Tuesday, May 30, 2006


World Cup Preview: Group D

Teams: Mexico, Portugal, Iran, Angola.

History: First round exits were all that Mexico had to their name until reaching the quarter-finals in 1970 and 1986, both as the host nation. The Mexicans have fared a little better in recent tournaments, as they have reached the second round the last three go-arounds. But they have lost all three of those elimination games, including a bitter loss the USA in 2002. Thought of by many as power in world soccer, Portugal has actually only qualified for the World Cup three times. They finished third in 1966, and lost in the group stage in 1986 and recently in 2002. Iran has participated twice, with their lone win coming against the USA in 1998. They failed to qualify for 2002, as did Angola who is in the tournament for the first time.

Mexico: The Mexicans are strong from the net out, with goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez and a stout defense which will be anchored by Rafael Marquez. This team often employs the 3-5-2 (defense-midfield-forward) line-up, so they are fully capable of filling the opponents net. There are some question marks in the midfield. Salvador Carmona would normally be the go-to guy, but he will not be present since he has been banned for doping. So the task of moving the ball up to the forwards likely falls to Gonzalo Pineda or possibly the young Mexican-league star Andres Guardado. At forward Jared Borgetti will look to add to his all-time national team scoring lead. There are high expectations for Mexico, especially after drawing an easy group, so the pressure is definately on.

Portugal: Portugal comes to the tournament boasting great balance at all three positions. On the back end they will have Paulo Ferriera and his team-mate from Chelsea, Ricardo Carvalho who is world class. In the midfield they have Costinha to help out the defense and Maniche and Deco to set up the forwards. The Portuguese attack is one of the best at the tournament. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo, Pauleta, and Luis Figo who is still going strong at 33 years old, they scored the most goals in European qualifying. Even back-ups like Nuno Gomes and Helder Postiga are to be respected. The "golden generation" has mostly been replaced, but this team looks as strong as any previous edition, and is a good bet to make it out of the group stage for the first time in 40 years.

Iran: Due to the political landscape right now, some people have called for Iran to be kicked out of the tournament entirely. They wont be, but the hostility could prove to be a distraction that they definately do not need if they are to challenge Portugal and Mexico. Iran's biggest advantage is familiarity. Many of their players play professionally in the German Bundesliga and should feel right at home. One of those players is midfielder Ali Karimi, the Iranians most talented weapon. They are also strong in goal, but the defense could be their downfall with only Yahya Golmohammadi being a veteran fixture. Iran will be in tough to make the knock-out round, but the two favoured teams would be foolish to overlook them.

Angola: This team qualified out of Africa after upsetting Nigeria. They are a rag-tag bunch, with most of their players coming from the Portuguese second division. This is a team devoid of any big-name players. Instead they rely on all eleven men putting in a good effort to achieve victory. Angola beat the odds by simply making it to Germany, but will look to at least be competitve. Expect thier best effort to come in the opener against Portugal. Of course, Angola was once a Portuguese colony, which has fuelled a rivalry between the two. A not-so-friendly once had to be called off in the second half after several Angolans were red carded for vicious tackles.

Match to Watch: Portugal v Mexico, June 21. This could be anticlimactic if both sides have already secured spots in the next round, but it is clearly the match that should see the most talent and excitment generated in what could be a dull group.

Prediction: 1) Portugal, 2) Mexico, 3) Iran, 4) Angola. Portugal and Mexico strikers will light up the suspect defenses that they face on Iran and Angola. Iran could be capable of the upset, but the top two will be determined to make up for disappointing finishes in past tournaments. Whoever advances has to play the Group C qualifiers in the next round, so their joy might be short-lived.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Upsets in the Final

With the Stanley Cup Final almost upon us, I thought I'd have a look at some of the biggest upsets to occur in the final round. As it turns out, upsets are few and far between when it comes down to the last series, but there are still a few to speak of.

1995: New Jersey 4, Detroit 0. After years of good regular seasons followed by early playoff exits, Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings finally got over the hump and reached the final. Their opponents were the trapping New Jersey Devils. Detroit had breezed their way through both the regular season (33-11-4) and the playoffs, with only two losses after the first three rounds. Paul Coffey, Sergei Fedorov, Dino Ciccarella, Keith Primeau, and Ray Sheppard all had suberb seasons, while Yzerman was below his usual standard, but still bagged 38 points in 47 games. The Devils meanwhile, had a pedestrian regular season and only finished 5th in the East. They upset Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to reach the final where it was expected their run would come to an end. But that was certainly not the case as the Devils blasted Detroit, outscoring them 16-7 in the sweep, forcing long-suffering Wings fans to wait another two years for the Stanley Cup.

