With the NHL playoffs starting tonight -- hey, even I'm excited about it -- we offer some service journalism: Which team to back if your real team isn't in the playoffs AND how to win your playoff pool or at least a whole truck load of money gambling. Also just in case you can think of anything else right now we touch on some soccer and baseball too.
Happy NHL playoff day.
1. Recommendation: your second team should be the Pittsburgh Penguins:
If you're in Vancouver or Montreal, your fan duties are pretty clear right now: Hope for the best; keep your anxious inners selves at bay as much as possible and otherwise swim in the great melodrama that is having your favourite team in the playoffs. Living in Toronto, I'm relying on memory here. But it's also the time of year - if you don't have a team in the playoffs, or even if you do -- to have a backup team, just so you have something to do (in the case of Leafs, Oilers, Flames and Senators fans) or (in the case of Canucks fans) if Robert Luongo looks up and suddenly realizes he's playing the Blackhawks. As a Canadian I'll be into both the Canucks and the Canadiens. But I'm also thinking the Pittsburgh Penguins are a deserving second team for anyone in the market for one right now. What they've done in 2011 in pretty remarkable: These Penguins, somehow, some way, are still skating sky-high.
They finished the regular season at 49-25-8, the NHL's second-highest victory total and the second-best record in franchise history. After Crosby sustained a concussion with two hits to the head Jan. 1 and 5, they went 23-13-5. After Malkin was lost to a right knee injury Feb. 4 and both stars were out, they went 15-10-4, including a 13-4-2 tear carrying into this postseason.
"If you look at all the things we had to endure, it's a pretty good job," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "You're never going to replace the guys we lost, but we kept going."
That is to say nothing of missing several other players for extended stretches: Orpik had a broken hand. Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey, the centers tabbed to replace Crosby and Malkin, went down. So did wingers Chris Kunitz and Arron Asham. One night against the Los Angeles Kings, the Penguins had to recall four players from their minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre just to fill the roster. In all, 350 man-games were lost to injury, more than double Tampa Bay's 172.
Players were out of position, out of their usual roles, and the only constants were the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury, the relentless work ethic and, yes, the winning.
How have they done it?
Crosby still ended up the Penguins' leading scorer with 66 points, and next on the list was defenseman Kris Letang, whose 50 points tied for 91st in the NHL. Clearly, the offense had to come from other sources, and it did, notably from forwards Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis.
The defense remained tight, too: The penalty-killing finished No. 1 in the league, and Fleury's 2.32 goals-against average, ninth in the NHL, has him in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender.
Perhaps most emblematic in the intangible sense was the performance of Mike Rupp, a grinding left winger who spent most of the season's first half averaging just seven or eight minutes a game on the fourth line. Rupp not only would get promoted to the first line but also switch to center for the first time since college, work on the first-unit power play, and more than double his ice time.
This past Friday in New York, he was the Penguins' best player with a goal and assist in the 4-3 victory against the Islanders.
"Honestly, there was a bit of a chip on our shoulders back when our big guys got hurt," Rupp said. "The hockey media across North America questioned us. When you read or hear that we're 'hanging on' until those guys come back, you take that personally. I mean, we're obviously a better team with Sidney and Evgeni in the lineup. But we're also a good team without those guys."
He thumped his thumb on his chest.
"I deserve to be here. I deserve to be in the NHL. So does every guy on this team. We've done our work. This was our opportunity to show that we're still the Pittsburgh Penguins. I didn't want to wait for help. I wanted to get it done."
2. I'm Brian Burke; I have a Stanley Cup ring and drafted the Sedins, so shut up:
That's pretty much the sub-text to every public appearance the Leafs general manager has given since he arrived in Toronto. And you know what, I don't have too much problem with that. He was his unapologetic self in his end-of-the-season remarks to the Toronto media, and when you read this story by Ian McIntyre of the Vancouver Sun about Henrik and Daniel Sedin as they prepare to lead the juggernaut that is the Vancouver Canucks on what should be a run to the Stanley Cup, well, there are a lot of executives in sports who could only dream of being able to draft both these guys in a career, let alone in the same draft. What would the Leafs be like right now if he'd been successful in his efforts to sign them as free agents in 2009? Pilfered second and third at the 1999 draft by former general manager Brian Burke - Patrik Stefan went first, Pavel Brendl fourth (enough said?) - the Sedins didn't come to North America to grind out an NHL living and bob along like corks in the current on a good team.
