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One for the good guys! June 21, 2011

Posted by Casey in Golf.
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Who put these cabins here?

Anyone who rooted for Rory McIlroy at the 2011 Masters had to love this weekend.  He is pictured here attempting to play the ball from a position no professional golfer ever should, that was at the 10th hole, which he teed off at with a one shot lead, 7 holes to go, all to play for.  Three holes later he was 7 shots behind and suffered the ultimate of indignities, CBS stopped showing his shots.   McIlroy has long been on the radar of golf fans, since his bogey-free (the only competitor to do so) opening round 68 at the 2007 Open Championship as an 18-year old amateur.  The natural comparisons to a certain large feline have dogged him since, through several major near misses: T3 at 2009 PGA, T3 at the 2010 Open after posting the lowest opening round ever (63, in the 150th edition, mind you), a three putt on the 15th green that left him one shot out of a playoff at the 2010 PGA left him with yet another T3.   Despite that, he became just the second player to win on the PGA Tour before his 21st birthday (surprise, surprise the other guy is Tiger), and was a very successful part of the winning European Ryder Cup team this past September.    Rory was primed for his first major win at Augusta, beginning the final round with a four shot lead, however, the wheels were not firmly affixed, and the he shot a memorably bad 80 (43 on the back 9!!), that was notable not just for the collapse itself, but the grace with which he handled it.  He didn’t give one-word, nothing answers to the media, he didn’t duck accusations he had collapsed, he stood up, said he would learn from it and moved on.  Just two months later, Rory took Congressional by storm, setting US Open records for 36-hole, 54-hole, and 72-hole scores en route to an 8 shot victory.  Bill Barnwell has an excellent article comparing Rory’s win to other dominant major victories, for those with the time and interest.  The golf world and to some extent sports world seems desperate to get the “old Tiger” back, based on the emergence of this young Northern Irishman, it would seem even that “Old Tiger” would be given a run for his money, but who really needs the club-throwing, blue-streak swearing, cocktail waitress chasing?  Without dipping into the over exaggerations made by others, the kid clearly has a brilliant future, and could become one of golf’s true greats.  Let me be the 1,000,000th  blogger to welcome you to the McIlRory era!

Rejoice in Flight June 15, 2010

Posted by Casey in Soccer, World Cup.
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The Jabulani (Adidas’ soccer ball, created just for this World Cup) flies! The soccer produced in the World Cup thus far has been solid if unspectacular. Yet, teams have struggled to score, with the current average goals per game (1.6 end of play June 14) is on pace to set a new all-time low (2.21, Italia ’90). One reason seems to be that some players are struggling adapt to the flight of the new ball (whose name is Zulu for rejoice).  Over hit cross after over hit cross floats over the penalty box, over the heads of strikers and defenders only to run out of play, or be chased down by the touch line.  A selection of club leagues (those with sponsorship deals with Adidas) were given a chance to play with the ball from February on.  Meanwhile those leagues that use Nike balls have just begun training with the new ball in the month or so lead up to the World Cup.  Germany are taking the plaudits with their 4-0 thrashing of Australia, is it a coincidence that they have 4 months experience playing with this ball?  The ball appears to ‘move’ more in the air; potentially a product of a new manufacturing technique intended to improve aerodynamics. Nonetheless, the three goalie errors can’t possibly be blamed on the ball.  England’s Rob Green’s error, if you haven’t seen it, is probably the worst, but the other 2 (Paraguay’s Justo Villar and Algeria’s Faouzi Chaouchi) both cost their teams points.

The ball appears difficult to control off long passes, especially when it bounces and is especially difficult to keep down on long passes and long shots. Adidas has pointed their finger purely at the high altitude many matches are played at, but many aren’t buying that excuse.  Look for teams with a short passing game to adapt quicker, the Dutch and the Germans were both victorious yesterday, and expect sides like Brazil and Spain to get the goals flowing in the next couple days.  It would make sense that African teams (who used the ball at their continental championship in January and February might also adapt quickly).  However, it’s been a mixed start for Africa, with Cameroon’s 1-0 loss to Japan particularly disappointing.  Ivory Coast-Portugal today at 10 AM ET (ESPN’s coverage starts at 9:30) will leave the winner likely to qualify and the loser disparate for points.  The talismanic Ivorian Didier Drogba has been cleared to play with a cast protecting his fractured elbow, setting the stage for one of the most interesting star matchups of the tournament. Portugal has former World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo and a wealth of talent, but struggled through qualifying.  Should be part of another great day also featuring New Zealand-Slovakia (7:30 AM ET) and Brazil-North Korea (2:30 AM ET).