1938: Chicago 3, Toronto 1. This year’s edition of the Blackhawks remains the “worst” team ever to capture the Cup. They slogged through the regular season, winning only 14 out of 48 games, yet their 14-25-9 record was good enough for a playoff berth. The head-scratching playoff format saw them play the Canadiens, themselves only one game above .500, in round one. Chicago dropped game one of the best of three, but fought back to win the series 2-1 on an overtime goal in the decisive match. Round two pitted them against the New York Americans, also only a single game above .500 for the year. The Blackhawks again lost game one, but won the series 2-1. The final was a best of five affair and saw Chicago take on the Maple Leafs, who had lost in the final in both 1935 and 1936. The Leafs must have thought they could easily break the jinx against such an easy opponent, but it was not to be. Chicago took the opener 3-1, though Toronto rebounded with a 5-1 victory to tie the series heading to the Windy City. In Chicago, goaltender Mike Karakas held Leafs snipers Syl Apps and Gordie Drillon at bay to lead the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup after 2-1 and 4-1 triumphs.

1930: Montreal 2, Boston 0. In what turned out to be an ominous foreshadowing of the decades to come, the Canadiens stunned the Bruins in the best-of-three final, in which is surely the biggest upset the final has ever witnessed. The Bruins had arguably the greatest regular season in history, going 38-5-1 to finish in first place by an astounding margin. Led by Tiny Thompson's goaltending, Eddie Shore's defense, and 40 goal outputs (in just 44 games) by both Cooney Weiland and Dit Clapper the Bruins allowed the fewest goals and scored far more than anybody else. Montreal was a respectable club at 21-14-9 with all-star Howie Morenz, but nowhere near the level of their American rivals. The playoff format in 1930 was rather strange. Boston defeated the other Montreal team, the Maroons, 3 games to 1 to reach the final directly. The Canadiens needed two rounds to reach the last stage, but went 4-0 en route to the final. Heavily favoured they were, but nonetheless Boston dropped two quick games 3-0 and 4-3 to lose the Cup.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Oilers Return to Final

For the first time since 1990 the Edmonton Oilers have advanced to the Stanley Cup final. They defeated the Mighty Ducks in five games {somebody predicted such...see previous articles :)} and will play either Buffalo or Carolina for the Stanley Cup. At times throughout the series the Oilers were under the seige of Ducks attackers, but in the end the superb goalkeeping of Dwayne Roloson and the opportunism of Oiler scorers was enough to pull out the win.

With the victory the Oilers become the first #8 seed to make it to the final, though this can't exactly be described as a fluke like we've witnessed in past years. Most other "cinderella" teams rellied on stifling defensive systems to grind out games 2-1 and hoped their goaltender stole the series for them. The Oilers have implemented defensive systems, and Roloson has been Conn Smythe worthy, but they have generally managed to play the same type of game that they used in the regular season. Scoring depth has been a catalyst for success, as Edmonton usually "plays to win" by outscoring the opponent, unlike recent finialists Calgary ('04), and Anaheim ('03), who played "not to lose" by implementing the trap.

That being said, I'm not one of the people who complains about teams using the trap to win and about the fact that they're not being entertained. The coaches job is to win games, not entertain the other team's fans. His own fans are entertained by winning, not losing 6-5. The bottom line is win however possible. But the neutral observer should at least be pleased by the fact that Edmonton plays a more exciting brand of hockey.

Speaking of those past finalists, the '02 Red Wings were the last team seeded higher than #6 to represent the west in the final. Home ice advantage seems to have become far less important than it used to be. Anaheim in'03 as the #7 seed went 6-1 on the road to get to the final, while #6 seed Calgary went 8-2 in their three conference rounds. Edmonton went 6-3 as the visitor.

