Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Randomization: 05/30/06

Memorial Day means something in baseball. Yes, it's still very early in the season. But my theory has always been that you can take a snapshot of the baseball standings on Memorial Day, and with it get an idea of how things will play out for the rest of the season. If you look at last year's Memorial Day standings, you'll find that seven of the eight playoff teams in baseball were either in first place or within 3.5 games of first place. Florida, Texas, and Baltimore were in playoff position on Memorial Day, but faded in the summer.

Drawing the same standard, here is a list of every team in baseball that is either in first place or within four games of first place right now:

New York Yankees
Chicago White Sox
New York Mets
St. Louis
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego
San Francisco

Just keep this in mind. By the way, Atlanta is 4.5 behind the Mets, and Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are both five games back of first place in their respective divisions.

More on why Ron Gardenhire is an idiot. I like Gardy. Seems like the kind of guy you'd want to have as your manager if you were a baseball player. Well, unless you really wanted to win.

The Twins are 23-27. While they are probably already hopelessly out of the AL Central race (11.5 games out and dominated so far by the White Sox and Tigers - 4-12 combined against the two teams), they don't have a terrible record, and they have enough games coming up against crappy opponents to make you think they could pull out of this funk and have a decent season.

The pitching staff, however, is terribly thin. They don't have a truly dominant middle reliever, and their setup men (Jesse Crain and Juan Rincon) have been up-and-down so far. With that in mind, it stands to reason that the Twins would let their closer, Joe Nathan, eat some innings. After all, Nathan is one of the best in the business. 87 saves over two years. 183 strikeouts in 142 1/3 innings pitched over two years. He's good.

Of course, you wouldn't know that by watching the Twins play this season, because Nathan never pitches unless it's a save situation.

Here is a list of some of baseball's best closers (a list I think we would all agree that Joe Nathan belongs on), and the number of innings they have pitched this season:

Mariano Rivera 24 1/3
Jonathan Papelbon 26
Jason Isringhausen 18 2/3
Derrick Turnbow 22
Tom Gordon 22
Bobby Jenks 21 1/3
Brad Lidge 24 2/3
B.J. Ryan 24 2/3
Billy Wagner 24
Joe Nathan 17

With how inconsistent Rincon and Crain have been this season, it's absolutely inexplicable that Joe Nathan, who is by far the Twins' best right-handed pitcher, has only thrown 17 innings in 50 games. Ridiculous.

Even Isringhausen and Lidge, who have taken turns forgetting where home plate is, are getting more work than Nathan.

PING! Many can't stand the PING. I don't mind it, and I love watching college baseball. The NCAA Division I bracket came out yesterday, and while it doesn't lead to a pleothora of office pools around the country, there is plenty to discuss. The top eight national seeds drew little resistance. Clemson, Rice, Texas (defending champion), Alabama, Cal State-Fullerton, Nebraska, Georgia, and Georgia Tech were deserving of those seeds, and they will all likely play at home until the College World Series, if they get that far.

Of the eight, it appears that Georgia may have the toughest regional draw. The Bulldogs have to deal with two solid Florida teams, as Jacksonville and Florida State are both in that regional. Opening round opponent Sacred Heart shouldn't be a real problem for the Bulldogs. Also noteworthy there is the regional in Lincoln, where Miami and San Francisco are the second and third seeds, respectively. Miami is always dangerous at tournament time, and the Dons of San Francisco won the West Coast regular-season title before dropping two straight at home to Pepperdine in the WCC championship series.

The easiest draw, predictably, went to Clemson (Elon, Mississippi State (!), and UNC-Asheville, who is sub-.500 overall). The Tigers should stay hot by blowing through that regional. Another easy draw, surprisingly, went to North Carolina, who is unseeded nationally, but got Winthrop (serious struggles down the stretch), UNC-Wilmington, and Maine (team ERA over 5). The Tar Heels lost to Winthrop earlier in the season, but the Eagles have really had trouble since that win, blowing the Big South regular season title before losing in the league tournament.

If you're wondering, there are 16 regionals with four teams in each of them. The regional champs are paired off in eight "super regional" series next weekend, and the College World Series begins in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 16. I'll post a TV schedule for the regionals later in the week, after I figure out if any of the regional FSNs are picking up some games, assuming they're allowed to.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Randomization: 05/26/06

This is really stupid. There's this movement within youth and high school sports to regulate sportsmanship. We've seen some leagues eschew the practice of actually keeping score in games, and the latest movement comes from Connecticut, where they are trying to artifically and automatically keep the score down in games.
The football committee of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which governs high school sports, is adopting a "score management" policy that will suspend coaches whose teams win by more than 50 points.
A rout is considered an unsportsmanlike infraction and the coach of the offending team will be disqualified from coaching the next game, said Tony Mosa, assistant executive director of the Cheshire, Conn.-based conference.
"We were concerned with any coach running up the game. There's no need for it," Mosa said. "This is something that we really have been discussing for the last couple of years. There were a number of games that were played where the difference of scores were 60 points or more. It's not focused on any one particular person."
I can't put in words how dumb this is. I am all for sportsmanship. I'm all for not intentionally running up the score against an inferior opponent, and I know that in all non-professional levels of sports, you will have strong teams that face weaker opponents. It's a reality of life for high school and college teams. They know that they will be on one end or the other of blowouts over the course of the season.

But you can't force teams to keep the score down without insulting their opponent. If the problem you are facing as a high-school sports organization is that you have teams winning football games 90-0, the answer isn't to force the winning team to hold their score below 50 to avoid having their coach suspended.

The answer is to figure out why a team that is so bad that it's even possible to lose a football game 90-0 is playing that opponent in the first place. Are they in a conference that they shouldn't be in? Are they in a class/division that they shouldn't be in? Are they simply not competitive?

Forcing teams to keep their margin of victory under 50 doesn't teach sportsmanship. It teaches athletes and teams to insult their opponents, and that's not what we should be teaching young athletes.

Racing across America. One of the great traditions of Memorial Day weekend is the Indianapolis 500. The open-wheel racing circuit's signature event starts off a full day of big-time racing on Sunday. Sam Hornish, Jr., has the pole for the race, but all eyes are obviously on Danica Patrick. You can figure it out without me posting one of the FHM pictures.

ABC will have a camera on Patrick throughout the race, and they certainly are hopeful that she can perform as well as she did last year, when she led a lap and ended up fourth.

Meanwhile, the NASCAR circuit follows the Indy 500 with their annual marathon race in Charlotte. The Coca Cola 600 starts in the daylight and will end under the lights at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Scott Riggs has the pole, but in this race, all eyes will be on Jimmie Johnson, for different reasons than Patrick in the Indy race. Johnson is trying to four-peat as the Coca Cola 600 winner after winning the Nextel All-Star Challenge race at Lowe's last weekend. Everyone in NASCAR knows that Johnson's car is the car to beat in this race, but I have a sneaking suspicion that someone from the group of Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth will run well enough to keep Johnson out of Victory Lane.

Ladies and gentlemen, Larry King. The Royals have lost 13 straight and are on pace to be worse than the 1962 New York Mets and the 2003 Detroit Tigers. There are other teams, namely the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have experienced a similar lack of success in recent years. But with so many talented young players on the roster, it's hard to imagine the Pirates continuing to suck. The Royals, meanwhile, have a terrible major-league team that has virtually no potential. It's a good baseball town that is being ruined by a bad organization . . . Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty will officially label himself as a "hypocrite" tonight when he signs the Twins stadium bill. I really wish they would have gone ahead with a referendum, because it would have been interesting what step they would have tried to take after it failed 60/40 . . . Edmonton blew a chance to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, getting outshot 25-3 in the first period in route to a 6-3 loss to Anaheim. It was, by far, Edmonton's worst playoff performance in years, but credit the Ducks for taking it to Edmonton practically from the opening faceoff. The Oilers will try again on Saturday in Anaheim, where they won the first two games of the series . . . OLN sucks. Their horrendous coverage, which lacks any depth whatsoever, is not doing any favors to the struggling NHL . . . Speaking of OLN, someone please tell color man Neil Smith, working the Edmonton-Anaheim series, to stop trying to crack jokes. He's about as funny as a pipe bomb.

Enjoy the weekend. Probably not going to post on Monday, but will definitely be back Tuesday. We'll recap all the hockey and hoops and talk more baseball.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Randomization: 05/25/06

Imagine an American crowd doing this. Thanks to USCHO Fan Forum poster "Brenthoven" for this link. OLN apparently doesn't want to get anyone to understand what makes hockey fans so special, and they apparently have no interest in giving their largely American viewership any kind of idea about the passion of Canadian hockey fans. Otherwise, things like this would easily make it on the air. If you don't have speakers on your computer, or you're at work and don't want to play the video, or just don't want to watch it for whatever reason, the video is of the fans at Rexall Place singing "Oh, Canada" before Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday night. There was a singer on the ice who started the song, but he stopped about halfway through and just let the crowd finish it, which led to one of those cool "Goosebump Moments" that you get every now and then (if you don't get goosebumps watching this, you need to have your pulse checked). They're hard to duplicate, but here's hoping that whoever is assigned to sing "Oh, Canada" tonight in Edmonton is smart enough to let the crowd take over if they're singing it like they were before Game 3.

Truly a special moment that will probably never happen in the United States, where people are more interested in making sure they don't spill their beer during the national anthem than they are in actually learning the words and singing along with the performer. Congratulations to the fans in Edmonton, and not just on the fact that the Oilers are on the verge of the Stanley Cup Finals. In an era where we're too busy booing national anthems and athletes, the Oiler fans have provided us with a blueprint on how the national anthem should be treated.

Word from Edmonton fans on various message boards is that Edmonton fans also sang along with most of the Star-Spangled Banner, which would only serve to further embarrass U.S. sports fans, many of whom don't know half the words, and the majority of whom would never think to sing along.

Proof that the NBA draft lottery isn't rigged. The Toronto Raptors won. The New York Knicks didn't, though they don't get to keep their pick, anyway, since Isiah Thomas traded it to Chicago for three future second-round picks and the rights to two hot-dog vendors he had been eyeing (or, maybe it was Eddy Curry that Thomas got for the first-rounder).

