Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Post Season Preview! Lightning Are Back in the Playoffs!

C'mon Stanley would order way more than that from room service!

I thought that I had a great beginning for this post. “THE LIGHTNING HAVE NEVER LOST A PLAYOFF SERIES TO A CANADIAN TEAM!” Sadly, five seconds of research reminded me that Tampa was bounced in five games by the Ottawa Senators in 2006. So with that idea blown I put my laptop away, fired up Netflix and watched three episodes of “Dawson's Creek”.

However, I can say that, “Despite their long and illustrious history, the Montreal Canadiens have NEVER WON A PLAYOFF GAME AGAINST TAMPA!” Granted they've only met once and it was on the Lighting's 2004 March to Glory, but I'm never one to let small details get in the way of my point of view.

With the regular season winding down it was known rather early on that barring a collapse of Toronto Maple Leaf-ian proportions the Lightning would be facing the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. I had no problem with that match up. As a matter of fact, among the Eastern Conference finalists they are most likely the ideal opponent for the Bolts.

Even though the Lightning took three of the four regular season games between the two clubs, only one of the games was decided by more than one goal (and that game featured an empty netter at the end) and three of the four meetings went to extra hockey. So look forward to some bonus hockey in this series!

The Lightning's strength (offense) matches up with Montreal's strength (keeping the puck out of the net) on both regular play and on special teams. While it's a stretch to say that the Lightning's power play is a “strength” it is better than their ability to kill penalties. Luckily for them, the Canadiens are almost as inept on the power play as the Lightning are on the penalty kill. Special teams should cancel each other out.

Tampa Bay's offense is deeper than Montreal's despite the deadline acquisition of Lightning-killer Thomas Vanek. The Lightning boost an offense with four 20 goal scorers and seven skaters with double digit goal totals. That's depth right there folks. Of course lingering in the background, kind of not being mentioned is the fact that two of those skaters – Valtteri Filppula and Ondrej Palat – are banged up. While both are scheduled to go in game one, if they were to miss any significant time it could be damaging to the team's playoff hopes.

While Ben Bishop won the team MVP race by 13 lengths, Filppula has been the glue that held the offense together while Stamkos was out of the lineup. His solid play kind of goes unnoticed from time to time until you look at the score sheet and see that he had two assists or a goal and an assist. His ability to move the puck in crowds also opens up the ice for Stamkos or Palat on the power play.

Palat went from “Oh yeah, he's a rookie, too” to “Legitimate Calder Hopeful” and two-time rookie of the month. He has an uncanny ability to be in the right place to score goals despite not being the biggest, fastest or best player on the ice. His injury has yet to be diagnosed beyond “upper body” but was most likely caused when he was trucked by Columbus' Jack Johnson last week.

Of course the six-foot-seven sized elephant in the room is Ben Bishop and his health. He has already been ruled out of the first game and is questionable for the rest of the series with his creaky left elbow. That means Anders Lindback will get the call when the puck is dropped at the Forum Wednesday night.

Or Gudas. He can play net. Look at that butterfly!

Even the most ardent Lightning supporter would have to give the edge in net to the Canadiens if Bishop is out for a long stretch. As the eternal optimist I've found a way for this to work to the Lightning's benefit. The weight of the Canadian (country not team) world is now on the shoulders of Carey Price. Remember, all of Canada must rally around the one franchise in the True North that has a chance to win the Cup. Price has come through for his country before.

For his professional team? Not so much. He's one of the best damn goaltenders in the league yet the furthest in the playoffs the storied franchise has found themselves with him in net is the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. And they got smoked 4-1 by the Flyers that match-up. Oh yeah, and Price only played in four games during the playoffs as he had lost his starting job to Jaroslav Halak.

Couple that with the Canadiens (team not country) 21st ranked 2.55 goals per game offense and Price NEEDS to be great for them to advance. Meanwhile, anything better than outright garbage from Lindback should be enough for the Lightning to advance to the next round in the NHL's Sweet Sixteen tournament. Of course, it would set up a nice plot line should Lindback play out of his mind against Montreal and Bishop declare himself healthy. What would Coach Cooper do? Stay with the hot goalie or the one that got you to the playoffs?

That's getting a bit ahead of ourselves though.

Let's break it down to the three things the Lightning need to do to win the series:
  1. Score goals. Simply put they need to use their strength, offense, to mask the deficiencies they have in the net. In his last 8 games Steven Stamkos has only found the back of the net twice. That's not good. I'm all for secondary scoring, but in the playoffs the best player on the ice has to be the best player on the ice. It doesn't matter if he's on the wing or at center, he has to find his scoring touch in order to make life easier for Tyler Johnson, Palat and Filppula.
  2. Stay out of the penalty box. Yes, Montreal's power play isn't on par with the Penguins or Bruins, but that doesn't mean the Lightning can have a steady stream of players going to the sin bin. Even if the other team isn't scoring, every penalty is two minutes that your team isn't on offense (although Tyler Johnson and his 5 shorties might beg to differ). Plus extended shorthand time tends to lead to more shots given up. The Lightning are best off minimizing the shots fired in Lindback's direction, not increasing them. Which leads to the final point.
  3. Block shots. Yes it leads to bruises and increases the risk of Ryan Callahan missing games, but they have to, have to, have to, have to cut down on the number of shots that get to Lindback. Or even Bishop should he come back in the series. They need to get in the way of shots, control the puck and set up their counter attack.
Try not to use your face to block shots, boys!