Friday, May 26, 2006


World Cup Preview: Group C

Group C: Argentina, Netherlands, Serbia & Montenegro, Ivory Coast

History: The Diego Maradona era was clearly Argentina's best. They were champions in their own country in 1978 (sans Maradona, a late cut) and again in Mexico '86. They nearly won for a third time in four tries in 1990, but lost the final to West Germany in a re-match of 1986 on Andreas Brehme's '85 minute penalty conversion. They have had several other respecable showings, and lost the first ever World Cup final to Uruguay in 1930. 2002 saw Argentina upset in the group stage. Surprisingly, the Netherlands have qualified for the tournament very few times in their history. But they have made good on their limited appearances, reaching back-to-back finals in 1974 and 1978, though they lost them both. After climbing the ladder in the 1990s, capped by a 4th place finish at France '98, they failed to qualify for 2002. Serbia & Montenegro is making thier first appearance (they were part of Yugoslavia in previous World Cups), as is the Ivory Coast.

Argentina: This perenial powerhouse will be looking to make up for a group stage ouster at Korea/Japan 2002. They drew a tough group then, and have done the same again, but expectations are sky-high nonetheless. The defense is solid with Roberto Ayala as it's anchor, along with captain Juan Sorin. The midfield is home to superb playmaker Juan Riquelme, who will need to perform well if Argentina is to be successful. Up front they have 18 year old sensation Lionel Messi who burst onto the scene this year with Barcelona. The one glaring weakness might be between the sticks, where Argentina has turned to Boca Juniors keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri to keep balls out of the net. The pressure is on, for another first round exit would be a national embarassment.

Netherlands: New coach Marco van Basten has greatly revamped the squad that went out in the semi-final of Euro 2004. Mainstays like Kluivert, Seedorf, and Davids have been replaced by younger, more team-oriented players. The Dutch are loaded at forward with Ruud van Nistelrooij and Arjen Robben. Dirk Kuijt and Robin van Persie provide more than adequate support. The midfield also appears capable with veteran Philip Cocu to provide leadership. The defense is largely untested, with only Giovanni von Bronckhorst having significant experience, but they only conceded three goals in qualifying. That though, is largely due to the all-world goaltending of the ageless Edwin van der Sar, who at 35 is still one of the top keepers in the world. If they continue their strong team play, the Dutch will be a force to be reckoned with.

Serbia & Montenegro: This is a team built around thier world class defense. They recorded shutouts in nine of ten qualifiers to finish atop a group that included Spain. The "Big 4" backs, the most notable being Manchester United's Nimanja Vidic, only drawback is thier on the edge style that sometimes gets them booked to often. In fact, Vidic will sit out the opener after being sent off in the final qualifying match. Inter Milan's Dejan Stankovic will lead a workmanlike midfield, while Mateja Kezman and Savo Milosevic will be counted on up front. This defense-first squad is similar to the Greek team that won Euro 2004, and might very well be the darkhorse of this tournament.

Ivory Coast: The group draw was most unkind to the Ivory Coast, probably Africa's strongest entrant. If they were to switch places with fellow African squads such as Angola (Group D), or Togo (Group G) they would have a decent shot at advancing . As it stands they are underdogs, but that will not deter them. Any success will likely start and end with Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, one of the world's best. There is talent in the midfield, but chemistry has been an issue. Defense is also a question mark with only Kolo Toure considered a world class man-marker. In the net Jean-Jacques Tizie provides a reliable backstop. Ivory Coast looked to be the African team with the best chance at making a deep run in the tournament like Senegal in 2002, but they could be in over thier heads in this group.

Match to Watch: Argentina v Netherlands, June 21. Two highly skilled teams do battle in the last group match. Though they are the favorites, they have two other quality opponents in thier pool, so dont be surprised if the loser of this match is going home tremendously disappointed.

Prediction: 1) Netherlands, 2) Serbia and Montenegro, 3) Argentina, 4) Ivory Coast. That's right, I've picked Argentina to again be upset. Netherlands' superior forwards and goaltending will put them atop the group, followed by my darkhorse pick of the tournament Serbia and Montenegro. Ivory Coast is easily the best 4th place team at the tournament, but that is little consolation after their hard fought effort comes up short.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


World Cup Preview: Group B

Group B: England, Sweden, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago

History: Since winning the championship at home in 1966, England has had little to celebrate. Mainly, they have been the victims of numerous quarter-final and second round exits. They nearly made it back to the final in 1990, but lost to long-time nemesis (West) Germany in a penalty shootout in the semi-final. In 2002 the English were dismissed by Brazil in the quarter-final. Sweden fielded quality squads in the earlier half of the century, making it all the way to the final when they played host in 1958, where Brazil defeated them. Successes were few from that time on until a third place finish in 1994. The most recent World Cup was going smoothly for the Swedes until a 2nd round upset at the hands of Senegal, when Henri Camara scored a golden goal. Paraguay has advanced to the second round in each of the last two tournaments, losing 1-0 to both France in 1998, and Germany in 2002. Apart from that, Paraguay has failed to qualify for the final tournament the majority of the time. Trinidad & Tobago will participate in their first World Cup, perhaps the most surprising of all the qualifiers.

