Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Very Superstitious - But Then Aren't We All?

Now that we can exhale and relax for a couple of days, lets talk about superstitions. I consider myself an educated man.  Heck, I even have a piece of paper from Saint Leo College (Harvard of the South) to prove it somewhat.  In the reasonable portion of my mind I know the actions of one man in Chicago have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of a hockey game in Tampa. Yet, still…..

I don’t have many rituals when it comes to sports.  Sure I wore the same Johnny Cash T-Shirt/Flannel combination every Sunday during the Ravens last Super Bowl Run.  And, yes, I am currently sporting a playoff beard that may or may not be a direct violation of the official dress code at my place of business. But I’m not totally obsessed with rituals and superstitions.  But….

….I probably won’t watch another Lightning game in real time.  You see, I’ve managed to watch a four games this playoff season in their entirety.  All four games have ended as Lightning losses. Think about that for a moment.  They’ve only lost five games between the two series they’ve played - and I’ve seen four of them.  So, unless they rack up a three games to none lead in the next series I’m not watching them.

Is it logical?  Nope, not even close.  I know my watching the game at a bar or online has absolutely no outcome on the result, but here we are.  Luckily, with my work schedule it won’t be hard to miss games (2nd Shift 4 Life!) and I do go back and watch them after the fact.  Well, after the 48 hour blackout window on, that is.

I can’t explain why I’m not watching the game.  Well, at least I can’t explain it to non-hockey fans. I haven’t told The Duchess yet, but I’m sure she’ll roll her eyes and chalk it up to another stupid sports thing.  One of my bellmen, who is Bosnian and not a big hockey fan, asked me why I was growing a beard. I told him and he rolled his eyes and blatantly said it was the stupidest thing he had every heard of.

Yet hockey fans understand. I’m not the only one at work who has sprouted whiskers over the last couple of weeks (yet I’m probably the only one doing it for the Lightning) and it’s actually started some conversations with guests who were checking in from Montreal.

One of the bartenders at work who is kind enough to put the game on TV so that I can catch glimpses from time to time admonished me for watching Game 5. Then, when I joked that I had switched my day off from Tuesday to Wednesday so that I wasn’t tempted to watch, he said it was the smartest thing I’ve done in a month.  (The real reason I switched was so that Link and I could go to a ballgame in Milwaukee, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story!)

It makes sense for players to have rituals or superstitions.  Eating chicken every day didn’t make Wade Boggs a better ballplayer.  It was, however, a ritual that relaxed him and made him feel more comfortable heading into the game. That feeling, not the act, made him a better ballplayer.

Avoiding the game isn’t something that I’ve always done.  I watched every game in the 2004 Stanley Cup run as well as every game in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals run. So it’s not like watching in the past has jinxed them. This is a 100% new superstition for 2015.

Some of the other things that I have done in the past have met with mixed results. Wearing the Lightning jersey on game day is a 50/50 split as they’ve won two games and lost two games.  Wearing the all blue combo (blue pinstripe suit/blue shirt and blue tie) at work got off to a hot start with three wins, but cooled off with two losses.  Which is good, because people were really wondering why I was wearing the same getup every other day.

The aforementioned beard has carried them to the second round. This is the first playoff beard since 2011, since last year I was a little paranoid about growing one in what was still a relatively new job.  Oh, and The Duchess really, really doesn’t like it.  The last time I had it, I let it go full homeless because, well, I was unemployed and could do things like that. Now as a responsible employee I do at least clip it from time to time. (I haven’t kept track of their record on days when I trim the beard…hmmm..maybe that’s the key)

So, if there is no rhyme or reason to these “superstitions” why do I and thousands of other people do it?  I’m not sure.  Mostly because it’s fun I guess.  Sports are supposed to be stupid and fun. They are distractions from everyday life so why not go all in and enjoy it a bit?

Apparently there are more intellectual explanations for superstitions.  In my five minute of prep work I stumbled across a couple of articles about the topic.  One of them discussed something called the uncertainty hypothesis. As defined by Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne in her article Why We’re So Superstitious,  it states “when people are unsure about an outcome, they try to find a way to control it”.

Now that makes sense.  We, as fans, do not have any influence whatsoever on the game. Unless of course we jump on the ice and take a baseball bat to the other team’s goalie.  And as humans, not being able to control something tends to make us nervous. So if we can find something to fixate on that  has worked in the past we latch on to it because it gives us comfort. If it happens again and again than it takes on even greater importance.

Important games are nerve wracking enough as they are. Especially hockey games.  So there is a benefit to having or doing something that brings comfort.  Even if it’s totally nonsensical. Heck, the more nonsensical, the more relaxing it might be.

Not watching the games has probably added years to my life.  While not seeing Steven Stamkos score a goal to double the lead left a little happiness out of my life, not watching the final five minutes (after Montreal had pulled within two goals) kept a lot of stress out of it.  By the time I click “refresh” the action has already happened. It’s in the past so I can’t worry about it.