Prediction time! The only thing that I'm worse at doing than predictions is writing consistently. If even one of these comes true it will be a miracle.

Winner – Lightning in 6
Number of OT games – 4
Longest OT – 3
X Factor – PK Subban
Leading Scorer Lightning – Stamkos
Leading Scorer Canadiens – Vanek
Number of Games Bishop plays – 4
Number of Games Gudlevskis plays – 0 (please God let it be 0)
Lindback's GAA/SV% - 2.89/91.7
Number of games BJ Crombeen suits up - 2
Number of Radko Gudas hip-checks – 3
Number of Radko Gudas missed hip-checks – also 3
Number of times announcers say “old school hockey” when Gudas connects on a hip-check -13
Role Player who has surprisingly good series – Tom Pyatt
Will JT Brown score a goal – Yes

Good luck Lightning!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hockey. Live Hockey. Me. I'm Going to See Live Hockey.

The first thing I put in the suitcase was my Chinese knockoff-get-it-for-$30 Steven Stamkos jersey.  Probably not the most efficient way to pack (The Duchess prefers starting with shoes) but I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget it.  After all, one can’t make a glorious return to the Ice Palace without wearing the home colors, right?

The Stamkos is the latest in a mediocre line of jerseys that I’ve owned over the last 15 years or so. As with the others it isn’t exactly what one would call “authentic”.  Through the years I have owned:

Old “Screaming Eagle” Washington Capitals jersey (no name) - one of my favorite jersey designs.  Pretty sure Link gave that to me. Which meant he had to buy a Capitals jersey, which means it probably killed him just a little.

Knock-off original Lightning road jersey (no name) that was given to me at Christmas by an ex-girlfriend’s family.  It held up pretty well and allowed me to wear an actual jersey to the games as opposed to a t-shirt.

Black Washington Capitals third jersey (no name) - picked that one up in Toronto for $60 Canadian.  Which at the time was about 55 cents American I think.

Lightning “Rain” third jersey (no name) - my favorite jersey ever.  I picked this one up really cheap when the Lightning announced they weren’t using it any longer. I would say that this jersey has seen the bulk of game action over the years.

“Bolts” third jersey (Lecavalier) - the most expensive jersey I’ve ever bought.  It was the Reebok replica version and I bought it on a whim driving to a game one night.  I may have been unemployed at the time (thanks state of Florida unemployment checks!).  This was retired when Vinny signed it right before I moved up to Chicago.

Chinese Knock-off Current home jersey (Stamkos) -  a friend was ordering some Blackhawks jerseys off a website that posted cheap prices.  I was unemployed at the time and the price was right. It actually looks pretty legit (with fight strap!) but the fit is a bit snug.  Stacked up to an authentic jersey one might be able to spot the differences, but in Chicago I don’t run into too many authentic Lightning jerseys.

So as you can see it was important to make sure the jersey made it into the bag first.  Can’t go to my first home game in years without a jersey!

I hadn’t planned on making any trips to Hockey Bay, USA, but when Link told me that he was being honored at our alma mater I knew I had to be there.  And like any good hockey fan, the first thing I did once I had the dates in my hand was check the Lightning home schedule.  It so happened that they would be in town and that there would be a game. It was, however, on the same night that Link was being feted so that was out.

So I did the reasonable thing.  I extended my trip by a day.  Not sure my boss was happy about it, but it’s been a solid four months since I’ve taken any vacation so she let it slide (although I did promise to check my email at least once a day).  Link wouldn’t be down until the next day so I called up friend/frequent travel partner/former tenant Chris to see if was down for some hockey.  He was and after a quick StubHub purchase I had two tickets to the April 1st game against Montreal.  OK, I had a piece of paper with seat information on it.  StubHub should offer an option where they send you a replica ticket after you attend an event.  I would totally pay an extra $10 for that.

At the time I booked it (right around the Olympics) the match-up wasn’t that important.  Things have changed a bit in the standings and now we‘re looking at a first round preview.  The Lightning and Canadians are pretty much locked into the 2nd and 3rd seeds which means, under the new playoff structure, they will face each other to begin the march to Lord Stanley’s Cup.  The only thing left to be decided would be who gets the home-ice advantage.

The energy for a home playoff game is going to be off the charts.  While Tampa fans take a lot of shots for being fair weather fans, they do show up big for important games.  When it’s full and the crowd is into it, the Ice Palace is a LOUD building.  Not sure if it’s the loudest, but it has to be close.

Holy crap, I just realized that this will be the first time I get to see the Tesla coils in action, in person.  I’m kind of surprised at how happy that makes me.  Wheeee electricity.  Back to the post now.

In the pre-Cup years games against Montreal were like games against Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia - 70% opposing fans.  Which, while annoying, made sense.  Florida is a state made up of people from other places. Those people have allegiances to the teams they grew up with.  Without those types of fans hockey in Florida probably would not have survived.

Now that they’re 20 years into existence the Lightning have had a chance to develop their own fan base.  The kids that were 7 or 8 when the Lightning were playing at the State Fairgrounds or the Thunderdome are now in their late 20s and have grown up with the team.  They don’t have to share their father’s favorites any longer.

