Friday, May 31, 2013

Rebel Without A Clue

As sports towns go; Detroit is no place for a diva. The city and it's surrounding areas are anything but glamorous and frankly that's just fine with the people who live there. A generation's worth of "wasteland" jokes at the city's expense have bred a strange combination of humility and ferocity into the regional psyche. Growing up in Detroit automatically grants you a graduate degree from the school of hard knocks and a lifelong understanding that it's not what you say, but what you do that really counts in life. This attitude is never more apparent than it is in how we choose our sporting heroes. To truly win our love an athlete has to exhibit a sort of quiet dominance; he must be both the best player and the best person in the game at the same time. In this way we cheer for the talent of a Sergei Federov but we save our worship for the dedication and leadership of a Steve Yzerman. This isn't just a hockey thing either; the Detroit Tigers current "big 3" of Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are loved here as much for their (now) low-key personalities as their otherworldly talent.

This is a harsh standard that few athletes can measure up to but the bar is never higher around here than it is for a member of the Detroit Lions. The standard for excellence in honolulu blue is set by none other than the ultimate anti-diva: Barry Sanders. For 10 glorious seasons Sanders was the most dangerous offensive player in the NFL and the only reason the Lions were relevant at all. No matter the down or distance Sanders was always a threat to score; often with a mesmerizing series of spins, jukes and superhuman dekes that would ruin the body of mere mortals. It wasn't just Sanders' all world talent that endeared him to Lions fans however; he was our hero because of his work ethic, relentless determination and respectful if not outright humble personality. Barry Sanders worshiped at the church of football and he left the task of building the church of Barry Sanders to the fans and media. Ask any Lions fan why he loves Sanders and I guarantee that before long he'll mention Barry's ritual of quietly handing the ball to the referee in lieu of a touchdown celebration as a key selling point. It's not enough to dominate, when you represent the 313 area code, you're expected to act like you've been there before; even if you haven't. This is why Calvin Johnson will go down as a legend in Detroit sports even if he never catches another pass for the Lions; we see some of Sanders in Megatron but more to the point we see some of "Detroit" in him and it makes us whole. This town has neither time nor love for a selfish, "look at me" type of athlete and so it's really not surprising that Titus Young's career as a Lion was an unmitigated disaster.

Young's NFL career began with much fanfare and the promise of greater things to come. To this day, Titus has the kind of deep speed that keeps defensive backs awake at night; he's not "track fast" so much as quick, explosive and tremendously gifted in the art of gaining separation from defenders. He can also change directions on a dime, exhibits exceptional hand-eye coordination and enough leaping ability to come down with the ball against taller athletes. In his senior season at Boise State, Young caught 71 passes for 1215 yards, 9 touchdowns and an eye-popping 17.1 yards per catch. He also flashed his versatility in the Broncos gimmick-a-minute offense with 14 rushing attempts for 94 yards and an additional touchdown for good measure. Of course Young was a bit of a smurf at 5'11" and a mere 174 lbs but he was also tremendously tough; in 4 years with the Broncos he never missed a game due to injury. Titus did however miss some games; 10 of them to be exact when he violated team rules and was suspended by coach Chris Peterson for much of the 2008 season. At the time the public story was that the violation involved a minor (presumably Young) in possession of alcohol but the truth was considerably more disturbing. Young had apparently arrived back on campus in 2008 with a major attitude problem and when he began missing team meetings, cutting classes and didn't appear to know the playbook Peterson brought the hammer down hard. Things got so bad that at one point the coach even suggested to Titus that a quick transfer to a new school and a fresh start for all parties involved might not be a terrible idea. Naturally, little of this was public knowledge heading into the draft but the information would have been available to NFL scouts who are paid to dig up exactly these types of stories.

If the real reason why Titus was suspended in 2008 bothered NFL scouts they made little effort to show it. By most accounts Young had been humbled by the experience and become a model football player in the two years since. Of more concern seemed to be Young's goofy personality and tendency to draw attention to himself with excessive touchdown celebrations. The term "character questions" came up in every public scouting report but nobody bothered to mention that he was considered "uncoachable" at Boise State until his Jr season.  In retrospect these were early warning signs that Titus Young would not survive in a town like Detroit. At the time however, most scouting reports chose to focus on his athletic gifts and tremendous confidence despite whispers that Young was notably self-absorbed. The fact that he had an exceptional Senior Bowl and Pro Day certainly didn't hurt either. So it came to pass that the Detroit Lions drafted Titus Young in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL draft with the 44th overall pick to generally positive reviews from both their fans and the media. As hard as this may be to believe now, I don't recall anyone crucifying the Lions for selecting Young over Randall Cobb on that day either.

For a while, the Titus Young experience worked out all right in Detroit; he caught 48 passes for 607 yards with 6 touchdowns in his rookie season and eventually supplanted Nate Burleson as the number 2 option behind Calvin Johnson in the Lions passing game. Even then however, there were more whispers that painted an entirely different picture. Young was lazy they said, he didn't work hard enough in practice they said. The whispers spoke of a player who lost interest when he wasn't in the game and sometimes just when he wasn't the primary target for a given play. Of course nobody could accuse Dominic Raiola of whispering when he very publicly screamed at Titus to "grow the fuck up" in the Detroit locker room after a loss to the New Orleans Saints. The team-captain and noted curmudgeon was upset because Young had just taken a 15 yard misconduct penalty while the desperate Lions were on the 2 yard line. More importantly the penalty was both stupid and selfish; Young punched a Saints player in full view of the refs for reasons that were never entirely made clear. After the game Young offered the first of many revealing apologies to Lions fans by saying "I kind of let my emotions get the best of me. I really wasn’t thinking of anything but myself at that time." In hindsight it could be said that Titus was damned by his own words but at the time the incident was largely ignored in the face of Young's clearly burgeoning talent. In the words of Tomy Petty; the future was wide open. The only problem was that Titus Young would turn out to be a rebel without a clue.

What happened next should have spelled the end for Young's career as a Lion. In May of 2012, Young sucker punched team leader and starting strong safety Louis Delmas during off-season workouts at Allen Park. In retrospect this incident was notable for a number of reasons, none of which are particularly flattering to Young or the Lions organization. For starters it called into question Young's decision making process on a fundamental level. Inter-squad scuffles are not unheard of during training camp scrimmages but who attacks a teammate in non-contact offseason drills? Additionally the nature of the assault revealed blemishes in Young's character; apparently he and Delmas were arguing just prior but Young waited until Delmas was no longer looking to unleash his assault. In a blue collar town like Detroit these were seen as the actions of a "punk" and a "coward"; it didn't help that Delmas had already endeared himself to the Detroit faithful by exhibiting the qualities of toughness, leadership and worth ethic that we so admire. Finally the incident revealed an uncomfortable truth about the Detroit Lions when they responded not by cutting, trading or suspending Young but by "withholding" him from voluntary workouts for an entire week. The message was clear; Barry Sanders doesn't live here anymore and talent trumps character in the New Lion Order.

In light of the Lion's sudden shift to the dark side, perhaps the team's crash from playoff participant to 4-12 train wreck was entirely predictable. While some of the slide can be blamed on injuries and a more difficult schedule, the 2012 Lions were also plagued by disciple problems, morale issues and a circus like atmosphere that certainly didn't help. At the center of the storm was once again Titus Young, now calling himself Sr after the birth of his son Titus Young Jr in the offseason.  Rather than realizing his enormous potential, Young regressed mightily in his second season. In the first 5 games of 2012 Young's contributions were almost non-existent and his frustration with his role in the offense was readily apparent in his body language on the field. He rebounded in week 7 with a decent effort against the Bears before having one of his finest games as a pro against Seattle on October 28th. Young literally caught everything Stafford threw at him with 9 catches on 9 Targets for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in one of the Lions few feel good wins of the 2012 season. For one singular moment the Lions illogical, unrelenting faith in Titus Young appeared justified; and then, in the blink of an eye Titus Young was literally gone.

