Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Quick Box Break - 2015 Stadium Club

Not sure if you kids have heard, but the National is in town! No not the band you dirty little hipsters, but The National Sports Collectors Convention has made its return to Chicago. I missed the National the last time it was in Chicago because I was floating over killer whales in Vancouver, but I do plan on showing up for a couple of hours this year.

Not sure what I'm going to go after or what my budget will be (nothing like having a plan!) but I'm leaning towards more baseball than hockey and maybe even some memorabilia as well. After all, we're finally moving to a one-bedroom apartment and might actually be able to find a spot to display some stuff.

As a bit of a warmup I bought something that I'm pretty sure I haven't purchased since I lived in Florida (about 5 years) and is probably the least efficient way to build a set. That's right I forked over $19.99 for a blaster box. A box of what – 2015 Stadium Club!

I've liked what I've seen so far – Topps seems to be bringing it back to the mid/high-level set with great photographs. In all likelihood I'll pick up a box of this at the National, but let's see what my two Andrew Jackson's got me.

Pack One -

First Card of the Year - Luis Aparicio  – Lots of former players in the set this year including some that you normally don't see in other releases. He also gets the nod for best looking card in the pack. It was kind of a blah pack to start off with.

Other cards – Jorge Soler (RC!),Garrett Richards, Brett Gardner, Anthony Rizzo

Pack Two -

Best Looking Card – Sonny Gray. Nice use of the horizontal framing. That was one thing I loved about the original run of Stadium Club – full bleed horizontal cards.

Other cards – Jay Bruce, Buster Posey, Wily Peralta, Dusty Baker

Pack Three -

Best Looking Card – C.J. Wilson. Another horizontal card, Wilson rocks the gas mask and swim goggles look as he exchanges a high-five with a random fan.

Other cards – Andrelton Simmons, Phil Hughes, Alex Cobb, Andrew McCutchen

Pack Four -

Best Looking Card – Yasiel Puig. Nice use of the dusky sky in the background as Puig walks back out to the field between innings. Love that we know the exact time that the photo was taken. Does it count as a night card?

First Orioles Card – Manny Machado. Most relaxed photo of the set I think. Also love the blades of the grass under the ball. Sharp.

Other cards – Masahiro Tanaka, Henderson Alvarez, Stephen Strasburg (Gold Parallel)

Pack Five -

Best Looking Card – Elvis Andrus. Action shot! Result of this play – Andrus either sprains his thumb or dislocates his shoulder. Still a good-looking shot.

Other cards – Anthony Rendon, Nelson Cruz, Corey Kluber, Hisashi Iwakuma

Pack Six - 

Best Looking Card – Albert Pujols. Another Angels celebration card. They sure celebrated a lot for not winning the World Series.

Other cards – Jjonny Peralta, Josh Harrison, Pablo Sandoval, Brock Holt

Pack Seven -

Best Looking Card – Tim Hudson. Great photo of the long-time veteran kissing the championship trophy. It's not quite like kissing the Stanley Cup, but still a great photo.

First Insert – Starling Marte Luminous Triumvirate. A 1:32 hit. I done beat the odds! And it's shiny!

Other cards – David Price, Josh Donaldson, Sean Doolittle

Pack Eight (The Bonus Pack!)

Best Looking Card – Dale Murphy. Favorite card of the box, honestly. I love the composition of the photo and the old-school Braves uniform.

Bonus Best Looking Card – Ivan Rodriguez. Proportion is everything in the photo. The glove looks huge, the body looks small and his head makes him look like a living bobblehead. Yet, for some reason it all comes together.

Other cards – John Olerud, Starling Marte, Chris Sale (Gold Parallel)

So did I get my money's worth? I think so. Forty cards in the box, two parallels and one insert. It's a nice start to completing the 300-card base set and I prefer packs that have more base and less inserts (number one complaint about the flagship product.

That's all for now, maybe a post-National wrap up post in a couple of days.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Checking in From Summer Vacation

How’s everyone enjoying their summer?  As you can see the Hopeful Chase has taken a bit of a hiatus.  Luckily we haven’t missed much in the way of Tampa-related hockey news.

There will be more posts coming soon. Heck training camp is only a couple of months away, right?  Who knows, in the meantime maybe I’ll actually post about cards or baseball or Chicago or something else that I’ve written about in the past.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo of a Norwegian church in the middle of a woods on an island of the coast of Wisconsin.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Brief Wrap Up for the Lightning

The calendar has turned to July and that means summer is here.  At least that’s what it’s supposed to mean.  You couldn’t really tell by the weather right now. I’m wearing a hoodie and jeans while typing this at an outdoor cafĂ©.  At least the sun is out, I guess.  July also means that the hockey season is finally at rest.

