Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sowell

Thomas Sowell turns 85. Over the years I have read the writings of many great thinkers and none can match Sowell's anlytical skills or ability to communicate important ideas in plain English. When I first discovered him in the early 1990's, his columns and books invigorated my mind like a jolt of lightning, and they have continued doing that ever since.

If you are not familiar with his biography, you may want to read this tribute that I wrote when he turned 79. But to really appreciate a scribe, it is best to read his own words in full context -- so with recent history in mind, here are links to my five favorite Thomas Sowell columns from the past three months, in order from oldest to newest:

Hillary and History

To follow his columns and read other things by and about him, you can visit his web site here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Much more thrill than agony

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2013-14 season ended in the first round of the playoffs. With Vezina finalist Ben Bishop sidelined by injury, they lost four straight games to Montreal and suffered the ignominy of a sweep.

A whole season and post-season have since passed without the Bolts experiencing another four-game losing streak. In fact, they did not even experience a three-game losing streak until Games Four through Six of the Stanley Cup Finals, when the dynastic Chicago Blackhawks edged past them to wipe out their 2-1 series lead and make them finish as runners-up rather than champs.

Now that the 2014-15 season is over, we know it was not only a major step forward but also the second-best season in franchise history. With that said and more than a week having passed since we felt the bitter sting of our team coming up short in its quest to win the Cup, it is time to take a look back and appreciate what we witnessed.

*     *     *     *     *

The goal of every athlete is to win his sport's ultimate championship and the dream of every sports fan is to see his team reach that pinnacle. But dreams aside, some fans have, shall we say, a complicated relationship with reality; and all fans must temper their dreams with those cursed buggers known as "expectations."

Fortunately, most of us Lightning fans are knowledgeable about our team and the NHL at large, and those who are new to the fold are quick studies. Remembering the whimper of last year's early exit, our initial hope was simply that the Bolts improve; specifically, that they improve by advancing past the first round, which had not happened in these parts since 2011.

When the playoffs began and we looked at the Bolts' maturation from last year and outstanding performance across the course of the regular season, we knew they were among the six or seven teams that had a legitimate chance to win it all. After all, their 50 wins and 108 points were both franchise records, exceeding the marks set by the 2003-04 squad that won both the Stanley Cup and President's Cup.

However, we also knew that these Bolts were extremely young (with 15 players age 25 or younger) and thin on championship experience (with only one player having ever played on a Cup-winning team).  We knew that as a unit, they had yet to win a single playoff game, and that Ben Bishop had yet to even appear in a playoff game. Finally, we knew their team defense remained their primary weakness even though it was improved compared to 2013-14... And so we chewed our bottom lips with realistic fear even as we daydreamed with realistic hope. We kept reminding ourselves that if the Bolts advanced, we would consider the season to be a success and the sky to be the limit.

With that in mind, this season was not only a success but a rousing one. In the final game of the regular season, the 2014-15 Bolts avenged the 2010-11 Bolts' Game Seven loss in the Eastern Conference Finals by defeating the Boston Bruins to keep them out of the post-season... Then they advanced past the first round by overcoming a 3-2 series deficit to the Red Wings and shutting them out in Game Seven... Then they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals by discarding the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, who is reputed to be the best goaltender on the planet... Then they won the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals by discarding the New York Rangers, who not only had the best record in the NHL but also had Henrik Lundqvist, who is reputed to be the clutchest goaltender on the planet.

Plus, by eliminating the Rangers the Lightning: 1) prevented Martin Iscariot St. Louis from winning a Cup at their expense, and 2) became the first NHL team ever to vanquish three Original Six franchises in a single post-season.

Along that road to the finals, Ben Bishop became only the third goalie in NHL history to record two Game Seven shutouts in a single post-season. The Bolts ended what was arguably the most legendary streak in sports by becoming the first team in the Rangers' 88-year history to defeat them on their own ice in a Game Seven. And they also ended Lundqvist's much ballyhooed streak of six straight Game Seven victories.

