Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Some Musings...

-So Chris Pronger is heading out of Edmonton. Naturally, Toronto is rumored destination. But this time the supposed offer was Pronger for Kaberle and Steen, which wouldn't be too bad of a deal for the Oilers (they can probably get more though). A nice change from the usual Leaf rumored trades, I suspected we'd be hearing about how Lowe was about to acquire Aki Berg and Nik Antropov for Pronger, but the Oilers might have to throw in Ryan Smyth to close things out.

-Interleague play in MLB is really becoming a sham. The American League has now pummelled the National League for two weeks. For proof, look no further than the standings. In the AL, the Red Sox have won ten straight, the top three teams in the Central Division are all 9-1 in their last ten games, and even bottom feeder Kansas City has somehow won eight of ten. Over in the senior circuit, almost every team is mired in a slump. The Pirates have lost 12 in a row, tying a franchise record that dates back to 1890, while even the mighty Cardinals, arguably the NL's best team has lost eight consecutively. Instead of using the all-star game to determine home-field advantage for the World Series, just give it to the NL in hopes that we might avoid a third consecutive WS sweep for the AL team.

-So far it has been a bit of a strange World Cup. Most of the usual suspects are into the quarter-finals, but how they got there is the odd part. Ukraine knocked off the Swiss in a shoot-out after a 0-0 draw. That meant that, incredibly, Switzerland were eliminated without having conceded a single goal in the entire tournament (the goals against them in the shoot-out dont count statistically). Switzerland recorded a pair of 2-0 wins and a scoreless draw in the group stage. Not surprisingly, this is a tournament first. France will play Brazil in a rematch of the 1998 Final. The French got their by defeating favoured Spain 3-1. Once again the Spanish breezed through the preliminary round only to be inexplicably dismissed, this time by a French team that looked old, slow and out of sorts up until their match with their European rivals. Brazil meanwhile, has hardly been impressive. Their 3-0 win over Ghana to reach the final eight was more than flattering. If Ghana had shown some more finish around the Brazilian net, the South Americans could easily be on their way home. As could the Italians, set to play Ukraine, who were thoroughly outplayed by Australia. But the Aussies just couldn't bury any of their chances and that allowed the Azzuri to steal victory with a controversial penalty kick in the final minute. England will take on Portugal looking for revenge from Euro 2004 quarter-final where the Brits lost in a shoot-out. The Portuguese will come in minus at least a couple regulars due to suspensions and injuries accrued in their violent match against Holland, which set a WC record for most red and yellow cards. The English must be licking their chops, but keep in mind that they have stumbled their way into the quarters. They have yet to be outplayed by any opponents, but that is in no way due to strong play on their part. And that leaves Germany versus Argentina. This is the clearly the only match-up where both teams have been firing on all cylinders since their opening games. But ironically, one of them is going home earlier than they would have liked just because of the way the match-ups have worked out.

-The arms race is well underway in the Northwest Division, even before free agency begins. Vancouver unloaded problematic Todd Bertuzzi for Roberto Luongo. At first this may appear to be a steal for the Canucks, but keep in mind that Luongo may only be on the wet coast for one year, since he is unrestricted after the upcoming season, and has already acknowledged he will test the market. Perhaps the mountain air in Denver is getting to Pierre Lacroix. It was inevitable that he would have to trade somebody to stay under the salary cap, but you have to question his decision to deal away Alex Tanguay, who will be a star for many years to come. Furthermore, in doing so he strengthened division rival Calgary. Shocking news out of Minnesota: The Wild may actually spend above the minimum possible payroll after acquiring Pavol Demitra from the Kings. The fans in Minny have packed the building every night for five years, and it looks like they were finally repayed by ownership. Not a great time for the Oilers to be forced to trade their best player, but at least Pronger's value is extremely high after an exceptional season and playoffs.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Game 7

In all of sport there may be nothing more exciting "Game 7", no matter what sport it is. But it's made that much better when the series could go down as an all-time classic. Edmonton and Carolina have provided just that. There was the thrilling 3-0 comeback by the Hurricanes in game one, capped off by an unlikely goal in the final minute. The Oilers lost their starting goaltender in that game, and I've been unable to discover an instace in which a team's MVP goalie has gone down permanently in the final. Chris Pronger of all people, scored the first penalty shot goal in finals history in that game as well. Things looked grim for the replacement Markkanen after a 5-0 shellacking in game 2, but he has rebounded nicely. Game 3 saw Ryan Smyth give the Oilers hope with the winner in a 2-1 nailbiter, but that hope was all but lost after his side fell by that same score next time out. But Edmonton wouldn't give in. After Raffi Torres put both Aaron Ward and Doug Weight out of the game with big body checks, the Hurricanes had a chance to win the Cup in OT after they were given a questionable power play, but the hockey gods wouldn't let the Cup be decided in that manner. Fernando Pisani scored the first short-handed OT goal in finals history to breathe new life into his team. Game 6 proved to be a dominant Edmonton win, with Pisani again netting the winner in a 4-0 victory. Now it all comes down to one thrilling game. Can unheralded Pisani do a "Paul Henderson" and score the winner in three consecutive elimination games to lift his team to glory?

This is the third consecutive season the finals have come down to the seventh game. Last year saw Tampa Bay edge Calgary 2-1. That game was nerve-wracking to say the least, though in actuality was a very dull afair. But Nik Khabibulin's extraordinary save with around five minutes to go will forever be etched into my memory. For a brief second I thought Calgary was about to tie the game and send it to OT, but the Lightning goaltender just managed to get his pad or blocker (maybe both) in front of the puck at the last second. A Flames penalty in the final minute (though it was quickly followed up with a make-up call on the Lightning) made the final minute a little anti-climactic. In 2003 the Divils dispatched the Ducks 3-0, but this game saw few scoring chances for either team. Back in 2001 Colorado triumphed over those same Devils, but took the lead early and New Jersey never really was in the game. So we're due for a more thrilling game 7 this time around, and with two upbeat teams there's a good chance for that to happen.