Wednesday the first was the opening of free agency and the nominal start to the 2015-16 season, yet it always feels more like the end of the year than the beginning of the year. With all of the major free agents inked to new deals the news will slow up and Bob McKenzie will disappear into the woods for a couple of weeks.

The Lightning were, as expected, relatively quiet during the free agent frenzy.  In fact, I was enjoying a nice mid-afternoon nap when the news broke that they had signed Ottawa Senator forward Erik Condra to a 3-year deal.  As is becoming typical with Steve Yzerman’s moves, it was widely accepted as a smart move. Condra  The 28-year-old will slide into the spot vacated by the Lightning’s one unrestricted free agent, Brenden Morrow.

While it isn’t as splashy as trading for Phil Kessel, the move does fill a need for the Lightning.  Condra isn’t going to light up the scoreboard, but he will work hard at both ends of the ice and kill penalties.  Improving special teams was one of the items on Mr. Yzerman’s checklist and Condra fits that need perfectly.  If everything stays the same, he’ll be lining up with Brian Boyle and Jonathan Drouin. That might lead to a bit of an increase in his offense considering his linemates last year were Chris Neill and David Legwand.

With that signing and Montreal signing Mark Barbario, the only news of note Lightning fans will be waiting for is an extension for Steven Stamkos. While it’s been almost 36 hours since the team can announce an extension and they haven’t,  there shouldn’t be any panic in the Tampa Bay Area.  By all accounts negotiations are going well and Stamkos wants to stay with the team.

There may be a few tweaks during the summer as well.  Bringing in Condra takes away a spot from one of the young kids.  Despite his constant benching in the playoffs, Drouin is part of the future of this organization.  He was eased into the league last year with the expectation of increasing his playing time in the upcoming season.  Now it looks like they’ll be a rotation similar to last season on the bottom lines. I expect Coach Cooper to rotate out Vlad Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette along with Drouin.  Who knows maybe Adam Erne has a hell of a camp and forces his name into the conversation as well.

One thing they won’t have to worry about is having to find a spot for any of there draft picks from this year.  After starting the year with two first round picks, Mr. Yzerman ended up trading out of the first round for more picks (and Brayden Coburn). Most, if not all, of the kids drafted, will return to Juniors or their college programs.  While that isn’t fun for most of us, since we’ll forget about them once the season starts, it is good for the organization.

This offseason has been a bit boring for Lightning fans, especially coming off of the thrill of the run to the Stanley Cup Finals.  There might be a few minor moves left to do (along the lines of Richard Panik being traded). It will be interesting to know if Mr. Yzerman has had any discussions with teams near the salary floor about taking Mattias Ohlund’s contract. There have been a couple of similar moves already made by other teams and it would free up some salary this season. If he could package the contract and a prospect for a mid round draft choice it might be worth exploring.

Having his business done for this summer gives Mr. Yzerman a bit of a jumpstart on next offseason, which could be very, very interesting.  Hopefully the Stamkos situation is resolved by then, but he’ll be looking at two big restricted free agents in Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov.  Also, there could be an expansion draft. One of the problems of having a lot of young talent on your roster is that you can’t protect everybody.  Should the Las Vegas Outlaws come into existence, there could be some serious decisions made that could result in some fan favorites leaving town.

Luckily those kind of decisions are at least a year away.  For now, Mr. Yzerman can relax as much as possible and enjoy possibly his easiest summer since taking the reins of the organization.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Why Not Follow Up a Blockbuster Season With a Blockbuster Trade?

There are a lot of advantages to rooting for a successful hockey franchise. It’s great to watch a game knowing that your team has a chance to win. Playoff beards are fun to grow. The trading deadline is no longer about what prospects you can get, but what prospects you can give up in order to get that big name out there (and they don’t get any bigger than Antoine Vermette!). However, there is at least one diamond that loses it’s luster the more successful a team gets - the draft.

As a Lightning fan who’s been around for awhile I’ve had the pleasure of watching them draft number one overall twice (Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos), second (Victor Hedman) and number three twice( Alex Svitov and Jonathan Drouin). I was really excited for all of those drafts, and really, really happy with who they drafted - even Alex Svitov (go ahead, look at that draft and see who else was available).

