Saturday, January 24, 2009

Courting The Forgotten Major

"Please...we're a long, long way from home."

Alright, so in celebration of the 200th post on this site, I figured I would do something different to kind of shake things up. Face it, you have a week until the Super Bowl, the Bruins are off for the weekend for the All Star Game (I'm taking the East -130 in that...I know what you're thinking, and yes, it is ridiculous to bet on all star games...but what would be the point of watching it if there wasn't money're welcome Gary Bettman), so there has to be something to fill the void of my undying allegiance to "wasting" my life away watching sports...enter the Australian Open, the red-headed stepchild of the majors. Actually, this is probably my favorite major because A.) No one talks about it, which makes me think I'm part of a secret society, B.) Call me crazy, but Australia doesn't get the kind of pub that it used to get...I'm going to go ahead and attribute that to the decline of Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Nicole Kidman from the limelight, and C.) Unless you're really sick, you can't really pregame for the opening matches of any other major. Actually, most are happening while you're sleeping, while the Aussie Open is just kicking off at 9 or 10 at night...that's so prime!

Okay, outside of it being a really nice little excuse to stay up for all hours (in case you ever needed one), it also provides us with kind of a glimpse as to what we could expect for the rest of the 2009 tennis season. Of course, this season starts with a major twist. Roger Federer, who was the world's #1 for something like five years straight (maybe shorter, maybe was an extended period of time, how about that?), is now playing second fiddle to Rafael Nadal. Of course it would have been naive to imagine that Federer would continue to win everything for the rest of his career. However, even after Nadal's dominance last year, it's still tough for be to imagine anyone but Federer being the #1 man.

In any event, at the time of this writing, we are in the fourth round of the Open. The story so far, for me at least, was the fracas that happened between fans at the end of third-ranked Novak Djokavic's victory over Amer Delic. Of course, if you know about the Australian Open, you know that it is probably the most "rowdy" of all the majors. The fans are probably more boisterous at this tournament than any other one on the tour. This was a particularly interesting match due to the fact that Djokavic, who is from Serbia, was up against Delic, an American, but a descendant of Bosnia. If you were not aware of this, there is a history between the two countries (notably the Bosnian War), and once one of the sides started to infringe on the other's good time, an incident, not surprisingly, occurred. Eyewitnesses call the dispute "a chair-throwing contest." These types of incidents have happened before at the event, and in fact, most people suspected that something would happen when Djokavic and Delic squared off. In Delic's prior match, there was shouting going back and forth between Serbian supporters and Croatian supporters, which then made its way to a local pub where a skirmish broke out, resulting in two arrests. So, that was somewhat of a way to foreshadow what was likely to unfold in Delic's next match. While sports are a great way to show your support for your town/city/state/country, so many times, it becomes about much more than what is going on in the game. Old wounds are dug into, and in turn, people think that, rather than look inferior, they should take up arms against the opponents' fans instead of enjoying the game. I know that I am guilty of this, and I think to varying degrees, we all are. While I think it may not be the healthiest way to show support for your team to chant and deride the opposing team, it crosses the line when physicality gets involved. Again, I'm not saying that getting into it as a fan is wrong, but there are definitely lines that people can cross, and they cross them too often, and it leads to people getting hurt, or sometimes worse.

Okay, getting back to the tennis aspect (sorry for the non-violence tangent), Djokavic will be going up against Marcos Baghdatis, who placed second at the '06 Aussie Open. Federer was able to navigate by Marat Safin, the former #1 player in the world and '05 champion, who said he will be retiring from tennis at the end of the '09 season. Andy Roddick (remember him?) was able to get by Fabrice Santoro in straight sets and is slated to go up against #21 Tommy Robredo. Robredo has yet to make it past the quarterfinals in any major, and is said to prefer playing on clay, so Roddick has a real chance to get by Robredo. If he does, he will likely face Djokovic in the next round. A guy to keep an eye on is #8 Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina. The reason I say this is that he has already won a warmup tourney that was held in New Zealand before the Aussie Open got underway, and reading this, I immediately thought about how it seems that the performance of players in tournaments before a major event can carry over to the major itself, kind of like how golfers do on the Florida swing before getting to the Masters. Del Potro will draw #19 Miran Cilic, which could lead to an encounter with Federer.

