The past week and a half has been a whirlwind in the sports world, from intense postseason action in two sports to marathon MLB games and extra-inning heroics to crazy moves in the NFL to horses running in a circle for a couple minutes. Here’s a breakdown of the most important happenings of the past 10 days, and a brief look ahead at the future.
- The Bruins swept the punchless Penguins to advance to their second Stanley Cup Finals in three years. Despite the Bruins’ continued insistence that they weren’t taking the Pens for granted and were expecting a surge at any time, the dangerous Pittsburgh offense that had averaged more than four goals a game over the first two rounds never materialized against the stifling Boston defense, and the Penguins only managed two goals all series. Two goals. In four games. Only three other teams in NHL history have allowed so few goals in a series of at least four games, so yeah, that’s pretty good. Much of this was thanks to the lights-out netminding of Tuukka Rask, the Finnish goalie who watched from the bench as Tim Thomas made history in leading the B’s to the Cup two years ago. We’ve spent much of this postseason trying to figure out who’s taken the mantle from 2011 Thomas/2012 Jonathan Quick – at times bouncing between Henrik Lundqvist, Tomas Vokoun, and Quick himself – but it certainly looked like Tuukka in the Conference Finals. After Game 2, when most of us were still wary of Pittsburgh despite them being outscored 9-1 over two games, I was actually preparing to write that while Tuukka looked phenomenal, we shouldn’t expect him to be a reincarnation of Thomas. Then he notched 53 saves in an intense double overtime victory in Game 3 and recorded his second shutout of the series in Game 4, and I canned that article pretty damn quick (sometimes it’s good to procrastinate). Two U’s, two K’s, it’s Tuukka Time! Other takeaways from the series:
- Despite allowing six goals in four periods and getting yanked in the first period of Game 2, Vokoun settled down nicely at the end of the series, giving up only three goals over the span of nearly three full games. After allowing a Brad Marchand breakaway goal that totally wasn’t his fault in the opening seconds of Game 3, he essentially pitched a shutout for nearly the remainder of the game, giving up his next goal at the end of the second overtime period. And in Game 4 his only mistake was a third-period Adam McQuaid snipe that he lost in the various skaters in front of him. Were it not for his offense’s miserable performance, this series would have gone a lot longer than four games, and Pittsburgh better think long and hard about their starting goaltender for next year.
- Lots of credit goes to Tuukka, but an equal amount must go to the rest of defense as well. Led by captain Zdeno Chara and spurred by the return of Dennis Seidenberg, the B’s utterly neutralized dangerous weapons Sid Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bruins fan favorite Jarome Iginla – a whopping combined total of ZERO POINTS – and shut out their fearsome power play with swarming and relentless pressure. Oh, and they pitched in on offense too, scoring 15 goals from the point – one more than they scored in the entire regular season.
- Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are the heart and soul of the Bruins’ offense, hands down. In their fourth year on the same line, they appear to share one mind, and have been responsible for some of Boston’s biggest moments of the playoffs: Bergeron’s equalizer with seconds left in Game 7 of the first round and his overtime series clincher (assisted by Marchand), the OT winner in Game 1 of the next series against New York, which was a carbon copy of the Toronto winner with the roles reversed, Marchand’s two goals in the first period of Game 2 in Pittsburgh (including this incredibly satisfying play against professional dickhead Matt Cooke), and Bergy’s double OT winner, assisted by…who else? David Krejci may lead the league in points this postseason, and Torey Krug may be the favorite story, but there’s little doubt as to who’s carrying this team.
- Enough has been written to fill a Stephen King book about Gregory Campbell’s Game 3 performance on a broken leg, but it’s hard to overstate how much his gritty fearlessness meant to this team. After a Penguins power play shot shattered his leg, not only did he refuse to leave the ice – which would have put his team down two men – he disrupted a pass and even prepared to lay down his body to block another shot. As a Boston.com article scathingly pointed out, this kind of determination seems to be practically unique to hockey, though comparisons to Schilling’s bloody sock have already run rampant. Either way, Campbell’s toughness has simultaneously made him an instant legend in Boston and given his team something to play for.