England: The English have many times arrived at the World Cup full of hope and expectations, only to bow out early. They hoped that it would all change this year with striker Wayne Rooney leading the way. But Rooney injured his foot late in the Premiership season, and it was feared his World Cup, and England's chance for victory, may have been ended. But he appears to be recuperating faster than expected, and could even be on the field June 10th when England plays their first match. He will surely have to be present later if not sooner, if England hopes to go far in the tournament. England is stacked in the midfield with the world class Steven Gerrard in top form, accompanied by Frank Lampard and David Beckham who is looking to finally perform as he is capable on the world stage. Chelsea man John Terry will anchor the back four for Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad. The pieces are in place for a deep run in Germany, but only if Rooney can quickly regain his form.

Sweden: This is a team that comes to Germany solid at all positions, and has the ability to go as far as their "big three", they being Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovich up front and Fredrik Ljunberg in the midfield, will take them. Sweden has consistently performed better and better since not qualifying for France '98, and this could be their best opportunity to make it back to the semi-final, where they lost in 1994. Sweden typically plays an attack-oriented style, meaning scoring machine Ibrahimovich could run wild if opponents give him the opportunity. The defense may not be as strong as manager Lars Langerback would prefer, but it will still be servicable with veterans Olof Mellberg and Teddy Lucic. This will surely be Larsson's last World Cup; he would love to go out the way he came in back at USA '94.

Paraguay: Many people will concede this group to England and Sweden, but Paraguay should not be overlooked. The South Americans have quietly made it out of the group stage in the last two World Cups, and there is no reason to expect them to not provide stiff competition this time around. Their squad represents a nice mix of veterans, like Denis Caniza and Carlos Gamarra on defence, and Jose Cardozo up front. In total, eleven players named to the team have been to at least one World Cup. Bayern Munich attacker Roque Santa Cruz should feel at home in Germany, and will be called upon to provide scoring for Paraguay. Underdogs they may be, but dont be surprised if Paraguay unseats England or Sweden to advance.

Trinidad & Tobago: These guys will be the biggest long-shot in the entire tournament, but coach Leo Beenhakker doesn't expect his squad to just roll over and die. T & T scored a victory over Mexico in qualifiers, so they are capable beating one of the big boys if they play flawless football. The most noteworthy playmaker is 37 year old Dwight Yorke. If T & T's defenders all bring their "A" game to the pitch they have the ability to subdue attackers and keep games close, but that is a big "if". We've seen upsets in the past, but T & T advancing to the elimination round would truly be the biggest of them all.

Match to Watch: England v Sweden, June 20th. Sweden has had England's number whenever these two sides meet up, unbeaten in their last ten fixtures against them. If all goes according to plan, the winner of this game should win the group. But should Paraguay gain a result against either squad leading up to this final group-stage match, implications could be much greater.

Prediction: 1) England, 2) Sweden, 3) Paraguay, 4) Trinidad & Tobago. Games will be played tightly with England coming out a narrow winner. Paraguay comes close, but Sweden just barely edges them out for second spot. The fact that the tournament is taking place in Europe gives the European teams the advantage. T & T scores a goal and the tiny country goes wild.

Monday, May 22, 2006


World Cup Preview: Group A

In the coming two weeks leading up to the World Cup, the world's largest sporting event, I will preview the tournament with a look at each group, "A" through "H". This is the first installment.

The World Cup will kick-off on June 9th in Germany with 32 teams fighting for the right to be crowned as the world champions. This year, like in many others, the squad from Brazil will be the team to beat. As usual they will have plenty of stiff competition from the likes of South American rival Argentina, as well as traditional European powers like Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, and the Netherlands. Not to mention the usual dark-horse teams, and there are several that are more than capable of an upset.