Anyway, who rigs a lottery so Toronto can win it? Then again, with how this draft looks right now (plenty of depth, no sure superstar), this would be the year to "let" a small-market team win the top pick. That way, when there is a sure superstar at the top of the draft, you can rig it so a big-market team wins and no one would notice.

So maybe this isn't proof.

By the way, the Timberwolves will be blowing the sixth pick in the draft next month. Congratulations.

(For my money, by the way, LSU's Tyrus Thomas will be the first pick, and the Timberwolves will probably draft a point guard with their first pick. Either that, or they'll try to get some help for Kevin Garnett inside.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Randomization: 05/24/06

Things I'd rather do than watch "Karaoke Idol" tonight.
--> Stuff my mouth full of nails
--> Detach my own retina
--> Blow my nose with sandpaper
--> Watch tapes of injuries suffered over the years by Joe Theismann, Napoleon McCallum, and Moises Alou
--> Eat a pocketknife
--> Lick a flagpole in -30 weather

I'm sure there are more, but this should be sufficient for you to get the point. I'm not going to make the crack about more people voting for one karaoke performer or the other than we have voting in the presidential election, because unlike "Karaoke Idol", the presidential election actually requires the ability to read.

NBA West Finals preview. First off, congratulations to the NBA for what has been a rather entertaining playoff year. It's not your fault that the Eastern Conference sucks. I think it's the poor influence cast on the whole conference by Isiah Thomas. And that influence extends to their conference final series, which pits the Heat against the Detroit Pistons. It won't be as bad as Cleveland-Detroit, or those old-school Heat-Knicks playoff series that I like to make fun of. But it will be bad, especially in comparison to the series in the West.

I really like this Phoenix-Dallas matchup. I like it so much that I don't think it's a stretch to say that there will be times that these games are more entertaining than the Buffalo-Carolina hockey games that this series will be head-to-head against. It's sad for hockey, as an entertaining NBA playoff series is the last thing the NHL needs to have to worry about right now. But it's good for basketball.

Two teams that have excellent speed, skill, and perimeter shooting. Two teams that like to push the tempo. Two teams that have superstar influence (Nowitzki and Nash).

And Mark Cuban.

You can't beat this combination for entertainment. If these teams play to their ability, the series should go six or seven games, and if it does, it will go down as one of the most entertaining playoff series the NBA has seen in nearly 20 years.

As for the matchup, you almost have to let Nash and Nowitzki cancel each other out, even though Nowitzki does more for his team than Nash does his (evidence: Phoenix won twice in their conference semifinal series against the Clippers when Nash played poorly; Dallas wouldn't be here if Nowitzki played poorly as often as Nash has). Dallas' smallball lineup, which gave San Antonio fits, won't help them as much here, because the Suns are also adept at that brand of basketball. But who has the better supporting cast?

Phoenix has Shawn Marion, playing crazy minutes and averaging a 20-10 so far; Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell, and Boris Diaw, all of whom average between 14.5-16.4 points per game in the playoffs, while Bell is their top defender; and Tim Thomas, who got cut early in the season by Chicago and inexplicably sat at home for more than half the season before Phoenix picked him up.

Dallas has Jason Terry, who is at almost 20 points per playoff game and leading his team in assists when he's not punching opposing players in the "groin"; Josh Howard, a good rebounder and shooter who is currently hitting for almost 16.5 points per game in the playoffs; Jerry Stackhouse, who has emerged as a solid role player for the Mavericks; young point guard Devin Harris, a Wisconsin product (Harris was a huge factor in the San Antonio series after he was inserted as a starter for Game 2); and DeSagana Diop, a big man who virtually disappeared from the NBA after being a lottery pick out of high school, yet he was somehow a huge factor in Dallas' Game 7 win. Dallas will also use Keith Van Horn and Erick Dampier to provide the occasional "big" presence, though I would imagine their roles will be diminished, as will Diop's, in this series.
I think Dallas has a bit more depth, but Phoenix is a more explosive team. This is a tough call, but I'll take Dallas, going back to Nowitzki (I guess I lied when I said he and Nash cancelled each other out) and the level he is playing at right now, which is out of this world. I also really like Terry and Howard against Phoenix's defense. I think the Mavericks will need the full seven games, but they will advance to their first NBA Finals.

And I don't really care who comes out of the East. I want Dallas to win, if for no other reason so I can see David Stern give the O'Brien Trophy to Mark Cuban.

I don't understand this. I get that people want Barbaro to make as close to a full recovery as possible after his leg injury in the Preakness. And I'm with those folks. I'm fully in favor of Barbaro living a long life on some stud farm somewhere and making his owners many, many dollars doing nothing but having sex with hot young horses. That's the way to live.

But do these people realize that Barbaro can't read? Do they think someone is printing these, taking them to his stall, and reading them to him at night?

"Josephine Adams, of Nimrod, Minnesota, says 'I have prayed for you every night, Barbaro. I'm thrilled to hear your recovery is going well. All the best to you, and may you get the chance to breed.'"

And if someone really is doing this, do you think the horse reacts to the various messages?

(Speaking of the horse reacting to things since his surgery, I was heartened to hear that Barbaro was taking interest in nearby mares on Monday. Good to know that he can be horny after such a major operation.)

Instant classic in Edmonton. Just loop the third period alone and show it for a day on ESPN Classic. Four goals for each team, and Anaheim almost rallying from a 4-0 deficit when all looked lost? Perfect. Too bad no one was watching.

The Ducks deserve a lot of credit. I know that we are prone to saluting teams for "trying hard" or "giving a good effort" or "putting up a fight". But the Ducks were down 4-0 in the third period in a tough building, and facing a 3-0 series deficit that would be almost impossible to come back from. And they showed more fight than some teams did when the deficit wasn't nearly as daunting (see: "Jose, San" and "Rangers, New York"). Good for the Ducks. The character they showed on Tuesday night will carry them a long way in future playoff runs.

I tip my cap to their leadership guys, Scott and Rob Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, Todd Fedoruk, and others. The veterans on that team really showed the way last night, even though their valiant comeback fell short. I'm not going to sit here and predict a series comeback for Anaheim, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they at least forced a fifth game in their building on Saturday night.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Randomization: 05/23/06

DECC funding: Moving on. Kudos to DECC executive director Dan Russell, who eschewed the prospects of being bitter at the fact that his expansion project didn't get the requested funding from the Minnesota Legislature. Russell instead decided to take what is probably the right angle: He knows that he will need to ask these same people for money next year or the year after, so let's not start a urination contest with them right now.

I'll do the same thing from here on in. Am I bitter that the DECC didn't get funded? Sure. Am I bitter that the Twins got a ballpark funded without a tax referendum, while we passed a tax referendum and still didn't get the funding? Yes. Am I bitter that it appears the DECC was used as a political pawn by the governor and the DFL? Absolutely.

But it's time to move on. What will UMD do from here? Is it best to continue pushing for a new DECC, or should UMD begin the planning process for a new arena on campus?

I think the best move for UMD right now is to at least begin exploring the prospect of building on campus. The university probably can't afford to sit around and wait, assuming that the state will fund the DECC in 2007 or, worse, 2008. I'm not sure that it's fair to the state to begin the process, but they had their chance to help. I know it's not fair to the DECC to begin that process. Russell and his staff worked hard to develop the plans for this new arena, and they deserve a shot to see this work through to the end. But at the same time, UMD needs to strike while the iron is hot, even if that means moving away from the DECC.

The king is dead. Despite a valiant comeback from a 20-point deficit and a late lead at home, the San Antonio Spurs' season is over. Dallas had too much speed on the perimeter for the Spurs, who used Tim Duncan inside to get a comeback going in the second half, but couldn't rely on Duncan to consistently beat the double teams down low. The Mavericks are going to be a tough matchup for Phoenix in the Western finals starting Wednesday. Dallas has an inside presence with Erick Dampier and Desagana Diop, along with Dirk Nowitzki. The Suns have no inside presence whatsoever, but they will push the floor and always be dangerous with their outside shooting (15-27 on threes in their Game 7 win over the Clippers). I like Dallas in this series, but the Mavericks will have to be a little tighter defensively than they were against San Antonio. This could rate as one of the most entertaining playoff series in 20 years.

The Eastern Conference will be a different story. Detroit and Miami will probably play a six- or seven-game slugfest. The games won't be pretty, scores won't be high, and the two teams won't come out of it liking each other. This one depends on a couple of unpredictable factors. If Detroit shows up and plays to their talent consistently, they will win the series. But if the Pistons fail to show up a couple times in the series, as has been their custom as of late, they're in trouble. The Heat need to stay healthy and maintain their poise defensively. Detroit is beatable, and the Heat have the talent to get the job done, but both teams have suffered at times from a lack of focus and energy in these playoffs.

I'm not going to judge just yet...But the NHL playoffs have taken an undesirable turn. The first four games of the conference finals have been littered with clutching, grabbing, hooking, and holding, both in the offensive and neutral zones. Edmonton, of all teams, resorted to some of these tactics (in their defense, so did their opponent, Anaheim). Carolina got away with some startling stuff last night, including a play near the Hurricane net where a Carolina defenseman literally ripped off the helmet of Buffalo Sabre Daniel Briere and threw him face-first to the ice. No penalty was called, but a ticky-tack hooking penalty was called on Buffalo off the ensuing faceoff, a call that nullified a Buffalo power play.

I hope that I'm wrong. I hope that the officials are going to resume calling this stuff. But the first four games of the conference finals were not promising.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Blame Game: DECC expansion fails

It's been discussed. At length.

And now it's apparently over, at least for now.

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Legislature wrapped up its 2006 session by failing to approve any kind of funding to expand the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. This was despite the voter referendum that passed with a 61 percent majority in late February, and despite pledges of support from Governor Tim Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum.

Well, something like this doesn't happen without someone being blamed. So it's time to play The DECC Expansion Blame Game!

If you aren't familiar with the format for the Blame Game, it's pretty simple. We'll list candidates for blame, discuss why they deserve blame, and assess a fixed percentage of the blame that should be placed on that candidate.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson
Going back to my time living in Superior, Wisconsin, where Herb was the mayor for eight years, I have always said that I'm not the biggest fan of Bergson. That said, I think he did well here. He lobbied hard, spending the better part of the last five days in the Cities trying to work up support for this project, and trying to sell legislators on the importance of this project to our area.