So Long, Farewell? April 9, 2010

Posted by Casey in College Basketball, NBA, NBA Draft.
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In a sport where it often feels ethics are dead, the NCAA and NBA may have something right.  Prospective NBA players are allowed to attend pro camps, interview with teams, and essentially measure their draft stock.  A perfect example of this is the recent announcement that 5 University of Kentucky basketball players will enter their names into the draft.  The NCAA allows prospects until May 8 to finalize a decision.  A withdrawal restores full remaining eligibility provided the player hasn’t signed with an agent.  Freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins , and junior Patrick Patterson  will likely stay in the draft (and be 1st round picks).  Freshmen Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton will likely proceed through pre-draft activities without committing to test their grades versus other prospects.  Orton played just the 8th most minutes and scored the 8th most points on the Wildcats.  However, he has NBA-size (listed 6-10, 255) and will get a chance to show he’s worth the risk, or learn he needs more of John Calipari’s special blend of coaching herbs and spices.   College coaches can use this experience as a bargaining tool to motivate players (see Ty Lawson, UNC 2009), and the NBA is spared a player who may not be ready.  By giving these time to make an educated decision they can hopefully avoid potential pitfalls, but sometimes ‘protential’ can lead a player to be picked too high, too soon.  Hey, at least you keep the paycheck (hopefully).

Let the Madness Begin March 9, 2010

Posted by Casey in College Basketball.
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The Big East Tournament takes the stage at the World’s Most Famous Arena (Madison Square Garden, NYC) and tomorrow’s quadruple-header features four teams looking at the wrong side of the bubble.  ESPN2 has the afternoon session at 12:00 ET beginning with #9 South Florida battling #16 DePaul.  USF needs this badly to have any hope and won on the road in the team’s only meeting March 2.  The #12/#13 game follows with the higher seeded UConn Huskies facing the St. John’s Red Storm in what amounts to a St. John’s home game.  How will Connecticut’s Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards react to being benched in the second half of Saturday’s loss at South Florida?    ESPNU takes the night session at 7:00ET with #10 Seton Hall looking to ride high scorer Jeremy Hazell past #15 Providence.  The Hall had five players score in double figures in a 12 point win at Providence Saturday.  The nightcap features #11 Cincinnati and #14 Rutgers, who both are probably out of NCAA contention.  Of these teams, all are in trouble, but with the right chips falling elsewhere South Florida, Seton Hall, and Connecticut can all make the big dance.

The first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament is played tomorrow on various on-campus arenas.  #5 Rhode Island takes on #12 St. Joseph’s-in their previous matchup URI romped 101-74.  Another one to watch (or not watch since neither is on TV) is #7 Dayton against #10 George Washington.  Dayton will need to put a good run together in the A-10 tournament which will resume with quarterfinal play March 12th (Friday).  ESPN will have the Horizon League tournament final at 9:00 ET Tuesday.  Top seeded Butler likely has a secure at-large bid so bubble teams everywhere will hope Wright State doesn’t pull the upset, and keeps an extra at-large bid available.  The UConn Women will look to extend their women’s record 71 game winning streak and capture a third consecutive Big East crown at 7 ET against West Virginia.  Bubble teams everywhere were unhappy to see St. Mary’s pull away from Gonzaga in the West Coast Championship Game Monday night, and more importantly force Gonzaga to take an at-large spot.  It should be a fun, full week of hoops, and we are just getting started.