Another thing that studies into sports fans and their superstitions revealed is that fans who strongly support teams tend to feel less lonely. When you see someone wearing the same jersey you are it almost always brings a smile to your face doesn’t it? Especially if you’re an out of town fan.

During the week of Game 6 and Game 7 against Detroit there seemed to be an overwhelming amount of Lightning fans in Chicago.  By overwhelming I mean three.  I saw the Lightning logo at least three times over those couple of days.  Now, I don’t know if I just kept seeing the same guy over and over again or if they were actually different people, but every time I saw it, I smiled. Not only that, it made me feel more confident about the Lightning’s chances.

Finding a sense of belonging in the world is important.  And if sporting a ragged, patchy beard or wearing a t-shirt riddled with holes helps me find that place, well, then it’s not quite that crazy after all.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Two Weeks - Two Fights - Two Stories

During the pre-fight circus of the Floyd Mayweather/ Manny Pacquiao match there was a moment, sometime after Jamie Fox’s free-style version of the American anthem and before Michael Buffer’s raspy/two-pack-a-day “Lets Get Read To Rumble” where Mayweather looked up to the sky. I don’t profess to know exactly what he was thinking, but he had the look of a man that had just pulled off the longest con in the world. He also looked like a man who, in 36 minutes, would get a check for $200 million.

The last two weeks of boxing have been pretty entertaining, if for entirely different reasons.  The mega-fight was all about the build-up. It was about the spectacle around the sport. Two adversaries finally meeting in the ring. Two fighters, who at one point, had been either the best or most exciting in the sport would finally meet head-to-head.  Of course it was going to be over hyped.

There was only one chance for the fight to live up to the madness.  And that was for Pacquiao to dial the clock back to the days when he was a relentless, overwhelming, barrage of combinations and knock-outs. In the fourth round there was a moment when I knew it wasn't going to happen.

Pacquiao landed a clean left, backing Mayweather up on the ropes. Manny unleashed a small flurry of punches, some landing, most blocked.  Then....he stepped back.  Was it the smart move? Was Floyd playing possum hoping to catch Pac-Man with a counter shot?  Maybe.  But, the Manny Pacquiao of old would never have worried about that. He would have kept throwing until something landed, consequences be damned.

Whether it was the shoulder or, the fact that some of that fearlessness was forever destroyed by Juan Manual Marquez’s December 2012 counterpunch, it was not to be.  Manny landed a few punches, stirred up the crowd a handful of times, but seemed content to chase Mayweather around the ring.

So it was with much amusement to listen to the casual sports fan bitch and moan about Money Mayweather and his “dancing” and “hugging” his way to an ugly victory.  Or the “I can’t believe I paid $100 for that” tweets and comments. What else did you honestly think was going to happen?  Did you really think that Floyd would engage and stand toe-to-toe with Manny in the middle of the ring?  Hell no.

There was a time when Floyd used his skills for offense. If a fighter was there to be hit, he hit him. Try and tell Ricky Hatton that all Mayweather did was run around the ring, I think you’ll get a different story.  As he’s aged though, Pretty Boy realized he could win fights without having to get into wars.  He could throw enough punches to win a round and then use his skill to evade any real damage.

I sent a text to someone during the fight saying something along the lines of “Floyd is a better boxer in slow motion”.  In real time, some of his counter right hands didn’t look like they were doing much damage, but when HBO-time slowed down the highlights between the rounds you could see they were landing flush.  While he may not have the show stopping power of Gennedy Golovkin, he still hits hard enough to make these “active” fighters think twice about barging in with abandon.

Floyd’s greatest skill of all, is making the boxing fan care.  He’s fought the same fight enough time that we should know better, but we still watch.  He doesn’t care if we watch to see him win or to see him get knocked out. As long we fork over the money and he gets a check cut he doesn’t care.

On the other hand, James Kirkland’s greatest skill is not caring about getting punched in the face.  If there was ever a polar opposite to Mayweather’s slickness in the ring, it’s Kirkland’s fierce determination to walk forward and throw a lot of punches. Thirty-two times that strategy has worked.  Unfortunately on Saturday night, it was a recipe for disaster against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.

For a little while it looked like it might work.  And by little while I mean a minute or so.  Kirkland, The Mandingo Warrior” waded through a couple of big shots from Alvarez and crowded the big Mexican with some power shots of his own.  Unfortunately he wasn’t able to maintain that space and midway through the first round Alvarez landed a straight right that glazed Kirkland’s eyes and sent him stumbling to the canvas.

Kirkland was able to clear his head and got back up in plenty of time to beat the count.  He tried to keep pace with the red-haired Mexican’s flurry of power shots. The Texan survived the second round on his feet, but chances of an upset were fading as it became apparent that even the biggest shots weren‘t hurting Alvarez.  Landing just about every punch he threw, Canelo kept up a steady mix of hooks to the body and straight power shots to the head.  Still Kirkland came forward trying to smother the shots while landing an occasional blow himself.