The pressure surely has shifted to Carolina now. They were up 3-1 in the series, but now find themselves facing elimination. No team has ever blown an outright 3-1 lead in the final. In 1942 Detroit was up 3-0 on Toronto and lost, so technically they also had a 3-1 lead. But they lost game four, so unlike Carolina, thier opponent actually had the momentum going into the fifth game. The last team to force game 7 after being down 3-1 was the 1994 Canucks who eventually lost to the Rangers. The home team in 11-2 all time in Game 7, the 1971 Canadiens winning in Chicago and the 1945 Maple Leafs taking the Cup in Detroit being the lone exceptions. If your suspersticious you might read something into this: After 1945, five game 7's occured in the final and the home team won them all, until 1971. Since 1971, there have been five game 7's, again the home team has won them all, so this year...

Interesting Facts:

-Cranbrook is a small town in southern BC, of less than 20,000 people. But amazingly, for every year starting in 1994-95, somebody who was either born in, or grew up in Cranbrook has won the Stanley Cup. But that streak will end this year, as neither Edmonton nor Carolina has a player who fits the description. Jarret Stoll played junior in Cranbrook, and Shawn Horcoff, Mark Recchi, and Andrew Ladd hail from Trail, Kamloops, and Maple Ridge, BC respectively, but that's as close as it gets.

- No Finnish goaltender has ever won the Cup. Jussi Markkanen will try to accomplish what Mikka Kiprusoff couldn't do last season.

- No team with a European captain has ever won the Cup. Smith and Brind'Amour will keep that streak intact. Maybe somebody should have told that to Cup- favorite Ottawa (Swede Daniel Alfredsson captains the Senators).

- If the Oilers win, every single member of the team will be a first time winner. (Jason Smith was with the Devils in 1995, but played only 2 regular season games and none in the playoffs, so he is not considered to have won the Cup) The last occurence of such a thing was in 1979-80 when every member of the Islanders was a first timer.

- Game 7 has almost always been a tight, low scoring affair. Detroit 4, New York 3 in 1950 was the highest ever score. Aside from that, there has never even been more than five goals in the deciding game, and no team has ever surpassed four goals. There have been three shut-outs recorded, Toronto and Montreal both winning 4-0 in 1964 and '65, and New Jersey 3-0 in 2003.

- Every player dreams of scoring the winning goal in OT of game 7, but only two have ever done it, they being Red Wings Pete Babando (1950) and Tony Leswick (1954).

- The last time the Cup was won in OT was in 2000, when ex-Oiler Jason Arnott beat Ed Belfour to give New Jersey the Cup in game 6. That was also the last time Stanley was won on the road.

- Every team that goes to the finals has one guy who has caught fire and unexpectedly scored big goals. But Fernando Pisani's run is becoming remarkable. He leads the playoffs in both goals (13) and game-winners (5). The only Oilers to score more in one playoff are legends Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, and Anderson, plus Craig Simpson. Rod Brind'Amour (12) is the only player with a realistic chance to catch Pisani. If he retains the lead, he might be the most unlikely playoff goal-scoring leader ever, perhaps rivalled by Boston's Bobby Schmautz who led with 11 in 1977.

- Carolina can become the 16th different NHL team to win the Cup.

- Edmonton would move alone into fourth place in the Stanley Cup standings with six Cups if they win. (No team has won more than four in the time span since the Oilers joined the league)

- The last team to trail 2-0 in games in two best-of-seven series and still rally to win the Cup? Never happened, the Oilers would be the first. (down 2-0 against both San Jose and Carolina)

Final Prediction:

As I stated in my finals preview, this has been a strange year in the NHL, so I will stick with my original prediction of Oilers in 7, meaning the road team wins game 7 and overcomes the 3-1 series deficit. They have the momentum and Carolina looks out of gas.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


Oilers Rebound

The Oilers defeated Carolina 2-1 on Saturday night, which cut the Hurricanes' lead to two games to one in the series. I had the great fortune to be in attendance there, so I can say I've experienced the bedlam first hand. Going to a Stanley Cup finals game hopefully won't be , but certainly could be a once in a lifetime experience, so I tried to take it all in.

5:00, about an hour before puck drop. On the LRT heading to Rexall Place. Most of the people on board are wearing Oiler jersies and on their way to the game. Still fairly calm, everybody getting "in the zone" for the upcoming game.

5:20, waiting outside Oiler locker room for the team to emerge. After 15 minutes the team still hasn't come out, and we're starting to get restless. Chants of "Lets Go Oilers!" start up each time the dressing room door opens, but in each case it's just been a tease, as only rink attendents and the like have come through the doors. Then a cheer goes out, but it isn't the team, it's CBC's Ron MacLean wading through the crowd on his way to ice level.

5:40, finally the Oilers take to the ice for the warmup to the cheers of many already in their seats. We leave the dressing room area to go to our seats.

6:00, still ten minutes until gametime, but almost everybody is already seated and cheering. The score clock ticks down the minutes. With 5:00 minutes to go, a notice appears that we are about to be broadcast live around the world. The crowd goes wild, pom-poms waving. The clock continues to tick down, all the way to zero, but the crowd never dies down, everyone shouting at the top of their lungs for the entire 5 minutes.

6:10, the crowd belts out both the Canadian and American national anthems and prepares for the opening face-off.

6:15, everybody is abuzz and more relaxed than you'd expect considering the Oilers are essentially facing elimination. No nervous silence here, the boys need us tonight. Suddenly, early on, the Oilers score. As you can expect, the crowd goes wild. But by my judgement, everyone was still a little fatigued from the 10 minute non-stop roar leading up to the game, so oddly it was probably no louder for the goal than it was for the intro.

6:20, it becomes evident that Doug Weight is public enemy number one. Every time he touches the puck he is greeted by myself and thousands of others booing at the top of our lungs. When number 39 takes a penalty early on we're all delighted.

