April 27, 2011

Hey hey hey, goodbye.

The Buffalo Sabres have been vanquished.

It didn't take much. Solid goaltending. Smart defensive play. Shot blocking. And the Peter Laviolette specialty: An aggressive forecheck that overwhelmed the Sabres, just like we knew it would.

The games Ryan Miller dominated, the Sabres won. But Miller's not Superman; even he couldn't withstand a 16-2 shot differential in the first period. And when he cracked, so did Buffalo.

Claude Giroux had his best game of the series; Chris Pronger strongly resembled the Pronger of old. Danny Briere and James van Riemsdyk continued their playoff domination.

Brian Boucher will remain the team's biggest question mark, but now that Michael Leighton has been shot out of a cannon into the sun, the goaltending situation is a little calmer. And frankly, if the Flyers continue to play like they did last night, it doesn't matter who's in goal.

Tampa Bay could be a serious threat, and there's obviously a lot of history between the Flyers and Boston. I'd prefer to see the Crosby-and-Malkin-less Penguins, but at this point I'm just basking in the glory of a Game 7 win. And when you get right down to it, no one in the Eastern Conference is as experienced and as talented as Philadelphia.

A few weeks ago, I questioned whether the Flyers could re-become the team we loved all through the winter. Could they really flip a switch and recapture the magic? Well, consider the switch flipped.

April 25, 2011

Bring on the Bruins.

There's not much left to say about this grueling series between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres.

The hubbub over the Mike Richards hit? Idle chatter. Richards wasn't getting suspended, and Tim Connolly should learn to keep his head up. It was a two-minute minor with an unfortunate outcome, nothing more.

The Flyers goalie controversy? Nonexistent, finally. Michael Leighton's been cast back into the abyss; I fully expect to see Sergei Bobrovsky backing up starter Brian Boucher on Tuesday night. For better or worse, Boosh is the man.

Chris Pronger's return? Irrelevant. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of playing time. Two penalty minutes. A welcome sight on the power play, but very few on-ice contributions. God only knows if he'll make more of an impact on Tuesday; he's the ultimate wild card.

All that's left is one more game, a matchup that will probably be the most straightforward of the series. The Flyers had the better regular season; they get home ice. The Sabres have the better goalie; that might make them the popular prediction.

But why would Buffalo win this game? Why should they? They've looked solid but unspectacular, hardly a combination that wins in the postseason. Riding a hot goalie has taken lesser teams further, but Miller's been decidedly mortal in every Flyers win.

Meanwhile, Peter Laviolette has swapped goalies like a drunken sailor. The power play (9.7%) has been abysmal, and the penalty kill (77.8%) hasn't been much better. Jeff Carter's missed the last two games with an injury; the only forwards that show up every night are Danny Briere and James van Riemsdyk. And yet, the series returns to Philadelphia all knotted up.

Simply put, if the Sabres were any good, they'd have beaten the Flyers already. They aren't, so they won't. Bring on the Bruins.

April 24, 2011

Luke Scott, please stop talking.

ESPN.com writer Amy K. Nelson recently wrote an article called Always Locked and Loaded about Luke Scott, the controversial Baltimore Orioles outfielder. The aim of the article was supposedly to show that Scott isn't the man he's reputed to be. Nelson stated:

"...the simple assumption is that Scott is a right-wing nut, a borderline racist and a loudmouth redneck ballplayer who should keep his mouth shut. But it's not that simple."

The problem is the article doesn't seem very convincing. Scott was a fairly anonymous ballplayer until December when he spoke to Yahoo! Sports blogger David Brown about a variety of issues, one of which was our Commander-In-Chief:

"Obama does not represent America. … He does not represent what our forefathers stood for."

No one said Scott had to like Obama; I'm guessing he didn't vote for change. Perhaps it's because Obama is a noted White Sox fan; whatever the reason, Scott went on a little too long. He stated he did not believe Obama had been born in America and hinted that the President was a socialist:

"People who tell the truth, they're very easy to … their actions prove it. Something as simple providing a birth certificate. Come on. … There needs to be accountability for the truth. I don't care if you're the President of the United States, you need to be held accountable."

By Scott's standards, he too must be held accountable. In this case, he must be held accountable for his racist attitudes and remarks. As Bill Maher pointed out, "birthers" claim Obama is Kenyan because they know they can't get away with calling him the n-word. I couldn't have said it better myself. It must be said loud and clear that the myth upheld by "birthers" is thinly veiled racism. It is astounding that there is such a small outcry by Americans and the media against such a poorly disguised and backwards concept.

The Orioles issued a statement immediately after the story broke, vehemently distancing themselves from Scott. They went beyond the usual line of pointing out that Scott's opinions were his own and instead seemed to express disappointment in Scott's choices, as well they should have.

When Scott was interviewed by Nelson, he did little to backtrack:

"I felt tremendous about what I said, and I was proud of it. If I could rewind and turn back the clock and go do it again, I'd say the exact same thing. I'd go home and put my head on the pillow and feel wonderful about myself. But certain things were taken and twisted."