High draft picks are fun, because they are filled with so much promise, so much potential.  After a miserable season fans can say, “Hey, that sucked but think how much better we’re going to be with -------”.  It makes marketing the team easier.  “Seen Stamkos” “The Michael Jordan of Hockey” - that‘s what you do with a first overall pick.  I mean, he’s a nice guy, but I don’t think you’re going to build a season ticket buying campaign around Mikko Rantanen.

So as the Lightning keep winning on the ice, the chances of drafting a dynamic, franchise player keeps getting less and less likely.  And unfortunately the chances of Conner McDavid going to Edmonton (where 1st round picks fade into obscurity) get more and more likely.  Luckily, I have a plan to solve both problems (and a third problem yet to be mentioned!)

Now, we all know that General Manager Yzerman is cool, calculating, ruthless acquirer of talent. He holds no player sacred, everyone on the roster is expendable as long as they can be used to make the team on the ice better.  Think about it. Is there anyone in the organization that you would say it 100% untouchable? He’s traded and bought out captains. He’s traded potential Calder Trophy winners and Calder Cup finalists. HE TRADED TEDDY PURCELL! In short nothing is more important than the constant improvement of the team.

So if there is any GM in the league that is willing to pull of a draft day shocker it’s Mr. Yzerman.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that, on the eve of the draft, in a hotel room in South Florida that Mr. Yzerman picks up the phone and calls Peter Chiarelli with a Godfather deal.

For the overall number one pick, the rights to Nail Yakapov and a second round pick the Tampa Bay Lightning trade their 1st round pick , Ben Bishop, Jonathan Drouin and Matt Carle.

“Jon Cooper held a gun to his head, and Yzerman assured Chiarelli that either his brains or his signature would be on that trade sheet.”

I know I just made Jon Cooper Luca Brasi in this scenario So would that make Julien Brisebois Michael Corleone? Can we work out the cast of the Godfather with Lightning employees? Sounds like a late July post to me.

Not to dwell too deep into this fantasy scenario but, out of all of the GM’s in the league Mr. Yzerman is the one that you could see doing that, right?  Imagine what would happen if something along those lines happened in real life?  What’s the penalty for threatening another GM with death over a trade? Forfeit a season? Disband the team? Lose all of your draft picks?  Would anyone every hire Yzerman again (after his jail term of course)?  “Sure he threatened to kill someone, but that just shows his will to win!”

I almost want it to happen just to see the reaction on Twitter and the rest of the internet.  Heck, hockey might even grace Sportscenter for more than 14 seconds a day.  It would be hard to knock that story out of the news cycle.

But back to the actual trade.

Who says no to that deal? The Oilers fill two of their most glaring needs - number one goalie defense. Before you say anything about Matt Carle, can you name two defensemen better currently on their roster? He would play 20 minutes a game on that team.  Oh, and they get a pretty good player in Drouin, who if rumors are to be believed, is on the trading block.

No matter what the Oilers do, they‘re not going to get seriously better until they solve their problems between the goal pipes. Bishop, while not an elite goaltender, has proven that he is a capable number one who can steal games when his team needs him. They have enough cap room to absorb both contacts and still have room to make other moves.

Drouin finds himself on a team where he isn’t blocked by half-a-dozen other young offensive stars. He showed flashes of his ability throughout the season and despite whatever went on in the playoffs he’s going to be a good player in the league. Throw him on a line with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and that could be a lot of fun to watch.

The Oilers give up on a generational player, but become a much more competitive team. It won’t spring them up into the Blackhawks/Ducks stratosphere, but it does put them on par with Colorado, San Jose and all of the other borderline playoff teams.  Plus, based on the history of Edmonton and their top picks, perhaps it’s better that the best prospect since Sidney Crosby stays as far away as possible from Oil Country.

The Lightning shed enough cap space so they can afford Stamkos without hamstringing themselves against the cap for future deals. The Triplets are going to need new deals soon and Victor Hedman’s extension doesn’t seem as long as it was when he signed it.

With Bishop and his $5.95 million cap hit safely north of the border the Bolts also clear up a bit of their goaltending logjam.  Andrei Vasilevskiy looks like he can handle the NHL.  Yes, that’s based on a small sample size, but Mr. Yzerman isn’t afraid to take a risk or two. Adam Wilcox can’t stay in college forever and he will move up the depth chart quickly once he turns pro.

As for Yakopov? Well, maybe he clicks with a few more Russians on the team or Mr. Yzerman flips him for draft picks.

Remember that third problem I mentioned earlier?  McDavid could be the solution to it.  It’s the problem that we as Lightning fans have tried to downplay. We really, really don’t want to think about it this year, but it does linger in the back of our brains like a spider egg.