For the most part, the usual European suspects were able to qualify. Euro 2004 Champion Greece, as well as 2002 3rd place finishers Turkey, and Denmark, were the most notable ommisions. Incidently, all three of those nations were in the same qualification group, which was won by Ukraine who is making their first appearance at the World Cup. It was pretty much business as usual in Asia as well. In South America, Uruguay was edged out in a play-off with Oceania winner Australia. Most of the upsets occured in Africa. 2002 upset specialists Senegal missed out, 2010 host South Africa didn't make it, nor did traditional African powers Nigeria and Cameroon. In place of them, we have Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Angola all making their first appearances, while three-time participant Tunisia rounds out the African squads. Perhaps the biggest underdog in the entire tournament will be Trinidad and Tobago, who has made it to the final 32 for the first time.

Group A: Germany, Poland, Costa Rica, Ecuador

History: The host Germans have won the tournament three times (1954, 1974, 1990). They have made it to the final game four other times, including the last time around in 2002. Not since 1938 has Germany failed to advance out of the first stage. Poland has managed a pair of 3rd place finishes (1974, 1982), and were eliminated in the group stage in 2002. Costa Rica's best showing was a 2nd round defeat in 1990; their only appearance besides a group stage elimination in 2002. Ecuador is in their second World Cup, the first being four years ago where they managed one victory in the opening round.

Germany: The traditionally strong Germans will send one of their weakest squads ever to the World Cup, but the fact that it is being played on home soil means they can never be counted out. In the 2002 tournament they rode hot goalkeeper Oliver Kahn all the way to an unlikely appearance in the final, afterall. It will be Jens Lehmann between the sticks this time around with Kahn his back-up. On the back-line it will mainly be up to Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder to hold the fort, while up front the Germans will hope Miroslav Klose rediscovers his scoring touch from 2002. But it is the midfield that will be the key, with fiery Michael Ballack, one of the world's best, leading the way. The pressure will be on for a team with many question marks. Anything less than a quarter-final appearance on home field has to be considered a disaster.

Poland: The Poles enjoyed a strong qualifying campaign, which brings hopes that they will make up for a quick exit it 2002 with a stronger perforamance. This Polish squad lacks any big name stars, and will rely on Wolverhampton's Tomasz Frankowski and Maciej Zurawski of Scottish champion Celtic to score goals, just like they did in quaification. Not an overly strong squad, at least not compared to the legendary Polish teams of the 1970s, the group draw was kind to them, and thus they have a good chance to advance to the round of 16.

Costa Rica: If this was the Costa Rican team that nearly stunned Turkey at the last World Cup, they would have a legitimate chance to advance from this group. But unfortunately, four years have passed and many of their key players are on the back end of their careers. What this does give them is experience in the form of defender Luis Marin, midfielder Mauricio Solis, and one time goal scoring maching Paulo Wanchope. They open the tournament against the host team, and a result in that match would give them a big jolt of momentum.

Ecuador: This tiny South American nation continues to impress, qualifying ahead of the likes of Uruguay, Colombia, and Peru, though many credit their success to the high altitude of their country, which gives them a greater advantage over visiting squads. Like Costa Rica, they will be underdogs, but are an experienced bunch. Agustin Delgado is the most recognizable name as he is Ecuador's all time leading goal scorer. This team did knock off favorites Argentina and Brazil in qualifying, so take them lightly at your own risk.

Match to Watch: Poland v Ecuador, June 9th. Played on the opening day, this might be the make-or-break game for each side. Poland will be favoured, but not so much that an Ecuador win would be any great surprise. The winner will be well on their way to qualifying for the knock-out stage, while the loser will likely be faced with the prospect of needing a win over Germany to advance.

Prediction: 1) Germany, 2) Poland, 3) Ecuador, 4) Costa Rica. Despite their short-comings, Germany will not be upset on home soil, especially in one of the weaker groups. Ecuador will give Poland a scare, but the European side will hold them off and advance.


King Dethroned in Game 7

"King James" as LeBron is often refered to by Cleveland Cavalier fans, will have to wait at least one more season for his team to become lords of the basketball world. The two-time defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons smothered the Cavaliers and their young all-star in game 7 on Sunday, holding the visitors to just 61 points in a 78-61 victory. Cleveland had two chances to upset the Pistons after taking a 3-2 lead in games, but maybe the Michael Jordan-LeBron James comparisons were just a little too early. But that is not to say James was the reason for Cleveland coming up short, as some have suggested. He still managed nearly half of his team's meagre point total, racking up a game-leading 27, while recording eight rebounds, second only to the Pistons' Ben Wallace. In fact, Larry Hughes was the only one of James' team-mates to even show up. No other Cleveland starter even managed a single assist, while combining for a pathetic 16 points overall. In fact, if it were not for James' strong play, Cleveland would have been embarassed much worse. So anybody who criticizes the MVP candidate for his team gassing a chance to put away the top seeded Pistons needs to wake up and be grateful that James carried the over-matched Cavaliers as far as he did. As they say in sport, just wait until next year.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Conference Finals Preview