They played better with each passing round even though they faced a tougher foe each time... Their team defense improved dramatically and became a strength rather than the weakness it was thought to be at the end of the regular season... Their top defensive pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman emerged as arguably the best in the league... And their second forward line -- the so-called Triplets Line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov -- emerged as arguably the best in all of hockey.

Jon Cooper, who no one had heard of a couple years ago, became universally regarded as one of the NHL's best coaches and the face of its coaching future.

In the same vein, the Lightning became universally regarded as a bold organization that trusts its people and is unafraid to buck conventional wisdom.

Them ain't bad apples if you ask me, and they're a far cry from the rotten ones that plagued the organization before it was bought by Jeff Vinik.

*     *     *     *     *

We should appreciate how many highlights there were during the playoff run.

Against the Red Wings, there was the pile on rout in Game Two and the exhilarating rally to pull out Game Four in overtime... There was the great play (and harbinger of things to come) that ended Game Four when Victor Hedman exploded down the right side, drew Petr Mrazek out of the crease, then feathered a cross-ice pass to Tyler Johnson for the winner... There was the beautiful, stunned silence that fell on Joe Louis Arena when Johnson's winner went in... There was Ben Bishop rising to the occasion in Game Seven, willing the Bolts to victory by pitching a shutout when they were outshot 31-17... There was Braydon Coburn scoring the Game Seven winner from the top of the circle, 3:58 into the third, when he one-timed Ryan Callahan's pass high and inside the opposite post while Mrazek desperately scrambled to the near one.

That series showed the Bolts were unafraid of adversity, that they could withstand the hottest of pressure cookers and come out on top... It showed that despite their youth, they could defeat a playoff-seasoned veteran squad loaded with championship experience... It showed they could do all of those things even when Steven Stamkos, the NHL's second-leading scorer in the regular season, went the whole series without putting the puck in the net... But perhaps most memorably, the series featured Johnson's arrival as an electrifying star that the entire hockey world knows about.

Against the entitled revered Habs, there was that stupendous six-goal outburst in Game Two, with the power play finally breaking out with four goals and Stamkos finally scoring on this breakaway against Carey Price... There was Tyler Johnson scoring with 1.1 second left in Game Three, using one move of his stick to break an NHL record and give the Bolts a 3-0 series lead... On that goal, there was Victor Hedman again with the assist, from all the way down in the corner of the offensive zone as if he was a forward rather than a defenseman... And there was Stamkos asserting his authority by unleashing this wrister to beat Price on what proved to be the series-winner in Game Six.

That series showed that Round One was no fluke. It showed that the Bolts were not intimidated by goaltending excellence. It showed they had what it takes to keep getting better even as they got deeper into the playoffs. And as Johnson recorded five points at Montreal's expense, it showed that his stellar play versus Detroit was not an anomaly.

Against destiny's supposed child (a.k.a. the 2014-15 New York Rangers) there were the fireworks of hanging six goals on Henrik Lundqvist not once, but twice, and in back-to-back games at that... There was the Triplets Line befuddling Lundqvist so much that he seemed ready to throw in the towel with his comments immediately following Game Three... There was Johnson notching a natural hat trick in Game Two, by virtue of a short-handed goal on a 3-on-5 penalty kill, followed by a picture perfect top-shelfer off a power play feed from Stamkos, followed by this greasy even-strengther on which the diminutive centerman prevailed in a multi-player goalmouth bang-up... Then there was Nikita Kucherov defying conventional wisdom to win Game Three in overtime, when, as his linemates went off for a line change, he charged down the ice, skated across the Rangers' blueline, used a backpedaling defenseman as a screen, and rifled a wrist shot so fast that it made it from the point to the back of the net before Lundqvist had a chance to react... And, there was a Crimson-on-Crimson goal to win the series when Alex Killorn (Tampa Bay's Harvard grad) circled atop the crease while being defended by Dominic Moore (New York's Harvard grad) and somehow managed to slip the puck through Lundqvist's five hole.

