Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Fun Than a Barrell of Bengals

You know, when those *&&%##@!!*#$s at HBO canceled "Deadwood," I canceled HBO in a fit of pique. I haven't missed it much, to tell the truth. But now, with the Cincinnati Bungles slated to be on tap for the HBO sports/reality show, "Hard Knocks," I may have to re-up with them. This is too delicious to miss out on.

According to ESPN:
"Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer took a swipe at Ochocinco's absence from the team's voluntary offseason workouts on Tuesday in an interview on Sirius NFL Radio. ...

"'It's definitely a new look for the Bengals receiver corps but I couldn't be happier with the guys we've got," Palmer said Tuesday during the Sirius NFL Radio "Movin' The Chains" show, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. "T.J. [Houshmandzadeh's]" gone and Chad's pretty much gone, he hasn't been here, so we've got guys that want those two spots, guys that compete day in and day out, when we're out there on the field, running, conditioning and in the weight room lifting.' ...

"When asked what he expects out of Ochocinco this season, Palmer told NFL Sirius Radio: 'Well, I really don't know. I haven't talked to him. I haven't talked to anybody that has talked to him. He wasn't here last year so I'm expecting him not to be here at all this year. Last year I think he was here for the mandatory camp but didn't participate in it. So I'm planning on him not being here just because he hasn't been here yet.'"

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

From Russia, With Love

The best thing about the Penguins Game 1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, besides Miroslav Satan's head fake of netminder Cam Ward, was seeing Mama and Papa Malkin in the stands cheering on their son, Evgeni, as he flopped to the ice in celebration of his goal (a nifty little flip of a Phillippe Boucher pass over the shoulder of Ward.) Moments like that keep me tuned in. Not just to the magnificent Malkin and Penguins hockey, but to all sports. There's nothing so exhilarating as the synergistic dance of fan enthusiasm and player exuberance. When those fans and that player are kin, the enjoyment factor increases exponentially.

So few aspects of fandom are as satisfying as watching the Malkin family become part of the Pittsburgh family through the course of three hockey seasons. Vladimir and Natalia Malkin first traveled to Pittsburgh for a short stretch, to watch their son play and visit with him before returning home to Russia. For their son's part, he elevated his play when his parents were in the stands, prompting my buddy the U.Conn fan to note that the sooner we could transplant the Malkins to Pittsburgh, the better.

With each visit, Mama and Papa became more comfortable among the Mellon Arena rabble. At first, they looked like those sepia photographs of immigrants exiting the boats at Ellis Island, circa 1900, back before folks figured out that it was okay to smile in the presence of a camera, so they all just stared morosely and ended up looking stiff, dour and humorless for all eternity. (Somewhere in a huge trunk of family photos left to my mother by my grandmother, there is a photograph of my great aunt Lena on her confirmation day. In Italian Catholic circles, confirmations are pretty joyous occasions, but if you looked at this snapshot of my great aunt next to her mother, my great-grandmother, you would be certain they had just returned from a funeral. Or mine cave in.)

During those early visits to Pittsburgh during Evgeni's first season with the club (2006-2007), Vlad and Natalia looked as though they should be lurking in the background of that photo of my great aunt, like refugees straight off of the boat from Minsk and Pinsk. And understandably so. I'm not kidding when I say that they come from the Russian equivalent of Pittsburgh. They are not trendy, nor do they appear to be urbane dilettantes. Who knows what they thought of the nearly 13,000 insane Pens fans at the Arena? They're just regular folk whose son, as it turns out, is a freak on the hockey pond.

So they came to Pittsburgh to watch their son play and with each visit, they seemed to relax -- just a little. You had to watch it from the beginning to really see it. The changes were positively glacial. Slowly, bit by bit, game by game, one artistic Evgeni Malkin goal building on another, each point peeling away layer of discomfort from Natalia and Vladimir Malkin of Magnitogorsk, Russia.