On November 22nd, 2012 the Lions benched Titus Young for gross insubordination after it was revealed that Young had purposely lined up in the wrong spot and run the wrong routes on multiple plays in the previous week's loss to the Packers. As if that wasn't strange enough Young apparently did so because he felt he was a better primary option in the Lions offense than Calvin Johnson; who was in the process of setting the NFL record for yards by a WR in a single season in 2012. Two indifferent weeks of practice and one of the strangest news conferences in NFL history later, Titus Young would be placed on injury reserve; he would never play another down of football for the Detroit Lions again. As the weeks went by details of Young's strained relationship with team-mates and coaches began to emerge, finally culminating in coach Jim Schwartz revealing that Young was scheduled for knee surgery "if he shows up". Around about this same time Young went on his now infamous series of disjointed Twitter posts where he:
  • Suggested that he wasn't selfish but that if he wasn't going to get the football he wouldn't play anymore
  • Declared that he had never run the wrong route, he just put himself where the ball was going to be
  • Refuted those who called hm greedy, saying he would play for a dollar while simultaneously suggesting he was a Hall of Fame level talent
  • Fought with Lions fans about his faith and his talents as a football player
  • Demanded that the Lions stop threatening to release him and simply do so.
On February 4th, 2013 and after a war of words that demeaned both Jim Schwartz and the entire Lion's organization, Young was granted his wish in the form of an unconditional release from his contract.

In the months since his release from the Lions the saga of Titus Young Sr has taken a number of unfortunate, almost tragic turns. He was a Saint Louis Ram for all of 9 days before Rams Coach Jeff Fisher figured out Young was a lost cause. There are conflicting reports on whether his release was the result of a failed physical or his poor attitude; Fisher merely stated "we felt Titus is better suited for another organization." After his second release in less than a month Young managed to fall off the radar until this past May, when a series of bizarre incidents in California returned him to national prominence. First there were reports that Young had been caught shoplifting bottled water, candy and cigars from a convenience store in Laguna Hills on May 4th. The very next day Titus was improbably arrested twice in the same 24 hour period; once for driving under the influence of alcohol and once for breaking into the police impound yard to retrieve his car in Riverside. May 8th brought the news that Young's ex-girlfriend Marjani Maldonado had filed a restraining order against him to protect herself and their son, Titus Young Jr. Apparently she found Young's declaration that "I understand why O.J. killed his wife" more than a little disconcerting. Finally on May 11, Titus was arrested while breaking into a home in San Clemente and scuffling with the police who arrested him during the incident. A few days later his father, Richard Young came forward to reveal that his son was suffering from an undisclosed mental illness; inadvertently revealing that Young is likely suffering from a bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia based on a prescription for Seroquel. The story was confirmed on May 19th when Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch told reporters that Titus had shared paperwork concerning his diagnosis with him during a chance encounter on a flight to Detroit in late April.

Today, Titus Young sits in a California jail cell facing 11 charges including vandalism, burglary and assaulting a police officer. The judge in his case recently increase his bail from $25,000 to $50,000 dollars after a bizarre hearing in which Young refused to acknowledge the judge or his own father despite being spoken to directly by both men. His lawyer claimed it was Titus' right to remain silent while the judge said he "poses a danger to the community." Frankly it doesn't seem to matter what Young's bail is set at; right now his family is refusing to pay, feeling that Young is better off behind bars and receiving the mental care he clearly needs. In a classic example of covering it's backside, today the NFL revealed that the league reached out to Young as far back as 18 months ago but pulled away when Titus made it clear he didn't want their support. There are no winners in this story and the only hope for a happy ending lies in Titus eventually winning back his self control and piece of mind. The question of whether or not Young will ever play in the NFL again is now largely irrelevant.

Putting the human element aside however, the sad saga of Titus Young does bring up a number of uncomfortable questions about the Lions organization and general manager Martin Mayhew in particular. First and foremost one has to ask; why the Lions would draft a player who so obviously had no hope of thriving in the Detroit sports media market? From his days in high school Young had always be been loud, cocky and borderline self absorbed. He never made any bones about wanting to be the featured option in the passing game and his constant demands for the ball were never going to jibe with a Lion's offense built around Calvin Johnson. I find it highly unlikely that the Lions were completely unaware of Young's real problems in college and if they were that speaks more to general incompetence than some great conspiracy to hide the truth at Boise State. What exactly was the best case scenario when the Lions drafted Young? If Detroit is lucky he keeps his mouth shut for 4 years and then promptly jumps to another team that will make him a number 1 receiver. Even if you're prepared to concede that the Lions simply gambled on Young's immense talent and lost; you still have to ask why the Lions didn't cut bait after he sucker punched Delmas? More disturbingly; when presented with the evidence that the Lions had, how could they not realize that Titus Young was mentally ill and force him to get help? Shouldn't there be some kind of team psychologist looking after these kinds of things? Why would coach Jim Schwartz repeatedly spar with Young in the media and verbally berate a young man who was so clearly not in his right mind? Are the Lions clueless, callous or both?

Like most true stories, the one about the Lions drafting a crazy wide receiver who thought he was better than Calvin Johnson ends with more questions than answers. At the end of the day all I can tell you is that there's no crying in football and when it comes to the Lions, there's always plenty of blame to throw around.

- Sportsball Chic

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Giving the Devil His Due - Why Chicago Outlasted Detroit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

For a bunch of walking dead men, the Chicago Blackhawks sure looked good last night. In fact, as the red light went on and the United Center exploded in celebration I swear I saw Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford burst into a little jig. Staggered but unbowed the Hawks have indeed survived to fight another day. Instead it is the Red Wings who are vanquished after Chicago completed a stunning comeback from a 3-1 series deficit with a 2-1 game 7 overtime win at home. Although they began the series as a heavy favorite, after 4 matches few in the media gave them much chance of forcing a game 7, let alone winning it. To a man the Hawks insisted they were still in this series after game 4 and true to their word they proved everyone (myself included ) wrong. While the moment provided relief and vindication for the Hawks it will likely gnaw on Red Wing's nation for a long while. At some later date Wings fans will be able to appreciate just how far the team came this season but that moment is not now. Now, all the exists is an empty feeling and one resounding question; how did this happen?  Despite genuine risk to my fragile psyche, I sat down to objectively analyze how the series changed after the Wings took a 3-1 lead on May 20th:

Speed Kills: Heading into the series it was generally understood by both the media and fans of either squad that Chicago was the better skating team. Long years of struggle at the bottom of the league table have populated the Hawks roster with some of the finest athletes in today's game. Toews, Kane and Hossa in particular can flat out fly but there isn't much drop off in terms of pure skating ability as you go down the Hawks roster. The only Hawks forward I would describe as slow is Michal Handzus and he's primarily a "win the faceoff and crash to the net" type of player; virtually all of their d-men are excellent skaters.  To be clear the Wings are by no means a slow hockey team but they don't have the same kind of thoroughbreds up and down the lineup that the Hawks do. In the first 4 games of the series, the Wings used excellent positioning and Chicago's proclivity for "hero-hockey" to all but negate this advantage. Hawks forwards seemed content to jostle for the puck in confined quarters and found a Wings team full of expert stick-handlers more than happy to comply. The final 3 games were a different story however; Chicago started spreading it's forwards out more and focused on moving the puck with slick, sometimes creative passing. This forced the Red Wings to defend more of the ice at any given time while still maintaining perfect positioning against faster Hawks players. If the Wing's defender wasn't in proper position the Hawks immediately forced the puck in his direction to create a one-on-one race that favored Chicago heavily. By my estimation roughly half of Chicago's goals in the final 3 games of the series came at the end of shifts where a Hawk had simply beaten the Wings to an open puck through superior speed just prior. Perhaps the most obvious example of the Hawks speed advantage however came in the 2nd periods of games 5 and 7 where every "long" Wing line change seemed to turn into an odd man rush for Chicago. I'm going to have nightmares about the 3 on 1 that led to Chicago's first goal in game 7 for months; Detroit made a terrible line change but that play doesn't happen without Chicago's ridiculous overall team speed.

Stretch Until You Break: I don't know about you folks but if I ever see another long stretch pass up the middle of the ice that completely handcuffs the Wings defense, I might throw up. For those of you who've never been to a hockey camp; a stretch pass is a filthy play designed to bypass the neutral zone and create instant offense when the right kind of defender gains control of the puck. You can find a video here but in essence the d-man skates backward with the puck, giving himself room to unleash a long pass to the opposite blue-line. Ideally this long pass is then picked up by a streaking forward who breaks in on the defense with a head of steam and creates a good scoring chance. This is a difficult play and requires defenders who can both skate and pass at an elite level to pull off consistently; not to mention the kind of forwards who can win the one-on-one battles the play creates. Unfortunately Chicago has both of these commodities in numbers and after game 4 they seemed to build much of their offense around the stretch pass. Faced with the option of stepping up to cut off the pass (and risking embarrassment) or trying to win individual battles against the Hawks, young Wing defenders all too often chose the latter path with predictable results. An elite defender can spring forward and cut off this pass to create a rush the other way; more than once I found myself wishing Lidstrom was still around to punish the Hawks for their impudence. Unfortunately Lidstrom is gone and the Wings never found a way to counter this play effectively so Chicago literally ran them into the ground with it in the final 3 games.

