Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Game Whatever: The One With All of the Awards

The official morning period has passed.  How do I know that?  Because people who know that I’m a Tampa Bay Lightning fan no longer start off conversations by saying, “Man, sorry about the Lightning.  Are you OK?” I also feel like I can write about the season with a little bit of objectivity. Let’s face it, it was a tough season for the team and their fans. The injuries, the suspensions, the contract negotiations (or lack thereof), the Matt Carle being Matt Carle made for one long slog of a season. Yet there they were back in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Imagine jumping back to September and someone telling you that the Lightning would have portions of the season where Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palet, Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos would miss significant time.  They also told you that there was legitimate debate if Jonathan Marchessault should be playing or not. If you heard that, would you think they were one win away from making the Stanley Cup Finals?  I surely wouldn’t.  I would be hoping they would be battling Toronto for the rights to Auston Matthews.

But the Lightning survived the regular season.  They survived the first two rounds of the playoffs and they almost survived the Penguins.  After the big Game 5 win against the Penguins I tweeted this out:

There was so much talent on this squad that it was inconceivable that scoring would be the thing that they struggled with.  Yet there we were watching them struggle to 2-1 losses to Colorado in October and Detroit in November.  Or, hey how about that 1-0 OT loss to Chicago during that stretch as well?  Who would have thought that defense would have kept the team in the hunt over the first half of the season?

Yet, somehow they made it to the playoffs and pretty much breezed through the first two rounds thanks to timely goaltending, the individual greatness of Nikita Kucherov and favorable match-ups.  Despite having to rely on a 21-year-old backup goalie against the best team in the Eastern Conference they held their own against Penguins.  So for me the season was a success.  A struggling success, but a success the whole time.

I felt, especially after watching Game 3 live, that they were a team that just ran out of gas at the end of the season. While they managed to scrap out wins in Games 4 and 5 with their backs against the wall, the sluggishness and sloppy play returned with a vengeance in Game 6 and in Game 7 they were just outplayed by a better team.

To wrap up the playoffs in true Hopeful Chase fashion lets hand out some poorly thought out postseason awards:

Post Season MVP:  Nikita Kucherov

Eleven goals in 17 games is going to get him paid. While none of them were game winners, several were game-tying goals which were just as important.  There were times in the Islanders series where it seemed like he couldn’t not score when the puck was on his stick. He displayed some of the selfishness that all good scorers need as he led the team with 51 shots and the chemistry he had enjoyed with Tyler Johnson last season returned.  While the Pens did a decent job of slowing him down, he still had his moments against them.

Post Season LVP: Nikita Nesterov

I know, I know.  How did Matt Carle lose this award?  Let’s not let his regression against the Penguins detract from how well he played in the first two rounds.  He wasn’t just “not bad” he was good.  So that leaves Mr. Nesterov.  At some point you have to wonder if a player is going to be able to cut it at the NHL level.  Nesterov shows flashes of ability, but when the pressure is on he just isn’t reliable.  With the emergence of Slater Koekkoek and Anthony DeAngelo waiting in the wings, Nesterov’s tenure as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning might be drawing to a close.

The “How do you like dem apples” award: Jonathan Drouin

In the most surprising showing of the postseason , the Prodigal Son showed everyone, including his GM, why he was a top draft pick. Even in the Game 6 loss he scored the prettiest goal of the game, cutting across the front of the net, shooting against the flow of play and picking the top corner of the net.  From his feistiness in  Round One to being one of the few Lightning players that could match the Penguins speed in the Conference finals, Drouin showed his entire range of skills.

The “Why didn’t he play more” award:  Vlad Namestnikov

The Russian Bieber played all 17 games in the playoffs, but often found himself on the bench during the later stages of the games.  He picked up 3 points playing mostly on one of the least used lines (things were so jumbled that the concept of first and second lines were lost).  To me, it would have made more sense to see him playing in Val Filppula’s role against the Lightning.  Despite the Finn’s depth hand at face-offs, his lack of speed against the Penguins was quite telling. I’m hoping this turns into another one of Coach Cooper’s long cons, where mysterious line usage in the present pays off in the future.