Herb's only crime, apparently, was that he didn't have the clout that a more experienced mayor might have had in St. Paul (he's only in his first term of office in Duluth). That said, I believe he worked very hard to win support for the DECC, and it's difficult to assess a lot of blame on him for something that's largely out of his control. Blame: 10 percent.

Local representatives
Much has been made of the work done by our local representatives to try to sell this proposal to others. And, for the most part, folks believe that they didn't do enough to make it happen. Clearly, the undesirable result makes it seems like our local representatives let us down.

I don't know a lot of specifics, but I do feel pretty confident about a few things. I believe that Senator Yvonne Prettner-Solon worked extremely hard to make this happen, and I think that we got some help from Representative Tom Huntley.

However, for the most part, I think the local representation failed us. I never sensed any enthusiasm toward this project from them. As talked about here, Representative Mike Jaros made comments that left me wondering if he had ever actually been to the DECC, as he wanted the 700-car parking ramp removed from the proposed project to save money.

Some have talked about the lack of clout among our current crop of politicians, because the DFL is out of power both in the House and in the governor's mansion, and longtime stalwarts like Sam Solon and Doug Johnson are no longer in the Senate (Solon died a few years ago, and Johnson retired). I agree with this to an extent, and it falls on the voters to remove any ineffective leaders from office in November. I think there are going to be some interesting races in this part of the state. Blame: 20 percent.

The DFL Party of Minnesota
The DFL controls the Senate. The Senate never backed this project, despite lobbying by its own party members from this area, as well as the mayor of Minnesota's fourth-largest city, who is also a Democrat. Never before could there be more justifiable anger at this party in our area, an area that the DFL has owned for years.

One of the main areas of failure for the DECC was within the DFL. With the good relationship this party has had in our area in recent years, there's no excuse for the DFL ignoring a proposal that was such a high priority for our area.

And it's that relationship that makes me feel so angry towards the DFL today. Our representatives and the mayor of Duluh shouldn't have had to spend countless hours lobbying their own party on this project, and since the Republican leadership allegedly supported the project, it's ridiculous to think that the DFL did so little to keep this project from sinking. In the end, the political agenda of the DFL, which is centered at this point on making Pawlenty look like an idiot, is a big part of why the DECC expansion wasn't funded. Blame: 35 percent

Governor Tim Pawlenty
Apparently, the words "full support" don't mean as much as they used to. I thank the Governor for his initial support of this project. It made it a lot easier, I believe, to sell this idea to business leaders and citizens of the area. I recognized at the time that it was probably little more than election-year politicking by the governor, but it was still appreciated.

That said, it isn't completely unexpected that this project went in the tank. State leadership has been notorious for forgetting the northeastern part of Minnesota, to the point where local talk show host Lew Latto refers to Duluth as being "150 miles north of the United States". I'm left to wonder if Pawlenty expects to encounter border crossings when he drives through Anoka County.

Pawlenty did what politicians do. He made an empty promise. He tried to use the DECC project as a political pawn to get the spending pare-downs he wanted from the DFL. When that didn't work, he tried to use the DECC project as a political pawn to get the tax code changes he wanted from the DFL. And when that failed, he forgot about his previous pledges of support for the DECC project.

Pawlenty's Head Lackey, Brian McClung, is quick to point out that the DFL-controlled Senate didn't set aside any money for the DECC in their original bonding proposal. Of course, Head Lackey conveniently forgot (another trait of politicians - they only remember what they want to remember) that the Republican-controlled House only set aside $3 million when $33.7 million was requested, despite the fact that House Speaker Sviggum pledged his full support to the project.

I'm not going to let the governor get away from this without taking some of the blame. It's just not fair. At any given point, he could have stuck his neck out and demanded that the money for the DECC be put in the bonding bill. Instead, Pawlenty decided that playing political games and making proposals that were designed to make the Democrats appear at fault for the DECC money not being appropriated was more important to his re-election campaign. Some will give him a free pass for this, choosing instead to blame the local leadership. Blame: 35 percent.

Personally, I think they're all to blame. If anyone does their job or keeps their word, the DECC has their money, and we're talking about getting out the shovels and breaking ground on the new arena. Instead, we're left to wonder what will happen next. Will UMD try to build on campus? Will the DECC folks try again in 2007?

TPaw and the DFLers get more of the blame because they showed poor leadership. I'm not a big fan of lobbying, and I don't think a project as important as this should be decided by lobbying. Pick up a newspaper. Visit the area. Talk to people. Find out for yourself how important this project is, and vote on its merits.

All in all, a very disappointing day for Duluth.

It's stunning, really, that the DFL is blaming the governor while the governor blames the DFL. If they ever figure out that they're both at fault, we might start getting somewhere.

Friday, May 19, 2006

2006 NHL Playoffs: Conference finals

We're down to four. Two rounds down, two to go. Four teams are now halfway to the Stanley Cup. The process of cutting that number in half begins tonight, as the conference finals commence. Obviously, I have a few things to say about that.

It's ridiculous that Edmonton is already playing. If the experience of the 2003 Minnesota Wild tells us anything, it's that the Edmonton Oilers are at a heavy disadvantage as the Western Conference Finals begin tonight in Anaheim. The Oilers beat San Jose on Wednesday night in Edmonton to clinch their series, then immediately chartered a plane for Anaheim to start preparing for the next series. I don't mind that there is a game tonight. Really, I don't. But Edmonton shouldn't have to play 48 hours after they won their series. Normally, there is a tangible reward (rest) for ending a series before a Game 7. For Edmonton, there is no such thing.

Anaheim had a ton more rest than Minnesota did in 2003, and they swept the series. While I think Edmonton will play well tonight, and I think Anaheim will be a bit rusty, I do think fatigue will be a huge factor in this thing before it's over. And that's unfortunate, because an extra couple days of rest could have meant the world to Edmonton, while it wouldn't have made any difference for Anaheim.

I'm doing well in the playoff prediction business so far this year. I hate to brag, but after an 10-2 run through the NFL playoffs, I'm 9-3 so far in the NHL playoffs, including a perfect 4-0 in the second round. With that in mind, here are my conference final picks. I hope the run continues.

West Finals: Anaheim vs Edmonton. I'm pretty stoked for this series. Edmonton has the speed and skill to skate and play with Anaheim, whereas Colorado was overmatched pretty much from the start of their series with the Ducks. The goaltending matchup should get a lot of ink, as Dwayne Roloson has been the most consistent goaltender so far in the playoffs, while one could argue that Ducks netminder Ilya Bryzgalov has been the flashiest. Roloson is also the only veteran of the group, as he's more than a decade older than Bryzgalov, Carolina's Cam Ward, and Buffalo's Ryan Miller.

The Oilers will run their four lines at Anaheim, forechecking hard and testing the ability of Anaheim to move the puck out of their own zone. It was a huge problem for San Jose in the second round, as their younger defensemen succumbed to the pressure and the physicality of Edmonton's forecheck. Anaheim probably won't have the same problems. Scott Niedermayer is as steady as they come in the defensive zone, and he'll log nearly as many, if not more, minutes than Edmonton's Chris Pronger. Francois Beauchemin, acquired in the marvelous (for Anaheim, at least) Sergei Fedorov trade, has seven points in the playoffs and is on the ice almost as much as Niedermayer is. Ruslan Salei and Sean O'Donnell are +9 and +6, respectively.

The Ducks won't give in to Edmonton's pressure, and they have a pretty fair forecheck, too. The Ducks forced a ton of bad turnovers in the Colorado series, and they turned many of those turnovers into game-changing goals. They were much more physical than Colorado in every area of the ice.

However, Edmonton won't back down like the Avalanche did. The Oilers are every bit as physical, and every bit as tenacious, as Anaheim. And despite the fact that the Ducks swept the Avalanche while Edmonton struggled with the Sharks, I think the Oilers are playing a little bit better.

Edmonton has more scoring depth, with the team having gotten huge goals from all over the place. Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Fernando Pisani (!), Jarrett Stoll, and even Jaroslav Spacek have all scored big goals, and Sergei Samsonov is always available to pick up a goal when the net is empty. Just ask Vesa Toskala about that.

Anaheim, meanwhile, is really leaning too much on veteran Teemu Selanne and youngsters Dustin Penner (5A, 6 pts) and Joffrey Lupul (7G, 8 pts) right now. They need more production out of their depth players, and they will need it quickly. If Selanne and Lupul are the only guys scoring, Edmonton will find a way to slow them down.

In the end, I think this comes down to the tenacity of the Oilers in the offensive zone, combined with the steady goaltending of Roloson. Edmonton will move on to the Stanley Cup Finals with a six-game series victory.

East Finals: Carolina vs Buffalo. I'm sure NBC is thrilled with the ratings possibilities. After all, the surfing program that preceded last weekend's Carolina-New Jersey game outrated the game, as did the broadcast of heads-up poker on Sunday afternoon at the same time. The small city in upstate New York and the non-traditional hockey market that's distracted this weekend by a NASCAR exhibition race in Charlotte should combine for a great rating. It's too bad, really, because this should be a great series.

The teams will play a faster style than most are used to seeing in the playoffs, and like the Ottawa series, it will end up coming down to goaltending, as it always does in the playoffs. I don't expect to see any 7-6 games in this series, but I do expect to see more than one 4-3/5-4 type of score. The national media in this country, at least the folks that pay attention to hockey, will probably focus on the low ratings. The rest of us will focus on the hockey, which will be fun.

(By the way, if you're looking for something to do tomorrow, sales are apparently slow for the games in Carolina. The games in Buffalo sold out in about 12 seconds. But the NASCAR fans can't get their minds off the All-Star Challenge long enough to think about hockey.)

Now...on to the games. The goaltenders take center stage because of their youth and their play so far in the postseason. Ward and Miller have been incredible, with Ward being perhaps a better story because he was the backup entering the postseason, and no one expected Martin Gerber to implode like he did. Ward responded with eight wins in nine starts, and he's posted a 1.77 GAA to go along with a .930 save percentage.