7:15-8:00, second period, approximately. The Oilers enjoy several good scoring chances, and even have a goal waved off. The crowd has been re-energized with beer and popcorn at the intermission and the anticipation of another score is starting to build. Chants of "Jus-si! Jus-si! break out everytime the Oilers stopper makes a big save. But the period ends without another tally.

8:05, second intermission. I go to the bathroom, where even the toilet is emulating the crowd by bubbling, getting ready to start spewing like a volcanbo before it erupts. I get out of there before I need to go to the souvenir stand for new clothes. Upon returing to my seat I spot Igor Ulanov, that's right The Mangler himself, up on the cat walk with the other players not dressed. I know I have to cheer as loud as I can if we're going to win this game and hopefully go on and get Uly his Stanley Cup.

8:10, approx. After the Oilers once again nearly go up two goals, Rod Brind'Amour scores to tie the game up. We're all disappointed, but we have to pick the boys up again. Another Lets Go Oilers! chant starts up.

8:30, the game is getting late, OT is looming. As the teams trade chances tension starts to build. Finally some nervousness begins to show itself in the stands whenever Carolina crosses the Edmonton blueline, with the realization being that if the 'Canes score one now, our Cup dream is likely over. But 2 minutes before OT a hero emerges. The longest serving Oiler, Ryan Smyth scores in the Cup final, when his team needs it most. As the goal is reviewed just to make sure it was legit, the crowd begins to razz rookie goaltender Cam Ward. His family seated directly behind him in row one behind the net can only look on.

8:35, the Oilers close out the victory as the crowd reaches its crescendo. The celebration continues as we all file outside into the stromy evening. As I wait for the LRT to pick us up I realize that my ears are still ringing. Incredible. The pro-Oiler rallying cries continue until we board the train, when the fans finally rest their tired vocal chords.

9:00, driving home. Despite the pouring rain, a few brave kids still take to the streets with "honk for Oilers" signs. Even the fans are wearing their hearts on their sleeves tonight. What an experience.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


World Cup Preview: Group H

Teams: Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Suadi Arabia

History: Spain is the most experienced of the group by a mile, as this will be their 12th World Cup. But despite often sending extremely skilled teams with big expectations, Spain has always come up short. They've never played in a final, and only once even reached the semis, back in 1950. The have usually made it out of their group, but self-destruct in the knock-out round, like in 2002 when bizzare officiating cost them their quarter-final game against South Korea. The other European team, Ukraine, has qualified for the first time. Saudi Arabia has been to the last three World Cups, reaching the knock-out round in 1994. In 2002 they were blown out in the group stage, outscored 12-0. Tunisia has made it to the previous two tournaments, but you have to go back to 1978 to find their only ever win.

Spain: The Spanish come to this World Cup with a very talented club, who has been able to score at will, like they did against Slovakia in a playoff to qualify. Fernando Torres and David Villa are two young, dynamic forwards who should have no problem finding the net against their first round opponents. And of course there is the all-time great Raul up front as well, plus Liverpool's Luis Garcia, so this is clearly where Spain's strength lies. But they are also well rounded in the midfield with a good blend of experience and youth with 2002 returnees David Albelda and Xavi Hernandez, who will be joined by newcomers Andres Iniesta, Jose Antonio Reyes, and Cesc Fabregas. The defense, headlined by Carles Puyol, may not be quite as strong as the other two areas, but is by no means a weakness. 'Keeper Iker Casillas will provide able goaltending. So once again Spain has a team that should easily win the group and compete for the championship. But few people are mentioning them as possible contenders, simply due to the fact that they have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory so many times.

Ukraine: The eastern Europeans were the first team to qualify for Germany 2006, in a very tough qualifying group no less, so they have had plenty of time to make adjustments to their squad in hopes that they will find the winning combination. Almost every one of Ukraine's players hail from the domestic league, several of them from Dynamo Kiev, so chemistry and familiarity should not be a concern. One man who does not play locally is all-world striker Andriy Shevchenko formerly of AC Milan (he's transferred to Chelsea recently). Ukraine plays solid defense, led by young Andriy Rusol, and likes to use the counter-attack to generate goals. The midfield is workmanlike with Ruslan Rotan and Oleg Husev, but it is at forward where Ukraine's tournament will be made or broken. Shevchenko is one of the world's top marksmen, and his play will be very indicative of how well Ukraine does. But the magnificent forward injured his knee in May, and his fitness for the tournament is uncertain. Ukraine will surely need him if they are to go any distance in the tournament.

Tunisia: Former Team France manager Roger Lemerre leads the conservative, technically sound Tunisians into the tournament. The two most dangerous players on the squad will be forwards Francileudo Dos Santos, a native Brazilian, and Ziad Jaziri who is excellent one-on-one. As you would expect the defense is reliable but not flashy, though Hatem Trabelsi will join the attack on occasion. The midfield is the key to Tunisia's chances. Lead by Riadh Bouazizi, they play an aggressive style and play strong positionally. Tunisia has been criticized is the past for their boring style, but that style gives them a chance to advance. If Shevchenko is injured, Tunisia should be able to contain Ukraine, who they will likely battle with for second spot. A spot in the second round is not out of reach for the North Africans.

Saudi Arabia: You'd think that in appearing in their fourth consecutive World Cup, the Saudis would come more experienced and prepared to finally compete. But in fact, they seem to have gotten weaker each time out. They qualified strongly, but then inexplicably fired the coach who had gotten them to Germnay. Lately, Saudi Arabia has been slumping, having won only two of 13 international matches in 2006, those wins coming against "powerful" Yemen and Togo, though the latter is at least in the tournament. Almost all of thier roster has been drawn from domestic club teams Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal, so the players should at least be used to each other. The lone star on the team will be defender Hamad Al-Montashari, the 2005 Asian Footballer of the Year. The forward pairing will consist of greybeard Sami Al-Jaber, in his fourth World Cup, and the young Yasser Al-Qahtani. This team might be stronger than the one that was crushed 8-0 by Germany in 2002, but will have to play much better if they are to avoid the same fate against Spain and have any hope of advancing.