I would hope that the split will be more along the lines of 50/50.  The Ice Palace will never be like the United Center in Chicago where 99% of the crowd is there for the home team. The snowbird factor in Tampa is just too great.  Plus there is always the part of the crowd that is on vacation, because why not go see some hockey in Florida in March/April when the weather is still unreasonably cold in your home town?

Other than rooting on the Lightning I’ll be interested to see how the experience has changed since they’ve opened up the concourses during the latest renovations. Also, I’ll be playing a game of “Find the Oldest Jersey/ Biggest Jersey Fail” while wandering about.  I’m putting my money on someone wearing a Rob Zaumner jersey.

No matter what happens it’ll just be fun being back in the building where I became a hockey fan.  The building where I’ve seen bad games and great games. Where I saw losing teams and Stanley Cup champions.  Where vuvuzelas were annoying people long before the World Cup.

Oh and going to a hockey game in sandals and shorts doesn’t suck.

Monday, March 24, 2014

New Cards at No Cost - It Must Be a Trade Post

Opening day is right around the corner – well it's actually right around the corner behind us if you buy into that whole “Opening Day Down Under” nonsense. Personally I do not. There will be a baseball post on this site at some point, hopefully in the next few weeks. For now, lets kill some time with a trade post.

Due to an early work schedule this weekend I missed out on the spring version of the Chicago Sun Times Show. So I didn't get a chance to wander around the convention center looking at the same dealer tables that I have seen several times over the last few years. OK, so I wouldn't say I missed out on that. What I did miss was meeting up with Sal, Tim and Nick and increasing my collection through their generosity.

With the self-imposed budget (which I've managed to eat up about ½ of three months into the year) I haven't been buying that much either. One thing I have managed to keep up with some online trading. Over the last three months I've swapped out five or six trade packages, keeping the collection fresh and the post office in business. Just this week a lovely white postal envelope showed up from our neighbors in the True North.

He goes by the handle Rosenort, needed some 2013-14 Upper Deck and runs a blog by the name of ConditionSensitive. I sent him a trade offer on Zistle and he accepted. In return for a handful of doubles that I had, the fine gentleman of Watson sent back the following.

2013-14 O-Pee-Chee Matt Carle – For the Lightning Collection

I often forget that Matt Carle is on the Lightning. Not in a bad way, or in a “God, I wish he was wasn't on the team” way. More like I'll be watching the game and he'll do something and I'll think to myself. “Oh yeah, Matt Carle is on the team.” That being said, he's had a decent year – chipping in 27 assists from the blue line.

2012 Topps Heritage Josh Johnson – Needed for a set

One of these days I'll finish this set. And one day Josh Johnson will be healthy again.

2013 Topps Gypsy Queen Dealing Aces Matt Moore and Roy Halladay – Needed for a set

At some point this season David Price will be a former-Ray and I think Moore will be the one to step into the number one starter role. If the Rays are in contention at the trade deadline, Andy Friedman is going to have a huge decision to make.

A few years ago I wrote that, among active pitchers, Halladay had the best shot at winning 300 games. At that point he was mowing people down like it was a video game. He retired this winter with 203 career wins. Another great prediction by Justin G.

A Trio of 1989 Upper Deck Orioles – For the Orioles Collection

Oswald Pereza was acquired for Mike Flanagan. Good for him. He was a highly touted prospect, but 1988 would be his only season in the minors. Arm injuries stalled his career and he was out of baseball by 1992.

Tom Niedenfuer was a middle of the road reliever who had numbers that weren't horrible for the Orioles. If he was pitching today he'd probably only make $8 million a year.

Terry Kennedy was a veteran catcher who came to the O's in a 1987 trade along with Mark Williamson. After being the number one guy in '87 (hitting 18 home runs while playing in 143 games) he lost the role in 1988 to a young switch hitter by the name of Mickey Tettleton.

All three of these players had a role in the horrendous 1988 Orioles team. A team that ranks as my second favorite worst team of all-time. Surprisingly enough, none of these guys would be involved in the “Why Not?” season of 1989.

1997 Fleer Ultra Eddie Murray – Personal Collection

Murray hit the last three home runs of his career in an Anaheim uniform. It's a toss-up between Anaheim and the New York Mets for oddest uniform to see him wear. The rarely seen double batting gloves for him.

1991 Donruss Eddie Murray – Personal Collection

Murray during some more productive years. He is so ingrained in my mind as an Oriole that it's hard to remember that he grew up in California. All uniforms that aren't orange and white look weird on him. Notice no batting gloves.

2011-12 Upper Deck Steven Stamkos – For the Lightning Collection

The Bolts are rolling again and Stamkos is scoring. With a relatively easy schedule remaining they can hopefully hold onto the second spot in the division. Great photo of the lightning bolts on the old uniform pants. I miss the lightning bolts. (ed. note - after watching Monday's game I realized they still have the bolts on their pants.  My bad. I'm old.)

1993-94 Leaf John Tucker – For the Lightning Collection

The first trophy winner in Lightning history. His 131 points in a Tampa Bay uniform is good for 19th all time in franchise history, 2 points ahead of “The Captain” Dave Andeychuck.