Ignoring the contradiction of this statement, if Luke Scott doesn't see anything wrong with what he has said, the Orioles might want to revoke his speaking privileges. Everyone may be entitled to their opinion, but that doesn't mean they are entitled to express that opinion, and that is even more true for public figures. It is sad that someone as mediocre as Luke Scott is a public figure, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Predictably, his team was quick to come to his defense. New teammate and third baseman Mark Reynolds praised Scott for being a straight shooter:

"He doesn't talk behind people's backs about anything. A lot of people have those opinions and don't say anything. Did I think he needed to go to the winter meetings and say all those things? Probably not. But he'll give you his opinion. He's a patriot. He loves America. He's one-of-a-kind."

Mark Reynolds apparently hasn't heard that patriotism and racism haven't been synonymous since the 1860's. Luke Scott isn't a patriot, he is an embarrassment. It's lucky that practically no one knows who he is.

The article stresses Scott's relationship with his teammates, particularly the Latinos and African Americans. I searched the article for the phrase"I'm not racist. I have a black friend. See?" but I surprisingly could not find them. Felix Pie spoke highly of Scott, pointing out that Scott helped resurrect his career after he was traded from the Cubs. Scott apparently told him "...he was running out of time in his career and that he lacked the qualities of a person with good character." That comes off as pretty insulting and self righteous, but maybe Pie needed some tough love. Scott's exact words were a bit harder to excuse:

"I tell him about some of the ways he's acted: 'Look, you're acting like an animal, you're acting like a savage. So I throw (plantains) in his helmet. Here are my banana chips to remind him that whenever he acts like an animal, 'Hey, that's what other people are thinking. They're just not telling you, but that's what they're thinking about. And I'm telling you so that you're aware of that so you can make a cognitive decision to not behave like that.' I would want someone to tell me that instead of letting you making a jerk of yourself."

Ummmm...insert awkward silence here. An animal and a savage; why didn't he just call him a monkey? Everyone in the Orioles clubhouse defended Scott and said that he ribs people and they rib him right back, and that may be so. But doesn't it seem odd for a man who has a race-related image problem to say those things to a journalist?

And I somehow doubt that Scott would make racist remarks out of irony. He just doesn't seem like the type to envoke racism in the hopes of exposing ignorance in society. That's something Mark Twain might have done. In contrast, Scott revealed he has a "safe room" in his home full of food, supplies and over 100 weapons with ammunition, as if he were preparing for the zombie apocalypse. Scott said he would have been a Marine sniper had he not been a ballplayer (apparently forgetting that he would need to be accepted into training) and showed off his SIG Sauer 556 assault rifle to Nelson, remarking, "That's my mom's favorite right there. She loves to shoot it." Not exactly the portrait of a societal satirist.

It's sounding more and more like "a right-wing nut, a borderline racist and a loudmouth redneck ballplayer" is exactly what Luke Scott is. And it seems the Orioles agree; during the interview, Scott had an adviser present, discouraging him from discussing certain topics. You could probably also call this person a babysitter or a muzzle. Scott apparently has to be supervised like a dangerous mental patient. At the very least, he's an idiot.

The Orioles organization can publicly say whatever they like about Scott,but if I were them, my private message would be: "Talk about anything other than baseball and you're going back to triple-A." Luke Scott was given a chance to to make clean up his image; instead, he may have dug himself into an even deeper hole.

Random Note: A tortoise walks into a police station to report he was robbed by a gang of snails. When the officer wanted to know exactly what happened the tortoise said, "I don't know. It all happened so fast."

I wonder if Luke Scott would get it.

April 23, 2011

Expanded playoffs and the state of baseball.

After being hinted at for some time, our greatest fears are about to be realized: Major League Baseball is expanding its playoff format from eight to ten teams. Bud Selig has been talking about this idea for a couple of years, but he'd never give a firm indication as to how realistic it was. Now, however, it sounds like the real deal. Selig was quick to point out that nothing was set in stone and many details need to be settled, but barring the unforeseen, 2012 will be the first season with four rounds of playoffs.

The reason is simple: money. As everyone falls out of the postseason race, fans stop coming to the ballparks and turn off their TVs, thus causing a drop in revenue. By introducing an added playoff spot, teams will be in contention longer, drawing more fans to the game.

I will plainly state that I am not a fan of Bud Selig. He will soon be stepping down from his position as commissioner, and I will probably dance naked down Yawkey Way in celebration. He presided over baseball during the steroid era and enabled the worst aspects of free agency, including inflated salaries and the decreasing continuity of team rosters. Plus, he seems to be constantly fighting off a stroke. He couldn't look more incompetent if he drooled during press conferences.

That said, I can't say I hate the idea of a second wild card team. While I see no romance in the financial motivations of this notion, I do think it would attract more fans and be good for baseball. And if it's good for the sport, I'm all for it.

Detractors fear that it would lengthen the season, make it too easy to get into the big dance (see: the NHL) and dilute the overall purity of the game. It is true that, with the introduction of the wild card in the 1995 season, luck began to play a major role in winning world championships, but this realignment gives MLB the opportunity to set things right.