The “Congratulations on making next year’s team” award:  Slater Koekkoek

Maybe it was the fact that he had fresh legs on a team that was physically worn out by the end of the playoffs, but in Games 6 and 7, he was Tampa’s most noticeable player on the ice when he had the puck. Sure, he had a few turnovers in toward the end of Game 7, but those are bound to happen when you’re pushing for a goal.  His play led to the benching of Matt Carle in Game 7 and most likely will lead to him being penciled in as one of the starting 6 blue liners for the 2016-17 season.

The “You played really, really well, but man I wonder what would have happened if Ben Bishop was healthy” award:  Andrei Vasilevskiy

I don't think we could have expected more from the 21-year-old Russian. He stopped 92.5% of the shots that came his way.  Which is good, but look at the number of shots he faced.  Bishop played 148 more minutes (roughly 2 and ½ games) than Vasy, but only faced 30 more shots.That's phenomenal! The Penguins peppered him all series long and for the most part he was up to the task.  Yet I couldn’t shake the thought that if Bishop was healthy for Game 7 the outcome might have been different.

My favorite save of the postseason.  

The “Hey, he had a pretty good post season too” award: Tyler Johnson

In what was a tough season for the diminutive center, Johnson finished second on the team in post-season scoring as he finished with 17 points and 3 game-winning goals (including one of his back).  That was roughly half of the amount of points that he put up in the regular season. Hopefully he gets to rest this offseason and won’t require any medical work so that he can start off next season with a fresh slate.

The “I don’t want to say anything, but maybe he should have sat a little longer” award: Anton Stralman

I get it, I really do. When you’re patching your defense together with duct tape and Matt Carle, having your second best defenseman back in the lineup makes sense. He just wasn’t the same when he came back from the broken leg.  Whether it was because his hockey instincts were a little rusty or he just wasn’t up to playoff game speed, Stralman just looked out of sorts.  Getting caught in between making a play and defending on the Sidney Crosby overtime goal was indicative of how his series went.

The “Thanks for trying to give us one more great memory” award: Steven Stamkos

Even as we sit one month away from the free agent frenzy, I don’t know if Stamkos is coming back to the team.  In my hopeful mind, the fact that he played shows that he does indeed want to be a Bolt for life. After all if he was planning on taking the first money train to Toronto would he have risked playing in Game 7? No one would have thought less of him if he didn’t play.

And while in the end he didn’t have much of a factor in the game, there was that brief moment in the third period where he found the puck on his stick and a step on the defense.  He wound back, unleashed a howitzer that seemed to actually go through Matt Murray but then, as was the case with every puck it seemed, it trickled wide of the net.  If he scores there, man would that have given the team and their fans a boost of adrenaline.

But wait, didn't I just argue that playing Stralman hurt the team? How was playing Stamkos different? Because it's my column, that's why.  Look, if Coach Cooper had sat Steven Stamkos, one of the premier goal scorers of this generation, in Game 7 after the the doctor's cleared him, he would have regretted it every day of his coaching life. You'd don't go into that game without loading that bullet in the gun.

I think that time will also dull some of the pain of this season and we’ll look back fondly on the emergence of Kucherov as an upper tier talent and Victor Hedman building his legacy as future Norris Trophy winner. The Lightning proved that they weren’t a one-season fluke and that they will be a contender in the East for the next few years.  Hopefully Mr. Yzerman can navigate the difficult waters that lie ahead this offseason and keep that Cup window open for a few more seasons.

Combine their ages and they still aren't as old as Jagr

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

An Old Friend Stops By With Some Thoughts on Games 1 and 2

I'm not going to lie. Thanks to prime time programming and a busy week at work I've watched a total of about 25 minutes of Games 1 and 2 live.  So, in order to get a feel for how the series has been going, I've recruited friend of the blog and fellow hockey wanderer Jason (aka Link), a Penguins season ticket holder, to help out. While I’m jetting down to Tampa for Game 3, we had a little email conversation to see how he feels about the series so far.

Justin G: So. How’s your heart?  Quite a few overtime games for you and your Penguins so far.  We talked a little before the series started and we were both excited at the match-up.  It hasn’t quite been the goal fest we were expecting, but what are your initial thoughts after two games?