Too many Elbows! March 9, 2010

Posted by Casey in Hockey.
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Again? MATT SLOCUM/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Grade 2 concussion, unconscious on the ice, this has become far too familiar in the NHL.   Marc Savard, of the Boston Bruins, suffered this hit (live :11, slo-mo replays starting :57) from Matt Cooke (Pittsburgh Penguins).  Cooke cleary directs his elbow/shoulder at the head of Savard, who would lose consciousness after contact with the ice.  The is hardly the first of these type of incidents in the NHL (two suspensions since the Winter Olympics), and is the last kind of publicity the league needs as it tries to push on from the excitement generated by the Canada-US Gold Medal Game.  On that basis the league’s response should be stern. The longest suspension this year belongs to Cam Janssen of the St. Louis Blues, for a late high hit on Matt Bradley of the Capitals.  That suspension was a 5 games, and Janssen’s  hit was much worse.  I fear that the league must make sure to be consistent within itself.  I think the league should see that the hit to Savard is remarkebly similar to this elbow also performed by Cooke, delivered to the Ranger’s Artem Ansimov.  Not to rest on his laurels he was also suspended 2 games for a hit on Carolina’s Scott Walker.  Thugs like Cooke are why the sport can never reach the popularity it promises at it’s best moment.  I would love to see the NHL do something drastic like suspend Cooke for 10 games.  Sadly, I think the league will come down with something like 2-4 games.  I love a hit as much as the next guy, but popping someone who has their head down, well after they release the puck, does nothing productive.  These acts of violence only shorten the careers of players (some talented/some not), and should be punished on an increasing scale, not constant leeway.  In on ice news, Alexander Ovechkin snapped a 6-game goal drought with two strikes (try and catch the second if you can) but his Washington Capitals lost in a shoot out to the Dallas Stars.

Weekend Review and Updates March 8, 2010

Posted by Casey in Multi-Sport Preview/Review.
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The big news of the NBA weekend has to be the broken hand of San Antonio point guard Tony Parker.  Parker is expected to be out 6 weeks, which would mean he’d miss the rest of the Spurs regular season games.  San Antonio is currently 5 games behind Dallas in the Southwest Division and looking the other way, has a 6 ½ game cushion on Memphis for the final playoff spot and currently sits in the 7 seed.  The Cleveland Cavaliers spotted the Detroit Pistons a 20-point lead through 16 minutes but rallied behind Lebron James’ 40 points to win 99-92.  This game was given a reality check in the 3rd Quarter when Rodney Stuckey collapsed on the Pistons bench.  Stuckey has been reported to be suffering no continued affects and may play as early as Wednesday.  The Cavs decided to rest Lebron (injury concerns?) Saturday night and slipped at Milwaukee 92-85.  The Los Angeles Lakers have now lost 4 consecutive road games, after getting swept aside in Charlotte Friday night (98-83), then losing 96-94 in Orlando.  Look for the Spurs first game without Parker, at Cleveland Monday night (7:00 ET NBA TV).

Across the pond an intriguing weekend saw Real Madrid go top on goal difference after their last-gasp winner from Rafael van der Vaart.  Portsmouth, Aston Villa, and Chelsea all won FA Cup Quarterfinals, while Tottenham and Fulham could only manage a 0-0 draw and will replay at Spurs’ White Hart Lane March 24th.  Aston Villa will play Chelsea and the winner of the replay will take on Portsmouth the weekend of April 10-11th.  Manchester United and Arsenal both won in Chelsea’s absence, and there are now 3 teams within a point at the top of the English Premier League.  Arsenal however may be without talisman Cesc Fabregas who limped out after scoring the opening goal of the Gunners 3-1 victory over Burnley.  Early news suggests Cesc’s injury is not long-term but he is a doubt for Tuesday’s crunch Champion’s League decider with FC Porto.  Catenaccio reigns in Serie A as 2nd place Milan draw at 3rd place Roma 0-0, but neither lose ground on table-toppers Inter who also drew 0-0 with Genoa.  Landon Donovan returns to the US on the heels of scoring in Everton’s 5-1 victory over Hull City.  There’s a four Champion’s League second legs midweek, see below for coverage of all the games.