- The Penguins are arrogant sore losers, and it starts at the top with their crybaby captain. Crosby disappeared when his team needed him the most and handled it by trying to fight a goalie, barking at his opponents and teammates, and getting a stupid penalty at the end of the game when his team was about to pull their netminder – and this was all in Game 1. He set a terrible example for his colleagues, all of whom let the Bruins get under their skin and throw them off their games. And when Boston had proven its dominance with a sweep, Crosby still refused to take responsibility, claiming that they had chances and the Bruins didn’t “totally shut us down.” You scored twice in four friggin’ games! With an extra period and a half thrown in!!! How is that not shutting you down? Funnily enough, the only humility came from Iginla – who, in a perfect twist of irony, had spurned Boston midseason to win a Cup with Pittsburgh – when he admitted that he “just didn’t play very well.” The culture of winning that Crosby has installed in Pittsburgh has made the Penguins stubborn and resistant to criticism. On the other hand, the Bruins’ lack of a true “superstar” and subsequent team efforts, their reality check against Toronto in the first round, and their general humility has helped lead them to the Finals. Smell ya, Sidney.
- The Blackhawks ousted the Kings in a convincing five games to reach THEIR second Finals in FOUR years. With 2012 playoff hero Jonathan Quick coming off an impressive series in which he blanked the Sharks twice and allowed only three goals in the last three games, he looked to be rounding into the form that had won him the Conn Smythe last year. Unfortunately for him and his teammates, the Hawks threw out a lineup that was much more speedy and deep than any Los Angeles had seen, which proved to be their undoing. Chicago’s collection of superstar forwards – Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Co. – and their puck-moving defensemen were too much for Quick and his low-key teammates. The Hawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead with each of their six goals coming from a different player, and they even chased Quick from Game 2 with a four-goal barrage over the first 30 minutes. Quick came back rejuvenated to allow one goal in a Game 3 win, and with star Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith suspended for Game 4 after a foolish karate chop to the face of Jeff Carter, LA looked poised to steal the momentum and even the series. But with top scorer Mike Richards sidelined for the third straight game with concussion symptoms, the Kings couldn’t keep up with Chicago’s offense, and a close contest ended on Hossa’s snipe with a minute left in the game. Game 5 was an instant classic, a hotly contested and chippy matchup that Richards, in his first game back, tied with ten seconds on the clock…and which Kane ended 10 minutes into the second overtime with his third goal of the night. The Kings were overmatched from the start of the series and Chicago never allowed them to gain a foothold, battering them with line after line of fast, skilled forwards and their ferocious cadre of defenders. Netminder Corey Crawford outplayed Quick with a 2.2 GAA in the series and made the kinds of breathtaking stops that win Cups. The Hawks are firing on all cylinders at just right the time and aim to keep the momentum with home ice against Boston.
- The Stanley Cup Finals. Two Original Six teams in the Finals for the first time since 1979. Two blue-collar cities with tons of hockey history who have been dominated by football, basketball, and baseball for decades – despite bringing home Cups in the past few years. Two deep, balanced teams, one with superstars galore and one without a single one. Two young goalies at the top of their game looking to become institutions for the future. The most dominant team of the regular season – they who reeled off a historic 24-game point streak – versus the team that saw plenty of ups and downs and needed a miracle to get out of the first round. Welcome to the Stanley Cup. Stay tuned for Kevin Moore’s preview today.
- The Finals are as exciting as expected. We previewed the Miami-San Antonio matchup in last week’s Friday Fives, and though it’s been entertaining as hell, to say it’s unfolded like we (…okay, I) predicted would be a lie. Game 1, a back-and-forth nail-biter in which neither team held a double-digit lead, featured classic performances from the leaders of each squad: a throwback 20-point, 14-rebound effort from Tim Duncan and an 18-point, 18-rebound triple-double from LeBron. But it was All-World point guard Tony Parker who ended the game on a wild and unlikely off-balance jumper with five seconds left – a shot that instantly entered the annals of classic Finals moments. Since then, however, the superstars have canceled each other out, forcing bit players to step up and make their marks. While LeBron continues to play lights-out defense, his shooting presence has been somewhat minimized, and in Games 2 and 3 he shot 39% for 32 combined points – and just two attempted free throws (though it was his fourth-quarter explosion that helped seal a Game 2 win). For a guy who normally gets every single call, this is absurd. But his counterparts haven’t been any better, with Duncan and Parker combining for 22 points on 30% shooting in Game 2, and Parker being shut down in Game 3 to the tune of 6 points on only 5 field goal attempts. This is the Finals, however, where they separate the men from the boys, and the supporting casts have answered the call. Mario Chalmers, the most unnecessary point guard in the lead, started a furious run at the end of the third quarter of Game 2 that got LeBron back on track and blew the game open for a Heat blowout. Spurs guards Danny Green and Gary Neal led the Game 3 threes parade – a Finals record 16 for San Antonio – that led to their very own epic blowout while bailing out their struggling veterans. LeBron, Wade, Parker, and Duncan need to play better if they want to take control of this series – and you know they will – but it’s also fun to see who will be the X-factor who steps up each night.
