Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Keepin' it local: Section 7AA seed prediction

It's the most wonderful time of the year. Time for winter sports tournaments! As we dive into March Madness, I'll start things off by projecting the seeds for the Section 7AA boys' hockey tournament.

Ratings I quoted in this post are done by Lee Pagenkopf and Mitch Hawker.

1. Duluth East (18-5-1, 5th in MinnHock, 5th in USHSHO)
vs 7AA: 4-2 (W – Brainerd, Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Forest Lake, Grand Rapids…L – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Elk River)
vs AA: 16-5-1

Duluth East gets the nod, in my view, based on a few factors. They played more games against AA opponents than anyone else in the section, and they have more games against highly-rated AA teams than anyone else in the section. As usual, the Greyhounds have prepared themselves for the postseason by playing one of the toughest schedules in the state. East has won 13 straight games after a 5-5-1 start, and they own wins this season over Moorhead, Centennial, Apple Valley, Roseville, Grand Rapids, and Cloquet, all of whom are in the top 25 of both power ratings that I consulted.

Say what you want, but Duluth East plays great teams, and they beat great teams. They’ve gotten better throughout the year, and you know they’re battle-tested heading into the playoffs.

The schedule strength, coupled with a nice three-goal road win over Rapids, should be enough to vault the ‘Hounds to the top seed.

2. Grand Rapids (15-7, 15th, 19th)
vs 7AA: 5-1 (W – Brainerd, Cloquet/Esko/Carlton (2), Elk River, Forest Lake…L – Duluth East)
vs AA: 8-5 (one game left)

In looking at the power ratings (which are nice, and I applaud the efforts of both Lee Pagenkopf and Mitch Hawker in compiling these every week), it becomes clear that Rapids is noticeably closer to Elk River than they are to Duluth East. Rapids has worked hard to improve their non-conference schedule in recent years, and they played some very good teams this year and posted some very nice wins along the way. The win over Bloomington Jefferson is a great feather in their cap, but what hurts them when you compare them against Duluth East are the head-to-head loss to the ‘Hounds and the common opponents.

While Rapids has a win over Elk River, who beat Duluth East, the Greyhounds have beaten Apple Valley, Moorhead, and Edina, three teams that beat Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids also has losses to Class A Virginia/MIB and St. Louis Park. Also hurting Rapids is a schedule that included only about half their games (13 out of 24) against Class AA teams. While I’m not a big fan of penalizing teams for the conference they play in, I also can’t ignore the fact that Grand Rapids’ affiliation with the Iron Range Conference had a detrimental effect on their schedule strength.

I’m a big believer in taking off the blinders when it comes to ranking teams, and the recent seedings in 7AA would lead me to believe that more than just section record comes into play here. Also, power ratings can’t be the only factor considered. You have to look at section record, head-to-head, and schedule strength when you compare teams. When you look at everything, it’s hard to justify Grand Rapids being the top seed.

3. Elk River (16-5-2, 9th, 8th)
vs 7AA: 3-1-1 (W – Andover (2), Duluth East…L – Grand Rapids…T – Brainerd)
vs AA: 16-3-2 (two games left)

This was tough. Elk River has certainly merited consideration for a high seed in this tournament. They have wins over Duluth East, Blaine, and, well, um, I guess that’s about it. And that’s where the problem lies.

Much like Grand Rapids, you can’t be too harsh on Elk River. They play in a conference that really didn’t have a great year, and as a result, the schedule isn’t as strong as one would expect. The Elks don’t have the quality wins in the section that Grand Rapids does, and they don’t have the quality wins throughout the schedule that Duluth East does. There’s no doubt that Elk River is dangerous, and there’s a chance they could leapfrog Rapids for the two seed. But I’m going to place them third because of the lack of quality wins and the head-to-head loss to Grand Rapids.

4. Cloquet/Esko/Carlton (17-5-1, 8th, 10th)
vs 7AA: 3-3-1 (W – Brainerd, Duluth East, Forest Lake…L – Duluth East, Grand Rapids (2)…T – Brainerd)
vs AA: 10-4-1

The Lumberjacks are an interesting case. A couple weeks ago, CEC was 16-3-1 and it looked like they were still going to be no better than a third seed. They lost twice to Grand Rapids and tied Brainerd, which hurt their overall standing in the section, even though they were taking care of business outside of section play. Even a win over Duluth East wasn’t enough to vault them ahead of East and Rapids.