1995-96 Upper Deck Peter Bondra – Personal Collection

Bondra scored 34 goals in 1994-95, which is pretty impressive since this photo suggests he didn't play with a hockey stick. In his career he scored roughly 674 goals against the Lightning. I really like the simple layout of this set. I'm tempted to go find a box of it and rip open some old junk wax.

1992-93 Topps Rob Dimaio – For the Lightning Collection

Dimaio was an original Bolt who played two seasons with the team in their infancy. He was traded to Philly for Jim Cummins and a 4th round draft pick. The Lightning then traded that 4th round pick back to Philly for......... Alex Selivanov. DiMaio had a second stint with the Lightning, signing as a free agent in the summer of 2005.  However, a concussion he suffered early in the season ended his career.

2013-14 Score Ondrej Palat – For the Lightning Collection

Despite my undying love for Tyler Johnson, I'm pretty sure that Palat has a better chance of winning the Calder. He has been on fire since January.

2011 Topps Gypsy Queen Jake Arrieta – For The Orioles Collection

Jake went from Opening Day starter to Chicago Cub in the span of two seasons. I hope he gets a start against the O's when they come into town this summer. As a matter of fact, the O's could also face last year's opening day starter Jason Hammel as well in that series. Chicago – where Baltimore pitchers fade into obscurity.

2013 Topps Gypsy Queen Dylan Bundy – For the Orioles Collection

It looks like the best case scenario for Bundy's return from Tommy John surgery is June. Bundy's injury shows that no matter how much care you take with your prospects it's almost impossible to keep them from getting injured. The good news is that (unless you are a member of the Braves organization) most pitchers bounce back from Tommy John rather well these days.

A nice smattering of cards that hit needs all over the board, from set needs to personal collection to team collection. Not a bad return for some extra base cards, eh?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Love On The Rocks - Marty St. Louis is Gone

I know it hurts now.  You thought he would be around forever.  You thought every morning you woke up he would still be there.  Fourteen years is a lifetime.  You thought you knew everything about him, that he cared for you as much as you cared for him.  Yet here you are, the morning after, eyes red and puffy from crying, a discarded pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream lying by the bed.  Shredded pictures of better times cover the floor while angry posts litter your Facebook timeline.  Face it Lightning fan - you are acting like a jilted lover.

Now, of course, I don’t mean all of you.  I have seen some sensible posts about the biggest deadline deal in recent Lightning history. However, throughout yesterday’s trading bonanza there was a lot of name calling going on in regards to Marty St. Louis and his trade to the Rangers.  “Cry Baby” “Diva”  “Quitter”.  All those words and more floated across the internet.  I understand, anger is a justifiable emotion.  It’s also the first step to recovery.  Trust me, understanding and forgiveness are right around the corner.

This saga has dragged out in the open air for almost two months now.  Whispers started around the time that St. Louis was initially left off of the Canadian Olympic roster.  That’s when the question of “How would he be able to co-exist with Steve Yzerman after being snubbed?” first arose.  Then the firestorm was ignited by Boomer Easison of all people who tweeted out that the Rangers had a deal in place to trade their captain, Ryan Callahan, and that St. Louis was one of the possible pieces coming back. That led to the story that St. Louis had asked Mr. Yzerman to trade him and the internet flaming was on.

During the whole time there was a lingering question that bothered me.  Why would St. Louis, who had spent his entire career with the reputation as a team-first, heart-and-soul of the Lightning player be so adamant about wanting out.  Why now, when the team was poised to make a run at the Stanley Cup?

Sure pride had something to do with it. Having his own GM say he wasn’t initially worthy of playing for gold had to hurt, but is that enough to turn your back on a community that wholly embraced you like few athletes ever have been in this market?  He was the underdog that brought respectability to a market that is often mocked on the national level. We loved him for that.  There has to be more to it.  Both Mr. Yzerman and St. Louis have alluded to it.

In his press conference after the deadline, Mr. Yzerman acknowledged that St. Louis had come to him before the Olympic debacle and asked to be traded.  He refused to elaborate saying that he didn’t want to "put words into Marty's mouth".  Marty didn’t offer any details either just a vague “this is a decision that is best for my family” comment in a letter released to the media and fans.

Maybe in the future we will know the whole story and it will make sense.  What doesn’t make sense is bashing a guy who has done more for this team than anyone else who ever skated in the black/blue/silver/white/lightning-sleeved uniform. He is responsible for the most exciting moment in the history of the organization (Yo Fedotenko Imma let you finish, but Game 6 double overtime was a better moment).

He also piled up points and accolades unseen by any Lightning player to date.  Two Art Ross trophies, three Lady Byngs, a Hart Memorial and Lester B. Pearson award to go along with multiple all-star appearances.  No one has ever done that for the team.  His conditioning and work ethic were talked about by everyone who coached him, played with him and played against him. This is the same player who played 499 consecutive games before a broken face knocked him out of the line-up.  A broken face that kept him out for exactly five games. Incidentally, the shooter of the puck that hit him in the face - Dominic Moore.  One of his new teammates in New York - Dominic Moore.  Keep that shield on Marty.

Yup, I added the broken face part so I could repost this bad photoshop.

No matter what line he was thrown on he thrived, and made those players better.  He had no issue bouncing back and forth between lines with Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos.  When Stamkos went down this season St. Louis found himself on a line with two rookies.  Is it a coincidence that both of the rookies could win the Calder?

