Video or it Didn’t Happen: The Ray Rice Story

Editor’s Note: The following is based on my opinion and my opinion alone.

By now, everyone has seen the atrocious video of three-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice viciously punching and knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in a hotel elevator. And by now, everyone has also heard that the Baltimore Ravens have terminated his contract and the NFL has suspended him from playing in the league indefinitely.

But remember, even though the video is relatively new to the public and the NFL (so it claims), the events are not. Ray Rice hit his fiancee, was arrested, and subsequently indicted for third-degree aggravated assault on March 27. This was a confirmed fact. Rice admitted it. Rice’s fiancee attested to it. And eventually, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged it and levied a suspension on July 24 that would keep Rice from playing in the first two games of the 2014 NFL season. There was never a need for actual video to prove what happened or to eventually force the NFL to initially “discipline” Rice. But that’s what it took for anybody to actually do anything about it.

Why?

No one learned anything by the video being released. Not the fans, not the NFL, not the Ravens, nobody. To me, this is the second most terrible part of this whole situation, besides the act itself.

Could the Ravens organization and Roger Goodell not picture what it looks like to see a 212-pound professional athlete land a solid left hook to the jaw of a defenseless woman? Did the initial reports confirming the fact that Rice knocked his fiancee unconscious fail to illustrate what happened?

Of course Goodell knew what it looked like. And of course the Ravens realized how bad it was. But since it was just some words on the Internet and some scolding columns from sports writers around the country, it wasn’t any worse than any tough situation the league or the Ravens had been in before (Note: See Ray Lewis).

The Ravens and the NFL both figured they had successfully lived down the whole situation. Goodell implemented new policies that would levy harsher penalties for players involved in domestic violence, making him look like he was actually trying to discourage his players from hitting their wives or girlfriends in the first place! And though the Ravens certainly seemed to suffer a bit of a blow after a defeat in their season opener without Rice, two weeks later they’d be whole again and both the organization and its head coach would welcome back their running back gone astray and things would be just like they were before.

And they all would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for that meddling TMZ.

The fact is, the only thing that matters is public perception. And the public has difficulty perceiving the real truth unless it is delivered to their eyeballs, because black and white text just doesn’t cut it, apparently, or at least in the eyes of Roger Goodell and the Baltimore Ravens. What Rice had done was certainly bad, but it didn’t actually “look bad” until people had something to look at. Sure, Rice’s reputation was sullied because of all the reports and negative attention before the video was released, but it didn’t devastate his career, and it certainly didn’t turn fans away, as evidenced by their warm reception of Rice in Baltimore’s first preseason game of the year.

Before the video, the Ravens and the NFL shared the same point of view: Time was healing the wound and soon it would be closed with nary a scar to show for it. Both the Ravens and the League had nearly solved their problem by ignoring it because of the public’s short attention span. I mean, that’s probably why Ray Lewis got a statue outside M&T Bank stadium, right?

It took a grainy video to confirm facts we all knew had definitely happened and that’s the only reason Ray Rice, the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens didn’t get away with turning a blind eye to domestic violence.

Let’s hope all of these mistakes end here, before any more false idols are erected and before more wife-beating thugs think they can get away with it. Let’s hope that Roger Goodell and the NFL realize that it shouldn’t take video evidence for real justice to be served.

The Pirates are winners again

The front cover of the sports section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The front cover of the sports section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on 9/10/2013

I will never forget this day.

It is done. After 20 miserable, pathetic, impotent, embarrassing years, our Pittsburgh Pirates are guaranteed a winning season. Once a year, usually in September, I launch a Facebook tirade about the Buccos breaking my heart and how I continually let them because I’ll never stop being a Pirates fan. But finally, now I get to take a different tone. I get to convey a sentiment of pride and hopefulness, and well, joy. Pure, unadulterated joy. Every Pirates fan is feeling the same thing I’m sure and ladies and gentleman, it’s an extraordinary feeling.

So here’s to 82 and burying the curse of Sid Bream and Francisco Cabrera. Here’s to forgetting that Barry Bonds couldn’t throw out one of the worst runners in the majors. Here’s to forgetting Operation Shutdown. Here’s too burying 57-105 in 2010. Here’s to forgetting John Russell, Jim Tracy, Pete Mackanin, Lloyd McClendon, and Gene Lamont. Here’s to wiping the memory away of Dave Littlefield and every other inadequate front office bozo that disgraced a rich baseball tradition in a city that could have never imagined such inadequacy after 1992.

Here’s to Clint Hurdle, love him or hate him, he was at the helm of the most historic (and positive) event for the Pirates in TWO DECADES. Here’s to the Pirates ownership and front office, who have finally addressed futility and found a winning combination. Here’s to the Texas Rangers, who, although are a good team in their own right, suffered a true defeat to put smiles on the faces of thousands (millions?) of Pirates fans around the globe. Here’s to the Pirates organization for overcoming the insanity of Kyle Stark and Hoka Hey. And finally, here’s to all of the fans who have kept the faith through all these years, despite overwhelming ineptitude and disappointment.

We don’t know if the Pirates will have a winning season again next year, or in the next 20 years, for that matter, but right now they are winners. Enjoy it Pittsburgh. You’ve earned it.

The Penguins In Review: The 2012-13 Regular Season

Consol Energy Center

It’s tough to believe that the regular season is over already. The most ridiculous lockout since the last hockey lockout robbed us of 34 Penguins games this year and although that already seems like quite a bit of missed hockey, it’s even more devastating when you break it down to the number of absent regulation periods (102) and missing minutes (2,040). And not to put salt in the wound, but if Sidney Crosby hadn’t missed any games during the season and averaged his regular 21:06 of ice time per game, that means we also missed out on nearly 12 hours of watching the greatest player in the world do his thing.

