This a pretty rich sporting week. Is there a constituency of the sports congregation feeling completely left out right now? The tight T-shirt types have their UFC card; the NFL draft is on and the lockout looks like it might be short-lived. Baseball season is beginning to take shape; there are some interesting soccer stories. The NBA playoffs are building momentum as the first round preliminaries begin to wrap up and the NHL may have just completed the best first-round in its history.
We'll start with that then, but we could start anywhere.
1. In Vancouver, a goalie controversy no more
Well, at least for now. When you have a massive contract and a spotty playoff record, the doubters will never be completely at bay, but as the Vancouver Canucks' focus shifts from the dragon that was the Chicago Blackhawks to the opening of their second-round series against the Nashville Predators, Roberto Luongo will take the net with full respect -- if not full confidence -- of those with a vested interest in his performance: Say what you will about Roberto Luongo - and given the hysteria of the market, many more things will be said and written - but no one should ever again question the mental strength of the Vancouver Canucks' goalie.
He will let in weak goals. He will get hooked. He will cost his team games sometimes. Every goalie does. But Luongo has character and fortitude, because if he didn't he'd never have survived last Sunday to be a hero on Tuesday.
I just thought it showed great resiliency in an athlete," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said after arriving in Vancouver Wednesday afternoon. "There are different pressures, different situations that come to an athlete and it's [about]how you handle those. If it came easy, it's probably not worth a whole lot. If it's worth fighting for, it's worth a lot. And he fought through that and I admire that about the human spirit."
Luongo made 31 saves in Game 7 when one fewer would have ended the Canucks' season and further fuelled the corrosive debate about the goaltender's future in Vancouver. His overtime backdoor stop on Patrick Sharp became legend a few minutes later when Alex Burrows blasted in the game-winner.
Luongo is stronger for the experience, and so are the Canucks. There's no question about who starts against the Predators.
2. The thing with Game 7s -- someone goes home happy:
They won't want to read this in Montreal, but while the Canadiens put up a remarkable fight; in Boston there was a real victory, not a moral one, and it made for a very happy night: They hadn't won a Game 7 of any kind since 1994, when they played in the Old Garden and Boston had a new mayor named Tom Menino.
They were eliminated in heartbreaking Game 7s each of the last three seasons, and there were questions about their hearts and souls when they took the ice last night for the final game of their 33d playoff series against the hated Montreal Canadiens.
For one night, the Bruins made all the pain go away. No more agita on ice. Nathan Horton's booming slap shot in the sixth minute of overtime beat the Canadiens, 4-3, in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series last night at TD Garden.
Game 7. Bruins-Canadiens. Overtime. How much better does it get?
3. And yes, they did notice in Tampa that the Lightning knocked off Pittsburgh
You're just never sure in those sunbelt markets -- did people realize what their team did? Winning 1-0 on the road, even against an injury depleted team like the Penguins, is nothing to be scoffed at. Thing is with so much oxygen being sucked up by the Canucks and Canadiens, I'm not sure anyone up here was paying attention either. But Tampa Bay came back from 3-1 and will meet the Washington Capitals -- remember them? -- on Friday night. Like the Canucks and the Bruins; they can thank their goalie, Dwayne Roloson: The 41-year-old Roloson, acquired from the New York Islanders on a New Year's Day trade, was the biggest factor for Tampa Bay in the series stopping 230 of 243 shots in the series for a save percentage of .947 in the seven games. Needless to say, it was a trade that has paid tremendous dividends for rookie general manager Steve Yzerman and rookie head coach Guy Boucher, settling into a position that was inconsistent throughout most of the first half of the season and bring a sense of stability.
"I'm not even surprised at the way he played in the series. He's amazing, he's a tremendous competitor, he never quits on anything, he battles to find shots and is so calm in the net and he bounces back from anything," center Steven Stamkos said. "He was our MVP in this series and he showed it."
After giving up a goal off his glove in the early stages of a double-overtime loss in Game 4, Roloson was tremendous, allowing four goals in the final three games to send Tampa Bay on to the next round. But when asked if he could ever anticipate throwing a shutout in a Game 7, he was just as quick with an answer as he was with his pads in the series.