The Canes' forwards get a lot of ink, with Eric Staal rounding into superstar form, and getting plenty of help from crusty veterans Rod Brind'Amour, Cory Stillman, Mark Recchi, Ray Whitney, and Doug Weight. The defense has been steady after a shaky start in the first round against Montreal, and Bret Hedican, Frantisek Kaberle, and Mike Commodore were all very good against a tough New Jersey team. Carolina was the far superior team against the Devils, and it was very much due to their defensive play. The Hurricanes did a great job protecting leads in Games 3 and 5, and held their own in a defensive struggle in Game 2 before they got the game-winner in overtime.

And it certainly didn't hurt that Ward outplayed his idol, Martin Brodeur.

Meanwhile, the Sabres won four one-goal games to beat Ottawa. While their depth has been attacked a bit in the playoffs (Dmitri Kalinin is probably out for at least Game 1, while Tim Connolly also might not play against Carolina), it's still superior to the depth of the Hurricanes. But Buffalo needs some good things to happen in order for them to advance.

They need to stop taking penalties. Yes, the Sabres have five shorties in the playoffs, including Jason Pominville's series-clincher against the Senators. But spending time in the penalty box against the Hurricanes is just not a good idea. That power play will burn you if you keep letting them have chances.

They need to keep the balance going. The Sabres had a pleothora of 20-goal scorers during the regular season, and the balance has continued in the playoffs. The Sabres have nine different players with three or more goals so far in the playoffs. Five guys are in double digits in points. You can't just stop one line and expect to beat Buffalo, whereas Jersey was talented, but not nearly as balanced as the Sabres.

And the Sabres need to continue getting steady defensive play in front of Miller. Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman are both an unspeakable +13 (!) so far in eleven playoff games. Jay McKee is a shot-blocking machine, and Brian Campbell is also playing well.

I think Buffalo has too much balance, and they have the better goaltender in Miller. The Hurricanes will be the best team Buffalo has played so far, and it won't be as easy as their last regular season meeting (Buffalo won the season finale between the two teams 4-0 in Raleigh), but it will be a six-game series win for the Sabres, and an Edmonton-Buffalo Stanley Cup final matchup that will be bonkers in Canada and upstate New York, but will go over like a new episode of "Love Monkey" in most of the United States.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Randomization, 05/18/06

First off, a couple early responses to my roundtable post yesterday. Some folks jumped in right away. If you're a little bit behind these bloggers, and you still want to respond, that's cool. I'll post more reponses as I get them. If you want to get my attention more efficiently, e-mail me and tell me that you've posted, and I'll go check it out.

First off, here is a link to my original post, even though it's directly underneath this post. This should help if you're really lazy.

I believe that the prize for "First to Respond" goes to old buddy "USAFA Bulldog" who writes a blog about UMD hockey. Congrats, Bulldog. You win absolutely nothing!

He says "No" to the shootout, and he also proposes a rather radical overhaul of the conference playoff system.

Chris, who writes the Western College Hockey blog, also chimed in. Chris says that WCHA officials "don't do anything well", and he'd like to see more done about checking from behind. I think he makes a good point about that crackdown, and he proposes an idea that does what I'd like to see, which is putting some discretion in the hands of the officials without removing the teeth from the crackdown.

Also responding early was "Drop The Puck", who writes about Alaska-Anchorage hockey. Among his responses was an assertion that officials did a pretty good job with the checking from behind crackdown, and he really doesn't like the shootout that much. Puck also recommends expanding the schedule by four games per season, which would give his team, UAA, more opportunities for home non-conference series. He actually brings up a good point. Between the games against Alaska-Fairbanks and the lengthy WCHA conference schedule, UAA only gets one weekend per season where they can see different Division I programs (their home tournament - the Nye Frontier Classic).

Keep the responses coming. For now, I'm going to hit a few other topics.

Is Detroit really on the brink? I can't believe what I'm seeing. I figured Detroit wouldn't be stopped until the inevitable happened and one of their main rotation players finally got hurt. If there was a safe bet in these playoffs, it was that Detroit would play someone in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it was probably a safe bet that Detroit would advance to the NBA Finals.

Now, the ironclad, invincible, wonderful Pistons are one more nonchalant performance away from elimination.

I'm left to wonder a few things...

1. How good a coach was Larry Brown with this team? They can complain all they want about his inconsistent rotation in New York. But that wasn't a problem in Detroit. Brown had a set lineup and a set rotation, and his famous impatience with younger players wasn't really tested thanks to a veteran lineup. Not only that, but Brown made sure that the occasional nonchalant performance stayed occasional. He never let this team sink into bad habits for more than a few minutes. I really like Flip Saunders, but I don't think he's taken control of this team the way he probably should, and they've picked the absolute wrong time to play sloppy basketball.

2. What happened to Chauncey Billups? After an MVP-caliber season, Billups flamed out when his team needed him most last night, shooting 6-16 from the field and turning the ball over six times. That came after a couple of key turnovers by Billups late in their Game 4 loss on Monday night. If Detroit is to survive and advance out of this series, Billups is going to be one of the main reasons why, but he will have to raise his level of play from what we've seen the last two nights.

3. Where is the on-court leadership? I know the Pistons have never struck me in the past as having a rah-rah mentality on the court, but they've never been in this spot before. And no one appears willing and/or capable of lifting this team out of its current funk. I think Rasheed Wallace may have been at least indirectly trying to light that fire with his failed Game 4 guarantee, but it seems like this team is waiting for its wake-up call. Will it come in time? Who will make it happen?

4. How could a matchup this potentiall intriguing produce basketball this sloppy? Part of the problem is Detroit's play. They're just not getting it done the way we're used to seeing them get it done. And part of the problem is that Cleveland is really not a great basketball team. They have LeBron James, who will be the biggest star of the first half of this century in the NBA. But they don't have much else. James, though, makes everyone around him better, and with how Detroit is playing on the offensive end, it doesn't take much offense to beat them.

I'm rooting for Cleveland. I didn't think they would win this series, and I certainly don't think they should. They're not as talented or experienced as Detroit, and they're not as good defensively. However, I didn't expect Detroit would pick this time to start looking like a team that had played deep into the postseason three straight years. The Pistons look somewhat tired, and I don't know if they can shake that in time to save their season.

With this series in mind, the playoffs have been great. Despite the lack of visual appeal in the Pistons-Cavs series, there is something special about a team like Cleveland and a player like James getting their first moments in the spotlight. And as Bill Simmons pointed out on ESPN.com Wednesday, these playoffs have seen some positive changes in how the game is played.

No longer do teams with hulky seven-footers automatically advance deep in the playoffs. Now, the teams that have skilled point guards and speedy wing players are the ones advancing. A team like Phoenix, which would have been lucky to win 30 games a season in 2000, is one of the favorites to win it all. A guy like Steve Nash, who never would have gotten a second look in 2000, is a two-time MVP (like it or not!).

And the overall quality of the games has improved dramatically. As Simmons correctly pointed out, there have already been close to a dozen ESPN Instant Classic-caliber games played in the postseason, and the conference finals haven't even started yet.

It's as if the NBA is undergoing a rebirth, and while James needs to be credited for helping bring it along, I think you also have to look at guys like Carmelo, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitski (who has come a long way after having been last seen screaming at his teammates in the 2005 playoffs), Kobe Bryant, Elton Brand, and others, and watch the impact that they're having on this league. The NBA may never be as good as it was in the mid- to late-1980s, when guys like Bird, McHale, Magic, Kareem, and Worthy were slugging it out, and Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan were coming into their own as the next cornerstones in the league, but the NBA of 2006 is so much better than the NBA of, say, 1997-2002, that it's not even funny.

The toast of Canadian hockey. The Edmonton Oilers, who needed a late-season Vancouver loss to, strangely, San Jose, just to qualify for the playoffs, are now a finalist in the Western Conference. The Oil made the conference final for the first time since 1992 after they eliminated San Jose on Wednesday night. The 2-0 final gave Edmonton the series in six games, and it gave Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson his first career playoff shutout. Edmonton plays Anaheim in the West Finals (conference finals preview tomorrow), which start Friday in Anaheim. The Oilers advanced with a dazzling combination of speed, physicality, and the best forecheck of any team in these playoffs. Edmonton is kamikaze-like on their forecheck, and San Jose never figured out how to handle it. The Sharks weren't ever able to establish a solid breakout of their defensive zone, and they gave up numerous scoring opportunities by succumbing to the Oilers' forecheck.

Edmonton played better in their own zone than San Jose did in theirs. Edmonton was stronger on the puck the whole series, and Edmonton was better in goal, thanks to Roloson. The Oilers were questioned by many for their willingness to give up a first-round pick for Roloson, who had struggled in Minnesota and is on the verge of unrestricted free agency. But the Wild didn't need him, as they had Manny Fernandez playing well, and Roloson clearly benefited from going to a team that would allow him to be the undisputed number-one goaltender.

(Sharks goalie Vesa Toskala was very good in this series, and it wasn't his fault that they lost. But that doesn't change the fact that the Sharks' goaltender was badly outplayed by Roloson.)

I have a bad feeling about this. I admit that I don't follow European soccer enough to know a ton about this, but I know bad officiating when I see it, and I saw it yesterday. Barcelona ended up beating Arsenal 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League final in Paris. It's the top club soccer tournament in the world, and both teams had marvelous runs through tough competition to make the final. I wasn't really rooting for anyone, as I'm more of a Manchester United fan, and I don't care for either club that was playing. And the officiating sucked.

Arsenal's goal came off a free kick that never should have happened. An Arsenal player got close the the penalty area and proceeded to take a dive that made Peter Forsberg jealous. The referee called a foul and awarded a free kick, which was executed perfectly, as Theirry Henry fed Sol Campbell for the game's first goal. And that wasn't the end of questionable officiating. Henry got carded on a play where it looked like he got at least a piece of the ball. There were at least three card-worthy Barca challenges that didn't even get whistled.

I don't know who the ref was or where he was from. I just know he was bad, and there has to be at least a chance that this same referee, or one or more referees who will do a worse job than he did, will be reffing games in the World Cup. And that's not a good thing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

College hockey blog roundtable: Improving the game

I've been kicking the tires on this idea for a while. I want to get thoughts from other college hockey bloggers about the game at the collegiate level.

