What’s wrong with the NFL, and how it can be fixed

“The actual malady is that football has gotten away from its essence. Football wasn’t made to be played in a domed stadium on a rug. Players are supposed to get dirty. Every team isn’t supposed to call the same plays and look the same. Offense and defense are supposed to be evenly matched. Officials are supposed to regulate the action, not dictate it.”

— Paul Zimmerman, “Dr. Z’s Rx To Revive The NFL,”
Sports Illustrated, November 12, 1984

I wholeheartedly agree with every word from this magazine excerpt published 31 years ago. Sadly, Paul Zimmerman has endured multiple strokes; he suffers from aphasia and is unable to express his thoughts in words the way he once did to such great effect. But the longtime Hall of Fame voter and football historian remains one of my favorite sports writers, and his description of what’s wrong with the NFL rings just as true today as it did in 1984.

During my schoolboy and college years, the 1970s and ’80s, I was an NFL nut. I considered every televised game must-see TV, planting my butt in front of the set from 12:30 p.m. (when “The NFL Today” kicked off on CBS) to the last spoken word on the post-game show shortly after 7 that night. As soon as the telecast ended, I experienced a letdown, similar to the morning after Christmas, because I knew I’d have to wait a long time — nearly a whole week — to enjoy another NFL Sunday. The disappointment was especially strong in those years when I was too young to stay up late and watch “Monday Night Football” to its conclusion. As the years went on, I made an attempt to chronicle the game’s history by collecting newspaper and magazine articles, box scores clipped from sports pages, even episodes of ESPN’s “NFL Primetime” that I recorded on video cassette.

That’s the way it was when I loved football. But I don’t love football anymore. In fact, I barely recognize it. And I can’t help but think that other longtime fans might feel the same way.

Now that the 2015 season has reached its halfway point, I will attempt to follow Dr. Z’s example and outline what I’d like to see changed in pro football:

1) Break up with your “fantasy” girlfriend — On Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demanded that DraftKings and FanDuel — the two leaders in the suddenly booming daily fantasy sports (DFS) business — stop taking bets from fans in the Empire State. His cease-and-desist order finds DFS to be an illegal “contest of chance,” not a game of skill. In Nevada, where such games of chance are legal, regulators declared last month that DFS is a form of gambling and ordered fantasy companies to acquire gaming licenses in order to continue operating. The fantasy sports money-making machine is also being investigated by the United States attorney in Manhattan, a grand jury in Florida and the FBI office in Boston, where DraftKings’ headquarters are located.

For decades, the NFL has fought vigorously to distance itself from the gambling establishment. The policy was made clear in 1963, when commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended star players Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for an entire season, even though Hornung never bet on his Packers to lose and Karras’ wagers amounted to a relative pittance. Through the years, the NFL has used its considerable political clout and litigation budget to ensure that betting on games against the point spread remains confined to Las Vegas, Reno and other oases of legalized gambling across the nation.

But now the league has welcomed DFS with open arms, bringing DraftKings and FanDuel into the family as two of the NFL’s biggest sponsors. The twin behemoths of DFS have replaced Viagra and Cialis as the two most annoying, most omnipresent advertisers on NFL broadcasts. This about-face by the league not only reeks of hypocrisy, but also stands as the surest sign yet that the NFL has sold its soul for money.

To be fair, pro football isn’t the only professional sport that is making big bucks off fantasy sports these days. Baseball, hockey, even auto racing have made similar, though undoubtedly less lucrative deals. But just as the NFL set the example for other sports in 2001 by postponing its slate of games the week after the attacks of 9/11, the league can lead the way for the rest of the sports world by disassociating with DFS businesses and making its multimillion-dollar deals only with advertisers that are indisputably above board.

Will that happen? Don’t bet on it.

2) Keep the cons out of the pros — The Dallas Cowboys have been at the center of a firestorm because Greg Hardy is wearing their uniform. The release last week of photos detailing the physical abuse Hardy’s ex-girlfriend endured intensified the calls for Jerry Jones to kick the standout defensive lineman off his team.

