Friday, June 23, 2017

All Rounds Done, Part Two

Time for some more closing thoughts about the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Since I already opined about the Nashville Predators who came up short, today's post focuses on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the whole ball of wax for the second year in a row.

The blueprint
Last season, the Pens' championship ale was perfected with a brew of scoring depth, team defense, confident goaltending, and veteran leaders whose example was followed by high-performing whippersnappers. This season's was brewed with the same ingredients and strategy, although the steps taken to get it from raw material to finished product appeared quite different.

The 2016 Pens blew opponents out in dominating fashion and controlled the action for long stretches of time, whereas 2017's were usually outshot and often had to deal with their opponents controlling the action for long stretches of time -- yet they managed to win it all anyway, for they knew how to capitalize on opportunities, deal with pressure, and deliver in the clutch.

Last season Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin led the team in playoff points with 22, 19, and 18 respectively; this season they were the league's top three playoff points scorers with Malkin having 28, Crosby 27, and Kessel 23... Last season, rookie Bryan Rust impressed with 6 playoff goals, including the one that won the Eastern Conference Final; this season, rookie Jake Guentzel made an enormous splash by potting 13 playoff goals (second most by a rookie in NHL history) and accounting for 21 total playoff points (tied for the most ever by an NHL rookie).

If you think the above numbers suggest that the Pens scored at an even greater clip this post-season than last, you're not going crazy. Last spring they tallied 73 goals in 24 playoff games and this spring rang up 77 in 25, which works out to an increase of 0.04 per game... And while they had nail-biting victories like 1-0 over Ottawa in Game two of the ECF, they also enjoyed blowout victories like 7-0 over Ottawa in Game Five, 6-2 over Washington in Game Two of the second round, and 6-0 over Nashville in Game Five of the SCF... All of which puts a big asterisk on my previous remark about them controlling opponents last spring but getting controlled by opponents this spring. Clearly the Pens are a club that has mastered the art of being highly efficient, cashing in chances, and making opponents pay.

And on top of that there was the goaltender factor: Last year rookie Matt Murray took over for injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury and proceeded to play every post-season game steady as a rock. This time around, Murray got injured before Game One of Round One, so Fleury resumed his role as starter and proceeded to play every game of the first two rounds plus the first three of the ECF -- and played spectacular, rescuing the Pens several times by delivering victories in games they should have lost.

Murray, by then fully recovered, returned to the net for good in the second period of Game Three and was his usual solid self. And when the klieg lights shined brightest and hottest, he did something remarkable by pitching shutouts in the last two games of the SCF, thus taking a series that was tied 2-2 (and seemed to be tilting in Nashville's favor) and transforming it into a 4-2 Pittsburgh triumph that will appear fairly comfortable when looked at in history books.

Fleury is a 13-season veteran who ranks as Pittburgh's all-time winningest goalie and who has three Stanley Cups, two All-Star appearances, one Olympic gold, and one team MVP to his name. Murray, on the other hand, has played less than two full seasons in the NHL and has already won two Stanley Cups in a starting and starring role, something no other goalie in history has ever managed to pull off.

When you think about everything above, the blueprint the Penguins followed seems invincible. They were the best team this season and were going to win no matter what. Looking at things with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, Nashville never had a chance.


A Best Pen
Let's revisit the matter of Marc-Andre Fleury. If anyone ever makes a list of the all-time best Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury won't rank #1 and probably won't be close, seeing as how the team's sweater has been worn by players whose names rank among the highest of cotton: Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin. Nevertheless, Fleury deserves to be on the list and recognized as one of the best Penguins ever.

A partial snapshot of his career success can be found three paragraphs above, and going back to how excellent he was in this year's second round, I will simply quote my own May 11th post: Washington frequently controlled long stretches of play in their offensive zone...They banked 32 or more shots on goal in five of the games and never registered less than 26, whereas Pittsburgh was thrice held to 18 or fewer shots on goal and only twice registered more than 22. For the series, the Caps outshot the Pens by a staggering 229-154. But in the end, none of that mattered...The reason Pittsburgh's superior efficiency was able to make a difference was that Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending was nothing short of brilliant. He kept the Penguins in games until their snipers were able to ripple the nets and thereby fire darts through Washington hearts. He faced 75 more shots than Washington's Braden Holtby and surrendered fewer goals -- and many of his saves were so spectacular they qualified as grand larceny.

And check out the final three games he completed during this year's Stanley Cup run: A Game Seven shutout of Washington to win that series and a Game Two shutout of Ottawa to even the ECF, sandwiched around an overtime loss in which he gave up just one goal in regulation and finished with a .943 save percentage (i.e., a loss that was not his fault).

Fleury was not the first athlete to become known as a team-first guy, but he is probably the most accomplished athlete to be known more for that personality than for his accomplishments. Ever since he played his first NHL game (for the Penguins in October 2003) he has embraced the city and its fans and made it clear that playing in this town, for this team, was how he wanted to spend his entire career.

Fleury does what is best for the team and never lets his ego obscure the big picture. When he got sidelined by concussions in 2016, it was assumed that he would resume his starting role after he recovered, but the much younger Murray performed so well in relief that Fleury became a back-up after more than a decade as the top dog. He accepted that reality without complaining, and when called upon to fill in he continued to deliver by posting an 18-10-7 record during the 2016-17 regular season and 9-6 mark during the 2017 playoffs.

When Murray returned to the net during the ECF and Fleury was again relegated to back-up duty, he did not complain even though he was largely responsible for having gotten the team that far: He understood the reasoning and kept himself ready in case he was called upon again.

If George Harrison had been a hockey player, he would have been Marc-Andre Fleury, and if Fleury was a musician he would be Harrison: The impactful and influential yet unassuming Beatle, the one who played splendid guitar and composed "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," "Something," "Taxman," and "Old Brown Shoe," the one without whom the band could not have been the same and yet was happy to sit back in the shadows while John and Paul got the headlines.

All of which makes current reality suck, even though it should be joyous after Fleury played a major role in the Pens winning their third championship in his time there... for realty is that the NHL has a salary cap; the 32-year-old Fleury has a contract with an annual cap hit of $5.75 million, whereas the 23-year-old Murray carries a cap hit of only $3.75 million; the rules prevent a team and player from ripping up an existing contract and writing a new one even if they want to; there was an expansion draft this week, in which teams could only protect one goaltender from being plucked off their roster by the NHL's new squad, the Las Vegas Golden Knights; and teams have to think long-term, not short-term... some time ago, this reality reared its ugly head and made it clear that there was no logical way for the Pens not to expose Fleury in the expansion draft, which meant that as the season wound down, everyone knew that Fleury's time in Pittsburgh was ending... and sure enough, when the expansion draft happened two days ago, the Golden Knights plucked him away from the city and team he loves.

This is excruciating if you have any emotional bones in your body, and becomes even more excruciating when you consider that Fleury's contract has a no movement clause. Under the rules of the expansion draft, that would have forced the Penguins to protect him, which would put their long-term future in jeopardy considering his age and cap hit versus Murray's; and so with an eye to that uncomfortable fact of life, the team approached him in February and asked him to waive the clause for the obvious reason. He agreed to do so because he understood the reality, and knew it was best for the franchise that had given him a chance all those years ago, and both sides kept their agreement secret until after the Stanley Cup was won twelve days ago. So yes, just like George Harrison always aimed to do what was best for the music and the band, Marc-Andre Fleury always aims to do what is best for the game and the team.