With the Pens down two games to none in the 2nd round against the Washington Capitals, the young Malkin came alive. It was no fluke that it was on home ice, with his parents in the stands. His stat sheet read simply, 1 goal, 0 assists, but Geno was all over the ice. He dominated the game from the first puck drop. He soared, deeked, spun, drew penalties, created opportunities, wore down, and dazzled his opponents. When young master Malkin drilled a wrist-shot behind the previously impenetrable Simeon Varlamov, on a power play he himself created by goading fellow countryman Alexander Semin into a silly hooking penalty, I thought Mama Malkin was gonna climb over the glass and chest bump her son at center ice. I'd swear under oath that Papa Malkin teared up.

I usually tire of the needless, gratuitous shots of player wives or children in the stands. Because I just don't care. Just show me the damned game. But there is something so endearing, so normal and yet compelling about all of the Malkins - Vladimir, Natalia and Evgeni. This is one family drama I can get behind.

The transformation from 2006, when they looked like strangers in a strange land, is complete during these 2009 playoffs. There's Vlad, rejoicing, high-fiving and hugging other Penguins fans around him. There, too, is Natalia, who appears to be sporting an updated hairdo, waving her Penguins home white towel, exploding with unbridled ecstasy at every great play.

Perhaps it is because they take such palpable joy in their son's accomplishments that the fans embraced them, both literally and figurative. (They've become recognizable Pittsburgh style celebs with fans back-slapping and hugging them everywhere they go.) It's a genuine love affair on the side of Pittsburgh fans. I don't think the Malkins will have to pay for a drink in this town for a long time to come.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

And Then There Was One

The Penguins-Capitals series is everything I thought it would be. Every game is a nail-biter. There are huge swings, emotional peaks and valleys in each game, not to mention the ebbs and flows throughout the series. Momentum is mercurial. Frankly, I don't think I can take anymore. During the epic Game 6 of the Penguins-Capitals series, I'm pretty sure my heart stopped. Just momentarily, but stopped nevertheless.

In the aftermath of six magnificent games, I intended penning something about the role players, the unsung contributors on each team. I was going to compose rhapsodies in honor of Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi, who has flat out robbed Ovechkin of golden opportunities again and again. (Ovie would have double the seven goals and 13 points he has in this series were it not for the unbelievable play of Scuds.) I planned to pen odes to the unexpected beauty of defenseman Mark Eaton's offensive skills. I was going to verily sing of the Capitals Brooks Laich and sing of Tom Poti. In my bed, in my head, I had half-composed a rant about Washington's Dave Steckel and the enormous pain he was causing to my Stanley Cup yearning Pittsburgh heart.

But then, that would be missing the forest for the trees. Or something like that. As great as the netminders have been, as wonderful as Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Malkin have been, with every passing period of hockey, I became more convinced that Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are without peer. They are better at what they do than any two athletes in any other sport, anywhere.

My pulmonary distress occurred when Ovie unleashed a 50 foot laser of a slapshot in overtime. I have no idea how Marc-Andre Fleury tracked and caught that. I was shocked that the puck didn't simply burn through the netting of Fleury's glove, torch through the goal net, flame through the Mellon Arena boards before finally ending it's trajectory by impaling some poor bastard seated behind the net. I haven't seen a faster shot. Ever. Though Ovechkin didn't score the tying goal in the third period (that was Brooks Laich), or get the go-ahead tally (that was Viktor Kozlov), he had assists on both and Ovechkin assists aren't "lucky" assists, the kind you get because somebody scores on your shift, as happens from time to time. His mere presence creates opportunities for his linemates. His aggressiveness is unparalleled. Ovechkin's offensive drive is almost feral, his desire to score goals is rapacious.

In many ways, Ovechkin reminds me of the NFL's Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers. When Campbell came into the league in 1978, he dominated every game the Oilers played. He was big, strong, elusive, and willing to dish out hits. He ran over, through and around everybody. For a while, he was nearly unstoppable. Then the hits, both those he absorbed and those he delivered, took their toll and his career just tailed off. But while he was at his best, he was mesmerizing.