I think anyone who has watched a lot of the NHL playoffs would concede that the pro game has improved. The league has done a good job of enforcing the rulebook and removing a lot of the clutter that slowed the pro game down over the last ten years. These changes in enforcement have made NHL hockey much more watchable and much more entertaining than it was before the lockout, and while these changes probably should have happened before the lockout, it's better late than never, I guess.

Lately, we've seen some of the clutching and grabbing, and some of the "slowdown" game, make its way into the college ranks. I still contend that Denver used that style to slow down Maine in the 2004 national title game, which they won 1-0. And stickwork has become as common in the college game as the presence of amateurs.

So I go to my fellow bloggers with a question: Am I the only one who sees room for improvement in college hockey, especially now that the NHL has taken so many positive steps to improve their game? Feel free to blog answers to the following questions, and I'll post some of your answers in the next week or 10 days.

Has the college game truly seen in increase in stickwork in recent years?

I think the answer here is obviously "Yes". And it's too rare that teams get called for hooking and holding, especially in the defensive and neutral zones. I think the physical brand of forechecking that we've seen in the NHL playoffs underscores the fact that you don't need that hooking and holding to have teams forechecking hard.

I'm not here to point fingers or name names. Frankly, I don't think there's a team in college hockey that's completely innocent here. Some, of course, are more guilty than others. But this isn't about calling out teams, players, or coaches. It's about improving the overall quality of the college game.

Do officials do a good job of calling "clutch-and-grab" infractions consistently?

I think it's getting better, but it's not where it needs to be. Even in the playoffs last year, I remember seeing a lot of hooking and holding called that involved players who didn't have the puck. That's a step in the right direction, but it could always be better.

I still think enforcement is a bit inconsistent, and I still think that officials need to do a better job calling penalties late in close games and in overtimes. But I think officiating in the WCHA in 2005-2006 was better than it wsa in 2004-2005. I hope it improves again in 2006-2007.

What do you think of the "checking from behind" crackdown?

There are some cases where it's not a bad idea to take the subjectivity and discretion out of the officials' hands. To me, this really isn't one of them anymore.

I liked the idea at first. After the well-publicized hit on Robbie Bina in the 2005 Final Five, I was in favor of anything that ejected players for obviously dirty hits when the official didn't do his job on the play. However, the enforcement went too far in 2005-2006, as any player who was called for a hit from behind along the boards was automatically given a five-minute major and a game misconduct. It led to players being unfairly thrown out of games, and it led to officials calling boarding/cross-checking/charging instead of checking from behind so they didn't have to throw players out of games.

In the games I witnessed in 2005-2006, I'd say the batting average on these hits was pretty good. There were only a handful of blatant hits from behind on the boards that didn't lead to the ejection of the offending player. However, there were more than a few incidents where players were thrown out of games for hits that weren't from behind, or weren't nearly bad enough to warrant an ejection.

I don't know what the answer is, because as the Bina hit illustrated, the old way wasn't really working. But I think it's a mistake to completely take the discretion out of the hands of the officials. As much as we rip officials, they need to be allowed to make these judgments on the ice, instead of having a rules directive do it for them.

What NHL rules change would you like to see adopted in college hockey, and which one do you want college hockey to stay away from?

Of the changes in the sizes of the offensive zones, the addition of the shootout, the changes in goalie pads, the trapezoid, the "no line change after you ice the puck" rule, or any other actual rule change made in the NHL this year, which one do you think would be a good fit in college hockey?

I'd be in favor of making the offensive zones bigger (thus making the neutral zone a bit smaller), as well as moving the goal lines back toward the back wall. I think that, as athletes get bigger, giving the players a little more room to work is a good thing.

Also tempting is the rule that keeps teams from changing lines when they ice the puck. Teams that want to try to play a slowdown game now are forced to at least carry the puck to the red line before they dump it, or they can't change lines. And if the team isn't real good on faceoffs, constantly icing the puck can lead to problems.

Of the other changes, the one I would least like to see (without it being done a certain way) is the shootout. A 35 (or so)-game season is too short to have all these games potentially decided by something so silly. The shootout works in the NHL because it's an 82-game season where so many teams make the playoffs (so if you don't make the playoffs, there was probably something wrong with your team - more than just "we didn't get lucky in those stupid shootouts"). College hockey's season is less than half as long, and power ratings are too important to allow something like a shootout to have a heavy influence. If you wanted to have shootout results count in conference standings, but not in the RPI or PWR, then maybe we can talk. There's no doubt that NHL fans loved the shootout, so it certainly could work in the college game if it was done properly.

Then again, if you were going to implement a shootout that doesn't really count, why bother?

What do you think of the increased use of replay in college hockey?

I got my digs in over what happened in Denver, so this isn't about that. Well, it is, but it isn't.

The incident in Denver involving a disputed UMD goal in their playoff series underscored a couple problems I have with college hockey, one of which I'll address here, and other in a few minutes.

The replay system is a great idea. Some plays are just too bang-bang to expect officials to always get the call right. However, I think the WCHA made a grave mistake in not allowing television cameras to be used for instant replay. Granted, not every game is televised, but that shouldn't matter, especially in the playoffs. The league needs to use every available resource to get the calls right, and they're not doing that right now. Use the television camera angles as well as the overhead cameras, and you give yourself a better chance of getting calls right all the time, instead of most of the time.

What is one random change you'd like to see made in hockey?

This can be anything from a rules change not covered above to a change in how recruiting is governed to a change in how NHL teams raid college rosters to something else. Anything you want.

For me, I think the fans' enjoyment and understanding of the game could both be greatly improved with better communication from the officials.

Over the course of a full season, something will happen that makes you curious about the actual ruling and why the ruling was made. The deal in Denver is a good example. No one knew what the officials had eventually ruled before going to look at the replay, and no one at the rink fully understood why the goal was waved off (some of us still don't).

Mic the referee. When there is a controversial call, he turns on the mic and explains to the fans and everyone else what was ruled and why. It's a small, subtle thing. Football does it really well. No other sport does.

Now that NHL officials are miced, we know it can happen.

Whenever replay is going to be used in a game, the official has to get on the mic and tell everyone what the ruling is and that the play is under review. And when the review is complete, the final judgment must also be communicated. That stuff shouldn't be the job of the PA announcer. It should be the job of the referee.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Randomization, 05/16/06

Can we kick out the Pistons and Cavaliers? After last night's awful fourth quarter, both teams deserve to get the boot from this year's NBA Playoffs. I know that one game doesn't define the overall quality of a team, but Detroit and Cleveland managed to put on the worst performance I've seen in an NBA playoff game since New York and Miami were destroying the league right before the turn of the century.

NBA apologists will give you the line about it being a really close game practically from start to finish, and that it was great defense in the closing minutes by both teams. If you were watching, your eyes told you differently. The following comes from the final 90 seconds of the game, as described in the play by play on ESPN.com (link). The sequence of events is true, but some items (like made free throws, for example) were removed for the sake of brevity. The events in italics came from one trip down the floor by Detroit:

Chauncey Billups misses 27-foot three point jumper
LeBron James bad pass (Tayshaun Prince steals)
Tayshaun Prince traveling
LeBron James misses 22-foot jumper
Tayshaun Prince misses 15-foot jumper
Ben Wallace offensive rebound
Richard Hamilton misses 8-foot jumper
Jumpball: Ben Wallace vs. Damon Jones (Chauncey Billups gains possession)
Chauncey Billups offensive foul (Anderson Varejao draws the foul)

Chauncey Billups turnover
LeBron James misses 19-foot jumper
Richard Hamilton misses layup
Ben Wallace misses tip shot
Tayshaun Prince bad pass (LeBron James steals)

That's not good defense, folks. It's bad offense. Give the Cavaliers and Pistons credit for playing some defense, something that is lost upon a team like, say, Phoenix. But what happened Monday night was an embarrassment for the NBA. Two teams, seemingly talented on both ends of the floor, failed to hit a single shot from the field in the final 2:17 of the game. In that span, the teams combined for a whopping four points on 0-6 shooting, 4-6 free throw shooting, and five turnovers.

Disgracefully, Cleveland, an inferior team in practically every sense of the word (the only advantage the Cavs have is that their best player, LeBron James, is better than Detroit's best player, Chauncey Billups), still has a chance to steal this series. The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Cavaliers still have to win a game in Detroit, which will be easier said than done, but their non-loss last night puts them in a spot where they can get past the Pistons.

Larry Brown done after just one year? Reports out of New York on Sunday and Monday indicated that Knicks' owner James Dolan is prepared to buy out Brown's contract after just one year on the job. The cost to Dolan could be as much as $40 million, and the same reports say that incompetent team president Isiah Thomas is probably next in line to become head coach. There are a couple ways to look at this story.

Either Dolan is stupid enough and ignorant enough about basketball to trust someone who will take on the number of bad contracts Thomas has traded for in the last two years, or Dolan wants Thomas to coach the team he's built so he can fire Thomas when the Knicks suck again next year. Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com thinks that Dolan is just as responsible as anyone for this debacle. Dolan has handed out fat buyout checks to the likes of Scott Layden and Dave Checketts over his time as owner, and another fat buyout check (Brown will almost certainly get close to all of that $40 million left on his deal) is coming. If Dolan finally wises up and gets rid of Thomas, there's another huge check. Dolan has the money (he's the Cablevision guy), but at some point, he has to get a knowledgeable basketball person in the office and leave that guy alone to do his job, instead of trying to make a big splash with a big-name executive or coach who doesn't fit the needs of the franchise.

(Please note that, while Dolan has messed this team up, and Thomas has practically destroyed it, Brown is not innocent here. He failed to clearly define roles for his players, especially once Thomas traded for Steve Francis to play alongside Stephon Marbury, a combination that was rarely on the floor together. It was a bad deal, but it had a chance to work if Brown had dealt with it properly. His famous lack of patience with younger players was a factor here, and he oftentimes seemed disinterested in what was going on, and Dolan was angered by Brown's penchant for taking his complaints about players to the press, along with the 42 different starting lineups Brown used over the course of the season.)