Two and a half minutes into the third it was over.  Alvarez scored his first knock down with a huge right uppercut that landed flush on Kirkland’s jaw and dropped him.  Once again the warrior pulled himself up, but the end was near. He soon found himself against the ropes with his hands down. As Canelo pawed at his chest with a straight left, Kirkland started a left hook from his hip, but Alvarez’s right was quicker.  He hit Kirkland so flush it looked like his jaw was separated from his head.  Kirkland was out on his feet, that left hook he started still tracing it’s lazy arc through the air as his body crashed to the floor.

The ref stopped the fight before Kirkland started to move. Not that it would have mattered.  The Mandingo Warrior said something about being disappointed that the ref had ended the fight, but he should be sending him a thank-you gift. Even if he had somehow beat the 10 -count (it was at least 30 seconds before we knew he wasn‘t dead), it wasn’t like he was going to change his strategy enough to keep from being knocked down again.  Jon Schorle probably saved Kirkland a few years of dementia by stopping the fight when he did.

There has been a lot of electronic ink spilled about Kirkland dropping his long-time trainer Ann Wollfe. After this is the second time he’s fought without her and both times have ended with him getting knocked down several times.  While he is obviously a better fighter with her in the corner, he should also invest in someone who teaches him how to block a punch from time to time.

So, you want to be a boxer?  Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

If the Mayweather fight was the “Sweet Science” than the Canelo fight was the “of bruising” portion of Pierce Egan’s quote on boxing.  The brutal knockout kept him online for a match-up against Miguel Cotto and then a potential mega fight against Golovkin.

It was a nice refreshing palate cleanser to all of the negativity generated by Mayweather/Pacquiao and proof that boxing, despite reports of it’s imminent demise,  isn’t quite dead yet. Yes, the debacle two weeks ago didn’t do anything to win new fans, but boxing has been through this before.

There is always going to be another great fighter waiting in the ring.  Alvarez is proving that he’s not just a product of the Mexican hype-machine, but actually a bruising boxer who really will fight anyone at anytime. Golovkin (who fights May 16th) is probably the most exciting fighter to watch and maybe, someday someone of skill will want to step into the ring with him.

Will either one of them have the cross-over appeal that Pacquiao and Mayweather had? Will they break PPV records? Probably not.  But they are worth watching, and somewhere in a gym somewhere around the world the next Mayweather is lacing up the gloves.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Actual Game Three Preview

Jon Cooper says that the Lightning need to be a desperate team. Who am I to argue with him, after all, he's a layer. It might seem odd that he says that seeing how the Lightning are coming off a dominant 6-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens and lead their best-of-seven series two games to none.  With the Lightning returning to Tampa, and given their dominance over the season at Amalie Arena, you would think that desperation is the last thing the Lightning should be feeling.

Yet, this isn’t just playoff coach speak.  Coach Cooper is dead on with his assessment.  On Wednesday night, the Lightning need to be the team that plays as if their season is on the line. They need to be the team winning the battles along the boards and in front of the net. Because all it takes is one. One win and the Canadiens, with their all-world goalie, are right back in this series.

Don’t expect the Lightning to slip six goals past Carey Price in a game again. As a matter of fact, it might be hard for them to score six times the rest of the series.  He is good, he is elite-level good. And while he might have the same number of Stanley Cups as Ben Bishop (zero) he is the one player that can steal the series for the Canadiens. So they need to keep the pressure on him, keep shooting at all angles and attacking the net for rebounds.

Steven Stamkos, with his first goal since dinosaurs roamed the earth, is primed to go on a scoring binge.  Tyler Johnson, held goalless in Game 2, is hopefully over his slump and will keep #ThatLine going (tangent alert: I guess their nickname is officially The Triplets since that’s how the Tampa Bay Times, the paper of record, refers to them.  That’s a shame, I really like The TKO Line. But then again I’m a boxing fan so it holds a special spot in my heart.  Oh, the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight?  Did you really expect anything different?  Mayweather wasn’t going to engage and the Pac-Man is gun-shy.  There I said it.  For all the past excitement he provided us, he is now a shot fighter. Time for him to hang them up and focus full time on his legacy as a congressman in the Philippines.  Thanks for the memories Manny, now go do good).

It would be reassuring if the Lightning could keep the offense rolling (and the power play), but this is playoff hockey and the likelihood of that happening is about as good as me actually editing this article before I post it.  Now that their blueline is as healthy as it has been at any point in the season, they don’t need to score 4 goals a game to win. Two or three should do the job.

The Canadiens will be throwing everything they have at the Lightning in Game 3. Expect there to be a lot of traffic in front of, and inside of, Bishop’s crease.  Brandon Prust will probably “accidentally” run into him again. The Lightning need to keep their cool and then make them pay on the power play.

One of the reason’s the Red Wings kept up with their hooking, holding, obstructing style of play is that because when the refs did call a penalty, the Lightning couldn’t score a goal with the extra man so there was no incentive to not cheat. A 4-for-8 power play outburst should boost the Lightning’s special team confidence and if they score a goal early with the extra skater it might tamp down the Canadiens’ excesses.