So, too, is Ovechkin. The issue is that Ovie is occasionally too aggressive, always riding the thin edge between tough and dirty hockey. In the words of Pens play-by-play man Paul Steigerwald, there is a difference between playing to hurt and playing to injure. You can make a strong argument that he intends to injure, but I suspect that he is needlessly, selfishly and thoughtlessly reckless. Whatever the case, regardless of whether you think he's great or a punk, his talent is so prodigious, were he to play in a different era, he would be completely unrivaled.

But he plays now and Mr. Crosby has matched Alex the Great in every game, and particularly in Game 6. Simply, Sid left everything he had on the ice. Every bit of heart, soul, muscle memory, guts, determination and skill were out there, on the Mellon Arena ice in the third period as he frantically worked to tie the game, single-handedly dragging his team into overtime.

With about nine minutes left in the third period, and trailing by a point, Crosby was tireless and fearless. He came around from behind the net to try to create a scoring opportunity, if not for himself, then one of his teammates. As he tossed the puck toward net, there was a collision which he lunged headlong into. He saw it coming, but threw himself toward the crease anyway, the puck skittered wide with no Penguin there to try to grab a rebound, as Sid flew backward from the force of an unceremonious Capital elbow to the face. It didn't stop him.

Night after night, Crosby crashes in front of the net, inviting contact, willing the puck in. To tie Game 6, he batted the puck up and into Varlamov not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times, before directing the game-tying goal into the net, over Varlamov's left shoulder, with a little over four minutes left in regulation. The thing about that Crosby goal was, despite it's defiance of gravity and logic, it wasn't the most amazing thing he's done this post-season.

Both players are so great they make their teams greater. But while Ovechkin inspires through his brashness, Crosby's greatest strength may be his equanimity. His teammates know he'll always be there, steady, never quitting on play, on a game, on a series. In addition to his freakish level of skill, it marks him as a truly great, pantheon worthy player. I expect more of the same from both tonight.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Can I Get a Shot (on Net)?

It finally happened. I knew it would. I'm not sleeping well following Penguins games. Tuesday morning, I was grumpy, still cranky from the Penguins' game two loss against the Washington Capitals and grumpier still from my fitful sleep, having spent the 4:00 a.m. witching hour turning the game over, shift by shift, rather than enjoying the warm embrace of my beloved friend, sleep. I sometimes have this problem following Steelers games and it always seems to happen after a Steelers - Patriots tilt.

I don't want to even say where this thought has led me. Perhaps the utter uselessness of Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar planted this sick lump in the pit of my stomach. More likely, the Washington Caps were the culprits. Two games into the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, I'm seeing some unsettling similarities between the 2009 Caps and the 2001 New England Patriots, minus the cheating, of course.

The Capitals. The Patriots. Huh? Red, White and Blue. Ya follow?

Plus, both franchises have coaches I don't trust. It's hardly necessary to re-visit Bill Belichick's transgressions, but there's something I just don't like about beady-eyed Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. Perhaps it's his striking resemblance to Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. Every time I see him behind the bench, I can't help but say, "Now, sir. We'll talk, if you like. I'll tell you right out, I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk." Who trusts Sydney Greenstreet?!

Each team has bandwagon jumping fans who never gave two hoots about "their" franchise until: the arrival of a true superstar in the case of the Caps; or the arrival of a Lombardi Trophy in the case of the Pats. Does the difference matter? Not really. Every season of my hockey viewing life up until the 2007-2008 season, the crowd noise in Washington was deafening when the Penguins went there. Of course, the noise was generated by Pittsburgh fans who took over the joint. Shameful. Now the beltway hockey neophytes all sport brand new Ovechkin jerseys as they waive purchased rather than homemade signs, and taunt inappropriately. Here's a handy tip for DC fans, don't chant "Crosby" when he's not even on the ice. Philly fans may be coarse, they may be rude, they may be jerks, but they are at least knowledgeable hockey fans. It's freaking embarrassing.