Nice guarantee, 'Sheed. Lost in the display of offensive inepitude late in the fourth quarter was the end of an era in basketball. Rasheed Wallace had previously been a perfect 3-0 when he guarantees a victory for his team in a playoff game. Wallace, apparently upset for some reason about his team losing Game 3 but still being in a very good position to advance, decided to put his perfect record on the line by guaranteeing a Pistons win in Game 4, going so far as to say that it would be the last game played in Cleveland this season.

Wallace's on-court answer to his promise of victory? 7 points on 3 of 13 shooting.

His team surely would back up his words, right? Detroit scored 72 points and shot 33 percent, failing to make a basket in the game's final 3:21.

San Jose mayor apologizes. Quick update on yesterday's lead story, which was the stupid fans in San Jose booing the Canadian national anthem. First off, San Jose's mayor apologized for the behavior, saying it was disrespectful to Canada and to the Canadian players on the Sharks' roster. Secondly, reader Adam in California e-mailed to remind me that Edmonton fans booed the Star-Spangled Banner in 1998, when the Oilers were last seen in the second round of the playoffs. Adam did agree with the premise of my post, which is that this is the last thing we need in hockey:
The Oilers' fans need to heed the warnings of their own. The message board on the Oilers' web site is full of fans begging others not to boo our anthem on Wednesday night. And I think you're right. Those ESPN idiots will use this as an excuse to rip hockey, instead of talking about it simply being a sign of fans willing to go pretty low to get their digs in at a rival.
Yes, Adam is correct. Oilers fans on their board did confirm for me that there was booing of the Star-Spangled Banner in Edmonton in 1998. And I'm sure their fans got ripped for it, so here's hoping they learned their lesson and they don't stoop to the level San Jose fans did on Sunday.

Furthermore, here's hoping that no one makes a really big deal out of one or two fans being disrespectful. There are rude fans everywhere, and as long as the booing isn't as obvious as it was in San Jose, we should all move on.

Bettman must go. Listen, there were some really good ideas put into motion this season. Many of them were originated by Bettman and the owners. And they deserve credit for that. But the changes were far too late in coming, and they only came after the league took a season off and realized the need to suck up to the fans. Not only that, but Bettman himself has the charisma of a dead fish. Appearing on Imus in the Morning Tuesday, Bettman had a golden opportunity to sell hockey to a host who doesn't like it and never talks about it, and he had a chance to do in front of a nationwide radio audience as well as a cable television audience (Imus is syndicated on about 150 radio stations and airs on MSNBC cable).

He didn't.

If anything, he may have turned a casual fan or two against hockey. He couldn't remember what game was next in the Edmonton-San Jose series (he called Wednesday's Game 6 the "last game of the series", which it might be, but only if Edmonton wins). He spoke with no enthusiasm about the upcoming Buffalo-Carolina Eastern finals series, even though there are viewers to gain and, in the case of the games in Raleigh, tickets to sell (reports are that sales for this series were not going as well as they did earlier in the playoffs, with tickets still available as of this morning). He did nothing to sell the faster pace of play, and he did nothing to sell Imus or his audience on the improvements that have come from a handful of rules changes in the sport.

So, basically, Bettman went on Imus, showed off the shiny Stanley Cup, smiled a few times, took the shots Imus delivered about how no one knows what's going on in the NHL this season, and went away. It was a completely useless interview for Bettman, at a time where he needs anything but that.

Sunday's coverage of the Heads-Up Poker Challenge on NBC drew a miniscule 1.1 rating, but yet that rating was higher than the rating for Saturday's NHL playoff game (Carolina-New Jersey), and it was on par with the average rating for an NHL playoff broadcast on NBC. The NHL's TV ratings in the postseason, between NBC and OLN, are down anywhere from 40-60 percent from 2004's playoffs on ABC and ESPN.

We need a commissioner in this sport who will be able to sell the sport. We need a commissioner who will speak with passion for the sport whenever he is in front of a television camera or in a radio interview. We need a commissioner who has the personality to take the shots from ignorant media people and shoot back when he feels it's necessary.

In other words, we need David Stern.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Randomization, 05/15/06

Please don't boo their national anthem. The behavior of the occasional sports fan has been proven to be stupid in the past. We know that when you gather 19,000 people in one place, there are bound to be some bad apples around. The guy who won't stop screaming at the other team's coach. The guy who won't stop spilling beer everywhere. The guy who throws his peanut shells wherever he feels like. The guy who won't sit down...ever. The guy who boos the national anthem of the other country. In most NHL games, the Canadian and US anthems are both played. 99 percent of the time, both anthems are either cheered politiely or loudly, and either way, the idiots who boo either anthem are drowned out and not heard.

That wasn't the case a few times around the start of the Iraq war, when fans in Chicago, Boston, and Montreal, among others, took turns booing the national anthem of the visiting country. It wasn't just a hockey thing, with fans at Wrigley Field booing the Canadian anthem before a Cubs-Expos game. But fans on both sides of the border were quick to discredit the behavior, calling the booing immature and disrespectful.

This crap ceased until last night, and now I can only hope it doesn't continue. Fans in San Jose apparently got wind of a smattering of boos toward the Star-Spangled Banner in Edmonton on Friday night, and they took to booing loudly during "Oh, Canada" before Game 5 of the Sharks-Oilers Western Conference semifinal series. San Jose fans are better than that, and they know it.

There is no excuse - none - for booing someone's national anthem. Especially when half of your team is comprised of players from the country whose anthem you are booing (12 of 25 Sharks players are Canadian)! I hope Edmonton fans are smart enough to cheer the American anthem on Wednesday night, because booing it would give idiot sportswriters in the States another reason to mindlessly rip a sport that they know nothing about.

Speaking of mindlessly ripping hockey...Did anyone catch "Around the Horn" last Thursday? The ESPN show takes four sportswriters and gives them a chance to argue back and forth for a half-hour on various sports topics. It's actually a decent show, despite the best efforts of loud and overbearing host Tony Reali. Anyway, they brought up hockey on Thursday, discussing the length of playoff overtimes in hockey, a discussion spawned by Edmonton's triple-overtime win over Calgary the night before.

In a development that was less than shocking, the panelists on the show, including ESPN's Woody Paige and Michael Smith, Chicago sports hack Jay Mariotti, and Dallas writer Tim Cowlishaw, almost unanimously ripped or made fun of hockey. Paige and Smith tried to act like hockey was cool, only to back down immediately when Reali tried to quiz them on the Oilers-Sharks game. Cowlishaw stood up for the game, and then Mariotti made an idiotic argument (something he's good at) about how playoff games should go to shootouts after two overtimes.

What's funny about this is that Mariotti has covered the baseball scene in Chicago for many years, and he has probably sat through more than one endless extra-inning baseball game. Maybe Mariotti would have advocated a home-run derby to decide Game 3 of last year's World Series, which the White Sox won in 14 innings. That game lasted five hours and 41 minutes. Wednesday's Edmonton-San Jose game lasted about four and a half hours. Don't you hate it, Mariotti, when facts stand in the way of your mindless drivel?

Congrats to Buffalo and Carolina. As reported in this blog last month, Buffalo and Carolina are heading to the Eastern Conference Finals. That's right, your sometimes-humble sports correspondent nailed the East playoffs up to this point. I'm perfect, having successfully predicted the outcomes of each of the first six series played.

The West playoffs? Well, we'll just conveniently forget that any predictions were made on those series. Yikes.

OMG PUJOLS!!! I still don't know why anyone would pitch to Pujols at this point, but that's exactly the point. At least in a few cases to this point, teams aren't really pitching to Pujols, and he's hitting the ball a mile anyway. Unlike Barry Bonds, who has never really been great at hitting bad pitches a country mile, Pujols can take a bad pitch and hit it forever. That makes it tough to pitch around Pujols without officially issuing him an intentional walk, something that is usually not a good idea. Pujols already has 19 home runs this season, and he's on pace for something in the general vicinity of 80. The Cardinals play San Francisco September 15-17, and wouldn't it be great if Pujols had a chance to tie or pass Bonds' single-season record of 73 that weekend? I know it's a bit early in the season even for Pujols' pace at this point, but it would be great theater. I wonder if MLB would "celebrate" the breaking of that record. I'm guessing that Bud Selig would try to recreate the scene around Henry Aaron's 715 home run by running side-by-side with Pujols around the bases after the record-breaking home run.

College softball. The hidden gem of late spring sports television, the NCAA Softball Tournament starts this weekend with regional play.

Why is it such a hidden gem? Well, Cat Osterman is one reason why. Figure it out.

I'm not so terribly interested in the matchups or who is good. Just show me more Cat.

(Actually, I can tell you that Osterman's Texas Longhorns are really good. UCLA is the top national seed. They lost to Michigan in last year's championship series. Michigan is seeded ninth overall. The Women's College World Series starts June 1 in Oklahoma City.)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Randomization, 05/12/06

Good night, Colorado. The Avalanche proved to have no answer for Anaheim's speed, and they were eliminated last night after a 4-1 loss in Game 4. Give credit to the Ducks, who never relented, despite a couple hairy moments in Denver. The Avs gave Anaheim everything they had, especially early, in Game 4, but when the first period ended in a 1-1 tie, it was pretty much over.

Good night, Kerry Fraser...I hope. Fraser, a veteran NHL referee, was assigned to work last night's Ottawa-Buffalo game. He couldn't have done a worse job if he had done the game with his back turned to the action. Fraser reverted to past NHL referee form, refusing to give Buffalo a two-man advantage despite numerous rather obvious attempts by Ottawa to set up said five-on-threes. Fraser ignored cross-checks and trips on Maxim Afinogenov in the third period, preferring instead to nail Derek Roy for a dubious, at best, tripping penalty, and for an inexplicable diving penalty on a knee-to-knee hit later in the third period.

Meanwhile, the Senators apparently decided to turn into the New Jersey Devils circa 1995, clutching and grabbing their way through the last ten minutes. Fraser and referee Eric Furlatt are guilty of ignoring much of the clutter that the NHL wants called. If Fraser is allowed to work another game without a reprimand from officiating supervisor Steven Walkom, then the NHL's edict toward officials will ring hollow. They've done a great job so far of trying to be consistent, even going so far as to call penalties in overtime that don't involve blood flowing (!), and Fraser took them a step in the wrong direction in Buffalo last night. He's a veteran referee who has called some big games over the course of his career, but if Fraser has had a flaw in the last five years or so, it's been his tendency to let too much go, under the ridiculous guise that "the players should decide the game, not the officials".