NBA (all NBA TV)

Monday:  7:00 ET – San Antonio @ Cleveland

Tuesday:  10:30 ET – Toronto @ Los Angeles Lakers

Wednesday:  7:30 ET – Utah @ Detroit

Champion’s League (all 2:30 ET)

Tuesday: FC Porto (2) @ Arsenal 1) – FSN HD

Bayern Munich (2) @ Fiorentina (1) – FSC

Wednesday:  AC Milan (2) @ Manchester United (3) – FSC

Olympique Lyon (1) @ Real Madrid (0) – FSC + (Re-airs on FSC at 5:00 ET)

NHL (sorry Center Ice trial is over)

Monday: 7:00 ET Dallas @ Washington – VERSUS

Tuesday: 7:00 ET New York Islanders @ Philadelphia – VERSUS

Wednesday: 7:00 ET Carolina @ Washington – NHL Network


Weekend Preview March 5, 2010

Posted by Casey in Multi-Sport Preview/Review.
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Even I can’t keep track of the day-to-day bracket-ology changes, but I do know that it is now only 9 days to Selection Sunday!  Pittsburgh clinched a double-bye in next week’s Big East tournament with their 73-71 victory over Providence Thursday night, on a half-court shot as time expired (I’ll edit a link in here once I find one).  Maryland ‘upset’ Duke at home to tie the Blue Devils for best record in the ACC Wednesday night.  For me this game was a perfect example of fans unnecessarily storming the court…Maryland fans: you have a really good team, by acting as if you’ve never won anything before, you’re taking away from your team’s excellent victory.    Elsewhere on Wednesday, Kansas clinched the Big XII regular season title with their 85-62 victory over Kansas State and Connecticut’s NCAA Tournement hopes were hurt (as Notre Dame’s were helped) by their 58-50 loss in South Bend.  On tap this weekend I’ll be watching #8 West Virginia travel to Philly to take on #9 Villanova (12:00 ET Saturday, CBS) followed by #1 Syracuse’s trip to bubble-riding (but almost certainly in) Louisville (2:00 ET, ESPN).   ESPN will feature UNC @ Duke in prime-time Saturday night (9:00 ET) and sometimes these rivalry games can help the weaker team play up to its opponent.  Sunday afternoon sees two more bubble teams make their case: Florida hosts John Wall and his #3 Kentucky Wildcats at 12:00 ET on CBS and Illinois will take on #17 Wisconsin on their home court (2:00 ET, ESPN).  Sunday marks the final day of regular season play, with the major conference tournaments beginning early next week.  Get ready for the madness!

Paul Pierce’s return has seen the Celtics start to right the ship it will be interesting to see if they can put up a fight for the East’s 2-seed (and guaranteed home-court in the second round).  They are currently 2 ½ games behind the Magic for that spot.  David Thorpe just wrote a great piece comparing Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony (you need ESPN Insider access unfortunatelty), who may be the two-best pure scorers, after Kobe Bryant, in the NBA. Cleveland keeps cruising without  Shaq and has now opened a 2 game lead on the Lakers for best record in the league, they have Detroit Friday night (7:00 ET, ESPN) and Milwaukee Saturday (8:30 ET).  I think whoever selects NBA TV’s weekly Saturday night nationally televised game should be fired, New Jersey @ New York (7:30 ET)?  Really?  Their combined record (27-93, as of Thursday) must be the worst ever for a nationally televised game.  All eyes  should be on Sunday’s NBA Finals rematch, Los Angeles continues their Eastern road trip in Orlando at 2:30 ET (ABC).  In previous games against elite big men, the Magic have felt a need to give Dwight Howard help defensively, I’m interested to see how they defend the Lakers’ combination of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

A record amount of deals were made on NHL trade deadline day on Wednesday.  No major names changed hands and the biggest acquisition remains the New Jersey Devil’s pickup of Ilya Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers before the Olympics.  Still, some interesting moves were made and the NHL run-in should be quite exciting.  The Blackhawks have pulled even on points with the Sharks for best record in the West, and that looks like it could go down to the wire.  NHL Network has Toronto @ Ottawa at 7 ET on Saturday, and Montreal @ Anaheim at 8 ET on Sunday for your viewing pleasure.  The pick of the televised games this weekend is Detroit @ Chicago (12:30 ET Sunday, NBC), nothing beats a good old-fashioned Original 6 rivalry.