The wild card allowed a team with a lesser record into the playoff pool, but failed to put them at much of a disadvantage. They would have to face the team with the best record, but in a five-game series a team can get very lucky or very hot. Winning the WC these days is just as good as winning the division, and half of the wild card winners have made it past the first round. Maybe I shouldn't complain, given that the Red Sox wouldn't have won the 2004 World Series without making the playoffs as a wild card, but I can honestly say that the current setup isn't really fair to the division winners.

As long as we are changing the game a bit, let's stack the deck too. I would suggest a wild card round that's designed to be taxing on the teams. In order to keep the postseason from dragging on even longer than it already does, the first series needs to be very short. It should either be a best of three or perhaps even a one game playoff. The winner would then go on to face the division winner with the best record. Such a scenario would mean a WC team would have to go through four rounds in order to win a World Series and a division winner would play three. It would also mean that the WC team would also need to burn their best pitchers in the first round, coming into the Division Series in a less than ideal state. Advantage, division winner. Seems more fair to me, while still allowing the wild cards a decent chance and keeping more fans in the season for a longer time.

That takes care of the season length and the challenge of the playoffs but leaves the argument about tampering with the purity of the game. But frankly, I don't believe this to be a legitimate argument. Baseball has been besmirched at its own hands and those of its partners and affiliates since it's birth. Didn't steroids corrupt the game? What about $200 million contracts? How about interleague play? The designated hitter? Expansion? The 162-game season? Segregated baseball? The live-ball era? Gamblers? Mobsters? Corporate advertisers? Trust me, we aren't all that far from having the Star Spangled Banner presented to us by Viagra or Chevy.

Major League Baseball has constantly been fighting for a balance between tradition, evolution and bizarre mutation, between Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Disco Demolition Night. A new wild card team just doesn't seem like much or a threat next to some of those issues. It would be a welcome addition when compared to, say, a 70-homer season.

If Selig really wants to change baseball or leave a positive legacy, he needs to do something big for the game. He might claim he increased parity, financial prosperity and cracked down on PEDs, but he also looked the other way for years while players necks got wider and he seemed to be in the MLBPA's pocket. In my view, those things cancel each other out. Selig should seize the opportunity before him and make large, sweeping changes to the game. Why yes, I do have some suggestions.

1. Shorten the season
One of the ongoing complaints by baseball detractors is the length of the season. Given that I love baseball, I disagree, but I do think that when the calendar turns to November, the World Series should be over. October baseball should stay in October, and maybe shortening the season a bit is the best way to ensure it does. Restoring the 154 game season, gone since 1961, could help. So would shortening the All-Star Break and eliminating the utterly pointless Home Run Derby. Let's face it; the Derby is devoid of any competitive purpose and is essentially the baseball equivalent of watching a staged wrestling match. The season could also start a week earlier.

2. Ticket prices
If it's the American pastime, shouldn't Americans be able to afford it? This is less of an issue with the smaller market teams, but the perennial playoff contenders can average $50 per ticket. How is a working class person supposed to take their family to a ball game? If you want to sit in a suite and sip Martinis, you can pay $200, but the average price of a ticket needs to come down.

3. Contract size
If a team wants to be competitive for any length of time they need to acquire and keep great talent. How do you keep great players in your city? Offer them long, huge contracts. The problem with these contracts is the tendency they have to eventually become dead weight. A bad contract can completely hamstring a small market team, preventing financial flexibility and dragging them to the cellar of their division. The solution is a different attitude toward contracts. For one thing, contracts should not exceed a certain length. I will arbitrarily say six years. This would keep the Yankees from paying A-Rod $25 million dollars at the age of 42.

Secondly, players should never be paid for past performance, only what they will do for a team going forward. This gets a bit more complicated. One solution is for a team to negotiate two figures with a player; a minimum salary and a maximum. This way if a player is hurt or under performs, the team can only pay him so much for his services. This makes every salary incentive based and provides a team with insurance against bad contracts. If a player wants to be paid like a king he will have to play like one, and a team will always get what they pay for.

4. Relocation
If MLB is concerned about making money, they shouldn't keep teams where they aren't wanted. It takes money to run a franchise, but if no one pays to see the team play, then they should play for a more appreciative crowd. I'm not talking about the Dodgers moving from a zealous Brooklyn fan base to LA, where they would make more money because of the sheer number of people there and lack of competition. I'm thinking of the Rays, who can't fill Tropicana Field during a pennant-winning season. The Rays deserve better and should be moved to a city that wants them. I realize this is easier said than done, as most of the viable markets are taken. But there must be somewhere out there that could draw the attendance a club needs to thrive.

5. Instant replay
Right now, instant replay can be used on debated home runs only; apparently too much replay removes the human element and slows down the game. This is true, but it also makes replay too limited to be truly useful. Instead, replay should be used like a challenge. Each team could use replay once per game for anything except the strike zone. Having only one per game keeps managers from using them frivolously. Opponents of replay say it undermines the integrity of the game, but when 50 million people can see a ball land foul on TV and an umpire thinks it was fair, doesn't it make the human element seem pointless? Give managers and umpires a tool make sure the game is called as it was played. If we had this system, Armando Galarraga would have a perfect game.