Since then, the ‘Jacks have lost to Hermantown and Duluth East, with the loss to Hermantown possibly more damaging because it came to a Class A team. CEC plays a lot of Class A teams because of their affiliation with the Lake Superior Conference, so like Grand Rapids and Elk River, the chances for quality wins aren’t as frequent. But CEC has some. They beat Blaine, who is on the verge of 20 wins. They beat White Bear Lake, another highly-rated team. The Lumberjacks also have a win over Edina. But they struggled in section games, and that will be what ultimately pushes them behind Elk River.

5. Brainerd (16-5-2, 26th, 29th)
vs 7AA: 0-4-2 (L – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Duluth East, Forest Lake, Grand Rapids…T – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Elk River)
vs AA: 7-5-2 (one game left)

Brainerd has increased their section schedule as of late, but it didn’t pay off with any wins in 2005-2006. The Warriors came close, losing by one and two goals and also getting two ties. But they needed a win or two to have a case for being ahead of CEC. In the end, there are a few factors that put Brainerd, in my view, ahead of Forest Lake: 1) Brainerd is much better in games against Class AA opponents than Forest Lake, and 2) You can make the case that Brainerd was more competitive against the top teams in the section, despite the record they posted against them. Forest Lake fans might not like it, but I’ll give Brainerd the fifth seed.

6. Forest Lake (7-16-1, 50th, 53rd)
vs 7AA: 2-3 (W – Brainerd, Cambridge-Isanti…L – Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, Duluth East, Grand Rapids)
vs AA: 5-15-1 (one game left)

The Rangers are hurt by a nearly complete lack of quality wins in section play and against AA teams. And it’s not for a lack of chances. Forest Lake has Hastings, White Bear Lake, Roseville, and Cretin-Derham Hall on the schedule twice each. Zero wins. Forest Lake’s schedule keeps them ahead of the bottom three, but their record keeps them out of the top four or five.

7. Andover (9-12-1, 86th, 87th)
vs 7AA: 1-3 (W – Cambridge-Isanti…L – Elk River (2), St. Francis)
vs AA: 7-11-1 (two games left)

I’ll give the Huskies the nod for the seventh seed over Cambridge, despite the obvious discrepancy in overall record. They beat Cambridge, and overall have a much tougher schedule to deal with.

8. Cambridge-Isanti (19-5, 100th, 99th)
vs 7AA: 0-2 (L – Andover, Forest Lake)
vs AA: 6-3

It’s nice to see C-I winning games they haven’t won before. Despite the fact that their schedule is virtually the same as usual, the Bluejackets should hit 20 wins before the postseason. With no other real factors to use in comparisons, Cambridge’s record against a weak schedule trumps St. Francis’, despite the common opponent comparison in the section (Andover beat Cambridge but lost to St. Francis).

9. St. Francis (13-10-1, 99th, 98th)
vs 7AA: 1-0 (W – Andover)
vs AA: 6-2-1 (one game left)

They’re better than they have been for some time, but it still doesn’t translate into a higher seed than we’re used to seeing from St. Francis. The Saints might get the eighth seed, but they won't go any higher.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Randomization: 2/9/06

Go throw a latte if it makes you feel better. Otherwise, Seahawks fans, let it go. Same goes for Mike Holmgren, who fanned the flames on Monday when the city held a rally for his Seattle team. It was a great run, Coach Holmgren. Don't make us remember you guys for the postgame whining and not for the run to Detroit that impressed everyone.

NHL in trouble. If the implication of an assistant coach and the wife of the best-known player the game has ever had in a nationwide gambling ring wasn't enough, how about a few active players being involved? Outside of former Flyer Jeremy Roenick, no names have been mentioned, but there are reports that a half-dozen active players, an owner, and another assistant coach are involved in this thing. That's bad news for a league that has been working hard to rebuild a fan base damaged severely by last year's season-cancelling lockout.

But on that note, why is the only attention this league gets negative? I know that no one watches hockey, but no one watches a lot of sports that get plenty of "positive" attention from the national sports media. I'd rather hockey were completely ignored than treated the way it is. It seems like the only time the NHL can get any major play nationally is when something like this happens, or when something violent happens on the ice. For those of us who adore the game of hockey, it's a tough pill to swallow sometimes.

