Sports

Resolving to run … or plod to fitness

This new year, like most years and like many people, I decided I needed to get into better shape. Which is, let’s face it, how gyms make money.

I saw an article online recently that said as many as 90 percent of people who sign up for health clubs as a result of a New Year’s resolution never use their membership. I can relate as I’m not exactly a gym rat.

Several years ago, when I was working in New Hampshire, the paper I worked for provided a group price at a local gym franchise. It was $10 per month, so I figured even I would get good value at that price. I gave it up after three years and four workouts … which comes out to $90 per workout. Oh, and I got a T-shirt. As long as the shirt turns out to be worth at least $325 on eBay, I made out like a bandit.

But I like the idea of being in shape and I feel better when I am. And we’re an active family. The kids are in the Bill Koch ski league at Mountaintop, at least one child and one parent has run the Crowley mile run annually since 2008 and we were regulars at the Mothers Day 5K when we had babies (and a baby jogger). So I feel like I should do something to not be the family couch Pa-tato.

My wife is a serious runner, with eight marathons to her name. I ran one in the blush of newlywed foolishness and ran sprints in high school, but I’m not a serious runner.

What I am is slow. Not sort-of slow, or not-fast, but S-L-O-W, glacially slow. I’ve never actually finished last in a race, but now that I’m up into the “masters” age group, it gives me something to look forward to.

planet-fitness-free-tshirtStill, every year around this time I toy with joining a gym again … until I see the Planet Fitness T-shirt. So how to get into shape?

I played hockey — goalie — until my mid-forties, when somebody stuck an elbow behind my ear at high speed when I wasn’t looking. When it takes fingers from both hands to count all your concussions it is probably time to take up a slower sport.

I considered curling (Canada’s second winter sport, its national championship was hosted by the Macdonald tobacco company until that was frowned upon, at which point Labatt’s brewery took it over … any sport sponsored by beer and cigarettes can’t be all that aerobic). There is a club — Rutland Rocks — at Giorgetti Arena but I haven’t been able to make the schedule work.

And several people told me I should do yoga to keep me flexible enough to play goal in my golden years. I tried –and enjoyed — it a few times, and we have a couple of friends who teach so I’ll probably give it a more extended go at one yoga-ouchof the city’s many, many studios one of these years.

But for 2017, I took up running with our dog, Maisie. It’s perfect: I already have a pair of sneakers, it gets me out of the house without a schedule, and the dog wants to stop and pee about every 100 feet, which gives me an excuse to catch my breath. And if somebody notices that I’m doing 17-minute miles, I can blame it on the hound. Good dog, Maisie.

If you live in the Northwest neighborhood, you’ll eventually see Maisie and I trundle past. Don’t be alarmed, that’s my regular skin tone during exercise and the pained look goes away once I get into shape … around May.

This article was originally published in Sam’s Good News; the latest edition is here.

Speed thrills

Three of the four remaining teams in the NHL playoffs value skill over aggression, which is a hopeful trend in the NHL. NHL teams tend to copy success — so the team that wins the Cup sets a template for other teams. And this year, three of the four divisional playoffs were won by the best-skating team in the pool. Pittsburgh, Tampa and San Jose are all built around using team speed to wear down the other team. Only St. Louis beat a team that outskated them — knocking off Chicago — but that took a full seven games. The Blues have players who can skate, but with players like Backes and Brouwer, they are more inclined to wear you down with muscle than foot speed.

And speed has been a real weapon. Almost all of the top 20 scorers are among the best skaters on their teams. And in the East in particular, the Penguins line of Kessel, Bonino and Hagelin made the Rangers and Caps’ lives miserable and Tampa is deep into its second consecutive postseason largely on the strength of its Triplets line (particularly with the injury to caption Steve Stamkos).

Among recent winners, Chicago has been the model for skating teams, with LA and the Bruins preferring a grind-it-out, face-to-the-boards approach to creating offense. But its hard to imagine the Blues getting past the Sharks, let alone whoever comes out of the East (I had Pittsburgh before the playoffs started and haven’t seen anything to change my mind).

With a little luck, we’ll see more teams choosing to try to outskate instead of outmuscling their opponents over the next few years.

A wing and a prayer

Here’s the thing the Washington Capitals are failing coming to grips with: The team is built around a winger. So what?