"Do you ever go in to write an article figuring to win a Nobel Prize?," he joked. "No, it's just one of those things that never really had anything to do with me, it was all about our guys that did everything humanly possible to prevent them from getting anything real quality, and if the rebound was there they were able to get things away from me."
4. The case against Georges St-Pierre
With UFC 129 getting ready to take down the Rogers Centre -- doubtless following up with a choke hold -- it's worth pausing to consider how unlikely it is that the fighter pretty much acknowledged as the best in the game right now happens to be Canadian. I'm sure the event would be big regardless of GSP's status as the face of MMA, but having the Montrealer highlight the card is just one of those great coincidences. Given he hasn't lost a fight in three years, there's little point questioning him as the pre-fight favourite in his bout against Jake Shields. But that doesn't mean he can't lose. Here's how he goes down: The conventional wisdom on St-Pierre is that his one weakness is that he doesn't like to get hit. One theory is that getting knocked out by Matt Serra in a fight in which he was an 8-to-1 favorite made him forever wary of the power of a good hook. Another is that he's spent far too much time around fighters who can't say their own name without stammering and values his cognitive functions enough to not take unnecessary risks. These aren't mutually exclusive theories and probably do explain why St-Pierre fights the way he does. I'm unconvinced, though, that a good hook is the only way to reach the champion.
Review the man's record since he first the title, from Matt Hughes in November 2006, and you'll notice something strange: In all that time, no one has made one serious submission attempt on him. Partly that's because he's freakishly strong and quick and doesn't allow opponents to reach a position where they can try one. Partly, though, it has to do with the kind of fighters he's faced.
Serra, Josh Koscheck, Dan Hardy, Thiago Alves and B.J. Penn, whatever their other strengths, all fought St-Pierre as if the only way to beat him was to clip him. Fitch and Hughes played more of a wrestling game, and were just outmatched. Serra and Penn would be the strongest submission stylists he's met, but both are true lightweights, without the strength to really handle St-Pierre on the ground, and both fought as if they knew it.
Shields is a big man, and while he's being talked up as the latest in a long line of contenders who purportedly had the wrestling chops to keep St-Pierre from dictating where the fight takes place, what's relevant is that he comes with real grappling credentials, such as a bronze finish at Abu Dhabi. That doesn't make him Roger Gracie, but he isn't going to be put out by landing on his back, he isn't going to gas, and he's almost certainly going to put St-Pierre in position to fend off chokes and armbars. He's aggressive enough to not just seek escape but try to turn a bad position into a good one or a good one into a dominant one; patient enough to wait for the moment that will allow it; and strong and smart enough to be able to do so. He isn't going to go into this fight looking to land one good shot, but looking to play St-Pierre's game.
5. The Spurs survive against the Grizzlies, thanks to the most unlikely rookie
Imagine the atmosphere in Vancouver right now if the Grizzlies weren't the Memphis Grizzlies? Sorry to bring that up, but regardless, Vancouver's former NBA franchise is playing so well that it almost seems a question of when, not if, Memphis the No.8 seed in the Western Conference knocks off the No.1 seed Spurs as they led San Antonio 3-1 in their first-round series. But last night with their season on the line the Spurs turned to free agent rookie Gary Neal to save the season for the likes of future hall-of-famers Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobilli: It's been a long road for Gary Neal. It took two colleges, several European teams and a summer league stint for the 26-year-old to make his way to the NBA.
"It was mid-September and I was working out and he showed up one day," Manu Ginobili said after the game. "They told me that this was the new shooter we had. I'm not lying when I say that I saw him miss the first 20 shots he took."
Neal went on to become a valuable shooter off the bench for the Spurs, averaging 9.8 points per game in his rookie season and shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. Neal was even named to the rookie team at NBA All-Star Weekend. In the playoffs, Neal's averages have dipped to 7.8 points per game and 38 percent from 3, finding open looks hard to come by against the Grizzlies' swarming defense.
But when San Antonio's season came down to one final play during Game 5 on Wednesday night, the Spurs facing a three-point deficit with 1.7 seconds left, coach Gregg Popovich turned to Neal. Popovich drew up a play to get Neal the ball at the top of the key and find space for a shot.