Match to Watch: Spain v Ukraine, June 14. Undoubtedly the two best teams in this group. Should be an entertaining match, with the winner likely to take top spot in the group.

Prediction: 1) Spain, 2) Ukraine, 3) Tunisia, 4) Saudi Arabia. If Spain can't finish in the top half of this group they might as well quit the sport entirely. With Shevchenko in the line-up, Ukraine should be a safe bet to advance as well, but if he's out Tunisia could jump up and steal their spot. The Saudis look disorganized, but should improve on their 2002 performance (could it have been worse?).

Final Thoughts

This concludes the group previews for the World Cup. I have predicted strongly in favour of European teams, as the teams from the hosting continent usually fare quite well. I predict that the pre-tournament favourites Brazil will not reach the final this time around. After three straight finals appearances, they surely must be due for a slip-up somewhere along the way. You'll also notice that I have not predicted any African teams to advance this time. Usually one team from that continent is good for a surprise run, but unfortunately for them, it appears as though their two best teams, Ghana and Ivory Coast, have been put into the two hardest groups. Since the tournament is in Europe, I will predict a European side to lift the trophy on July 9th. I will go against the warnings history has laid out, and select...Spain as my champion. They have an easy group draw, and will likely play either France or Switzerland in the round of 16, two very beatable opponents. Predicting on into the quarter-final can be dicey, but a match with Brazil looms at that stage. Like I said, Brazil is due for a loss. For the record, I have the Spaniards facing Italy in the title game. But hey, even if Spain finds a way to lose yet again, I can take comfort in knowing that I wasn't the first person, nor will I be the last, to incorrectly call them the winners.

Monday, June 05, 2006


World Cup Preview: Group G

Teams: France, Switzerland, South Korea, Togo

History: France is the only former champion in this group, winning at home in 1998. It has been either feast or famine for the French throughout history, as they have made it as far as the semi-final on three other occasions as well, but aside from those it has mainly been group stage elimination or non quaification. They were favourites in 2002, but went home stunned and embarassed after failing to score a single goal. Switzerland had moderate success early in the tournament's history, but have only qualified once since 1970, that being in 1994. South Korea's only success came on home soil in 2002 when they made it all the way to the semi-final. They have never won a game besides in that tournament despite quaifying several times. Like most of the other African nations, Togo is playing in their first World Cup.

France: Out of all the "giant" nations, France appears to be the most vulnerable. This was expected to be a new generation of French players, but when they struggled early in qualifying, the old gaurd had to come in to save the day. Zinedine Zidane, Lillian Thuram, and Claude Makelele all came out of retirement after hanging up their boots after Euro 2004. This team certainly has the talent to compete, but it must be somewhat unsettling to French fans that this is mainly the same team that flamed out so spectacularly in 2002, and was sent home early at Euro 2004. The defense looks more than capable with veterans Thuram, William Gallas, Mikael Silvestre, and Willy Sagnol, and 'keeper Fabian Barthez is still reliable. Up front they boast David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry, one of the world's top strikers, though he has fared poorly in important games. The midfield is the clear weakness. Zidane, Makelele and Patrick Viera were stallions in their day, but they are in the twilight of great careers. Young Franck Ribery could inject energy if coach Raymond Domenech decides to use him. France may dream of legendary Zidane going out with a second world title, but realistically a quarter-final berth may be all that's left in the tank.

Switzerland: This is a team on the rise, and this World Cup should be a good setup for 2008, when the Swiss co-host the European championship. The more experienced Alexander Frei will lead a troop of young stars that could surprise in Germany. 13 of the 23 men on the roster are under 25 years of age, and are highlighted by 21 year old Arsenal defender Philippe Senderos, Tranquillo Barnetta in the midfeild, also 21, and forward Johann Vonlanthen who is even younger. Other key players will be Johann Vogel and Raphael Wicky in the midfield. The Swiss won rather infrequently in quaifying, but didn't lose often either. Importantly, two of the numerous tie games they played came against France. Switzerland should have plenty of confidence and youthful exuberance, and don't be too surprised if they even top the group.

South Korea: The Korean's come into Germany with the momentum of their surprise run the the semi-final in 2002, but also the knowledge that they've never won a tournament game on foreign soil. They have several returnees from the last time around, including quality goalkeeper Jae-Woon Lee. Veteran Jin-Cheul Choi will anchor the defense, and will be surounded mostly by younger players at the back. In the midfield will be Manchester United's versatile Ji-Sung Park, who is probably the best player South Korea will send to the tournament. Dong-Gook Lee is out injured, so the go-to forward will likely be Jung-Hwan Ahn, a goalscoring hero from 2002, but also a player that has seen limited action with his club team recently. The second round is a realistic goal for the Koreans, but recent friendly results, a 3-1 loss to Ghana, and a 0-0 draw with Norway, leave reason for concern.

Togo: Togo comes into the tournament as one of the great unknowns. They were surprise qualifyers, ahead of Senegal, but then fared horrendously at the African Nations Cup, going 0-5. Many of their players toil in the third and fourth divisions on European club teams. The lone recognizable figure is Arsenal forward Emmanuel Adebayor, only 22, but by far and away the best Togo has to offer. In net is the only other position of relative strength with Kossi Agassa, though he has only recently returned from injury and might not be in top form. The squad as a whole will be patchwork, and will need to hope they gel together quickly. If recent exhibition matches are any indicator, things appear grim after only managing a 1-0 victory over lowly Liechtenstein. But remember that in 2002 another unknown African team shocked the world by ousting France, they being the very same Senegal team that Togo knocked out in qualifying, so anything is possible.

Match to Watch: France v Switzerland, June 13. It will be very interesting to see how the aging favorite France deals with the upstart Swiss. The winner of this game almost certainly goes through to round 2, but a loss or even a draw could mean a pressure packed final two matches, especially for France.