Football on Ice:  As I've previously discussed here on the blog the officiating in this series was laughably poor at times; specifically at various points during games 4 through 7. Now. before you assume I'm a Wings fan crying about the referees because her team lost please understand that I believe the officiating was horrible, not biased. Chicago also suffered from some inexplicably bad calls; including two that directly took goals off the board when replays indicated that the play was legal. It takes a special kind of incompetence to screw up 3 calls that directly add or remove a goal from the scoreboard in a mere 4 games on national television; somehow these refs were up to the task. Where the terrible reffing did favor Chicago however is how they adapted to it as the series continued and in that regard, the Red Wings only have themselves to blame. After getting frustrated with the refs in game 4 the Blackhawks came out in game 5 with a noticeable edge. Not only did they skate and hit harder but the Hawks started punishing the Wings physically with a variety of shoves, grabs, holds and gloves to the face at every opportunity; particularly away from the play. Originally the Hawks probably did this to send a message to Detroit with full intention of simply taking the penalties that might ensue as a result. When no penalties were forthcoming however the Hawks simply integrated the "rough stuff" into their regular play on the spot. Detroit, on the other hand struggled adapt to the general lawlessness of the final 4 games and it wasn't really until game 7 that they began openly shoving, clutching, holding and slashing to the full degree that the refs were allowing. All is fair in love, war and playoff hockey; the Wings did themselves a major disservice by not taking full advantage of the considerable leeway the officials were offering.

Corey Crawford Went Nuclear: After 4 games in the series the general consensus was that Jimmy Howard had given the Wings a noticeable advantage in goal over the Hawks. Chicago starter Corey Crawford hadn't been bad but he wasn't finding a way to steal games like Jimmy was either. In some ways Crawford's inexperience and dreadful play in last year's playoffs actually suggested he might be a weak spot in Chicago's lineup as the series progressed. All Crawford did was come out and hold the Wings to 5 goals over the next 3 contests; matching Howard clutch save for clutch save the entire way. These weren't routine saves either; by the second period of game 6 the Wings were flying around the Hawks net on a regular basis. If Crawford has one weakness, it's that he still struggles to control rebounds properly and is thus forced to make athletic saves on second and third shots more often than other goaltenders. True to form the Wings had numerous second chance attempts against Crawford in the series but for the most part came away empty handed as the Chicago goalie consistently "cleaned his own trash." Aside from losing track of a Joakim Andersson "knuckle-puck" in game 6, Crawford was absolutely sensational in the final 3 games. Frankly his overall series numbers make it clear that he wasn't really the problem in the first 4 games either: only allowing 14 goals in 7 games is impressive but his .929 save percentage against the Wings truly reveals how exceptional he was.

The Benefits of Experience: Let's face the facts; as tempting as it is to say the Hawks won the series because they're really good a certain degree of blame for blowing a 3-1 match lead has to fall on the Red Wings. Mike Babcock can only accomplish so much for the Wings from behind the bench; it falls on his young charges to properly execute the plays and concepts he creates to negate Chicago's significant talent advantage. If Brendan Smith stays with Michal Handzus at the start of the 3rd period in game 6 the Wings might be preparing to face LA now for example. I'd also be willing to bet that Babcock spent some time discussing Chicago's stretch pass with his team and can only imagine that he found their inability to anticipate the play just as frustrating as I did. Naturally mainstays like Kronwall and Zetterberg stepped up as the series progressed but even some of the Wings veteran players failed to show up when it counted. Pavel Datsyuk had a relatively quiet series but Johan Franzen was absolutely brutal at times in the offensive zone; wasting multiple glorious scoring chances with Chicago on the ropes in game 6 and 7 alone. Whether it was young players, old players or guys who probably just don't have enough talent to execute the scheme, things came unraveled for Detroit after the first 4 games.  Over the final 3 contests it felt like Chicago took advantage of every defensive lapse, positioning mistake and bad shot the Wings made to eventually wear down Jimmy Howard and bag the goals they needed to advance.

Over Time, True Quality Shines Through: The simple truth is that right now the Chicago Blackhawks are a better team than the Red Wings for a variety of reasons. They're faster, a little bit stronger, significantly deeper on defense, they have more scoring threats overall and they aren't in the process of breaking in half a squad worth of young prospects. In a short series Detroit could rely on Babcock's superior coaching and the stellar play of Jimmy Howard to negate these advantages but as the series dragged onward, Chicago's talent outshone the Wing's work ethic. It also bears mentioning here that as a team the Wings probably didn't deserve to be up 3-1 in the first place, although Jimmy Howard certainly did. Additionally after both teams alternated "no-show" performances in the first two games it was the Wings who lacked intensity in game 5 and the early portions of game 6. That surprised me frankly because this edition of the Red Wings had been playing virtual elimination hockey for well over a month now. Elite teams don't lose focus when the prize is within reach; despite it's championship pedigree, right now Detroit isn't truly good enough to be an elite squad and it showed over 7 games. Finally of course a number of key Red Wings were playing in their first ever Stanley Cup playoffs. Playoff hockey is essentially a whole different animal than it's regular season counterpart and there's no question that experience helps players adjust to the difference. When (not if) the Red Wings make the playoffs next season, the experience gained in this series will be invaluable. For now however, they'll have to settle for learning some hard lessons against an ultimately superior Blackhawk squad that simply would not die.

Though it pains me to say this, the better team won this series and did so in deserving fashion. When the chips were down Chicago found another level of play to operate on and although the Red Wings came excruciatingly close; they just couldn't quite keep up with the Hawks in the end. In time the pain from this loss will recede and this season will be remembered for all of the positives it brought to the Red Wings organization. A new generation of Red Wings burst onto the scene this year, young stars like Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Ericsson finally cashed in on some of their potential and Mike Babcock submitted a coaching job for the ages during the playoffs. For now however I'm going to grab a couple of cold ones, sit outside in the summer air and wonder what might have been if Danny Dekeyser was playing in Game 6 instead of Brendan Smith.

- Sportsball Chic

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

We Have Tonight...

There's an article spinning around in my head right now. It's about how the 2013 season was a gift for Red Wings fans and how we should appreciate the progress this young team has made. The article talks about how few NHL teams are actually able to re-tool on the fly and theorizes that in a normal 82 game season the Wings would probably have been the 4th seed in the Western Conference. I discuss the wonderful breakout seasons of Gustav Nyquist, Damien Brunner and Joakim Andersson. The article goes on to state that Ericsson has finally grown up and Jimmy Howard is realizing his own massive potential. Of course it's not all gum drops and lollipops; the piece also discusses the need to replace or upgrade guys like Kyle Quincey, Todd Bertuzzi and Carlo Colaiacovo. Finally the article expresses my hopes that Danny Dekeyser heals up fine and that Brenden Smith works on his positioning and defensive awareness over the summer.

To tell you the truth the article would be pretty easy to to write now; so easy in fact that I've almost started it several times already. That's how the big boys do it ya know; they start multiple pieces early so that no matter how the games work out they have something ready to go instantly. There are literally thousands of professional writers all over the world right now preparing articles on the aftermath of the Red Wings surprising season. If I want to stay competitive I should probably join them in doing so; strike while the iron is hot and all that.

There's only one problem, one nagging issue that's holding me back; if I wrote the article now it would really suck when I had to come back and update it after the Stanley Cup Finals wouldn't it? I believe. I believe in the greatest game 7 team in the history of the NHL. I believe in the smartest coach I have ever seen behind the bench. I believe in the young guys, the old guys and the guys who won't even be Red Wings next season. I believe in Jimmy Howard. Most of all I believe in the Hockey Gods who have no doubt watched this series in great rage at the officiating. I believe. Screw tomorrow folks, we have tonight and that's enough to keep the dream alive. Let's go Red Wings.