 But let’s focus on what we did get to watch.

TEAM IN REVIEW

 To put it simply, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quite an amazing team to watch. They went 36-12-0 and acquired 72 points in route to capturing their first Atlantic Division title since 2008 and their first regular season conference crown in two decades, when they were captained by Mario Lemieux, backstopped by Tom Barrasso, and competed in the Prince of Wales Conference with the likes of the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers.

 Like that team from 1993, these Penguins looked unstoppable in the regular season and are considered amongst the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The 1992-93 Pens finished with 56 wins and 119 points. This year’s team was on pace for 61 wins and 122 points. That would have made them the winningest team in franchise history and given them the second most wins in NHL history, behind only the 1996 Detroit Red Wings who finished with 62.

 They never lost more than two games in a row and they became the first team in NHL history to win every game in the month of March (and at the same time becoming the first franchise to record a 10-game win streak in each of three consecutive seasons). That was during a streak in which the Pens won 15 in a row, tying the 1981-82 New York Islanders for the second longest win-streak in NHL history.

 Although this Pittsburgh team was relatively sound in most facets of the game, it was their offense that drove their success. Despite the shortened season, they still put a heck of a lot of pucks into the nets. They were first in the NHL in goals, with 162, which put them on pace to score 276 in 82 games. Much of their success came on the power play, which netted 42 goals and clicked at 24.7 percent, good enough for second best in the league.

 Defensively, the Pens weren’t firing on all cylinders for the duration of the season but they eventually found their way. Once they worked out some early season troubles leading to too much up and down hockey (that were exemplified by a disheartening 6-5 loss to the Flyers on February 20th and a 7-6 overtime win in Montreal on March 2), they really found the winning combination of scoring and defense. Through the first half of games, the Penguins gave up four or more goals eight times. Through the second half, they chiseled that number down to five games. It still wasn’t elite defense, but it got the job done by helping to win 20 of their last 24 games.

Over the course of the season, Pittsburgh averaged 2.48 goals against per game (12th in the NHL) and their goalie tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury (23-8 in 31 starts) and Tomas Vokoun (13-4 in 17 starts) combined for a .917 save percentage and 2.42 goals against. They might not be Vezina-type numbers, but they were good enough to help rack up the second-best record in the NHL and the best one-goal game win percentage in the league.

 But as good as Pittsburgh was in most areas of the game, they were pretty awful when it came to the penalty kill. They finished 25th in the league with a PK percentage of 79.6. Comparatively, the best PK team in the league, the Ottawa Senators, killed penalties at 88 percent. What’s most disconcerting about the Penguins penalty killing woes is that they’re one the worst teams in the league at it on the road. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the ability to excel on the road is critical for deep Cup runs. The Pens killed only 75.5 percent of penalties on the road and allowed 24 power play goals. The only team that allowed more was the Colorado Avalanche, a.k.a. the worst team in the Western Conference.

PLAYERS IN REVIEW

 Now it’s time to fire through the whole Penguins roster of 2012-13 and conduct a quick review of their bodies of work.

Craig Adams- Adams was one of the six iron men on the team this season, playing in all 48 games. That’s somewhat surprising considering his playing style. He was third on the team in hits (107) and eighth on the team in blocked shots (37). He may not have much offensive savvy (three goals and six assists), but he’s a valuable penalty killer and a fearless defender. He’ll be one of the first guys penciled into coach Dan Bylsma’s everyday playoff lineup once the team becomes completely healthy because he’s such a solid shorthanded asset.

 Marc-Andre Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury

As I mentioned before, MAF won’t win the Vezina this year, but if he ends the season hoisting the Stanley Cup, nothing else matters. He didn’t have elite statistics this season. He was 19th in save percentage (.916) and 17th in goals against average (2.39). But he did finish tied for second in wins (23) and the only reason that number wasn’t higher is because the Penguins actually had a backup they could trust to give Fleury some rest. In the end, the Flower was consistent and always gave the team a chance to win. He has a Stanley Cup pedigree and no one wants to avenge last season’s early playoff exit more than he does. I expect the same form from the Cup year to return this week and so does Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Rob Rossi.

 Beau Bennett- The rookie winger from California might have entered the NHL as a skinny greenhorn, but he’s left a tremendous impression on anyone that’s seen his work this season. We could see him grow up before our eyes, learning to see the ice better and better each game. He developed great chemistry with his line mates whether he was playing on the second line or the fourth. He has a slick touch to his puck handling and he’s certainly not afraid to run guys into the boards and grind the puck out from behind the net. I really hope Bylsma finds a spot on his playoff roster for this youngster because he will make the most out of any ice time he receives.

 Robert Bortuzzo- Borts, as he’s affectionately referred to by teammates, may have trouble cracking the playoff roster. But that’s not an indictment of his play during the season. He scored his first two NHL goals, but any offensive production he brings is frankly a bonus. Where this big-bodied D-man plays his best is in his own zone, tying up bodies around the net. In 15 games, he blocked 14 shots and registered 18 hits. He’s also developing a reputation as a tough guy, dropping the gloves three times. Bortuzzo is yet another example of the quality defensive depth the Penguins organization still has, even after trading away some quality defensive prospects this season.