Teams that win championships are built down the middle. If anything, the Caps are regular-season overachievers, not playoff busts. They are OK down the middle — Evgeny Kuznetsov might, possibly, be in the discussion of elite centers at some point down the road but neither he nor Nicklas Backstrom are at the Toews / Crosby level and while Braden Holtby is in the discussion for best goalie in the league I would still take Ben Bishop in a heartbeat. OK isn’t good enough.

A few observations:

In the 50 years of Conn Smythe winners, the trophy has gone to wingers eight times. Defensemen 10 times. Goalies and centers 16 times each.

The wingers in reverse chronological order are Justin Williams, Patrick Kane, Claude Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Bob Gainey, Guy Lafleur, Reggie Leach and Yvan Cournoyer. None of these guys were obviously the best players on their teams: Williams had Quick / Doughty / Kopitar; Kane had Toews / Keith; Bossy had Trottier / Potvin / Smith; Leach had Clarke / Parent; etc., etc.

The last Stanley Cup winning team where you could convincingly argue the team (not just playoff) MVP was a winger AND that player won the Smythe was the 1977 Montreal Canadiens (Guy Lafleur). But his “supporting cast” included Lemaire, Robinson, Cournoyer, Gainey & Dryden, so it was hardly Guy or Bust.

You win down the middle, you win with depth. The Devils won without an elite center … but Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Marty Brodeur and trap, trap, trap. All the Caps are missing are all of those things.

I would argue that, rather than being playoff “failures” with Ovie, the Caps have reached their predictable level. Zero teams built around a winger — any winger — have won a Cup in the last 50 years. (I don’t remember the Gordie Howe Red Wings well enough to discuss them in detail, so if you want to argue that Delvecchio, Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk were window dressing, have at it … but it’s telling that the best pure shooter of that generation was Bobby Hull, and even with fellow Hall of Famers Stan Mikita on the other wing, Pierre Pilote on defense and Glenn Hall in goal, they won one Cup, in 1961.)

All of which brings me to Exhibit A, at the top. The 2006-07 Mighty Eggplants of Anaheim. Teemu Selanne was their leading point scorer, a winger and a sniper with attitude and a mostly one-way game (sound familiar)? But what looked at the time like the “supporting cast” turned out to be Ryan Getzlaf & Corey Perry, they had Scott Neidermayer and Chris Pronger on defense and great goaltending. Kuznetsov is already older (23) than Getzlaf was (21) and there’s nobody on the Caps D who will ever be mistaken for Neidermayer / Pronger.

  • (Paul Kariya, also in the picture, was already gone by then, another example of not winning with a team built around a winger).

So enjoy watching Ovechkin, Caps fans. He’s an exciting player and might well win a Cup by being traded to a championship team or, like Selanne, he might hang around long enough for the next generation to help push him along. But he’s not the right cornerstone for a winner.

Capt. Fantastic … or craptastic?

Zdeno-Chara-770x470So apologies to Boston Bruins fans. I’m not a Bruins hater (I started watching hockey about the time Robert Gordon Orr started getting paid to play it so I’ve always had a soft spot for them), but living in New England means getting doses of NESN coverage and there’s nothing that makes a thinking person critical as fast as listening to a homer.

But that said … I think Zdeno Chara is a big part of what’s wrong with the Bruins. I don’t mean that he’s lost a step from his already ponderous skating. Having the reach of a battleship goes a long way toward excusing having the turning radius of one and he’s still strong, mean and a good positional player. I mean his leadership.

Now maybe in the rest of the hockey world there’s been more questioning of the on-ice leadership of the Bruins than here in the Northeast, but the local coverage has pretty much focused on the usual breathless (and uninformed) debate over whether the coach is getting fired. I’m agnostic on that one, btw: Claude Julien won a Cup with a goalie playing like Mad Etta from W.P. Kinsella’s The Fencepost Chronicles. (Mad Etta was the medicine woman of the Ermineskin tribe in Kinsella’s short stories. Pressed into action as the goalie for the local hockey team in a tournament on the grounds she weighed 400 pounds and so filled the net (think Devan Dubnyk, only shorter), she quickly tired of the shots hurting her, so she weaved a few charms and the pucks stopped hitting her — or going in the net). Although that’s possibly less magical than Julien getting Boston’s jingoistic fan base to forgive him for being French. Against that success is a series of late-season & playoff failure.