That series proved that... well, there really wasn't much left to prove as far as the Lightning belonging in the NHL's elite, but the series proved it anyway. It showed that they were not intimated by reputation and history. Prior to Game Seven, when Stamkos was asked about Lundqvist's six-game winning streak in Game Sevens, he made our hearts pound with pride and confidence by answering that "he's a great goaltender, but he's never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game Seven before."

Then came the Stanley Cup Finals, and although the ultimate outcome wasn't what we wanted, those finals still provided moments that I remember only with a smile. There was Nikita Kucherov deftly redirecting Jason Garrison's shot past Corey Crawford to even Game Two just 92 seconds after Chicago had taken the lead... Later in the same game, there was Garrison scoring the winner (off an assist from Hedman, of course) some five minutes after Chicago tied it on a goal that should have been disallowed because of goaltender interference... There was Cedric Paquette completing a third period comeback to win Game Three, by knocking in a perfect centering feed that came, of course, from Hedman... There was 20-year-old rookie netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, playing Game Four when Ben Bishop was injured and performing so well that he looked like an unflappable veteran... There was Johnson playing most of the series with a broken wrist, Bishop playing much of it with a torn groin, and Kucherov returning for Game Six after absorbing this excruciating collarbone cracker in Game Five.

Unfortunately for us, Crawford shut the door in Games Four through Six and played every bit the role of Jacques Plante or Martin Brodeur, turning aside seemingly every Lightning chance and overturning the fact that the Lightning played more than well enough to win. If you've watched enough hockey, you know that in a situation like that there really isn't a damn thing you can do.

*     *     *     *     *

There is no point in playing the "what if" game. On the one hand it rejects reality because it seeks to ignore or deny what actually happened. On the other, it is blind to the fact that both sides can play "what if" with equal legitimacy. If a Bolts fan gripes that Stamkos missed a partially open net in the waning seconds of Game Four that would have forced overtime, a 'Hawks fan could just as easily gripe that Marian Hossa missed an entirely open net in Game Three that might have changed its outcome.

Nonetheless, I am writing this from a Tampa Bay point of view so I am going to indulge my feelings and ignore what my rational brain tells me to acknowledge.

If Stamkos had gotten that puck into the net, the Bolts likely would have prevailed in overtime -- which would have given them a 3-1 series lead, which would have probably led to them winning the Cup.

If Ryan Callahan had converted his breakaway opportunity late in Game One, which came less than two minutes before Chicago tied it up, then Chicago's comeback likely wouldn't have happened -- in which case the Bolts: 1) would have headed north with a 2-0 series lead instead of a 1-1 tie; 2) would have held a commanding 3-0 series lead after Paquette's Game Three winner; and 3) almost certainly would have won the Cup... For that matter, if Callahan had converted and Stamkos had scored into the partially open net in Game Four, the Bolts probably would have swept the Blackhawks.

If Ben Bishop hadn't inexplicably done this when Game Five was tied at zero, the Bolts might have gotten the crucial first goal and won the game -- in which case they would have entered Game Six leading the series 3-2 instead of trailing it 3-2.

But like Stephen King once wrote, "If is the only word a thousand letters long."

*     *     *     *     *

It is impossible to look back at the 2015 playoff run without wondering what it might portend for the future, so here I go a-wondering.

We are blessed to have just one unrestricted free agent, and even more blessed by the fact that that UFA is the sadly unproductive Brenden Morrow. Given Jon Cooper's belief in his players and trust in his youngsters, next season's Bolts should look very much like this season's, and that is a decidedly good thing.

It is when we get beyond next season that things get "interesting" from a roster perspective. Stamkos will become a UFA unless Yzerman signs him to an extension before then (which I believe Yzerman will do).

The Triplets will start becoming restricted free agents. Since they are all bargains at their current salaries, they are sure to receive big offers from other clubs.

Hedman will be a UFA after two more seasons. By then he will deserve the salary of a Norris Trophy winner regardless of whether he has received the award.

Callahan will be thirtysomething, and given his injurious style of play, will he still be effective?