Penalties are penalties, and when an officials lets penalties go because he doesn't want to decide the outcome of the game, that's exactly what he is doing. Let's hope that last night isn't the start of a trend.

New deal for Driver. In what has to be considered a slap to former Packer Javon Walker, wideout Donald Driver has apparently agreed to a four-year contract extension with Green Bay. While Walker whined this week about GM Ted Thompson driving him out of Green Bay by saying "No" when Walker asked for a new contract, Driver handled his situation perfectly. He asked for a renegotiation with two years left on his current deal. The Packers responded, apparently, with at least a "We'll see". When Walker made his demands even clearer publicly before the NFL Draft, reports surfaced that Driver was also displeased and wanted out because the Packers wouldn't re-do his deal. Driver almost immediately denied those reports, acknowledging that he wanted a new deal, but making it clear that he had no intention of holding out or demanding a trade as a means of getting what he wanted.

So what happens after Walker was traded? Driver gets a two-year extension, making his deal for four years and $17 million. While it probably wasn't a good thing to have Walker make his distaste so public, Thompson has done a good job of showing both fans and players that he will reward loyalty and hard work with contract extensions and new money on deals. Meanwhile, Walker is probably somewhat upset that Thompson rewarded Driver and not him. Someday, Walker might understand why Thompson did it, since Walker is about as loyal as a prostitute, and the team was never happy with Walker's handling of his contract situation last offseason, even though Walker had the good sense to report to training camp on time when it was clear he had no leverage. Simply put, Walker was a moron, and Driver was smart. The results are completely justified and not a surprise in the least.

Quick non-sports thought. The big uproar in the States yesteday was the story in USA Today that chronicled a program being run by the National Security Agency to log the telephone numbers being called around the country. The massive project includes a database of phone records of tens of millions of Americans, with cooperation from companies like Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T (at least one major company, Qwest, did not cooperate). The administration is apparently not listening to these calls, only logging the numbers being called to look for potential patterns that could lead to terror cells within the United States.

My feelings are increasingly mixed.

On one hand, it's obvious to me that stopping terrorism has to be a high priority. And I expect that "taking my shoes off at the airport" won't be the most significant sacrifice I will have to make in this regard. I fully support the government's attempts to collect intelligence on our enemies, as long as those enemies are suspected international terrorists and not Iraqis that we've made mad (I believe wholeheartedly in the War on Terror, and I do not believe that our invasion of Iraq was a necessary part of that war). And I have nothing to hide.

On the other hand, I'm starting to get increased feelings of disdain towards this project, because there are issues with the privacy of tens of millions of innocent people in this country. And where are these phone companies? Why are they not protecting the privacy of their customers? Qwest had the good sense to tell the government to get lost, because they apparently had issues about the nature of the NSA's program and the lack of judicial oversight. But I'm very curious as to why these companies didn't have any sense of obligation to protect their customers' privacy. Somehow, "The government asked us really nice" isn't working for me as an excuse.

We'll see where this goes. I'd like to get some clearer answers from the government about what they're doing and why they are doing it, what the exact scope of this project is, whether anything meaningful has come of it to this point, why the phone companies lined up to give up their customers' private information, and what the legal answers are here. Obviously, if the government has done something illegal, we are going to have issues, but if what they did was well-structured and within the law, I'm not sure I'm going to have a problem with it.

Right now, it doesn't strike me as a huge deal. But if word gets out that the feds were secretly wiretapping domestic phone calls (which they said they weren't going to do), or if this leads to other cover-ups of secret projects, there could be a huge controversy. For now, I'm willing to back off and let the story develop. I know the Democrats are going to hate the idea, and the Republicans are going to support it. That alone is strange, because the Republicans used to be the people who were against this kind of government involvement in people's private lives. It's amazing how these stances change when your party gains power in Washington and lets it poison their minds we get into a wartime situation.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Randomization, 05/11/06

While it's still going on, here's a Ducks/Avs update. After an excessively boring first period on Tuesday night, the two teams managed to put a pretty entertaining game together. Anaheim didn't get any goals by players not named "Joffrey Lupul", but it wasn't because of a lack of effort or opportunity. The Ducks have played very well so far, and they have faced some solid goaltending from the normally inconsistent Jose Theodore (it's safe to say that the Theodore/David Aebischieve swap didn't work well for either Colorado or Montreal). Theodore made some magnificent saves early on Tuesday to keep the Avalanche alive, and he kept it up throughout the game as Colorado struggled to handle the speed of the Ducks' forwards. Colorado finally solved the Ilya Bryzgalov puzzle, but they still aren't doing the little things they need to do to beat a team like Anaheim. The Avalanche aren't doing a good job getting back on defense (after three games, there aren't a lot of excuses for underestimating Anaheim's speed up the ice). They don't get nearly enough traffic in front of Bryzgalov (give Anaheim some credit for using their size to push the Avs around). And they aren't playing very smart on their power play, looking about as tentative as humanly possible with the man advantage. If there's a team that deserves to be down 3-0 in a series right now, it's Colorado. The first three games of this series have underscored how lucky the Avalanche were to advance to this round.

College impact continues. Zach Parise has played well for New Jersey. Maine's Dustin Penner has been a godsend for Anaheim. Guys like Matt Greene, Brad Winchester, Tom Preissing, David Hale, and Mike Commodore, among others, have played significant roles for their teams so far in the postseason. On top of the 18 former Hobey Baker Award winners and finalists still playing (I chronicled that last week), college hockey's presence is really being felt through these role players. I felt they merited a small mention for their contributions. No matter how many of these guys make it in the NHL, I always perk up a little bit when I hear an announcer call a familiar name (though I have to admit it was more like a "double take" when Jim Hughson called Matt Greene's name last night).

Speaking of Jim Hughson...I had never heard him call a real NHL game before. Just the video games for EA Sports. Hughson's awesome, but it was thoroughly weird to hear him call a real game. I kept waiting for him to say "____ has the puck on a string!", "____ just missed the net on that slapper!", or "____ has it in the big trapper!". Either way, it was fun to listen to. I'm all for more CBC feeds of NHL games, since I don't get CBC (memo to DirecTV: I want CBC!).

Quick thought on the NBA. First off, whoever is responsible for the night off today should be whipped. I don't care that TV rules the roost. There's no reason to not have any games tonight. Teams that played on Tuesday don't need to wait until Saturday to play again.

Also, I'm all for ripping Kobe Bryant, but let me bring something else up here. I agree that it's fishy that Bryant only took three shots in the second half of LA's blowout loss to Phoenix in Game 7 on Saturday, especially with how active he was in the first half. And I agree that Bryant may very well have packed it in and decided to put his crappy team on full display for everyone to see. But...

What happens if Bryant takes 20 more shots in the second half? The Lakers lose by double-digits, anyway, because they couldn't defend the Suns' fast break or half-court offense, nor could they rebound consistently against a terrible rebounding team (see: West Semifinals Game 2 rebound margin - Clippers 57, Suns 26). And Bryant gets ripped by everyone for taking 40 shots in a Game 7 and trying to do it all by himself.

Instead, Bryant tries to set his teammates up and let them show what they can do, and the Lakers get blown out of the arena.

Please keep in mind that I'm just playing devil's advocate to a certain extent. I can't stand Bryant. And I think he quit on Saturday. I think he got sick of carrying this team, and he let them fall off the map in the second half. As evidence of this, I'll not only offer the fact that Bryant only took three second-half shots, but I'll also offer that there were multiple possessions where Bryant didn't touch the ball, and since the Lakers' offense was basically run through Bryant all year, I found this to be quite odd.

But no matter what you say about Kobe, he was a legitimate MVP candidate this year. The second half of Game 7, with Bryant invisible, only underscores how amazing it was that he was able to get this horrible team to a seventh game against the second-best team in the West.

Larry King is here again...Javon Walker signed his new contract in Denver yesterday. I credit him for making sure everyone understands that Brett Favre didn't "drive him out of Green Bay". Whether I agree with the idea that GM Ted Thompson "disrespected" Walker by simply saying that the team wasn't going to redo Walker's contract or not, I'll give Walker some credit for getting Favre out from under the bus by saying he'd play with Favre anywhere, except Green Bay... Jaguars WR Jimmy Smith is retiring after a stellar career. Smith fought through serious adversity, both from injury and off-field issues, and had himself a very good career, mainly in Jacksonville... Kyle Lohse lowered his ERA to 8.33 by allowing one run over six innings. I'm sure Twins fans think he's worth every penny he won in arbitration... Apparently, habitual diving is bad for your ankles. Peter Forsberg could be out until January 2007 after surgery to repair bad ligaments in both ankles... While I've never gotten in trouble for blogging, Mark Cuban is a pro at it. Cuban was fined $200,000 by the NBA this week, both for going on the floor during Game One of the Mavericks-Spurs series Sunday, and for the linked entry on his blog, where he talks about improving playoff officiating. Unfortunately for Cuban, he has criticized officials too many times to get away with it now, no matter how much sense his ideas make (why are there 33 officials eligible for playoff games?). Cuban's last point in the blog is the best: "Giving less qualified officials an opportunity to officiate playoff games as a reward gives the official a nice attaboy, but it risks the quality of our product." Perfect. And, apparently, worthy of a fine from the league... I will give the NBA credit for one thing: They get television. All their playoff games are available nationally, either on ESPN, TNT, TBS, ABC, or NBA TV. The NHL doesn't get television. At all. No game last Saturday night. Two games at once twice in the conference semifinals, which only feature four total series. This is stupid. I shouldn't have to rely on Comcast to stream the Ottawa-Buffalo game on the internet for free so I can watch it because OLN is already tied up with a game. As long as the NHL is going to be this lackadaisical about scheduling games so they can be televised to everyone, they will lag well behind an inferior product (the NBA) in viewers and overall interest.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I'd normally leave this for the Fire Joe Morgan crew, but this is ridiculous...

You know them. The link is in one of the menus on the right of this page.

