May 29, 2010

Hockey night in America.

I call hockey my second favorite sport, but that's probably bullshit.

I usually rank them:

1. Baseball
2. Hockey
3. Football
69. Basketball
100,000. Soccer

But the truth of the matter is, I'll watch pretty much any football game that's on. And, thanks to fantasy baseball and the fact that it's easy to multitask during, the same often goes for baseball. In fact, my roommate walked in on me watching an Orioles/A's game earlier this week; I felt like he caught me masturbating.

It's not the same with hockey. We buy the Center Ice package every season, but the only non-Flyers games I end up watching are the occasional Caps/Pens games on NBC. I love the sport, I love most of the personalities and I'll watch 80ish of 82 Flyers games, but for whatever reason, I refuse to pop on Sharks/Red Wings or Flames/Canucks.

So I don't know much about the Chicago Blackhawks. I know they're an extremely deep team offensively, I know their top four defensemen rival our top four, and I know that we gave them perennial 25+ goal scorer Patrick Sharp for absolutely fucking nothing. I also know that they employ Ben Eager, which is odd to me. They might as well roster Todd Fedoruk and Dan Kordic, too. But in terms of "expert" analysis, I've got bupkis.

So my key to this series (starting tonight, if you've been living in a cave with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears) is essentially the same as the Montreal series: get to the goalie. Everyone raved about Halak before the Eastern Conference Finals, but the luster came off him fast after Game 1. The same goes for Antii Niemi; my friend Ryan texted me this morning to ask how Barry Melrose can call Niemi the hot goalie after Michael Leighton shut out the Canadiens three times in five games. Well, Niemi's the media darling on the consensus favorite right now, so I'm not surprised. But he's as untested, if not more so, than Leighton, and the Flyers have shown a nasty forecheck and an ability to get to the net so far in these playoffs. They're now well-schooled in Peter Laviolette's system, and if they keep the pressure on the Hawks, we'll see how good Niemi really is.

I'm now going to hide my prediction inside this wall of text, as it's not favorable to my hometown squad: Blackhawks in 6. But I don't mean any disrespect to the Flyers; I still find it hard to believe that they're even in the Stanley Cup Finals. It seems like a wonderful dream, or a fluke, or anything other than reality. They've played a fraud Devils team and the no. 6 and 8 seeds so far, and while everyone agrees that they've earned this Finals berth, the Blackhawks will be the first truly good team they've played. I expect a lot of 4-2, 3-1 Chicago wins, hard-fought games that ultimately are won by the more talented team.

But there's hope. There's always hope. IF Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell keep playing at the peak of their respective talents, IF the Flyers defense is as suffocating as it was during the high points of the Canadiens series, IF penalties are limited and power play opportunities are capitalized upon, the Flyers can win. But I think it'll take maximum effort and a few advantageous bounces here and there, and if someone put a gun to my head, I don't think the Flyers will play that well or get that lucky.

But then again, I don't know a god damn thing. I'm going off speculation and third-party analysis, and if that meant anything, we'd be gearing up for a Capitals/Sharks Finals. It'll be good hockey between two of the NHL's best teams; Melrose and John Buccigross picked this very series last fall, so technically, it's what a lot of people expected all along. The Flyers just took quite the roundabout route to get here.

The one thing that makes me think I'm wrong, that makes me think that this team is destined for even special-er things, is the image of Mike Richards going right for the Wales Trophy. This Flyers team isn't superstitious, isn't afraid of a little adversity. They're not cocky; in fact, they remind me of the Phillies in 2008. When they beat the Brewers and the Dodgers, there was a celebration, but there was also the sense that they were gunning for something more. They weren't satisfied, and neither are these Flyers. Just because this Finals appearance was unexpected, just because we didn't see it coming, doesn't mean it wasn't earned, that it's not deserved, that they won't take advantage of it to the fullest. Hey, I picked against that same Phillies team the 2008 World Series, and look how that worked out; let's all hope I'm wrong yet again.

May 26, 2010

My life as a Flyers fan.

I was 11 when the Philadelphia Flyers made it to the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals.

I don't recall much, if anything, about that team. I was just starting to get heavily into sports; I believe a Rod Brind'Amour game-winner earlier that season was the first time I got truly excited for a hockey game. Hockey-Reference.com tells me that Trent Klatt scored 24 goals, which I find hard to believe, as Trent Klatt sucked. I see that John LeClair, my favorite hockey player of all time, reached the 50-goal plateau for the second time in his career, and I do remember that 21-year-old Janne Niinimaa looked like our stud offensive defenseman of the future (he was traded to Edmonton for Dan McGillis the next year). But beyond that, my mind is a blank slate; I don't remember a single second of their pitiful effort in the Finals, which is probably a good thing.