Prediction: 1) France, 2) Switzerland, 3) South Korea, 4) Togo. It is very tempting to take Switzerland first. But I'll predict they draw with France and the French top them on the goal differntial tie-breaker beacuse if he's up to it, Henry could have a field day against Togo. South Korea will compete but wont have the home crowd to give them the extra boost. Togo appears to be a mess and hopefully wont embarass themelves.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Stanley Cup Final Preview

The Edmonton Oilers and the Carolina Hurricanes start the final series for the Stanley Cup on Monday. It should be a very closely contested series between two unlikely combatants. Carolina was picked by many to finish out of the playoffs, and while the Oilers were expected to be a decent club, few could have envisioned them gettiing this far.

Past Series: Carolina was the #2 seed in the East, drawing Montreal in round one. They dispatched the Habs in six games, and then needed only five games beat out the New Jersey Devils. Buffalo was their stiffest opponent, pushing Carolina to the brink. But in the end the Sabres were too depleted by injury and fell in game 7. The Hurricanes' record sits at 12-6. They are 7-3 at home, and are 5-3 on the road. In overtime games they are 4-2. Edmonton is the first eighth place team to reach the finals. They upset the Red Wings in six games, and did likewise to San Jose. Despite the flu bug hitting them, they managed a five game victory over Anaheim. On home ice the Oilers 6-2, and they are 6-3 on the road for a 12-5 record overall. They've only been to extra time on three occasions, but all of those went into double or triple OT. Their record is two wins, one loss.

History: These two teams have never met in the NHL playoffs, but did see each other in the postseason back in their WHA days. This marks the first time that two former WHA teams have played each other for the Cup. The NHL playoffs have been much kinder to Edmonton. They are in the final series for the seventh time, and have won five Stanley Cups. Thier all-time record is 20 wins, 10 losses. This is Carolina's second trip to the final, they lost the previous one to Detroit in 2002, four games to one.

Forwards: Both teams are deep at all forward positions. They rely on all four lines contributing to win games. Carolina boasts more star power with the likes of Rod Brind'Amour and Eric Staal, and has several players who have been to the finals before. The Oilers have a more rough and tumble approach with Ryan Smyth, Ethan Moreau and Mike Peca amongst others who can play physical. Give the Hurricanes a slight advantage.

Defense: The Oilers are clearly superior on the back end. Chris Pronger will easily be the best d-man out there. After Pronger, the two bluelines looks fairly equal to each other with a good blend of skill a toughness, but having the Conn Smythe candidate back there to eat up 30 minutes is a difference that Carolina cannot make up.

Goaltending: Cam Ward was spectacular early on, but looked average against Buffalo, opening the door for Martin Gerber to get a start. Ward came back to win games five and seven for Carolina, but has not been at the same level that he showed against Montreal early on. In the Edmonton crease Dwayne Roloson has gotten better with each passing series, so he should be in peak form for the finals.


-Both teams have faced adversity to get here. Carolina went down 2-0 to Montreal, but Eric Staal saved them with an OT winner in game three after the 'Canes tied the game in the third period. The Oilers were in the hole 2-0 against the Sharks, but in eerily similar fashion, scored a third period goal in game three to force OT. Roloson then made the save of the playoffs off Jonathan Cheechoo to allow Shawn Horcoff to bag the winner later on.

-Carolina has still never looked fully comfortable in these playoffs. Oddly enough, their best game may well have been a blowout loss in the very first game against Montreal. They dominated the entire game, but Gerber's horrid netminding and Cristobal Huet's suberb outing resulted in a lopsided defeat. They have squeeked out numerous close games along the way, and even the Sabres with their top four d-men injured very nearly stole the series from them. Not to say they haven't been impressive, but I haven't yet seen them fire on all cylinders.

-Edmonton is not a typical cinderella team. Mainly, their pitiful goaltending and also the inability to beat bottom feeder teams is the only reason they didn't win their division. They have not greatly altered their style of play either, maintaining a more offensive posture most of the time. Other surprise finalists often played highly conservative defensive games in hopes that they could grind out a goal or two and rely on a goaltender to steal games for them. Roloson has been terrific and won his fair share of games for the Oilers, but is not the sole reason for them being where they are.

-Carolina has more veteran players who have had long careers without winning a Cup. This could well be the last chance for Glen Wesley, in his fourth finals, and Rod Brind'Amour, in his third, to finally lift the Cup. Doug Weight is also looking for his first ring, as are Ray Whitney and Bret Hedican who's been to the finals twice with no success. Edmonton has 37 year old Roloson and Igor Ulanov, and while they do have some Cup-less vets like Pronger and Peca, the first two are the only ones where this is almost certainly their last shot.

Prediction: This will be one of the most exciting and closest finals we have seen in a while. The old addage that defense and hot goaltending win championships shouldn't be ignored. This gives Edmonton the advantage, but it should also be pointed out that the road team has not won the final series since the 1997 Red Wings. Yet history sides with Edmonton, because they have started on the road in three of their five Stanley Cup wins. (1984 and 85 were played in a 2-3-2 format, 1990 in the current 2-2-1-1-1). Conventional wisdom says picking Edmonton in 7 would be foolish, since the home team has only ever lost game 7 of the finals twice. Both times were somewhat questionable circumstances as well. In 1971 Chicago led Montreal 2-0, and after Bobby Hull rang the would-be 3-0 goal off the post, Henri Richard miraculously scored from center ice to bring the Canadiens back for a 3-2 win. In 1945 Toronto beat Detroit, but the Leafs had led the series 3-0 before the Wings stormed back to tie it up, only to lose game 7 at home. The lowest seeded team to win the Stanley Cup under the current conference format was the 5th seeded 1995 Devils, and again, the shortened 48 game season puts a question mark beside that, so Carolina has that advantage. But in this season of strange happenings, there might be room for one more, so I will take the Oilers and Roloson in 7 games.


World Cup Preview: Group F

Teams: Brazil, Croatia, Australia, Japan

History: There's no denying that the Brazilians are the most successful team in World Cup history. They have brought home five titles in total (1958, 62, 70, 94, 2002) and are the defending champions. They have appeared in the final each of the last three tournaments, their only loss coming to France in 1998. You have to go all the way back to 1966 to find the last time they were eliminated in the group stage, and they are the only nation to have appeared in every World Cup ever played. Croatia burst onto the scene with a surprising third place finish in 1998, but were knocked out in the group stage four years ago. Australia's only other trip to the World Cup was in 1974, where they failed to score a goal. Like Croatia, Japan has only appeared in the last two tournaments. They made it to the second round at home in 2002.