On the woman's side, you're looking at a #1 in Jelena Jankovic and a #2 in Serena Williams who seem almost destined to be playing in the finals from the dominance they have shown so far. You can almost say at this point that Jankovic, who has now been #1 for nineteen weeks in a row, is due for this win. Without a major to her credit (yet), she gets the unfortunate label of "the only #1 women's player in history without a major" for the time being. So, she will obviously be looking to rid that from her profile. Serena Williams has undergone a renaissance in her career, and is playing the way she did when she and her sister (who got bounced last round) were dominating the sport. A surprise so far was Ana Ivanovic's early exit from the proceedings. Ivanovic was the runner-up last year, but lost in three sets to Alisa Kleybanova. The timing of this couldn't be worse (as if losing ever has good timing), as defending champ Maria Sharapova is sitting out the Open. Someone to watch as a potential spoiler for a #1 vs. #2 could be the #3. Dinara Safina, who won the silver in Beijing, has had past success in this tournament, and breezed by her last opponent, Kaia Kanepi, in barely an hour (that's really quick in case you were wondering).

If you were curious, the matches will continue all the way until February 1, so if you've missed a chance to get a buzz on and then enjoy some tennis, have no fear, you still have a week to make that happen.

Big news coming out of KC as Herm Edwards, not surprisingly, was fired today. While I thought Edwards had a chance to come back next year, I was assuming this based on if Carl Peterson, the former GM and vice president of the team, stayed. Well, as soon as he resigned and Pioli was hired on, it was just a matter of time. In my opinion, Pioli was going to take the Cleveland job, but because they already picked Mangini as their coach, he decided to go to a team that would allow him, and not ownership, to pick the coach and the personnel. After all, he had a good thing in New England, and if he was going to go somewhere else, he had to have complete control over everything that was happening on the field. So, Pioli now gets to choose Herm's successor. The early news is that Mike Shanahan could be in line to take over. I found this to be initially fascinating because of this: If Shanahan gets hired on in KC, it will mark the third team in the AFC West he's coached. That's got to have some kind of historical precedence right? He's basically been entrenched in that division for 25 years (outside of his brief role as the Niners' offensive coordinator in the early 90s...I know, I didn't know that either), so this would be almost a perfect fit for him. I think like Pioli though, Shanahan can basically pick and choose where he wants to go, and it remains to be seen if KC is where he would be comfortable going to. If the Larry Johnson issue wasn't an issue at all, then this would be a no-brainer. However, Johnson and his unrest remain on the team for now. My thinking is that Shanahan has to be familiar with Pioli's work in New England, and therefore, can probably trust that this guy is capable of building up a winner in a short period of time. If Shanahan gets hired on, and LJ gets his walking papers, remember the name Jamaal Charles for next year. Given Shanahan's history of getting every running back with two legs 1,000 yards, I would expect a breakout season from Charles, who showed major flashes of his potential this year.

As I eluded to earlier, the NHL is having their All Star Game in Montreal (just hearing the word "Montreal" makes me want to boo), and of course, no one cares about the game itself. Everyone, instead, is focused on the skills competition, and for good reason. Just like the NBA's version, All Star Saturday is, at a minimum, a thousand times better than the game itself. Say what you will about the NHL, but they have done everything in their power to at least make the game more fan-friendly after their recent labor dispute which led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, and it continues into the skills contest. Here is a list of the events, including the participants, and my pick for the winner (the event starts at 7:00 on VS. on Saturday):

Fastest Skater:
  • Jeff Carter, Philadelphia
  • Zach Parise, New Jersey
  • Brian Campbell, Chicago
  • Jay Bouwmeester, Florida
Parise apparently will not be doing this live, as they have already posted his time of 15.829 seconds on the NHL website. Again, if this is official, which I'm not even sure it is, that time is slow as hell for this contest. Consider the last time the event was held in the format that it will be held this year, Andy McDonald won with a 14.030 time. So, again, if Parise already did this and tahat's his time, there's no way he has a chance. My pick in this one is Brian Campbell because he signed a big-ass contract in the offseason, which means he has less to lose than a guy like Bouwmeester, who will be a free agent after this year. Also, Campbell is the oldest of the three, and surprisingly, age is a positive factor in this contest. And, because it's true, Phil Kessel would have schooled all of them if he didn't have mono...I wonder how many times something has been followed by "if he/she/they didn't have mono?"