And then there was the 1999-2000 team. I remember Brian Boucher's sprawling save on Patrik Elias in Game 3 of their Conference Finals match-up with the New Jersey Devils. I remember watching Game 4 with my dad and his friends, a game that featured a rare goal from then-goon, beloved Flyer and current assistant coach "The Chief" Craig Berube. And, of course, I remember attending Game 7 of that series, the Eric Lindros hit game. I remember the air coming out of the then-First Union Center after Scott Stevens' crushing (and clean) check, and I remember waiting, while a feeling of dread circulated, for the Devils to score what felt like an inevitable goal in the third period. For whatever reason, we knew they were going to lose. And lose they did.

And then there was the 2003-2004 team. I remember Keith Primeau making his monstrous presence felt in almost every game, leading Phil Esposito to eventually tell the then-captain, "During the '04 playoffs, when you and the Flyers took the Lightning to seven games, you were the most dominating player I ever saw. More than Orr, Howe, Gretzky, or anyone." That quote still gives me chills; I never got to see either of those three in their primes, but I don't doubt that Espo was right. That's how overpowering Keith was.

I remember Game 7 of that Lightning series was over prom weekend. We were down the shore, and all the guys decided to take shots every time the Flyers scored. It was one shot for an even-strength goal, two shots for a power-play goal and three shots for a shorthanded goal. It had all the makings of a disaster, but when the Flyers managed just one measly even-strength goal, it seemed like the crisis was averted. The 2-1 loss, however, was far too crushing to just give up there. My friend Dan and I took a bottle of vodka into a back room and passed it back and forth for about 20 minutes. How did that end up? You can ask my date/then-girlfriend, but she might have blocked out that memory. Cleaning up vomit at 3 AM will do that to you.

Basically, I've never seen a hockey postseason like this. I've never seen a team overcome this kind of adversity, and I've never seen the Flyers so in tune with their coach's system. Hockey has never been this exciting, and the Flyers have never been so likable. Almost magically, everything has fallen into place. Reviled "scorers" with albatross contracts like Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell have justified their salaries with huge goals. Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen have ensured their places in Flyers history as superstar big-game defensemen, and Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have learned much by worshiping at their altars. Mike Richards has become a close runner-up to LeClair as my favorite all-time Flyer. And of course, not since Ron Hextall in 1987 have the Flyers seen playoff goaltending like what they've gotten from Boucher and Michael Leighton.

And I haven't been too young, I haven't had my heart broken, I haven't blacked out and thrown up. I've sat here night after night, crossed my fingers, hoped for the best, and been rewarded with a hockey team that any true fan would be proud of. I've written this particular Flyers team off more times than I can count, but they've shown an almost supernatural ability to prove me, and every other doubter, wrong. No matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Finals, that's something we fans should never forget.

May 24, 2010

Tonight's the night.

I missed Game 3 of the Flyers/Canadiens series thanks to an unavoidable black tie affair (ft. an open bar!) being thrown in conjunction with my brother's college graduation weekend. So I didn't see the Bell Centre going wild, I didn't see Montreal steamroll the Flyers, I didn't witness momentum supposedly moving up north in this best-of-seven showdown.

What I have seen in the other three games, though, is Michael Leighton, Flyers goalie, snaring every shot that travels through his crease. Of the 240 minutes played in this Eastern Conference Finals, I've seen 180 of them, and I've seen zero Montreal goals. I don't think that happens too often.

And that's why the Flyers need to shut the door tonight. Just when everyone thought the Canadiens were going to make it a series again, Leighton and the Philadelphia defense disagreed. They played the same shutdown style in Game 4 that we've seen since the middle of the Bruins series, and in response, Montreal managed a meager 17 shots on goal.

Chris Pronger has been an absolute beast this entire postseason, and perhaps refreshed by Pronger's contributions throughout the season, Kimmo Timonen has his freshest May legs as a Flyer. They, along with a sturdy forecheck and some expert shot-blocking, have turned the Canadiens into logo killers. All they can do is dump shot after shot right into Leighton's wheelhouse, and all the journeyman goalie has to do is choose between "bat away" or "hop on top."

This is not to discredit what Leighton has done; three shutouts in four games, even if you've got a team of Norris winners in front of you, is extremely impressive. But the Flyers have found themselves in the perfect hockey storm: two teams, Montreal and Boston, with limited offensive games and a lack of truly talented puck-handlers, swallowed by up Peter Laviolette's aggressive style.