Brazil: Once again Brazil is the pre-tournament favorite, and with good reason. The Brazilians have no weaknesses at any position. The defense is experienced and as steady as it goes with all-time greats Cafu and Roberto Carlos who will be complimented by Bayern Munich's star defender Lucio. Reliable Dida will keep net behind them. The midfield will be anchored defensively by Emerson and will provide offense in the form of Ronaldinho, who might be the best player in the world right now. Brazil plays an attacking style, so Ronaldo and Adriano should score buckets of goals up front. Three scores would make Ronaldo the all-time leading scoring at the World Cup. It has been suggested that this squad could be even better than the one that was victorious in 2002, so Brazil fully expects to be playing in the final on July 9.

Croatia: The Croatians come to Germany full of confidence after an excellent qualifying campaign. They have never been intimidated by more glorified opponents, and will not back down even against tournament favorites Brazil. The team is built around their big, stingy defenders, most noteably Robert Kovac and the imposing Igor Tudor. Their goaltending is not spectacular, but the back line should keep quality scoring chances to a minimum. Darijo Srna will provide goalscoring from the midfield, which also features veteran Niko Kovac. Rangers forward Dado Prso has not been up to his usual standard lately, but is a certain starter. He'll need to provide some offense, but Croatia plays defensively, so that should take some of the pressure off. Expectations are high after two disappointing results at World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004.

Australia: The "Socceroos" are back in the World Cup for the first time in 32 years after edging out Uruguay for the final berth in the tournament. They come in as a relative unknown, so it is tough to know what to expect. Most of the Aussie players play in European leagues, and will be coached by Dutchman Guus Hiddink who's teams have made it to the semi-finals in both 1998 and 2002. Goaltending will not be a problem with Mark Schwarzer, but after Craig Moore, who has been injured recently the defense is thin in the middle, though stronger on the wings. The midfield is solid with Vince Grella and Marco Bresciano, who can score goals. Australia's most well known players will play a forward, they beeing Liverpool striker Harry Kewell and fellow Premiership players Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka. Coach Hiddink has shown he can get more than expected out of his teams, but this will be his toughest test.

Japan: Japan comes to Germany having won three of the last four Asian Cups, so they have experienced succes on the international stage. In 2002 they made it to the round of 16, though they drew a weak group and were the home team. Nonetheless, it is expected that Brazilian coach Zico will be able to take the team back to the knock-out stage, but they are in tough against Brazil and Croatia. The strong point of Japan's entry is in the midfield. Celtic's Shunsuke Nakamura will be joined by Hidetoshi Nakata and their performances will be crucial to Japan's success. Goaltending and defense are solid if unspectacular, but the Japanese's real problem will be scoring goals. Thier top two forwards, Tatsuhiko Kubo and Atsushi Yanagisawa, have both been injured and there status remains questionable. Japan needs a strong showing to continue to build off a decade of success.

Match to Watch: Brazil v Croatia, June 13. The two group favorites square off in each team's first match. How Croatia performs could be an indicator of how good of a tournament they will have.

Prediction: 1) Brazil, 2) Croatia, 3) Australia, 4) Japan. Brazil in first place is a no-brainer, though Croatia should provide a worthy opponent. The Croatians will use their physicality to overpower Japan and get by Australia. Aussie's put up a fight, but there's no miracle run for Hiddink this time.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


CFL Preview: West Division

Here's a look at this year's Western Division in the CFL

BC Lions: The Lions looked well on their way to the Grey Cup last September, but then the wheels suddenly fell of and they lost 7 of thier final 8, including the western final to Edmonton. This year the QB controversy has been solved. The Lions will go to Dave Dickenson full time since Casey Printers has left for the NFL. On defense the Leos lost LB Barrin Simpson, but Korey Banks, who led the league in interceptions in 2005, was drafted from Ottawa. On the offensive side of the ball the Lions said goodbye to a pair of veteran O-linemen. That could be the Lions' Achilles heel if adequate replacements aren't found. That's because Dave Dickenson might be the best QB in the league, but he's also the most injury prone (except for Nealon Greene). If Dickenson goes down there will not be Printers to hand the ball to, only last year's third stringer Buck Pierce, who did see some limited playing time.

Calgary Stampeders: The Stampeders had a resurgent 2005 season under coach of the year Tom Higgins (say it without giggling to yourself). Both the "D" and the "O" were solid but unspectacular. The Stamps have added WR Elijah Thurmon and WR Darnell McDonald is back in the fold, so QB Henry Burris should have more targets this year. RB Joffrey Reynolds had a great first half of last season, but faded badly down the stretch. George White is already out for the season with a torn Achilles, so the defense takes a hit there. Calgary's pass defense was their downfall last year, but it doesn't look to be much better. Against the potentially explosive passing games of BC and Edmonton, the Stamps could find themselves reeling. After a few years of disappointing teams, Calgary looks to be back on track and could contend for the Grey Cup.

Edmonton Eskimos: The defending Grey Cup champions enter the season with a few question marks, but one question that has been resolved was the QB controversy. Jason Maas was dealt to Hamilton, so it's Ricky Ray's team all the way. The offensive line could be a trouble spot with the retirements of Kevin Lefsrud, Bruce Beaton, and Chris Morris, but people should remember that the latter two struggled last season anyway, so their replacements shouldn't fare any worse. RB Troy Davis will be here for the entire season, so the running game wont be the revolving door that it was in 2005. The Eskimos biggest strength will be the passing game, as Ray should not have any signs of rust this year, plus has a supremely deep receiving corps to throw to. The #1 ranked defense was largely kept intact as everyone who left, most noteably Joe Montford and Rashad Jeanty, had their spot filled by an adequate replacement.