But nobody seems to be calling out the on-ice leadership of a team that for years has failed to win the Big Game down the stretch. Since Chara took over as captain in 2006-07, here’s how the Bruins finished their seasons:

06-07 They were a last place team, finishing up the year on a 1-10-1 run that really only affected their draft place.

07-08 Lost to Montreal in Game 7, first round.

08-09 Won first round 4-0, lost to Carolina in Game 7, second round.

09-10 Won first round, 4-2, lost to Philadelphia in Game 7, second round.

 

11-12 Won President’s Trophy, lost to Washington in Game 7, first round.

13-14 Won first round, 4-2, lost to Montreal in Game 7, second round.

14-15 Lost their last three games to finish three points behind Ottawa, which won its last three (and six of seven) for the last playoff spot.

15-16 Lost three of last four games (including a rousing 6-1 home defeat in their final game) to miss the playoffs by a single point.

You’ll note I skipped over two seasons. in 2012-13, the Bruins famously came from behind in the third period of Game 7 to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs (ouch). Lost in the noise was the fact the Bruins had home ice, finishing just one point behind Montreal for the division title and were overwhelming favorites, especially once they went 3-1 up in the series. Were it not for that one great period, this would have gone down as one of the biggest choke jobs in the entire string. Instead, the went on a run, making the Finals where, with a chance to force Game 7 and under two minutes to play, they gave up two goals in 17 seconds. Hey, it made Dave Bolland a crapton of money as a free agent.

And of course they won it all in 2010-11, but it’s worth asking if that’s because of Chara’s leadership or Tim “Mad Etta” Thomas in goal.

But teams win games and lose games. The thing that has always bothered me about Chara was how the Bruins violate the cardinal rule of hockey teams: What happens in the room stays in the room.

Boston traded away Tyler Seguin, Phil Kessel and Dougie Hamilton, and each time the team let it leak that the player had “character issues.” It’s bad enough when a front office type says something like that, but when the captain stands up publicly and disses a former teammate (teammates in this case), I think that says as much about the captain’s leadership as it does about the supposed bad apples.

Kessel, at 19, underwent surgery for cancer, played 70 games as a rookie and won the Masterton Trophy for dedication to hockey. He then increased his point totals successive seasons, and led the Bruins with 36 goals in his third and final season there before being run out of town as a 21-year-old. Yet Chara says the Bruins did everything they could for him. Bullshit. Kessel doesn’t look like a workout maniac, yet he has played every game in 7 of his 10 NHL seasons, reportedly finished at or near the top of the Leafs fitness tests every year and was easily team USA’s best skater at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Having not learned their lesson (in part because Toronto gifted them with the second overall pick in the Kessel trade), the Bruins then ran that pick, Seguin, out of town as a 21-year-old after three seasons. The knock on him was that he didn’t produce in the playoffs, which was true in 12-13. In 11-12, however, he finished with three goals in seven games, which put him ahead of David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron combined. So a 21-year-old maybe didn’t work as hard as he should have in the weight room or maybe stayed out too late and he definitely had a bad playoff. But then management — with the captain’s public support — scapegoated him. Double bullshit. Predictably, they did it again with Hamilton.

And the Boston media, who with the exception of Fluto Shinzawa don’t strike me as the hardest-working crew ever, are always happy to play along. This is especially true when it comes to maintaining the old Big Bad Bruins / Don Cherry image of a lunch pail team (although Cherry, not a moron despite his persona, was happy to pick up Rick Middleton as a 22-year-old for his team and if there’s one player Kessel reminds me of, it’s Nifty Middleton: Great skater, great goal-scorer, pudgy, lackadaisical checker and positional nightmare.)

Good teams find ways to work all kinds of players in. Great captains teach 20-year-olds how to play and act like pros, on and off the ice. Crappy captains call out 20-year-olds publicly.

Look, without being a player on the team, nobody knows how a guy is as a teammate, or a captain. But from the record I have to say that from this distance, Chara looks like a crappy captain.