- Sportsball Chic

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Snow Job

The game of hockey is both played and officiated at lightning speed. At any given point in time a referee will be charged with tracking the actions of 10 or more mutant humans on ice skates chasing a 3 inch disk of rubber all over the rink. Now factor in pressure from the home crowd, constant chatter from players and coaches, plus the very real possibility of looking like a rube on national television. Finally of course if it's a playoff game the expectations and emotions (typically anger) of two entire cities come into the picture as well. A referee will be forgiven for a missed call in a meaningless February grind-fest but once the lights go up on the NHL's second season there is no margin for error. This is not an easy job and as such I typically try to be understanding when NHL referees miss calls during a game; particularly away from the play. They say you shouldn't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes and having reffed a few high school hockey games I can say with some certainty that mistakes are going to happen at the best of times. The NHL playoffs are definitely not the best of times for a referee.

In light of the above I watched games 4 and 5 of the Wings-Hawks series this year in relative silence. The officiating for both games could at best be described as uneven. It was clear early on that the Hawks had been instructed to get more physical with the Wings by the coaching staff and that included a stunning array of shoves, holds, gloves to the face and general stick-work at every opportunity. Particularly noticeable were the number of times a Hawks player grabbed the stick or shoulder pads of a Wing as both were bearing down for the puck. It didn't take long for me to realize that the refs were going to call virtually none of these penalties in either game and by midway through the second period the Wings had seemingly noticed too. One of the most memorable images of the series came in game 4 when Toews and Zetterberg got tangled up right next to an official who was trying to separate them. As the two players parted, Toews took a wicked two-handed hack at Hank DIRECTLY in front of the referee; no penalty. The look of confusion and frustration of Zetterberg's face mirrored my own but I quickly dismissed it as "just another bad no-call." Naturally with this kind of officiating both games became chippy and while it seemed to me Chicago was getting away with more than the Wings I conceded that it was probably because they were trying to commit more penalties than Detroit was. There was even a point in game 4 when I believed Chicago had been robbed of a goal on a questionable interference call simply to make up for an atrocious penalty against the Wings moments before. In other words; both games were officiated poorly and in Chicago's favor but no more so than I expected from your typical NHL referee.

Last night was different. Last night was the kind of game that makes you crazy, that makes you start to ask disturbing questions about the role of the officials in a playoff hockey game. Last night's officiating was a crime against hockey and the only question in my mind now is: was it intentional?  On it's face the idea that an NHL referee would purposely manipulate the game to favor one team over another is ludicrous. The competitive integrity of professional sports leagues is pretty much all that separates them from bush league "sports entertainment" acts like "professional" wrestling. Logic dictates that there would simply be too much at stake for even a megalomaniac like Gary Bettman to "fix" a playoff game. You could of course always have a rogue referee who's manipulating the game for his own purposes but the presence of 4 on ice officials in every game makes even that scenario implausible. No folks, the truth is that the officiating in last night's game was likely a function of pure incompetence; it only looked like the fix was in because all of the key calls happened to go against the Red Wings.

As those of you who watched the game are no doubt aware, Game 6 didn't open very well for the Red Wings or their fans. At the 3:44 mark of the 1st period Jakub Kindl was assessed a 2 minute minor penalty for interference along the boards while finishing a legal-enough looking check. The call was questionable at best for a playoff game but it seemed to indicate that the game would be tightly officiated after games 4 and 5 had gotten out of hand. As we all know Chicago took all of 9 seconds to score on the ensuing power play and put the Red Wings behind almost immediately. While the call itself was bad enough the rest of the period was by far more frustrating. On back to back Detroit rushes almost immediately after Chicago's goal, Detroit skaters were impeded on similar if not worse plays by Blackhawk defenders. First a Chicago defender kept Zetterberg from going outside on him by throwing Hank into the boards and pinning him there with his glove, stick and knee. No penalty was called despite the referee standing no more than 8 yards away. Then, not 40 seconds later Pavel broke in down the other side and had his stick held while a Chicago defender shoved his skate in between Datsyuk's to ensure the Detroit forward couldn't move towards the goal. Once again there was no call despite the official having a clear view of the play as he trailed the puck. To be fair these kinds of calls are missed all of the time in playoff hockey but that only serves to make the Kindl penalty all the more infuriating in the final analysis.

Things improved somewhat in the 2nd period; the officiating was still pretty questionable but most of the non-calls at this point were consistent with how the rest of the series had been refereed. Naturally, this favored Chicago but that's primarily because Detroit isn't as physical as the Hawks are and the Wings never really bothered to take advantage of lax officiating. There *was* a questionable roughing call against Johan Franzen early in the period that bears mentioning. Franzen threw a check towards a Chicago puck carrier with his arms too high and in the process of finishing his check made contact with his elbow on the player's helmet. Naturally the Chicago defender (Niklas Hjalmarsson) goes down like a ton of bricks holding his head as though he'd been shot. On replay however, the contact was neither severe or intentional and in my experience its not the kind of penalty most referees will call in a Stanley Cup playoff game; particularly in light the fouls the officials were allowing at other points in the contest. Detroit killed off the ensuing power play so the call ended up being largely irrelevant, except that it helped establish more confusion about what was and wasn't going to be called a penalty in the game.

The 3rd period however was a complete disaster; in part because of the Red Wings overall play and in part because of the sorry excuse for officiating that transpired. Detroit entered the frame up 2-1 but gave up the equalizing goal to Michal Handzus a mere 51 seconds into the 3rd. It was a pretty goal by the Chicago forward and one certainly has to question why he was completely uncovered on the play by Wings d-man Brendan Smith. It also should never have happened. Roughly 15 seconds before the goal on the rush into the Wing's zone Hawks forward Bryan Bickell clearly strikes Smith in the face with a high stick while a linesman is skating 5 feet away and staring directly at the play. The high stick doesn't excuse Smith completely forgetting how to play defense a few moments later but the puck wouldn't have even been in Detroit's zone if the linesman had simply called the clear penalty in front of him. Things didn't improve as the period wore on. The next Blachawks goal was registered less than 5 minutes later while play was allowed to continue after Chicago was clearly offside. Now before you jump down my throat and scream that Franzen played the puck into the zone a second time I'm going to ask you to watch the video of the play. Did you see it? At roughly 0:05 of the video Marian Hossa touches the puck outside of the zone while both he and Toews are still inside the zone. That's offside folks and it doesn't matter at all what happens afterwards when Franzen and Bickell battle for the puck. Once again the fault for the actual goal lies with Brendan Smith; he doesn't work hard enough to make Bickell uncomfortable in front of the net and makes the mistake of trying to play the puck instead. Smith had by all measurements a brutal night in game 6 but there's absolutely no question that referees Dan O'Halloran and Chris Rooney did him no favors on either of these goals.

In what felt like the blink of an eye the Wings were suddenly down 3-2 on home ice after back to back terrible calls by the officials lead to defensive breakdowns later in the play. If you had asked me to rate the officiating in this game at that point the only word I could possibly have come up with is "atrocious". In the immortal words of Bachman Turnver Overdrive, "baby you ain't seen nothing yet." At 9:43 of the third period referee Chris Rooney took it upon himself to decide an NHL playoff hockey game and potentially the entire series. Needless to say I'm with Jimmy Howard and former Blackhawk Eddie Olczyk in thinking that there is basically no way on God's green earth that a penalty shot should have been awarded in this situation. If you watch the video you will see that Colaiacovo taps Frolik's stick (not his hand) with his stick as he's attempting to close the distance between himself and the cruising forward.  This is the type of play you will see dozens of times without a penalty call in an NHL match and in fact this very game itself was chock full of similar examples. What Carlo does here is what he's been taught to do his entire life by defensive coaches who are specifically trying not to give up the breakaway. Frankly I'm not sure this would have been a penalty shot in peewee hockey so the fact that Rooney would call it here, during the crucial moments of an NHL playoff game completely boggles my mind. Naturally Frolik scored easily on the ensuing penalty shot and after a too little, too late Brunner goal it eventually stood as the game winner. Late in the game while Detroit was struggling to generate offense there was also a phantom penalty against Pavel Datsyuk and an at least questionable call against Zetterberg. At the time neither call made me particularly angry because the damage had already been done but in retrospect they were also pretty relevant in light of Brunner's goal.