Jason L: The heart rate is doing ok, but going into the third period last night I felt that if the Penguins lost, the series would likely be over.  I am surprised the Penguins haven't been able to get great scoring chances.  Their best chances have come off of rebounds and scrambles in front of the net.  The Penguins best lines have been the Matt Cullen and Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel lines.  Crosby and Malkin continue to struggle 5 on 5 and I think it is only a matter of time until they are paired together. 

The Lightning are really fast.  The Penguins have been skating teams out of the building for the past 4 months but Tampa is just as quick if not quicker.  Their ability to block shots has impressed me as well as their transition game.  I am surprised how poorly they have done in the faceoff circle.  The won Game 1 despite getting destroyed in the circle.  Its one thing to lose a draw but the Penguins have won draw after draw cleanly.  Both team split the faceoffs in game 2 primarily because Tampa started winning draws in the 3rd.  This is an area of concern for the Bolts and it could prevent Tampa from playing their A game against the Pens.

JG: I saw you posted on Facebook in Game 2 that you were a bit worried that Matt Murray looked a little shaky.  Luckily for you the Pens shut down the Lightning and limited their shots.  Is he still your guy moving forward?

JL: I am a Marc Andre Fleury guy.  I think he is vastly underrated throughout the league and this year he is the reason the Penguins weren't twenty points out of a playoff spot before they caught fire.  The question I ask myself is who is your best goaltender?  Matt Murray may be the answer in a few years but right now the answer is Fleury.

best at blowing bubbles maybe

Fleury may be the most athletic goalie in the league while Murray is positionally sound on every play. Unlike the last series where battling traffic was the key to success, in this series the Penguins need a more athletic goalie to counteract the Tampa offense.

Sullivan is in a no win situation.  I feel as if he is waiting for Murray to have a bad game.  Game 2 was Tampa's chance to expose the young netminder but the Lightning failed to generate shots, let along scoring chances, against the Penguins.

JG: Everyone (by that I mean Twitter) thought that Ben Bishop’s leg had detached from his body in Game 1.  Now it looks like not only is it still on his body, but may be healthy enough to go in Game 3.  In his absence young Mr. Vasilevskiy has played quite well.  You’re John Cooper.  What do you do?

JL: I was watching Game 1 from my season ticket location in section 205 and I thought Bishop was done.  Everyone in the arena thought the same.  I have attended close to 500 hockey games and I have never seen a goalie leave on a stretcher.  I am not a big Ben Bishop fan.  In my opinion Ben Bishop is just a really big goalie who plays on a talented team.  Vasilevskiy is the better goalie.  Don't let  age fool you, he has the game that can take the Lightning to the cup.  He just needs the opportunity.

it was a hell of a stop

JG: The match-up game switches as we head to Tampa.  Now that the Lightning have the last line change, who should they put Hedman on?  In other words, as a Pittsburgh fan, which Pens line is the most dangerous?

JL: I would put Hedman against the Kessel-Bonino-Hagelin line.  This has been the Penguins best line in the playoffs by far.  The key to beating the Penguins is making them play a 200 foot game.  The HBK line has been great and creating neutral zone turnovers and using their speed to back off opposing defenseman.  This is going to sound odd, but trust me on this one.  Hedman against the HBK line is a must.

JG: Before his overtime goal, Sidney Crosby had been held goalless in 9 games.  From what I saw, Coach Sullivan tried to shake things up by putting him on a line with Evgeni Malkin.  It almost worked as Malkin fed Crosby for a one-timer that Vasilevsky made a fantastic save on.  What’s up with Sid?

JL: The reason you saw this happen more than once late in the 2nd and during parts of the 3rd period was that Conor Sheary was benched or hurt.  I don't think Sheary has been the same since the Tom Wilson knee on knee hit in Game 1 of the Washington series.  In Game 2, the Penguins had to rotate 11 forwards and when that happens you will see Crosby & Malkin together.

I think this strategy is one the Penguins need to employ a lot more going forward in the series.  As for Crosby I think you saw his best period in a while in the 3rd but a lot of his scoring issues has to deal with the Penguins lack of success on the power play.  The Penguins just haven't been bad on the power play since round one, but they have been dreadful.  When the Penguins power play controls the action the Penguins feed off of it, even when they don't score.  I think it is no coincidence that the Penguins have a tendency to give up goals following uninspired power plays.