6. A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet
Not if you called them stench-blossoms. If we are going to make arguments about the integrity of the game, then the all-time leader in hits needs to be in the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose didn't cheat on the field. Every hit was achieved through talent and hard work, and his off-field crimes must be dealt with in a separate arena. The Hall of Fame is not meant to judge a mans character. At least it not according to those enshrined there. Manager John McGraw supposedly carried a piece of rope with him which was used in a lynching. Ty Cobb, the man Rose eclipsed, was a violent racist who is rumored to have killed a man. The Hall isn't just a shrine to saints. So it's time to give Charlie Hustle, who played clean and hard, a plaque. Anything less is an insult to baseball.

Some of these changes are pretty easy to implement and others aren't, but the ultimate goal is to improve the quality of the game without turning it into another game all together. No easy task, given the historic resistance to change in baseball or the inexorable influence of an owners financial interests. But the game has made changes before, many far more dramatic than adding a playoff team or anything I've suggested here. It's adapting and it would be a good idea to keep adapting.

Random note of the day: Ken Burns' "Baseball" is now available on Netflix Instant. Since Ken Burns is one of the few people capable of reminding me that America truly is a great country, I highly recommend his work.

April 22, 2011

Counterpoint from a drunken Buffaloian.

As tonight's Sabres/Flyers Game 5 showdown gets closer and closer, tensions are high. With that in mind, here is a word-for-word counterpoint from my Buffalo-bred soul mate, Michael McLachlan. It was originally printed as a comment on this post, but I thought Mike's thoughts were meant to be viewed by the entire world.

Why Steve and the Flyers will Fall to the Elation of the Gentleman Thief from Tuffalo,

I cannot begin to describe the profound respect and adoration I have for the talents, hilarity, art, and person of my close friend London Steve. We're brothers in life, in the respect that our every decision is in part based on a life philosophy so clearly articulated by Hunter S. Thompson: to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested. We frequently seek each other out to exchange the most absurd of life experiences -- connoisseurs in the art of poor decisions -- and I've vowed to watch the man be buried. This kinship, however, in no way prevents me from pointing out that Steve's beliefs and opinions on this latest Flyers/Sabres series can only be viewed as his latest attempt at fiction.

The logic and reasoning Steve presents on the Flyers is all well enough, but it's got no balls, no panache. It's unconvincing, and the flaccidity it exhibits has not been since Pronger demanded a trade from one of the greatest hockey markets in the history of the sport based on the shopping preferences of his Mrs. (that removed, the man is my hero and I'm glad he's not coming back soon).
Editor's note: All reports indicate that Pronger will play tonight.

The Sabres make sense because they don't make sense. Conversation about talent and what should be happening based on the output of the regular season is not the early debate of championship teams. Counting easy categorical victories but lacking the conviction when discussing your team's future is a sign of losses to come. But when will it come?

Buffalo hasn't had a team so seemingly unexciting for a number of years. For many, it's difficult to pick who to watch or who's going to need to step up. For my eventual roster-featuring back tattoo to commemorate the winning of the Cup (and yes, a friend's dad had the offensive and defensive line-ups of the 1990 Buffalo Bills tattooed on his back), I'll probably need to bring the depth chart with me. Yet this team has been dominating everyone over a significant period of time. The argument should be what needs to go wrong for this team to lose, which, when you try, isn't as easy as it would seem...with the notable exception of Miller being un-Miller, which you could point our current losses to.

So does this mean the Flyers fate now rests solely on Miller not showing up? Is this reality why Steve's words create nothing but a smile on my face as I anticipate the waves of Schadenfreude that are due to wash over me with a Philly loss? This time, I think so, and I will think so when I again watch the game drinking vodka out of a jar tonight, streaming the shitty Internet version of the game on a wall projector to enhance its shittiness just because that's how we did it two nights ago.

Sorry I'm not sorry, Steve. I had begun with the thought that I'd discuss how you've grown soft on the incredible successes of your fine city, but that won't be necessary to lessen your belief in the only NHL team to wear full-length pants. Hope Briere dies. Remember, there are men and there are cowards, and that one day we'll sit together and in Brett’s voice you’ll say, "The Flyers could have had such a damned good time together."

"Yes," I said. "Isn’t it pretty to think so?"

I love this fucking guy.

April 21, 2011

The Red Sox can’t catch a break.

Editor's note: Please welcome the newest contributor to King Myno's Court, Dave "The Bear Jew" Goldstein. Dave will be our resident Boston Red Sox expert, blogging all about baseball, and he's also our default guru on Judaic principles...if you have any questions about all that shit. Wish him welcome!

Jason Varitek turned 39 last Monday, and he looks the part. In a recent game, his first at bat against Oakland's Gio Gonzalez featured a horrific late swing on a third strike. In his second at bat, he killed a rally by grounding into a double play. Then he popped up.