 

Slagging goalies, part II

The big story down the stretch last year was whether journeyman goalie Devan Dubnyk was the second coming of Tim Thomas … a goalie overlooked at the NHL level until he was in his late 20s who suddenly blossoms into a legitimate Vezina candidate. Minnesota — with really no good options — gambled that the answer was yes and gave Dubnyk a big new contract.

Now I confess I’m a skeptic in the first place, because even during his hot streak last year, I kept waiting for Dubnyk to get lit up because I just don’t see him as an elite goalie. That sort of happened — he had a so-so playoffs (.909 save percentage, goals against over 2.50), but he wasn’t embarrassingly bad.

Embarrassing was with Nashville, where he had a .200 save percentage while shorthanded. It’s a really small sample, just 5 shots, but one save on five shots is almost impossibly bad for a guy as big as Lennie Small as Dubnyk. Fact: When you’re six foot six, pucks gotta hit you. So no, Dubnyk is not sub-.900, mediocre AHL goalie bad … in part because he’s too damn big to be awful. But I don’t see a lot besides big. He’s not overly quick, he doesn’t get side-to-side better than he needs to. For a while last year, with his confidence up, he made saves he shouldn’t have. But I don’t see him able to do that year after year (and he didn’t in the playoffs) because pucks get through him. That is to say, once in a while, he gets into position on a shot but doesn’t manage to stop it. Maybe it takes a little deflection or there’s a screen or maybe he just doesn’t track it right. It doesn’t take a lot of those to turn all-star into alright. Over 50 33-shot games, a .925 percent goalie stops 1,525 out of 1,550 shots. A .909 goalie stops 1,500. So far this year, Dubnyk is a .909 goalie.

Just before I started this, I flicked over to watch a couple of minutes of him going back to Edmonton, where his career began and there was Dubnyk letting in a 50+ foot slapshot that put his team behind, 3-2. Minnesota came back to gift Dubnyk with the win, his fifth of the year, but that was despite their goalie, not because of him. doobnyk

Over his NHL career, Dubnyk has been a .916 / 2.67 goalie and that’s what Minnesota should expect. On a defensively aware team with Ryan Suter playing 26 minutes a night in front of him, that is enough to win a lot of games, but it’s not going to win you a Cup Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick, Patrick Roy, “thou shall not pass” style.

Booooo-ka Rask?

Watched chunks of the first games for Carey Price (OK, so I was watching the Leafs) and Tuukka Rask. Here’s a prediction for those of you in hockey pools:

Buy Price, sell Rask.

Being bullish on Price is easy. He’s the best in the world at his position right now; the Habs have a contending team built on defense and he won about all the trophies he could last season. Based on what he showed last night, he hasn’t lost a thing. Price was the first star in a 3-1 Montreal win and never looked like being beaten on a straight shot. As the Leafs’ color commentator noted fairly dryly, he is weak on the double deflections. Now the Leafs aren’t going to scare anybody this year — having Marc Arcobello or Peter Holland steaming down the slot on you isn’t the mindf**k that it might be with, say, Sidney Crosby or his winger, that Kessel fella — but Price wasn’t ever out of position. Most of the night the puck just hit him. That doesn’t happen if you’re not always where you oughta be.

Rask was in net for five of six against the Bruins one night later, as the Winnipeg Jets ripped the B’s a new one on opening night in da Gahden. It was more a collective collapse than crappy goaltending, but that’s why there should be a big “sell” light flashing over Rask’s head, before the Bruins roll up too many of these nights. Rask himself is only two years removed from winning the Vezina as the league’s best goalie, so a lot a people like him. I don’t, or at least not much. He’s not the wild man Tim Thomas was as far as position & fundamentals, but he’s no Carey Price, either. Rask has for years gambled: overplaying shots and angles, relying on athletic talent and good defense to cover up when he guesses wrong. It makes him a better-than-average shot stopper, but it also leaves him needing to be acrobatic to stop pucks a more orthodox goalie wouldn’t think twice about because he’s out near / past the top of his crease when a more orthodox goalie (Price, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist) has stayed at home to wait for the puck. He also gives up a crapton of big, fat rebounds, often back into the slot.