So keep it up, and end this series in Philadelphia. Home-ice advantage hasn't proven to mean much in the 2010 playoffs, but Montreal's crowd is maybe the most ravenous in the league. If the Canadiens are able to steal a win and bring the Flyers back home, a quick goal in the Bell Centre could turn an early lead into an inescapable hole.

And I know everyone's going to say it, but look at what the Flyers did last series. If you really take it one game at a time, one goal at a time, no deficit is insurmountable. Hockey is such a back-and-forth, up-and-down game, and you don't want to give your opponent any breathing room. You want to step on their throats.

Most of the time, you don't win in the NHL playoffs; you survive. The most talented team is often playing golf in late May (example: Sharks, San Jose). The Flyers don't have to outshoot Montreal tonight, and they don't have to shut them out. They just need to outthink, outwork and outlast them. They've got a big lead in the series, and they've earned every bit of it. Three more periods of the same brand of smart hockey, and we can start thinking about the Stanley Cup.

May 17, 2010

I was wrong, and I just can't live without you.

A little more than a month ago, I said the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers were "a collection of dead men walking, a group of underachievers that were expected to compete for a Cup and will now struggle to make it out of the first round."

At the time, I wasn't exaggerating. When the Flyers barely backed into a playoff spot, needing a shootout victory over the hated New York Rangers to ensure the no. 7 seed, no one seemed particularly excited. And then the Flyers upset the just-as-hated New Jersey Devils, which validated making the postseason but still seemed like a brief detour on the road to continued mediocrity. As the lowest seed, they were doomed to play the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins -- the hockey equivalent of certain doom. Unless, of course, the Montreal Canadiens could beat the Caps in Game 7, but that would be ludicrous...

My phone wouldn't stop buzzing. I was trying to enjoy a late-night showing of Kick-Ass, but my pocket's vibrations proved far too distracting. "What the hell is going on?" I kept wondering. Finally, the movie ended and I popped my cell open. I had about a dozen texts, all concerning a hockey game I had forgotten about. I clicked through them one by one. Montreal had the lead, Montreal was holding the lead, the clock was ticking...oh wow. Montreal had won.

So instead of a match-up against the infinitely more talented Capitals, the Flyers got the Boston Bruins. A rugged, defensively oriented team that relied on the goaltending of rookie netminder Tuukka Rask. A long, painful series was a certainty, but did still I think the season was doomed? No, sir. These teams were pretty evenly matched, and if the Flyers' goal scorers rediscovered their touch, moving on was suddenly possible.

And then they lost a hard-fought Game 1. And Game 2. And Game 3, a particularly poor showing from the Broad Street Bullies, was perhaps the biggest disaster of all. The series, and the season, seemed to finally be over.

But then the Flyers won Game 4 in overtime, thanks to returning hero Simon Gagne. And the Bruins, unbelievably, decided to sleep through Game 5 and fail to take advantage of a very rusty Michael Leighton subbing in for the suddenly injured Brian Boucher. With the wind suddenly at their backs and the hockey gods smiling down, Leighton inspired a raucous Game 6 crowd at the Wachovia Center by resuming the steady play that earned him the Flyers goaltending gig in the first place and backstopping a 2-1 victory.

Game 7 was a reality. The Flyers had a chance to equal the greatest comeback in sports history: emerging victorious after a 3-0 series deficit.

I'll admit it; Boston's early 3-0 Game 7 lead destroyed the hope reserves I had built up. I chucked my Mike Richards jersey into the corner and loudly decreed that the Flyers didn't have the firepower to put three consecutive goals on the board. I started complaining about coming out slow for the biggest game of the year, for blowing all the momentum they'd gathered after three straight wins, for making me believe again and then kicking me square in the balls. My girlfriend, laying on the couch next to me, was probably ready to strangle me. Honestly, I was ready to strangle all the Flyers.

James van Riemsdyk's goal did more than give the Flyers a puncher's chance; it put the Bruins back on their heels. They had dominated the entire period, but their lead was down to a manageable two. All of a sudden, the Flyers started pressuring. The Bruins couldn't find an open passing lane, let alone a shooting lane. Leighton was calmly batting away harmless pucks and jumping on those that would otherwise cause trouble. A two-goal lead became one, and then zero. All tied up, thanks to the previously despised duo of Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere.