When players cleaned out their lockers last Thursday and spoke to the media for their final time as the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury openly wept. When asked what he would miss most about Pittsburgh if Vegas came calling, he answered with a single word: "Everything." So yes, the business side of sports sucks, and life itself can suck even when you are standing on what appears to be its pinnacle and your bank account is flush.

Then came this Wednesday, when the Golden Knights picked him on what happened to be the 14th anniversary of the day he was selected by the Penguins in the 2003 entry draft. Fleury walked onto the stage to give what he expected would be "a quick wave," and was caught by surprise when the Vegas crowd erupted in a thunderous and prolonged standing ovation. In a post-draft fan forum, Golden Knights partisans chanted his name and one of them shouted "I love you," to which he responded by saying "I love you too."

The world would be a better place if more people had personalities like that of the high-achieving man from Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, the man whose masculinity is not drawn into question by the fact that fellow players call him "Flower" because that's what his name means in his native French.


Cros-Mal
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are among the best forwards to ever play the game, and they have spent their entire careers in the 'Burgh, They could have gone elsewhere and grabbed higher salaries by playing for teams that wouldn't need to find room under the cap for both of them. And if they played in larger and more media-centric markets like New York or Boston or Toronto, they would likely be getting more endorsement deals than they get playing in Western PA. But they are happy with their status in the City of Bridges and eager to pursue championships above all else, and so they remain.

"Sid and Geno" have a kind of loyalty that is in line with Marc-Andre Fleury's. Wedded to their long-term team success -- eleven straight playoff appearances, five trips to the conference finals, four conference championships, and three Stanley Cups including the first back-to-back Cups of the cap era -- that kind of loyalty will make their names go down in history much deeper than if they had left for other digs.

They are an interesting tandem. Both are superb shooters and superb passers, though Malkin is known more his sniping shots and Crosby more for his artful passes... Though known for speed and skill rather than fisticuffs, they are both (especially Malkin) more than willing to throw punches and get their hands dirty when the situation warrants it... Their offensive prowess has gotten so much press over the years that their defensive prowess goes almost unnoticed; however, if you pay attention to their defensive play you will see that it (especially Crosby's) is outstanding.

I mention Crosby and Malkin because how can I not? As good as they are as individual players, their careers are joined at the hip. As true as it is that this Penguins team would not have won the Cup without Fleury's brilliance against Washington, it is also true that they would not have won it without the scoring and leadership of the centermen from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and Magnitogorsk, Russia. Despite how long they have played -- their careers are already approaching three times the length of the average NHL career -- they are still in their primes, having just finished 1-2 in points for this year's playoffs and with Crosby having led the league in goals during the regular season.

Previous generations were blessed to see Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay play simultaneously for the Red Wings, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull for the Blackhawks, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito for the Bruins, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier for the Islanders, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier for the Oilers, Mario Lemieuz and Jaromir Jagr for the Penguins, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov for the Red Wings, and Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg for the Avalanche. Right now we have Crosby and Malkin to watch, and they right rank there with those other tandems.

It is often hard to appreciate something while it is happening. Appreciation usually comes only with benefit of hindsight. Hopefully, hockey fans today, even those who are Pittsburgh-haters, realize how special it is to watch Crosby and Malkin skate for the same organ-eye-zation.


Dynastic
As noted above, these Penguins are the first team to win back to back Cups in the salary cap era. Surely you've heard they are also the first team to pull off back to back Cups since Detroit a couple decades ago, back in 1997 and 1998.

And of course, the Penguins also won the Cup in 2009 (and went to the SCF in 2008) with some of the same important pieces that made up 2017's puzzle.

So do they count as a dynasty? I think so, especially when you consider how different the league is today than it was in the past.

And are they the best "modern" dynasty? There is certainly a fascinating debate to be had there, when we also have this decade's Blackhawks and the 1990's-2000's Red Wings and 1990's-2000's Devils to choose from. But I will save that debate for another time and another post, because I have said more than enough for today.

This was an outstanding Pittsburgh Penguins team and what they did will go down in history. It was fun to watch.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

All Rounds Done, Part One

Just like that, it was done. The Stanley Cup Final was suddenly over and the Pittsburgh Penguins were once again the champs.

Below are some thoughts about the 2017 SCF now that it has come to an end, and rather than do one post I will do two: This one focuses on the Nashville Predators who came up short, and the next will focus on the Penguins who came up big.

The Whistle
First, let's put to bed the matter of "the whistle," since it has been subjected to vitriol not just from Predators fans but from the unfathomably large population of Pittsburgh haters that lives from coast to coast.

A minute into the second period of the decisive Game Six, with the score tied at zero, Filip Forsberg fired a shot that Matt Murray stopped. From the spot where referee Kevin Pollock was watching, Murray appeared to have also caught it. Unable to see the puck, Pollock did what refs are supposed to do when it's not in the net and they can't see it in the crease: He blew the play dead.

It's almost certain that Pollock thought Murray was holding the puck, but he wasn't. Murray was turned almost perpendicular to the goal line, and the puck landed on the other side of his frame so that his own body blocked it from Pollock's view. Nashville's Colton Sissons saw it sitting there and managed to make a move and jab it home -- but not until an instant after the whistle sounded, and thus there was no goal.

To recap: The call was in keeping with the rules and therefore was not wrong. But it still sucked, and royally so, because Pollock blew the whistle so quick. If I was reffing I would have spent more time looking for the puck before deciding I couldn't see it. I would have at least tried to get a view from another angle. However, none of that changes the fact that the call was per the rules.

Regardless, the main purpose of this segment is not to say that the call was legalistically correct; it is to point out that the call was not the reason Pittsburgh won and Nashville lost on Sunday. Pollock called the play dead with two-thirds of the game left to play, and then he and the rest of the officiating crew more than made up for it by allowing the Predators to ignore the rulebook for the rest of the night. The Predators, including sainted Pekka Rinne, committed many obvious penalties and literally were literally not called for even one of them.

Every single power play after Pollock's whistle (and even before it) belonged to the Preds, including a stint of 5-on-3 during the third, yet they barely generated any chances during all those golden gift-wrapped opportunities. Do I really need to point out that that is not how a champion performs when everything is on the line? A champion does what Pittsburgh did: Rise up and snuff out its opponent's chances. Hence, Pittsburgh is a champion and Nashville is not. Sounds harsh, is true.

A radio host here in Tampa who is extraordinarily knowledgeable about hockey, and who was openly rooting against the Penguins, moaned on Monday that the Preds "never recovered" from the blown-dead call. That sentiment has been echoed across the fruited plain. Here's my problem: A championship team is, by definition, a team that will not lose over one crap-luck call that happens when two-thirds of a deciding game remains to be played -- especially when the overwhelming majority of calls throughout the game go for them rather than against them, and when they get four power plays and their opponent gets zero. Champions capitalize on at least one power play when the grail is in sight. Champions take the one crap-luck call and use it as gas to pour on their competitive fire; and as a result, that fire burns so hot it scorches the earth and leads them away from defeat and straight to victory.

The '85 Bears, '99 Rams, Joe Montana 49'ers... 1980's Miami Hurricanes, 1990's Nebraska Cornhuskers, 2010 Auburn Tigers... 2002 Red Wings, Gretzky-Messier Oilers, LaFleur-Dryden Habs... Can you imagine any of those teams wilting and losing due to one shitty-but-not-wrong call not going their way? Of course not, because wilting and losing over spilled milk is the opposite of what champions do. Champions wipe up the spilled milk and burn down the kitchen.