Keep in mind that Hardy was not acquitted in his assault case, which detailed how he dragged his girlfriend across the floor by her hair, threw her onto a futon that was “upholstered” with assault rifles, and choked her so that she thought she was going to die. Hardy merely took advantage of a North Carolina judicial process that badly needs reform. A judge found Hardy guilty in a bench trial, and the case likely would have ended there for a less affluent defendant. But Hardy’s hefty NFL salary allowed him to appeal the judge’s ruling and get a second chance in a jury trial. Only there was no jury trial, because the alleged victim in the case declined to cooperate. She reportedly was paid off, as Hardy’s hefty NFL salary again helped him walk away from a situation that would have landed a poorer man in jail.

The Carolina Panthers, with whom Hardy emerged as one of the NFL’s top pass rushers, parted ways with him — and in a happy example of the good guys winning, Carolina is now undefeated without Hardy while Dallas is in last place with him. Unfortunately, it only takes one team owner to get a bum like Hardy back on an NFL payroll, and Jones was willing to be that owner. Jones has gotten what he deserves. Dallas has lost six straight games, and since joining the team, Hardy has added to the embarrassment, expressing no remorse in public comments that often come across as ignorant and insensitive.

Hardy would fit better in a police lineup than he does in Dallas’ starting lineup. And while a certain woman might be richer, she also might still live in fear of her 280-pound ex who is known to have a violent side. The NFL does have less tolerance for domestic violence than it did a few years ago — but less tolerance needs to become zero tolerance.

3) Give D’s a chance — Now, at last, I will begin to look at the product on the field. The fact that it’s taken me this long speaks volumes about what’s wrong with today’s game.

Paul Zimmerman says, “Offense and defense are supposed to be evenly matched.” But never in the history of the NFL has the playing field been less level than it is today. Rules changes have made it virtually impossible for a defense to dominate. Far too often, defenses play the role of the Washington Generals while the Harlem Globetrotters on offense make them look foolish.

Seriously, why would any athlete in his right mind want to play on an NFL defense? All the odds are stacked against him. If he makes a hard hit, he’s likely to draw both a penalty during the game and a fine from the league office days after the game. The quarterback holds all the cards. Defenders must keep their hands off receivers, pass blockers are free to use their hands, and pass rushers are likely to get flagged if they so much as sneeze on the quarterback after the ball is thrown. No wonder Tom Brady says he wants to play past the age of 40 — the pass pocket is a pretty safe place to work.

The NFL had good intentions when it legislated dangerous hits out of the game, but recent rules changes gave too many advantages to the offense. If a tackler cannot grab the facemask, then a ball carrier who grabs a tackler’s facemask when making a stiff-arm needs to be penalized, too. If receiver and defender are hand-fighting while the pass is in the air, then no penalty should be called — just let the players play and may the better man win.

Mainly, though, officiating crews need to show common sense. If an innocent play is technically against the rules but clearly presents no danger to the players involved, don’t throw the penalty flag. Again, I quote Dr. Z: “Officials are supposed to regulate the action, not dictate it.”

4) Make a catch less fishy — While the forward pass dominates the NFL landscape like never before, the definition of a completed pass has never caused more confusion. That’s because NFL rules, in addition to being heavily loaded in the offense’s favor, are also far more complicated than they have to be.

For what constitutes a reception, make two rules: one for plays in which the receiver must reach above his head to grab the ball, and the other for all other situations. When the receiver reaches above his head, he needs only to bring the ball down to his waist and hold it in a runner’s position — as the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant did against the Packers in last season’s playoffs — in order to complete the catch. In all other instances, including passes along the sideline or on the goal line, the receiver must maintain control of the ball when he hits the ground in order to get credit for a reception. This change would prevent a non-catch from being ruled a touchdown — as was the case Oct. 18, when Golden Tate of the Lions bobbled the ball at the goal line before he hit the ground and saw the pass intercepted by the Bears. I’m not the only observer still scratching my head over why that play was ruled a touchdown.

On one play, Bryant clearly maintained control of the ball as he moved it through space a good five yards. On the other, Tate allowed a defender to pop the ball out of his hands before demonstrating that he could move the ball through space even a little bit. Yet Bryant wasn’t credited with a reception and Tate was. How is that fair?

5) Simplify the overtime format — Then there is the debacle of overtime. Again, the NFL has made the rule much more difficult than it has to be. The purpose of overtime is to break a tie — not create one. But because of the NFL’s cockamamie rule, it is now possible for an overtime to include a go-ahead field goal, then a tying field goal, then — at last — the winning field goal, which is exactly what happened Nov. 2 in the Colts-Panthers Monday night game. Ridiculous. This is football — not baseball. It’s a game of aggression in which possession of the ball must be earned by stopping the opponent. There’s no taking turns in football!