JG: You’ve now seen the Lightning in back-to-back playoff games.  Anything strike you as different than regular season Lightning?  Who has been their best player?

JL: Drouin has been their best player.  He was everywhere on the ice in the first two games.  When he had the puck I feared him.  I still think Yzerman/Cooper were nuts for playing him on the 4th line and then sending him to the minors.  Drouin although young is a top NHL talented forward.  If you are not going to play him 15+ minutes a game you are doing him a disservice.

Look at the butt on that. He must work out.

The Lightning are at their best when they use stretch passes against the Penguins.  The Killorn breakaway goal in the first period of Game 1 was evidence of that.  They continued to use this during Game 1 and I think it was a big reason the Penguins defenseman were on their heels.

As a team what impresses me the most if their ability to get into the shooting lanes.  No one talks about the Lightning forwards defensively but they do a great job and clogging the shooting lanes.

JG: How worried are you about the return of Steven Stamkos?  Anton Stralman came back in Game 2 and scored a goal (granted he was also on the ice for the overtime winner, but that’s not important).  Do you think Stamkos makes a difference?

JL: Honestly I was more worried about Stralman than Stamkos.  I think Stamkos will offer the Penguins more chances on the counter attack.  Do I think he could be a threat on the power play? Yes, but I also wonder if he will disrupt the Lightning team chemistry.  Stralman is a Penguins killer and he gives Tampa a big threat on the blueline besides Hedman.  He has scored 4 goals in 5 games against the flightless birds this season and is someone I truly fear as a Penguins fan.

JG: With the exception of the power play goal in Game 1, all of the Lightning goals have been scored in transition.  How is Pittsburgh going to stop that?

JL: I don't think the Penguins can stop the Lightning transition game other than to keep control of the puck.  The Penguins engage their defense and they do it well, but when it doesn't work it leads to chances the other way.  The Lightning are the one team in the league who can make the Penguins pay.

In the second half of Game 2, the Penguins won the battles along the wall and prevented the Bolts from leaving their zone with speed.  This is the key to the series.  If Tampa successfully gets into transition they will win the series.  If they don't, they will raise another banner at the Consol Energy Center.

There ya go.  Many thanks to Mr. Link for taking the time to answer my questions.  Despite his lifelong affiliation with the Steel City he's a good man.  Check him out on Twitter at @Linkes25.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Some Thoughts on Round Three

Buried somewhere in the archives of this website I’m pretty sure there is a prediction where I said the Tampa Bay Lightning would probably bow out in the second round of the playoffs, and that I was O.K. with that.  As with most of my predictions I was wrong.  Guess what, I‘m O.K. with that!.  After a horrible first game, the Lightning came roaring back and dispatched the New York Islanders in four straight games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Tampa Bay will look to defend their Eastern Conference title against NHL cover boy Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Penguins advanced by defeating their fellow Pennsylvanians Philadelphia Flyers (their fellow Atlantic Division rivals, the New York Rangers)in the first round and then handing the Washington Capitals their latest playoff disappointment in the second round.

This is the second time the two teams have met in the post season with the first being during the opening round of  the 2011 playoffs. That was a weird seven game series that featured the Lightning winning Game 5 8-2 and Game 7 1-0. Despite being just five seasons ago only  Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos remain on the team from that series.  Even odder, for the Penguins only Marc Andre Fluery and Chris Kunitz played against the Lightning in 2011.  Both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured.

Remember how I rambled on in my last preview about how I had no feeling for how the Islanders were as a team?  Well, that’s not a problem in this round.  The Penguins are offense. Plain and simple they like to score goals.  It helps when you have two of the best players in the league in Crosby and Malkin. Oh and it doesn’t hurt when you add 40-goal scorer and hot dog aficionado Phil Kessel in the off-season. Throw in guys like Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin and it’s easy to see why the Pens sport such a high flying offense.

A lot has been made that the Lightning have “only” played 10 games so far in the playoffs.  Well, the Penguins are right with them having advanced through two round while only playing 11 games.  And, sorry Lightning fans, they faced a little better competition in doing so.  I haven’t looked yet, but I’m assuming a lot of the national pundits are picking the Penguins to win the series.  After all, they were the ones that declared the Pens/Caps series the true Eastern Conference Finals.