They have always wanted to be out front. Their commitment to self-improvement and their determination to excel, individually and with their team, has always been under-appreciated.
They are more responsible than any other players for shaping the Canucks, yet still don't get the love that teammate Ryan Kesler receives. It's not that Kesler, whose emotions and combative style are more engaging for Vancouver fans, doesn't deserve the attention. But for a long time, the Sedins have deserved more.
"It's a professional sport and there's going to be [fans and reporters]not liking the way you play or your style or that we don't fight or we're Swedes or we're twins," Henrik said. "Some people think it's weird we're twins, have always played together and are good friends. That's just the way it is."
The Sedins never sulked or complained about criticism, even when they were being mocked as the sisters or twinkies. They just used it as rocket fuel and worked harder. They're two of the most accountable and decent people the Canucks have ever had.
They have a chance next season, at age 31, to become the leading scorers in franchise history, eclipsing Linden and Markus Naslund if the twins have another season like this one. They're going to blow up the Canuck record book before they're done in Vancouver.
But none of this matters to them. Winning a Stanley Cup matters. They'll happily share the credit if the Canucks win, and accept the brunt of the blame if Vancouver fails.
3. Poolies; gamblers take note: Here is your NHL playoff predictor Holy Grail. Keep it to yourself.
This is pretty interesting: a statistical tool which seems to cut through the clutter of wins and losses and gets to the heart of which teams will win which playoff series. The numbers seem pretty convincing, and significantly better than simply picking the favourites (via Puck Daddy): With the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs kicking off tomorrow, many people are sitting down with a pencil and a bracket today, myself included. And as I make my best Nostradamus impression, I keep telling myself those pieces of advice we tend to repeat in these times. That defense wins championships. That the Sharks will choke. That it's about the match-up not the seed. That the seed is meaningless.
Well, that isn't entire true. The Sharks part is, but the seeds aren't exactly meaningless. They just aren't all that great either. Over the last 4 post seasons the higher seed has only won 36 of the 60 matchups, or 60%. Hardly impressive.
But what if there was a statistic just sitting out there that was more accurate in predicting series winners? Even more accurate than a particular crab-eating macaque monkey?
It turns out - there is. Considerably more accurate.
Like how about going 50-10 over the same last 4 postseasons?
4. David Beckham is coming to Toronto!
Be calm you cynics; it's not a crass commercial effort by Toronto FC to sell a few more tickets. Becks is here as a member of the LA Galaxy facing the mighty FC. Since this is almost certainly the soon-to-be 36-year-old's last tour through MLS, Stephen Brunt wonders about the impact the world's most famous (if not its best) footballer has had: But at this stage, the bigger question, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is [what]is his legacy? Did the big gamble pay off?
There has been no miraculous transformation. Soccer has not displaced any of the traditionally dominant North American sports. But by the same token, soccer interest and soccer literacy - expressed not just through MLS, but through all of the international content now available via television - has never been higher here.
There are still plenty of empty seats in many MLS stadiums, even the small, purpose-built parks which are perfect for the game's needs, television ratings are minuscule for the domestic game, and only one other big name European player - Thierry Henry - has followed in Beckham's footsteps.
But since Beckham's arrival, MLS has added teams in Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, which all seem extraordinarily healthy, with another in Montreal on the way, and in the process franchise values have soared.
"The way the league is going and the way franchises are coming into the league - you look at things like that and you say, yeah, it has improved in the last few years."