What if Steven Stamkos really does want to play for Toronto?  What if, come 2016, he basically thanks us for the support but goes to play for his hometown team? Can I really blame him?  Can any of us? After all, when we’re growing up and dreaming of playing in the big leagues, be it baseball, hockey, football or soccer, don’t we dream of playing for our favorite team.  I remember those days in high school when I thought a 76-mph fastball and a questionable work ethic would get me to the majors I didn’t dream of playing for Cleveland or Houston.  I wanted to take the mound in Camden Yards.

So can we begrudge Stamkos if, having completed his indentured servitude to the Lightning, wants to go home and play for the Leafs?  Sure, we can be pissed, but he‘s earned that right.  In a perfect world the Lightning would make a deal for McDavid, re-sign Stamkos and create a Florida hockey empire. This isn’t a perfect world so good general managers have back up plans. Having McDavid spend a season watching Stamkos play wouldn’t be a bad back up plan.

The good news for Mr. Yzerman is that the doesn’t have to be exclusive to Edmonton. Buffalo’s deadline purge left them without a franchise goalie as well  and Jack Eichel wouldn’t be a bad plan C. They could even stuff him back in college for another year without losing too much offense on the main club.

Having done a quick search of the 2017 draft eligible players, it doesn’t look like there is the once-in-a-generation player available so striking this year would make a lot of sense. It’s also in keeping with the way Mr. Yzerman operates, always with an eye on the future. He keeps control of his salary cap, keeps the team flush with young talent and arguably makes the team better.

I know this isn’t going to happen.  In fact this whole post is nothing more than an extended (E4) rumor.  Isn’t that what this time of year is all about?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Quick Primer For Those Jumping On The Bandwagon

Hi there. You may be here because someone on a podcast mentioned me as someone who wrote about the Lightning. You might be here because you’re a Blackhawks fan who wants to learn more about the Lightning. Or, as someone who likes to root for an underdog you’re jumped aboard the Tampa Bay Lightning bandwagon.

I don’t care why you’re here, I’m just glad you showed up. Below is a breakdown of all the members of the Lightning that you might see on the ice during the next couple of weeks. But let me also be your guide for following the team from Hockey Bay, USA. Some things to know:
  1. We as a fan base have been around for a while. Believe it or not the Tampa Bay Lightning have been around for over 20 years. We’ve even won a Stanley Cup! Honest, look it up. We know what icing is (and not the kind that’s on a cake).
  2. We embrace being a non-traditional market. Trust me there is nothing, and I mean nothing better than hanging out at the beach all day and then going to a hockey game in shorts and flip-flops. Do we do things different? Yes, but we still love hockey just as much as Wayne-O from Schaumberg.
  3. The ticket ban/ jersey policy is stupid. We know it. The only people that are upset are people who aren’t going to fly to Tampa to go or are going on a press pass. Tickets weren’t even an issue since the initial run sold out within hours.
  4. We know there will be a lot of Hawks fans in the crowd. Lots of those folks retire down and keep their allegiance to Chicago. That’s cool, when I’m old and frail I don’t want to have to put up with Chicago winters either. Thanks for spending your money at Amalie Arena.
  5. Chicago has an awesome tradition with the National Anthem. We have real-life lightning in the building. I say it’s a tie.
  6. Bolts is ok. Ning is not. Not ever. Don’t do it. Not even to be ironic.

Why should you root for the Lightning? Well everyone loves an underdog. And the Lightning are an underdog in Vegas and in the media. Everyone seems to think the Hawks are going to roll. My favorite is, “Man I hope the Hawks win in 6 so that they FINALLY get to clinch the Cup at home.”

Yes, on paper the Hawks are a deeper team. Johnny Toews is super awesome. Patrick Kane is a stickhandling genius. Duncan Keith has harnessed the secret of perpetual energy.  But they also have Corey Crawford in net. I don’t think he’s horrible, but he is inconsistent. The Lightning have waded through a hot goalie in Petr Mrazek, a Vezina goalie in Carey Price and a king in Henrik Lundqvist. I'm sure they are quite happy to face Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford.

The Lightning could very well lose, I’m cool with that, but I have a feeling they’re going to give Chicago everything they can ask for. It will be speed vs speed. You can’t wear Duncan Keith down by pounding him physically, but you can tire him out with speed. If the Lightning get their transition game going, it will be a long, long series for the Blackhawk defense.

So time for you kids to get to know the actual players.