Only one change should have been made to the previous first-score-wins format — the team that takes possession first in overtime is not allowed to attempt a field goal at the end of that possession. Enforcement of this rule would be as follows: If, in the heat of the moment, a coach mistakenly sends his field-goal team onto the field on the opening possession of OT, no penalty is assessed but the referee stops the clock and politely orders the place-kicker to return to the bench. This would have restored the aura of sudden death while ensuring that the overtime coin toss does not have so much impact on determining the winner.

Sources — Deadspin; ESPN; NFL.com; NFL Films; Sports Illustrated; The New York Times.

Posted November 10, 2015

Arbour’s Islanders echoed the lessons of a respected teacher

The cornerstone of a hockey dynasty was faith. And with his team trailing three games to none in the quarterfinal round of the 1975 Stanley Cup playoffs, New York Islanders coach Al Arbour showed the door to the nonbelievers.

He did it, the late J.P. Parise recalled, before the Islanders hit the ice for practice between Games 3 and 4. “He showed all the confidence in the world, and belief in us,” Parise told MSG Networks in 2012. “And he just said, ‘If anybody who thinks we can’t come back and beat that team, I want you to leave right away, and we’re going to go with people who are willing to work and do this.’ It was amazing. … We didn’t dare disappoint him, but more it was just a reassurance and belief in ourselves that this was something that we could do.”

The Islanders went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in an epic comeback, becoming only the second team in any major North American sport ever to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. In the very next round, they nearly duplicated the feat, coming back after losing the first three to the Flyers to force a seventh game in Philadelphia. The Islanders lost Game 7 to those “Broad Street Bullies,” who went on to win the Cup for a second straight year. But in just their third season of existence, Arbour’s Islanders had made a statement.

No longer were they the hapless expansion team that had managed a record-low 30 points in 78 games only two years earlier. Their 8-1 record in elimination games, starting with Parise’s overtime goal in Game 3 of a best-of-three opening series against the Rangers, proved they could thrive in the clutch — despite the fact that the Islanders had never made the playoffs before and most of the players had zero postseason experience prior to that spring.

The following fall, my seventh-grade homeroom teacher at Sacred Heart School in Yonkers, N.Y., happened to be an Islander fan. His name was Mr. Thomas Sepi. In that 1975-76 school year, I was one of his pupils for both religion (it was a Catholic school) and American history. I often would talk about sports with him after class, and he sometimes sounded like a coach when he was making a teaching point.

“Never give up,” Mr. Sepi was fond of saying.

The Islanders never gave up because Al Arbour never gave up. And having Mr. Sepi as my teacher at that time deepened my appreciation of the Islanders’ never-say-die team identity.

” ‘Can’t’ is the quitter’s national anthem,” Mr. Sepi would tell the class. Hours later, I would tune in to the Islanders’ game on WOR Channel 9 and see their can-do, no-quit attitude fuel their rise to the top of the National Hockey League. Or, if the game was at Nassau Coliseum and not available on over-the-air TV, I might listen to it on the radio. Mr. Sepi was the one who informed me that John Sterling — yes, Yankee fans, that John Sterling — was the Islanders’ radio play-by-play voice back then. More than once, I heard Mr. Sepi imitate Sterling’s trademark call of “GOAL! ISLANDER GOAL! ISLANDER GOAL!”

As inspired as I was by the Islanders’ perseverance, however, I still found it difficult to fully embrace the sport of hockey. The goon tactics that tarnished the NHL’s image for so many years were repulsive to me. I started collecting all kinds of sports articles in the mid-’70s, including a Time magazine cover story with the headline, “Hockey: War on Ice,” and a Sports Illustrated cover showing the Rangers and Islanders brawling under the headline, “A Violent Sport Turns Vicious.” I even recall watching with my brother when a Rangers-Flyers game turned so ugly that I didn’t want to see any more — I left the room.

For me to be willing to overlook all that, a team had to make quite an impression — and Arbour’s Islanders did. They helped me to see hockey in a new light, see it as a game of skill and courage. Meanwhile, back at school, Mr. Sepi made me proud to root for a hockey team that never gave up. So I kept on rooting for the Islanders.  And in the decade that followed, they achieved a level of success that went far beyond my wildest seventh-grade dreams.