Anyway, Emmy-winner Joe Morgan was a guest on SportsCenter last night. It was there that he discussed with anchor Steve Levy the ridiculous and somewhat insulting proposition that the hatred toward Barry Bonds is racially-motivated. As the anchors teased this segment, I was given no idea that Morgan was going to be the guest, but I decided to watch anyway, because I was intrigued by the possibility that, as was intimated in the tease, there are MLB players who think people are racist in their handling of Bonds.

The Emmy winner was asked about this notion - the notion that the treatment of Bonds this past week was somehow just a bunch of racist Milwaukee and Philadelphia fans, even though the big sign in Philadelphia Sunday night talked about how "Aaron did it with class" (the other part, about how "Ruth did it with hot dogs and beer", was hilarious). It's an idea that basically dismisses the thought that fans despise Bonds because he probably likely definitely took steroids, which is, you know, true.

Morgan's rambling 45-second response, which I didn't make a transcript of but should have, talked about how there's racism everywhere you go, and how there are probably people who are treating Bonds like this because he's black, and how there are probably people who don't want Bonds to break Aaron's record because he's black (they somehow, evidently, forgot that Henry Aaron is black, too).

At no point in this rambling, incoherent babble did Morgan either come anywhere close to completing a rational thought, or did he mention that maybe, just maybe, people hate Barry Bonds because he's a jerk who took steroids.


To: Joe Morgan
From: Someone who desperately wants to save you from the wrath of Ken Tremendous
Re: Steroids

Steroids are bad, Joe. And Barry Bonds took them.

As a result, there are a lot of people who would just as soon watch the Yankees win a World Series before they watch Barry Bonds break the record of Henry Aaron, a man who has continued to live a life of class and dignity long after he stopped hitting home runs.

It's okay to talk about steroids. Hell, everyone else does.

It's certainly not okay to never mention them when Bonds is involved in the discussion. Please never do this again.

Thank you.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Randomization: 05/05/06

NHL conference semifinals are set. And there aren't any universally distasteful teams left. It's going to be hard to build up any real disdain for the Colorados, San Joses, Ottawas, or New Jerseys of the hockey world so I can root for their opponents in the conference semis. The matchups should be interesting, and there certainly is some historical significance to what has happened this year in the NHL. The top four seeds in the Western Conference all have tee times as of today. As discussed yesterday, Detroit lost in six games to Edmonton. The second seed, Dallas, lost an excruciating series to Colorado (three OT losses out of five games played). Fourth seed Nashville lost in five games to a clearly superior San Jose team.

And then there's Calgary.

Stupid Flames. I had them in the Finals, but they decided to break out the golf clubs early, failing to even put up a fight in a Game 7 loss to Anaheim.

That leaves the fifth-seeded San Jose Sharks as the top remaining seed in the Western Conference.

Let that sink in for a moment, especially after you consider that the seeds held form in the East, where the top four all advanced quite convincingly (with the possible exception of Carolina, who had some close shaves after losing two straight at home to start their series with Montreal).

I'm going to spare you positional breakdowns and such, because I examined these teams quite closely before the first round (though, in the West, I apparently didn't examine them enough). But here are some quick thoughts on the four series:

Buffalo vs Ottawa --> This is what I expected to see happen, and I picked Buffalo at the start of the playoffs. Nothing I saw in the first round makes me think differently. Ottawa is extremely dangerous, but the Sabres' balance and goaltending are superior. The Senators aren't as strong defensively as Buffalo, either. The Sabres will ride Ryan Miller and the play of all four scoring lines to a win in a great series.

New Jersey vs Carolina --> With the play of Martin Brodeur in the series against New York, combined with Carolina's serious struggles against Montreal, this is the closest I will probably come to changing a previous prediction, something I really don't like doing. But I'm going to stick to my guns. Cam Ward has been great for the Hurricanes in goal after Martin Gerber flamed out, and the 'Canes are getting big goals from their veteran players, along with improved play from their less-experienced guys. If I'm going to be wrong, it's probably going to be on this series, but I think Carolina will win and advance to the conference final.

Colorado vs Anaheim --> Did anyone think Anaheim would end up with home-ice in the conference semifinals? Me, neither. They're a good team, though. I like their speed, and Scott Niedermayer was nothing short of incredible in the Calgary series. The Ducks got great goaltending from Ilya Brzkiginlasdaddygov, who stepped in after Jean-Sebastien Giguere was ineffective in Game 5. Colorado, to a certain extent, was lucky to advance, even though they won in just five games. Three of their wins were in overtime, and they had a couple games in there that they honestly didn't have any business winning. I think the lucky streak will end here, as the Avalanche just don't have the speed or defensive prowess to stay with Anaheim. Ducks win in six games.

Edmonton vs San Jose --> After they shocked Detroit (and did it with some amazing comebacks and bouncebacks), nothing that Edmonton does should be considered a surprise. The Oilers have speed, skill, depth, great goaltending from Dwayne Roloson (whose great play against the Red Wings was a huge, but somewhat forgotten, factor in the series) and an elite defenseman in Chris Pronger, who was on a level with Anaheim's Niedermayer in the first round. Pronger was on the ice in almost every key situation, and he was still able to avoid taking a penalty until Game 6. San Jose, however, is clicking up front. Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau will be hard to shut down, and Vesa Toskala had a great series against Nashville. This should be a great series. Edmonton has the speed and skill, and they are also very tenacious. The defense matches up better with the Sharks' top players than Nashville did, and I think Edmonton is better-equipped to cause problems with Toskala than Nashville was. Edmonton gets a second straight upset, this one in seven games.

For those who try to discredit college hockey...The influence that the college game is having on the NHL increases practically every year. This year is the best it's ever been. There are three former Hobey Baker winners still playing, including two (Chris Drury and Ryan Miller) on the Buffalo Sabres (Matt Carle of San Jose is the other). Counting Miller and Drury, who was a two-time finalist before he won the award at Boston University, there are 18 former Hobey finalists still playing. The full list of former finalists:

ANAHEIM – LW Chris Kunitz (2003, Ferris State), C Andy McDonald (2000, Colgate). BUFFALO – G Miller (2002, Michigan State), C Drury (1996, 1997, Boston University), RW Mike Grier (1995, Boston University). COLORADO – D Rob Blake (1990, Bowling Green), C Jim Dowd (1991, Lake Superior State), D John-Michael Liles (2003, Michigan State). EDMONTON – G Ty Conklin (2000, 2001, New Hampshire), C Shawn Horcoff (2000, Michigan State), G Dwayne Roloson (1994, UMass-Lowell). NEW JERSEY – RW Brian Gionta (1999, 2000, 2001, Boston College), C John Madden (1997, Michigan), LW Jay Pandolfo (1996, Boston University), C Zach Parise (2003, 2004, North Dakota). OTTAWA – LW Dany Heatley (2001, Wisconsin), Bryan Smolinski (1993, Michigan State). SAN JOSE – D Tom Preissing (2003, Colorado College).

With great young talents like Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford, Ryan Potulny, Robbie Earl, and Danny Irmen among a ton of college players about to make an impact in the pros, you can look for more lists like the above in future years. More and more highly-touted athletes are making their way into college hockey, and the trend will continue as those players find their way into big-time roles in the NHL.

Two more quick notes on the NHL playoffs so far. I promise I'll stop for now after I mention these two other notes. Through the conference quarterfinals, scoring is up an average of 1.5 goals per game from 2004 (5.9 goals this year, 4.4 goals in 2004). And through the conference quarterfinals, there have been 27 lead changes in games, compared with 10 through the same number of playoff games (44) in 2004.

If you didn't believe that the NHL was serious about opening up the game, or if you were like me and very skeptical about the officials making the same penalty calls in the playoffs that they made in the regular season, you've got some evidence now that the league was indeed serious about the players being allowed to play the game within the rules.

Full credit to Gary Bettman and officiating supervisor Steven Walkom for making sure the officials did their jobs in the playoffs. So far, so good.

Saying "No" to Barry. Give credit to baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who has managed to almost completely distance himself from controversial slugger Barry Bonds without doing anything stupid (i.e. suspending Bonds). Bonds' Giants were in Milwaukee this week, with Bonds just two homers away from tying Babe Ruth for second all-time, and Selig was nowhere to be found. Baseball has also made it clear that they won't celebrate Bonds passing Ruth, and they used the right reason publicly (they don't want to get in the habit of celebrating second place), even if that reason is somewhat bogus.

Suns survive undisciplined stupidity. The Suns beat the Lakers Thursday night to force a Game 7. That came after Raja Bell's warranted one-game suspension for a clothesline on Bryant in Game 5. I'm all for clotheslining Kobe Bryant, but it has to be done in the context of the game. Bell intimated that he was retaliating for some elbows he got from Bryant during the game, but he needs to learn that he's better retaliating when he actually gets hit than he is waiting until the game is basically over to gutlessly throw a random clothesline. It was a silly lack of discipline from Bell, and he's lucky his absence didn't hurt his team. Game 7, which is Saturday, should be a great game.

Larry King wants me to mention these notes. Prince Fielder almost killed Todd Greene on Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee. I hope Greene's okay, but that was a great collision at home plate. Pretty sure you don't want to stand in Prince's way unless you're wearing full body armor... Can't wait for the NCAA Baseball Tournament. I expect that defending national champion Texas will be the best team out of a major conference (the 'Horns have been hot lately after a rough start to their title defense), but look out for Nebraska out of the Big 12. With Joba Chamberlain at the top of the rotation and the bats having come alive even without Alex Gordon, the Cornhuskers are a serious threat. Rice, Cal State Fullerton, and Notre Dame are also very dangerous. Star WR Jeff Samardzija is also a pitcher on the Irish baseball team, and he's developed into one of their top starters. Kentucky has emerged as one of the best teams in the SEC, sitting at 34-11 overall entering this weekend. It should be a great tounament, with no real clear-cut favorite... Follow-up to the World Cup - Team USA will be without defender Frankie Hejduk in the tournament, as he has a bad knee. Chris Albright has been brought up from the list of alternates to the main roster for the tournament, which starts June 9 in Germany.

Time off. I will be taking a long weekend. Any posts between now and Wednesday will be brief, but I'll be back with something that will at least closely resemble a full post on Wednesday.