My point is that no matter how he left, what he did on the ice outweighs any controversy that has arisen over the last three months.  When athletes who are fueled by pride come to the end of their career it always ends awkwardly.  Johnny Unitas was traded to the Chargers at the end of his career because he thought he could still play. Does that diminish his legacy in Baltimore? Hell no.  Neither does Willie Mays stumbling around awkwardly in a Mets uniform or Emmitt Smith getting blown up in the backfield as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.

This is just so weird looking.

St. Louis’ exit from the Lightning was always going to be ugly.  Whether it was by the team releasing him, not re-signing him, or a trade request orchestrated by the team instead of the player it was going to end badly. There was going to be a time when the organization felt that there was a better option than him playing for them and at that time St. Louis was going to disagree with them.  What happened this winter just expedited the process.

In my last post I wrote that it was more likely that Mr. Yzerman was more likely to trade him in the off-season as he didn’t want to hurt the team.  Apparently I had misjudged (shocking I know) the depth of the problem.  With the handicaps that he was dealing with, the general manager swung the best deal possible.  I don’t see them signing Ryan Callahan for the money he’s asking for, but for the next 20 games or more he should help them defensively as he moves between the second and third line (according to the Tribune’s Erik Erlendsson he was taking rushes on the second line with Filppula and Kucherov).

More important are the draft picks.  The 2015 first round pick could be gold (especially if the Rangers self-destruct next season) while the other pick has the potential to reach the first round if the Rangers make it to the Eastern Conference finals this season.  The deal also gives Mr, Yzerman about $5 million extra next season to sign a plethora of restricted free agents.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few of the younger players sign multi-year deals over the next couple of months now that he has some more cap room to play with.

Finally lets address the playoff comment.  You know the one that was tweeted about, “It’s not like I’ve played a ton of playoff hockey in the last little while and as you get older you want to get more kicks at the can…”  Some are taking that as St. Louis thinking that the Rangers are better set than the Lightning to be playoff contenders for the near future.  I don’t see it that way.

If the ultimate goal of this move was family based, then the Rangers are the only team that makes sense for him to be asked to be traded to.  There are a handful of teams that would be considered close to his Connecticut home. The Islanders are a mess (although a Tavares/ St. Louis line would be fun to watch) and not knocking on the playoff door anytime soon.  The Devils are better off than the Islanders, but still a team in flux that seems to be wanting to jettison older players and is going through their own rebuild.  As for the Bruins, St. Louis has to be smart enough to know there is no way in hell that Mr. Yzerman was going to trade him there. Thus his request to be transferred to the Rangers.

So, to me, the “more kicks at the can” is more of a disparaging comment about the Islanders and Devils then it is at the Lightning. And as a Lightning fan you can’t argue with the first half of the statement since, other than the 2010-11 season, the team has been playing more golf than hockey in April, May and June.

Martin St. Louis, at this moment in time, is the best player to have ever pulled on a Lightning sweater. At some point Steven Stamkos or Jonathan Drouin or Teddy Purcell will eclipse him (probably not Teddy Purcell). To me that is more important than how he departed the organization.  He has not “tarnished” his legacy with the team.  Sometime in the near future, he will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.  The stories told of him on that day will not be about his days as a Ranger or whatever team he plays for when the Rangers trade him next season.  Those stories will be about what he did on the ice as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So, Lightning Fans, take a deep breath.  Focus on the team that we have now. Let Marty go do his thing. We are in a better place for having him to love and him leaving, then for us to have never had him at all.

RIP MVP Line Forever

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Post Olympic Thoughts (Yes I talk about the Marty situation)

Believe it or not there are only 23 games left in the regular season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Therefore, I can officially start using the phrase, “sprint to the end” in reference to their remaining games. As of Wednesday afternoon they sit comfortably in second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. While Montreal and Toronto are nipping at the heels, an argument can be made that the Bolts are among the best teams poised to make a strong run to and through the playoffs.

The Olympic break could not have come at a better time for the team as they were in a mini-slump having dropped four of their previous six games. Injuries were also starting to take their effect on the team as goaltender Ben Bishop was banged up and big free agent signing Valtteri Filppula suffered a foot injury that caused him to miss the Olympic competition in Sochi.

Luckily for the team, both Filppula and Bishop should be ready to go in Nashville as the Lightning kick off the sprint with a four-game road trip against the Western Conference. Following that road trip, the super-extra-awsome-about-time-thank-god news is that Steven Stamkos, goalscoring extraordinaire should be back on the ice firing pucks into opposing goaltender's nets.

So with 20 some games to go their:

Number 1 goalie is rested and healthy
Number 1 defenseman (Victor Hedman) is rested and playing with a chip on his shoulder
Most prolific scorer is coming back.

I would say that's a good place to be.

I haven't written much about this season's team mostly because of superstitions. Any time I write about a team or player doing well they tend to go careening off the track (a phenomenon that began with a post about Ryan Craig a long, long time ago). I also had the feeling that this team was winning with smoke and mirrors and that sooner or later they will realize that nine of their players on their roster were on the Syracuse Crunch last year, that their starting goaltender was traded twice in little over a year and had never played in more than 22 NHL games in a season, oh and their leading scorer is 38 years old.