Breakaway Challenge:
  • Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim
  • Patrick Kane, Chicago
  • Alex Kovalev, Montreal
  • Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay
  • Alex Ovechkin, Washington
See, now initially, you look at this, and immediately, you have to be thinking Ovechkin. However, here's my theory on this: Ovechkin is going to put on a show, but will his ability to put on a show overtake him winning this event? I say it will. I think Kovalev will not get it done in front of the hometown crowd. I think the last guy to win a skills contest event in his hometown was when Ray Bourque won the accuracy contest like ten years ago in Boston (I'm almost certain that's wrong, but how many times do I get to mention Ray Bourque here? the way, he won this event eight times!). I'm going to go with Martin St. Louis. Not because he's good, but because he's like 5'6 and short people are riding a huge wave of momentum right now (which I'm still waiting to pass to me, but I digress).

Youngstars Game (Rookies vs. Sophomores):

Lucic was going to play for the sophomores! Damn it! My interest in this game as become as lukewarm as lukewarm can be. Blake Wheeler will be playing for the rookies, but considering the kind of depth the "vets" have (consider that Carey Price is the backup goalie for the sophomores...he's the starting goalie...of the actual All Star Game!), I'm going to go with a Lucic-less sophomore team

Pick: Sophomores

Accuracy Shooting:

  • Tomas Kaberle, Toronto
  • Jonathan Toews, Chicago
  • Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta
  • Jarome Iginla, Calgary
  • Dany Heatley, Ottawa
  • Marc Savard, Boston
  • Mike Modano, Dallas
  • Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
This is probably the most impressive group of talent you are going to see in any skills contest in any all star game. Wow. You're looking at five guys who right now could make legitimate claims to at least being in a Hart Trophy conversation. Kaberle is your defending champion, but there is a lot of talent he is going to have to overcome to repeat. If I've learned anything, it's this: Do not bet against Dany Heatley...ever. That's why when it was my turn in the fantasy hockey draft, without hesitation, I picked Heatley (that, and the fact that Ovechkin, Crosby, Iginla, and Malkin were off the board).

Hardest Shot:
  • Zdeno Chara, Boston
  • Sheldon Souray, Edmonton
  • Vincent Lecavlier, Tampa Bay
  • Shea Weber, Nashville
  • Mark Streit, New York Islanders
  • Mike Komisarek, Montreal
I like how Chara came up with the idea of everyone throwing down a thousand bucks each for this event, with the winner giving the money to his charity of choice. I'm sure that side bets are made like this all the time, but they are done in the locker room and not revealed to anyone in the outside world. Not only is this public, but it's for's win-freggin'-win. I know of Lecavlier, and the others are kind of fuzzy to me, but what I do know his that Chara is like eight feet tall on skates, he plays for the B's, and he won last year...can't go against that.

Elimination Shootout

Okay, remember that thing I said earlier about not finding a better talent pool than the accuracy contest anywhere? Well, scratch that, because the NHL just stepped it up a notch with the shootout competition. Eighteen, I repeat, eighteen shooters from each side will square off against two goalies from the opposing side (not at the same time of goalie at a time). From what I can gather, basically, they're going to keep going until someone misses, and whoever scores last wins. This sounds like an absolutely grueling competition right? 36 of the beest shooters in the NHL going one after the other against those helpless goalies? This could get ugly. did a really nice breakdown of the goalies' stats in shootouts, the shooters' stats, and a breakdown of shooter vs. goalie stats.

Combined penalty shot and shootout attempts (career, regular season):

Goaltenders Goals/Attempts Save%

Henrik Lundqvist 37/160 .769
Tim Thomas 35/124 .718
J.S. Giguere 40/111 .640
Niklas Backstrom 28/64 .563