The most "interesting" scenario regards Ben Bishop, who is slated to become a UFA after next season. Because he was a Vezina finalist last year and almost won the Cup this year, he will command a lot of money unless he has a major drop-off in 2015-16.

Given Andrei Vasilevskiy's otherworldly talent and how well he has played in relief of Bishop -- and given the significant upside of third-stringer Kristers Gudlevskis -- the Lightning will be faced with a migraine-inducing, crossroads of a decision: Do they keep a playoff-proven upper tier goalie, in which case they will be forced to part with other key contributors because there just isn't enough room under the salary cap? Or do they part ways with him in order to have enough cap room to re-sign some of their other stars, which means they must turn the goaltending keys over to a couple of guys in their early twenties who have never gone through the rigors of starting a full season in the NHL?

Does Cooper give Vasilevskiy more starts next season, in order to provide the organization with more info on which to base its decision? If Yzerman finds himself leaning towards letting Bishop walk, does he deal him to another team at the trade deadline so that he gets something in return, something like a quality fifth or sixth defenseman?

Yes, the business side of hockey sucks. But the business side of hockey is part of the reality of hockey, and every winning team has to deal with it.

Fortunately, we have outstanding ownership and outstanding management, and I believe they will maintain this team's core and keep the Lightning among the league's handful of contenders for a long time.

Still, the window of opportunity is now open. Here's hoping that the Lightning are able to proceed through it, and that they proceed through it sooner rather than later.

Actually, I hope they do so both sooner and later.

Go Bolts!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Summer Solstice

Because I do not like hot weather, summer is my least favorite season. But there are still things I enjoy about it, and surprisingly, some of them are specific to this sweat-soaked state in which I live. So here are some thoughts on summer’s first day:

I love Independence Day.

I love that there is one time of year when I am able to prefer chilled white wine over room temperature red wine.

I love when evening breezes carry the sweet scent of orange blossoms across Florida.

I love watching swallow-tailed kites, one of my favorite birds of prey, as they soar in the air and seem to stay up there forever without flapping their wings.

I love seeing hummingbirds hover around the blossoms of honeysuckle and aloe.

I love watching fireflies illuminate the woods at dusk.

I love San Diego.

And I love the dramatic pulse of Florida’s afternoon storms, when black clouds darken the sky and spew lighting and thunder and unleash torrents of blinding rain – only to blow away and be replaced by sunny skies in less than an hour.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

All Rounds Done

Some thoughts about the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that they have come to an end:

Finalist Feelings
For me and my fellow Lightning fans, there is a feeling of emptiness over opportunity lost. We have great memories of the first three rounds and even some fond memories from the finals, but right now they are overshadowed by our team's losses in Games Five and Six. It took 11 years for the Bolts to get back to the finals after winning the Cup in 2004, and although we know the future looks extremely bright, we are also aware that that does not automatically mean it will be bright... But perhaps we are being too self-indulgent, for the way we feel right now is nothing compared to the way our players feel... Fortunately, at least for myself, the positive memories of this post-season are already starting to percolate back to the surface.

Conversely, Chicago fans are elated and should be. My team was good enough to beat theirs, but theirs was the better team by a small margin, so the end result was appropriate... By winning three of the last six Cups and coming oh so close to reaching last year's finals, this group of Blackhawks will go down in history and stands as the truest dynasty of the entire post-Oilers (not merely post-cap) era... Plus, the main players who comprise its core are still in their prime. Although the team has cap issues to address during the off-season, its GM has proven capable in that area before, and therefore a fourth Cup remains attainable.

The finals did not go seven and the decisive tilt did not go to overtime, so I won't succumb to hyperbole by calling them the greatest finals of all time. I will, however, attest that they were one of the best of the last quarter-century, and that they should be talked about for years to come.