 Matt Cooke- This will be remembered by most as the season that Matt Cooke sliced Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon, drawing ridiculous accusations from the Ottawa Senators brass, boorish comments from ex-goon analysts and insulting comparisons from loose-lipped announcers. But in actuality, the dirty Matt Cooke is long gone. The new Matt Cooke has struck a balance of grit and skill and when he’s playing on the edge (without going over it) Cooke is a dynamic penalty killer and a scoring threat to boot. His offensive production was down slightly this season, but it was wrong to expect the same level of production this season as he had last year, when he spent time on lines with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He did, however, have his worst plus/minus (-2) as a Penguin this year so hopefully the postseason will change his fortune in that regard.

 Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby

I think I’ve spent more time writing about injuries to Sidney Crosby than anything else on this blog. And I can’t tell you what it is (Bad luck? Unintended voodoo?), but I’ve been in attendance for the two most serious afflictions he’s suffered. I was at the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh when David Steckel concussed him and I was at the Consol Energy Center when Brooks Orpik’s errant shot broke his jaw and gave him a hockey smile. But had that puck missed him, he would be collecting an Art Ross Trophy at the end of the season in addition to a possible Hart Trophy. But there’s no use hashing out hypotheticals. What we know for sure is that Crosby is still the best player in the world and once he returns to action, we all expect him to resume his torrid scoring pace.

 Simon Despres- Despres has progressed well in his young career and this season he certainly showed us glimpses of his true value as a skilled defensive player. There are still some rough patches to iron out, including some panicky play where he’ll sling the puck into dangerous areas, but it’s all on pace and in due time. Bylsma needs to learn to trust Despres to play against more “physical” teams because it looks like that shouldn’t be an issue for him. He may not see time in the playoffs, but if Brooks Orpik remains out with a lower body injury, Despres’ puck moving ability and skill could be an asset against the young and speedy Islanders. It’s not likely that he’ll get the nod ahead of Deryk Engelland, though.

Pascal Dupuis

Pascal Dupuis

NHL players usually hit their primes around their mid-20s. By 30 they’re typically on the downswing of their careers and by their mid-30s, it’s not uncommon for them to trade in their hockey sticks for golf clubs. But not Pascal Dupuis. At the age of  34, this Canadian winger has been downright prolific this season, leading the NHL with a plus-31 and tying for third with 17 even strength goals. He finished third amongst Penguins with 31 points and led the club with 140 shots. He became a quality point man on the power play and continued to be one of the best penalty killers in Pittsburgh. He can switch between playing wing and center and in his younger days he even played some defense. This man can do everything and he’s hilarious, too. What’s not to like?

Mark Eaton- Mark Eaton doesn’t have point this season. He has only eight shots on goal and his shot blocks and hit totals don’t rank anywhere prominently in the NHL. Mark Eaton doesn’t get noticed and that’s been the best part about his play. He quietly executes on the blue line every night and he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s brought a calming veteran presence to this Penguins club and the proof is in its record since he arrived. In the 23 games he’s played with the Pens this year, they’ve lost three times. Call it a coincidence if you like, but he may be the most overlooked defensive piece that the Penguins have had all year.

 Deryk Engelland- Engelland had a decent season overall, but it was nothing to email home about. He certainly has progressed since the days in which his sole purpose in hockey was to cave in the face of the other team’s tough guy, but he isn’t at the level of a top-six defenseman (and I doubt he’ll ever reach that level). His physical style is welcomed in front of the Penguins net, but he can get out of position at times and he isn’t a great skater. His usefulness can plummet in the playoffs, where fights are few and far between, but as long as Bylsma doubts Simon Despres’ physicality, Engl will be the sixth defenseman until Orpik is ready.

 Tanner Glass- A glance a Glass’ numbers will make it seem like he didn’t have a very good season and they’d pretty much be correct. Don’t get me wrong. He’s one of the hardest working Pens and he’s eats up time on the penalty kill, but here’s what I’m hoping is just a bad coincidence: the Penguins penalty kill is awful and its key components are largely unchanged from the past few seasons when they were among the best in the league. Glass is one of the few different components. Do I think he single-highhandedly destroyed their PK somehow? Absolutely not. Do I think he’s helping it? Not necessarily. It’s great that he adds grit and sticks up for his teammates, every team needs guys like that. But I’m just not sold on his value after this short season. Hopefully, he can flip a switch like the Arron Ashams of the world and turn into an asset in the postseason. If he doesn’t show something right off the bat, he shouldn’t dress.

 Jarome Iginla

Jarome Iginla

Iginla’s trade was obviously the blockbuster deal of the NHL this season. After spending his entire career in Calgary, he decided he wanted to win some hockey games and dropped his no trade clause to play with his old Olympic buddy Sidney Crosby. I attended his first game as a Penguin and the crowd was about as receptive as it possibly could have been. And now after only 13 games of service to the city of Pittsburgh, I know why Calgary was so upset to see him go. How has a howitzer of a slap shot, a pearly white smile that he displays frequently and he’s already developed serious chemistry with the rest of the team. He sold his house in Calgary so it seems like he won’t be returning there at season’s end, so the question remains: Can/will the Pens sign him to an extension for 2013-14 and beyond? Because at the right price, I wouldn’t mind seeing him do this in a Penguins uniform for a few more years.

 Dustin Jeffrey- I can only imagine the frustration of Dustin Jeffrey. He’s a young, decent hockey player on one of the best teams in the NHL but there is no room at the inn. He’s been with the organization since 2007-08 and has bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL so much that he probably forgets what jersey to put on when he arrives at the rink. But lately, he can assume that a suit and tie is the appropriate uni. He played quite a bit in March but was a scratch for all but three games in April. And unless things go terribly awry in the injury department, it’s likely that DJ has played in his last game of the season. Six points and a plus-1 in 24 games should hardly be convincing otherwise.