I was certain that when I broke down their wins and losses I would find that they were feasting on west cost teams while struggling against their own division. Maybe they had racked up their points against weak competition. So it was kind of surprising to find out that the only division they've struggled against is the relatively easy Metropolitan. Against their fellow Atlantic Division they're a comfortable 13-6-1. Granted, three of those losses are against the Bruins, but if the Bolts play out strongly that wouldn't be a problem until later in the playoffs.

Statistically the team isn't doing any one thing great (except being gritty!). They are 11th in goals scored per game, 11th in goals against per game, 23rd in penalty kill and 19th in power play. So in the traditional numbers....a pretty average team. The new age stats are a little friendlier as they are 7th in PDO (1009) and 11th in Corsi. I don't really, really know what that means, but I'm pretty sure it's good. There are other sites that break that stuff down way better than I can.

So, if the team isn't gang busters in scoring or throwing up brick walls on defense, how are they winning? First and foremost Ben Bishop. He has been sparkling in net for the Lightning, posting a 1.98 SAA and .933 SV% as the number one goalie. He's also managed, on more than one occasion, to bail the team out and flat out steal games that they should have lost.

The team's first win of the season, beating Chicago 3-2 in a shootout, was the first and probably best example. If you remember, and I do because I WAS THERE!, the Lightning went an entire period without a shot. Yet Bishop kept them in the game until they were able to put a little offense together.

In the past few seasons the net-minders haven't been able to cover for the skaters on their off nights. Hence, the rotating cast of characters that have trickled through the crease over the past three years. Bishop has been the MVP for the team so far this season and his health, more so than Stamkos' is the key to the team going far in the playoffs.

Stamkos' injury is another key factor in Tampa Bay's shocking run to the top. I'm not crazy enough to say that I want a 60-goal scorer routinely shelved for almost four months, but his time away from the ice did allow other players, especially Tyler Johnson, time to develop their game on the NHL level.

Going into the season, how the Tampa-cuse players such as Johnson, Radko Gudas, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik adjusted to the NHL was the biggest question mark for the team. For the fans and for coach Jon Cooper, luckily they all, except for Panik to a degree, answered the call. Johnson is a leading Calder candidate and Gudas has provided solid time on the blue-line. Palat has picked up his game over the last two months and is quietly making a case for the Calder himself. 

Tyler Johnson - He's pretty good at hockey.

When Stamkos comes back, it will be interesting to see how Cooper adjusts the lines. I would think that Johnson is moved to the second line, possibly with Alex Killorn and Teddy Purcell while Stamkos centers Marty St. Louis and Palat. Other players get bumped down the line until one of my favorites, J.T. Brown, finds himself back in Syracuse through no fault of his own.

Speaking of Brown, the line of him, Nate Thompson and Nikita Kucherov are another huge factor in the success of the team. Any line that Nate Thompson has ever been a part of has been great at playing defense, playing in the offensive zone, keeping the other team pinned back. However, they've never really chipped in too many goals. Ever since Kucherov and Brown joined him that is different. They still do a good job of defense, but now they can throw in a goal every once in awhile. Which gives the Lightning basically three lines that can do that.

Of course, no fan base is ever content at the trading deadline. No matter how successful, or how much of a surprise a team is, moves must be made. So, what moves will the Lightning make over the next week or so?

Unfortunately for the masses, I don't think they do anything. After all they are essentially adding a 60-goal scorer at the deadline in Stamkos. And since it cost's them nothing but a roster spot, I will go ahead and declare them the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline Winners!

Other than kick the tires on some defense-men I don't think General Manager Steve Yzerman pulls anything off. The team that is on the ice is pretty much the team he envisioned putting together when he took over the reigns of the organization. A fast-paced, aggressive offense backed by solid (young) goal-tending and a defense that can add scoring while also playing responsibly in their own end.

I wouldn't be surprised to see him make some minor deals to either acquire draft picks or help deepen the organizational talent, but as far as blockbusters....I just don't see it.

Which brings us to the mite-sized elephant in the room. If I had written this two weeks ago like I planned, this part of the post would not have to be written. I would be trying to come up with some ending that actually ties it all together cleverly. Instead, I have to ask the question, “What is the deal with Marty St. Louis?”

Sad Marty is Sad

It started innocently enough. Boomer Esiason tweeted some tweets about the Rangers making a deal and the speculation fire that roared up paired the Rangers and Lightning together in a St. Louis for Ryan Callahan deal. I made some sarcastic tweets about it and then promptly dismissed the talk. In my mind, why would:

A. The Lightning trade their captain and leading scorer in a playoff year?
B. Why would St. Louis waive his no movement clause for a team that isn't a better bet to win the Stanley Cup?
C. Why would the Lightning settle for a return of a player who is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season when they have St. Louis under contract for another season?

Now it seems there is talk from reputable sources (Bob McKenzie) that St. Louis has asked for a trade. That throws a little bit of different shade on the topic. As does the lack of a firm denial from either St. Louis or Mr. Yzerman.

Hey There Tommy!
To quote Tom Cruise in Cocktail, “Jesus, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end.” It's starting to look like this is going to end badly. Even without the rumors that are running amok, what to do with St. Louis was going to be a story lurking in the background in the near future. He has another year remaining on his contract after this one and it doesn't look like he's ready for retirement anytime soon.