Given that Gonzalez went into the start with a 0.47 ERA, maybe I should give Tek a break. But his slash line was .063/.167/.063 coming in, and that was mostly batting from his "strong" right side. He's always had a pretty big hole in his swing, but he managed to get by with good power and enough bat speed to catch up to a fastball. He simply doesn't have that anymore, nor can he summon the arm strength to throw out runners. He's basically on the roster for nostalgia's sake, along with his plethora of experience in calling a game.

There's no question that Varitek is an expert behind the dish; the wise old sage who knows just which fingers to put down. But Johnny Bench, he is not. And that's fine, if he is a backup catcher. The problem is that he isn't getting the playing time of a backup. He's played in 7 of the teams first 17 games, which is far too many for a man with one hit.

We all know who the Sox would like to have catching every day, but that man remains a work in progress. So far, the once highly touted Jared Saltalamacchia hasn't hit any more than Tek has. His slash line looks like this: .194/.256/.222. Not exactly Ruthian, but he's also not exactly the only member of the Sox struggling at the plate. And while his early at bats were positively awful, he's shown a bit more patience lately, along with some pitch recognition and the occasional bit of contact. It's not much, but it's a start.

At the same time, however, the pitching staff has struggled with him behind the plate. Varitek has guided Sox pitchers to an ERA of 2.40, but with Salty it's been 7.14. It's too small a sample size to rule out Saltalamacchia's abilities to call a game, and he is fairly new to the Red Sox. There are bound to be some growing pains and adjustments followed by improvement. So again, for now, this is a minor concern.

But here's the kicker: Salty can't throw. Before he joined the Red Sox, Salty went through a period where he couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher, which kind of puts a damper on the whole catching thing. By the time he joined the Sox, he had worked it out, but his throws to the rest of the diamond sure look awful. Baserunners have been running without fear, like kids in some kind of store. Salty's throws aren't just late; they're erratic. He's thrown into the outfield, into the dirt, and into the runner. Only diving plays by infielders have saved runs from scoring. He has even missed the pitcher with a few nonchalant lobs, bringing back memories of his previous issue.

This may work itself out, as Salty is doubtlessly working with the staff to improve his throwing mechanics, his swing and his game calling. And despite the horrific start all around, the Red Sox probably won't panic with him any more than they will with the rest of the team. They knew going into the season that the young backstop would need a lot of work to become a stalwart; they just didn't know that every chink in the April armor would suddenly be magnified.

Keep an eye out in the summer, however, because that's when the front office could be very well decide that Saltalamacchia and Varitek don't have what it takes to catch for the Olde Towne Team. If that is the case, then where shall they turn?

The minors have some catching talent, but most of it is too young to make an impact for some time, and we all know that Mike Scioscia is hospitalized with a potentially fatal dose of radiation poisoning. At this point, it's a trade, an unproved youngster, or Bengie Molina. Hmm, I wonder how drunk Brian Sabean would have to be to trade Buster Posey for Dice-K...

At war with a Buffaloian.

My friend Mike, who I've mentioned before, is from Buffalo. He's a drinker, and a fiend. He's also brilliant, an employed Cornell graduate with a razor-like wit and a mind like a steel trap. If you ranked the city's finest sons from "zero" to "All-Star," he's Dominik Hasek. Definitely way cooler than Tim Russert.

Mike's been through his share of sports-related heartbreak: the Bills in the 90's and the Peca/Satan/Barnaby Sabres after that. And, of course, let's not forget the long, storied struggles of the minor league baseball Buffalo Bisons (no championships from 1961 to 1997). If all things were equal, I'd be rooting for one of his teams to bring home a title. Hell, the most fun I've ever had watching a non-Eagles football game was at the Bills bar in New York City; I do feel a certain kinship with their merry band of losers.

Obviously, however, that's not the case. Our cities are at war, and behind a giant stone wall dressed in a Ryan Miller jersey, Buffalo now heads back to Philadelphia with the series tied.

I said before this all started that the Flyers would win in 6, and I stand by that prediction. Besides Miller standing on his head, the Flyers have looked like the more talented team. Brian Boucher's been rock solid in goal, and I love the aggressive forecheck from guys like the rapidly maturing James van Riemsdyk.

But I won't sell Buffalo short; the Sabres are taking it to the Flyers. Patrick Kaleta, in particular, is a physical pest in the Dan Carcillo vein. Say what you will about the oft-discussed elbow from Mike Richards -- which should have been a two-minute minor, not a fiver, and I'll flip out if he's suspended -- but it was a knee-jerk reaction to Buffalo's aggressive play. It's exactly what Kaleta was hoping for; he'd probably take five elbows to the face every night if it brought home a win.

Will this level of physicality shift when Chris Pronger steps onto the ice? For that matter, will Chris Pronger step onto the ice? His presence would certainly steady the team, in particular on the power play, and he's probably dying to be in the middle of some of these post-whistle scrums at every stoppage. I personally expect to see him in Game 5 (as do several of the beat writers), but as of early Thursday morning, no one knows for sure.

I'm not upset that Ryan Miller has shut the Flyers out twice; he's a top-three NHL goalie, and a loss is a loss at this point. But I am perturbed that Jeff Carter might be out with a knee injury, and that Richards could conceivably be suspended, and that the Flyers lost two very winnable one-goal games. I'm a little nervous that a pesky team like Buffalo is still hanging around, and that the refs seem to absolutely loathe the Flyers.