 Jussi Jokinen- You might not have believed me if I told you that Jokinen would be the most efficient addition to the 2013 Penguins roster when Ray Shero brought him on board on deadline day, but that’s exactly what he’s been. When he shoots, it goes in. It’s that simple. The Juice has 13 shots on goal in 10 games and he’s scored on seven of them (and added four assists). That’s the best shooting percentage on the team. He’s also been the second-best Penguin in the face-off circle (57.9 percent). It should scare other teams that he might be relegated to the fourth line once the Penguins become healthy, because he has top-six talent.

 Tyler Kennedy- TK had arguably his worst season as a Penguin. He finished with six goals, five assists and was a minus-6. He did manage to put 100 shots on goal, but that’s hardly an exception for him. He’s always had a shoot first (shoot always) mentality and while he has seemed to elevate his game in past seasons when players went down because of injury, that really wasn’t the case this year. He got opportunities to center the first line when Sidney Crosby went down, but he struggled to inject any flow to his game and he was quickly relegated back to the third and fourth lines. For whatever reason, Bylsma loves Kennedy. I would pick him to be a healthy scratch once the Pens are healthy again, but knowing Disco, TK will be out there blasting off-target shots as soon as the postseason begins.

 Chris Kunitz

Chris Kunitz

I present for your consideration, the 2012-13 statistics of one Christopher Kunitz: 22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points, plus-30, nine power play goals, five game-winning goals, 19.5 shooting percentage, 113 shots, all 48 games played. He was easily the best Penguin not named Sidney this year. For awhile, he was in the running for the Rocket Richard and Art Ross trophies. The only question remaining about Kunitz is where he’ll play once the Penguins are healthy. Crosby said that he feels more comfortable with Kunitz and Dupuis on his wings, but it shouldn’t matter where they are plugged in. Whether its on the first line with Crosby and Dupuis or on the second with Malkin and Neal, his presence can make it the best line in the NHL. Pretty good for a 33-year-old undrafted free agent.

 Kris Letang- He’s the best defenseman in hockey and he should be recognized as such by being awarded the Norris Trophy. Letang tied another Norris front-runner, P.K. Subban, with 38 points and did him four better when it came to plus/minus. Letang’s odds were narrowed because he played in seven fewer games than Subban and scored six fewer goals, but he ate up two more minutes per game than Subban and was in the penalty box far less as well. Unfortunately, I don’t have a vote for the NHL awards but he deserves the hardware because he plays the game better than any other blue-liner in the league.

 Steve MacIntyre- What can I say about Mac? He played in one game with the big club this year and basically served as a bodyguard for Matt Cooke. He’s a big bruiser that doesn’t do much and his type will eventually be phased out of the game someday. But for now, it’s hard not to love the big lug because of one time he defended his teammates by beating up the entire other team. I’ll just say I’m glad he’s on our side.

 Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin

Last season, Evgeni Malkin finished the regular season with 50 goals and 109 points to lock up the NHL scoring title. He was also won the Ted Lindsay Award (Most Outstanding Player) and was voted the league MVP. This season, Geno had nine goals and 24 assist, which put him on pace for 15 goals and 41 assists in an 82-game campaign. Those numbers would represent the second-worst statistical year of his career, with the worst coming in a season in which he played only 43 games. He did have injury problems this year as well, but Malkin might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. Thankfully, there’s still the postseason to redeem himself. He’s played some of his best hockey in the Stanley Cup playoffs, most notably in 2009 when he when the Conn Smythe trophy as the postseason MVP. His odds for winning a second Conn Smythe are 20/1 this year.

 Paul Martin- At the end of last season, Paul Martin was public enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh. He had a putrid year and because of his $5 million per year salary, it didn’t seem likely that any other team would take him off our hands. We became stuck with Paul Martin. Now, thank god we’re stuck with Paul Martin. He was easily the team’s comeback player of the year. Just consider the numbers. This season he has four more goals in 39 fewer games. He has nearly as many assists this year (17) as he did last year (25). His plus/minus is five points better. When it comes to the intangibles, it’s also been night and day. Last year, he struggled in the offensive zone, especially when he was on the point during the power play. This season, he’s calm and collected in the offensive zone. There is no panic and he has seemingly always made the right pass or shot at the perfect time. And with 52 games played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, his experience is welcomed with open arms at this time of year. A $5 million Paul Martin? Hell, that’s a bargain.

 Brenden Morrow- Brendan Morrow has been a Penguin for only 15 games and already he’s a cult hero in Pittsburgh. The blue collar fans love his style of play. They love that he parks in front of the net and raises hell on ice for defensemen and goaltenders. They love that he’s averaged nearly a point per game since he’s arrived. But I think Pens fans really love him because he seems to play with such passion and emotion, even after 850 career NHL games. And what’s the most telling fact? When he scores, he beams. It’s like every time the puck zings off his stick into the net, it’s the first time he’s ever scored, and this is a man who has 249 career goals. Fans enjoy when it’s clear that players are having fun representing their city. And it doesn’t hurt that Morrow put the beat down on local villain Subban and yelled from the penalty box “You have five minutes to think about what I’m going to do to you when we get out there.”

Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray

In his former lives, Douglas Murray was a bouncer, a boulder, a bull dog and a beef cow. In this life, he’s a slow-skating mountain troll who doesn’t feel pain and clears the ice of human debris.  After Morrow, Murray might be the next favorite addition to the Penguins because of his strength, size and because he might be a slightly cleaner reincarnation of Ulf Samuelsson. Between his time in San Jose and Pittsburgh this season, Murray has 89 hits and 98 blocked shots, which both rank second amongst Pen’s D-men. He has the second worst plus/minus on the team, but other than that he certainly has made a positive influence in the Burgh.