Scoring early would also be a pretty nifty thing for Tampa Bay to do.  As maligned a fan base as they are, Tampa fans are really, really loud when they’re fired up. With the screaming, yelling, soccer-style chanting (traditional fans, please just let them have their fun. It’s nice that a section of the fan base wants to do something other than sit on the ass and check their Facebook during the game. Even if you don’t like soccer, it’s no need to bash people who want to bring energy to the game.  Now if they start lighting flares off in the arena, well then it’s time to back it down a bit) noise in the background it will be even harder for Montreal to gain momentum.

Plus, as I’ve pointed out, a lot of the Lightning offense comes from turnovers in the neutral zone.  So if the Canadiens are down early and pressing, they will be more likely to take chances and then screw up those chances. Tampa is great at taking advantage of screw-ups.

Another reason it would be swell for the Lightning to attack early? Thanks to a now-cancelled Nitro Circus event, Games 3 and 4 are scheduled to be played on back-to-back nights.  If the Lightning win Game 3, there is no time for the Canadiens to regroup and figure out a new strategy. They have to come right back on the next night and fight for their playoff lives.

On the flip side, if the Canadiens win Game 3, they have a bit of momentum and could steal Game 4 and before you know it - the series is tied at two games a piece and heading back to Montreal.  We really don’t want to see that happen.  So, Tampa Bay - keep your foot on their throats and don’t let them up.  Get this series over quickly and watch the Caps/Rangers beat each other up for the next week.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Round One Review - Round Two Preview. Back with more baseless predictions!

It’s May. The sun is out, the rent is paid and the Tampa Bay Lightning are still playing hockey.  What a beautiful thing it is. Having survived the seven-game slogfest with the Red Wings, the Lightning advance to face the Montreal Carey Prices Canadiens. Price has had an unbelievable season. The only thing he hasn’t done yet for the team is learn how to score goals.

I’m a sucker for the easy narrative and this series is all about revenge. Last year the Canadiens unceremoniously swept the Lightning out of the first round by shutting down their scoring and taking advantage of the Anders Lindback-sized hole in the Tampa net.  Now, after battling for first place in the Atlantic Division all season long the two teams match up for the right to go to the Eastern Conference finals.

Before we get to that, let’s reflect back on the series the Lightning just finished. And by that, I mean let’s look at how my predictions turned out.

Lightning win in six games - I was close! It took the full seven, but the Bolts prevailed.

Top Goal Scorer - Stamkos - Umm, yeah, about that.  Not so good.

Top Point Getter - Tyler Johnson - Winner, Winner!

Number of OT Games - 2 -I was off on this as there was only one.  Although it looked like Game 7 was going to OT

Most Penalty Minutes - Mark Barbario - Sadly he did not get a chance to compete. Stamkos with 14 is the surprise winner.

Dumbest Penalty - Nikita Kucherov - Let’s not talk about penalties in this series

Odd Man Rushes for Detroit -6 - I watched about 10% of this series and saw at least 3 odd man attacks for the Red Wings so I’m going to say I was off on this one.

Goals off Odd Man Rushes - 2 - I saw at least one.  I think I saw a highlight of another so I’ll say I nailed this one.

I also mentioned that five on five play was going to be more important than special team play. Penalties normally called in the regular season tend to go unnoticed during the playoffs. Well, that wasn’t exactly how it turned out. Lightning fans complained that not enough calls were being made as the Red Wings, hooked, held, obstructed, and interfered with the intrepid purveyors of hockey’s Beautiful Game. However, on the occasion that the refs remembered they had whistles and that they could use them, the Lightning’s power play was largely impotent.   They scored twice, as a team, in other words 2 fewer than Tom Wilson scored all by his lonesome for the Predators.

So, that wasn’t great. Luckily for the Lightning they were only third worst in power play percentage. The team that was behind them?  The Montreal Canadiens.  So I don’t expect much to happen in the special teams area in round two (ed note - bet the over on power play goals).

It was one of the odder series I watched. Every time the Lightning lost I felt like there was no way they would pull the series out. Yet when Tampa won I thought they broke the will of the Red Wings and would waltz away with the series. There were times that the Lightning totally dominated the ice and then times when they couldn’t get the puck out of the zone even if they were allowed to pick it up and throw it out.

How did they pull out the series win?  By out-Detroiting Detroit. They changed their game enough to adapt to the Red Wings clogging of the passing lanes and aggressive checking. They stopped trying to make pretty goals and just threw the puck at the net.  If you notice (and every Red Wing fan noticed) on Brayden Coburn’s series winning goal, Alex Killorn is treating Kyle Quincy as a human bean bag chair.  Alex was a little tired chasing after the puck so he had himself a little rest on top of Quincy which prevented the former Lightning property from getting in front of the net to block Coburn’s butterfly slapshot.

Illegal, sure. Fortunate? Also sure.  We take what we get from the refs. If they’re going to ignore Kronwall bouncing Kucherov’s head off his shoulder why should I be embarrassed that they let a little interference go on the most important goal of the series? The Lightning adapted and they won.

Oh, and having Kronwall and Zidlicky miss Game 7 helped.