For the soccer fans out there, its FA Cup Quarterfinal weekend in England with Portsmouth-Birmingham (7:30 AM Saturday, Fox Soccer Plus), Fulham-Tottenham (12:30 PM Saturday), Reading-Aston Villa (8:30 AM Sunday) and Chelsea-Stoke (11:00 AM, Fox Soccer Plus).  I also recommend catching AC Milan-Roma (Saturday 2:45 PM, Fox Soccer Channel) and Real Madrid-Sevilla (Saturday 4:00 PM, Gol-TV).  In the latest edition of American’s abroad Landon Donovan’s Everton take on Jozy Altidore’s Hull City on Sunday at 11:00 AM ET on Fox Soccer Channel.

NFL free agency starts…now.   Here is a list of the top 50 free-agents to be.   ESPN’s Todd McShay reviews the recently concluded NFL Scouting Combine.  The PGA Tour begins its Florida swing with the Honda Classic at PGA National, NBC has the weekend rounds 3 PM -6 PM Saturday, and final round coverage starts at 3 PM and goes until they’re done.  No huge news from MLB Spring Training as yet, ‘m working on a comprehensive MLB Preview article and will try and get it done in the next two weeks or so.  That’s about all I’ve got for today, enjoy the weekend!

Who are these guys? Part 1 March 5, 2010

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The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) got to play one of the best teams in the world, the Netherlands, on Wednesday afternoon ( highlights).  Despite being outplayed through 1st half, I felt the US was unfortunate to be a goal down at half time.  The Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder burst into the box and fell over under the slightest of touches of Jonathan Bornstein (:37 of highlight video).  It was a mind bogglingly stupid decision to reach out and grab Sneijder in that position and any experienced soccer player would go over to try and draw the penalty.  That said, I think it was a soft decision by the referee.  The second Dutch goal came from a deflected Klaus-Jan Huntelaar shot off the unlucky (this time) Bornstein and past a wrong-footed Tim Howard (1:15).   Once the second goal went in, the Americans seemed to have a weight lifted off the shoulders.  The passes connected, the movement off the ball improved and the chances started flowing.  US Captain Carlos Bocanegra headed in a perfectly weighted set piece from DaMarcus Beasley to pull a goal back, and set off a frantic final few minutes.  All in all it was a decent performance against a good team from a depleted US squad.

So what happens now?  The American players will go back to their clubs and the relative anonymity that comes with being a member of the USMNT.  The players will gather again for a training camp after the European season ends in mid-May, before playing tune up games against the Czech Republic (May 25 in East Hartford, tickets) and Turkey (May 29 in Philadelphia, tickets).  Then it’s off to Rustenburg, South Africa for the opening match of the 2010 World Cup against England on June 12.  US coach Bob Bradley will have his hands full keeping track of players plying their trade in both North America and Europe.

Here is a low-down on the stalwarts of the US team: Landon Donovan (M/F, Club: LA Galaxy, MLS, currently on-loan at Everton, ENG) is our all-time record goalscorer and consensus best player.  Donovan is currently on a short-term loan at English Premier League (EPL) club Everton but will be returning to the Galaxy March 15th.  By all accounts Donovan has thrived in England (this miss nonwithstanding) after two failed stints in Germany.  Landon is the perfect player for this US team, he is quick and direct with the ball, perfect for an American team that will struggle to maintain possession and will often look to play on the counter-attack. Tim Howard (G, Everton, ENG) has become one of the EPL’s most consistent goalies, and should revel in his first World Cup opportunity.  Oguchi Onyewu (D, AC Milan, ITA) enjoyed a superb 2008/2009 season with both his club team Standard Liege and the USMNT culminating in a move to Italian giants AC Milan.  However, Onyewu had trouble breaking into the well-established Milan defense and just as he started to get a run of games, he ruptured his patellar tendon in a WC Qualifier against Costa Rica October 14th.  Onyewu has just returned to light training and hopes to make a return to the Milan team sometime in the next 3 weeks.   ‘Gooch’ is a dynamic athelete who is able to dominate opposing forwards with his combination of size and speed, while he can be vulnerable to players with great dribbling ability (who isn’t?).   Carlos Bocanegra (D, Rennes, FRA) is the current American Captain and can play at both left and center back.  Bocanegra partnered Jay Demerit in central defence in Amsterdam on Wednesday but I think his best role in this American team is on the left side of the back four.  Oguchi Onyewu’s return would allow Bocanegra to slide to left back and move Jonathan Bornstein to the bench, where he belongs in my opinion.  The four man defense of Jonathon Spector (RB, West Ham, ENG), Jay Demerit (CB, Watford, ENG), Onyewu, and Bocanegra helped lead the US to the Confederations Cup championship game last summer, with upset wins against Spain and Egypt along the way.  These four players will HAVE to be on their game for the US to advance to the knockout stages.