East Shooters Goals/Attempts Goal%

West Shooters
Goals/Attempts Goal%
Jay Bouwmeester 0/2 0.0

Dan Boyle
2/6 33.3
Jeff Carter 3/15 20.0

Dustin Brown
9/20 45.0
Zdeno Chara 2/5 40.0

Brian Campbell
0/0 ----
Dany Heatley 3/20 15.0

Shane Doan
4/14 28.6
Tomas Kaberle 5/10 50.0

Ryan Getzlaf
9/30 30.0
Mike Komisarek 0/0 ----

Milan Hejduk
13/31 41.9
Alex Kovalev 9/28 32.1

Jarome Iginla
8/26 30.8
Ilya Kovalchuk 8/27 29.6

Patrick Kane
8/15 53.3
Vincent Lecavalier 13/40 32.5

Patrick Marleau
7/19 36.8
Evgeni Malkin 4/20 20.0

Mike Modano
7/24 29.2
Andrei Markov 3/7 42.9

Rick Nash
11/34 32.4
Alex Ovechkin 9/39 23.1

Scott Niedermayer
1/5 20.0
Zach Parise 14/34 41.2

Stephane Robidas
0/0 ----
Martin St. Louis 5/22 22.7

Sheldon Souray
1/2 50.0
Marc Savard 3/14 21.4

Joe Thornton
2/7 28.6
Eric Staal 4/14 28.6

Keith Tkachuk
4/16 25.0
Mark Streit 0/4 0.0

Jonathan Toews
4/8 50.0
Thomas Vanek 7/30 23.3

Shea Weber
0/0 ----

All-Star Shooters vs. Henrik Lundqvist

All-Star Shooters vs. Tim Thomas
Shooters Goals/Attempts

Jeff Carter 0/11

Dany Heatley
Zdeno Chara 1/11

Patrick Kane
Ilya Kovalchuk 0/11

Ilya Kovalchuk
Vincent Lecavalier 1/2

Alex Kovalev
Evgeni Malkin 0/2

Vincent Lecavalier
Andrei Markov 0/1

Evgeni Malkin
Alex Ovechkin 0/1

Andrei Markov
Zach Parise 3/5

Mike Modano
Marc Savard 1/1

Alex Ovechkin
Eric Staal 0/1

Zach Parise

Martin St. Louis

Marc Savard
All-Star Shooters vs. J-S Giguere

Mark Streit
Shooters Goals/Attempts

Keith Tkachuk
Dustin Brown 0/3

Jonathan Toews
Dany Heatley 0/1

Thomas Vanek
Milan Hejduk 0/1

Jarome Iginla 0/1

All-Star Shooters vs. Niklas Backstrom
Tomas Kaberle 0/1

Patrick Marleau 1/2

Dustin Brown
Mike Modano 0/2

Jarome Iginla
Rick Nash 1/2

Ilya Kovalchuk
Joe Thornton 1/1

Vincent Lecavalier
Keith Tkachuk 0/1

Patrick Marleau
Thomas Vanek 1/1

Zach Parise

Now, here's a list of who is facing who on Saturday:

Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota
Jonathan Toews, Chicago (0-0)
Zach Parise, New Jersey (0-1)
Shea Weber, Nashville (0-0)
Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim (0-0)
Sheldon Souray, Edmonton (0-0)
Marc Savard, Boston (0-0)
Patrick Marleau, San Jose (1-2)
Dany Heatley, Ottawa (0-0)
Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta (0-1)

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers
Shane Doan, Phoenix (0-0)
Dustin Brown, Los Angeles (0-0)
Stephane Robidas, Dallas (0-0)
Andrei Markov, Montreal (0-1)
Zdeno Chara, Boston (1-1)
Keith Tkachuk, St. Louis (0-0)
Jeff Carter, Philadelphia (0-1)
Rick Nash, Columbus (0-0)
Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay (1-2)

J-S Giguere, Anaheim
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo (1-1)
Milan Hejduk, Colorado (0-1)
Tomas Kaberle, Toronto (0-1)
Dan Boyle, San Jose (0-0)
Mike Komisarek, Montreal (0-0)
Joe Thornton, San Jose (1-1)
Jarome Iginla, Calgary (0-1)
Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay (0-0)
Patrick Kane, Chicago (0-0)

Tim Thomas, Boston
Eric Staal, Carolina (0-0)
Mark Streit, Islanders (0-1)
Brian Campbell, Chicago (0-0)
Jay Bouwmeester, Florida (0-0)
Mike Modano, Dallas (0-1)
Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim (0-0)
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh (1-2)
Alex Ovechkin, Washington (1-3)
Alex Kovalev, Montreal (0-2)

In the end, Ovechkin will leave his mark on this contest, because he's just that talented. So, the pick here is Alexander the Great

Pick: Alex Ovechkin

Thanks for stopping by. Hopefully the next 200 are as fun as the first 200. Take care. Peace.


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