Both teams moved the puck with precision and found open ice to skate, despite solid hits being dished out... Going into the decisive Game Six, the shots were dead even and the teams were only one apart in scoring chances... Also going into that game, for the first time ever, the first five had all been decided by one goal... Defensemen Duncan Keith and Victor Hedman were virtuosos in all three zones... Both starting goalies had moments of brilliance and moments of vulnerability throughout the first five games, and both played outstanding in the decider -- although a 20-year-old backup, Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy, started Game Four and played so well he could have passed for a #1 with championship experience... Ben Bishop played with a torn groin; Tyler Johnson with a broken wrist; Johnny Oduya with a torn elbow; Kris Versteeg with unspecified problems related to his previously repaired right knee; and others (most notably Nikita Kucherov and Marcus Kruger) with a variety of undisclosed bang-ups... Also, the series was evenly officiated and not overly officiated.

The Difference
At the proverbial end of the day, it came down to a couple of things. Actually, it came down to five:

1) The 'Hawks were much better on faceoffs, outdueling the Bolts 217-143.

2) Tampa Bay's lower-rung defensemen committed fatal errors, especially this one by Andrej Sustr on what proved to be the Cup-winning goal, whereas Chicago's lower-rungers weren't given a chance to commit such errors because Joel Quenneville rarely put them on the ice.

3) When the finish line was in sight, Patrick Kane rose to the occasion and Steven Stamkos did not -- as evidenced by the former notching a goal and assist in Game Six while the latter came up empty on two golden opportunities. Stamkos finished the series with 21 scoring chances, of which he converted a grand total of zero.

4) When the finish line was in sight, Corey Crawford played like the two-time champion he is; while Ben Bishop, despite playing very well overall, in Game Five committed one of the worst blunders I've ever witnessed. I am one of the legion who entered the post-season thinking of Crawford as an average talent who was blessed to be backstopping a star-studded roster; but after the way he shut the door in Games Four through Six, I have to acknowledge that he's one of the top netminders in the league.

5) Ultimately, Chicago's abundance of championship experience proved to make a difference.

Tearjerker #1
I despise it when TV coverage of the Olympics gets so larded with human interest schmaltz that the actual sports get neglected. Nonetheless, human interest stories do have an important place in the sports world and there were several in play during the Stanley Cup Finals. Chief among them was the case of Kimmo Timonen.

Timonen was born 40 years ago in Kuopio, Finland, and was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings at the age of 18. For five years he continued to play in Finland rather than venture over to this side of the Atlantic, but after the Kings traded his rights to the first-year Nashville Predators in 1998, he decided to make the jump.

He then embarked on an admirable career as one of the NHL's best blueliners, and when the 2006-07 season rolled around and he was 31 years old, Timonen became the Predators' captain and registered career highs in both points and assists. However, the team never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs while he was there.

Following that 2006-07 campaign, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, with whom he eventually signed a contract making him the highest-paid Finn in the league. Timonen experienced more playoff success in Philly than in Nashville, yet the ultimate prize eluded him. The Flyers reached the 2010 Cup finals only to be eliminated in six games by, interestingly enough, the Blackhawks. Meanwhile, between 1998 and 2006, Timonen played for Team Finland in five different international tournaments in which they finished second, never managing to come in first (one Olympics silver, one World Cup runners-up, and three World Championships silvers).

Last August, while preparing for this season that just ended, he was diagnosed with blood clots in both lungs and in his right leg. The potentially fatal condition caused him to miss the first 62 games of the 82-game regular season. On February 27th -- one day before he was scheduled to return to the ice and 19 days before his 40th birthday -- he was traded to the defensively shallow Blackhawks for a pair of draft picks. That departure from Philly came right on the heels of him having won three consecutive (and five total) Barry Ashbee Trophies, which are awarded annually to the Flyers' top defenseman. With 270 points in 519 games with that franchise, he ranks as the third-most productive defenseman in its history.

Aware of Father Time and the dangers of his diagnosis, Timonen decided it was time to retire; but because he is competitive and understands the harsh realities of sports legacies, he elected to keep playing until the season was over. Speaking to Frank Seravallie of the Philadelphia Daily News on the day he was traded, he remarked that "the only thing I am missing is the Stanley Cup. It became my only goal to return to hockey. If I had won a Stanley Cup before, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation."