- The NBA coaching carousel grows deeper and more intricate. The intriguing possibilities of who will be coaching what team next year grew even more varied when it was announced last week that Lionel Hollins and George Karl would not return to their franchises in 2013-14. Hollins had led Memphis to a franchise-record 56 wins and a shocking second-round upset of #1 seed Oklahoma City before being manhandled in a sweep by the Finals-bound Spurs. And Karl…well, Karl had done nothing less than lead a high-flying Denver squad with no superstar – in a league in which you need at least one to win (2004 Pistons aside) – to the third seed in the West en route to winning Coach of the Year. But it was Denver’s first-round exit and his impending contract situation (I’d say the Coach of the Year deserves some big money, wouldn’t you?) that got him the boot. These moves continue the recent trend of franchises settling for nothing less than the best: Brooklyn’s Avery Johnson was fired in December just weeks after winning Coach of the Month; his successor P.J. Carlesimo was let go despite leading the Nets to the #4 seed; and the Lakers brought in Mike Brown before the season, only to fire him after five freakin’ games. He didn’t even get a chance! (I won’t mention Vinny Del Negro and the Clips because, well, Del Negro is a terrible coach.) So that makes four teams that made the playoffs last year that currently have no coach – Denver, Memphis, Brooklyn, and the Clippers – with the Lakers likely to fire Mike D’Antoni in the coming days, and Doc Rivers possibly retiring (?) for the millionth year in a row. Competing for these intriguing vacancies are Karl, Hollins, super-assistant Brian Shaw, maybe Jeff Van Gundy, maybe Phil Jackson, and…wait for it…Jason Kidd!!! Yup, the top-five all-time point guard is getting serious consideration for the Nets job just a week after retiring from his stellar 19-year career. How badass would this be? The triple-double machine, second in career assists and steals behind only John Stockton, the guy who casually decided to become a fantastic shooter halfway through his career, leading struggling star Deron Williams back from his depressing 2012-13 season and coaching against guys he played against just last year. If I know crazy Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov like I think I do, this is the biggest no-brainer of the offseason.
- Yasiel Puig is Mike Trout/Jeremy Lin 2.0. The baseball story of the month has been the emergence…no, eruption…of Puig, the Dodgers’ 22-year-old cannon-armed slugging prospect who’s turning the league into his playground. As I wrote in our NL West preview, the Dodgers had no room on the roster for the Cuban defector and his $42 million contract before the season, but with Carl Crawford hitting the DL last week, Puig got his chance and is currently the hottest hitter in baseball. Look at his first five games, in order: 2-4 and a game-ending outfield assist from the warning track; 3-4 with two homers and 5 RBI; 0-4 with two strikeouts (against Jason Marquis who took a no-hitter into the sixth); 2-4 with a monster opposite-field grand slam in the eighth inning that put the game out of reach; and 1-3 with a game-tying homer and, perhaps more impressively, an intentional walk. In his fifth major league game. The last-place Dodgers won four of those five games and got a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart from both the players and the fans. Puig is in a homerless “drought” over his last four games but his legend grows, as he was moved to the cleanup spot, notched another eight hits, and recorded another outfield assist on a laser beam to third base. In the first nine games of his career he’s hitting .471 with 10 RBI and a mind-blowing 1.382 OPS and is drawing fans back to Dodger Stadium in droves. Puig Fever has Linsanity written all over it, but unlike Jeremy Lin he was never overlooked for a second, and his raw talent calls to mind the appropriate madness over Mike Trout last year. If he stays at anything close to this pace the National League Rookie of the Year will be his for the taking. Oh, and if there was any question of him being part of the team – you know, if the curtain calls and Gatorade baths didn’t do it for you – he’s already been ejected from a game for his part in a wild brawl with Arizona that started when he was hit in the face by a pitch and his pitcher retaliated.