The Eastern and Western Conference finals are about to begin, with Edmonton and Anaheim dropping the puck on Friday, while Buffalo and Carolina get together on Saturday. Nobody could have predicted that these four teams, who all missed the playoffs in 2003-04, would be meeting for the right to play for the Stanley Cup. This is a strong sign that the league is perhaps as competitive as it has ever been and that any club has a chance to win it all in any given year.

Carolina vs Buffalo

Past history: These old Adams division rivals (going back to Carolina's days as the Hartford Whalers) have surprisingly never met each other in the playoffs. The Hurricanes have only made it as far as round three once in thier 26 seasons in the NHL, in 2002 when they defeated Toronto four games to two before losing the Detroit in the final. Buffalo has made it to the semi-final/conference final four times, winning twice. The most recent was a victory in 1999, also over the Maple Leafs. They would lose to Dallas in the final on Brett Hull's infamous "foot in the crease" goal.

Up front: The Sabres have gotten this far based on their ability to roll four lines consistently. Buffalo has gotten big goals from many different forwards all through the playoffs. All four of Buffalo's centermen have at least ten points, so it will be difficult for the Hurricanes checkers to key on one line. Carolina is also deep at the forward position, but have rellied a little more heavily on Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour (who also doubles as a superb checking center) to carry the offensive load.

Defensively: Two unheralded defense corps, who some beleived would be these two teams' undoings, go up against each other. As they have in the past, Carolina may elect to dress seven d-men, Oleg Tverdovsky being the seventh, in an effort to spread minutes around. There is no single stud defenseman, but rather a dependable group of veterns. Buffalo's blueline is also devoid of any stars, but like the Hurricanes, depends on consistent play from all six members. The Sabres do boast a little more offensive punch in the form of Henrik Tallinder, and Brian Campbell, though the latter has been a little quiet on the scoresheet to this point.

In net: Cam Ward rescued the 'Canes in round one, and aside from one bad outing against the Devils, has performed soundly, as his 8-1 record as a starter would suggest. Ryan Miller shut down Ottawa's big guns and comes into the series playing his best hockey yet.

Prediction: An extremely close call, but Carolina's game-breaker (Staal) and veteran savvy might just be enough for them to squeek past a determined Sabres squad. Hurricanes in 7. (Interesting fact: The Hurricanes/Whalers franchise has never won a game 7. They are 0-3 all-time is such contests, the last being a loss to Montreal in 1992)

Anaheim vs Edmonton

Past history: These two clubs are meeting for the first time in post-season play. The Ducks' only appearance in the conference final was in 2003 when they swept Minnesota before losing to New Jersey in a seven game final. Edmonton has ventured this deep into the playoffs eight times, but not since 1992, when they lost to Chicago.

Up front: In what is becoming a theme in these playoffs, both teams can comfortably play four lines. Youngsters Joffrey Lupul, Chris Kunitz, and Dustin Penner have performed admirably in their first playoff run, while Teemu Selanne has continued his resurgent play, and shut-down pivot Todd Marchant is a +10 while chipping in eight points. On the Edmonton side, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth are averaging over a point per game, but like the Ducks, the Oilers have been able to score by commitee, including a seven goal output by unsung Fernando Pisani.

Defensively: A head-to-head battle between Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer looms. Both reargaurds have anchored thier teams' bluelines both in their own end and offensively. The Oiler's have gotten more offence from their defense as a whole, while also keeping the puck out of thier own net. They are also tremendous shot blockers. While Anaheim's sturdy defenders are certainly no slouches, this may be the lone area where one team has a noticeable advantage.

Goaltending: Ilya Bryzgalov took over for the injured J.S. Giguere in round one and only proceded to post three consecutive shutouts. He is on fire, playing very similar to the way Giguere did in Anaheim's '03 run. If he should suddenly falter, he has a Conn Smythe winner backing him up as insurance. In the Oilers cage, Dwayne Roloson is playing the best hockey of his career at precisely the right time, giving his team the goaltending they lacked all year until his mid-March arrival.