A team capable of getting derailed by a lone unfavorable call early in a contest is a team not capable of winning a championship -- at least not yet. I believe that even if Sissons's goal had stood, the Penguins should have found a way to win on Sunday. I suspect this series wasn't going to a seventh game no matter what, especially when you look at how the Penguins kept improving all the way from the beginning of Game One through the end of Game Six.


Which is not...
...to take anything away from the Spring 2017 edition of the Nashville Predators. These Preds were a great group of guys supported by a great swath of fans, and they accomplished a lot and I loved watching them play. Their future is bright and they may yet get to drink from the Cup.

They and their fans should realize that before the Gretzky-Messier Oilers became the dynasty remembered for winning five Cups in seven years, they reached the SCF and got swept by a New York Islanders squad that had won the three previous Cups. The Oilers were overflowing with Hall of Fame talent in 1983, but those future Hall of Famers needed to have their asses handed to them by champions in order to learn how to become champions themselves.

The 1993-94 Red Wings had the best record in the Western Conference, but got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by bottom-seeded San Jose... The following year they had the best record in the entire NHL, only to get swept in the SCF by fifth-seeded New Jersey... And the year after that they had the best record in NHL history, yet failed to make it to the SCF because they fell in the third round to eventual champ Colorado... It was not until the year after that, in their fourth kick at the can, that those Wings finally broke through and won it all -- and today, all anyone remembers about that era is that the Wings won back to back Cups in '97 and '98 and three Cups in the five calendar years from June '97 through June '02.

Your time may come, Nashville... or it may not, since sports are capricious... but there is more reason for you to be happy and optimistic than there is for you to be sullen and cynical, so you should seize the former mindset as you skate into next season.


Depth and youth
One of the Penguins' defining traits during their consecutive title runs has been how deep their talent runs, and how their resulting ability to get bushels of goals from anywhere on their roster makes them so hard to put away. Well, if these playoffs taught us anything, it's that the team from Music City is almost as strong in that regard.

We all knew coming in that the Preds were deep on the blue line, but most of us thought their forward depth was not remarkable, and boy did we find out we were wrong! Yes, there is the oft-cited fact that the Preds' 14 game-winning goals during the playoffs were scored by 12 different players -- but then there is the less-cited fact that 19 different Preds, including 15 forwards, scored goals for them during the playoffs (nearly equaling the all-time record of 21 players and 16 forwards, which was set three decades ago by the '87 Flyers).

Of their eight players who recorded double-digit points in the playoffs, four are under the age of 25 and the oldest (P.K. Subban) is just 28. Their three highest scorers from the regular season (Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg) are 24, 24, and 22, respectively, and all three of them were impact players during the post-season as well, as Forberg led the team with 16 playoff points and Arvidsson and Johansen finished tied for third at 13. Damn.

The depth gets even more impressive when you consider the unlikely stories of Pontus Aberg (who has the coolest name in all of sports) and Frederick Gaudreau... Prior to this post-season, the 23-year-old Aberg had played in only 15 NHL games and scored only one NHL goal; but then he tallied three assists and two goals in the post-season, including what was arguably this year's best playoff goal of anyone from any team, plus the game-winner in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final... Meanwhile, prior to this post-season the 24-year-old Gaudreau had played in only nine NHL games without scoring a single goal; but then he bagged three goals in the Stanley Cup Final, including the game-winners in the only two SCF games the Preds won... I don't believe this is coincidence. I believe there is something special and infectious in the team's culture, something that infuses everyone who enters the locker room and laces up skates and pulls on a sweater emblazoned with a saber-toothed cat.

If you're on the Nashville bandwagon, you gotta be enthused by demographics like those above, for they provide ample reason to believe your team will be a competitor well into the foreseeable future.


But be that as it may..
...it would be unwise for the Preds and their fans to take their eye off of Father Time, for he is undefeated and lurks in the locker rooms of all teams... and he is on the prowl with a chance to take out key contributors even on this impressively young club.

No matter how much we talk bout Nashville's balanced scoring and well-oiled defensive corps, we all know that goaltender Pekka Rinne was their best player during their playoff run, and we all know they wouldn't have gotten so close to Xanadu without him playing so spectacularly. Rinne will turn 35 before Thanksgiving gets here, and while I believe he has a few more good years in him, there's no denying that he is at the age where Father Time could pounce at any time and make his skills deteriorate drastically.

Should Father Time strikes Rinne, to whom will the Preds turn to protect their net? Do you really believe Juuse Saros has what it takes to deliver a title, to steal wins against contenders when the Preds' skaters are struggling to score?

Father Time is also breathing down the neck of team captain Mike Underwood Fisher, who turned 37 last week and has now logged 17 seasons in the NHL. You won't find Fisher putting up Arvidsson-like stats these days, but you will find him doing tons of other things that are vitally important for a team to contend. He is a force in the face-off circle, blocks shots, sets up teammates, and provides invaluable leadership. His steady character (he's an avowed Christian who exhibits calm in the midst of storms) affects teammates in positive ways and is the kind of thing that can make a difference in the clutch.

Fisher's contract ends at the end of this month and there is no doubt that if he plays in the NHL next year, he will once again do so for the Nashville Predators. But what if he decides to hang up his skates instead of signing a new contract? What if he does sign another contract, only to have Father Time strike in the near future and render him unable to contribute like before?

The Predators' youth is impressive and suggests they will be competitive for a long time... but their chances of winning it all will go down if Rinne and/or Fisher are no loner as effective as they have been... in fact, their chances will go way down if Rinne is the one whose effectiveness takes a big drop... and so it would behoove the Predators to keep the pedal to the metal and keep pushing to win now, rather than listen to the sirens who sing about the promise of "the future."


In closing...
...you were a great story, Nashville/Smashville, and you should continue to be, but the Penguins were better... and although a fine line is thinner than gossamer, it is still there, and the difference between "almost there" and "there" is simultaneously tiny and huge... and while on the one hand that sucks, on the other hand it means you had a helluva run... you're not best-in-the-world material this spring, but you are second-best-in-the-world material, and that ain't bad.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Flag Day

Prayers to Steve Scalise tonight, and may James Hodgkinson and his ilk spend eternity rotting in Hell.

But I will wait for another time to opine any further about the politically motivated mass murder Hodgkinson tried to pull off this morning.

Today is Flag Day, so let our thoughts simply go there for the time being. Here again is my post from 2011 "illustrating" the lyrics to God Bless America, using photographs I've taken throughout our country:


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.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

D-Day

73 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, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

Today, back porches across America will be filled with the scent of grilled burgers and sight of beer-filled coolers as we gather to celebrate Memorial Day.

In the process, we should remember that Memorial Day is much more than an excuse to get together and toss horseshoes while the kids swim in the pool. It is set aside for the solemn purpose of honoring our servicemen who died while defending America's citizens from armed enemies who sought to drive freedom from our shores.

From the first person who perished on Lexington’s village green in 1775, up to the most recent fatality in the Middle East, the list of the fallen is long. We should never forget that each person on that list made a sacrifice that was ultimate in its finality. We should resolve to do everything in our power to defend America's founding principles against all foes -- domestic in addition to foreign, orators in addition to terrorists -- to ensure that those people did not die in vain.

To observe past Memorial Days, I have published letters that were written by soldiers during wartime. Here they are again.