Monday night, after 17 years in the league, Kimmo Timonen lifted the silver chalice over his head as an NHL champion. His name will soon be etched onto one of the Cup's pedestal rings and remain there for eternity. At some future date that will probably not come until after he has been laid to rest in the shadow of the Arctic Circle, that ring will be removed from the Cup's pedestal and retired in the Hockey Hall of Fame. If that doesn't make you smile, nothing will.

Tearjerker #2
The case of Brenden Morrow presents a decidedly different kind of tearjerker.

The Dallas Stars capped the 1998-99 season -- the one before Morrow joined them as a rookie -- by winning the Stanley Cup. In his rookie season of 1999-2000, the Stars returned to the finals but fell to New Jersey. On Monday, asked about that long-ago near-miss, Morrow said: "I don't remember 15 years ago. I was just young and dumb and thought it was going to happen every time."

I probably don't need to tell you that he never made it back to the finals during the intervening decade and a half. He became a reliable and productive forward who attained career peaks during the seasons of 2007-08 (32 goals, 42 assists) and 2010-11 (33 goals).

Morrow's career in Dallas was long. He remained there until March 2013, when he was traded to Pittsburgh. After his contract expired at the end of that season, he moved on to sign a one-year deal with St. Louis for 2013-14, after which he signed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay for 2014-15. Ostensibly, neither Pittsburgh nor St. Louis was interested in bringing him back.

As we all know, this 2014-15 season saw Tampa Bay reach the Stanley Cup Finals and bring Morrow full circle from his rookie year. But sadly, because the Bolts fell just short in the finals, his 2014-15 ended just like his 1999-2000. 

Abetted by injuries during the 2011-12 campaign, Father Time has taken an inevitable toll on the game of this 36-year-old from Saskatchewan, for he is a far cry from the player he once was. Just four years removed from that career-best 33-goal season in Dallas, this year he scored a mere three goals while toiling away on Tampa Bay's fourth line. The fight and effort are still there, but the legs simply don't move as fast and his stickwork has eroded. Morrow's contributions to the Bolts were as someone who mostly levels hits and scraps for pucks in limited playing time.

During these playoffs he made a number of good hits for the Lightning, but also committed glaring errors. There were turnovers and there was a very bad penalty, though I don't recall exactly what it was or in which game it occurred. That's an ominous sign when you are playing few minutes, are long in the tooth, and your contract expires at season's end.

That "I was young and dumb" remark was uttered by Morrow in the Lightning locker room while the Blackhawks celebrated with the Cup elsewhere in the building. He then added another sentence: "Now, I'm not sure if this is it, or if I'll get another opportunity." It was not one hundred percent clear if he was talking about another opportunity to play for the Cup, or another opportunity to play professional hockey at all. Most likely, he was thinking of both.

And with that...
...I will sign off for now and move on to pen my salute to the 2014-15 Lightning, which I will probably publish sometime next week.

But first, thanks to the Korea Times, I am able to refer you over to the greatest headline since "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Until next time, farewell...

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Flag Day

This being Flag Day, I decided to re-publish this post from 2011, in which I "illustrated" the lyrics to God Bless America using photographs I've taken throughout our country. Here goes:

God bless America...

Land that I love...

Stand beside her and guide her...

Through the night...

With the light from above...

From the mountains...

To the prairies...

To the oceans white with foam...

God bless America...

My home sweet home...

Note: The final picture was taken by Kelly Noel.

Saturday, June 6, 2015


71 years ago this morning, human beings from the naval forces of eight Allied nations laid their lives on the line in ways most of us can hardly fathom. Two-thirds of them were from the U.S.U.K., and Canada.

Traveling in ships and amphibious vessels, they set sail from England in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, bound for the Normandy beaches of Nazi-controlled France. It was the first time since the 1600’s that any invading military had crossed the perilous waters of the English Channel, and as day broke tens of thousands of troops disembarked from their landing crafts and plunged into Hell on Earth.