Still, the similarities don’t end there. Shift for shift, the Pens have played right there with the Caps. In fact, I'd say that they've outplayed them on a lot of shifts, so much so that they have played long stretches of the first two games planted right in front of goalie Simeon Varlamov. I think it's even fair to say that the Capitals haven't had as many opportunities as the Penguins, but when they have had them, they've capitalized (if you'll pardon the phraseology.) Just like those Patriots, they keep hanging around, hanging around, keeping it close and then, bam, one little mis-step and it's over.

These Caps seem to understand something that those Pats teams understood: it's not simply that you score, it's when you score. In the third period, the Pens went on the PP when Milan Jurcina went to the box for interfering with Malkin. Pffffft. That is just what the Pens PP did. Pfffft. And then literally, as Jurcina came out of the penalty box, Malkin was sent to the box for the stupidest case of tripping seen since the Three Stooges were still working.

That Caps Power Play? They don't piss around. Malkin hadn’t even had time to pick up a water bottle in the penalty box when Ovechkin planted the puck in the laces behind Marc-Andre Fluery four seconds in. Four seconds. You could pretty much see the life drain out of the Penguins. Except for Mr. Crosby.

Does that mean I think the Penguins are snakebit? That they are accursed, destined to suffer the same fate as our 2001 and 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers? Not by a long shot, but some things have got to change if they intend to counter-punch their way back into this series.

Not to overstate the obvious, but if you hadn’t noticed, the power play unit isn’t producing. It pains me to say this, but I have to lay a good bit of the blame for this PP pickle at the skates of Gonchar. I see Gonchar lollygagging behind the net on defense, I see him lollygagging at the point on the power play, I see him lollygagging through the neutral zone, I see him lollygagging while he dumps and chases the puck. What's that make him? A lollygagger.

I like to joke that he's a lazy communist, but the fact is, he may be too worn out to run the PP, given the fact that he plays more minutes than any other player. Monday night he played more than 27 minutes. Nobody even comes close to his on ice time, not even the magnificent Crosby. (Just as a reference, using game two's stats only, Crosby had over 22 minutes of ice time, while Bill Guerin, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Evgeni Malkin played over 19 minutes, each. That's pretty much how it plays out regularly, so it's a fair barometer.)

Given those numbers and the fact that Gonchar is 35 years old, it's completely understandable that he's too gassed to run the PP effectively. I get it. That doesn't make the pallid power play passable, however. The Pens have been dumping and chasing and dumping and chasing. They play up against the boards and just pass around the perimeter, and pass, and pass. They generate just one or two legitimate shots on net at a time when there is just no substitute for actual, you know, shots on goal. A little urgency would be helpful.

So, there are two options. Either use Gonchar less and demand more from Scuderi, Orpik, Kris Letang, Mark Eaton and Hal Gill on their defensive shifts. Or have somebody else with more fuel in his motor out there quarterbacking the power play. (I prefer the former option because now is hardly the time to revisit the putritude of the Pens power play in Gonchar's absence earlier this season.)

The other issue is that nobody besides #87 is doing much of anything and, yes, #71, I am looking at you. Malkin's got a big time slapshot, a big time one-timer, and a big time wrister. Those shots may not quite match the the velocity of Ovechkin's lasers, but they can give you a close shave, too. He sure picked one helluva time to go into witness protection.

So this is for Geno: just because Ovechkin grew up the child of an Olympian in Moscow and you grew up in the Russian equivalent of Turtle Creek (that's pronounced ‘turtle crick’ by the locals), doesn't make him better than you. Big stars play big in big games and they don't get much bigger than this, my vodka swilling friend. So start peppering that puck on net.

Maybe Malkin and Gonchar should have a couple of shots of Smirnoff before the game? Or maybe I should. It might help my sleep.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

My Love Affair with Nyjer Morgan

Driving home from dinner on Saturday night, I turned the radio on to the Pirates game. In the bottom of the 8th, my Buccos were up by three runs over the Reds. Freddie Sanchez was at bat with one out and speedy lead off man, Nyjer Morgan, at 1st base. The Cincinnatis were so disturbed by Morgan's presence on the basepaths that the pitcher kept throwing over to 1st base and the catcher threw down to 1st at least twice. And then, just what the Reds dreaded happening happened: a wild pitch rolled behind the plate. Morgan was already on his way to 2nd base and as the ball rolled back to the backstop, Morgan flew past 2nd, motoring towards 3rd, just getting a hand onto the bag before the throw from catcher, Ramon Hernandez, came in.