It's an even series, and while the Flyers still have home-ice advantage, the margin for error has thinned. All I know is I don't want to give Mike, the lovable asshole that drinks vodka from a jar, any kind of bragging rights. I want him, my good friend, to suffer like the sad, Buffalo-bred runner-up that he is.

April 17, 2011

Boosh over Bob.

Three months ago, I asked the eternal question: Boosh or Bob?

And now, roughly 24 hours before Game 3 of the Flyers/Sabres series, I'm asking it again. Only this time, there's a whole lot more at stake.

In my opinion, it's time to turn to Brian Boucher. Yes, as Phil Sheridan pointed out today, yanking Sergei Bobrovsky may very well destroy his confidence. And yes, Bob is (probably) the future in goal for the Flyers.

But this can't be about hurt feelings; it shouldn't even be about Bobrovsky's development as an NHL goalie. It's about winning the Stanley Cup, and right now, Boucher gives them a better chance to do so.

If Bob had coasted through this series, even he'd been merely serviceable, it would have been a no-brainer. He'd get his feet wet; the Flyers move on. Everybody wins. You still have Boucher waiting in the wings in case of a meltdown, but no one's whispering his name.

But Bob's been tested. And he failed. Three goals on seven shots won't ever cut it; the Flyers are lucky to have won. And if Bob can't shut down the Sabres, what's he going to do versus the Capitals and Lightning, teams with real firepower?

It's not panicking if you turn to Boucher; it's being smart. He's playoff-tested, he's been there before. In all honesty, he probably should have been starting in the first place. I understand that you have to take the training wheels off Bob at some point, but Peter Laviolette has been flip-flopping goalies all year. There's obviously something about Bob that he's not totally comfortable with, and if that's at all the case, Boucher needs to be your guy.

Plus, if benching Bob really does mean blowing up his confidence, there's always Michael Leighton. Would it be absurd to throw Leighton, after being banished to Adirondack, back into the fire? A little, but it's not like he was sitting on his ass up there. He was winning hockey games, albeit in the minor leagues. Plus, and everybody all together now, "he's been there before." I'm not a big believer of most sports clichés, but that's one I do buy. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a whole different ballgame.

I think Sergei Bobrovsky will have a long, successful career as an NHL goaltender, and I hope it's in Philadelphia. But it's been "Stanley Cup or bust" since February, and there's officially no time left to screw around with a shaky goalie.

April 14, 2011

Flyers in 6.

In the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flyers were pounded in six games by the Buffalo Sabres. Peter Forsberg dominated the two Philadelphia wins, but they turned out to be the last gasps of a once-great player. Brian Campbell took off R.J. Umberger's head, and the Sabres essentially ended Ken Hitchcock's run as Flyers coach.

And now, five years later, the two teams meet again. On paper, it's a no-brainer. The Flyers have burgeoning superstar Claude Giroux (quietly the 11th-leading scorer in the league), Calder Trophy candidate Sergei Bobrovsky, hard-nosed Mike Richards, goal-king Jeff Carter and a rock-solid corp of defensemen, even without Chris Pronger. The Sabres have...Michael Peca? Dominik Hasek? Miroslav Satan?

But it's not that simple; it never is. Buffalo accrued 60 out of 90 possible points since the first of January; the Flyers have been fairly poopy since the middle of February. The Sabres are 8-1-1 in their last 10; the Flyers were 3-4-3. Thomas Vanek ended up with only three fewer points than Giroux, and Ryan Miller -- even though he's a bit dinged-up -- remains twice as likely as Bob to steal a game or two.

Plus, the news broke today that Chris Pronger's lingering hand injury will keep him out of Game 1. All the talk about "flipping the switch" and playing like the Flyers of old centered around the return of Pronger: how he'd settle down the defense, how he'd fix up the power play. It all sounded a bit unlikely in the first place, and now with the big man still out indefinitely, there's officially no outside stimuli on the way. There won't be any kick in the butt; Pronger and Ian Laperriere aren't walking onto the ice in their pads and jerseys. The roster is the roster.

To win, however, they don't necessarily need Pronger. If the Flyers play up to their potential, if they even remotely resemble the team that dominated the National Hockey League over the first 50 games of this season, they'll win. They'll win in 6, maybe 7, and the Sabres will be an afterthought, a speed bump on the way to Boston, Washington or Pittsburgh. Even with their tremendous start to 2011, Buffalo barely snuck into the playoffs; even after a serious two-month slump, the Flyers still won the Atlantic Division.

This was a Flyers team that, for most of the season, looked destined to bring home a Cup. Is that kind of ability still there, buried under the surface? Is it really possible that they've been biding their time until the postseason? Peter Laviolette, not the most patient coach in the NHL, has been mostly handling them with kid gloves; that's not his style. I'm banking that he knows something we don't, that he really believes this group of guys remains Cup-ready.