The rest of the game was a lot of quiet whispering, a lot of yelling, a lot of praying and, finally, a whole lot of jumping, dancing and cheering. The unthinkable had happened; actually, two unthinkables had happened. The Flyers had won the series, and the 2010 season was now officially a resounding success.

After the game, Peter Laviolette said, "Game 7's are for men, and our guys proved to be men today." Well, just two days after the grueling, historic Bruins series came to a close, the Flyers won a 6-0 laugher against the Canadiens, starting off the Eastern Conference Finals with as much of an exclamation point as they could muster. They're three wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals, three wins away from taking what seemed like a lost season and turning into one we'll really never forget. They are indeed men, in every sense of the word.

I thought the wake up call this Flyers team needed was to miss the postseason; turns out that couldn't have been further from the truth. Chris Pronger, Mike Richards, Kimmo Timonen, Briere; they were built for the playoffs. They just needed the chance to show it.

May 8, 2010

Old man, take a look at my life.

Every morning, I look into Jamie Moyer's eyes.

Meaning, of course, that my desk at work is packed with Moyer paraphernalia. I've got a dozen of Jamie's trading cards that I bought on eBay, a Moyer-themed pennant from his time in Seattle and two 8x10 Moyer prints that I acquired from ballpark or Daily News giveaways. It's more a quirky decorating decision than a statement that Jamie Moyer is my favorite baseball player of all time (he's not), but I don't deny having a very soft spot in my heart for the crafty veteran.

I fell in love with the now-47-year-old almost immediately when he came to Philadelphia, with the highlight being his 16 wins for the World Fucking Champion 2008 Phillies. In fact, the image of him sitting atop the pitching rubber he stole after Game 5 is one of my favorite World Series memories. Every clip of him talking strategy with Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ, every dominating performance against the free-swinging Marlins and Nationals, every mention of Moyer growing up a Phillies fan and now starring on his boyhood team was another reminder that Philadelphia was blessed to have acquired Jamie for a song in August of 2006.

However, my relationship with Jamie Moyer hasn't been all smooth sailing. Like most fans, I was not happy when he spoke out against moving to the bullpen last year. It made perfect sense to every fan and analyst following the team, but Jamie took it very hard. I think his comments about being "misled" and "disheartened" temporarily tarnished his image a bit; even if Phillies management "promised" Jamie that he'd start no matter what (which seems absurd; I doubt any MLB team would make that kind of blanket statement), he had to understand that this particular move would benefit the team, along with the fact that he'd get another crack at starting in the very, very long baseball season.

I don't know if Jamie gave (or gives) a shit about the fans and their thoughts on his comments; I probably wouldn't if I were a middle-aged millionaire. But it was definitely unexpected from someone who had been nothing but beloved up to that point in time.

Plus, and this is not at all Jamie's fault, but it's become common knowledge that the $6.5 million we're paying the left-hander in 2010 could instead be going towards the final year of Cliff Lee's contract. Now, Ruben Amaro Jr., Pat Gillick and company couldn't possibly have predicted this particular turn of events, but everyone and their uncle did seem to agree that his two-year extension after the World Series win was a mistake. It was a reward for his dedication and service as both a pitcher and an extra pitching coach of sorts, which is all well and good until it plays a major role in trading a former Cy Young winner in order to cut costs.

The storybook love affair between Moyer and Phillies fans has definitely changed over the last 12 months, but not necessarily in a bad way. For whatever reason, we thought he was the quiet, "go team go" company man that we probably want all old-fashioned athletes to be. We thought that Jamie would have no problem taking one for the team, bouncing from the bullpen to the rotation and back again at the whim of Charlie Manuel and Phillies management.

Well, that didn't exactly work out like we thought, but it shouldn't have bothered us. He's won 262 games; he's been a major league pitcher since 1986. Who are they to tell Jamie Moyer what he should and shouldn't do, to jerk him around like that? Brad Lidge continued to flounder as the closer, Cole Hamels was still struggling atop the rotation, and Moyer's the one who got the boot. Maybe it wasn't as clear-cut a decision as we all thought at the time, and maybe Jamie's reaction is what we should expect, or want, from a competitive athlete celebrating his 24th year in the league.

As evident by his two-hit shutout of the Atlanta Braves last night, Jamie Moyer still has value as a major league starting pitcher. He isn't gonna dazzle you with a fancy ERA or double-digit strikeouts, but he's a great change-of-pace lefty that'll keep more than a few teams off balance this year. $6.5 million isn't too much to ask for that, not when you're paying Ryan Howard $25 million. On a team where fifth starter Kyle Kendrick goes from 5 innings, 4 earned to 7 innings, no earned, any level of consistency is certainly worth rewarding.