*     *     *     *     *

This first one was from Sullivan Ballou, a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, to his wife. He was killed in the Battle of First Bull Run one week after writing it:

July 14, 1861

Camp ClarkWashington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And it is hard for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights…always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

Sullivan Ballou

*     *     *     *     *

This next letter was written by Arnold Rahe, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, with instructions that it be delivered to his parents if he did not survive. He was killed in action shortly thereafter:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Strange thing about this letter; if I am alive a month from now you will not receive it, for its coming to you will mean that after my twenty-sixth birthday God has decided I’ve been on earth long enough and He wants me to come up and take the examination for permanent service with Him. It’s hard to write a letter like this; there are a million and one things I want to say; there are so many I ought to say if this is the last letter I ever write to you. I’m telling you that I love you two so very much; not one better than the other but absolutely equally. Some things a man can never thank his parents enough for; they come to be taken for granted through the years; care when you are a child, and countless favors as he grows up. I am recalling now all your prayers, your watchfulness -- all the sacrifices that were made for me when sacrifice was a real thing and not just a word to be used in speeches.

For any and all grief I caused you in this 26 years, I’m most heartily sorry. I know that I can never make up for those little hurts and real wounds, but maybe if God permits me to be with Him above, I can help out there. It’s a funny thing about this mission, but I don’t think I’ll come back alive. Call it an Irishman’s hunch or a pre-sentiment or whatever you will. I believe it is Our Lord and His Blessed Mother giving me a tip to be prepared. In the event that I am killed you can have the consolation of knowing that it was in the “line of duty” to my country. I am saddened because I shall not be with you in your life’s later years, but until we meet I want you to know that I die as I tried to live, the way you taught me. Life has turned out different from the way we planned it, and at 26 I die with many things to live for, but the loss of the few remaining years unlived together is as nothing compared to the eternity to which we go.

As I prepare for this last mission, I am a bit homesick. I have been at other times when I thought of you, when I lost a friend, when I wondered when and how this war would end. But, the whole world is homesick! I have never written like this before, even though I have been through the “valley of the shadows” many times, but this night, Mother and Dad, you are so very close to me and I long so to talk to you. I think of you and of home. America has asked much of our generation, but I am glad to give her all I have because she has given me so much.

Goodnight, dear Mother and Dad. God love you.

Your loving son,
(Bud) Arnold Rahe

*     *     *     *     *

God bless them all, and may they never be forgotten.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Three Rounds In

Some more thoughts on the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the conference rounds are done and the Stanley Cup Final is set:

Nash-Pitt
Music City versus Steel City. The 'Ville from the South versus the 'Burgh from the North. Two great hockey markets, one of which is the oldest in the United States while the other is in only its second decade among the pros. Two loud and cocksure fan bases. Two teams loaded with speed and skill.

This is the SCF everyone not from Ottawa or Anaheim wanted to see, or should have, and I am glad we get to see it. The only way I could be happier is if my Tampa Bay Lightning had made it instead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but 'twas not meant to be this year.


The "Old Guys"
In my May 11th post I gave shout-outs to some of the non-whippersnappers who have excelled in these playoffs. Today I am going to follow that up by pointing out that the best player in the ECF was 36-year-old Craig Anderson, and by pointing out that the best player in Game Seven was 37-year-old Chris Kunitz, who scored the first goal and then scored the winner 5:09 into the second overtime. Kunitz also set the screen of Anderson that enabled Pittsburgh's other goal, which was scored by Justin Schultz.

What does this mean? Mostly, it means I get to quote Fred Sanford -- "Old! Who you callin' old?" -- in back to back hockey posts. I have to be the only person on Earth who has ever done that!

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The Housley Effect
Phil Housley was one of the best defensemen of his era, a fact that gets overlooked because of how often his offensive stats are cited. The 1,232 points he tallied made him the highest-scoring American player at any position in NHL history, and today, a full 14 years after he played his final game -- 14 years of unprecedented numbers of Americans excelling in the league -- only one person has managed to pass him on that list.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah: Phil Housley has been an assistant coach for the Nashville Predators since 2013, and his mark is firmly imprinted on them as they enter the SCF for their first time ever.

He is a Hall of Fame defenseman, which tells you he ain't the kind of person who believes you should ever ignore your defensive responsibilities, but a big part of his philosophy is summed up by the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. What better way is there to defend against an opponent than by getting the puck out of your end and moving it to their end, then sapping their energies by preventing them from exiting and by generating scoring chances and applying constant pressure? The Predators' defensive corps executes that philosophy to the hilt up and down its depth chart, and it is a major reason they won the West.

Nashville's top four D'men -- P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi -- are among the best in the world when it comes to moving the puck and passing it and creating points. Three of them (Subban, Ellis, and Josi) were among the team's top five scorers this season, despite the fact that the team has lots of good forwards. This is not by accident or mere coincidence.

Housley will tell you he is fortunate, that he is blessed by being able to coach talented blueliners such as these. They will tell you they are fortunate, that they are able to excel because Housley communicates a philosophy with which they agree and he trusts them to put it into action -- because he gives them the green light to use their skills, rather than trying to put a leash on them like so many coaches prefer to do with players.

There is some truth to both, and Ellis summed it up nicely when he recently said: "Phil has been awesome. Since Day One he came in here, I think for a lot of the D he was a similar player as the way he thought the game...it's easy to listen to a guy like that and take what he has to say and understand it and learn from it."

The bottom line is that one of the main reasons the Preds are fun to watch is that they have a group of dynamic players at a certain position, who are able to execute a dynamic style preached by a coach because they and he embrace the same vision. Enjoy watching them play over the next 9 to 18 days, before this season moves into the history books.


The Veteran Effect
The Pittsburgh Penguins play an uptempo style with lots of urgency, but never seem desperate or panicked. There is a tinge of serenity about them that seems inconsistent with the game itself and especially with their pace of play. This comes largely from their veteran presence and the personality of their longtime captain, Sidney Crosby.

Contrary to what media profiles might make you think, Crosby should not be confused with an angel or saint. He hits hard and doles out his fair share of calculated slashes and cross-checks. Still, his game is based on skill without goonery and he never lets opponents get under his skin even when they play dirty (see Senators, Ottawa; ECF, Game Six). Watch Crosby on the bench and he is collected. Watch him in interviews and he comes off calm and even-keeled, as the kind of man who keeps everything in perspective. Seeing as how he is the Pens' leader and has everyone's respect, his demeanor certainly rubs off on others.

He and Evgeny Malkin are superstars in their twelfth and eleventh seasons in the NHL, respectively, and they have never played for another team. This is their fourth trip to the SCF and they won the Cup their last two trips. They continue to shine despite their supposedly advanced ages, with Crosby leading the league in goals this regular season and Malkin's 24 points during this postseason (7, 17) being more than anyone else in the league.

The aforementioned Chris Kunitz is now in his ninth season with the Pens. He has been to the SCF three times before (with the Pens in 2009 and 2016, and Anaheim in 2007) and won the Cup each time.

Marc-Andre Fleury is in his thirteenth season with the Pens, and like Crosby and Malkin has never suited up for another franchise. Although he lost his starting job to Matt Murray after getting injured last year, he is the winningest goalie in team history and won the Cup as their starter in 2009. When called on this postseason after Murray got injured, Fleury played like a Conn Smythe winner and was the team's best player through the first two rounds. Without him acting as their backstop, the Pens would not have made it past the second round.

Trevor Daley (thirteenth year in the league) returned from injury late in the the ECF, and when he did, Pittsburgh's defensive play sharpened instantly and noticeably all along the blue line.