So, if the Lightning are underdogs for the first time this postseason, and are finally the road team in a series, how can they win four of their next seven games and advance to the Finals?

1. Create a goaltender controversy

Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has been the surprise star of the playoffs so far. At one point this season he was the 3rd string goalie for Pittsburgh. Now, he’s leading them to a possible Stanley Cup. Since taking over for Jeff Zatkoff he’s gone 7-2 with a 2.05 GAA and .935 save percentage. Those stats mirror his regular season performance where in 13 games he went 9-2 with a 2.00 and .930.  Huh, maybe he’s just a good goalie.

This kid should have a paper route not a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals.

However, sitting on the bench is Stanley Cup winning Marc Andre Fleury. The longtime Penguins net minder is finally healthy and ready to play. Everyone, even coaches, loves experience in the playoffs.  Fleury has 98 games of playoff experience compared to Murray’s 9.  If the Lightning can light up Murray in one of the first two games, coach Mike Sullivan could have a difficult choice on his hands.  Hope the kid bounces back or go with a goaltender who has done it in the past, but has been sitting on his hands for the last month.

Having to deal with goaltending questions in the playoffs can be a big distraction (see Detroit series) and when every game matters, if the Lightning can steal one because the “wrong” goalie is playing could swing the tide in the series.

2. Keep the scoring mix going

Coach Cooper loves tinkering with his lines.  Whether it’s before the game or during the game, you know at some point he’s going to switch things up.  While his manipulations didn’t pay off in round one, it did lead to slightly more balanced scoring against the Islanders.  While Nikita Kucherov still seemingly scored at will, Val Filppula, Jason Garrison, media darling Victor Hedman, and Vlad Namestnikov all picked up their first goals of the post season.

If these guys start filling the net with pucks, the Lightning have a chance.

Having the defense start contributing offensively (especially the monster series by Hedman) against the Islanders was one of the best things  to come out of that series. Tampa Bay is at their best when the blue line is playing aggressive and finding ways to get their shots on net. Yes, it does lead to the occasional 2-on-1 break the other way, but that’s why you have a Vezina-finalist goalie in net.

The Lightning are not going to win these games 2-1 or 1-0, they need to score goals.  On paper, there should be more room on the ice for their offense. The Penguins have been giving up over 32 shots per game so far this post season.  That’s a lot of opportunities for the Lightning forwards (and blue liners) to cash in.  They have to focus on getting the puck on net and not trying to be too cute in passing the puck around.

It is likely that Coach Cooper will keep going with his beloved 11-forward/ 7 defensemen lineup, especially on the road.  That gives him a chance to mix-and-match a fourth line throughout the game that could keep the Penguins off balance.  It also lets him protect a couple of the younger defenders that are guarding the blueline.

He might move away from that set up if Steven Stamkos comes back at some point in the series.  In this type of matchup I would rather see another sniper added to the lineup even if it forces him to play Slater Koekkoek or Luke Witkowski more than he would like. And yes, I believe both of those guys have moved passed Nikita Nesterov on the current depth chart.

They need to keep getting contributions from all three of their main lines if they are going to match the firepower that the Penguins bring to the ice.  Heck, if anyone remembers the 2011 matchup, it wasn’t Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier scoring the goals, it was Sean Freaking Bergenheim. So look for the difference makers to be someone along the line of Filppula or Ryan Callahan.

I believe this is the one save MAF made against Bergenheim in the series.

3. Rely too much on Ben Bishop

Let’s face it.  The Penguins are going to get their chances.  They are too good on offense to be shut down.  Plus the Lightning always have those spastic moments where they completely forget how to clear the puck out of their own zone.  When that happens, they have to hope the big man in the net comes through.

Bishop had a great regular season and was basically the only reason they didn’t dig a hole so deep they couldn’t climb out of it.  What he’s done in the post season has been even more impressive.  Eight wins in ten games, two series-clinching shutouts, a .938 save percentage and a 1.89 GAA.  Those numbers aren’t too shabby.

There will be at least one game that he absolutely steals for the Lightning. Something along the lines of a 3-1 win where he stops 45 shots in regulation.  Those type of games can be series-turning, especially if they happen on the road.