When Sanchez flied out to left field a few pitches later, Morgan was able to score from 3rd base on the sacrifice fly, putting the Pirates ahead by four runs. It was a run generated entirely by Morgan's aggressiveness on the basepaths. He so discombobulated the pitcher and catcher that they were both more concerned with his stealing second than they were with the job at hand, which is to say, getting pitches over the plate against Sanchez. So Morgan first caused the wild pitch and then made the Reds pay for it by hustling unexpectedly to 3rd base.

All of which supports my assertion that this kid is going to be a superstar. I haven't looked at his stats and I don't need to, because every time I turn on a Pirates game, he's getting a lead off hit, or stealing a base, or taking off after a fly ball and making a great catch. Dare I say it, he's got star quality. I can't take my eyes off him. I've never believed in love at first sight, but just a month into baseball season, I'm head over heals in love with Nyjer Morgan.

I know I love Morgan for his speed because I always favor speedy athletes, but I also love Morgan because he looks like he stepped out of a work of literature.

Having nearly exhausted the literary cannon in college and my mid-20's, I'm bored by the bounty of good, but not great contemporary fiction. These days, more often than not, I turn to non-fiction writers like David Halberstam and Doris Kearns Goodwin for reading material. Still, I cut my teeth on fiction and on the rare occasion that I find a work of fiction which really stomach punches me with powerful story-telling, I'm as excited as A Rod at the HGH store, which is just how I felt when I picked up Dennis Lehane's novel, "The Given Day." The book takes a page turning plot, terrific pacing, and palpable, breathing fictional characters and folds them into the sharp, accurate historical context of Boston circa 1918 during an influenza outbreak, the rise of Bolshevism, and the police strike.

When an author succeeds, as Lehane did, I find myself so swept up in the book that I know the characters. I can see the view from their windows and the streets where they walk daily; I can taste the foods they eat, smell the odors that linger in the hallways of their their apartment buildings and feel the dampness of one of their rainy morning walks.

Though the central hero of "The Given Day" is a police officer named Danny Coughlin, the most compelling character is Luther Laurence, a black baseball player whose own life-story arc lands him in Boston, where he packs away his baseball glove for work as a houseman. As written by Lehane, Luther is a swift, daring ballplayer, a player who takes risks on the baseball diamond, like going from 1st to 3rd on a routine wild pitch. Then too, Luther is a man who takes risks away from the ballfield, some of them stupid, some of them courageous, all of the exquisitely human. With every page, Luther took up a more permanent residence in my chest cavity. What I really wanted was to meet Luther on the street and pass the time of day. I wanted him to be, if not my friend, at least my neighbor and acquiaintance. But first and foremost, I wanted to watch Luther Laurence play ball.

So when I turned on a Pittsburgh Pirates game and saw Nyjer Morgan, the living, breathing embodiment of Luther Laurence, playing left field, it hit me like a Mariano Rivera fastball to the temple. Perhaps I'm overestimating the greatness that may be Nyjer Morgan. Or perhaps not. Maybe he really is Luther Laurence, or maybe he's just Nyjer Morgan. But still, I can't take my eyes off of him.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Two Russians, a Canadian, and More Animus Than a Hockey Venue Can Hold

Two Russians and a Canadian walk into a bar ... stop me if you've heard this one before.

It just so happens that those two Russians and Canadian are the three greatest hockey players on the planet and you don't have to hail from Magnitogorsk (pop. 418,000), Moscow (pop. 8.6 million), or even Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia (pop. 88,000, for folks who like symmetry) to know that Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are the greatest things on skates since Dorothy Hamill and the order in which you rank them probably depends on your zip code. The best part is that these guys are so great, you don't even have to be a puckhead to enjoy this playoff series, which has the potential to be the most exciting hockey series in decades. You know you want to see it. I know I do.