I had intended to work my way through the entire squad in this post, but due to the length I’ve split it into 2.  Look for the second installment next week!

Hump Day Report March 3, 2010

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March Madness is coming.  Soon Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and the ESPN college basketball machine will be coming at you through all types of media.  There will be countless college basketball games on the before the field of 65 is announced (March 14th), but which ones are worth more than a cursory glance?  I say Wednesday’s matchup of #2 Kansas vs. #5 Kansas State.  Kansas edged an 81-79 OT win at Kansas State a little over a month ago behind a winning layup from All-American Sherron Collins.  Collins will take center stage at Kansas’ senior night Wednesday at 8PM on ….ESPN Gameplan?  That’s right this top 5 matchup won’t be on the ‘home’ of college basketball, ESPN (or 2 or U or the ocho), unless you live in Big XII country (places to find it).  ESPN 360 also will carry the game depending on your internet provider.  For those who won’t be watching  look for ESPN’s doubleheader (UConn @ Notre Dame, ACC #1 Duke @ ACC #2 Maryland, starts at 7 ET Wednesday.

Let’s face it NBA games these days thrive based on star power, and Thursday’s Lakers-Heat matchup (TNT, 8 ET) certainly brings that.  Kobe Bryant has Los Angeles fighting for the best record in the league, while the Heat are fighting for 8th spot led by perennial All-Star Dwayne Wade.  Jazz-Suns round up TNT’s Thursday doubleheader, and ESPN has Pistons-Cavs at 7 followed by Hornets-Spurs on Friday night.  Cleveland is undoubtedly thinner inside without Shaquille O’Neal (8 weeks thumb) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (released, can resign with Cavs 3/22, or any team now), but has a 6 game cushion for best record in the East.  The Cavs are 2-0 since Shaq’s injury and should be capable of securing at least home court throughout the Easter Conference Playoffs.

Wednesday is a FIFA international date and being that qualification is finalized for the 2010 World Cup, there’s nothing to do but play friendly matches.  An injury-hit US squad travels to Holland to face a strong Dutch team live on ESPN2 at 2:30 ET (actual KO, 2:45).  Gol TV will feature Argentina-Germany live at 2:30 ET, followed by Cameroon-Italy on tape delay at 5:00 ET.  ESPN 360 will have a selection of games live and available on replay, highlighted by Spain- France, live at 3:00 ET.  Finally, for those hoping to scout out the USA’s Group C opponents England, their match with Egypt is available on the new Fox Soccer Channel Plus, or online through Fox Soccer TV.  I’ve left out quite a few interesting games, so look for highlights on Fox Soccer Channel’s Fox Soccer Report (10 ET each weeknight with exceptions).

That’s about it for now, I’ll try to get a recap of US-Holland and how the World Cup is shaping up as well as a weekend preview by Friday.

Good show, eh? March 2, 2010

Posted by Casey in Hockey.
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With the Olympic stage to themselves, Team Canada and Team USA played a Gold Medal Game worth its title. Hockey’s poster child Sidney Crosby scored the winner in OT to talk Canada back from its collective cliff.  American Ryan Miller has been touted as the best goalie in the NHL and preformed like it in these Olympics.  The well balanced US team made up of young scorers and experienced campaigners defied pre-tournament expectations to beat Canada in the preliminary round and push on to play for gold.  An early two goal deficit was trimmed to 2-1 by Ryan Kesler (playing in his home NHL arena) before Zach Parise’s dramatic last minute equalizer.  Americans everywhere jumped, whooped and hi-fived like it was Miracle 2.  The Canadians used the intermission to recover well and the US never really seemed to match up in the 4 on 4 sudden death overtime and Crosby and Jarome Iginla combined to score the winner 7 minutes in.  Canada deserved their victory and their gold (2 out of last 3), and Americans everywhere remembered what a breathtaking sport hockey is.