Buffalo's defensemen are young; their forwards are solid but unspectacular. The Flyers have the deepest group of forwards in the league and a heralded batch of defensemen. If Bob falters, Brian Boucher (and maybe even Michael Leighton) will be ready to step in immediately. Miller won the Vezina in 2010, but this here is 2011. Flyers in 6.

April 10, 2011

The 10 best rock 'n' roll deep cuts.

Editor's note: Please welcome my brother, Chris Cimino, to King Myno's Court. He'll be providing an alternative look at music, movies and other aspects of pop culture, usually when I'm too lazy/busy to write anything myself. Enjoy!

In the late 60s and early 70s, when musicians could no longer stand to cushion their albums of various singles with fleeting, throwaway tracks, the new brand of rock 'n' roll musician chose to whittle a record from something larger. These crusaders of musical reform proclaimed that each song now had meaning and purpose. It became an album's conception, organization, and presentation that depicted the artist's status as an auteur. Thus, album rock was born.

Similarly, rock 'n' roll radio followed suit and implemented the broadcast of a band's deep cuts into their daily repertoire. This involved the hipper radio stations digging further into a band's catalog to find relatively obscure tracks to play for their devoted listeners.

Having grown up first on radio rock and then on album-oriented rock, I consider myself not just an avid listener, but also a lobbyist of the band/musician as auteur and the album as work of art. With this notion in tow, I decided to dig deep into my favorite rock 'n' roll deep cuts:

Led Zeppelin – No Quarter
from Houses for the Holy (1973)
One of the few Zeppelin songs that requires you to adjust your volume knob from 11 to 3 and back to 11 again.

Pink Floyd – San Tropez
from Meddle (1971)
Who would've thunk Pink Floyd made a walking-down-the-street, riding-on-the-bus song? Well they did, and it's damn catchy.

Crosby, Stills and Nash – Pre-Road Downs
from Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
It's no wonder this song never struck gold; it seems the world just wasn't ready for backwards guitar solos.

David Bowie – Station to Station
from Station to Station (1976)
Aside from his bulge in Labyrinth, this stands as Bowie's magnum opus. It's a long, epic song that easily rode on the coattails of the prog rock movement that had been gaining much momentum in the years prior.

The Doors – Peace Frog
from Morrison Hotel (1970)
The coolest opening guitar riff, followed by a badass drum beat, followed by the smoothest bass line, and topped off by one of their most memorable keyboard phrases.

George Harrison – Out of the Blue
from All Things Must Pass (1970)
Why this song hasn't been used in a Martin Scorsese movie yet, I'll never understand.

James Gang – Funk #48
from Yer Album (1969)
It only took 49 of these to finally produce a hit for Joe Walsh and his James Gang.

Stevie Wonder – He's Misstra Know It All
from Innervisions (1973)
Still no idea who Misstra is or what the hell its all about, but the song makes it easy to not care.

T. Rex – Lean Woman Blues
from Electric Warrior (1971)
Give Marc Bolan a pad of paper and a guitar and he'll whip together the most delicious concoction of hippie pop, blues, and glam rock you've ever tasted. On a sidenote: You can really hear the Black Keys in everything T. Rex has already done, especially this track.

War – Where Was You At?
from The World is a Ghetto (1972)
If this song doesn't make you picture an obese black family sitting around a dinner table clapping, I don't want to know what does. Perfect fit for the end-credit sequence of The Nutty Professor 3.

April 8, 2011

The Philadelphia Flyers are in trouble.

On February 24th, the Philadelphia Flyers were 40-15-6. They'd found a young stud in rookie goaltending sensation Sergei Bobrovsky. Their top six defensemen were probably the best in the league. Claude Giroux was emerging as a star, and Danny Briere was finally earning every cent of his $52 million contract. A repeat appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals seemed all but certain.

Yet here are we are on April 8th, less than a week away from the start of the playoffs, and the Flyers are in big trouble. What seemed like a midseason swoon has lasted for months; just when you think they've got it figured out, another heartbreaking loss sends them right back to square one. It's increasingly possible that the Flyers, thought to have locked up the top seed after 57 consecutive days in front, could fall to number four by Sunday.

So what happened?

I'm not even sure where to begin. Bobrovsky, while steady overall, mixed in a few stinkers. Chris Pronger got hurt. Too many players took whole periods off at a time. The Briere-Leino-Hartnell line cooled down considerably. Mike Richards played his worst stretch of hockey maybe ever. The team's level of physicality dropped tremendously. And the power play has been, and continues to be, abysmal at 16.6% (19th in the NHL).

Some people like to place all the blame on Kris Versteeg, noting that the Flyers are 10-9-6 since he arrived in a trade with Toronto. But it would be pretty sad if this team of battle-tested veterans, where even young players like Richards and Jeff Carter have played in a Cup Final and an Eastern Conference Final, were that thrown off their game by the "disruption" of adding a single player. Plus, let's not forget that Versteeg won a championship with Chicago last year.