- What the hell happened to the NL East? The East hasn’t been a power division in recent decades, with the Braves dominating since realignment, only two titles coming from the division since 1987, and the Mets, Marlins, and Expos/Nationals boasting varying degrees of ineptitude since the ’90s. But we expected something more this year, particularly from the reigning division champion Nationals, who came in as World Series favorites. Sure, we knew the Marlins would be bad after last year’s firesale – but maybe not historically bad (they’ve scored one or zero runs in exactly one-third of their games). And the Mets are always horrendous, but with young ace Matt Harvey contending for a Cy Young a year after R.A. Dickey brought it back to Citi Field, you’d think they could muster something around him. Instead, we’re almost halfway through the season and we have one winning team in the East, Atlanta, with second-place Washington a distant seven games out of first. The young superstars who were supposed to lead the Nationals to the Series and start a dynasty in the capital have been pretty good…when healthy. Ace Stephen Strasburg looks scarily similar to – gulp – Mark Prior with his frustrating history with injuries, and reigning ROY Bryce Harper, perhaps playing too hard for his own good, has been on and off the DL, the latest stint taking him to Dr. James Andrews, that harbinger of bad news, for a look at his knee. The Phillies are far beyond the prime years of their once-ferocious offense, and former ace Roy Halladay underwent shoulder surgery that will sideline him for God knows how long. (Plus, I just discovered his real name is Harry Leroy Halladay III, which is simultaneously hilarious and depressing, and also qualifies him for Bill Simmons’ Reggie Cleveland All-Stars.) The Mets and the Marlins are the Mets and the Marlins. ‘Nuff said. Frankly, it’s depressing to see this from a division with so much history and tradition.
- The AL East is as unpredictable as…uhh…we predicted. Check out my AL East preview from before the season started. Go ahead, I know it’s bad. Yup, the current standings are nearly the exact opposite of what I predicted – swap Baltimore and Tampa Bay in the four and five holes and the reversal is complete. I’m okay with this for three reasons: 1. The Sox are in first. 2. I mean, I did say “any of the division’s teams could finish in virtually any place and I wouldn’t be overly surprised.” 3. There are still 100 games left in the season. But as it stands now, the Sox and Yanks are rolling, the Orioles’ hitters are only getting better and are keeping last year’s dream alive, the Jays’ are imploding (as expected), and the Rays have gotten fantastic pitching with little to no offense – which isn’t enough to stay alive in this division. I’m sure much will change over the last two-thirds of the season so we’ll keep tabs on this.
- Biogenesis is going to get a LOT of guys in trouble. We’ll cover the Biogenesis scandal more later this month when they finally release the names of associated players and reveal the consequences, but just a quick thought: if MLB is really trying to hit these guys with two PED charges, one for being connected and one for failing to cooperate, and if Melky Cabrera is really on the list (which seems likely), wouldn’t he be the first player to get a lifetime ban for a third offense? His midseason suspension during last year’s World Series run in San Francisco seemed like unfortunate timing, but if these rumors are to be believed, Melky’s days in a uniform may be numbered.
- The draft happened. I had this awesome idea to research how draft picks from the past few decades panned out, how many first round picks became All-Stars/MVPs/busts, how they stacked up against high draft picks from the other professional sports, yadda yadda yadda. Then some jabroni wrote the same exact piece for Sports Illustrated and stole my thunder. I snooze, I lose. With the first pick the Astros drafted Stanford righty Mark Appel, who had turned down $3 million from Pittsburgh last year in order to finish his time at school – must be nice to be able to turn down that kind of money, huh? In local draft news, the Sox drafted righty Teddy Stankiewicz in the second round, who I really really really want to make the club in the next few years, as he’ll immediately become my favorite player. Teddy Stank. Stanky Teddy. Stank Masta. Teddy Stank-a-Bitch. Yes, I realize all these names might be used on me but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
- TEBOWWWW!!! I’m still in utter shock from this signing so you’ll have to wait for our in-depth coverage later this week. All I can say is, if you have Football God, Football Jesus, and Football Satan with the same franchise, what’s left? The Holy Spirit? Buddha? (Definitely JaMarcus Russell.) Jehovah or whoever they witness? This really needs a whole piece to itself – stay tuned.
- Chad Johnson is in jail for playing grabass with his lawyer. The artist formerly known as Ochocinco landed in the clink when, right as he was about to released with probation and community, he slapped his (male) lawyer’s glutes in a “good hustle” fashion. The party pooper judge didn’t like that and tossed him in jail for 30 days. Hilarious – absolutely. Smart – not a chance. Judges hate hate HATE when you make a mockery of their courtroom (so I’m told), and a grabbing a dude’s cheeks is about as mocking as you can get. Thanks for the video though Chad, that will keep me entertained for awhile.