"I think it was a very good call by Pop," Ginobili said. "It was the kind of play that's designed for him to take a shot like that because he's the one with the quickest release."
6. Mr. President, Kelowna's finest offensive lineman would like a picture:
With the NFL draft beginning today projections are that Danny Wadkins, the 26-year-old former firefighter from Kelowna BC will be taken late in the first round. So unusual is his story -- expertly told by the Globe's Al Maki here -- that it even caught the attention of a former US president: Danny Watkins has met with Bengals and Bears, Chargers and Steelers, Rams and Ravens. He's talked to head scouts, player personnel directors, general managers and even a president.
Not the president of an NFL team, mind you, but a guy who used to reside in Washington and work out of the Oval Office. It turns out former U.S. president George W. Bush is not only a Baylor University football fan; he's keenly aware of Watkins's rise from Kelowna fire fighter to potential first-round pick in Thursday's NFL draft.
The two men met last Sunday at a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington. Watkins and his girlfriend were in the stands when they were invited to a private suite and introduced to the 43rd U.S. president.
"He was smiling and said it was nice to meet me. I couldn't believe it. He knew my name," Watkins said. "I really hated to do it but I asked, 'Can I get a picture with you?' "
Also: Watkins isn't the only Canadian with a shot to be taken early in the draft; as Orlando Franklin of the Miami Hurricanes has a shot too.
7. Can an MLS side compete against the world's best?
Well, we won't get a chance to find out for at least another year. Last night the Nutralite Canadian Championship got underway, with the Vancouver Whitecaps defeating the Montreal Impact 1-0 and Toronto FC downing Edmonton FC 3-0. It's the first step on a long road toward the FIFA World Club Cup, where in theory an MLS team would test themselves against the likes of Real Madrid. Much further down that road was Real Salt Lake, who needed only a draw at home last night to earn the CONCACAF entry in the FIFA World Club Cup in Japan and a chance to earn some bragging rights for MLS. It didn't happen: The trophy was there for the taking in the early moments of Wednesday night's CONCACAF Champions League final. Real Salt Lake stormed the Monterrey goal as if shot from a cannon, and the favored Mexicans were wilting. A single goal would have put the two-game series, tied after the first leg in Monterrey, firmly in the MLS club's control.
But the goal never game, and slowly but surely, both momentum and a chance to make American soccer history slipped from Salt Lake's grasp. A well-worked strike in first-half stoppage time gave Monterrey a lead it wouldn't relinquish, and they left the Rio Tinto Stadium field as the first victorious visitor in 23 months. The 1-0 result was enough to secure the Champions League title, 3-2, on aggregate, and the berth in December's FIFA Club World Cup that both RSL and MLS officials, players and fans were so desperate to claim.
"I feel pretty disappointed that we let everybody down, including ourselves. It stinks when everyone is rooting for you and behind you, and you don't come away with the win," RSL defender Chris Wingert told Sporting News.
A raucous, chanting, flag-waving and streamer-throwing crowd of more than 20,000 greeted the teams in a picturesque setting at the foot of the Wasatch Range, where RSL had been a dominant force for nearly two years. Last week's 2-2 draw in Monterrey, secured with Javier Morales' stunning 89th-minute goal, set the stage. And RSL came out of the locker room like a team on a mission. No MLS club had won the continental title since 2000, and none had ever competed for the world championship.
Morales and Fabián Espíndola tore through Monterrey time and again in the opening stages, and each chance that went awry seemed to hint at more chances to come. The best came in the 10th minute, when Espíndola stripped Monterrey defender Hiram Mier and was in alone on goal. But he pushed his shot wide right.
Slowly, the visitors found their legs and began to relieve some of the pressure, and the tide turned as halftime approached. A ball was played into the penalty area, Sergio Santana made the quick decision to pass around the charging goalkeeper rather than shoot, and a composed finish by Humberto Suazo put Monterrey into the lead past a stunned and bewildered host.
"For 75 minutes I felt like we were the aggressors. In minutes 30 to 45 we weren't, and that's when we got hurt," Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said.
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