You can get away with that when your D is near-his-prime Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk and the whole team is focused on defense first. It’s a nice luxury to not have to worry about rebounds because any forward looking for one is going to have to go through a meat grinder to get to one — and then they’ll be about to be drilled for touching the puck. But when your defense is old (Chara), defensively suspect (Torrey Krug) or just useless (Adam McQuaid) rebounds are a problem. And when your team is modest at best at goal scoring, like the Bruins figure to be, you wind up playing behind which leads to turnovers, odd-man rushes & etc. and the whole team defense thing becomes more an aspiration than a habit.

fuhrA rare few goalies do well behind that kind of team — Grant Fuhr is the best I ever saw at shrugging off horrible team defense. One game I recall the Oilers had a one-goal lead and were killing the clock — and a penalty — late in the third.  Despite this, Paul Coffey saw a chance to jump into a rush up ice and took it, creating a three-on-two at the other end. When they didn’t score, however, it immediately turned into a three-on-one coming back at Fuhr, who gave up the goal without really ever having a chance at stopping it after a Luusernice passing play. A lot of goalies would have been furious at Coffey’s lack of discipline, but Fuhr just laughed and shrugged it off after the game, saying that was Paul playing Paul’s game.

I don’t see that in Rask … his game isn’t right for it; his record doesn’t show it. He’s only played No. 1 minutes twice — in 2013/14 when he won the Vezina behind that savage defense and last year, when he dropped out of the top 10 in save percentage and goals against average. With the defense shakier than it was last year, I expect Rask to be middle-of-the-pack statistically, which is about where I rate him as an NHL goalie. At some point this year, those Tuuuuuuuuu chants might well turn to boos.

UPDATE: Just saw the highlights from the Tampa Bay win and it’s worse than I thought. Rask was at least partially at fault on three of six goals against — one was a deflection that the highlight package didn’t do a slow-mo on, but goalies (even Price) need to get lucky on tips … although a goalie on his game would want that one back. Steven Stamkos’ blast and the last one Rask gets a pass on, but he got caught too deep and too tight to the near post on the first Tampa goal, leaving plenty of room for Brian Boyle to shoot at when the pass came back to the slot; then he let one under his pad short side on a shot from Jonathan Drouin when there was nothing for him to do but shoot (as in, there was no pass play) and Rask also got beat five-hole on a deke by Brian Boyle (Boyle, ffs, not the niftiest stickhandler in the league).

Rask is going to have to improve to be average this year.

Gene Carr’s hair? Gene Carr’s hair!

So I was watching the LA feed (hey, free is free) of the Kings / Leafs game and Drew Doughty lost his helmet and was skating around with his hippy hair flying in the wind. The color commentator (Jim Fox … I had to look it up) said it reminded him of the old days, with Guy LaFleur’s hair blowing behind him, or Gene Carr … <insert joke sound effect here>. Wait, who?

Point A, this is the first time I have ever heard Gene Carr mentioned in the same breath as The Flower. It’s possibly the first time it’s ever happened. And Point B, guys with ’70s hair comparable to LaFleur would start with Gilbert Perrault or LaFleur’s Montreal teammate Larry Robinson or Bobby Clarke (whogenecarr pretty much had Farrah Fawcett hair) or Derek Sanderson or Ron Duguay or … well, it’s a long list. So I looked up the LA Kings mustard-PJ days to figure out what the heck Fox was talking about, and sure enough, there was Gene Carr.

So first, for the record, I would like to apologize to Mr. Fox, who I do remember, as an undersized center in the Marcel Dionne (on a bad day for Marcel) model. I still think expecting any but the staunchest old-school Kings fans to remember Gene Carr is pushing it. (Although there is at least speculation on the interwebs that The Eagles’ wimp-rock classic “New Kid in Town” was written about Carr’s move to Los Angeles from NYC, so gone but clearly not forgotten).

But dang, that is some legendary hair.

Stick it

 

kunitz_nose

I blame soccer for the latest trend in hockey. Soccer — futbol for the purists — is famous for the diving in attempts to draw fouls which in many games outnumber the fouls themselves. Hockey is developing a similar culture.

Part of it is the European influence. With more players who grew up watching soccer’s divas playing in the NHL, they were bound to bring diving with them.