Slogging first through waves and then through sand, they were sitting ducks for the Nazi gunners positioned on shore. Bullets rained on them amidst a cacophony of explosive reverberations. The men at the fronts of the landing crafts were the first ones to step on the beach, and they stepped onto it knowing they were likely to get shot. Each of them was acutely aware he might be entering the final seconds of his life.

Approximately 10,000 Allied men were killed or wounded that day. However, in bearing that brunt of brutality, those who were first on the scene helped clear the way for 100,000 of their fellow soldiers to reach shore and advance against the enemy, freeing occupied towns as they went. By the end of the month more than 800,000 men had done so, and the war’s momentum had swung in the Allies’ favor. Within a year the Nazis surrendered unconditionally.

In military parlance, the phrase “D-Day” refers to the first day of any operation, but in the public’s mind, it will always refer to the events on the beaches of Normandy. Now the men who braved the bullets on that distant shore are dying away at a rapid rate. Let us give them our thanks while they are still alive to hear it.

After all, we might never have tasted freedom if not for the valor of the soldiers of '44. Because of that, we must resolve to pass their story on to our children, so that they may pass it on to theirs, to preserve what Abraham Lincoln referred to as "the mystic chords" of our nation's memory.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Three Rounds In

Some thoughts about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first three rounds are in the books and we are down to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackwaks duking it out for the most hallowed trophy in all of sports:

About those predictions
I don't mean to toot my own horn, but back on April 15th, before the playoffs started, I wrote that "whoever wins the first round series between Nashville and Chicago will go on to represent the Western Conference in the SCF." In that same post, I wrote that "this year's champion will come from the East."

The first of those predictions has come true, and now that we know this year's Eastern Conference representative is my very own Tampa Bay Lightning, I am desperately hoping the second one comes true as well -- and, I am nervously remembering that plenty of the other things I wrote in that April 15th post have since, shall we say, turned out to have been less than spot on.

Finally, since my status as a Lightning partisan has never been a secret, let me affirm that the rest of today's post will be written objectively.

Who to pull for
Obviously, I think everyone outside of the Windy City should be cheering for the Lightning. However, in the interest of that objectivity I just mentioned, here are some legitimate reasons to pull for either team:

Chicago -- Dynasty. Everyone claims to hate dynasties, but they inject more good than bad into the sporting world and we rarely see them anymore. If the Blackhawks prevail, this will be their third Stanley Cup in six seasons and all of them will have been won with the same core of stars and same head coach. It would make them the closest we have seen to an NHL dynasty since the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980's... Also, it would mean that Joel Quenneville has three times as many Stanley Cups as Mike Babcock... And, it would mean that classy, aging veterans Brad Richards and Marian Hossa get their names carved on the Cup another time while they are still playing the game as good as the whippersnappers who surround them.

Tampa Bay -- Underdog. We North Americans (I'm talking hockey here, people) have it in our DNA to pull for the little guy who is just as good as everyone else but never gets his due respect. The fact that the Lightning are considered long shots to beat the Blackhawks, despite having a better record and having gone 1-0-1 against them this season, shows they fit that mold... Plus, a Lightning victory would mean that Jon Cooper has just as many Stanley Cups as Mike Babcock despite coaching barely more than two seasons in the NHL... And, it would mean that the Lightning won it all by knocking off four Original Six teams on their march through the postseason.

Nice things about this match-up
These teams have more quality depth at the forward positions than any of the NHL's other 28 franchises.

Chicago has gotten more points during the playoffs from its third and fourth lines than Tampa Bay has from its third and fourth; however, Tampa Bay's top two lines have been the best top two in the league during the playoffs.

Both teams advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals by winning Game Sevens, on the road, versus the top-seeded team in their respective conferences.

This match-up features the postseason's top two points producers (Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson with 21 and Chicago's Patrick Kane with 20)... Taking that matter further, it also features three of the top five; four of the top six; and six of the top ten... And as for that "six of the top ten" thing, the six are divided evenly with three from each team.