Saskatchewan Roughriders: The Riders enter 2005 surprisingly similar to the team that finished a disappointing fourth in the west last year. Roy Shivers and Danny Barrett were expected to be handed their walking papers, but are instead back for another season. Call this year 7 of the "5 year plan". The biggest upgrade was at quarterback, with Kerry Joseph replacing inconsistent Nealon Greene. The Riders also added WR Jason Armstead, but in the process gave up last year's MVP candidate Corey Holmes. Also, Calgary signed away last year's receiving leader Elijah Thurmon, and veteran Travis Moore is gone, so the upgrade at receiver is minimul if at all. The defense was Saskatchewan's strength last year, and most key personel are returning so that is a bright spot. The player the Riders may miss the most is K/P Paul McCallum, who signed with BC. Often a target of the fans, the kicker was at least reliable, and decent Canadian kickers have been very hard to find lately.


1) Edmonton, 11-7. Ricky Ray will be settled in and ready to go this year, and will be supported by a solid running game. The defense is a year older, but shouldn't slip too badly. There are no noticeable weak spots aside from the O-line, but it was weak last year and the Eskimos still won the Grey Cup. Edmonton has the personel to win the west, as long as Danny Maciocia makes some better decicions this season.

2) Calgary, 10-8. The Stampeders may have over achieved a little last year, but they will be more mature and should maintain last season's second place standing. Henry Burris has not yet shown he's capable of taking a team to the next level, so this year will be a big test for him, because Calgary has a team capable of competing for the Grey Cup.

3) BC, 9-9. Personel wise the Lions look as good as anybody else in the league, but may still have the cloud of last season's disaster of a finish hanging over their heads. If Dave Dickenson stays healthy BC is a championship calibre team, but he's due to take another pounding with poor pass protection. My thinking is he will miss at least a few starts and Casey Printers wont be there to cover for him.

4) Saskatchewan, 8-10. Despite the upgrade at QB, it should still be noted that Kerry Joseph is still at best the third rated QB in the division. With no clear improvements anywhere else on the field, there's no reason to think the Riders will be any better than last year. So another season will pass with no playoff game at Taylor Field, but Shivers and Barrett will still be lauded as heroes for all there glorious successes in Regina. Keep in mind that the cross-over rule has been eliminated, so even if the Riders have a better record than 3rd place in the east, they still miss the playoffs.

Grey Cup: This will be one of the closest races in years with no apparent doormats or powerhouses. Since no clear favorite has yet emerged, I'll stay with the incumbent and pick Edmonton to return to the big game from the west. Hamilton looks to be the class of the east, so my prediction is that Ricky Ray and Jason Maas will go head-to-head for the Grey Cup that they both won last year.

Friday, June 02, 2006


CFL Preview: East Division

CFL season is just around the corner, as teams are kicking off the pre-season as we speak. In this wacky and wonderful league we were again witness to a bizarre off-season. The Ottawa Renegades suspended operations in April, meaning we're back to an eight team circuit. Of course the fly-by-night Glieberman's who owned the team decided to shell out big bucks to mediocre players in the months leading up to the team folding, so it's little wonder they wont be participating this year. The CFL introduced a salary cap (at least one that will actually be enforced), but a few months later the governors voted "No" to a cap, leaving commissioner Tom Wright's future in doubt. Events like these would create headlines for most other leagues, but in the good ol' CFL we have come to expect things like this. Here is my preview of the upcoming campaign.

Toronto Argonauts: Last season was probably Toronto's best since the Flutie era, but they failed to defend their Grey Cup title, being upset in the Eastern Final by the Alouettes. This year, Damon Allen returns for yet another year as QB (what's this, his fourth "last hurrah"?). Amazingly, last season was one of Allen's best, so there's no use saying that this will be the year he slows down, because that prediction has failed to come true for the better part of a decade. He will have more help on offense this year with dynamic returner/receiver Keith Stokes and the newly imported RB Ricky Williams, if he isn't arrested for possession of drugs at some point. The only major change on defense is the retirment of CB Adrion Smith. That's both a good and bad scenario. The good is that the pass defense was top ranked in 2005, the bad is that the run defense was ranked last. Overall, the Argos didn't do anything too major aside from Ricky Williams, who will take time to adjust to the bigger field and reduced role.

Montreal Alouettes: Last year Montreal made thier way to the Grey Cup despite a woeful defense. They rellied heavily on Anthony Calvillo's arm and their top notch receiving corps instead. But last year the Als had Ottawa and Hamilton to beat up on, a luxury they wont be afforded this season. That porous defense appears to have lost more than it gained in the off-season, which will be a huge problem, especially against the re-vamped Tiger-Cats. Calvillo has been used heavily year after year, but my prediction is that his age will begin to show and this will be the year the Alouettes drop off. Of course, the x-factor is Don Mathews. He has been able to recruit new talent wherever he goes, though history says he is due to wear out his welcome in Montreal.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats: The team that made the most strides during the off-season is without a doubt the Ti-Cats. QB Jason Maas replaces Danny Oldmanus while RB Josh Ranek was brought over from Ottawa. Corey Holmes, one of the most versatile offensive talents in the league, was picked up from Saskatchewan for a high pick in the dispersal draft (Jason Armstead). Servicable receivers Terry Vaugh and Kwame Cavil will boost a thin receiving corps. This should all make the offense, last ranked in 2005, far more effective. That will in turn keep the mediocre defense off the field, which increases their usefulness as well. After years of fielding both sub-par and down-right awful teams, the future finally looks bright for coach Greg Marshall and the Tiger-Cats.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers: Winnipeg hosts the Grey Cup this year, but are a long shot to appear in it. The Bombers were lousy on both sides of the ball in 2005. The defence looks better with the addition of linebacker Barrin Simpson amongst others, and the offensive line has been bolstered somewhat. Receiver Milt Stegall has returned for another year, but how much he has left in the tank remains to be seen. Charles Roberts is one of the premier RBs in the CFL, and the Bombers should go as he does. But the fact remains that Winnipeg was 5-13 last year, so even moderate improvement is unlikely to turn them into anything more than a 3rd place club. That being said, Winnipeg did show signs of life later last season and has brought in a new coaching staff, so a turnaround similar to Calgary's last year isn't out of the question.