The Hopeful Chase Three Stars of the Series:

3. Ben Bishop - his stats overall, pretty ordinary. But a 36-save Game 7 shutout earns you a star.

2. Alex Killorn - Two goals and two assists were nice, but his energy level and physical presence were a big factor in the Lightning pulling out Games 6 and 7

1. Tyler Johnson - No doubt that this kid is Good At Hockey. With Stamkos struggling to find the net, the littlest man on the ice played the biggest games of his career. Johnson scored six of the team’s seventeen goals.

So what do the Lightning have to do to avenge their loss from last season and advance past the Canadiens?  Pretty much more of the same.  The ice should open up a bit more, but they can’t get sucked into trying to score tiki-taka type goals.  Get the puck on Price, crash the net and put home the rebounds.  Of course, try not to even come within six inches of the goalie, because he may Rule 69.3 ya!

Stamkos has to score.  The beauty of the Lightning attack is that everyone can threaten to put the puck in the net.  When Stamkos (and his linemates) disappear, now the balance is lost. He hasn’t scored a playoff goal since Game 1 of last season’s match-up. While he’s tried to chip in physically he needs to be a threat.

I’m not sure how he breaks out of his slump other than shooting the puck more. Maybe Coach Cooper bumps him to a line with a playmaker like Valterri Filppula? Ryan Callahan and Killorn are great line mates for crashing the net and grabbing rebounds, but they aren’t exactly noted playmakers.

Speaking of playmakers.  Are we going to see a renewed use of the #FreeDrouin hash tag? The rookie only appeared in one game and with the offense sputtering there was talk that he should be seeing some ice time instead of Brandon Morrow.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that, although in his one appearance, Drouin wasn’t exactly a factor on the ice (one shot, one penalty and a -2).

It will be interesting to see how the series works out with a pretty much healthy Lightning line up going against a rested Canadiens team. Will Bishop be the difference?  I think so, and the Lightning win in another seven-game thriller.

Prediction Time:

Does Stamkos score a goal?  - Yes, he breaks the slump with an empty-netter at the end of Game 2

Does Jo Drouin play? - Yes. He suits up for 2 games

Does PK Subban do something that pisses off the national media? - No. Other than score a couple of highlight reel goals.

Does either team break double digits on the power play? Nope. They both still suck.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Lightning Survive Game 7 and So Did I

In keeping with the rest of this series this far, I did not watch much of Game 7 versus the Detroit Red Wings. In fact I only saw about 2 minutes at the end of period 2. Enough time to get a weird look from a guest when a groan escaped from my lips after Victor Hedman bounced a wide open shot off of the lucky horseshoe that Petr Mrazek had stuffed in his pads for this series. Truthfully, for my health, it was probably best that I didn’t have the chance to watch the game.

Game 7s are not enjoyable when your team is involved. I don’t care what anybody says. There is no “relax and have fun”. Every play is embodied with extra importance. Each shift adds a tiny little ball of stress. The only time you can relax is when the game is over. Even if your team jumps out to a three goal lead early you spend the rest of the game worrying that they will blow it. You find yourself yelling things like, “Get it out of the %$*& zone!” at the TV while your wife looks at you and questions her decision to marry you.

As I texted to a Superstar Sean last night - Game 7s take at least 4 years off of your life (still healthier than cigarettes!) So when I knew I had to work Wednesday night I wasn’t 100% bummed out.  More like 95%. Because, despite the previous two paragraphs, it is always better to have watched the game and died sooner than not to have watched it all.  I followed along by frantically refreshing in between questions about local bars and where the closest bathroom is located (into the carpeted area and left of the bar).  I found three excuses to go over to the bar (hence the two minutes of TV time) and had a couple of friends shoot me texts to keep me up to date.

There was a small whoop (maybe more like a yelp) of joy when the screen changed to “3:58 Braydon Coburn (1) ASST: Ryan Callahan (3), Alex Killorn (2)”. Which led to some explaining to the guests standing in line to check in.  After a few more tense moments I finally relaxed when Scotty sent me a congratulatory text. So all in all not a bad way to experience it.  Just think Lightning fans - only three more rounds to go (if we’re lucky)!

So how do the Lightning’s Game 7s rank in order of stress?  Let’s go to the list from most stressful to least.

1. June 7, 2004 - Game 7 Stanley Cup Finals against Calgary.  I think this is the easy winner for all Lightning fans. After the unbelievable double-overtime Game 6 the stress level was a 100 out of 100. We had survived the gut-wrenching double-overtime Game 6 so there was no way the Lightning would blow it on home ice in Game 7, right?  Believe it or not I turned down a ticket to go to the game. Mostly because I was poor, but also because I knew there was no way I could handle being around other people with that much stress. Regrets, sure I’ve had a few.