Part of it is the league’s rejection of fist fights. It used to be diving was a corporal offense. Players adjudged to have dived were fair game for a beating at some point in the near future. And it was a shaming offense. Even bush leaguers hated being called a diver. In the Biddeford (Maine) over-40 league, I was the starting goalie for our team and played forward in just one game, when I forgot my contacts and so had to skate out. We were winning handily in the third period when the league’s yappiest little banty rooster shoved the puck past me at center ice and somehow wound up prone after falling gymnastically over my stick blade. I served the two for “tripping,” we won the game and then afterward in the bar we bumped into each other again. I congratulated him on his dive; he tried to deny it; I laughed at him and noted that he seemed to have better balance when he had a scoring chance in the slot. He visibly deflated; his teammates sort of edged away from him: Diving starts with the scarlet D, even in that league. It’s not how the game should be played.

And I know about the code from the other side as well. Hockey goals are made of hollow metal pipes, with six-inch steel pegs running up the pipe from a flattish spike on the bottom that sticks into the ice, holding the net in place unless there’s sufficient force to shift the pegs. As soon as the net — which typically weighs between 80 and 120 pounds — is moved off the goal line — even by an inch — it’s a stoppage of play.

One game in the over-40 league I was in net on a breakaway when the attacker and my defenceman lost 4952_1998_olympics_ke.0_standard_783.0their balance as they raced toward the net, and both slid into me while I was on my knees, driving me backwards, face-first onto the ice and crotch-first into the goalpost. I felt the net lift several inches off its post before falling back, so felt it was OK to take a short breather — once I could breathe again — to collect myself before I got up. The whistle went, and the ref came racing up to make sure I was alright. It turned out the net had fallen straight back onto its posts and he stopped play not because it was off its moorings but because he thought I was injured — which I wasn’t — as opposed to hurting, which I certainly was. I happened to be wearing a Canadian Olympic sweater that night, and the ref — who it turned out was also Canadian — assured me he would call a penalty on anybody dishonoring that shirt by faking an injury. I apologized for having only moved the 100-pound net half a foot vertically with my nuts and not horizontally as I thought; he dropped the puck and off we went. That’s hockey.

As refs are constantly forced to make instant decisions on fair/foul, right/wrong, the NHL wisely chose to let its officials call both an initial foul and embellishment on the same play. So a guy might get called for a slash, but if his victim overdoes the writhing in pain, he is liable to an off-setting minor for fakery. But there’s one case where I think calling out diving is misguided, and that’s high-sticking. I never played top-level hockey, but I played enough over enough years to have scars on my upper lip and the top of my nose sticks. And that’s not including the countless sticks, fists, elbows and skates I took on the goalie mask, which scars are fixed with paint, not stitches. Throw in half a dozen concussions over the years and I know about high sticks and head injuries. (Although there was blood when I got the scar on my nose, the ref decided I wasn’t “bleeding enough” to make it a major penalty — see the gif of Chris Kunitz, above. Things haven’t changed much in 40 years.)

high_stick.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxMore and more I hear play-by-play announcers who have obviously never played the game dismiss as embellishment when a player’s head snaps back after they get hit in the face with a stick. I’m here to tell you it’s a natural reaction. Watch a batter’s head whip back when a baseball gets within a foot and a half, let alone when one hits him. Sticks are aluminum / wood / carbon-fiber blends. They’re cold, hard and compared to the human face, inflexible. They’re also often moving really quickly, and they hurt when they hit. They hurt when they hit your mask; they hurt a lot more when they miss the mask and catch flesh and bone. My usual reaction after getting a stick (or skate) in the face was to check my teeth with my tongue to make sure none were missing, waggle my jaw to make sure it worked, then use a fingertip to check for bleeding. And yes, I often flinched when I got hit. My head may have snapped back. It doesn’t mean I was embellishing; it’s natural when something smashes you in the face or comes whipping toward your eyes to move your head out of the way. So the next time a TV announcer criticizes a player for snapping his head out of the way of a flying stick, find a picture of the guy. If he doesn’t have scars, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And I’ve checked — none of them have scars.

It was the big ice

kunitz_noseSo with the Olympic hockey tournament over, a ponder:

  • Would people please quit making excuses for the Russian team? They sucked. They suck. They will suck. They have a handful of players with great skills who are wildly overrated by the US hockey media, who will frankly cheer for anything that’s not Canadian because they are deep down boosters and can’t stand watching their boys (and girls) lose to Canada.