Tyler Johnson – I think we’ve hit peak saturation on the Tyler Johnson Love Express. One of my friends (a Blackhawks fan) mentioned that he now wants to punch him in the face. Before NBC got a hold of him, Johnson was a nice success story. Undrafted because of his size, all he does is win wherever he goes. He is the leading point scorer in the playoffs, has more speed than people (especially defensemen) think and has an innate ability to know where Ondrej Palat is at all times.

He's small, but scrappy! Photo from Associated Press

  • Bandwagon Twitter tip If he scores, Tweet something along the lines of “Tyler Johnson is good at hockey. Follow it up with #ThatLine to make Eric Erlendsson happy.

Ondrej Palat – To some (me) a story just as good as Johnson’s. The Lightning drafted him in the 7th round, 207th overall and he made it all the way to the NHL by being very good at a lot of things but great at none. While that might be the most backhandiest of compliments it is true. Nothing he does will stand out to you, but at the end of the night he walks away with a goal and an assist and a couple of nice defensive plays. He is the glue of The Triplets line.

Nikita Kucherov – If Johnson is the dynamic playmaker and Palat the steady, responsible forward, then Kucherov is the free-wheeling, hard shooting, fun guy on the line. On a team that loves making extra passes, he is the one guy with a shoot-first mentality. He is also usually on the end of the home run passes that the Lightning like to use to catch opposing teams off guard.
-Bandwagon Twitter tip – If you like to compete in John Buccigross’ OT Challenge – Kucherov is your man to pick. He has two overtime goals in the playoffs so far

Steven Stamkos – It may seem crazy that Stamkos hasn’t been mentioned until now, but that’s how dominating The Triplets have been in the postseason. Stamkos, in his first year as the captain, has been phenomenal. He scored his normal 40+ goals in the regular season, and after a small hiccup in the first round has rediscovered his scoring touch. He also shifted over to wing when Coach Cooper moved Filppula up to his line without a complaint. Gone are the days where he could only score on one-timers from the circle. He is a threat from any position now (except point on the power play – stop doing that).

Alex Killorn – He’s a Harvard man! He’s also the second member of the Lightning to score a game winning goal in the 7th game of a conference final. The first was Fredrik Modin in 2004. Killorn’s game is a lot like Modin’s, physical with a bit of skill. Like chocolate and red wine he pairs well with Stamkos. Killorn as the grinder who goes into corners winning the puck or slapping home the rebound.

Perhaps the best photo so far. By Dirk Shadd/ Tampa Bay Times. Follow him on the twitter @DirkShadd. He is awesome.

Valteri Filppula – The only person on the team that has won a Stanley Cup. Filppula moved up to the second line in place of Callahan AND displaced Stamkos as at center. The result – Stamkos scores! Very creative playmaker who can stickhandle in a phone booth.

JT Brown – Chicago fans might be more familiar with JT’s dad, Ted Brown, who was a running back with the Minnesota Vikings in the early 80s then they are with the high-energy forward. JT isn’t on the ice much, he’s only averaging 11:50 for the playoffs, but he’s all over it when he is. A fast, tenacious skater he gets to called gritty until he starts actually scoring some goals.

Ryan Callahan – Has as many goals as appendectomies this playoff season. After playing most of the season on a line with Stamkos and Killorn he has found a more defensive role in the last two rounds. He has been effective as a forechecker and still finds time on the power play uniit

Brian Boyle – Boyle was brought in to win face-offs and chew bubble gum , and he’s fresh out of Bazooka. He’s one of four forwards that’s over 50%. I don’t have any fancy stats to back up, but his line does a good job of shifting the ice and spending time in the offensive zone, he just hasn’t been able to put the puck in the net. In the regular season he did score 15 goals, but he also had someone named Jo Drouin on his line.

Brenden Morrow – The sentimental “old guy without a cup” on the team. He was signed in the off-season for…..veteran leadership? He has played alright in limited amounts but hasn’t made much of an impact overall. Therefore, he should score an overtime winner at some point during the series.

Cedric Paquette – Most coaches have “their guys”. For Coach Cooper, Paquette is his guy. He’s not flashy (only 1 goal in the post season) but he is effective. Centering the broken up 4th line his role is to create some energy which he tends to do by throwing his body around. His 41 hits is 4th on the team. He is also one of the leaders on the penalty kill. Almost 205 of his ice time has been spent killing penalties. Fittingly enough his one goal – short handed.

Vladislav Namestnikov – The young Russian has been used sparingly in the post season. His only appearance against the Rangers was in the Game 6 debacle where he replaced Paquette in the line up. Possessor of much speed he is a nice asset to have in reserve, but is probably a year away from really contributing to the line up.