Getting back to the matter of Malkin being the NHL's leading points scorer this postseason, I feel compelled to mention that Crosby is second on that list with 20 (7, 13) while one of the two players tied for third is another Penguin: Phil Kessel. Though Kessel (7, 12, 19 this spring) is in only his second year with the Pens, he has been one of the NHL's best scorers for eleven years and was the Pens' best player during last year's postseason title run. Of the 231 NHL players who have appeared in 50+ playoff games over the decade-plus that Kessel has been in the league, he ranks first in goals per playoff game.

This high degree of certainty, dependability, and successful history among Pittsburgh's veteran core acts like a car battery that charges itself while running the engine. The veterans know what to do and act like it, the young players see that and emulate it, and results follow. It is not by accident or mere coincidence that young guys like rookie Jake Guentzel and second-year winger Bryan Rust have made an impact in the 'Burgh this spring.


Prediction
The Penguins are insanely deep when it comes to forwards, the Predators when it comes to defensemen. The Penguins' injuries are concentrated on their blue line, the Predators' among their forwards. The Penguins have an outstanding young goalie who already has a ring and has shone in the three games since he returned from injury, while the Predators have an outstanding graybeard who has played like a Conn Smythe winner ever since the playoffs began.

In other words, this is a compelling and evenly matched SCF, so I am simply going with my gut. Because my eyeballs have been telling me the Predators look like a team of destiny, I predict they win it all. In six games. Which means they will lift the silver chalice in front of their home fans and the scene up and down country music's Broadway will become the stuff of legend. A big part of me thinks that would be a truly great thing.

But an equally big part of me thinks about the long-lived excellence that so many of Pittsburgh's players have been able to sustain, and admires the hell out of it. That part of me believes it would be a truly great thing for those guys to get their names engraved on the chalice again to further cement their legacy, to make their greatness undeniable. Three championships across nine years would place the Crosby/Malkin Penguins ahead of the Brodeur/Stevens Devils, who also won three in nine but did so before the salary cap.


Random Stuff
Mike Sullivan was born in Marshville, Massachusetts and Peter Laviolette in Franklin, Massachusetts. That makes this the first SCF in which both head coaches are U.S.-born.

Game Seven of the ECF was one of the better Game Sevens in years.

The Predators' twelve game-winning goals through the first three rounds were scored by eleven different players. How's that for balance?

I was planning on dedicating part of this post to defending the character of the Anaheim Ducks, and another to defending the quality of Ottawa's play and dedication of Ottawa's fans -- but I've already gone long so I'll save those topics for another post (maybe).

Here is proof that P.K. Subban does not neglect his defensive duties, and that he in fact meets and exceeds them in the manner you would expect from one of the world's best defensemen.

Here is a brief and incomplete yet very informative article about the history of the playoff beard.

And lastly, am I the only one who thinks Filip Forsberg could pass for Errol Flynn? Should someone check to see if the swashbuckle thespian was gallivanting around Sweden back when Forsberg's grandmother was of childbearing age?

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Two Rounds In

Some more thoughts on the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the second round is in the books:

The "Old" Guys
From Kucherov to Tarasenko, to McDavid and Eichel to Matthews and Laine (to name but a few), the NHL has recently been blessed with an influx of extremely young players with extremely high-end skills. Tons of ink has been spilled on this topic and rightfully so.

But the sheer volume of ink (combined with a weirdly worshipful attitude toward youth being displayed in venues like Puck Daddy) has created a false impression that hockey players peak a couple years before they turn 25 and are well past their primes before they turn 30. Fortunately, these playoffs are providing plenty of antidotes to that way of "thinking."

Pekka Rinne and Marc-Andre Fleury are the highest performing players so far this postseason and their ages are 34 and 32, respectively.

Evgeni Malkin's 18 points this postseason (5 G, 13 A) are more than anyone else. He turns 31 in July.

Yes, 20-year-old Connor McDavid was the NHL's leading scorer in the regular season and is sure to be named its MVP at the awards show next month -- but in the second round of the playoffs, he was neutralized by 32-year-old Ryan Kesler whenever they were on the ice at the same time.

Again, McDavid was the NHL's leading scorer in the regular season and is sure to be named its MVP at the awards show next month -- but in the battle between his Edmonton Oilers and the Anaheim Ducks, the latter's 31-year-old Ryan Getzlaf was, in the words of TSN's Frank Seravalli, the "best player in this second-round series -- and it isn't even close."

A player racing past an opponent's defensive corps, then deking the opposing goalie and slipping the puck through his five-hole to score, is not unheard of -- but Pittsburgh's Matt Cullen is forty and he did that to break a scoreless Game Two tie against Washington when Washington was on the power play!

Like Fred G. Sanford once protested: Old! Who you callin' old?


Pens-Caps
It had to go like this, just had to... Penguins versus Capitals in Round Two for the second straight year... with the Caps having the best record in the league for the second straight year, yet the Pens being the defending Stanley Cup champs... and the Pens taking the series of course, this time via a Game Seven shutout in the Caps' building, just for kicks.

The history of Washington's playoff futility against Pittsburgh over the years, and their inability to get past the second round during the past decade despite being a perennial Cup contender, has been written about time and again. However it felt like the script might be different this time, because the Caps seemed to dominate every game and their youngsters Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky seemed oblivious to pressure.

Washington frequently controlled long stretches of play in their offensive zone. They had dominant possession numbers and controlled 61.5 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5. They outshot Pittsburgh in literally every one of the seven games, often by wide margins. They banked 32 or more shots on goal in five of the games and never registered less than 26, whereas Pittsburgh was thrice held to 18 or fewer shots on goal and only twice registered more than 22. For the series, the Caps outshot the Pens by a staggering 229-154.

But in the end, none of that mattered. The Pens' quality depth was so good that whenever they found an inch, they took a mile and put the puck in the net no matter which line was on the ice -- such as in Game Two, when they netted 6 goals on 17 shots while the Caps managed just 2 on 36,  and in Game Four, when they were outshot 38-18 but won 3-2.

And let's face it: The reason Pittsburgh's superior efficiency was able to make a difference was that Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending was nothing short of brilliant. He kept the Penguins in games until their snipers were able to ripple the nets and thereby fire darts through Washington hearts. He faced 75 more shots than Washington's Braden Holtby and surrendered fewer goals -- and many of his saves were so spectacular they qualified as grand larceny.


Makes you go hmmm...
In his first year as head coach of Tampa Bay, Guy Boucher had the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. Now in his first year at the helm in Ottawa, he has the Senators in that same position. This means that in fewer than four full seasons as an NHL head coach, Boucher has twice reached conference finals -- not bad for a 45-year-old scarface who never played in the league and has degrees in history, biology, and agricultural engineering.

Bryan Rust's winning goal in Game Seven on Wednesday marked the eighth time in his two-year career that he's recorded a point in an elimination game.

Prior to this year, Justin Williams was 7-0 in Game Sevens and known as "Mr. Game Seven" -- but now he plays for the Capitals, which means that streak has gone the way of the dodo.

Although there has been incredible depth of superb goaltending this postseason, there have already been 21 games in which teams came from behind to wipe out deficits of two or more goals.