Case in point: A.O. Alex Overrated. Look, he’s got a great shot and when he’s motivated he works really hard. He’s a great straight-line skater with above-average stickhandling and slick power moves. Hey, I just described Ricky Vaive! OK, that’s low. He’s better than Vaive … although strangely no more effective.

  • Would the American team (and media) stop making excuses for the American team? Anonymous “players” blamed the ice at the Bolshoi arena for their play down the stretch. A couple of their players said Team USA somehow “didn’t show up” in the game vs. Canada. Maybe you showed up but aren’t good enough?
  • Half of the leads on the gold medal game talked about a banged-up Swedish team because they’re missing Zetterberg, one of the Sedin twins and now Niklas Backstrom. Good thing Canada wasn’t missing any top players. Oh yeah, besides Steve Stamkos and John Tavares. Yes, it’s less critical for Canada because of the depth (Matt Duchesne played well in the gold medal game, filling in for Tavares on a line with Martin St. Louis, the replacement for Stamkos). But it’s an excuse. Anybody really think Backstrom would have made a difference when, on Sweden’s second power play, the scoring chances were 2-0 for Canada?
  • One more excuse to shoot down note … Russians blaming their coaching staff because putting Ovechkin on the point on the power play took away his scoring chances. Drew Doughty scored twice in one game (four overall) coming off the point, Eric Karlsson had eight points. With teams sagging into the slot, the point was the best place to score from.
  • Nice touch by Mike Babcock, btw … Dan Hamhuis, Canada’s 7th or 8th defenseman, was on the ice for the final seconds of the gold medal game … one of the first to get to Carey Price after the game.

The biggest raspberry goes to the media and the IIHF for their all-tournament selections. The IIHF chose Carey Price, Karlsson and Phil Kessel as the best players at their respective positions and the media chose Teemu Selanne, Kessel, Mikael Granlund, Karlsson, Drew Doughty and Henrik Lundqvist to their all-tournament team.  So two Swedes, two Finns an American and a Canadian on the all-tournament team, and no skaters for Canada get recognized as the best at their positions.

Here’s the actual facts: The best skaters were Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. Which one was better is up to you. What, they didn’t score enough? They were the on-ice leaders for a team that went 6-0 and never trailed in the tournament, crushing the souls of all the rest of the medal-round teams; they scored the two biggest goals in the gold-medal game and never once let ego get ahead of team. Does anybody honestly think that Kessel or Granlund running up the tallies against the Middle European Sisters of Mercy was more impressive than completely overwhelming the US, Finland and Sweden when it counted?

So throw in Selanne as the third forward as a lifetime achievement award and that’s the forwards.

Doughty and Shea Weber were the two best defensemen in a tournament where all six of Canada’s first-choice defenders were in the top 10. 

Lundqvist, the best goalie? Actually, this is the closest to being accurate, although it’s hard not to give it to the Price as the guy with the microscopic goals-against average.

Look at the gold-medal game. Lundqvist could have read the play better on the first goal: There was nobody but Toews to worry about, nobody on the back post. So if he gets down early and closes the five-hole, the deflection is an easy stop. Beaten by the best player on the planet for the second goal, so no shame there, but clearly at fault for the third, where he didn’t come out to challenge Kunitz at all. So just a so-so game when it counted … advantage Price. But god knows after constantly harping on the weakness in the Canadian net, it wouldn’t do for the media to eat crow and give the best goalie award to the guy who did what the media said he couldn’t.

What it really shows is that the media didn’t see Canada clearly early in the tournament and were busily patting themselves on the back for “analyzing” what was wrong when the Canadian team and anybody who understood what they were looking at weren’t ruffled. Norway and Latvia parked the bus, to use a soccer expression, choosing to play defense first, last and only, even when they trailed, in the hope they could stay close and maybe get lucky. It almost worked for Latvia … while being outshot by 40 shots. The scorelines flattered both the Americans and the Latvians.

Finland, in the opening-round game, was much the same. They amassed six shots on Price in the last 40 minutes of a game where they trailed, then they lost fairly meekly to Sweden. How many Finns were in the best of the best again? Sweden never played a good team until the Finns and were completely outclassed by the Canadians.