Johnathan Marchessault – There is no real reason to include Marchessault in this list. If things go as planned he won’t see the ice. The fact that he has already is a bit of a mystery. When Callahan was scratched in Game 6 against the Canadiens, it wasn’t superstar rookie Jonathan Drouin who replaced him, it was Marchessault.

Jonathan Drouin – Currently MIA. The rookie suited up for 70 games in the regular season and put up a respectable 28 assists while playing mostly with Brian Boyle. He’s only appeared in 3 games in the post-season leading fans to wonder if he stole a pack of Coach Cooper’s gum.
--Bandwagon Tip – if the Lightning get shut out or lose a low scoring game feel free to complain on twitter about Morrow playing and not Drouin. Don’t forget to add #FreeDrouin at the end.

Victor Hedman – The playoffs have been the coming out party for the Big Swede. A large individual (6’6”) who plays a smaller man’s game (i.e. he doesn’t hit people) Hedman is a very fluid skater who has no problem bringing the puck up the ice on his own. Please drink every time you hear the phrase “Victor Hedman is the Lightning’s Duncan Keith”.

Anton Stralman – The rare unicorn of a player that makes the new stats and the old stats people super happy, Stralman is the steady rock of the Lightning blueline. Mr. Yzerman might have overpaid a little bit to sign him in the off-season, but it has turned out to be the best move of his tenure as GM. Not only is Stralman a pretty good player, he’s had a mentoring influence on Victor Hedman, helping him take his game to the next level.

Matt Carle – Oh Matt Carle. We, as a fan base, have complete faith that we have absolutely no idea which Matt Carle will show up on a game-to-game basis. Will it be the one who laid out Chris Kreider on a big hit and started the scoring sequence that sealed the deal in Game 7 against the Rangers or the other one. The one that turns pucks over and makes us mutter…”God damn it, Carle” while photoshopping his head on pictures of Carl from the Walking Dead. He might be Blackhawks fans’ favorite player by the end of the series.

Jason Garrison – Jason Garrison just exists. He is there. At one point in the offseason he was in Vancouver. Then, he was in Tampa. He logs about 19 unremarkable minutes a game and occasionally chips in a point here or there. He is your prototypical second pair defenseman. Oh, and with the trade of Radko Gudas he does have the best beard on the team.

Andrej Sustr – Another redwood-sized defensemen, Sustr has had his ups and downs this post-season. During the season he was a solid replacement when the blueline was decimated by injuries, but he seems to have hit a bit of a wall in the post-season. There was an infamous moment where Rick Nash bullied him off the puck to set up a goal in the Game 6 blowout and he’s also had his share of turnovers in the defensive zone. He is usually paired with Matt Carle which makes for many, many stomach-churning moments for Lightning fans.

Brayden Coburn – Hawks fans might remember Braden Coburn. After all he was on the ice when Patrick Kane scored the Cup winner in 2010. Hopefully we don’t see a repeat of that. It’s 100% legitimate to say that the Lightning wouldn’t be in the Finals without him. The knuckle-puck he fired past Petr Mrazek in Game 7 of the opening round ended up being the game winner.

Nikita Nesterov – The rookie defenseman got his shot when Coach Cooper switched to an 11-forward and 7-defensemen rotation. Since then he’s proven that he should be logging regular minutes instead of say…I don’t know….cough Matt Carle cough. He has six points in 10 post-season games and gives the Lightning another puck carrying defenseman who doesn’t need help getting out of the defensive zone.

Ben Bishop – Oh #BishPlease. Is he elite? No. Is he shaky? No. He’s just a tall sum’ bitch that can stop pucks. Sure sometimes he’ll struggle and not make it out of the first period, but he’s also the goalie that has played in two Game 7s in his career and not allowed a goal. Of the two starting goalies, he is the one most likely to steal a game. He’s also the one most likely to knock a puck into his own net.

Andrei Vasilevskiy – He’s 20 years old. He made it to the NHL after playing in the KHL for only one season. He will see time in net in this series.

I hope that you’re leaving with a little more knowledge. I also sincerely wish best of luck to the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans. If it wasn’t the Lightning they were playing I would be pulling for you. After all you put on fantastic parades.

Lightning in seven.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Some Thoughts on a Not So Good Horrible Game Six

You didn’t think they would do it the easy way did you?  You didn’t really think that they would win Game 6 at home and enjoy a couple of days off before diving headlong into the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final?  If you did, then you haven’t been watching this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning for very long.  If there is a hard way to accomplish a task, this team will find a way to do it.

It’s hard to find any bright spots in a 7-3 loss, especially when a win would have propelled them into the final round, but let’s take a stab at it.