So what were the Lightning going to do in 2015-16? Despite his production he would be 40-years-old so a long term deal would be fool hardy. Especially since Stammergeddon II would be right around the corner. Do they offer him a one-year deal? Let him walk?

Throughout my career I've been all over the map on St. Louis. Way back when I first started writing I was in the “Trade Marty” camp. I always thought Pittsburgh would make a great fit for him. Then over the years I reversed myself as it became more apparent that he was the foundation of the organization.

However, this isn't the first time St. Louis has expressed doubts about his future with the organization. Following the 2009-10 season he openly questioned the direction of the team and his role with it. That was quickly forgotten as then new GM Mr. Yzerman signed him to an extension and the team went off on the great run to the Eastern Conference Finals the next season.

Trading him now would be an interesting move. It would undoubtedly alienate a large portion of the fan base. No matter who or what they got back in the deal it would hurt the team on the ice as well. Mr. Yzerman has proven that he is willing to trade a fan-favorite (see Lecavalier, Vincent) if it helps the team. But, for him to do this to a team that has a good a shot as any to make a deep run in the playoffs? I don't see it.

Now, does he make a trade this summer? That's a totally different story. Moving St. Louis in the off-season, while still not a politically friendly move can be justified (he's old, salary cap, bring value while you can, etc). Trading him now would be handcuffing the team and I don't see Mr. Yzerman doing that.
About the only good news is that it does have the rest of hockey talking about Tampa Bay for a change!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Good Gennady Golovkin Wins Again

With all due respects to the Denver Broncos, there was another one-sided beating that took place in the sports world this past weekend. On Saturday, fast-rising middleweight Gennady Golovkin administered a clinical beating of Osumanu Adama and racked up his 16th consecutive knockout. Unfortunately not many people in America saw the latest conquest by “GGG” as HBO decided not to carry the fight.  Based on the result, the streak and the praise that the boxing world has heaped on the Kazakh I’m pretty sure that it’s the last Golovkin fight that they pass on.

Saturday afternoon’s (and I’m sure the 3.45pm east coast start time played a part in HBO’s decision) knockout didn’t have the awe-inspiring image of a vanquished opponent writhing in pain that Golovkin’s knockout of Matthew Macklin last June did.  In fact, the ref stopped the fight in the 7th round with Adama still on his feet. The quick (but correct) stoppage by Luis Pabon robbed Golovkin of a defining finish, but was totally in keeping with the nature of the fight.

Osumanu Adama is a good fighter, he’s held a belt and his own against champions.  But outside of Chicago, where he trains, he isn’t a “name” fighter.  (Reason number two HBO passed I’m sure).  Adama, however, was a willing fighter.  He tried to take the action to Golovkin, tried to use his jab to keep the WBA/IBO Middleweight Champion off of him, tried to move around the ring and make “GGG” chase him.  He tried, but it wasn’t enough.

Even though Adama landed some clean punches they didn’t hurt Golovkin, and Adama's attempts to evade him were frequently cut off.  The 31-year-old man fighter from Kazakhstan was patient, waiting for his opportunity and then unleashed his trademark thundering punches when he had an opening.  Two of his three knockdowns of Adama came off of jabs, more accumulation of damage as opposed to any one thudding shots.

Adama wasn’t winning the fight. At the time of the knockout in the seventh round I had him trailing 59-53 on my scorecard and could have had it 50-52 (I gave him the third round when Golovkin didn’t seem interested in throwing any punches). The end came kind of suddenly. The seventh round starts off with Golovkin sneaking a left through Adama’s guard that drops him to a knee. Adama didn’t seem hurt, he had no problem meeting the ref’s count and comes out throwing some solid left hooks to the body. That works for about a minute and then Golovkin snaps a left hook that lands flush. The crowd oohs as Adama stumbles backwards. Golovkin casually wipes some sweat off his nose as Pabon rushes in to stop the fight. Just another knockout for The Kazakual Disaster.

Along with patience and power, efficiency runs rampant in Golovkin’s fights.  He doesn’t waste punches or movements.  While Manny Pacquiao at his best is an overwhelming blur of combinations, Golovkin gets the job done in simple two-or-three punch flurries. He has the deceptive speed of great athletes allowing him to be right where he needs to be, on balance, in order to unleash a vicious hook to the body or straight right to the face. Yet it never seems like he is particularly fast in the ring.  When the #fancystats people finally make their way to boxing “GGG” is going to be the defining example for whatever clever word they come up with to describe punching efficiency.   Every punch he throws seems targeted to do maximum damage.

With his Goldberg-like string of knockouts the number one question after this fight is “Who’s Next?”.  He has made it known that he wants to fight Sergio Martinez to decide the best current middleweight. Luckily for fans the promoters shouldn’t be able to screw this one up.  It’s only a matter of time (and health for Martinez) until this fight gets booked.  I’m thinking it headlines a pay-per-view sometime in the spring of 2015.  

Unlike Floyd Mayweather, Golovkin likes to fight.  He had four bouts last year and plans on having at least four this year.  ESPN’s Dan Rafael mentions that Golovkin will headline HBO’s card in April at Madison Square Garden (the same venue that saw him stop Curtis Stevens with a punishing eight round beating) against an unnamed opponent.  According to Rafael, Golovkin is willing to fight anyone from 154 to 168 pounds which opens up a flood of contenders not named Mayweather.