Prediction: The Oilers come in with momentum, and while the Ducks have won six straight contests, they have not played for a week and may show rust. The Oilers are in the unfamiliar position of having more key veteran leaders than their opponent, plus the Stanley Cup rings possesed by their coaching staff. That, along with a more well rounded defense will give them the advantage. Oilers in 5. (Interesting fact: The Oilers swept the Ducks 4-0 in the season series, and you have to go back to 1998 to find the last time Anaheim won in Edmonton)

Monday, May 15, 2006


Pack your bags, Senators

Your golf bags that is. With the Buffalo Sabres' 3-2 overtime victory on Saturday night, the Ottawa Senators will be hitting the links prematurely yet again. This year more than ever seemed like it would be the year the team in Canada's capital city would finally face down the demons of springs past and at least play for, if not win, the Stanley Cup. After breezing through a regular season that saw them score the most goals and allow the fewest against, one in which they boasted an incredible starting five of Heatley, Spezza, Alfredsson, Redden, and Chara, their cup dream came crashing down in just the second round. This leaves everyone wondering just what went wrong, and this time around the answer might be above the ice, rather than on it.

Like past years, many people are pointing between the pipes. Patrick Lalime was dumped in favor of Dominik Hasek during the summer of 2004. After the lockout, Hasek had played a grand total of 14 NHL games in the three years following his Stanley Cup triumph with Detroit in 2002. He was now in his 40s and he had always been prone to injury. But Ottawa GM John Muckler took a gamble on his former Buffalo stopper, a gamble which looked like it just might pay off until the Olympic break.Hasek injured a muscle while playing for the Czech Republic entry, in what very well could have been his last game, period. This left goaltending duties to untested Ray Emery, who played good enough to give Ottawa a chance, but only if they continued to score at an above average rate. They didn't. After a six goal outburst in a losing cause in game one, the Sens only managed seven in the following four contests, three of those one-goal losses. Strike one, Muckler.

Some observers will also look at Muckler's choice of coach. Bryan Murray was brought in to replace the robotic defensive guru Jacques Martin. This was hailed as a great move all through the land, but did anybody stop to take a look at Murray's past history? Much like Ottawa, the mid to late 80s version of the Bryan Murray-coached Washington Capitals put together strong regular seasons with Mike Gartner and Scott Stevens leading the way, only to come up short in the post-season time and again. While goaltending woes were certainly a contributing factor to many early exits, it can't be ignored that the Caps only finally made it past the second round the same year Murray was replaced by his brother, Terry. After their worst regular season in several years, oddly enough. So it was on to Detroit for Murray where his teams again wasted 40+ win regular seasons with early round upsettings. A coach with a track record of choking in the playoffs matched up with a team of similar reputation was hardly a formula for finally getting over the hump. Strike two, Muckler.

If Ottawa did have any weakness, it was at the center position. Mike Fisher is one of the best third line centers in the game, but the problem is he was plugged into the number two role, sometimes platooning with Bryan Smolinski. With the dynamic, but green Jason Spezza as the number one pivot, Ottawa lacked the one-two punch at center that most championship teams traditionally have. Muckler's answer to this problem was to go get Tyler Arnason. The fact that the wouful Blackhawks couldn't have been happier to get rid of him speaks volumes. Sure enough, the troubled Arnason was a healthy scratch for Ottawa's final two games. While the crop of available help upfront wasn't great, Doug Weight was available for a price; a price that many Senators fans would gladly pay now.

Strike three, Muckler. You're out.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Spring surprises on the Diamond

Well, we're now a month and a half into baseball season, and as usual there is an early season surprise team. You know, that team that everyone expects to stink, but they explode out of the gate and hold first place for a month or two or even three, but then fade off into oblivion (see last year's Orioles). Or the opposite, that high priced squad that hits the skids in April, but inevitably claws back into contention (see last year's Yankees). This year, however, there seems to be an unusually large number of these teams, lending hope to the possibility that maybe, just maybe one of these clubs (almost always a small-market team) can hold it together, or continue to struggle.