Of course not everyone disagreed with Rooney's decision to award a penalty shot. Frolik didn't seem to have much of a problem with the call and neither did most Blackhawks fans I've talked to. NBC analyst, former player, coach and general manager Mike Milbury said "this is a penalty shot" while bemoaning modern NHL rules. Of course this is the same Mike Milbury who as a player once went into the stands to beat a fan with a shoe. He's also the same Mike Milbury who ran the Islanders into the ground and who's major claim to fame is trading Zdeno Chara plus a first round draft pick that would eventually become Jason Spezza for Alexei Yashin. In other words; I think we have more than enough evidence to suggest that Mike Milbury may not be possessed of the wisdom of Solomon and he definitely isn't a paragon of good judgement. Finally, while I can't confirm it I hear somewhere out there Franz Baader and Josef Kompalla thought it was an excellent call and would have given Jimmy Howard a 10 minute misconduct for threatening gestures for good measure.

In the final analysis it's fair to say that the Wings didn't play well enough to win Game 6 and close out the series against Chicago. There were a number of defensive breakdowns that lead to Hawks goals and the team failed to display enough offensive urgency as the 3rd period wore on. If the Wings had played the entire game like they played the last minute and a half they would surely be preparing for the Western Conference finals right now. These facts however don't excuse the absolutely pathetic display of officiating that also contributed to the Wing's downfall. Well, at least the television networks are happy right? Who doesn't love a game 7?

- The Sportsball Chic

Monday, May 27, 2013

Closing Time

The psychology of a best of 7 NHL playoff series is a fascinating animal. Each series opens quietly; the early leader will downplay the importance of the games and the loser will talk about the need to (re)gain home ice advantage. While the first 4 matches of any series are important, more often than not they merely serve to establish the narrative of the closing games. There's an old chestnut in hockey that goes something like "it's not a playoff series until someone loses a home game" and to a degree that's true. At some point however either the home team does lose an important game or someone is facing elimination and the series transforms into a whole different beast. With the pressure ratcheted up to maximum the series actually shrinks; the focus becomes winning individual periods or even individual shifts. Momentum lurches back and forth with every scoring chance and mistakes are usually punished with laser like focus and a flashing red light. In these closing games winning feels like paradise, while losing guarantees 48 hours of uncomfortable questions and unrelenting pressure; both for the players and their fans.

The Detroit-Chicago series entered "closing time" for the Blackhawks sometime around the halfway mark of game 4. As the match unfolded it became apparent that Jimmy Howard was inside the heads of the majority of the Hawks forwards and fear quickly turned to desperation. The Wings won game 4 by a score of 2-0 but not before Chicago tested Jimmy Howard in every way imaginable in the game's closing period. Facing elimination, the Hawks responded with just about as good of a home playoff game as you can play in game 5. Corey Crawford smothered the Wings early while the Hawks unleashed a hellacious forecheck in the offensive zone. They controlled the puck for large stretches of the game and took advantage of some spotty officiating to establish a physical presence early and often. If a team could play every game like Chicago played game 5 they would win the Stanley Cup in less than 20 games. Of course, such a team would probably tear itself apart long before the finals; the adrenaline and psychological pressure would eventually wear them down to nothing. This is the power and magic of closing time in the NHL playoffs.

For the Detroit Red Wings and their loyal fans, closing time in this series begins tonight. Early in game 5 the Red Wings did their best to match Chicago's intensity and for a while managed to hang with the Hawks. As the score started to slip away from them however the Wings couldn't find another gear. Once Kronwall was banged up you got the sense that the team and coaches were already thinking about game 6. While I'm sure Don Cherry would declare that action a mortal sin against hockey it makes a lot of sense from Detroit's perspective. The Hawks were at home, flying around like possessed men and feeding off a crowd that had grown desperate for a reason to cheer. More to the point the Wings were rattled and hadn't established much offensively since the back half of the first period. It says something about just how badly you've been dominated when a team loses a game 4-1 and it can still be argued that the goalie was their best player. While you never want to consider a game "unwinnable" the Red Wings had to know their odds of closing out the series in game 5 weren't exactly high.

Of course, this is why you build 3-1 series leads and brings me back to my point about the first 4 games merely establishing the narrative for the closing moments of a series. Up 3-1 Detroit didn't have to panic when the Blackhawks transformed into the 1970 edition of the Boston Bruins. The team's hard work early in the series gave them the luxury of returning home up 3-2 with another chance to close out the Hawks' season. As narratives go that's still a pretty good story with a likely happy ending; if the Wings win game 6 at the JLA nobody is even going to remember how they were bullied off the ice in Chicago. If however the Hawks were somehow able to march into Detroit and take Game 6 from Mike Babcock's cold, dead hands that would change the narrative significantly. The story would become an athletically superior Blackhawks team waking up on the brink of elimination and imposing it's will on Detroit to tie up the series. Pressure would migrate from Chicago to Detroit in the blink of an eye and along with it uncomfortable questions about Detroit's ability to compete with the President's Trophy winning Blackhawks. It would also likely damage the confidence of a surprisingly young Wings team that is just now starting to realize it's potential. In short; losing game 6 would be a very, very bad thing for the Red Wings.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, closing time begins tonight for the Detroit Red Wings just as surely as it began in game 5 for the Chicago Blackhawks. The pressure is on both teams now; Chicago to stay alive and Detroit to avoid squandering a 3-1 series lead. Make no mistake, while a Wings loss won't end the series it will erase all the good will their playoff run has inspired. Detroit faces a "must-win" game tonight in almost every possible sense. In my heart I believe they will respond but I can't lie; I'll be holding my breath until the final whistle sounds. Let's hope I have a hard time hearing it over all the cheering in the JLA.

- The Sportsball Chic

Saturday, May 25, 2013

And Then There Were None

"Twenty-three little Indians all standing on a plank...."

The second round series between the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks became a murder last Thursday night. Strike that, this isn't a murder so much as a massacre. The victims are many; Jonathan Toews' reputation as a clutch player, Joel Quennville's manhood, the validity of the NHL's regular season and the dreams of an entire city were all snuffed out at once in game 4. It was murder all right but for anyone watching there was no mystery about "whodunit": Jimmy Howard, in Joe Louis arena with a flurry of absolutely filthy stops. Make no mistake folks; the Chicago Blackhawks came to the JLA armed for bear. They had every intention of putting the Red Wings on the carpet early and finally solving the riddle that is Jimmy Howard. They left with nothing; no goals, no momentum, no idea how to stop the Big Red Machine and by the end of it they didn't even have their pride. Captain Jonathan Toews discarded that sometime in the middle of the second period with a combination of minor penalties, visceral facial expressions and seemingly non-stop complaints to the officials. The really frightening thing is that the Hawks didn't play poorly; they controlled most of the first period, held the home team to a single goal until they pulled the keeper, only gave up 3 powerplays and out-shot Detroit 28-27. If a coach were to draw up a plan for how to win a road playoff game in the NHL it would look almost exactly like what Chicago accomplished last night. What they couldn't prepare for however, was the arrival of Jimmy Howard, the stone cold killer.

It is not easy to be Jimmy Howard. As the latest in a long line of unfairly maligned Red Wings goaltenders, Howard inherited a roster with Hall of Fame talent; and the weight of an entire city.  Detroit has championship bloodlines and a fanbase that's grown accustomed to seriously contending for the Cup every year. Regular season brilliance is irrelevant for a Red Wing; entire careers are defined in seven game sets in Hockeytown. Even success in the playoffs only grants a goalie passing acknowledgement here; it's hard to shine on a team full of superstars. When the Wings do not win however it's almost invariably attributed to the goaltender by fans, the media and sometimes even Red Wings management. There is no such thing as an average game in the playoffs for Jimmy Howard; he will be declared a hero or a goat on a nightly basis in the NHL's second season. It takes a psychologically strong individual to survive under this kind of pressure; Mike Veron and Dominik Hasek could hack it. Guys like Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace could not and quickly found themselves run out of town.

Nothing typifies Red Wing Nation's love/hate relationship with it's goalies however like the career of Howard's predecessor and mentor; Chris Osgood. "Ozzie" may have retired a hero to Wings fans but that was only after losing his starting job no less than 3 times and being waived outright by the Red Wings in the summer of 2001. Remarkably this was not the end for Osgood as a Red Wing; in 2005 the team resigned him after swapping goalies like baseball cards the 3 seasons prior.  It took a while but eventually Osgood outlasted a combustible Manny Legace and a rapidly breaking down Hasek to reclaim his starting job. He rewarded the Red Wings with back to back Cup finals; winning in 2008 and outplaying his counterpart in a heartbreaking 7 game loss to Pittsburgh in 2009. The fact that Osgood began and ended his "real"career on the losing side of 7 game playoff wars is the perfect metaphor for life as a Red Wings goaltender.