I watched it alone in my condo. I actually paced back and forth in front of the TV. I’m sure there was a beer on my coffee table, but I don’t think I drank it. I shrieked like a girl when Ruslan Fedotenko scored (both times). I dropped to my knees and raised my arms in the air when the clock ran out on the final frantic seconds. Yes I geeked out big time. All things I couldn’t do in public. I might have even yelled out a few Larry Hirsch-esque “Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”

Happiest sports day of my life. photo from Associated Press

One of the highlights of the night - about 30 minutes after the game ended, a slightly less-than-sober Hamel (my buddy who went to the game) called me to announce that he was celebrating the win with former Lightning goalie Darren Puppa (PUUUUUU-PPPPAAHHH). I congratulated the slightly embarrassed goaltender before the phone disconnected. Perfect ending to the night.

2. May 27, 2011 - Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. This one clocks in at a nice 75 out of 100. After all, no one expected the Lightning to be there. They were playing with house money at the time. It would have been lower on the stress level if not for off the ice factors.

I wasn’t in the best place in life at the time. Unemployed, living week to week in Chicago, and completely at a loss with what to do with my life. Luckily I was also living  with an extremely patient girlfriend.  I met some friends and watched it at a bar downtown.  Of the Game 7s this is the only one the Lightning have lost. I might have wandered the streets wondering why I followed sports if this was going to be the payoff.

Highlight - Stamkos coming out onto the ice with the cage covering a broken nose he suffered earlier in the game. At that point the young center started his journey to being the leader of the franchise. Now if he could just find his scoring touch again.

Broken nose, broken leg - Boston has not been kind to Stammer. 

3. April 27, 2011 - Game 7 First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I put this at a solid 70 out of 100.  Much like the game against the Bruins, the Lightning weren’t even supposed to be here. They were a surprise to make the playoffs, they were playing the mighty Penguins (granted the Penguins didn’t have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the lineup) and the Pens had, at one point, a commanding 3-1 series lead.

The Lightning should have been done after losing in double-overtime on a fluky James Neal goal in game four. Instead they absolutely shellacked the Penguins in Game 5 and then tied the series in game 6 when Steve Downie (current Penguin!) and Ryan Malone (former Penguin!) scored third period goals.

This was not a fun game for the Lightning. This was one of those “4 years off your life” Game 7s. Dwayne Roloson stopped 36 shots for the playoffs and Sean Bergenheim scored the only goal.  This was also the series that made Sean Bergenheim a very rich man.

I think Link had the exact opposite reaction to this goal than I did.

Honestly, I always forget that this series went to a Game 7, I thought the Lightning beat them in 6. It was such a weird series, maybe one day I’ll do a deep dive into it.

4. Wednesday Night’s game. - A decided 50 out 100 in the stress category. First because I couldn’t watch it and second because I convinced myself that the Lightning couldn’t overcome the trapping/interfering/borderline cheating style that the Red Wings were playing. So I went in with pretty low expectations.

5.  May  22, 2004 - Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. Stress on this one was a 5 out of 100.  I know, you’re shocked. A Game 7 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history? A moment to validate all of those horrendous games I went to where I had to convince myself that Sergei Gusev was a legitimate solution on the blueline. A chance to crush the dreams of Flyers fans, those hated, almost-rivals who always seemed to beat the Lightning?

To this day I’ve only seen about 5 minutes of this game. And that’s the last five minutes. Yet I have no desire to go back and watch the game. In fact, of all of the games the Lightning have played this is the one that means the absolute least.  Because this was the day that I had my first (unofficial) date with The Duchess.

After many, many months of talking we finally had decided to do something together without anyone else involved. Casablanca was playing at the Tampa Theater and we decided to catch it together, but not as a date, date. Just a couple of friends hanging out together - at least that’s what we told ourselves.  She was nice enough to call me early in the day and ask if I wanted to re-schedule because of the hockey game. Not being a fool I said no it would be fine.

So we went to the movie. After it was over we popped into The Hub where their one TV was showing the game. I ordered a way too strong drink and we watched the Lightning dispatch the Flyers amidst the riff-raff that fills a dive bar like The Hub on a Sunday afternoon.

Luckily for our relationship, The Duchess was out of town for the actual Stanley Cup finals.

So the Lightning move on and will try to vanquish the Canadians.  Remember those guys? The ones that punked them last season by sweeping them out of the first round? Will this series go to a game 7?  Maybe. If it does, I might have to call in sick for that one.

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Quick Post on The Plight of The Second Shift Hockey Fan

This is not going to be a stat-driven,deep-dive review of the series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings.  As much as I would love to say that I’ve watched every minute of every game, I can’t.  As a matter of fact, with the exception of Game 3 and a period and a ½ of Game 2, all I’ve seen are highlights and quick recaps.  I have one of the greatest jobs in the world, but the hours aren’t conducive to playoff hockey.

That being said, I have been following the series as best as I can from a 1,000 miles away and without TV access during the games. However, I do feel a bit of a disconnect with other fans.  And, quite frankly, it sucks.  I watched Game 3 at Hattricks in Tampa and for the first time in a year remembered what it was like to watch a game with fellow fans. The Stanley Cup run of 2004 (normal working hours) and the Eastern Conference run of 2011 (unemployed) are the top two sports moments of my life.  Despite their struggles early on, this team has a bit of that feel to it and it pisses me off that I can’t enjoy it real time.