In the American League, the Detroit Tigers seem to have a new and improved attitude under new skipper Jim Leyland. It has been reflected to this point in their 22-13 record. Losing no longer seems to be an accepted practice in Motown. Kenny Rogers has lead the solid start of an unheralded pitching staff, while largely unknown Chris Shelton has belted out ten dingers. (He had eighteen all of last year)

Staying in the AL Central we have witnessed the early struggles of the Cleveland Indians, a team some people were picking for the World Series. Starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia hurt himself in the season opener and has only recently returned to the rotation. The rest of the staff has been very mediocre and is the main reason why the Indians' record is just that.

Heading west, we see the Angels, another pre-season favorite sitting at 15-20 and not showing any signs of improvement. A couple good weeks could easily have them back on top of the division, but Vladimir Guerrero is eventually going to need some help if the Angels are going to turn it around.

Switching over to the senior circuit, we see the Cincinnati Reds, tagged for last place by many, sitting atop a very competitive NL Central. The Reds were expected to be hampered by their unimpressive pitching, but the two guys expected to be the bright spots have been all that and more. Aaron Harang and pre-season pick-up Bronson Arroyo are a combined 10-2, averaging around 6 strike-outs per start. Arroyo even has a pair of homeruns to boot. The continued fortunes of Cincinnati look to rest upon their arms.

Everyone expected the NL west to be close because none of its teams were/are all that great. What people didn't expect to see was the Colorado Rockies sitting atop this turtle derby. The Rockies have six regulars batting over .300, while their patch-work rotation has largely kept things under control at the launch pad that is Coors Field. Closer Brian Fuentes has converted eight of nine save opportunities. It probably isn't going to take any more than 85 wins to capture this division, so it wouldn't be inconceivable to say the Rockies only need to keep up their slightly above average pace to plod their way to first place.

It's still early on, but here's hoping that at least one of these teams makes a serious run so we can start talking about something other than Barry Bonds' tainted chase of Babe Ruth's homerun total.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Second Round, Second Chance?

The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was expected to be an interesting, entertaining, and exciting two weeks. But while most individual games have been just that, results have been one sided on the final scoreboard. In the Eastern Conference seeds one through four advanced, while five through eight did so in the west, bringing on predictions of closely contested, down-to-the-wire series'. However, the Sabres stunned Ottawa by jumping to a 3-0 series lead before dropping game four tonight in Buffalo. New Jersey's 15 game winning streak is but a distant memory as they find themselves in the hole 3-0 versus Carolina. Ilya Bryzgalov shut down the Avalanche in games one and two, while Joffrey Lupul's four goal outburst put the Ducks up 3-0 as well. At least Shawn Horcoff's goal for the Oilers in triple OT made their series interesting, as the Sharks only hold a 2-1 advantage.

So why all the lopsided standings? Well, it's an old cliche, but the answer can largely be attributed to who's getting the bounces at crucial times. Looking at the Sens-Sabres matchup, we see that all four games have been decided by one goal. Buffalo twice had to tie game one in the final two minutes to win in OT, while game 3 was also decided in extra time. After Carolina blasted the Devils in the opener, they came up with a pair of 3-2 victories. Though the 'Canes dominated the better part of game 2, they need a last-second marker to get to OT after the Devils thought they had stolen the game with a late goal of their own. All games in the Edmonton- San Jose series have been one goal affairs. Anaheim took advantage of a Colorado defensive breakdown to grab a 3-0 lead with their OT win in Denver.

You can always use "what-ifs?" to show how something could have ended differently, but in this year's conference semi-finals you seem to be able to apply them more than ever. But we all know that luck and momentum are prone to changing sides at any time, which begs the question: Is there any chance we could see a team rebound from 3-0 down to steal a series?

Ottawa got off on the right foot with a narrow victory in Buffalo after the Sabres missed two glorious chances to tie the game late (two chances we saw them bury in game one). The Sens are, afterall, the number one seed, and would have two if the final three games at home should they stage a comeback. We saw three close games go Buffalo's way, so there's no reason to believe the same thing can't happen the other way around.

The Devils were rolling along, while Carolina never quite seemed comfortable in the first round, despite winning their last four games against Montreal. Now the opposite is true, but if Carolina falls asleep again and Jersey turns it back on we could have a series on our hands.

In the first round Colorado got some unlikely goals and fortuitous game-winners against the Stars, but have not been so lucky against Anaheim. But as always, chance is subject to change.

So will we see any historic comebacks this time next week? History says no (only the '42 Maple Leafs and '75 Islanders have managed the feat), but like the Red Sox showed us in 2004, it can be done, so don't take anything for granted just yet, especially with all the suprises we've seen this season.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006



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