Saturday, May 30, 2009

#123: Quick '09 Cup Final Thoughts

---Hockeytown VS. Steeltown II---

Last year, I really didn't give the Pens much of a chance.

Had it not been for Maxime Talbot, my "Wings in 5" prediction would have been correct on both counts. At least with the extra contest, Penguin fans in attendance for Game 6 got to see the Stanley Cup skated around for the first time on Mellon Arena ice (Pens won their two Cup-clinchers on the road).

Too bad the folks hoisting it wore red.

Now, the highly-anticipated rematch (at least for us Pens fans).

I don't think I need to tell any rational hockey fan that, this time, the Penguins have a solid chance to life the Chalice.

I'll make a quick mention that "Steeltown Sports" went 11-3 this postseason picking series based almost solely on Shots on Goal Differential, using the "post-trade deadline" number as the chief indicator.

People who think they know what they're talking about that Detroit got the tougher road to the Final because Carolina used all they had against New Jersey and Boston. They had nothing left for Pittsburgh.

If you've been reading here, you know that New Jersey was the pick to win over Carolina, but the statistics were close enough that the end result couldn't be a surprise. Carolina was practically declared the winner against Boston in round two right here. It just took longer than expected.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was only expected to struggle against the Capitals. And it took a momentous comeback from a 2-0 hole to finish of Washington in seven.

Detroit is right where they're supposed to be.

Now, to this series' SOGD:

Detroit +8.4 (+9.0)
Pittsburgh -1.3 (+6.5)

We've determined that the post-trade deadline statistics (in parentheses) is a little stronger of an indicator. If you've watched the Penguins' march through the playoffs, you know that their positive SOGD after the deadline is the real thing.

They outshot the Capitals (who had a better SOGD in both timeframes) in every contest. Only the work of goalie Simeon Varlamov kept the Capitals in the hunt.

That's what makes this series harder to read.

Remember, this forechecking, puck-possesion style that head coach Dan Bylsma brought to the team is still relatively new. The Red Wings have been doing it for a while.

Perish the thought: the Pens might actually be better than +6.5, but there just hasn't been enough of a sample size to know for sure.

Still, if the Penguins don't take advantage of Detroit's injured state early, and steal at least one of the first two games at Joe Louis Arena this weekend, it's going to be tough to beat this team.

Unlike Washington, Detroit doesn't need to rely on one, or even two players to keep them on the attack.

Another thing to consider: Much of Detroit's firepower over the years have come from face-off wins.

This post season, Detroit has gone 9-6-1 on face-offs.

The Penguins: 8-7-2

Very close.

Just like this series will be. Too close to call.

In which case, one falls back on SOGD.

Wings in 7.


Other notes:

- Detroit fans are already breaking out their list of excuses if they lose. It's being compiled under the, "Well, we're the better team, so if we lose, it has to be something.

I'm betting we'll have: "We weren't healthy;" "The Penguins had a much easier road to the Final;" and my personal favorite Statement of the Clueless: "NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made sure Detroit got called for a lot of bad penalties so that his Chosen One (Crosby) got to hoist the Cup."

- It's the Stanley Cup Final. No "s" at the end. Though for the life of me, I can't find a definitive source to back me up. Just my awesome t-shirt from Walmart.

- I must be the only person in the Pittsburgh fan base would couldn't care less about Marian Hossa going to Detroit. The Penguins did well last year, but it was about the players.

Their success since February this season has been about a system, not unlike the Big Red Machine.

You don't necessarily need an Evgeni Malkin or a Sidney Crosby - or a Marian Hossa - to take over and win you a couple games. You need to make sure your players are in the right place at the right time.

- I'm very curious to see the shots on goal differential between these two teams. The last time they met, it was February 8. About a week before Michel Therrien was given the axe. But even in the two games, Detroit outshot Pittsburgh by a total of four shots. Now with the Penguins feeling inclined to shoot the puck more frequently, and with Nicklas Lidstrom less than 100%, the Penguins could surprise in that department.

- Both teams are very deep. Stop with the "Detroit is much deeper" talk. It's not a great advantage. Then again, neither is Pittsburgh's power play against Detroit's penalty kill.