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy got some more ice time and, despite allowing a goal, lowered his post season numbers.  He also looked a lot more comfortable than his previous relief experience. Of course he’s still rocking a 5.74 GAA so I don’t think Coach Cooper is turning to him in Game 7.

2. Nikita Kucherov.  MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV scored two goals in the third to make things a slight more interesting for a while.  The Rangers have trouble keeping up with that line no matter what the game situation is. When it was 5-2 you could feel a slight disturbance among the New York fans. If only the Lightning could have figured out how to keep that line on the ice for the next 13 minutes.

3. There are two days off between games. You would think that with New York being the older team they would benefit from the extra time off, but the Lightning are a little banged up.  Two days might be enough to get Cedric Paquette back into the line up, help Braydon Coburn stop throwing up and have Andrej Sustr remember that he is actually a decent defenseman.

4. They didn’t lose in triple overtime.  At least they didn’t cost us any sleep while losing. I believe the narrative is that it is easier to get over a blowout loss than a heartbreaking one.

5. They weren’t eliminated.

The last point is the most important.  We can debate all day long about who had more pressure on them to win Game 6, but in the end, the Lightning had a game to give and the Rangers didn’t. So, the only team facing a “must win” situation was New York. We’ve all heard the Rangers stats when facing elimination.  Well you know which goalie has yet to lose when facing elimination?  It’s not Henrick. That’s right Ben Bishop has never lost an elimination game!  Sure he’s only played in two, but I can have fun with stats.

Speaking of the Rangers and their elimination game record, can I take a moment to thank FIFA for temporarily interrupting my Twitter feed? It was nice to read about wire fraud instead of the 30th consecutive post about New York never losing a Game 7 at home or running their record in elimination games to 654-3.  Thanks corrupt soccer cronies!

I’ve come to accept the fact that this is bizarro playoff season.  The Lightning dominated on home ice during the regular season so why not lose their last two home playoff games by giving up 12 goals?  Tampa can’t score on the power play during the regular season?  Of course, they’re clicking along at 22% in the post-season.  The Triplets are an unstoppable offensive force over the course of 81 games? Well…..some things stay the same.

So I wasn’t horribly bummed out by the loss on Tuesday night. Granted I didn’t watch any of it until they were already down 3-1 and I had a bit to drink before that (date night with The Duchess!). But going into that game I wasn’t really that confident they were going to win. There was a little too much talk about not wanting to go back to New York, as if they had broken the Rangers spirit with the Game 5 win.

As a young team we’ve already seen that they have had trouble closing out series.  The few times they got momentum in the opening round against Detroit they fumbled it away.  Then, after having the Canadiens on the ropes, they let them back into the series as well. In both series they’ve managed to play their best game when they’ve needed to (read: Ben Bishop has played his best) and hopefully they can do that again on Friday.

It would have been nice if they had wrapped it up Tuesday night. Just like it would be nice if they would sometimes shoot the puck at the net instead of trying to make one more pass. Or chip the puck up the boards instead of throwing it into the center of the ice in your defensive zone and hope your teammate gets to it first.  Or not give up 2-on-1s when they’re on the power play.  But then they wouldn’t be the 2014-15 Tampa Bay Lightning.

OH MY GOD GUYS I SCORED! I SCORED A GOAL! (photo by Scott Audette/Getty Images)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Very Superstitious - But Then Aren't We All?

Now that we can exhale and relax for a couple of days, lets talk about superstitions. I consider myself an educated man.  Heck, I even have a piece of paper from Saint Leo College (Harvard of the South) to prove it somewhat.  In the reasonable portion of my mind I know the actions of one man in Chicago have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of a hockey game in Tampa. Yet, still…..

I don’t have many rituals when it comes to sports.  Sure I wore the same Johnny Cash T-Shirt/Flannel combination every Sunday during the Ravens last Super Bowl Run.  And, yes, I am currently sporting a playoff beard that may or may not be a direct violation of the official dress code at my place of business. But I’m not totally obsessed with rituals and superstitions.  But….

….I probably won’t watch another Lightning game in real time.  You see, I’ve managed to watch a four games this playoff season in their entirety.  All four games have ended as Lightning losses. Think about that for a moment.  They’ve only lost five games between the two series they’ve played - and I’ve seen four of them.  So, unless they rack up a three games to none lead in the next series I’m not watching them.

Is it logical?  Nope, not even close.  I know my watching the game at a bar or online has absolutely no outcome on the result, but here we are.  Luckily, with my work schedule it won’t be hard to miss games (2nd Shift 4 Life!) and I do go back and watch them after the fact.  Well, after the 48 hour blackout window on, that is.