After an outstanding Round One, Henrik Lundqvist fell a ways back toward Earth in Round Two. There was nothing he (or any other netminder) could have done to stop Jean-Gabriel Pageau's two late goals that forced overtime in Game Two, but be that as it may, there is no getting around the fact that Lundqvist wound up on the losing end of two games in which his team scored 4+ goals on the road. His numbers were still impressive for the two rounds -- his .927 save percentage ranks third among the 21 goalies who have logged ice time these playoffs -- however his window is closing and now he needs stout defenders in front of him more than ever.

Many people (including me) thought it was silly for Ottawa to adopt a "win right now" strategy this year when they didn't make the playoffs last year, didn't seem good enough to scare anyone, and are financially strapped. But after one go-round with Dion Phaneuf, Derick Brassard, and Alex Burrows on their roster, it's hard to laugh at the Senators now.

Am I the only person who can't see Drake Caggiula's name in print without thinking that the surname is Calligula?

In their entire franchise history, the Penguins have never lost a Game Seven on the road (they're 6-0 after Wednesday).


I call on...
...the league to crack down on embellishment next season, and to make its crackdown severe and obvious.

...the Anaheim crowd to behave in every game of the WCF just like you did in Game Seven on Wednesday.

...Edmonton fans to not spend the next twelve months bitching about non-reversals as they relate to goaltender interference non-calls. You've got nothing on Buffalo fans circa 1999.

...Nashville fans to continue showcasing just how great a hockey market your city is.

...Corey Perry to stay out of the crease.


And...
...that's enough for now, other than my prediction, which is this:

Erik Karlsson will have a great ECF but it won't be enough to overcome Pittsburgh's depth, even though Pittburgh's blueline is depleted... and meanwhile the Ducks will be their provoking and annoying selves in the WCF, but it won't be enough to overcome Pekka & the Preds, who are playing like they're destined to win the West and perhaps more... and so, we will have Pittsburgh-Nashville on stage in a couple weeks.

Bring it on!


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One Round In

Some thoughts on the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first round is in the books:

No Sevens?
Is it just me, or does it seem strange that none of the first round series went seven games? It seems like there are usually a couple that do... but the lack of sevens does not mean there was a lack of drama, for overtimes were aplenty, especially in the breakneck series between Washington and Toronto which saw five of its six games go to OT.


The King is Back
Two years ago, Henrik Lundqvist was his usual unflappable post-season self as he backstopped the New York Rangers to within one game of what would have been their second straight Stanley Cup Final.

But one year ago he looked horrible when the Rangers were eliminated by Pittsburgh in the first round. He surrendered 4.39 goals per game, recorded an abysmal .867 save percentage, and was pulled from the net three different times. Then he followed that up with the worst regular season of his career -- a regular season during which he turned 35, so it's obvious to see why many observers, myself included, suspected that his status as an elite goaltender had come to an abrupt halt.

But when the puck dropped to start these playoffs, the determined Swede donned his armor and wielded his sword and proved us wrong. Throughout this season's first round, Lundqvist rang up an eye-popping .947 save percentage and 1.70 GAA, and based very largely on those sinews his Rangers vanquished the Atlantic Division champion Habs, who were also backstopped by a goalie who is considered a creme de la creme generational talent.

Montreal's top five scorers, combined, only managed two goals against Lundvist for the entire six-game series. Their top scorer, Max Pacioretty, did not score at all against him.

It's good to know there is something you can count on, like snow in Tahoe and sunshine in San Diego and the swallows returning to Capistrano. The eleven days from April 12th through 22nd assured us that Henrik Lundqvist excelling when it matters most is one of those things.


Between the pipes
Defense wins championships everywhere. In hockey, goaltending wins 'em even more so. If you want to see just how important the goalie position is, look not only to Lundqvist in New York but also to the men between the pipes in St. Louis and Nashville.

Last year the big question in St. Louis was which one of the goalies in the Blues' well-performing platoon they would choose to keep. Now that they've dispatched the Minnesota Wild, it is obvious they made the right decision opting for Jake Allen over Brian Elliott. Although the Wild soundly outplayed them in the series, averaging 10 more shots per game and out-Corsi'ing them 60.11 to 39.89, the Blues prevailed in five games and never appeared to have any doubt that they would prevail. That is a direct resut of stellar goaltending.

Meanwhile, in Music City, Pekka Rinne spent the first round performing like some cyborg combination of Plante and Tretiak and Hasek all in their primes. Chicago entered the series not only a mere 22 months removed from their second Cup in three seasons, but still in their prime and sporting the best record in the Western Conference -- only to find that Rinne has suddenly become impregnable. The 34-year-old Finn did not allow a goal until Game Three, pitching shutouts in both road games and logging a supernatural .976 save percentage. He even tallied a pair of assists, thus equaling the points production of star Blackhawk forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. And just like that, the top-seeded Blackhawks were not only eliminated from the dance but swept from the dance, like a helpless puck slapped into the corner by a kick save.

I've been watching hockey for decades and do not recall a goalie having as dominant a series as Rinne just did. If he has another one like that, he will be so far ahead in the Conn Smythe conversation that he'll be lapping the field.


Bring it on
By which I mean, the about-to-commence series between the Penguins and Caps. Nothing says Eastern Conference playoffs like these two facing off -- and as everyone knows, nothing screams shrink's couch any louder than a Washington Capitals hockey club entering the second round and seeing the team in yellow and black lining up across the red line.

To be sure, Washington's playoff fragility, whether real or perceived, goes much deeper than the ground beneath Pittsburgh. For a decade now the Caps have been an elite team that is always talked about as legit Cup contenders (and often as the Cup favorite) yet they have not gotten past the second round in all that time. They were the top seed in 2010, but lost to bottom-seeded Montreal. A year later they were again the top seed, but got swept by Tampa Bay. And they dropped three consecutive Game Sevens to the Rangers.

But their playoff submission to Pittsburgh stretches even farther back. The teams have met nine times in the post-season since 1991, with the Penguins winning eight of the nine series despite having trailed in eight of them. Last year might have been the biggest mic drop, seeing as how the Caps had by far the best record in the NHL only to have the Penguins eliminate them in the second round en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

On an individual basis, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin began their NHL careers in 2005, have never changed teams, and are considered the top two hockey players on Earth across that period of time. However, across that period Crosby has two Stanley Cup rings and two Olympic gold medals testifying to his greatness, while Ovechkin has not touched the Stanley Cup and has not won an Olympic medal of any type.

Will this be the year things change? The Caps again have the best record in the NHL, so they are again favored against the Pens and again have home ice advantage. But does that make their chances better or does it invite the kind of psychology that makes their chances worse? I can't wait to find out.


et ceteras
If Nashville makes a run to the Finals (and especially if they win the Cup once there) it should be a marketing gold mine for the NHL. The Predators are a model franchise with a fervent fan base; Carrie Underwood comes to their games because she is married to their star centerman, Mike Fisher; and the most charismatic star on this Deep South team is P.K. Subban, a black man. A marketing gift such as this would be like manna from Heaven -- so rest assured that if the gift is given, Bettman & Co. won't take advantage of it and NBC will short-sightedly sulk that Anaheim (LA!) didn't win the West.

I am experiencing cognitive dissonance. I have long thrown barbs at the Maple Leafs organization and its fans, and especially at the propaganda pawns who pretend to be objective journalists while obsequiously praising the Leafs franchise -- which hasn't won a Cup in 50 years -- as the pinnacle of the world of hockey. Nonetheless, I found myself guiltily rooting for their plucky roster of youngsters after the playoffs began, and I found myself admitting that the Leafs contending is good for the game. This goes against everything I believe, and I am slapping my head over it.