1st: Hamilton, 11-7. New look offense will have a field day against the weak defenses of Montreal and Winnipeg, and the Ranek/Holmes combo could run roughshod. The average defense and lack of a game breaking receiver will keep them from being a truly great team, but 11-7 will still be good enough for first in the East.

2nd: Toronto, 9-9. Pretty similar to last years team, but a year older. John Avery and Ricky Williams should be spectacular, but probably won't be. Grandpa Allen will put in another respecable campaign, but he wont equal last year's MVP calibre performance, so .500 seems about right.

3rd: Montreal, 7-11. Don Mathews will be able to find adequate replacements for those that departed, but in reality Montreal went a lot further last year than their defense should have allowed them. Expect the winds of change to blow through Montreal after this season, which will be their worst in years.

4th: Winnipeg, 7-11. The Bombers will be more competitive than last year, but will come up just short of the playoffs. It will be important to try to build for the future, but two key players are Charles Roberts and Milt Stegall, no spring chickens. That means Winnipeg must develope some younger talent and at the same time rely on their vets to lift them to credibility in a season where they should try to at least give the fans a glimmer of hope of appearing in their own Grey Cup.


World Cup Preview: Group E

Teams: Italy, Czech Republic, USA, Ghana

History: Italy is the most succesful historically out of this group. They have won three World Cups in total. The first two were back-to-back in 1934 and 38, and the most recent came at Spain '82. They have advanced deep into the tournament numerous times, and lost to Brazil in the final in 1994. At the most recent tournament they were upset in the round of 16 by the co-host South Koreans. The Czech's are in their first tournament since 1990, when they were Czechoslovakia. They were beaten finalists in both 1934 (against fellow group member Italy) and in 1962. Since that finals appearance there has been little success to speak of aside from a quarter-final appearance in 1990. The United States' claim to fame was a shocking upset win over England in 1950. After that they endured a long stretch in which they didn't qualify, but have appeared in the last four World Cups. They reched the second round at home in 1994, and had their best showing ever in 2002, a quarter-final loss the Germany. Ghana is playing in their first World Cup after beating out favoured South Africa in qualifying.

Italy: Recent results have been very disappointing for this storied nation. After a controversial loss to South Korea in '02, and group stage elimination at Euro 2004, the pressure is tremendous to put on a good showing. For Italy, a good showing means semi-final or better, lest their plane be pelted with tomatos upon its arrival home. Italy will need a big performance out of Francesco Totti who has disgraced himself at the last two tournaments with his on field behavior. It was feared his World Cup was over when he injured his ankle in domestic league play, but he has recovered in time. The Italians have a wealth of skill at all positions which makes them a contender. Center forward Alberto Gilardino can score goals, while midfield is of no concern with Andrea Pirlo and Totti (who usually plays in between midfield and forward). Captain Alessandro Nesta leads a veteran defense, and goaltender Gianluigi Buffon is one on the world's best. But recently, scandal has broke out in Serie A, the top Italian league, and Buffon has been alleged to have gambled illegally. The team will have to deal with this distraction as they try to win a fourth world title.

Czech Republic: This is a tremendously skilled, but aging, Czech squad. They should still be a force in Germany, but may have missed their big shot a glory in Euro 2004. The strength of the team lies up front and in the midfield. 34 year olds Pavel Nedved and Karol Poborsky are back for one last shot, as is giant forward Jan Koller. The Czech's do have some younger talent in the form of Milan Baros and Tomas Rosicky. The main objective will be to out-gun the opponent with their suberb offense, because the Czech defense is clearly the team's weakness. They are thin after Italian leaguers Tomas Ujfalusi and Marek Jankulovski so somebody will need to step up. Petr Cech is a superb keeper, and will have to be at his best is Nedved and Co. are to advance from a tough group. This will be the first and last World Cup for all of those veterans, so they'd best make it a good one.

USA: The States are out to prove that 2002 was not a fluke, but will be tested early with matchups against Italy and Czech Republic. It will be crucial to take points from one or both of those teams to give themselves a hope of advancing going into the finale versus Ghana. This team has plenty of experience, so they shouldn't be fazed by the pomp of bright lights of the World Cup. Goaltender Kasey Keller was first on the team way back in 1990, and will look for his best performance yet in his fourth World Cup. Key members of the team four years ago, Bryan McBride, Landon Donovan, and DaMarcus Beasley are again the go-to guys. Youngsters Eddie Johnson (forward) and Oguchi Onyewu (defense) will look for a breakout tournaments as well. American sports teams in general perform well as underdogs, so that bodes well in their attempt to prove to the world that they really are a soccer power.

Ghana: These Africans have always been one of the best teams on their own continent, and have now finally made it to the World Cup. Many of the players are realtive unknowns, but several ply their trade in Germany so they should already be used to the un-African climate of northern Europe. Ghana rellies on total team defense to win games, as their weakness at the forward position would suggest. AS Roma's Samuel Kuffour is their most solid defender, while Sammy Adjei provides decent netminding. Ghana's most recognizable player is Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien who plays a superb all-around game. If the Ghanians play error-free defense they will give themselves hope against powerful opponents, but coming out of this group will be a mighty task.

Match to Watch: Czech Republic v Italy, June 22. Two highly skilled opponents clash in the Group E finale. There is certainly a chance that USA or Ghana will have taken points from at least one of these teams, so this could be a do-or-die game for a couple of highly touted squads.

Prediction: 1) Italy, 2) Czech Republic, 3) Ghana, 4) USA. Italy are notouriously slow starters, so it favours them to play Ghana and USA before the Czechs. Those Czechs have the offensive weapons to crack Ghana's tough defense and overcome the Americans. USA and Ghana are two worthy teams, but are not quite up to the task against the top ranked opponents they will face.

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