to spend any time thinking about them.

There are other cases of this cultural blindness to the next big thing, but likely none will be as big as missing out on The Lord of the Rings or Mad Men. Those are two insitutions of 2000s culture and literature in America, and I can walk away knowing that they might as well not have existed to me. It is a heartening brazeness which I approach my ignorance in this matter. It may be driven out of fear of these things consuming my life, but it is a nice fall-back explanation to say that there is joy to be found in not having to care, or not wasting whatever little area of brain is left, to this integral piece of culture.

Friday, May 15, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Finals: Conference Finals Picks

Eastern Conference

(A2) Tampa Bay Lightning  vs  (M1) New York Rangers

State of the Teams: The Lightning are making it this far for the first time in 4 years. That may seem recent, and in a way it is, but it is also an eon ago for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are still there... and that is it. Literally. Two guys remain from a team, a successful team, from four years ago. The Lightning rebuilt their team really quickly, and despite having a slightly worse year this year than last, with a healthy Ben Bishop in the playoffs, they have been able to achieve their destiny. The Lightning are also the highest-scoring team in the NHL. That usually spells doom in the playoffs (the last team to make the Finals with the most goals in the '11 Canucks, before that the '01 Devils), but their offense has played quite well. For the Rangers, they are the first President's Trophy winner to make it this far in a non-lockout season since those '11 Canucks. It took a 2nd straight year overcoming a 1-3 series deficit in the 2nd round to make it. They sleep-walked through the 1st round, but showed amazing fortitude coming back against Washington. The Rangers are on a historic run of playing 14-straight one-goal playoff games, which shows both their strength and also their inability to ever put teams away. They scored goals all season, but for the second straight year their offense has really slowed in the playoffs. Good thing they have the king.

The Matchup: Speed. Both teams have it. Both teams are playing a team that can match that aspect of their game. The Lightning played speedy teams already, but for the Rangers this is a massive step up in terms of the speed they'll face. The Lightning turn their speed into one of the most effective wave attacks I've seen in years, while the Rangers use it to be deadly in the neutral and defensive zone. The Lightning are defnitely playing like the better team, or at least the deeper team. Their top-2 lines have been great, and if Ryan Callahan comes back, that puts Valteri Filpulla on the 3rd line, an amazing sign of center depth. The Rangers have the edge on the blue-line, and probably in goal, though Ben Bishop, for all his shakiness at times, has really good numbers. One edge for the Lightning is they completely outplatyed the Rangers in their 3 regular season meetings, but that doesn't always translate. The Lightning are deeper, younger and healthier, but are they more capable of playing against a team that thrives on winning close games?

The Pick: I'm liking the Lightning, mainly because they have that forward depth that the Rangers haven't really faced. The Lightning also have the speed the Rangers haven't faced. Team speed is the Rangers best strength, aside from Lundqvist, and they might be the slower team top-to-bottom in this series. I don't think it is as simple as that, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a bitch to project anyway.

Lightning in 6

Western Conference Finals

(C3) Chicago Blackhawks  vs  (P1) Anaheim Ducks

The State of the Teams: Just like last year, we have the two true best teams in teh West matched up against each other. Unlike last year, both these two have been dominant in the playoffs so far. The Blackhawks were a trendy pick to be upset by Minnesota, and flew right by them with relative ease. Unlike in the 1st round, where the Hawks seemed a little off when playing on the road, here the Blackhawks somehow played better in Minnesota. For the Ducks, people can criticize the fact that they've played the easiest set of teams, but let's remember they were a really trendy pick to get upset in the 1st round. Let's also remember that while they made history by coming back in the 3rd period three times in the 1st round, they also, against Calgary, won three games by multiple goals, and the one game they lost was when they gave up a late goal to send it into OT. The Ducks brought in Ryan Kesler to let them match up center depth, but the real key for them has been the depth of their blue-line, a flat group of 6 guys that can all play complementary hockey. The Ducks are actually the team with the more stable goalie, though Corey Crawford definitely seems to have put his major issues that surfaced against Nashville behind him. Both teams are very good, and both teams are set up nicely headed into this matchup.

The Matchup: There's no 'speed' key element here. To me, the real key is who wins the battle of 2nd lines. The Ducks have the best pure line in hockey, with Getzlaf and Perry playing at just ridiculous levels, but the Hawks top line has the defensive ability to neutralize them, as Toews and Hossa are to defensive forwards with the Ducks duo is to offense. The 3rd lines are pretty even. The Blackhawks can throw Patrick Sharp out there, but the Cogliano-Palmieir-Thompson line is playing really well and is far faster than a normal 3rd line. The key to me is who wins that 2nd line matchup. The Hawks have more talent there - hello Patrick Kane! - but Brad Richards and Brian Bickell have been really quiet so far. Belesky/Silvferberg/Kesler have not been quiet, not at all. Kesler has been great in the palyoffs, and Belesky woke up against Calgary. That line has the potential to dominate shifts as a group in a way Chicago's doesn't. The Blackhawks have four great defenseman, but losing Michael Roszival hurts as it forces Kimo Timmonen to play far too many minutes for a 40-year old. That could also shift this ever so slightly in the Ducks favor.

The Pick: Last year we saw a truly great Western Conference Final, with the Kings outlasting the Hawks in 7 games. This year could match it, and I think it does. The amount of talent in this series is ridiuclous. The amount of depth is ridiculous. Fredrik Andersen and Corey Crawford are equally good or equally shaky, depending on how you look at it. Both teams have special teams that cancel each other's out (Ducks better PP, Hawks better PK), so I think it really comes down to two small areas the Ducks are better: 2nd line, and defensive depth, and that depth becomes bigger the longer the series goes, and I think it goes a long time.

Ducks in 7

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.