I'm not saying that I now agree with how Jamie responded, but I understand. And now that we need him to steady the rotation more than ever, he's responding with the occasional dominant outing and the otherwise-consistent six inning starts that are tailor-made for this powerful Phillies offense. In fact, I just made another Jamie Moyer-related purchase: a glossy photo of Moyer parading around Citizens Bank Park post-championship with that famed pitching rubber. It'll fit in perfectly above my desk, another testament to a truly unique pitcher that Philadelphia, and maybe all of baseball, will never see the likes of again.

May 2, 2010

It's just a fantasy, it's not the real thing.

When I woke up this morning at around 10 AM, my first reaction was to immediately roll over and reach for my laptop. Not to check my email or send out an early morning tweet; I had to find a spot starter to fill in for Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle.

The White Sox "ace" was facing the Yankees in the new Yankee Stadium, a haven for hitters, and was practically a lock to get tuned up. I had been thinking about a replacement for the last 24 hours, and I finally decided to give Bud Norris, the young Houston Astros starter, a brief stay on my roster. All I needed was for the Budster to strike out a few Atlanta Braves, nothing more -- four hours later, Norris was already out of the game after ruining my WHIP, losing the game and striking out a way-too-meager three. My day was ruined, all because I clicked the plus-sign button next to the wrong pitcher's name. I moped around the rest of the day and eventually feasted on a Burger King dollar menu dinner to ease my pain.

Yes, I am obsessed with fantasy baseball. No, I don't have a problem with this.

I have three teams, one of which I take very seriously and two that I check daily. I probably visit the home page of my most important league 20 to 30 times a day, sometimes to make moves and other times just to look longingly at my roster and pray that they find their hitting stroke that night. We're in a keeper league, which means that you get to retain five of your seven best players every year; this both adds to the strategy and ensures a level of continuity with our rosters. For example, I've had Bobby Abreu for the last two years; even though he was far from my favorite Phillie, I've now grown quite fond of him. I also used to have Jimmy Rollins, Jason Bay, Carl Crawford, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz and Justin Morneau. I don't anymore; please don't ask why.

I do, however, have Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Roy Halladay, which can be both a blessing and a curse. When they perform, especially when the Phillies win, I'm the happiest boy in the world. But when Shane-O goes 0-4 at the top of the order and the Phils get shut out 4-0, I couldn't be more upset. The most perplexing part is that I don't know what gets me madder, an annoying loss or the worthless performance. There's 162 games for the Phillies to win or lose, but an oh-fer cripples my average. Get your shit together, Shane.

(Editor's Note: As I'm writing this, Shane is getting his shit together. I am very happy.)

To most people, the only thing more boring than fantasy baseball is hearing someone talk about fantasy baseball, so I apologize to anyone who's still suffering through this post. But I find it to be such an interesting phenomenon, being deeply invested in random players and following their stats so intently. As my friend Kakley recently pointed out, you start to root for random events more than good games or great plays. Like today, I desperately needed Ryan Theriot to steal second. There were no outs, the shitty and easily rattled Edwin Jackson was on the mound -- the situation seemed perfect. But then Kosuke Fukudome hit a single and my plans were ruined. Nevermind that The Riot was now in scoring position; I needed a steal. That's fantasy baseball.

My top league features me, 10 guys from the Bay Area (one of whom is the commissioner/my one-time college roommate) and another friend from BU. I've only met a third of the guys personally, but I talk to some of them more than my close, lifelong friends. I consistently talk shit on the message board to people I've never laid eyes on, saying things I'd never say to them in person. One guy cut Justin Upton early last year for shitty Cardinals backup outfielder Chris Duncan (Duncan was on a hot streak); now Justin Upton is a budding superstar, Duncan is out of the majors and this guy is "the boner who cut Justin Upton after a month." I have no idea what he even looks like, but for the rest of my life, I'll think of him in that regard.

I have fantasy baseball to thank for that. I already love baseball, and adding this extra aspect to it makes it even better. I get to know specific teams I'd never think about otherwise, I keep track of all the hot prospects and I look deeper into stats than most average fans. It makes me a smarter baseball fan, and more than anything, it's just plain fun. I hope I get to keep Halladay and Adrian Gonzalez on my roster for the next three years, I hope that Gordon Beckham comes out of his sophomore slump and plays like the top pick he is, I hope that Victorino and Polanco lead the Phillies to another National League pennant (while logging great stats, of course). Oh, and I hope that Bud Norris dies as soon as possible. It's not personal, Bud, it's strictly business.