Howard's journey has been easier than Osgood's but not without it's hardships. Despite being drafted in 2003 it would be 6 long years before Howard would finally get a real shot at the starting job in Detroit. He began by splitting time with an increasingly ineffective and injured Chris Osgood before taking over for the team down the stretch. Howard played well enough to compile a 37-10-5 record and finish 2nd in voting for the 2010 Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. These accolades provided no shelter from the wrath of the Detroit faithful for him in the postseason however. Howard was brilliant at times in the first round but inconsistent play allowed a relentless Phoenix Coyotes team to stretch the series to 7 games. Many fans felt that Howard hard been largely outplayed by Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov in the series and their suspicions that Howard was not ready for prime time would be confirmed in the second round. Detroit lost in what felt like a 5 game sweep against the San Jose Sharks with the Wings blowing out game 4 by a score of 7-1 and otherwise losing every game by a single goal. The story of the series in Detroit instantly became that when the chips were down Evgeni Nabokov had come up with the big saves and Jimmy Howard had not. The name of the goaltender had changed but the song was still the same and Howard would have to wait an entire year to change the tune.

Things began to change for Jimmy Howard in the 2011 playoffs. Detroit swept Phoenix in the first round and entered their 2nd round series with San Jose fully rested this time. Howard had been solid, if unspectacular against the Coyotes but he was a revelation against San Jose. The Wings were badly outplayed in the Shark Tank but Howard stopped 79 of 83 shots in a pair of 2-1 losses. Both teams played awful defense in game 3, forcing Niemi to make 41 saves and Howard to respond with 38 of his own but once again the Wings lost despite the efforts of number 35. Miraculously the Wings began to the turn the series around; in no small part due to the stellar play of Howard. They clawed back 3 consecutive games to extend the series to it's maximum before eventually bowing out 3-2 back in San Jose. Though the Wings had been knocked out of the tournament only the truly delusional continued to blame Howard. Nobody was entirely sure yet, but after watching Jimmy come oh so close to imposing his will on the San Jose Sharks there was a lurking suspicion in Detroit that this might only be the beginning.

Unfortunately, just as Jimmy Howard was evolving into a merciless killer, father time began to extract his toll from the Red Wings. Defensive stalwarts Brian Rafalski and Nick Lidstrom retired in back to back off seasons along with former Selke trophy winning forward Chris Draper and infamous pest Tomas Holmstrom. Detroit made one last run in 2012 but after losing in 5 games to an extremely mediocre Nashville Predators team it became clear that wholesale changes were in order. The transformation of Detroit's roster this season has become one of the most covered story lines in this postseason so I won't repeat it here. It does bear mentioning however that despite all of this change, Howard has remained a virtual statistical metronome. His 2.13 GAA and .923 save percentage this year are virtually identical if not better than the numbers he produced backstopping veteran teams with multiple Hall of Fame defenders. While there's always a danger in reading too much into statistics Howard's play this year has also passed the eye test with flying colors. Playing behind the weakest Wing's d-man group I've seen in 15 years Howard has often been forced to come up with spectacular saves; often in rapid succession when his team fails to properly clear rebounds. If anyone outside of the Metro Detroit area noticed, they said nothing. The story headed into the playoffs was Detroit's desperate struggle to extend the playoff streak and the rise of Detroit's youngsters as the season progressed. If Jimmy Howard noticed, he said nothing.

When reporters ask teammates about Howard's contribution to the Red Wing's budding playoff run they speak glowingly of his calming influence, even keel and ability to shrug off goals to make that all important "next" stop. He has been called "the star of the team" by some of Detroit's biggest stars themselves and as the Anaheim series carried towards 7 games Howard proved himself worthy of those accolades.  Facing elimination in game 6 Howard held the Wings in the game with 34 big saves before absolutely suffocating the Ducks in the deciding match. By the time the whistle blew Howard had stopped 31 of 33 shots and openly left Anaheim shooters shaking their heads in disbelief as their season ran out onto the ice in front of them.  Finally the rest of the world was starting to accept what the Red Wings had been saying all season, the team will rise and fall in this year's playoffs on the back of Jimmy Howard. If he were of such a mind it might have been fair for Howard to say "I told you so" to a suddenly adoring media but as always Howard said little. Maybe he knew the Anaheim series was only an opening act; a minor homicide committed in preparation for the mass murder he was about to execute on the Chicago Blackhawks.

As I write this game 5 between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks is about to begin on the screen in front of me. While I won't go out and predict a Red Wings victory it's hard not to feel that Detroit will ultimately win this series. Part of that is the confidence that comes from a 3-1 series lead; simple odds state Detroit should advance at this point. Anyone who has watched the series however knows that the match record does not tell the whole story. Chicago has by and large outplayed Detroit and deserve to be in a better position than they are. What they haven't done however is solve the riddle of Jimmy Howard and now that they are staggered and gasping for air it's hard to envision a scenario where they eventually will. The Blackhawks are finished, hockey's equivalent to the Walking Dead. Jimmy Howard killed them all and my God has it been beautiful to watch folks.

Come on baby, don't fear the reaper.

- The Sportsball Chic

Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Finishing Off a Wounded Dragon...

Tonight at roughly 8PM; give or take the traditional epic 10 minute snooze fest that JLA pre-game introductions have become, the Detroit Red Wings will attempt to take a 3-1 lead over the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks in their Stanley Cup Playoff series. Unfortunately tomorrow morning marks the start of the biggest convention my company does all year so I'll be up packing boxes all night and won't be able to watch the game. To be perfectly honest with you, I'm not all that heartbroken about it because a life time of watching playoff hockey tells me the Wings will probably lose tonight. That doesn't mean they are going to lose the series mind you, I still feel like the match-up is anyone's to take. The defining moments in this series however will occur in game 5 and 6, not game 4 for a number of reasons that seem to be escaping Wings fans:

1) Chicago is really, really good.  At the start of the series Red Wings nation was rightfully afraid of the talent the Chicago Blackhawks brought to the table. We had just spent the better part of 20 years watching an offensively talented puck possession team roll 4 lines and rotate 3 defensive pairings and we understood exactly how dominant the Hawks could be. They were literally a modern reflection of the elite Red Wings teams we'd cheered in 2008 and 2009. Look folks, I could give a rat's ass about Chicago's streak but you don't go 36-7-5 by accident in the NHL. The Hawks are more talented than Detroit and more frighteningly they are deeper as well. This isn't to say the Hawks have every advantage in the series, so far Jimmy Howard has outplayed Corey Crawford in net by a slight margin and he has a better track record in the playoffs than Crawford as well. Additionally the Wings are getting an amazing push from their 3rd line which is working to minimize Chicago's advantage in depth; it's now 4 lines vs 3 lines and some checkers instead of 4-2 as most predicted before the season. Unfortunately the gap on the blue line remains massive; Kronwall has been a rock and Ericsson has been a revelation but Smith's play varies wildly from shift to shift and I'm still literally holding my breath every time Kindl or Quincey touch the ice. Meanwhile Chicago rolls out Keith, Seabrook, Hjamarsson, Oduya and Rozsisval for roughly 20 minutes each with little drop off or change in play. The fact that the Red Wings aren't suffering much in the face of this horrible mismatch is a testament to the coaching masterpiece Mike Babcock is working in these playoffs. Regardless, at least on paper the "better" team is behind 2-1 at the moment.

