Monday, June 19, 2006

Randomization: 06/19/06

Roundtable update. Thanks to all the BlogPollers who have taken part in the latest college football roundtable. I'll be posting some summary-type stuff on it later this week, so if you haven't answered the questions yet, there is still time. Just send me an e-mail or click the comment link on the BlogPoll post here to make your participation known.

Game 7, awesome hockey edition. I know where I will be tonight. I don't care if I'm passing up one of the nicest days imaginable in Duluth (sunny and 75). I'm going to be in front of the TV tonight for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Not only will it be the last live hockey I get to see until October (barring the annual high school summer hockey tournaments in Minnesota), but it should be a good one. Edmonton and Carolina have battled through six very physical games, and it seems like Edmonton is the fresher team heading in to Game 7, especially after Saturday's 4-0 whitewashing in Game 6. Momentum? Undoubtedly with Edmonton. But momentum can turn on a dime, and it can turn without warning. How else does one explain the Oilers winning Game 5, when momentum and history were definitely on Carolina's side.

History, however, is again not on Edmonton's side, unlike momentum. Home teams are 11-2 all time in Stanley Cup Finals Game 7s, and Edmonton is trying to become the first team in 64 years (!) to successfully overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win a Stanley Cup Final.

Now, back to momentum for a moment, with a dosage of "Why it's a bad idea to fail to seize the moment at the first chance".

Let's travel back to 2003. I see at least some similarity between the Minnesota Wild of 2003 and the Edmonton Oilers of 2006. The Wild were down 3-1 to the Vancouver Canucks in the West semifinals. They looked dead in the water after losing two heartbreaking games on home ice. But Vancouver, in the driver's seat to move on to the conference final, forgot to show up for Game 5 at home (7-2 Minnesota) or Game 6 in St. Paul (5-1 Minnesota). The boring, trapping Wild skated circles around the Canucks in those two games, and they were suddenly emboldened by the Canucks' inability to close the deal. Minnesota fell behind 2-0 in Game 7, but were again emboldened when Todd Bertuzzi, in a story that became Wild hockey legend, allegedly told Wild D Willie Mitchell that it was "time to get out the golf clubs". Minnesota would win the game 4-2 with three third-period tallies against Vancouver sieve Dan Cloutier.

Anyway, it is true that momentum can turn on a dime for no real reason. And the day off, combined with the travel from Edmonton to Carolina, and the Hurricanes' raucous home crowd, may be enough to swing things in the 'Canes' favor. However, Edmonton knows going in that they don't have to make any major adjustments. They're playing as well now as they've played since the Detroit series, and if they can do it again, they have every reason to believe that they'll skate with Stanley tonight, backup goalie and all.

You want a prediction? Go somewhere else. I don't predict Game 7s. Read back and find out who I picked to win the series before it started, and if that pick ends up being wrong, feel free to hold it against me. But I'm not making any predictions, outside of that I'll be watching enthusiastically tonight.

Enjoy. It doesn't get any better than a Game 7 in the Finals.

Highway robbery, international edition. Sounds like plenty of people were watching it, and now many of you who did watch know why so many people like to rip on soccer. The US-Italy World Cup match drew a 5.2 overnight rating, according to USA Today. The rating means that ABC's coverage had more viewers than NBC's coverage of the US Open golf tournament (note to USGA: I like watching big-time pros have big-time issues, but that was ridiculous - apparently, others agree).

Anyway, I have a point here.

The referee was not good. In fact, he was so far away from "good" that he should probably avoid future World Cup assignments.

I had no problem with the decision to send off the Italian player in the 28th minute. He did, after all, deliver a blatant elbow to the face of an American player while he was going up to head a ball in the air.

However, the subsequent ejections of Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope are relegated to the list of the worst calls made in World Cup history. The red card for Mastroeni was especially bad, as he went in for an admittedly late challenge, but got the ball before he got the player, and the contact was rather innocent. The calls were defended Sunday by FIFA, which makes FIFA one step below the NFL in terms of legitimacy, as the NFL will - at least on occasion - publicly state that officials' calls were erroneous. FIFA chooses to instead remain disconnected from the reality, which is that their officiating system is corrupted by incompetence, and it is ruining a great event.

Besides Mastroeni and Pope, the officials also got to the likes of French superstar Zinedine Zidane, who is suspended from France's group finale against Togo, and if France doesn't beat Togo, Zidane's illustrious career will end (/end run-on sentence). Over 100 yellow cards have been issued already, and while I'm all in favor of cracking down on hard fouls and late challenges on attacking players, I'm not seeing that.

I'm seeing players getting rewarded for diving. And it's killing the sport.

Italy probably got away with about 10 dives in the first half alone against the US. One of their blatant dives led to the only goal they scored (full disclosure: The Americans did a horrible job defending the free kick, but the fact is that the free kick never should have happened). Those dives not only can cause guys to get unwarranted bookings (cards), but they also lead to dangerous free kicks, and they make other rather innocent contact (like Mastroeni's and Pope's on Saturday) look exceptionally physical and booking-worthy. Meanwhile, no one is being called or booked for diving. And FIFA continues to insist that officiating has been good.

There are a lot of people in the States that won't watch this sport. After all, if even the best players in the sport have no respect for the game (and someone who regularly dives to try to draw a foul or a booking on an opponent has no respect for the game), why should the average fan?

Clean it up, FIFA. Burying your head in the sand will only hurt you.

Highway robbery, Joe Crawford edition. Who needs Dick Bavetta when you have Joe Crawford available to screw with Mark Cuban?

And, no, I'm not referring to the botched timeout in the final seconds of overtime that was the real nail in the coffin for Dallas' chances in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. I'm referring to the slanted officiating that got the game to overtime in the first place.

The first blow came on Friday, when Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse was suspended for Game 5. Stackhouse was apparently too hard on Shaquille O'Neal for the NBA's liking. The suspension was a joke, as Stackhouse (6-6, 218) couldn't do any serious harm to Shaq (7-1, 340) if Vince McMahon threw him a chair. It was also a joke, because Stackhouse really didn't do anything wrong, except deliver a couple of hard fouls. They were flagrant fouls, they were "intent to injure" fouls. They were hard fouls, something that is now an accepted part of the NBA "culture". And Shaq has probably taken harder contact in practice.

Then came the game. Despite taking 24 more free throws than Dallas (!), the Heat needed overtime to win, and they needed a shady foul call on Dirk Nowitzki to get the game-winning points. Miami outscored Dallas by only eleven points at the line, despite the discrepancy in attempts.

Anyway, it's not like either team should be fouling the other by such a large margin, and it's not like either team should be taking such a large number of free throws. We're not talking about a "drive the lane and force contact" team playing a pure jump-shooting team. These are two teams playing similar styles, both with guys who can drive to the basket and draw contact, and both with guys who can hit jump shots.

Then again, we're used to this. The NBA Playoffs have to deal with officiating issues EVERY SEASON. And as angry as I get with NHL officials (well, hockey officials in general), the NHL playoffs are rarely marred by controversies involving the officiating. Are there issues? Sure, but they rarely, if ever, draw the amount of scrutiny from the players and fans as the issues in the NBA do.

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