 James Neal- The Real Deal James Neal hammered home 21 goals this season, nine of them coming on the power play. He still has one of the most wicked shots in hockey, a release so quick that the opposition can’t get in front of it quick enough (skaters and goalies all included). I wondered how Neal would look upon returning from a concussion, but my fears were alleviated by a four-point regular season finale complete with a hat trick off of eight shots. Neal is yet another power play specialist within the Penguins roster that will do some major damage in the postseason, especially off of a face off play that is so quick, the announcers can’t call the goal until the puck is in the net for five seconds.

 Matt Niskanen- Niksanen is another one of those Penguins players that rarely gets talked about because there’s never a need to do so. He’s been one of the most quietly consistent Penguins since he joined the team and this year was no different. He didn’t exactly wear out the net twine but he was able to put together a respectable season with 14 points, two game-winning goals and was a  plus-4. This was a carry over from last year’s playoffs, in which the former Dallas Star lead the Penguins in almost all major statistical categories in terms of shots against, goals against and Corsi.Pair his play on the ice with his recently received “Good Guy” Award and you have a quality person and D-man in Matt Niskanen.

 Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

Orpik is the second-biggest question mark remaining on the Penguins roster heading into the postseason (with the first obviously being Crosby). He suffered a lower-body injury last week against the Buffalo Sabres that kept him out of the final two regular-season games. He did skate by himself this week but is listed as day to day. Orpik is an important cog in a Penguins defense that struggled in the beginning of the year, only to turn it around in mid-season. His potential absence could leave a glaring hole in front of the net. He was clearly the best defensive defenseman for the Penguins, leading the team in hits (119), blocked shots (114) and games played (46). I’ll feel a lot better about the back end once Orpik and his demonic bulging eyes are back on the ice.

 Dylan Reese- Reese played in three NHL contests this season and registered one shot on goal. He’s currently playing for the Baby Pens in the first round of the AHL playoffs. He grew up in Pittsburgh, so that’s nice. Moving on…

 Trevor Smith- If it doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry, it shouldn’t. Mr. Smith played in one game this year. I was at that game in March and didn’t know he had played in it. He registered zero stats during 10:24 of ice time.

 Brandon Sutter- Now that the season is over, we can finally compare the stats of Sutter and Jordan Staal and see which team won the trade! Although this doesn’t necessarily work in a black and white comparison, it’s still fun to see. Sutter finished with one more goal than Staal, but the ex-Penguin racked up 13 more assists. The glaring difference was their plus/minus numbers. Sutter finished with a plus-3 (the second-best of his career) while Staal finished a minus-18, easily the worst of his career. Sutsy finished with five game-winning goals. Staal had one. There wasn’t a huge difference between the two, but given where the Pens are right now, I’d say that Shero has no regrets. And given Sutter’s family pedigree and style of play, I cannot wait to see what kind of force he can be in the playoffs.

 Joe Vitale- I always admired Joe Vitale’s game. He hustles like he’s Bryce Harper on ice, he drills guys into the boards and while he doesn’t often fill the net, he scored one of the prettiest elevation goals of this shortened NHL season. He has a skill set that would be utilized a lot more were he not on a superstar-loaded team. He still managed to get on the ice 33 times this year, however that was the best number on his stat sheet. He was a minus-7 with two goals and three assists. I would have liked to see him get some more time this year simply because he’s fun to watch, but a healthy roster will probably relegate him to the press box for the remainder of the season. He has one year left on his contract after this season and then becomes a restricted free agent. Given his overall lack of production and the fact he’ll be 28 years old, that might be the last season we see him in a Penguins sweater.

 Tomas Vokoun

Tomas Vokoun

Much can be said about all of Ray Shero’s 2012-13 acquisitions, but the best of them all was Tomas Vokoun. Fleury was overworked when he entered last year’s playoffs because of the Penguins’ hesitance to start Brent Johnson more than a handful of times during the regular season. With the installation of Vokoun, the Pens were able to rest Fleury without worrying about their backup getting lit up. Vokoun’s veteran presence has seemed to push the Flower to become more focused and better rested. And heading into the postseason, Fleury is by far the most important person to be in peak condition both mentally and physically.

Boston Marathon bombing was a meaningful “where were you” moment

As I examine the recollections of my short 25 years in existence, there are a few “where were you” moments that I can clearly remember. For the most part, they are sports moments. Some of them are wonderful and others still pain me to think about.

But as vividly as I remember the plays at home plate or the shots from the blue line, they didn’t change my life. In the grand scope of existence, they were meaningless beyond a few cherished memories and fodder between some friends and a round of beers.

 Yesterday I added a new “where were you” moment, one happening within sports but outside of the usual context. It was the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Those grisly events on Boylston St. mattered and I found myself considering the situation more than I thought I would.

I found out about the bombing while walking home from the grocery store. I was listening to the radio. It was Pittsburgh sports talk, but it briefly cut out to report the events at the Boston Marathon. After 15 seconds, it was back to regular programming.

I hurried back to my apartment and turned on the television. The images of the race immediately made me think of November 2011.

 ****

My first notable “where were you” memory occurred 20 years ago. I remember sobbing in my parent’s living room after the Pittsburgh Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 NLCS. Although I was only 5, I’ll never forget Sid Bream sliding into home plate, narrowly avoiding the tag of Spanky Lavalliere, thus ending my night and the ability of the Pirates organization to ever win again.