No matter what I said in the above paragraph, if the Leafs ever face the Lightning in the post-season, I hope they get blown out four straight games and become a laughingstock. I hope Victor Hedman shuts down Auston Matthews, and Anton Stralman intercepts every pass Mitch Marner attempts.

Ryan Kesler versus Connor McDavid. The pesky irritant from Michigan versus the poetic icon from Ontario. This is the individual battle, the game within the games, that I most want to watch this round... Kesler's Anaheim Ducks are the veteran squad aiming to hoist the Cup before their window closes, while McDavid's Edmonton Oilers are a youthful bunch hoping to bring it back to Alberta for the first time since 1990; but it's the individual clash between these two forwards that I am most eager to watch, for you know Kesler will be sent out to badger defend against the phenom who dazzled with 70 assists and 30 goals this season.

Derick Brassard versus Mika Zibanejad. This is the individual battle I most want to watch in the East. Granted, it's not technically an individual battle because it's not like the one will be sent out to defend against the other. But they were traded for each other in the offseason, with Brassard going from New York to Ottawa and Zibanejad going from Ottawa to New York; and with the Rangers and Senators facing one another this round, it will be impossible not to compare and contrast... Ottawa wanted Brassard specifically because of his history of playoff production, and after a ho-hum regular season he made them look like geniuses by leading the team with eight points during their six-game playoff win over Boston. Meanwhile, down in the Big Apple, Zibanejad proved that he too knows how to deliver when it counts by scoring the overtime winner in Game Five and assisting on the the game-tying goal in what turned out to be the decisive Game Six.


And with that...
...I need to put down my pen stop typing. Bring on the games!


Thursday, April 20, 2017

A jackal in the field

Give President Trump credit: He knew how to instantly alter the entire trajectory of American political reporting by knocking the Jeff Sessions kerfuffle right out of the news and drawing blood from both eye sockets of the mainstream media with a single punch.

And as the days go by, it seems more and more likely that the altered trajectory will, in the end, help him and hurt his foes. 

On March 4th the sun had yet to rise over much of the USA when Trump took to Twitter and declared: "Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"

It is important to note that he put quotation marks around wires and tapped, signaling that either: 1) he was not using the technical definition of wiretapping (which applies to that nineteenth century technology known as phone lines) but was instead applying those words to the present world of twenty-first century electronic surveillance; or 2) he was quoting something he read or heard from another source.

Predictably, the MSM and American Left (but I repeat myself) reacted with howls of outrage and anguish. How dare the despised President 45 accuse their beloved President 44 of such a thing without ironclad proof! How dare he believe that those who hate him would use foul means as well as fair to defeat him!

They were so blinded by emotion that they overestimated their intelligence and completely missed the quotation marks before their eyes. They lampooned Trump for talking specifically of old school wiretapping, and many of them still do, never mind that your average fifth grader could tell he was not narrowing that term to things discussed in 1970's spy novels.

And as they howled, the noise they made caused their most cherished narrative to unravel without them realizing it. Suddenly stuck in flypaper, they reminded me of a fat city rat who wanders into the country for the first time and, not having needed to watch for predators before, walks right into one's mouth because it never occurred to him that such creatures might exist.

*     *     *     *     *

Ever since Trump defeated Hillary, the MSM/Left has been trying to paint his victory as illegitimate at best, fraudulent at worst. To that end it invented a narrative that Trump and his minions colluded with "the Russians" so the latter could "hack the election" and make it appear he won when he really lost. When you think about it, that sounds tinfoil-hat crazy, especially when you consider that it is the MSM/Left that has always sucked up to Russia and mocked anyone who suggests that Russia is up to no good.

Nevertheless, it gave the narrative a veneer of plausibility -- put wind beneath its wings, if you will -- by reporting that the Justice Department and national security agencies (all part of Obama's executive branch) were "investigating" Trump associates. Those reports tantalizingly added that Trump himself had been "named" by the FBI when requesting a warrant from the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And those reports were published prior to Trump's tweet.

Sure, they did appear in some known-to-be-biased publications, like the left wing Heatstreet and right wing Breitbart, but what made them powerful was the fact that they were trumpeted by major MSM institutions. In fact, the front page of the January 19th print edition of the New York Times carried the following headline: "Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides." (emphasis mine)

These MSM claims -- claims that parts of Trump & Co. were being investigated for "ties to Russia" -- served as protective clothing for vague insinuations that Trump and "the Russians" might have engaged in election shenanigans. It's the kind of clothing that leads people to suspect that there is truth to insinuations, and remember, the investigations that were whispered about in this case could only be done by the federal government's executive branch, which Obama headed at the time. And it strains credulity to believe that a sitting president would not be up-to-the-minute informed of an investigation happening on his watch that had major political rivals in its crosshairs.

Superficially, the reporting made it sound like the MSM/Left had a good hand to play. But in reality it was playing with an empty hand, and Trump's animal cunning (a phrase I swiped from Victor Davis Hanson) told him just how to call their bluff, so on March 4th he fired off his "wires tapped" tweet.

Jerking knees caused most members of the MSM/Left to instantly defend Obama by claiming it was outrageous for Trump to suggest that Obama (or Obama & Co.) was eavesdropping on Trump (or on Trump & Co.). They mockingly asked where Trump could have ever gotten an idea that such things occurred, but the problem for them was that their question was answered by pointing to their very own articles, so all of a sudden the canard about Trump & Co. colluding with Russia to fix the election vanished from the headlines. Like Keyser Soze at the end of The Usual Suspects, it was "gone!" -- and the reason it was gone is that they couldn't have it both ways.

To have any conceivable basis for the colluding-with-Russia allegation, the accusers needed to be able to say that Trump & Co. was being monitored ("investigated") by the feds during the period that Obama & Co. was running the feds. However, to say that such monitoring ("investigating") took place would be to admit that Trump's March 4th tweet was materially accurate.

The accusers could either dump one allegation or dump the other, but could not continue to make both. Knowing this, they reflexively did what they thought would protect Obama, because that is what puppies do for their masters.

And making things even worse for them is the intertia-like way the allegations intertwine, for they are woven together in such a way that while maintaining both is impossible, dumping one of them is still likely to weaken the one that remains, perhaps to the point of annihilation.

No matter how the MSM/Left responded following Trump's tweet, it was a loss for them and a win for him. The hare was caught in the jackal's jaws and the jackal relished the taste of its blood.

*     *     *     *     *

Now things continue to worsen for the MSM/Left at a dizzying pace, due to the sheer volume of evidence indicating that Trump & Co. was monitored by Obama & Co. The MSM/Left is simply not capable of keeping it all contained or of keeping its stories straight.

And making matters worse is that the evidence of monitoring does not come with any mitigating evidence that monitoring was justified... so as their ability to credibly defend Obama & Co. withers, so too does their ability to credibly accuse Trump & Co. of being in bed with the Russkies... and thus the hare is not only bleeding, but perhaps bleeding out.

It's intriguing that Obama, who usually can't avoid talking about every topic under the sun, especially when the topic is himself, has kept his lips sealed with Krazy Glue when it comes to this story.

It's even more intriguing that the lone official statement given on Obama's behalf (by his spokesman, Kevin Lewis) did not deny that surveillance took place, nor did it even deny that old school wiretapping took place, nor did it even deny White House involvement in such things. The only thing it denied was that the White House "ordered" surveillance -- as if anyone believes Obama would be so stupid as to sign his name to such a thing on White House stationery!