Four times in five years, the Islanders unveiled a rookie who would go on to a Hall of Fame career: Denis Potvin in 1973-74, Arbour’s first season as Islander coach; Clark Gillies, Mr. Sepi’s favorite Islander, in 1974-75; Bryan Trottier in 1975-76, and Mike Bossy in 1977-78. Each was acquired through the draft, and each made his debut at an age barely old enough to drink beer legally.

“There’s so many things that I can say about Al,” Potvin said. “I first met him when I was 19 years old and he coached me for 13 consecutive years. I don’t know how many athletes who have had that pleasure.”

“He was like a real father figure to all of us,” said Gillies. “We were a bunch of young kids. It was like having 20 young boys in the family and he was the father that kept us all under control.”

Arbour’s Islanders posted 100-point seasons and returned to the semifinals in 1976 and ’77. They were eliminated by the Montreal dynasty each time, but were the only playoff opponent to avoid a sweep against the powerful Canadiens those two years. They could exit the playoff stage with heads held high.

Then came two playoff upsets that tested Arbour’s faith in his boys like never before.

The Isles won their division for the first time in ’78, but were ousted by the Maple Leafs in OT of Game 7 in a series marred by the kind of violence that gave hockey a bad name. One story by an Islanders beat reporter began, “Toronto is a clean city with a dirty hockey team.” I’ll never forget the picture in the paper of Bossy, flat on his back, staring at the ceiling of Maple Leaf Gardens after being knocked out cold by a cheap shot in Game 6.

The Islanders entered the 1979 playoffs believing this would be their year. It wasn’t. After finishing first in the entire league during the regular season, they were upset by the Rangers in a six-game semifinal series that turned New York on its collective ear. Even the girls in my high school were talking about it. As columnist Mike Lupica wrote in the Daily News, “The Rangers and Islanders have spoiled us. New York will never forget these hockey games.”

For Arbour, it was time to give his boys some tough love.

“It was the same thing as in the Toronto series,” Arbour said. “They felt sorry for themselves, losing right in their own backyard in a series they were supposed to win and didn’t. But it was our own doing. I didn’t want them to forget it. I wanted them to taste it for a while.”

But Arbour and the Isles were just getting started. They went on to win the Stanley Cup four consecutive years. From 1980-84, they won 19 playoff series in a row — an astonishing record that might stand forever. They were so dominant that except for two memorable best-of-five openers that came down to an overtime goal in Game 5, the Isles never faced elimination during the entire streak. Not once did they need a Game 7.

After the announcement Friday that Arbour had died at the age of 82, having battled dementia and Parkinson’s disease, the tributes came pouring in. Lupica recalled how Arbour encouraged reporters to interview his players, rather than basking in the attention and taking the credit himself.

Arbour finished his career No. 2 in NHL history in coaching wins, and his 740 victories with the Islanders are the most by any coach with one team. But he was also remembered for his humility, decency and kindness. Former Newsday beat writer Pat Calabria said that one day when he fell ill at the practice rink, Arbour stunned him by offering him a lift home.

“Here was one of the great coaches of all time driving me to my house. I can’t think of another coach of that stature who would do something like that,” Calabria said.

“You’ll never find a better man, or a better coach, for that matter,” longtime Islanders broadcaster Jiggs McDonald told Newsday.

Many of his former players including Gillies, Trottier and Brent Sutter (who was Islander teammates with his brother Duane) referred to Arbour as a father figure. And like a good dad, Arbour told his boys that he believed in them.

“Al Arbour was a man that left us not only feeling like champions, but left us with a lot of great memories that we can carry on through life,” Potvin said.

“Al used to say that negative energy that you’re feeling, turn it into a positive energy. That has never left me. I know many of my teammates must feel the very same way. He just never felt that anything was insurmountable.”

Posted August 28, 2015

Sources: Islanders’ team website; NHL.com; MSG Networks; Sportsnet; The New York Islanders: Countdown to a Dynasty by Barry Wilner (Leisure Press, 1983); Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup (Total Sports Publishing Inc., 2000); Time magazine (February 24, 1975); Sports Illustrated (November 17, 1975); The (Yonkers) Herald Statesman (April 25, 1978); Daily News; Newsday.