Most recently, I recall sitting at the end of a bar in New York City, nervously slugging a Honey Brown lager when the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals. Marc-Andre Fleury’s leap across the goal mouth to snuff out Nicklas Lidstrom’s shot in the game’s waning seconds will forever exist in my head, readily available for access on a daily basis should I need to smile.

 But as depressing and joyful as those respective nights were, they weren’t real life. Because after all, sports are merely a diversion from the things that really matter, regardless of how much happiness or grief they cause us to feel.

 In actuality, it is the other “where were you” moments, the real-life instances that truly matter. These are the events that can alter people’s lives. They are life and death. They mold the world and drive change, whether it is social, economic, environmental, or what have you. For older generations, the Kennedy assassination conjures vivid descriptions easily remembered at a moment’s notice, as does the moon landing or the fall or the Berlin Wall. For me and my generation, Sept. 11, 2001 does the same.

 My memory of the attacks is as clear as the skies were that day. I was sitting in Mr. Lewis’ classroom in eighth grade with a room full of my peers and a few teachers. We watched the television mounted on the wall as the second plane horrifically glided into the second tower. It felt like a movie. I remember exiting the building later that day and craning my head upwards to observe an immaculate sky, devoid of clouds and any air planes. Even in cow country Pennsylvania, it was unusual and unnerving to witness that stillness above.

 Still, New York City felt like a world away and though I’ll never forget that day, I didn’t feel like I was part of it, even if I was standing under the same empty sky as those people in New York. I didn’t know anyone who died in the towers or on the planes, so it didn’t drive much emotion from me.

That always bothered me to an extent, because I should have felt patriotic, or sad or something. But I didn’t feel much. In retrospect, I may have been too young and naive to feel the emotion that I probably should have, so when the planes fell out of the sky and the buildings crashed down, it didn’t shake the ground beneath my feet.

 But yesterday felt different.

 The Boston Marathon bombing served up a very startling real-life “where were you moment” that I can’t help but feel linked to. It happened in a city no different than the one I live now and there was no reason those bombs couldn’t have burst in the Big Apple.

 I found myself tearing up at the sight of the horror, and that surprised me. Although I see murders and other tragedies on the news nearly every day, I feel disconnected to most of it, even if those events happen close to me. I’m used to seeing reports of violence and devastation but it never conjures any real emotions. I don’t know whether that’s a product of my desensitization from seeing news reports daily or it’s just a general lack of interest in a violent and harsh world I can’t relate to. I’ve never been victim to tragedy. I’ve never bared witness to terror.

 But after I saw the pictures and the footage of bloody sidewalks and terrified crowds and crying children and shattered windows and misery and anger and pain, I couldn’t help but react differently this time. It made me feel a little more human. This time I had a connection to what I was watching, albeit one conjured in my head.

I was touched by the Boston bombing because of the thought that it could have happened to me.

 In November 2011, I had gathered with a group of friends and thousands of strangers near the finish line on a chilly November afternoon. It was the day of the New York City Marathon. My roommate was in the race and I was packed in five or six people deep to see him finish. The sun was shining, just as it was in Boston yesterday. It had a celebratory atmosphere and parties were just as prevalent as competitors. It is a happy memory.

 My friend jogged by me as did many others, completing what was one of the most difficult but rewarding tasks of their lives. It was inspiring. A few runners began to stagger with the finish line in site. They were empty and though their hearts were willing, their muscles were weak. Some stopped. A few more resilient runners approached them, urging them to finish. “It’s not far now,” they would tell the depleted competitors. “You can do it.” They were proud people and I was proud of them.

 The crowd joined in with frenzy. Never had I ever rooted so hard for nameless strangers. Their heavy feet began to step again, driven by the thousands chanting their number. It was so redeeming to see folks in New York City forget themselves. In a loud and crowded city, it’s not uncommon for rudeness and indifference to act as rule, not exception, so to glimpse the opposite for a few hours restored a little bit of my faith in humanity.

 ****

 As I watched the replay of the bombs detonating over and over, there was one overriding thought in my head: What if an explosion happened at the New York City Marathon? What would have gone through the heads of my family if they found out a bomb went off near Central Park on marathon day and I was undoubtedly attending? It’s a sickening hypothetical made real and relatable by yesterday’s tragedy.

 Because of that hypothetical, the Boston Marathon bombing was the most visceral “where were you” moment I’ve ever had. Suddenly, the violent and alien world of tragedy didn’t seem light years away. I could relate.

 We’ll continue to hear news as the investigation in Boston rolls on and we’ll be reminded for a while about everything that took place. Future marathons will be altered and security will tighten at stadiums and races around the world. In time, the memory will fizzle and drift to the back of our minds. It’ll boil down to a “where were you” moment for most of us, just like 9/11 or Kennedy’s death. I can tell my kids about it someday and they probably won’t think much of it. It won’t be forgotten, but it’ll be just another tragic memory. It won’t change many of us.

 But I hope the memory of yesterday serves more of a purpose than just an afterthought. I hope it changes me, just a little. I want to remember my hypothetical. I want to remember that fear juxtaposed with my memory of the New York City Marathon. I want to remember how I thought it could have happened to me.

 When life is at its worst and I’m ready to give up, I want to remember it could be worse. I could have lost someone I loved and someone could have lost me. The only difference was that some sick person or people decided to plant explosives in Boston in 2013 instead of New York in 2011.

 Hopefully, it will remind me that I’m pretty damn lucky to have what and who I have. I hope it reminds me that I GET to watch the Pirates lose and the Penguins win. I hope it reminds me that I’m fortunate enough to reminisce about Spanky and Marc-Andre and that I GET to pretend that those things matter.