2) The Blackhawks are playing like crap right now.  As a Wings fan, this should be an old story by now: uber-talented team struggles to match the intensity of plucky low-seeded underdog early in the series. They fall behind early before waking up and blowing out the series in 2-3 straight games. Hell, I think the Red Wings patented that script against the Vancouver Canucks a few years back. Right now Chicago looks nervous, frustrated and some of the younger players may even be bordering on panic. You can see it every time the Hawks try to break out of their own zone: the d-man waits a second too long to move the puck and their forwards, particularly superstar Jonathan Toews are making too many moves at both blue lines. In some cases this is about players trying too hard to make a difference and playing Hero-hockey as a result and that's good for the Red Wings. Some of it however is simply a matter of positioning; for whatever reason the Hawks puck carrier in the neutral zone keeps getting trapped on one side of the ice while his line-mates linger on the other. The is allowing the Red Wings to cut the rink it half and prevents the Hawks from using their speed and slick passing game to attack a rather suspect Wings' defense. If I can see this you can certainly bet Joel Quennville can see it and I would expect the Hawks to make significant changes before tonight's game. They'll probably work to shorten their passes in the neutral zone and encourage one Winger to stay much closer to the puck carrier as they break out. This will force the Wings to make athletic rather than simple positioning plays to break up the rush and frankly the Wings aren't as good athletes as the Hawks are. Naturally the Wings will try to counter, probably by checking everything that moves towards the puck but they aren't built for physical dominance; yet. Detroit's current roster is a mix of older, smaller hold overs from the previous team philosophy and bigger more athletic youngsters (if you call 27 young, Red Wings spend forever in the minors) from more recent drafts. At this point the team is still more of the old guys than the new so Detroit is forced to play a primarily skill based game despite being a more physical team than the Hawks. Whether it's a matter of relaxing, positioning or simply playing up to their ability the Chicago Blackhaws can and probably will play better in this series than they have so far from here on out.

3) Passion, pride and the heart of a champion live in Chicago too.  While it's easy to look at the birth certificates of the players involved and give the intangibles (experience, heart, hockey IQ) edge to the Red Wings this would be a drastic overstatement. It's been 4 long years since Detroit lost a heartbreaking game 7 to Pittsburgh in the Cup finals and 3 years since Chicago hoisted it's first Cup in eons on the back of a team too talented to fail. Both rosters have undergone extensive changes but overall Chicago has more of it's Cup winning roster left than the Red Wings do. While overall I do think the Red Wings are slightly smarter and slightly tougher than Chicago the rest of the argument is pretty much a wash. Chicago is a proud team that has tasted recent success and knows how to deal with playoff pressure. If they have a weak link in that department it's goalie Corey Crawford; he was not the net-minder of record when the Blackhawks won the cup (that guy plays in SJ now) and his play in last season's playoffs is considered by many to be *the* reason Chicago was knocked out. That's a tremendous amount of pressure on one man but it's important to remember that there is *always* a tremendous amount of pressure on the starting goaltender of a legitimate Stanley Cup contending playoff team. Crawford has looked brilliant at times in this series and decidedly average at others; he's not a brilliant goaltender but he's athletic and so far he's made his best saves under considerable duress. Waiting for Crawford to crack doesn't seem like a reasonable option for the Red Wings because so far there's no evidence that he's going to. As a team, the Blackhawks have to know that their backs are up against the wall and when a champion is on the ropes he responds with a furious counter-attack. The first 10 minutes of tonight's game should be very interesting; I hope Jimmy Howard had his Wheaties this morning because the Blackhawks are likely going to feed him a lot of rubber early on.

4) Regression to the mean is a thing.  Just as Chicago's stellar play in the regular season is starting to look like a mirage the Red Wings themselves have undergone a seemingly rapid transformation. Gone is the inconsistent, skittish team that struggled to string together multiple victories in the regular season. They have been replaced by hardened playoff veterans who are seemingly always in the right place at the right time, two steps ahead of the mere mortals who play for the Blackhawks. Does anyone really think this narrative can continue? Yes a reasonable argument can be made that Detroit is simply a better team now then they were for much of the regular season. The new guys brought into the lineup took a while to get comfortable and veteran players like Zetterberg and Franzen always turn up their game in the playoffs. The problem is that simple experience doesn't explain the jump the Wings have made here; right now they look better than the team Detroit sent to the 1995 Stanley Cup finals. Can they really keep up this elite level of play? Another question that springs to mind immediately when thinking about this subject is: "just who the hell is Brendan Smith anyways?" Is he the big, skilled offensive d-man who makes 5 amazing plays a game? Or is he the bumbling fool who takes two stupid penalties a night to go with 1 or 2 spectacular giveaways? Can he possibly be both? As previously mentioned I have little faith in Kindl to maintain his current level of play and I think Quincey has been basically terrible but Babcock is doing a good job of hiding him. It's also fair to ask if the Red Wings aren't due for a "Jimmy Howard forgot it was the playoffs" game. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Red Wings goalie and I think he's playing at an elite level right now but historically Jimmy has at least one game per series where he lets in a couple of floaters and you wonder why the Red Wings pay him so much. I'd like to believe that phase of his career is over but old habits die hard and until he proves otherwise the fear will always lurk in the back of my mind. One player I do believe has truly "made the leap" for the Wings is Gustav Nyquist; this kid is simply a natural goal scorer with incredibly soft hands and after half a season in the NHL he's starting to figure out where the sweet spots around the net are. I don't say this often but Gustav is a joy to watch and gives me a tremendous amount of hope for the future of the Red Wings (assuming we lock him up long term: come on Kenny earn your paycheck!). I'm also not worried about Joakim Andersson or Damien Brunner; both players are operating within their abilities and while they aren't special every shift they aren't making huge mistakes that cost us goals either. I'm actually starting to wonder if Cleary is done as a professional hockey player; he's an amazing talent but injuries keep piling up and it's time to question if his body has anything left to give the Red Wings at this point.
In light of the above and with the general understanding that momentum in hockey doesn't really exist until someone is facing an elimination game, I'm going to predict a 4-3 Hawks win in overtime. I wish I could say this was a reverse jinx but truthfully nobody thought the Wings were going to win this series in 5 games before it started so it seems pretty ridiculous to assume so now. There are simply too many things Detroit needs to go right for them to win this game. Chicago has to remain tight, they need to fail to make adjustments, Detroit's youngster's have to keep playing out of their minds and Jimmy needs to stay elite for 60 minutes. The Chicago Blackhawks will expend every ounce of energy they have to avoid going home down 3-1 in the series and while I think the Red Wings will match their intensity the Hawks probably have enough to simply "take" this single game. I told anyone who would listen at the start of the series that if the Red Wings are going to win this they'll do it in 6-7 games and nothing I've seen so far gives me reason to doubt that prediction.

Naturally of course as a rabid Wings fan, I hope this above prediction is wrong. A 3-1 series lead would absolutely destroy the Blackhawks' psyche and Babcock is a good enough coach to get the better of Quennville once in 3 tries to advance. Did I just say advance? Now I'm starting to sound like every other Red Wings fan.

- The Sportsball Chic

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Goodbye You Magnificent Bastard

Brian Urlacher was a son of a bitch. He was also a bastard, a villain and a tyrant. His kingdom was the size of a postage stamp; hash mark to hash mark, from the line of scrimmage to about 20 yards up field. For a little while, that patch of turf was the most dangerous real estate in America to try and enter. These past 13 seasons, I have watched 3 full generations of Lions players attempt to invade Urlacher's kingdom and more often than not receive nothing but pain and punishment for their troubles. Brian Urlacher was Lucy to my beloved Lions' Charlie Brown; only if Lucy had dog-piled on top of Charlie Brown after he missed the ball, shoved some turf in his face and stole his lunch money before skipping away while calling out "whaat a pusssyyyy". It's fair to say that I hated Brian Urlacher in so much as anyone can really "hate" a professional athlete just because they beat the crap out of your hopelessly inept football team. In other words; to the very fiber of my being.

It certainly didn't help that Urlacher's breakout game as a Middle Linebacker came against the Lions; 9 tackles, a sack and an interception later the Lions had somehow won the game 21-14 but I knew this wouldn't be the last I'd heard of Urlacher. Over the next few years Urlacher would grow into one of the NFL's most dominant defensive players while my beloved Lions rotated through an endless parade of ultimately ineffective men at the "Mike" position. Even as his skills wanned with age he still found a way to relentlessly torment my team; always one step ahead of our coaches and quarterback. I loathed Brian Urlacher and I loathed the Bears simply for having him while my team did not.

Today, Brian Urlacher retired from professional football. The hows and whys of the situation aren't all that important to me; Urlacher's recent injury history and his general belief that he was worth more than the Free Agent market was currently willing to spare were both common public knowledge. What I do find interesting however is my reaction as both a sports fan and a self admitted hater of all things Brian Urlacher; I was sad. This wasn't just a passing feeling either; I spent all day in my office pretending to do work while I looked up his stats, highlight videos and press clippings. Before long I realized that I was desperately trying to grasp the greatness of Brian Urlacher one last time before he slipped into the obscurity of NFL history and the anonymity of everyday life. I watched the career of an immortal Lion slayer pass before my eyes in a single afternoon and when it was complete I stood in awe of the man.