Hard to score when the goalie knocks you on your ass.  Photo by Getty Images

They also need him to stop all the stoppable shots.  It seems like a simple concept, but it is extremely important when playing Pittsburgh.  The Penguins are going to score, they are going to score in ways that make you say, “WOW”.  If Bishop can limit them to those types of goals the Lightning have enough offense on their own to win the series. However, if he starts letting in some soft goals, I don’t know if the Lightning can keep up.

4. Special Teams

Don’t take penalties and score when you have the extra man.  This game is easy, isn’t it?  One thing the Penguins haven’t done well is kill penalties.  Their current success rate is 83%.  Not great, but not terrible.  They have, however, taken a lot of penalties.  They’ve been shorthanded 42 times in their 11 games.  If they keep that rate up, the Lightning have to find a way to score when on the power play.  Putting Brian Boyle in front of the net and Jonathan Drouin on the point seems to have worked.

On the other side, the Lightning themselves have been shorthanded 43 times in their 10 games.  Luckily, thanks to Bishop and the less-talented teams they’ve played, they’ve only given up 5 power play goals.  They can’t take 4 penalties a game against the Penguins or they will get lit up.

5. Hide Malkin’s Equipment

If there is one player I fear in this upcoming series it sure isn’t Ian Cole, it’s Evgeni Malkin. He’s been tearing up the Lightning his entire career. He has 19 goals and 23 assists in 31 regular season games against the Bolts (he has yet to face them in the playoffs) and of those 19 goals half are highlight-reel worthy.

Malkin has been O.K. during the playoffs so far.  After missing the end of the season with an injury he has played 10 games in the post season and  scored 3 goals while tallying 6 assists. He is nominally on their 3rd line with Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr.  However, much like the Lightning, the 3rd line is more of another offensive line than a checking line.

Of course, the big question for the Lightning is going to be who do they match Hedman against? Will it be the Malkin line or the Crosby line? Tampa Bay has “held” Crosby to only 14 goals and 27 assists in 41 games over his career (again, he hasn’t faced them in the playoffs). So it’s kind of a coin flip.

If Anton Stralman does come back, most likely it would be in Coach Cooper’s best interest to match him up with Jason Garrison so that it gives him two above average pairings to send on the ice.  Hedman has played well with Braydon Coburn so far in the post season….of course he could play well with a traffic cone at this point…so perhaps you put that pairing on Malkin and Stralman’s pairing on Crosby.

If Stralman doesn’t come back….well….good luck with that.

Even if you can shut down Malkin and Crosby, you still have to worry about Phil Kessel who is the actual scoring leader on the team.  The Penguins offense is deeper than the Mariana Trench.

In the end I have a feeling that this is going to be a really good series.  You have two teams that would rather score goals than stop them.  Both teams have depth. With the exception of a few elbows, both teams play a pretty clean game.

The big question for the Penguins will be if Matt Murray can continue his outstanding play.

The big question for the Lightning will be if they can contain the Penguin’s scoring depth.

I say that home ice plays a big role and despite the return of Steven Stamkos in Game 5, the Penguins win the series in seven.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

We Take a Break From the Playoffs to Check Out Some Cards

It's time for another CheckOutMyCards quasi-blaster. Flush with some PayPal funds and the need to polish off the 1983 Topps set I fired up the browser and went searching for some more cards to make the shipping worth it. Since you'll see pictures of the front, let's also highlight some notes on the back.

1983 Topps George Brett All Star

The back of the card recounts the 1935 All-Star Game held in Cleveland. Jimmy Foxx drove in 3 of the AL's runs in the 4-1 win. Lefty Gomez picked up the win by pitching 6 innings. Imagine a starter in the All Star game going six innings nowadays? The internet would lose its collective mind. Also, we need more people named “Arky” in pro sports. Arky (given name Joseph Floyd) Vaughn scored the lone National League run.

1983 Topps Rickey Henderson

Hey, Rickey was born in Chicago! Didn't know that. Also, through the 1982 season, his 4th in the majors, he already had successfully stolen 319 bases. The current active stolen bases leader in the majors right now is Ichiro with 500. However, it took the Japanese superstar 16 seasons to get there. Which means he should tie Henderson's record of 1,406 sometime around 2045.