Where was I the day of the Boston Marathon bombing?

Hopefully, I remember that I was in New York City, and I felt the explosions from 200 miles away.

March Madness Final preview on MatchPint

This is it. Tonight is the bittersweet end for college basketball fans. It may very well be the best game of the year (it’ll be the most hyped, anyway). But after tonight, college hoops fans can put away their pom poms and officially licensed NCAA beer funnels for a few months.

I previewed the final on Mud, Sweat and Beers, the MatchPint blog. It’s been a great time writing about the Tourney and I hope to do it again in the future…(hint hint anyone hiring?) You can check out my preview here (which includes my prediction).

Jokes aside, tonight is the pinnacle of a tremendously fun basketball season and since we already know the Heat will win the NBA Championship, this remains the only basketball game left from the 2012-13 season that leaves something to the imagination.

Enjoy.

Final Four preview on MatchPint

March Madness has finally progressed to April Impatience! But the field has narrowed to four — Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan and Syracuse. To honor these teams,  the Empire State Building will shine its lights in each of the four colors of those teams on Saturday. I have also done something to honor those teams: I’ve written about them so people in the U.K. know that they exist!

My Final Four preview is up now at Mud, Sweat and Beers, the MatchPint blog.

Click here to check it out.

It may not have vibrant colors that illuminate the famous New York City skyline, but it’s short, sweet and you don’t have to book Megabus tickets to see it.

Pittsburgh and the Mystical Winger: A Penguins Tale of Lore

Do you like bad fan fiction? Do you like hockey?

If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, this post is for you!

 

There is a fairy tale that has been told in Pittsburgh for some time now.

It is a chronicle about one man in search of eternal glory – not only for himself, but for his people and his small, but loyal army. His name was Ray Shero and he dreamt of drinking from a hallowed cup, the most precious of trophies and the most coveted of possessions among his peers. And he wanted to drink from this great Cup more than once, for he was a great wizard, deserving of great riches and heavenly wealth.

But to achieve this, some thought, Shero would have to find a man first. Prophecy foretold that this man would one day arrive in Pittsburgh, through no easy means, and find great comfort and success on the wing of Sidney Crosby, the vaunted White Knight.

But to speak of Shero’s vaunted White Winger, one must first understand Crosby.

Crosby was no commoner, himself. He had already fulfilled a prophecy, one which named him “The Next One.” At the age of 18 and in his first NHL season, he had already salvaged a dying Penguins franchise and a wilting National Hockey League. He did this with the help of a great 66, called “Le Magnifique” by some and Mario Lemieux by all.

But even though Lemieux and Crosby brought the NHL back into the public’s favor after a devastating lockout in 2004-2005 and saved the Penguins franchise from bankruptcy and relocation, there was still work to be done.

For you see, the Penguins still existed, but only barely. Even with Crosby finishing sixth in league scoring with 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) and a runner-up bid for rookie of the year, the Penguins still finished second from last in the NHL with 58 points. Even Lemieux couldn’t help his ill-gotten team, for he had grown old by then and could no longer carry the remaining weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

The team’s mediocrity didn’t last, though. The very next season, they finished second in the Atlantic Division with an astounding 105 points. Crosby had grown into the vision the hockey gods had projected. He led the NHL with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) and won the Hart Trophy, becoming the youngest player and only teenager to win a scoring title. Crosby was also named the league MVP and received the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most outstanding player, becoming the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three awards in one year.

In 2008, Shero found himself pulling strings at the trade deadline. His army wasn’t quite legendary, but it was something to behold. It was the best in the East. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all as formidable as anyone in the league and no one doubted the team’s greatness. But it seemed that they lacked a key piece to make them the best in all of hockey.

And that piece existed.

He was skating and shooting and scoring in the land of Atlanta, a land long forgotten by the hockey gods. It, perhaps, was shunned because of one evil winger that played there. Unfortunately, for Shero, he was the thought to be that piece. He was Marian Hossa, who later became known as the Dark Winger.

“We must have him,” Shero thought. And so he worked his great magic and the Penguins sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for the heralded Hossa, as well as Pascal Dupuis.

Hossa helped carry the mighty Guins to the finals that season. But victorious the team was not. For unbeknownst to the Penguins and Shero, Hossa was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a shape shifting evil doer, hell-bent on personal success with no connection to the mortal world.

He was not a team player.

So the Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Driven by only his greed for personal success, Hossa departed from the Land of Steel for the Hell of the Midwest – Detroit, in search of glory of the evil variety.

Without Hossa the following season, the Penguins repeated as Eastern Conference champions. They crossed into the darkness of Detroit once more, this time besting the Redwings in seven games to capture the Cup in a valiant effort that will live in lore forever.

They drank from Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup, but some say it was against the will of the hockey gods. You see, although Detroit may be an evil land, it had become the home of the hockey gods, thus earning the city the name “Hockey Town.” The gods had built their sanctuary in the midst of the downtrodden city around them and that sanctuary was known as “the Joe.” It was the Joe Louis Arena, the oldest arena in the NHL. And because the Penguins seized the Stanley Cup on Game 7 in the Joe, snatching it away from the sanctuary of the hockey gods, they were cursed, doomed to never reach the Finals again.

But legend had it that if the Penguins were to find the White Winger, one man pure and devoted to the game and its fans, a captain of his own domain so incorruptible that he could endure a terrible team for years and still remain up-beat; only then could the Penguins return to the Finals and hoist the Cup once more.