But the thing that totally pissed me off, that set off this whole diatribe (“rant” for those of you who can’t manage a three-syllable word) was Patrick Berglund’s hit from behind on Chris Kunitz, driving him face-first into the boards. You know, we’ve seen this hit by Canadians in other tournaments and it always leads the media (especially the Canadian media) moaning and oh-my-god-how-could-he-do-that-ing about how we are vicious brutes and the hockey team embarrassed the nation. Berglund’s hit should have been a five-minute major; it likely would have been except the refs didn’t want to kill the gold medal game. It was a suspendable offense in the words of Brendan Shanahan. And not a word about it? Cam Cole. Jeff Z. Klein. Damien Cox. Heck, even Mark Spector. How ’bout it boys? Doesn’t fit the script so we’ll pretend it didn’t happen?

What’s wrong with the Red Sox?

You might think that after 40 years of watching baseball I would be used to the average fan’s (or sportswriter’s) complete inability to understand basic statistics. But watching the meltdown around this year’s underachieving Red Sox is yet another reminder that not all baseball fans can do long division.

The consensus is that the Sox’ .500-ish season is the fault of the pitching staff. In the words of NESN, the Sox’ obsequious broadcasters, “It’s really only the pitching staff that hasn’t carried its weight.” Now I’m not particularly picking on NESN; it’s just an example. It is dogma that the problem with the Sox this year is pitching, particularly Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, except for a small heretical sect that blames Bobby Valentine.

And the stats seem to back that up: The Sox are third in runs scored, behind Texas and the Yankees, having scored 591 runs in 121 games, or 4.9 runs/game. The pitchers have given up 554 runs or 4.6/game, sixth-worst in the majors (516 earned runs for a 4.30 ERA, still in the bottom third). The offense is fine, right?

But about a millenium ago in dog years, back when Bill James (now a Red Sox staff member) was putting out Baseball Abstracts on heavy stock newsprint in cardboard covers, he suggested that the biggest problem with the Sox, historically speaking, was that generations of front office types had underestimated the effect of playing in a tiny little ballpark, so undervaluing pitchers and overvaluing hitters (particularly left-handed opposite-field doubles hitters who play wall-ball and right-handers with big uppercut swings to loft pitching wedges over the Green Monster). Come on down, Wade Boggs and Jim Rice, respectively. DVR forward thirty years, and you might think this wisdom would have trickled down a little bit. Naaaaaah.

In the words of Kai Ryssdal, let’s do the numbers:

The Sox have scored 342 of their runs in 63 games at home, or 5.4 runs/game. But the park factor for Fenway this year is a whopping 1.278, meaning that teams playing there will score about one and a quarter times as many runs as the same team playing in a neutral park. A little long division (342 divided by 1.278) shows that the same team, playing at the same level but in a park that doesn’t coddle hitters and punish pitchers, would have created 268 runs, not 342. Sound like a lot? It’s the difference between that glossy 5.4 runs/game and 4.25 runs/game. The league average is 272 runs in 60 home games or 4.5 runs/game, so that means the Sox offense at home has actually been below average, once you account for the park.

On the road, the offense has scored 249 runs in 58 games, a pace of 4.3 runs/game, again just behind the league average of 4.4 (although in fairness to the Sox hitters, none of their road games are in Fenway). The two closest teams in terms of production away from home are KC and Oakland.

They strike out a little more than average, walk a little less (take away from their World Series teams patient hitters like Johnny Damon, Kevin Youkilis, and Manny Ramirez and add strikeout machines Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Cody Ross) and they still don’t run well. Without delving too deep into the math (there is a formula for adjusting for both home and road park effects, but it’s complicated), let’s say that the offense has been a little below average at best.

For the pitchers, the effect is just the opposite. On the road, the team has a combined ERA of 3.80, ninth-best in the majors, but at home it’s 4.74, third worst. For comparison, Colorado has a home ERA of just over 6.00; the AL averages 3.93 at home and 4.26 on the road.

Overall, the Sox pitchers have an ERA of 4.30, a little worse than the league average of 4.09, but considering more than half their games so far have been in Fenway, they’re performing as a somewhat above-average staff, despite Beckett and to a lesser extent Lester.

Slightly above-average pitching, slightly below-average hitting, add a little clubhouse turmoil and it all adds up to 59-62. Now if we can just get the media and fans to stop babbling on about how the pitching is the problem …