Could that have happened without him? Was all of the hype worth the huge price paid by the league, and by sponsors, to get him here
Another view of Becks, by the Toronto Star's Cathal Kelly, is merely that he's morphed into a schlumpf: He's still playing, in the same way that a bartender is still working when he's stacking chairs on top of tables. The fun part of the night is finished. Time to mop up.
This is how the David Beckham experiment ends - feebly and with few on hand to watch it pass.
5. If you are a baseball nerd -- or a broadcaster prone to saying 'heavy fastball' -- this is must reading
The secrets of the universe remain largely untold, as does the mystery or why some curveballs are better than others, or some fastballs have 'jump'. This story by Tom Verducci is about a new(ish) technology which promises to explain all that stuff and prove why the Detroit Tigers Justin Verlander is very hard to hit: The answers are provided by a Danish technology company that may change the way teams scout and evaluate pitchers. Trackman, a company established in 2003, is taking some old-school observational theory out of baseball and replacing it with hard data derived from 3D Doppler radar ball flight measurement. The company already has established a foothold in professional golf and is bringing its tracking technology to baseball, where Sportvision's Pitch-F/x system, another ball tracking technology, has been used widely for years.
Last year Trackman installed its ball flight measuring systems in a handful of major league and minor league parks. The data provided a trove of information that makes the radar gun, a staple of baseball since the early 1970s, seem as obsolete as the typewriter.
The radar gun, for instance, measures only the speed of a pitch at a given point. But when it comes to fastballs, the battle between the pitcher and hitter is decided by time, not by speed: How long does a fastball take to reach the plate once it leaves the pitcher's hand?
This does not involve one simple math formula because there is a huge variable to consider. While the distance between the pitching rubber and the plate is uniform (60 feet, six inches), the distance the ball actually travels can vary by a foot or more based on where the pitcher releases the ball.
Trackman measures not just the speed of the pitch, but also the key variable: the distance between the pitcher's release point and the plate. With those measurements, Trackman defines not only the time component of a fastball -- "flight time," if you will -- but also defines in irrefutable data why scouts might describe a pitcher as "sneaky fast" or throwing a ball with "hop."
6. Opening Day in Japan: where starting anew has added meaning
The meaningfulness of sports is easy to throw into doubt. Just say Barry Bonds over and over again. But there is meaning is sports; sometimes and in some places. In Japan baseball season has started. And the fans there were happy about it. That it went on at all means something: The parking lots around QVC Marine Field were closed because the land underneath them liquefied in the March 11 earthquake. Some scoreboards were turned off to save electricity, and a new inning could no longer begin after a game was three and a half hours old for the same reason. Flags at the stadium were flown at half-staff, and players on one of the teams, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, wore patches on their uniforms that in effect urged their fans to "stick with it."
to the stadium, which is about 45 minutes outside Tokyo, and another aftershock in the fourth inning forced the home plate umpire to call time.
But in the face of it all, they played ball Tuesday. In the first six innings, each team spotted the other team a run. Then in a bit of storybook drama for the Eagles, who are from Sendai, a city not far from the center of the giant quake last month, their spiritual leader, Motohiro Shima, hit a three-run homer into the team's cheering section in left field, and Tohoku beat the Chiba Lotte Marines, 6-4.
"This is a victory for all of us, including the people trying their best in Tohoku," said Hisashi Iwakuma, the starting pitcher for the Eagles.
And so it was on opening day, Japan style. There were staples of custom and optimism: fried soba noodles on the griddle, cheerleaders in pink satin outfits dancing in the early spring sun, long lines of fans eager to enter the stadium for the first time since last fall, when the hometown Lotte Marines won the Japan Series.
7. Wake up, it's over -- Toronto Raptors season ends tonight against MIami:
Yes, it's officially ironic that the worst Toronto Raptors season in 13 seasons comes to a close against the Miami Heat and Chris Bosh. Doug Smith, rates a lineup that has more holes than players (as palace intrigue regarding the future of Bryan Colangelo and Jay Triano swirls) and will need to be different a year from now if this team is going to be any better.