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.

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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

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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

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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:

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'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.

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?

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.

...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!