- Maybe I should say "Pens in Seven." It's that close. Really. Maybe "Seven" is my prediction. I'll just sit back and enjoy what's going to be a classic series.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

#122: Examining the Unstable AFC North

---A Pre-preseason Analysis---

What follows is an article I wrote for

I have something riding on the quality and readability of my work there, so any comments, for good or for ill, would be appreciated.

Feel free to comment also on other articles I wrote there that I did not address here at "Steeltown Sports".


Since the NFL's most recent realignment in 2002, the AFC North did not have a repeat champion until the Pittsburgh Steelers accomplished the feat in 2007 and 2008.

The division is so erratic that whichever team the experts prophesy will claim the crown, often, ends up underachieving.

Superbowl XL champion Pittsburgh was expected to follow up its fifth championship with a division title in 2006, but it missed the playoffs altogether.

In 2007, the Baltimore Ravens were lauded as the next juggernaut and were projected to repeat their 2006 performance. They won only five games.

The Cleveland Browns just missed out on winning the division in '07 due to a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Steelers, and they were the choice of many to supplant Pittsburgh in '08. Instead, injury and ineptitude culminated in a four-win campaign.

Much of the talk before this season's training camp indicates another two-horse race between the Steelers and the Ravens in 2009.

The NFL has averaged roughly six new teams to the 16-team playoff field every season since the realignment. The '08 season saw a one-win team from the previous year become a division champion (the Miami Dolphins).

Is it truly a stretch to envision either of Ohio's professional football teams in the AFC North's top spot at the beginning of January?


The Pittsburgh Steelers are the champions.

While they will vie for their third consecutive division championship without the services of starting inside linebacker Larry Foote (who was signed by Detroit) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (Arizona), it appears that third-year pros Lawrence Timmons and William Gay are more than capable of taking their respective places.

Star linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu will return, and the defense should be its usual, dominant self under coordinator Dick LeBeau. Even the defensive line is not so old that it cannot still wreak havoc. First-round draft choice Evander "Ziggy" Hood will learn much from Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel this season, and he will be ready for regular duty in 2010.

As it has been the last few years, Pittsburgh's success will hinge on the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The questions surrounding his offensive line are as numerous as the sacks it has collectively allowed.

Two offensive linemen were taken in the 2009 draft, and only one, second-round pick Kraig Urbik, is widely considered a challenger for the right guard position. A.Q. Shipley, center out of Penn State, is a long shot to challenge Justin Hartwig this season.

The Steelers also re-signed tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon, as well as guard Chris Kemoeatu and backup lineman Trai Essex. It seems the team's front office is satisfied with a Superbowl title, and less concerned with allowing the fourth-most sacks in the league (49) and boasting the fourth-worst rushing attack in terms of yards per carry (3.7).

As long as Roethlisberger is upright, the Steelers will always have a shot to win a game, a division, or a title, but even a large quarterback can only take so many hits.


The Baltimore Ravens are hungry.

Last season, they fell just short of winning the division title (the tip of a football) and advancing to the Superbowl (Troy Polamalu's interception ultimately denied them).

Quarterback Joe Flacco does not figure to experience a "sophomore slump", just as another popular AFC North QB a few seasons ago, and second-year coach John Harbaugh knows anything is possible.

At first glance, it seems like the Ravens are pretty much intact. Pulling back a layer, however, reveals that this team looks poised to take a step back.

Baltimore eventually re-signed linebacker Ray Lewis, but one of these seasons will be the one he falls from the tier of the elite. And, as Lewis had expressed great interest in going to another team this off-season, there may also be a small, but noticeable loss of respect for a player who has long been the "heart" of the defense.

The franchise-tagging of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was a good move, but the loss of inside linebacker Bart Scott and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan (to the Jets) may disrupt the chaotic harmony of the Ravens' defensive front seven.

Running back Le'Ron McClain could constitute Baltimore's "Weapon X" in 2009, but Flacco will have to maintain his 6.9 yards per pass average to keep the opposing defenses from keying on McClain, and he'll have to exceed it to keep the the team a championship contender. The health of Todd Heap will factor into Flacco's success.

Draft-wise, there is no player that screams "instant impact", but offensive lineman Michael Oher and defensive end Paul Kruger will help keep their respective units from falling too far when age catches up to Baltimore's present starters.