When it comes to defense, Chicago's Duncan Keith is 31 years old, still in his prime, and probably the best all-around defenseman in the league... Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman is 24 years old, just entering his prime, and probably the best play-making defenseman in the league.

The Lightning have the NHL's #1 offense and the Blackhawks have the NHL's #2 defense, so we get a chance to see a few cliches put to the test, like "defense wins championships" and "a good defense beats a good offense" ... But then again, maybe we don't really get to see them put to the test, since Tampa Bay also plays sound team D and Chicago is dripping with otherworldly offensive talent.

The Goaltenders
It often comes down to goaltending, so it's interesting that Corey Crawford and Ben Bishop are still considered question marks of sorts.

Crawford has a Stanley Cup to his name, yet has never been thought of as one of the elites at his position. Earlier in these playoffs he surrendered so many goals that he was benched in favor of a recovering alcoholic who is playing his first year in the league. Plenty of fans agitated for Crawford to remain on the pine, but eventually he got another chance; proved his doubters wrong; regained his starting role; and went on to perform lights-out in the Western Conference Finals.

Ben Bishop was a Vezina finalist last season and backstopped 40 victories this season, yet few national commentators talked about him as a strength coming into the playoffs... When it comes to his performance in the Eastern Conference Finals, you can make a thumbs down argument by saying that he gave up five goals in three of the last five games; or you can make a thumbs up argument by saying that in two of the last three, he shut out the team which had the best record in the NHL. Either way you would be right... Although I criticized Bishop on Facebook when he surrendered some goals that I thought the likes of Patrick Roy would have stopped, it's a simple fact that he outdueled Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist in back to back series. It's also a fact that he has pitched shutouts in two Game Sevens during this single postseason, which puts him in high cotton because only two other goalies in history have done the same: Patrick Roy and Tim Thomas.

Looking at their numbers side by side, Bishop's save percentage during these playoffs is .920 while Crawford's is .919... Bishop's goals-against average is 2.15 while Crawford's is 2.56... As noted above, they both prevailed in the conference finals by winning Game Sevens on the road against the top-seeded team in their conference... Bishop has three shutouts while Crawford has one, with Bishop's most recent shutout serving to end one of the most legendary streaks in sports (the one in which the New York Rangers have had never lost a Game Seven on home ice in their 89-year history)... And here is a weird stat: Bishop recorded three assists during the Eastern Conference Finals, including one on Ondrej Palat's third period goal that put Game Seven on ice by making the score 2-0.

When it comes to skaters the Chicago Blackhawks might have an edge over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but when it comes to goaltending, the Lightning appear to have an edge.

As noted in the first section of this post, I already made a prediction back when we didn't know who the Eastern Conference representative would be... On principle, I refuse to change it... Emotionally, I am terrified about not changing it because I am not 100% certain that jinxes aren't real... But what the hell:  Go Bolts!

I am a bit of an outlier amongst my fellow Americans, in that I have never believed New York sports fans are assholes. On Friday they proved me right, and I have to give props to Rangers fans for the way they reacted after the Lightning eliminated their team last Friday.

Rather than disparage the Rangers for not delivering the Stanley Cup to Manhattan when they were expected to do so -- and rather than boo the visiting Lightning that had just vanquished their team on its own ice -- the faithful who remained in the building saluted their netminder by chanting "Henrik! Henrik!" It was a magnanimous move if ever I have seen one. Henrik Lundqvist played one helluva game with little support from his forward lines and no support from anyone when it came to putting points on the board.

Lundvist cannot be expected to pitch a shutout just to get a tie. He cannot be made solely responsible for an entire team's success and an entire city's satisfaction. Yes, goaltenders willingly take on a disproportionate share of the credit and blame for their team's successes and failures. Still, they should not be looked upon to do everything in a team sport. The New Yorkers in Madison Square Garden on Friday knew that. They recognized what a valiant effort Lundqvist put up, and they made sure he knew they recognized it. It was a class act done by a fan base to support a class act of a player, and it deserves to be acknowledged.