Frozen Tundra! Yes, it's a redundant phrase. But don't blame me. Blame John Facenda, former voice of NFL Films. He's the one who we think coined it, and then ESPN's Chris Berman drove it straight into the ground after Facenda passed. Now, it's the name of a hockey game being played at Lambeau Field on Saturday. The Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic will pit Ohio State against Wisconsin in an outdoor game in front of around 42,000 spectators. It should be a decidedly pro-Bucky crowd, but that's not the story. The story is the fact that football's hallowed ground is hosting a hockey game for the first time ever. There has been nothing from the Packers organization to indicate that they expect to make this a regular happening if all goes well, but it is certainly possible that they would consider future ventures like this should the weekend's events be received well. Also worth noting here is that there has been substantial talk of a similar event next season at the Metrodome in Minneapolis that could involve UMD and Minnesota. That's not a done deal yet, but if the Metrodome people do it right, it could be a huge event for college hockey in Minnesota.

Are you ready for the Olympics? Don't worry. Neither am I. I was watching NBC last night and saw a promo when it hit me: The Games are here this weekend! Besides the obvious (hockey), there is so much about the Winter Games that interest me. I'll be glued to the TV as much as possible over the next two weeks, taking in as much as I can. Bobsled, luge, skiing, speedskating, short track speedskating, skeleton, ski jumping, curling. Anything but figure skating. I'll put up with figure skating because my wife likes it. It's my way of getting to watch other cool events that she doesn't care about. Oh, and I hope the Canadian and Russian men's hockey teams are both beaten by Latvia and Kazakhstan. I'd chuckle at the embarrassment. In the meantime, any doubt that I'm pulling for the American team disappeared when Canada announced that Todd Bertuzzi would be on their Olympic team. I'd rather root for the Mexican soccer team than any team featuring Todd Bertuzzi.

Joe Montana skips Super Bowl ceremony. I'd love to believe that this was about family and not money, and I'd love to believe what Montana told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith ("I've moved on from football"), but then I learned yesterday that Montana is doing a paid collectors' show appearance in late February. Autographs? $150. Photo op? $170. So apparently Montana can sacrifice some family time to make some money off his fame as a Pro Football Hall of Famer and three-time Super Bowl MVP. I guess he's only moved on when there isn't a large chunk of change involved, and that stinks.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Super Bowl XL

First off, apologies for not being around the last 10 days or so. I've been ill and barely able to keep my head up long enough to do a talk show, much less sit down and post in my blog. Thank goodness for amoxicillin, as I feel better now than I have since before I hit the road to St. Cloud.

And, no, I'm not blaming St. Cloud for my getting sick. It's just an eerie coincidence.

Now, on to the matter at hand. The Big Game. Super Bowl XL is almost here, and the hype is overwhelming. I'm smart enough to avoid most of it, and I will avoid most of the stupid storylines here, preferring to instead actually talk about the game that is going to be played in Detroit on Sunday.

With that in mind, a few thoughts:

1. I don't give a crap what Jerramy Stevens said, or what Joey Porter said in response. Talk about overblown BS. There will come a day where the media doesn't arrive at the Super Bowl site a week before the game, and when that day comes, crap like this won't make headlines...because the game will be front and center and the only important topic.

2. It's really nice that Jerome Bettis is from Detroit. What a great story. Oh, and in case you didn't know it, his parents have never missed a game. That's great stuff. But in a strange twist, people who ridicule the Bettis story have become more annoying than the people who are reporting the Bettis story. Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we have nothing else to talk about during Super Bowl Week.

3. Troy Polamalu tweaked his ankle. Expect three cameras to be isolated on his every move, and if he ever shows a limp on the field during the game, someone will need to take the coaches' clicker away from Madden.

I'll be back Monday with a Super Bowl diary, though it probably won't be as detailed as in years past. I'm actually going to watch the Super Bowl at someone else's house, something I haven't done in a long time.

And on to the show...

Conference championships: 2-0
Playoffs: 8-2

Yes, I'm 8-2 in the playoffs. And both games I missed were Sunday games that kicked off at noon CT. Please note that the Super Bowl does not kick off until 5:30pm CT.

We have two quarterbacks who experienced the absolute depths of playoff despair a year ago for different reasons. Matt Hasselbeck threw perfect passes that his receivers routinely dropped, and his season fittingly ended when Bobby Engram dropped a potential game-winning TD pass in the end zone on fourth down. Ben Roethlisberger gained a lot of media attention by riding the coattails of a solid defense and strong running game to the AFC Championship Game in his rookie season. It was there that New England exposed Roethlisberger as being exactly what he was - a rookie QB who wasn't ready for the big game.