The Cincinnati Bengals are optimistic.

They spent most of last season without an experienced quarterback. Carson Palmer was injured most of the season, playing in only three games and throwing only four touchdowns. His replacement, Ryan Fitzpatrick (now in Buffalo) played in 13 games and threw only eight touchdowns against nine interceptions.

The Bengals' scoring output in 2008 was the lowest in all of pro football, and it was barely half of what they amassed in 2007 (204 versus 380).

Defensively, Cincinnati allowed the most points in the division (364), but that number was better than any team in the NFC West. In terms of total yards allowed, they were in the league's top half.

Palmer has told the press that he likes his team's chances, but that will rest squarely on him. The off-season claimed prolific wide receiver T.J Houshmanzadeh (Seattle). The acquisition of Laveranues Coles, while a decent receiver, does not provide a replacement. Chad "Johnson" Ochocinco is is not only volatile on the field, but also in his own locker room.

The most significant keys to Cincy's success depend on the defense continuing to build on last season and Carson Palmer improving his fourth quarter efficiency from 2007. That season, Palmer's QB rating in the fourth quarter was roughly 65. A tired defense and an inefficient quarterback spells certain doom in close contests.

The Bengals did have eleven draft picks, but the first few were not at the so-called "skill" positions. It will also be interesting to see how strong safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson contribute to the evolution of the Bengal 'D'.

There are still too many issues in the Queen City to believe that it will be able to challenge Pittsburgh if the defending champs stay healthy.


The Cleveland Browns are adrift.

By season's end, injuries had riddled them so much at the quarterback position that Bruce Gradkowski started the final game, playing in an offense he had just started to learn on an emergency basis.

Perhaps the number of quarterback injuries and an ineffective rushing attack (3.9 yards per rush average) prompted the powers-that-be to make sure they drafted a prominent offensive lineman (Alex Mack), but they traded down to get him.

Cleveland's front office brought in Eric Mangini to replace Romeo Crennel. It is unclear where Mangini's priorities lie. The Browns have several needs to be filled, and instead of focusing on making one or two positions deep and dominant, he appears to be trying to affix band-aids to all of them at once.

The Browns need a reliable backup for tailback Jamal Lewis, but they drafted a running back in the final round (with the 195th pick), and signed untested free agent Noah Herron.

The Browns need to make sure that whichever quarterback is healthy at the moment has someone to catch his passes. They lost tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. to Tampa Bay and possibly wide receiver Donte Stallworth to a charge of vehicular manslaughter while DUI.

The solution, for now, has been to sign second- or third-tier WRs in David Patten and Mike Furrey (and so-so tight end Robert Royal), draft promising wideout Brian Robiskie, and gamble on receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Braylon Edwards, coming off a miserable season in 2008, and Joshua Cribbs are the only receivers who have any real rapport with quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn.

It is unlikely that Mangini's new offense (which he will no doubt have) will be effective at first.

While Cleveland's pass defense was in the middle of the heap, its run-stopping unit was near the bottom. This is where Mangini may have done the best job. Signing former Jet Eric Barton, and linebackers David Bowens and Bo Ruud may help plug up the middle.

Between the two teams from the Buckeye State, the Cleveland Browns have the better shot at surprising the division. They have enough question marks that, if they mostly answer "yes", could produce a winner.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

#121: Conference Finals Preview

---Hockey's Final Four---

Another three out of four for Steeltown Sports (see this post for details).

This blog is at 75% at picking winners (nine out of 12) based on one important statistic: Shots on Goal Differential.

The trick is going to be refining the formula a little more so that next year, the number will be higher.

Here's what happened in round two:


Eastern Conference

1. Boston -0.5 (-1.9)
6. Carolina +3.1 (+2.8)

Carolina won in seven games (plus overtime).

Carolina was the predicted winner here. The only miscalculation was that the series would not go more than six games.

One reason is that, Carolina only outshot Boston by an average of 2 shots per game, instead of the projected 3.6 to 4.7 shots that the formula above indicated.

Perhaps the Hurricanes are cooling off. This will put the onus squarely on Cam Ward for the Conference Finals.