Brian Urlacher was good; actually he was "really, really fucking good" to be precise. The numbers are eye popping: 1,353 Tackles, 41.5 Sacks, 91 passes defended, 22 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles  and 3 touchdowns speak to a career full of high-impact, game changing plays. His list of NFL awards is equally impressive: Defensive Rookie of the Year, 2005 Defensive Player of the Year,  8 Pro Bowls and more importantly 4 All-Pro selections as a middle linebacker. The amazing part of Urlacher's career however is that somehow all of these statistics and awards fail to tell the whole story of Brian Urlacher. No to truly understand Urlacher's greatness one has to subject Urlacher's play to the eye test and then examine it in the context of football history. Brian Urlacher wasn't just a great middle linebacker, he was a prototype hybrid from the future set loose on the NFL in the year 2000. Urlacher was certainly strong, but it's his speed, positioning and borderline supernatural ability to diagnose pass routes that helped change the way NFL defenses operated.

As a former college Monsterback (hybrid safety-linebacker), Urlacher came into the NFL blessed with significantly better coverage skills than you would expect from a linebacker. When combined with his prodigious athletic abilities this allowed Urlacher to become one of the most dangerous defensive players in the open field in NFL history. In my time as an NFL fan the only linebacker I can think of who could match or exceed Urlacher in this area is Derrick Brooks of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and I don't think it's a coincidence that they both operated as the lynchpin of highly successful Tampa 2 defensive units. Before Brooks and Urlacher, nobody was talking about a linebacker's coverage skills or his ability to "operate in space" but within a few short years of dominating opponents these guys changed all of that. Over the years since many teams have tried to emulate the success of this defensive scheme without a Derrick Brooks/Brian Urlacher type linebacker and have failed miserably; this is also not a coincidence in my opinion. Urlacher allowed the Bears to cheat on defense for years by covering twice as much ground as lesser athletes with ruthless efficiency and tactical brilliance. Most disturbingly of all; he made the whole damn thing look so easy, especially against my beleaguered Lions.

Many people will use today's announcement to take swipes at what Brian Urlacher wasn't. He wasn't the greatest linebacker in the history of the Bears; that honor goes to Mike Singletary assuming he agrees to keep his pants on while accepting the award. He wasn't the greatest pure Mike linebacker of his generation either; it's a close race but I have to give Ray Lewis that honor by the threads of a bloody white suit. While he was widely regarded as a team leader, he lacked the flamboyant overbearing personality of a Lawrence Taylor or a James Harrison. Whether or not that counts as a strike against Urlacher is pretty debatable; my midwestern values prefer the strong silent type of leader to a guy who's always talking on television personally. Finally some folks will choose to remind us that by the end of his career, he wasn't really "Brian Fucking Urlacher" anymore either and that's a reasonably fair point. I don't feel that Urlacher hung on to the game too long but there is no question that in the end, football had used up most of his athletic brilliance already. The naysayers have more than enough ammo to shoot holes in Urlacher's Hall of Fame worthiness but it says right here he won't have to wait more than an extra year to hear the call from Canton.

No, today I will not dance on the grave of Brian Urlacher's career. Today, I stand solemnly in awe and wonder as Urlacher says goodbye to the NFL and hello to the rest of his life. I find myself hoping the real world treats him well, that he has quality time to to spend with his kids and that he finally finds love after so many painful (and public) stumbles. The warrior has hung up his armor and it just wouldn't feel right to boo him as he walked out of the arena. Goodbye you magnificent bastard; you entered my world as the son of a bitch who always ruined my day and you leave it as one of Football's immortal gods. Jesus, did I just say that about a Bear?

-The Sportsball Chic

One Fandom Under a Digital Sky

To be completely honest with you, I don't know exactly when it started. As a child I remember there being a distinct social divide between nerds and sport. Jocks were stupid, but athletically talented and popular. Nerds were smart but physically meek and socially awkward. Of course this wasn't a rivalry so much as a one-sided thrashing; everyone secretly wanted to be the star athlete but nobody was lining up to be the socially awkward math genius with asthma. It was a war of brains versus brawn and in my youth it would have been virtually impossible for me to imagine "nerdy" sports fans or "brainy" football players. Frankly, I remember watching the movie Lucas in my parent's living room and becoming incredibly angry at the "unrealistic" ending. My mind recoiled at the idea that the football jocks would buy Lucas a Varsity jacket but had no problem accepting that they had tortured him daily earlier in the movie. It's easy to blame Hollywood but the truth is that our movies are simply an exaggerated reflection of the society that made them and nothing I'd experienced in my own short life really disagreed with these ideas. Jocks and nerds were mortal enemies; "it was known".

Sometime in my late-teens however, things started to change for the better and on multiple fronts. Part of it was definitely the explosion of both sports video games and cable sports programming. Games like Madden and NHL Hockey brought the world of sport to a traditionally "nerdy" market while 24 hour sports networks exposed the average jock to detailed technical analysis of the games themselves. Since you couldn't rightly post 24 hours worth of stale interviews when there were no actual games to show it became necessary to hire talking heads to fill the space in between matches. Studio executives are pretty smart people and it didn't take them long to figure out that nerdy guys in glasses talking about "advanced statistical metrics"  chewed through a lot of airtime. While the idea seems comical today the very first time I saw Mel Kiper Jr on television I actually burst out laughing because "ESPN hired a random stockbroker to narrate the draft".  This was only just the beginning. I had no idea that what I was really watching at that moment was the marriage of two powerful social forces that would change virtually everything about how we played, watched, broadcast and talked about sports; forever.

While putting nerds on TV to talk about sports was an important first step, it was by no means the most important change in our culture. No ladies and gentlemen, that would be the rise of the Internet as our primary source of both information and entertainment. Make no mistake folks, once you could look up Barry Sanders' yardage in week 2 of his 2000 yard season (it was 20 btw) the game changed. Now everyone was armed with both the knowledge to form an opinion and a convenient, inexpensive outlet to discuss that opinion in a public forum. Fans were no longer required to hang on the every word of stuffy old men repeating the information of dubious "insider sources" at preset times on our televisions. Sport media had gone global, grassroots and insatiable all at once; fans didn't experienced a sporting event so much as totally immersed themselves in the game. In 1985 the idea that you could get a better experience by staying home and watching the game on TV would have been ridiculous and yet today that's probably true; at least for most sports and most regular season games. When you move that broadcast to the internet it's really no contest; better angles, expert analysis, the ability to track statistical trends in real time and to even the ability talk about the game with random strangers as events unfold. Better still, hotdogs in your living room go for about 50 cents each and you never have to worry about some drunken lout challenging you to a fight in the parking lot to defend his team's honor.

Fast forward to 2013 and we find ourselves in a halcyon day for the sports information junkie. Stats are sexy, bloggers have become our sporting conscience and even our athletes are starting to realize that "it's hip to be square". The internet has blurred the lines between reporter and fan so much that the distinction is no longer necessary. Naturally sports media types who's salaries depend on an outdated model would disagree with me but one only has to visit a website like Grantland, Yardbarker or With Leather (my personal favorites) to realize the sea change coming over our collective obsession. We are all witnesses. We can't all be like Mike, but you don't need to be a retired ballplayer with 10 grand worth of dental work to have an opinion on sports. The union between nerd and jock is complete; we have all become simply fans.

In light of the above please allow me to welcome you to Sportsball Chic; a blog about sports written by a nerdy fangirl who just can't get enough sportsball action. As I am not a reporter the primary focus of this blog will be my reactions as a fan to the games I watch, the teams I follow and breaking sports news stories in general. In the wide world of internet sports entertainment there is always something interesting happening so something tells me I'm unlikely to run out of material. Over time I hope to make you laugh, cry, think and respond when I sit down to write here; unfortunately I need to learn how to write before any of that can happen. This is a tough gig folks and I'm not above begging for your pity to avoid being showered with digital rotten tomatoes. I have no writing schedule, no editor, no formal training and a deep-seated belief that the writings of Mark Twain and Hunter S Thompson border on divine. What more does a girl need?

- The Sportsball Chic