1983 Topps Pete Rose Super Veteran

In '83, Rose had 20 years of service time in the major leagues. Right now the only active players to eclipse that mark are Alex Rodriguez (22 years) and David Ortiz (20 years). Ortiz is planning on retiring after this year and Rodriguez after next. Who knows if anyone else will get close to that number anytime soon?

1983 Topps Randy Jones

In 1974 Jones lost 22 games for the San Diego Padres. The next two years he won a combined 42 and pitched 600 innings and won the Cy Young award in 1976. That workload took a toll on his arm and he never recovered from a nerve injury he suffered in the last start of that year. In fact, he never posted a winning record in his remaining 6 seasons and finished with an overall losing record of 100-123.

2012 Topps Heritage James Shields

Shields had 11 complete games in 2011. He is still the franchise leader for the Rays with a total of 19 (also with 8 shutouts). The closest current Ray is Chris Archer with 3. Shields is currently tied with Clayton Kershaw for 4th among active leaders with 22. If you're looking for records that are never going to be broken Cy Young's 749 complete games has to be number one.

2015-16 Nikita Kucherov O-Pee-Chee Retro Variant

The information is a little sparse on the back of this one despite the fact that everything is in English and French. Kucherov is listed as being born in Maikop,Russia. It appears to be a small typo as a quick search lists the town name as “Maykop”. The name translates to “Valley of apple trees”. That's nice.

1983 Topps Ozzie Smith

Woo-hoo! Set complete! Ozzie is shown in a Cardinals uniform as he was picked up from the Padres in a trade on 2-11-1982. The trade was Smith, Steve Mura, Luis DeLeon to the Padres for Sixto Lezcano, Gary Templeton and Al Olmsted. According to The Sporting News the trade almost fell apart due to Smith's demand for a higher salary. The negotiations led to a great quote from then St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog, “Ozzie is a great fielder and baserunner. I'd like to have him. But if he doesn't want to come to St. Louis, I don't want him. No .220 hitter is worth what he's asking [$750,000]”. Restrosimba has a great post on the troubled trade.

(ed note – Upon further review. The set is not complete. Apparently I still need a Robin Yount. Damn my fading memory.)

2012 Topps Heritage Eric Hosmer

Hosmer played two seasons in the Carolina League for the Wilmington Blue Rocks. My parents live in Wilmington, North Carolina. It's a nice little city just a hop, skip and a jump from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Another awesome fact – it was where Dawson's Creek was filmed.

2013-14 Panini Contenders NHL Link Ondrej Palat Autograph

A poorly worded anecdote on the back:

Palat was on a road trip with his AHL club in Hershey, Pa., when he received a call on March 3, 2013 telling him he'd be playing WITH the Penguins that night. His team had a casual dress code, so Palat had to run to a store in Hershey to buy a suit before jumping in a car for the three-plus-hour drive.

OK. So there are two issues with that description. The glaringly obvious one being that Palat played against the Penguins not with them. Also, the game was played on the 4th, not the 3rd. Tighten your fact checking game, Panini.

In case you were wondering, Palat picked up an assist on a Tom Pyatt goal in the 4-3 loss to the Penguins.

2014-15 Upper Deck Premier Rinks of Honor Autographed Booklets #RH-JD - Jonathan Drouin - Courtesy of COMC.com

2014-15 Upper Deck Premier Rinks of Honor Autographed Booklets #RH-JD

Not a bad card for less than a lunch in the city. I didn't realize it was an autograph until I read the back of the card. Drouin signed it in gold ink and it looks really, really nice. It doesn't show up on the scan, but in person it's quite nice.  Now I just have to figure out if I want to display it or just throw it in the Lightning box. I'm going to say that depends on what happens in the offseason with young Mr. Drouin.

According to the back of the card the official seating capacity of the Amalie Arena is 19,204. Upper Deck did check it's facts as the official Amalie Arena website confirms that number. For the 2015-16 season the Lightning averaged 19,092 fans for their home games, good enough for 8th in the league. And they said hockey wouldn't work in Florida.....

1983 Topps Pete Rose Super Veteran

Wait, what? Yup. I managed to order the same card twice in one order from COMC. Looks like it was left in my cart from a previous visit to the site. Make sure to check your orders, kids. That's $.60 I could have spent on another card.

So that's another quasi-blaster break from our friends at Check Out My Cards. Seriously, check them out and buy something.