Standing at a computer and hitting refresh every five minutes on ESPN’s score page is no way to watch a playoff hockey game. Neither is coming up with excuses to wander by the bar every 10 minutes to watch 30 seconds of action.

Granted, on a list of life’s burdens this ranks somewhere between Southwest’s internet not working and a FitBit not syncing with an iPhone (two real-life complaints I’ve heard in the last week) so this entire post should be taken with the correct amount perspective. But fellow sports fans, I’m sure you feel my pain.

Yet, even though the information provided is stripped down minimum, I still get caught up with the ebbs and flows of the action.  I hit refresh and it’s 0-0 with 10 minutes to go in the first and I feel confident. I hit refresh and it’s 1-0 Bad Guys in the second and I’m worried. One more refresh and it’s 2-0 Bad Guys and a sense of despondency sets in.  After dealing with a minor crisis I hit refresh and it’s still 2-0 with 10 minutes to go in the game and anger sets in. How could this team blow it like this. They’re getting punked by a goalie who’s not even good enough to have the right amount of vowels in his last name.

So I’m a little bitter at this point and the beginnings of a horrible, not so nice post are starting to spin around in my brain while I’m working (I’m putting labels on things so not much brain power is being directed to actual work operations). I’m ready to take Ben Bishop to task, Steven Stamkos to task, Coach Cooper - in short everybody is getting blamed for this debacle.

I'm not saying it's ALL your fault, Steven, but can we see you celebrate at least one goal this series?

Then I hit refresh. It’s now 2-1 Bad Guys.  Tyler Johnson, that undrafted, unwanted dynamo of scoring has breathed life into the game. What’s that? Is that a little bit of hope growing in my brain? I spy a dirty glass in the lobby. Why surely that must be returned to the bar from whence it came post-haste. I cannot have it sullying my pristine lobby for even a moment.  Why lucky me they have the Lightning game on and they are showing a replay of a Lightning goal.

But that’s not Tyler Johnson raising his hands in celebration it’s his partner in crime Ondrej Palat.  Could it be? No…YES! The Lightning have tied the ballgame up and we’re going to overtime.  With an inappropriate woo-hoo I head back to my desk to refresh away. After about 26 refreshes I get the good news: Tyler Johnson, That Magnificent Bastard, scored in overtime to tie the series, excite fan base and swing the momentum to the home ice bound Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Why Tyler Johnnie! You Mad Cap!" #BadPhotoShop #GreatMovie

Remember all that bad stuff I was going to write? Flush that down the toilet. A new narrative is to be written. The plucky favorites overcoming a hot goaltender and suffocating defense (and horrible special teams) to grasp victory from defeat and disgrace.

I return to my labeling with a renewed hope for the series and the realization that I will be able to watch Game 5 in it’s entirety (something that I have not clued the Duchess in on yet) with a sense of hope not despair.  The Wings will be reeling with the knowledge that they let the series slip through their fingers while the Lightning know that they played their worst game but survived.  Who knows maybe a magical, fire breathing unicorn will assist on a Steven Stamkos power play goal in Game 5!

Would I have liked to watch it live? Of course. Would I have woken the Duchess and the cats up with a wild, barbaric yelp of joy? You Betcha!  Would I have recorded myself watching the game so that I could send it in to in hopes that they would post #MyPlayoffMoments?  Hell no. However, I will take the win, no matter how I found out about it.

We live in an amazing  age of technology. Thirty years ago I would have waited for the news or a score break during the baseball game to find out who won. Heck, living in Chicago I probably wouldn’t even be a Lightning fan.  So I shouldn’t complain that I have to wait a day or so to actually watch the game, after all my life choices landed me in Chicago. But still…if you’re reading this boss man, could you maybe take a look at the upcoming NHL schedule before creating MY work schedule. You know, maybe a couple of early days when the Lightning play?  That would be cool.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Happens When A Blogger Gets Stuck in Traffic Near a Ballpark

On Monday night I found my self stuck in traffic on US-19 in my old stomping grounds of Clearwater, FL.  I noticed that the lights were on at the stadium where the Clearwater Threshers, the Single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Philllies, play.  So instead of hanging a left back to Tampa and sitting in more traffic, I hung a right and pulled into the parking lot.

It had been a cloudy, rainy day in Tampa (which is doing nothing for my tan) so it wasn’t a 100% lock that the game would be played. Things were clearing up, but just to be safe I splurged for the highest end ticket that promised me a little bit of an overhang and, thus, protection from any rain.  The cost for the ticket - $13.  Gotta love minor league ball.

The ticket was $3.00 more than normal because I opted in for the “Feeding Frenzy” upgrade. All you can eat burgers, hot dogs, fries, pizza, peanuts and popcorn.  My friends, this is why America is the greatest country in the world.

I was planning on live-tweeting the game, just because I was alone and felt like being annoying. Unfortunately, my phone chose not to cooperate and ran out of battery life just after I snapped one photo of the ballpark.