In the coming seasons, the Penguins were tremendous. But as remarkable as they were, the playoffs became their Achilles heel because of the hockey gods’ curse. Once 82 games of regular season had elapsed, the Penguins lapsed. And for the three years following the Cup victory, the Penguins were ousted in either the first or second round of the playoffs.

Great regular season success followed by despicable postseason defeat was a curse that Shero’s people had great trouble enduring.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, the Penguins believed they could triumph despite the curse and the lack of the White Winger. The hockey gods feared they were right. So in the midst of Crosby’s greatest season ever, the gods sent a lightning bolt crashing from the heavens during the nationally televised Winter Classic. It struck Crosby in the form of a David Steckel hit to the head. It was a hit that sent shockwaves throughout Shero’s kingdom.

Some foretold he may never play again. He missed nearly two full seasons, but by power of magic and great strength, he became the man he once was.

From then on, the Penguins and its fans realized they indeed needed the White Winger to succeed. This had everyone going on “watch.”

First it was “Jagr watch.” That wasn’t to be. Jaromir Jagr, once a masterful winger for the Penguins in the days of the first and second Penguins Cups, succumbed to dark sorcery and chose evil over good. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2011.

The following summer, Crosby’s good friend Zach Parise became the next prospective winger for the Penguins. “Parise watch” was in full force and many Pittsburgh faithful believed the ex-Devil’s captain would bring his talent to the Penguins and vie for a Cup. But once again, the hockey gods vetoed the suspicions and cast him to the great north of Minnesota, where he collected a king’s ransom.

So the final White Winger watch brings us to modern times. Rumors were whispered across the hockey landscape that the Penguins were closer than ever to finding him. Truth be told, the Penguins signed a winger, a captain, who many thought would fulfill the prophecy. He was Brenden Morrow, a veteran captain of the Dallas Stars. He was a born leader and would be valued because of his insight into the game and his gritty style of play. He had long been a bastion of good will in a town where the hockey gods had not been kind to in quite some time. He was pure of heart and remained upbeat in an unsuccessful hockey town.

After quick consideration, the Penguins faithful decided he was close enough to the prophecy. He played the wing. He probably wouldn’t supplant the outstanding wingers Crosby already had (Dupuis and Chris Kunitz) but he would fill the second-line role that was needed badly.

The visions had changed scripture and it was no longer Sid’s winger, but the second line’s winger that would fulfill prophecy. Dreamers fell back down to earth and realists realized something great: This Penguins team was now built for a deep run in the playoffs.

After the addition of the mountain-of-a-man, troll defenseman Douglas Murray a day later, reality now became the prophecy. Shero had found his pieces. The missing rook and the absent bishop were now on the board and Pittsburgh was more than capable of a checkmate against any team in the league.

But there had been another winger in the land of hockey, one of great value. His name was Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. He hailed from the west of Canada for many years and donned a “C” on his chest and a “C” over his heart. Some soothsayers claimed that he was that mystical winger who could fill the void in Pittsburgh. This, of course, was before it was filled by Morrow, so it could no longer be.

But the days following the Morrow signing, these same oracles still whispered about Iginla’s interest in Pittsburgh. Most folk responded to these whispers with “delusions of grandeur! For Shero is done. He has finished his work, so let us be merry now without conjecture and speculation from fools with unnamed sources.”

The doubters were right. On a dark Wednesday night, as the newly acquired Penguins traveled toward their new kingdoms, the oracles confirmed that Iginla had indeed agreed to become a Boston Bruin. Penguins fans were not pleased, but certainly not worried. Although the Bruins would be their toughest playoff adversary, Iginla’s addition would certainly not guarantee a Pittsburgh demise.

“So be it,” they said. “Let Iginla skate for Beantown. It shall make no difference.”

So Penguins fans laid their heads to their pillows and began to dream new dreams. These were dreams of a tougher Penguins team, one that could score and skate and deliver blows to the opposition. They would have been nightmares had they been dreamt by fans of any other team.

But while they all slept, the great Shero was wide-eye and sharp minded in his quarters. His phone in hand and wit ablaze, he conspired in the early morning hours, working magic not seen in Pittsburgh since 1991, when another great wizard GM by the name of Craig Patrick clouded the minds of the Hartford Whalers management and usurped Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for Jeff Parker, Zarley Zalapski, and John Cullen.

Shero had landed Iginla.

With a flick of his wand, Shero sent a 2013 Penguins first round draft choice and prospect forwards Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary in exchange for a future hall of fame right winger. Presumably, Flames GM Jay Feaster had been rendered deaf and dumb with zero chance of cognitive ability. The forwards he acquired are both C-rated NCAA players and according to scribe Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, neither was listed in the top ten best prospects within the Penguins organization.

Which brings us to today.

Iginla is everything the hockey gods have spoken of and everything prophecy has written of the White Winger. Although he may not be Crosby’s winger, he is a veteran scorer and man of virtue and good faith. He has said he will assume any role that is asked of him and that is why many believe he is the man foretold to undo the gods’ curse.

But we must all remember the fickle whims of the hockey gods. Those whims change at the drop of a puck and we may never truly know what they desire to be. It does appear they are still angered by Shero and his mighty plan, however, for they have once again struck down the great Crosby, this time by casting a whirring puck from the stick of Brooks Orpik into Crosby’s face, breaking his jaw and casting his teeth into the land of wind and ghosts.  We do not know when he will return to Shero’s army.

We also do not know if he or Morrow are the men who the prophecy spoke of. They each fit the description, but it seems of Iginla more so. Once the regular season closes, only then will we know if Iginla is the winger who will return to Cup to Pittsburgh.

So it was written, so it may be.

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