The 2010 Olympic tournament did a great job showcasing the worldwide talent in the game, two particular days stood out to me, Sunday Feb. 21 and Wednesday Feb. 24.  The 21st was the last day of preliminary round play and featured a tripleheader: Russia-Czech Republic, Canada-US and Sweden-Finland.  All are regional rivalries and combine to feature most of the best players in the world.  The second date featured all four Olympic quarter-finals:  US-Switzerland, Russia-Canada, Finland-Czech Republic, and Sweden-Slovakia.  Again, the combination of talent all competing in the same tournament on the same day is jawdropping.  While a few blowouts took some of the excitement away from the knockout rounds the gold medal game undoubtedly delivered.  Those who just can’t wait for more international hockey don’t have to look too far ahead.  The 2010 World Championships are staged in Germany in less than 3 months and will feature NHL players (wait for it….from teams that miss the playoffs, but NHL players nonetheless).  The games will be aired on Universal HD and begin May 7th.  An event as big as the World Championships should’t be held during the NHL Playoffs when the best players will not be available.  Simply put, it benefits no one, later in the summer or before the season is a must.   This same dilemma affects the startup World Baseball Classic and to be fair there is no easy answer.  All I can say is let’s hope NHL players will represent their countries in Sochi, Russia in 2014.

What can hockey do from this?  To start they have made NHL Center ICE (access to EVERY game)available for free this week (March 2-8), look for a block of channels somewhere in the nether regions of your cable box (COX Cable Hartford Channels 673-684).  Versus and the NHL Network will have a pick of the games each night featuring top teams.. I know what you’re saying, “They don’t try as hard during the regular season”.  I can’t argue, the players won’t play like the gold medal game but there is still plenty to be excited about.  Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have the makings of transcendent stars, and have already developed an intra-conference rivalry.  Perennial power Detroit faces a fight to make the playoffs, Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals have a one point lead on San Jose for best record and there is a group of talented teams vying for playoff positioning.  The NHL faces an important time period and a boost in ratings (and add revenue) could make it easier for the NHLPA and the owner’s to agree on a CBA before the words ‘lockout’ or ‘strike’ appear on anyone’s lips.  The current CBA expires after next season, 2010-2011, and with impending problems in the NFL and NBA it would be a nice to change to see both sides quietly agree to a deal.   With the emergence Kontinental Hockey League (24 teams in Russia and 3 other former Soviet republics), it’s important that the NHL avoids another work stoppage and ensure it retains the world’s best player for years to come.  If you catch one game make it New Jersey at San Jose on Tuesday night, featuring American stars Zach Parise and Jamie Langebrunner against San Jose’s Canadian line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley.  I know it’s on late but should be fun even for just the first period.   The trade deadline is Wednesday and the stretch run begins now, don’t get left out!

National Games This Week:

Monday:  9:00 ET – Detroit @ Colorado -VERSUS

Tuesday: 7:30 ET – Philadelphia @ Tampa Bay – VERSUS

10:30 ET – New Jersey @ San Jose – VERSUS

Wednesday: 7:00 ET – Washington @ Buffalo – VERSUS

7:30 ET – Vancouver @ Detroit – NHL Network

Thursday: 7:00 ET –Pittsburgh Penguins @ New York Rangers  – VERSUS

7:00 ET – Tampa Bay @ Washington – NHL Network

Saturday: 7:00 ET – Toronto @ Ottawa  – NHL Network

Sunday: 12:30 ET – Detroit @ Chicago – NBC

8:00 ET – Montreal @ Anaheim – NHL Network

Games EVERY NIGHT on NHL Center Ice’s Free Trial!

Thanks for reading and I hope to post a weekly preview tomorrow.

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