I have several friends who didn't want my Pittsburgh Penguins to have to face off against the Washington Capitals in the playoffs, perhaps hoping that somebody else would knock Alex and the DC kids out of the playoffs first. But not me. Bring it on. The skill level is astronomical, I can envision either team winning AND these guys hate each other. How great is that?

It all revolves around Ovechkin, a tremendous talent who loves the limelight as much as he likes scoring goals and who has tacitly asserted that Sid Crosby lacks, er, toughness. The result is pre-school aged children all over the metropolitan DC area asking their parents, "What's a 'pussy?'" at which the parents shudder in horror and drop their lattes while the young'ens explain that everybody (i.e., the Washington Caps) says that Sidney Crosby's a 'pussy.' I'd hazard a guess that Mr. Crosby, or should I say, Mr. Pussy, will have a few things to say about that starting on Saturday afternoon.

The bad blood started back in 2005-2006, when both Ovechkin and Crosby were rookies and Ovechkin took home the Calder Trophy (best rookie), a post-season slight that miffed Crosby at the time and probably still sticks in his craw to this day. They've been vying for post-season honors ever since: Crosby won the Hart (MVP) in 2006-2007, while Ovechkin won that same trophy last year. Of course, this year, Ovechkin and Crosby's teammate, Geno Malkin, are both finalists for the Hart (along with Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit). Ovechkin got the Art Ross Trophy (most points) for 2007-2008, meanwhile, Malkin won the Art Ross this season, an honor that the Penguins were clear they were aware of, checking the points race daily, making it a team mission to keep Malkin of Magnitogorsk in front of Ovechkin of Moscow.

Off the ice, Sid has suggested that Ovechkin has taken some "runs" at him and Malkin that border on boarding, cross the line from checking to charging. The beltway gang counters that Sid talks too much trash. I'm not a huge fan of trash talking before or after the game, but once the puck drops, gentlemen, start your vocabularies. Apparently, Sid has such a potty mouth that it offends the delicate ears of Alex the Great. Is that even possible? Really?

Hell, I love a good rivalry. Sometimes I watch sports just for the bad blood, but even I have to wonder: is Alex Ovechkin so emotionally delicate that Sid's yapping really gets under his skin and he feels compelled to disparage Crosby in order to assert his own greatness? I think Ovechkin is great and I say this as a total Pittsburgh homer, a person who hates Ovechkin, hates the Capitals and hates the Washington fans, all 79 of them, but flat out, Ovechkin's amazing. He's strong, he's got a wicked shot, he's fast, and he's surprisingly elusive. Is the bad-mouthing really necessary? I don't get it.

On the other hand, in Ovechkin's defense, he does seem to be preternaturally colorful and constitutionally suited for the role of pot-stirrer. Not to mention that it was his linemate, Alex Semin, who told Dmitry Chesnokov of Sovetsky Sport this:

"What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago ... [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb. I think that if you take any player, even if he is "dead wood," and start promoting him, you'll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let's say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals; everyone will say "Wow!" and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That's what they like here."

As my great-grandmother would say, okay for you Alex the Lesser.

So far we have (a) Ovechkin's apparent resentment of the media attention that Sid gets, (b) Semin horning in on that, and (c) Sid saying Ovechkin plays right up along the edges of cheap shotting.

I haven't even factored in the magnificence that is Geno Malkin, who himself would like to be known as the greatest Russian hockey player alive and doesn't like snaggle-toothed Alex muddying the waters. (Ovechkin is snaggled toothed. I have no comment on Semin's teeth.)

I expect this series to be lightning fast and give new meaning to the word physical. I'm literally bouncing off the walls in anticipation. I nearly hip-checked GearGal into the refrigerator this morning. I gave the cat a facewash. Is it time to put on the foil or am I peaking too soon?