2. Washington +4.0 (+7.0)
4. Pittsburgh -1.3 (+6.5)

Pittsburgh won in seven games.

The early statistics indicate that Washington would win fairly handily. The late statistics pointed to a long-series win for Washington. The previous post on this allowed for a Penguins victory, dependent on the play of Simeon Varlamov.

What was not anticipated is that the Penguins outshot the Capitals in each game of the series, and winning the SOGD battle by a staggering average of 10.9 shots per game.

Varlamov held his own, and, occasionally, carried his whole team for the first six games, having a save percentage of .907. He faced 226 shots and allowed only 21 through. While that may not seem inhuman, consider that Varlamov's experience at the NHL level includes just five regular season starts. That means he started 14 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs and was crucial in Capitals rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit against the New York Rangers. Then he has to come in and face the two top forwards (not on his team) in the next round, and try to come back from a three-games-to-two series deficit.

By contrast, Marc-Andre Fleury had a save percentage of .888 through the first six games (.878 for the series). If not for the unforeseen onslaught by the Penguins, the Capitals may have prevailed.

Still, head coach Dan Bylsma's new system has made the Penguins' +6.5 post-deadline SOGD look like the rule, rather than the exception.


Western Conference:

2. Detroit +8.4 (+9.0)
8. Anaheim -0.2 (+3.3)

Detroit won in seven games. Five was the prediction.

If not for the .931 save percentage of one Jonas Hiller during the series, this series would have been over in four, and the Anaheim Ducks would have gone the way of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Red Wings outshot the Ducks by a total of 302-193. That makes the average difference a ridiculous 15.6 shots per game.

As far as Anaheim scoring goals against a so-called "weak link" in Chris Osgood, it's tough to complain too much about a .911 save percentage for the series.


3. Vancouver -0.7 (-1.3)
4. Chicago +4.1 (+5.0)

Chicago won in six games after spotting the Canucks Game One.

Vancouver only outshot the Blackhawks in one game (Game Six). For the series, the 'Hawks averaged 5.3 shots better than their Canadian counterparts. The regular season differential was in Chicago's favor by 4.8. That number is pretty dead on.


Of the four teams left, three have a positive SOGD for the season. The Penguins are the only one that finished with a negative, but you almost have to go with the post-trade deadline number (+6.5) with the Penguins because they have been very consistent with their puck possession under the philosophy of Dan Bylsma.

All the pretenders have been eliminated.

Now, looking ahead to Round Three, it should provide us with two very competitive series.


Western Conference Final

2. Detroit +8.4 (+9.0)
4. Chicago +4.1 (+5.0)

Detroit's advantage in the season-long "magic stat" is about double that of Chicago's. It's just slightly less than that after the trade deadline.

However, Detroit vanquished a stronger opponent in Anaheim than Chicago disposed of in Vancouver.

The Red Wings might not average 40 shots a game, but Nikolai Khabibulin (one-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie) will have to do a pretty good Jonas Hiller impression to make this series go beyond five games. From what I saw in the Vancouver series, though (allowing more than two goals in four of the six contests), I don't think it's likely. Plus, Chicago's youth, at this stage of the playoffs, will take its toll.

Red Wings in five.


4. Pittsburgh -1.3 (+6.5)
6. Carolina +3.1 (+2.8)

This is the series that the "magic stat" takes sort of a back seat on. Looking at the Penguins' charge from 10th place to 4th in a little over a month, with no sign at all of slowing down in the playoffs, one would have to favor the +6.5 number here.

That said, Carolina has only played one more post-season game than the Penguins (14 vs. 13), but in both Game 7s, they needed late-game heroics to advance.

Goalie Cam Ward will give the Hurricanes the best chance of staying in games and stealing a road game or two in this series. He is unshakable and has a 4-0 record in Game 7s.

The Penguins will have to keep the shots coming to the net and hog the vulcanized rubber as much as they can. They will also need to ensure they don't have a letdown in Game One (coming from a series with as much hype as any in recent memory to a series where there is no real rivalry).

Sidney Crosby has turned his game all the way on (perhaps), and it's only a matter of time before Evgeni Malkin reawakens and Chris Kunitz joins the fray.

Penguins in six.