I can’t explain why I’m not watching the game.  Well, at least I can’t explain it to non-hockey fans. I haven’t told The Duchess yet, but I’m sure she’ll roll her eyes and chalk it up to another stupid sports thing.  One of my bellmen, who is Bosnian and not a big hockey fan, asked me why I was growing a beard. I told him and he rolled his eyes and blatantly said it was the stupidest thing he had every heard of.

Yet hockey fans understand. I’m not the only one at work who has sprouted whiskers over the last couple of weeks (yet I’m probably the only one doing it for the Lightning) and it’s actually started some conversations with guests who were checking in from Montreal.

One of the bartenders at work who is kind enough to put the game on TV so that I can catch glimpses from time to time admonished me for watching Game 5. Then, when I joked that I had switched my day off from Tuesday to Wednesday so that I wasn’t tempted to watch, he said it was the smartest thing I’ve done in a month.  (The real reason I switched was so that Link and I could go to a ballgame in Milwaukee, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story!)

It makes sense for players to have rituals or superstitions.  Eating chicken every day didn’t make Wade Boggs a better ballplayer.  It was, however, a ritual that relaxed him and made him feel more comfortable heading into the game. That feeling, not the act, made him a better ballplayer.

Avoiding the game isn’t something that I’ve always done.  I watched every game in the 2004 Stanley Cup run as well as every game in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals run. So it’s not like watching in the past has jinxed them. This is a 100% new superstition for 2015.

Some of the other things that I have done in the past have met with mixed results. Wearing the Lightning jersey on game day is a 50/50 split as they’ve won two games and lost two games.  Wearing the all blue combo (blue pinstripe suit/blue shirt and blue tie) at work got off to a hot start with three wins, but cooled off with two losses.  Which is good, because people were really wondering why I was wearing the same getup every other day.

The aforementioned beard has carried them to the second round. This is the first playoff beard since 2011, since last year I was a little paranoid about growing one in what was still a relatively new job.  Oh, and The Duchess really, really doesn’t like it.  The last time I had it, I let it go full homeless because, well, I was unemployed and could do things like that. Now as a responsible employee I do at least clip it from time to time. (I haven’t kept track of their record on days when I trim the beard…hmmm..maybe that’s the key)

So, if there is no rhyme or reason to these “superstitions” why do I and thousands of other people do it?  I’m not sure.  Mostly because it’s fun I guess.  Sports are supposed to be stupid and fun. They are distractions from everyday life so why not go all in and enjoy it a bit?

Apparently there are more intellectual explanations for superstitions.  In my five minute of prep work I stumbled across a couple of articles about the topic.  One of them discussed something called the uncertainty hypothesis. As defined by Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne in her article Why We’re So Superstitious,  it states “when people are unsure about an outcome, they try to find a way to control it”.

Now that makes sense.  We, as fans, do not have any influence whatsoever on the game. Unless of course we jump on the ice and take a baseball bat to the other team’s goalie.  And as humans, not being able to control something tends to make us nervous. So if we can find something to fixate on that  has worked in the past we latch on to it because it gives us comfort. If it happens again and again than it takes on even greater importance.

Important games are nerve wracking enough as they are. Especially hockey games.  So there is a benefit to having or doing something that brings comfort.  Even if it’s totally nonsensical. Heck, the more nonsensical, the more relaxing it might be.

Not watching the games has probably added years to my life.  While not seeing Steven Stamkos score a goal to double the lead left a little happiness out of my life, not watching the final five minutes (after Montreal had pulled within two goals) kept a lot of stress out of it.  By the time I click “refresh” the action has already happened. It’s in the past so I can’t worry about it.

Another thing that studies into sports fans and their superstitions revealed is that fans who strongly support teams tend to feel less lonely. When you see someone wearing the same jersey you are it almost always brings a smile to your face doesn’t it? Especially if you’re an out of town fan.

During the week of Game 6 and Game 7 against Detroit there seemed to be an overwhelming amount of Lightning fans in Chicago.  By overwhelming I mean three.  I saw the Lightning logo at least three times over those couple of days.  Now, I don’t know if I just kept seeing the same guy over and over again or if they were actually different people, but every time I saw it, I smiled. Not only that, it made me feel more confident about the Lightning’s chances.

Finding a sense of belonging in the world is important.  And if sporting a ragged, patchy beard or wearing a t-shirt riddled with holes helps me find that place, well, then it’s not quite that crazy after all.