Personally I’d like to see him fight someone with a little bit of power to see what kind of chin Golovkin has.  That is one thing that really hasn’t been tested. In his fights against Adama and Curtis Stevens, he has been hit. That happens when you come straight forward.  To see him in a real slugfest would be interesting to watch. Rafael mentions James Kirkland as a possibility and Andre Ward has called him out in the past year as well.  Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.’s name has been bandied about and I could see HBO being very interested in making that a big-tent fight in the fall.  It could be a good fight for Golovkin in the sense that JCC is a “name” in the boxing world even if his talent doesn’t live up to his fame.  A decisive victory over a well-known opponent does a lot to drive ticket sales.

No matter who lines up against him from now on, you’ll be able to see it.  Which is a good thing for boxing.  With Mayweather and Pacquiao both heading off into the sunset, the sport needs new “much watch” fighters and Golovkin is one of those guys.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Hopeful Chase 2014 Collecting Goals

Arrggghh.  So far 2014 has gotten off to a grinding start in the writing department.  One post in 24 days is not good.  It’s not good at all. I can blame it on the weather (so very cold), the job (lots of weird hours), being sick (so many over the counter drugs), but it is mostly my inability to carve out a consistent time to write (so very lazy).  Just to let you know, I’m shooting for at least one post a week for the rest of the year. 

Today, it’s the 2014 Collecting Goals Post!  It’s good to have goals. Without goals we are directionless, wandering aimlessly though our existence without a plan.  If being with the Duchess over the last ten years has taught me anything – it’s that you have to have plan if you want to be successful.  So this year’s plan is…….

Finish off some god damn sets.

That’s right, 2014 is the year of the set completion.  And I’m not talking about recent sets like 2012 Heritage or 2012 O-Pee-Chee Hockey.  I’m looking to complete sets from all eras of my collecting days.  So that spans three-and-a-half decades (yup I’m old). 

Does that mean I’m not buying any new product? Wellllllll. Let’s not get crazy.  Of course I will.  We all get bored and need new stuff.  I’ll probably dabble in the Topps flagship product.  Every year I say I won’t but I do.  So there’s that.  There is also Upper Deck Series II Hockey. So there are two new products on the radar. 
Since I’m older I’m more responsible now.  Responsible people have budgets. Therefore I have a budget.  My budget for 2014 -$300. Of course, because I am me, there is wiggle room.  That $300 can be supplemented by eBay sales. So, if I sell something then I can buy something.  Winner, winner chicken dinner.

Let’s get back to the initial goal – finishing sets.  Throughout my 30-odd years of collecting I’ve started a lot of sets.  Unfortunately I haven’t finished a lot of sets.  It’s time to rectify that situation.  It’s time to finish off some sets.  It’s time to go back into the 90s and face the junk era. 

That’s where I’m starting. I have a lot of cards from the early 90s, yet I don’t have many complete sets.  This year I’m going to change that fact.  I’ve already knocked off the last two cards I needed for the 1990 Topps set and now I’m moving on to the 1992 Topps set.  I think 1991 Fleer will be next (so yellow, so awesome).
I’ll still go after my personal collection cards and various Lightning/Orioles cards as well, but my laser like focus (look, squirrel!) will be on finishing off sets.  We’ll see how that goes.

With that in mind, I did a little shopping on COMC last week.  For less than the price of a blaster I picked up thirteen new cards.  Here they are:

The Starting Point:

1983 Ryne Sandberg Topps

Yes, 1983 Topps is one of those sets I’m working on.  So with a little money in the PayPal account I decided to knock off one of the bigger cards of the set.  I saw a lot of Cubs fans this weekend.  They all want Sandberg as their manager.  They were also irrationally upset that the Cubs moved Bingo night from Friday to Saturday.

The Set Needs 

2012-13 O-Pee-Chee Hockey.
The Tom Pyatt doubles as a Lightning need as well so it killed two birds with one stone.  I have no idea who Brandon Manning is, but it’s one less Rookie card that I need.

Personal Collection

Late 90s Pacific cards were so shiny and unnecessary.  Bonus points for the greatest uniform in the history of Tampa Bay. The Upper Deck Trilogy is probably one of the last cards to be produced with Vinny in a Lightning uniform.  I’m going to be so sad when I get my first “Vinny in a Flyers uniform” card.  Lecavalier in a Ak Bars Kazan uniform?  Yes please!

Random Lightning Cards

Mike Commodore played in a handful of games for the Lightning, you think they would have made a bigger deal of a having a one-legged player on the team. The J.T. Brown collection grows by one and a Steven Stamkos Panini Toronto Expo card round out the bunch.

The Hits

Another jersey swatch for Vincent.  Pretty soon I’ll be able to sew together an entire sweater out of Vinny jersey cards.  That would be awesome.  A Keith Aulie signature?  It was less than two bucks.  I mean I think that’s his signature….

The Super Awesome Bonus Card

Favorite Team – check
Favorite Goalie –check
Favorite Jersey – check
If I ever pony up for a true throwback jersey it will be a Zac Bierk 3rd jersey.  Although I would go with the All Star patch over the John Cullen patch.

Good times!