More blog-like thoughts (read: less stat-like thoughts) on the Penguins/Hurricanes series -- (aka - long, listing, stream of consciousness that might not have a point... thanks in advance for reading)

- Just like in the Capitals series, the Hurricane fans are already planting the seeds in the case of their team's eventual demise.

Once again, message boards and blogs (and even the infrequent column) talks about how the only reason the Penguins keep winning is because NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is trying to arrange it so Sidney Crosby can lift the Stanley Cup.

I remember thinking similar things in 2001 when the Colorado Avalanche defeated the New Jersey Devils in a seven-game classic. "Colorado only won because the League hates the trap defense and they want Ray Bourque to win it all."

I know what it's like. Colorado is my least favorite NHL franchise, and it made me smile that they finished last in their conference this year. I just wish they had done so with Patrick Roy in net.

Example taken straight from a Yahoo! message board (appropriately, from a Yahoo...)

"My cousin's wife's brother's father in law knows one of the refs who worked game 4 of the Pens-Caps series and after a couple of drinks he said that they were told by the NHL (not in writing or by email) to make tons of calls against the Caps so that "Crosby the Canadian" (as the refs call him in private) would have better stats than Ovechkin. He also said that the refs were given instructions last year in the SCF to favor the Penguins but, because astute people ... were onto the conspiracy, the NHL decided to let the Wings win the series even though they have a large number of players of European descent."

Before I continue, I'll give you a chance to go buy a new brain on eBay, or scoop up as much of the one that just oozed out of your head as you can. I can't guarantee it will... I dunno... gelatinize?

I know I advocate non-confrontation in sports talk, but I don't think there's any answer to that kind of mind-numbing prattle except for a palm strike to the nose. It's like the Seattle Seahawk apologists and the (somewhat smaller number of) Arizona Cardinals apologists in the NFL about the refs giving the Steelers a Superbowl title or two.

I guess, for the world to accept that the Penguins/Crosby/Malkin/whoever are the real deal, they will have to win all their playoff games when they are at a decided disadvantage on penalty calls (because it couldn't possibly be the caliber of talent the other team is trying to stop that leads to penalties on them).

News for you: The Penguins received more penalties than the Redwings in 3 of the 6 games, and it was even in a fourth game. Overall, Pittsburgh was called for 38, and Detroit was called for 36. "Missed" calls about evened out. Unfortunately, there's no way to keep track of this.

Washington fans in this most recent series would seem to have a better beef. In no game did the Penguins take more penalties than the Capitals. Total margin: Capitals 38, Penguins 23.

One of the more misunderstood aspects of hockey: more shots leads to more power play chances, not the other way around.

How often do you see the statistic "Shots on Power play" after one expires and, maybe, the team who had the PP only fired one or two shots?

Detroit took 10 fewer penalties than Anaheim in their series. Chicago took 2 fewer penalties.

The lone anomaly is Boston. They lost the shots battle by a small amount overall, but they took 8 fewer penalties and still lost. Of course, that may be why Carolina didn't outshoot the Bruins as badly as the statistics would indicate they should have.

Conspiracy quashed (as effectively as a falsely-but-firmly held belief can be quashed).


One other quick thought. Brooks Orpik is not a thug. Carolina message boards make him out to be the next Bobby Probert or Adam Foote or something, but it's not quite that bad. He can level a dirty hit, no doubt. But that's not how he makes his living.

He can do this, too:

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

#120: SM on TV

---Rizzo Sports Weekly---

This blog has become too low-budget for me to actually find and insert a "camera" icon in the title. We'll just say the "Microphone" represents "media-related stuff".

On Tuesday, el Cinco de Mayo, I had the pleasure of being a guest on "Rizzo Sports Weekly", a program that airs on local television in the Kittanning area.

The host, Mike Rizzo, is a fellow blogger (see links on the right) and media personality who invited me to appear on his program, almost seemingly on a whim. I accepted in like manner.

We talked about the predicament of the Penguins as well as the NHL playoffs in general, the reality of the 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates (and beyond), a little bit about the Steelers' draft selection and subsequent status, and a very little bit about WPIAL football perhaps expanding to six classifications.

The below is the result.

Feel free to comment, but no need to point out that I look like I'm doped up on something.