You can see the photos of the other stuff I did on Instagram @TorchRamrod

Lucky for you, my loyal readers (Mom, Dad hope things are well for you) I did jot down my thoughts and will now present them to you, along with some extra information I’ve looked up since them.  So instead of a live-Tweet I give you a Twitter Reenactment of my thoughts during the Clearwater Thresher/ Tampa Yankees baseball game:

 - Pre-game music is a mix of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The Threshers audio guy is really catering to his demographic.

- If there are 500 people here I would be surprised. Pretty sure everyone gets a foul ball tonight.

- The Threshers lead-off hitter is Drew Stankiewicz. There is no way in hell he’s not related to former Yankee Andy Stankiewicz. (He is Andy’s son.  I now feel extremely old).

- Not to be outdone, the Yankees are starting someone named Rookie Davis. That sounds like a name the computer generates five seasons into dynasty mode on Maddon 2013.

- Speaking of Yankees, the kid in front of me has a Yankees T-Shirt and thick gold chain. They had to have come as a set, right?

- All you can eat night at the ballpark isn’t quite the value when you’ve given up meat for a year.  I guess I’ll take the peanuts…all of the peanuts.

- It’s Bingo Night at the Ballpark. Every time a Thresher comes up to hit they flash a bingo ball on the screen. If you get bingo then you win free bingo cards at some bingo parlor (1/3)

- The balls are white with yellow writing…shown on a pale yellow background. Not a great set up, guys. Which leads to… (2.3)

- the lady three seats down constantly asking which number it is.  “Is that a 53 or 56? Harold, I can’t see it”. For four innings the same thing EVERY AT BAT! Harold is either deaf or a saint.

- Rookie Davis (the Single-A rookie) is hitting 95 on the gun. Smooth wind-up. He’s officially my Michael Taylor Single A guy who looks like he’s going to be a good major league player but won’t.

- None of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects are at this game. None of his top 10 prospects for either organization are at this game. Ten years from now Justin won’t be able to say, “I saw that kid before he was a star”

- Threshers starter David Whitehead gets into some trouble in the second allowing to hitters to reach with no outs. He promptly strikes out the side. The Yankees have three hitters that have struck out a third of their at-bats so far on the season. Two of them struck out this inning.

- Whitehead is a sinker-baller who tops out at 91mph. If he gets it down he’s effective. If he leaves it up, not so much.  Some loud foul balls so far.

- Wind is gusting in from right. No balls leaving the yard in that direction tonight.

- Devin Lohman jaws at the home plate umpire after getting called out on strikes. When you’re hitting .179 in the A League you don’t get to criticize the umpire, kid.

- Do players still call umpires “Blue” now that the umps are wearing black shirts on a regular basis?

- Davis is mixing an 82 mph overhand curve with his fastball.  The Threshers look a little overmatched.

- Thresher’s Mitch Walding’s walk-up music is “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue. That song was released in 1985. Walding was born in 1992.

- I recognize exactly zero other walk-up songs.

- Hey Rob Ducey is on the Threshers coaching staff! I remember him.

- First run scored by the Yankees when the Thresher’s catcher airmails a throw to 3rd on a stolen base attempt.  Hey I’ve done that before!

- Yankee’s 4th run scores when a wild pitch gets past the Threshers’ catcher. Not having the best night, because he’s also getting the hell beat out of him with pitches in the dirt.

- The wheels have officially come off for Threshers in the 6th. They give up 4 runs and are now down 8-0. The inning could have ended early if the 3rd baseman hadn’t whiffed on a potential double play ground ball.

- I think that foul ball just hit my rental car.

- Props to the sound guy for mixing up the foul ball sound effects.  A SPROING noise for balls bouncing off the net, crashing sound for balls off the fa├žade and a screeching tire for balls hit into the parking lot.

- Davis has given up 4 hits through 5 2/3 innings pitched and struck out 7. Three of those hits are from Willans Astudillo.  Promote that kid.

- Davis’ night is done in the sixth. He leaves with two outs, runners at the corners, up 8-0 and the next three hitters are a combined 0-7 with three strikeouts against him.  Hey coach maybe leave him in to see if he can close out the inning.

- Chad Taylor, his replacement, closes out the inning with a fly ball out to centerfield.

- 7th inning! Where did the pitch speed go?  And where are the sound effects?  I bet the same guy runs both and he’s on a bathroom break.

- and now it’s 12-0 Yankees.  Not a great day for the Threshers’ pitching staff. Or their defense.  Or their hitters.

- Kind of a hard luck inning for reliever Lino Martinez. An error by the 3rd baseman and a passed ball hurt him. He makes a great 2 strike pitch to Matt Snyder and Snyder cue balls it down the third base line for a double and 2 RBIs.

- The home team is losing 12-0 and there is a fan with a Cubs shirt on. It’s like I’m back in Wrigley!

My back started to get sore and I had enough peanuts to feed an elephant army so I decided to call it a night. According to the paper the Threshers did not mount a historic comeback and lost 12-1.  So I don’t really feel bad for leaving. Plus I got to listen to the Penguins lose Game 3 on the ride home!