Now, Hasselbeck's receivers actually catch his passes, and Roethlisberger actually throws passes to the guys in the same colors and helmets. As a result, they face off head-to-head in the Super Bowl, and it should be a good matchup. Neither QB has been known this year as mistake-prone or inaccurate, and both have raised their level of play dramatically in the playoffs. Hasselbeck took the team on his back in the Divisional Playoffs when Shaun Alexander went down with a concussion. Roethlisberger has been exceptional, especially in the first half of games. When his team fell behind in Cincinnati (the only time this playoff year that Pittsburgh has been behind), he calmly led his team down the field for two crucial second-quarter scores to keep it close. The defense went crazy on Jon Kitna in the second half, and the rest is history.

For Seattle, Hasselbeck is the key. Pittsburgh won't let Alexander beat them, and he will have to work to get his yards. Hasselbeck will face blitzes like he's never seen before, and the Seahawks will have to be prepared for the unexpected from the Steelers' defense. If Troy Polamalu isn't coming, you better look out for Clark Haggans and Joey Porter. Oh, and James Farrior hardly ever blitzes, but he had 2.5 sacks in the win at Indianapolis. Watch for him, too. Did I mention that Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen can rush the passer, too? Hasselbeck will need to have his head on a swivel. The last time a Holmgren-coached team made the Super Bowl, it was Brett Favre who couldn't handle the aggressive blitzes by Greg Robinson's Denver defense. You remember that one, right?

Additionally, look out for Stevens. And not because of the deal with Porter. Look out for Stevens because the Steelers will do such a good job on Darrell Jackson and friends that Hasselbeck will need to look for his tight ends to loosen up the coverage a little bit. Stevens is a talented player who may end up using the spat with Porter to juice himself up a little bit. Either way, he's a dangerous weapon on this offense.

Seattle also has an offensive line that doesn't get nearly enough accolades. Led by the mammoth veteran left tackle Walter Jones, the Seahawks create good lanes for Alexander, who is great at letting the blocking develop before he hits the hole, and they have been superb this year at protecting Hasselbeck. They'll be tested in this game, and Hasselbeck will take some hits, but the Seattle line should prove less leaky than, say, Denver's.

On the Steelers' side, they have to be careful, too. Safety Michael Boulware and linebacker Lofa Tatupu have rare gifts at their positions. Boulware has the tackling ability of a linebacker and the speed of a safety. He might not be on Polamalu's level, but he's a lot closer to it than The Pretty Hype Machine in Detroit would want you to think he is. Tatupu is very fast for a linebacker, but he doesn't sacrifice strength, and he's very good at reading plays and attacking the ball. Much like Polamalu, it is rare that Tatupu is caught out of position, and he has the speed to make up ground if he is. Maybe Pete Carroll's staff at USC knows what they're doing after all.

Up front, the Seahawks aren't big, but their discipline and athleticism create matchup problems. Grant Wistrom, picked up as a free agent from St. Louis a few years ago, is a relentless player with one of those proverbial "nonstop motors". Rocky Bernard is the best interior pass-rusher playing in this game, even if Pittsburgh DT Casey Hampton gets all the love from The Pretty Hype Machine. Hampton is a run-stuffer, and Bernard is more athletic.

Roethlisberger has to make sure he's efficient early, as the Steelers' ability to mix up their playcalling has been a key for them so far. Running the ball has to be a priority, but the Steelers have another weapon at their disposal to keep the Seahawks' defense honest, in the event that the running game is slowed down.

The trick play.

Who knows what Kent Whisenhunt and Bill Cowher have cooked up this week?

The Steelers are great at running trick plays, but their tendency to call them is even more important than the team's ability to execute them all the time. Even a failed trick play has a purpose. The design is to attack a dishonesty or a cheat in the defense. If the play works, you get big yards and big wows from The Pretty Hype Machine. If the play doesn't work, you still can accomplish something, despite the inevitable second-guessing from The Pretty Hype Machine. The defense still has to respect the fact that you're willing to run gadget plays, and it makes their reactions a split-second slower, because instead of attacking, they're more prone to letting the play develop in front of them first. Pittsburgh is usually good for one or two of these per game, and they might make a difference.

I think the big difference is the play of the defenses. I like Seattle's defense, but I like Pittsburgh's more. I think they have more talent across the board, and they're playing at a higher level. Fatigue could be a problem for Pittsburgh if it weren't for the week off, as they had to win three straight on the road to get to Detroit. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Pittsburgh is likely to have much more fan support at the game than Seattle will. While the Steelers are wearing the road jerseys (thus subjecting us to Seattle's hideous Blue Man Group-wannabe outfits), they will be the home team in terms of fan support. Even though they're actually favored in the game, I like Pittsburgh to win and get "one for the thumb".

The pick: Pittsburgh