More than anything, I think an inevitable lull set in after so many months of stellar play, one that they unexpectedly haven't been able to overcome. How much of that is due to the continued lack of Pronger, the outspoken yang to Richards's quiet yin? Losing a top-10 NHL defenseman, especially one with Pronger's leadership skills, is never an easy thing to overcome. But the Flyers survived without him in the early going; thrived, even. It's been a team-wide effort that warrants team-wide blame.

Whatever it is, the Flyers need to figure it out fast. As of today, they'll play Buffalo in the first round, but a few losses (and Pittsburgh wins) would turn that into an extremely tough matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa's 3-0-1 against the Flyers this season, and if the last few weeks are any indication, it could very quickly be one-and-done for a team that looked invincible not too long ago.

On February 11th, Peter Laviolette said this season was "Stanley Cup or bust." A lot of people, including Sports Illustrated, think that Philly's still a worthy Cup contender (although the return of a fully healthy Pronger is no longer a guarantee). And the Flyers themselves seem to think they can flip a switch and starting blowing teams out again, recapturing whatever made them so dominant in late 2010.

But maybe, just maybe, this lengthy cold spell has been the team reverting to the mean. Maybe they never were a true top team; maybe they just got hot early and wilted late. I don't want to believe it, but if they can't go deep into the playoffs again, all that dominating winter play will be a faint memory in another ultimately forgettable Flyers season.

April 4, 2011

Six bold predictions about the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies.

Ryan Howard will hit more than 40 home runs. Alright, so maybe they're not all that bold. Howard's hit over 40 bombs in four of his five seasons with 500 or more at bats, and 2011 will be another one of those monster years. The Big Man may not have Jayson Werth "protecting" him anymore, but Howard's been the top power bat in baseball since his rookie season in 2005. I don't care if Raul Ibanez, Ben Francisco or even Wilson Valdez hit in the number five hole; Howard's staying healthy and swatting dingers all through 2011.

Brad Lidge will not record a save. A little bold, but not that far-fetched. After two years of supporting the broken-down corpse that used to be Brad Lidge, I think Charlie Manuel's had enough. Lidge will be elsewhere next season -- no way the Phillies pick up his $12.5 million option -- and even when he recovers from a right shoulder strain, it's time to let some combination of Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras handle the closer job. Lidge was one of the key cogs of the 2008 world championship team and I'll always love him for it, but his three-year, $37.5 million extension will go down as one of the worst signings in Phillies history.

Ben Francisco will hit 20 home runs. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I made this prediction well before Benny's big season-opening homestand. I'm not saying Francisco is the next Jayson Werth; I'm not even saying he's that good at baseball. But unless John Mayberry Jr. takes the next step, Ross Gload gets hot or Dom Brown is rushed up from the minors again, Francisco's the guy in right field. In 2009, he hit 15 homers in 405 at bats; barring injury, he'll get at least that many this year. At age 29, it feels like a career year's on the way from the Ben Francisco Treat.

Chase Utley will record under 300 at bats. This is a tough one for all Phillies fans to swallow, but I'm not optimistic about Chase. Yes, I know he was seen taking ground balls on Sunday, and the Phillies probably cut Luis Castillo because they think Utley will be back around the All-Star break. But that's in the middle of July, and there's no way he'll be 100 percent. Until he gets surgery to clean up that knee, Chase will probably be a shell of his former self. Granted, I'll take the feeblest Chase Utley over a full season of Wilson Valdez at second base, but let's not expect much -- if anything -- from Chase in 2011. That way, maybe he'll surprise us.

For the first time since 2007, Jimmy Rollins will top an .800 OPS. A big year's on the way for J-Roll. I don't know if it'll be driven by newfound good health, a contract season or just a desire to prove any haters out there wrong, but Jimmy looks ready to play. And that's huge, because the Phillies desperately need him to produce out of the three-hole. Victorino, Polanco, Rollins and Howard are the logical top four sans Utley, and so far, Jimmy looks very comfortable in this new batting order. He might not swipe as many bags, but I expect a slugging percentage over .450. That, too, would be his highest in five years, and his ticket to one more big-money deal.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will win 60 games between them. It's pretty damn hard for one pitcher to win 15 games, let alone four. Three of these four starters are at least 32 years old; the younger one's never topped 15 wins in his career. But I think the Phour Horsemen, the Phab Phour, whatever the hell you want to call them, I think they're going to do special things. As top Phillies blog Beerleaguer and my associate Jon Cifuentes pointed out today, Halladay, Lee and Oswalt were dynamite this weekend (67% of pitches for strikes, 2.84 ERA, one walk issued). And you know what? They can, and should, be even better. No-hitters, Cy Young Awards, 20-win seasons: all attainable goals. Even if one goes down, the other three will pick up the slack. And don't forget about Vance Worley, maybe the best no. 7 starter in baseball!

The 2011 Phillies are rich with pitching and good enough at hitting. When they hit the occasional rough patch, we'll call them "aging." When they launch furious ninth-inning comebacks, like they did against Brandon Lyon in the season opener, we'll call them "wily veterans." Either way, even without Utley, they've got enough ammo to win the National League East and compete for another World Series championship. After so many years of mediocrity, of boredom, of empty arenas and infinite sadness, isn't that all we can ask for?