Two days prior to Trump's tweet, Evelyn Farkas, who worked for Obama's Defense Department and for Hillary's presidential campaign, appeared on MSNBC talking not only about Trump associates being surveilled, but about she herself urging her contacts to "get as much information as you can" about members of Team Trump "before President Obama leaves the administration."

Farkas also admitted that intentional leaking of classified information occurred. Such leaking happens to be a felony under federal law.

Then it was reported by Bloomberg -- not a right wing outlet -- that Susan Rice requested the "unmasking" of Trump associates who were incidentally recorded by our intelligence agencies while those agencies were conducting surveillance of foreign individuals. "Unmasking" means revealing the names of Americans who were recorded while they were not being surveilled but foreigners were.

Rice was Obama's National Security Advisor, and, outside of Valerie Jarrett, his most trusted confidante. For all intents and purposes she was his right hand throughout his second term as president. The significance of her being involved in this affair is best spelled out in Andy McCarthy's recent magnum opus, which you really should read, but in essence it is this:

The White House does not do investigations and therefore should not get involved in them, for that is the job of intelligence agencies, which are collectively known as "the intelligence community"... those agencies relay information to the White House which they deem important, based on their investigations and law enforcement acumen... even within those agencies, and thus within the intelligence community as a whole, access to certain information is extremely limited and the names of "masked" individuals are chief among that limited-access information; actual unmasking of those names is rare and is supposed to happen only in very crucial situations for very necessary reasons.

To wit, if it was important or necessary to unmask members of Team Trump based on what they were surveilled doing, the intelligence agencies would have discerned that and done so -- but they did not... if surveillance revealed anything resembling a crime or breach of national security being done by members of Team Trump, the intelligence agencies would have discerned that and forwarded the cases for action to be taken -- but they did not... so when unmasking was subsequently demanded by Susan Rice, who was not part of the intelligence community but was Obama's right hand, the reason had to be political rather than in the interest of fighting crime or protecting national security.

The ability to accurately say that "investigations" related to "national security" "involved" people who were Trump "associates" or "members of" Team Trump (and to add that those people had "communications" with "the Russians") could be used as a cudgel to raise doubts about whether Team Trump is on the up and up -- especially when the accusers using that cudgel can refuse to answer questions about specifics by demurely saying they can't answer because "investigations" are "ongoing" and further details are "classified" (never mind that what they already said was also classified and that saying those things was a felony).

In other words, there is a ton of smoke suggesting very strongly that Obama & Co. was surveilling Trump & Co. and enabling juicy leaks to the media -- leaks that were grammatically true in what they stated but dramatically dishonest in what they implied.

The smoke is so thick that only the blindly partisan, dangerously naive, outright ignorant, or fully foolish could fail to suspect that it must be coming from a genuine conflagration -- and the reason we know this is that President 45 kicked the hornet's nest that is the MSM/Left, causing the hornets within to come fluttering out concussed and confused.

*     *     *     *     *

Kicked hornets. Fat city rat. Hare in a jackal's jaws. I can't stop making animal analogies when it comes to the MSM/Left's current conundrum concerning President Donald J. Trump.

Regardless of which analogy is in my mind at a given moment, the bottom line is that the MSM/Left keeps getting its tuckus kicked because of the simple fact that Trump is unlike any Republican they have ever seen -- by which I mean that he fights back (and even fights first!) and does not put up with their bullying balderdash and blustery bullshit. Unaccustomed to facing such a foe, they know not what to do and every step they take turns into a stumble.

Historically, the MSM/Left has been able to lash Republicans and play them like yo-yos merely by slandering them and threatening to slander them more. Historically, Republicans have responded to that rhetorical thuggery not by counter punching but by trying to make nice -- to which the MSM/Left has always responded not by meeting them halfway or even one percent of the way, but by lashing them with even greater ferocity and pushing them continuously backwards until they are no longer even on the field.

More often than not, elected Republicans cowered in the face of the thuggery, with the result being that Democrats won almost all of the big battles even when Republicans were in the majority. This GOP tendency to run scared and play the role of surrender whore routinely alienated and enraged its base, yet the GOP kept doing it.

The MSM/Left grew accustomed to being the trafficking pimp for the simple reason that Republicans grew accustomed to being its trafficked bitches... until now, that is, for things changed on November 8, 2016.

Donald Trump may be a New York billionaire and his namesake tower may be on Fifth Avenue, but he does not hail from the prim and proper set normally associated with New York wealth. He hails not from Manhattan but from Queens, a borough known more for working class feistiness than for cocktail parties, and this truth is reflected in the way he fights fire with fire when battle lines are drawn and left wing bellicosity is in the air.

This plays extremely well in flyover country, and the South, and in blue collar regions of states that swing (Florida) and of states that were recently thought to be reliably blue (Pennsylvania). This is why Trump knocked down the Democrats' "blue wall" by winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa; and why he came astonishingly close to winning Minnesota, which happens to be the only one of these fifty United States that Reagan never won.

And, mon ami, this is why the MSM/Left finds itself in such a quandary. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that the rules have changed, it keeps trying to run plays from its outdated playbook that was written with the old rules in mind. Therefore it keeps getting burned, and every time it gets burned, Trump's support: 1) strengthens among his base that has supported him from the beginning; 2) strengthens among those who were skeptical from the beginning, but who opted to take a gamble by voting for him when push came to shove; and 3) expands among those who did not vote for him but did opt to keep an open mind after he took office.

With each passing day (as detailed in Andy McCarthy's more recent magnum opus) more information comes out to make it abundantly clear that Obama & Co. was surveilling not only Trump & Co. but also other political opponents... and that it was surveilling them not because it had actual reason to suspect them of committing crimes or compromising national security, but because it wanted to score political points in the way noted above, or because it wanted to know what they were planning to do so it could head them off... and with this information coming to light, the MSM/Left's ability to credibly claim that Obama & Co. did not spy on Trump & Co. continues to evaporate.

With each passing day, actual events make it more and more clear that Trump and Putin are not bosom buddies at all. Our UN Ambassador that Trump appointed, Nikki Haley, has been tough on Russia ever since she took office. Reportedly, the military strikes Trump authorized (ordered?) in Syria and Afghanistan rankled the Kremlin so much that our relationship with Russia is, 90 days into Trump's presidency, more adversarial than it's been in decades.

So, should the MSM/Left revive its recent claim that Trump & Co. is dangerous because it's in cahoots with Russia, or should it suddenly start claiming that Trump & Co. is dangerous because it's antagonistic to Russia? To claim the former is to claim something so hard to believe that the MSM/Left would seem to be populated by fools, but to claim the latter is to admit that the MSM/Left was either breathtakingly wrong or breathtakingly dishonest about things it previously said.

Again, no matter what the MSM/Left chooses to claim, it is a loss for them and a win for Trump. Again the hare is caught in the jackal's jaws, and again, the jackal relishes the taste of its blood.

The hare in Aesop's fable got cocky and thought it could sleep on the job, with the result being that a tortoise passed him while he slept. The hare in America's politics of 2017 should be even more embarrassed than Aesop's, for while it too got cocky and is paying a price as a result, it is paying that price despite not having stopped running.

Initially, today's hare did not know that a jackal might be lurking in the field. Now it does, yet it keeps getting bloodied by the jackal because it turns out that speed alone is not enough to elude such a predator. And it still has not identified, much less cultivated, any other talent that might help it in this contest.

And a jackal is not a tortoise, and this particular jackal never sleeps.

Pity the hare.