If I had my way, these six guys would be enshrined in Canton

In a sport where each team has 22 starters — and that doesn’t even count special teams — it’s easy for an outstanding career to be overlooked. Add to the mix the great coaches and the executives who helped build the NFL, and many candidates worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame might never see their day in the sun.

On Wednesday, the Hall of Fame Seniors Committee announced that Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken (The Snake) Stabler and 1950s All-Pro guard Dick Stanfel will be nominees for induction in 2016. Both of them are recently deceased. If they are enshrined, following the induction of Junior Seau earlier this month, they would become the fifth and sixth players in an eight-year span to become Pro Football Hall of Famers posthumously.

I have my own list of former players I consider deserving of the Hall of Fame. All of my picks here would be Seniors Committee nominees, which means time is running out for them. In order to allow more Contributors Committee candidates to be enshrined, three fewer Seniors Committee choices will be made from 2015 to 2019. This year’s only Seniors choice — Minnesota Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff — is 75 years old and did not make an acceptance speech at the ceremony, reportedly because of health problems that include loss of memory.

Two Seniors per year will be selected in 2016 and 2018, but only one each in 2017 and 2019. Wednesday’s announcement means that my choices for next year won’t make it, at least not in 2016. But whether the following men are ever enshrined or not, those who appreciate the sport’s history will always remember their contributions to the game:

2016: Jerry Kramer and Bob Kuechenberg — Sometimes I think the voters have the right team and the right position group, but the wrong guy. Such is the case with these two, both of whom were outstanding offensive linemen on championship teams.

How is it that neither of the pulling guards leading the Green Bay Packers’ legendary power sweep of the 1960s is in the Hall of Fame? The answer might be that in 1981, the selection committee chose longtime Green Bay center Jim Ringo instead of Kramer or Fuzzy Thurston. But Ringo played on just two of Vince Lombardi’s five NFL championship teams, and Lombardi considered him expendable in 1964, trading Ringo to Philadelphia.

Kramer did more than just draw attention to his previously anonymous position by writing his breakthrough football memoir Instant Replay. A week before his famous block opened the hole for the winning touchdown in the “Ice Bowl” against Dallas, Kramer rendered Rams great Merlin Olsen a non-factor in the Packers’ 28-7 stunner over once-beaten Los Angeles in the divisional playoffs. Two years later, in 1969, the Hall of Fame compiled a list of the greatest players by position to that point in NFL history. Kramer was chosen as the best offensive guard of the NFL’s first 50 seasons — but he remains the only player of the 16 selected for that all-time team not to have his bust displayed in Canton, Ohio.

Kuechenberg, playing with a heavily wrapped injured arm, got the better of Vikings great Alan Page as Larry Csonka rushed for 145 yards in the Dolphins’ 24-7 victory in Super Bowl VIII. Kuechenberg lined up side by side with two centers — Jim Langer (110 starts in 12 seasons) and Dwight Stephenson (87 starts in eight seasons) — who are in the Hall of Fame despite careers that weren’t nearly as long as Kuechenberg’s (176 starts in 14 seasons). He might have been a better choice than Langer, who was unable to crack Miami’s starting lineup in 1970 and ’71, while Kuechenberg started in Miami’s first-ever playoff game and first-ever Super Bowl those two years.

Kuechenberg was a Hall of Fame finalist eight consecutive years from 2002-09. The Hall already has Langer and Larry Little from Miami’s offensive line of the mid-1970s, and Ringo and Forrest Gregg from Green Bay’s of the early-’60s. But a third would not be unprecedented: Hall of Famers Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto once lined up side by side on Oakland’s offensive line.

In 1982, football historian and longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman “polled 25 NFL all-timers and asked them to name their candidates for ‘best ever’ offensive linemen, and these are the ones that kept coming up. … ” Kramer and Kuechenberg were both on the list that followed.

2017: Joe Klecko — As a lifelong New Yorker, I had an opportunity to see almost every game of Klecko’s career. It was a privilege, and by the time Klecko’s career with the Jets was winding down, I had come to the conclusion that he was a great one. First he made the Pro Bowl at defensive end. Then he made the Pro Bowl at defensive tackle. Then he made the Pro Bowl at nose tackle. On the legendary front four that was the “New York Sack Exchange,” Mark Gastineau may have had the style, but Klecko brought the substance.

His 20.5 sacks in 1981 came a year too early to count as an official statistic. Gastineau had 20 that season, as the two ends combined to terrorize quarterbacks and Klecko was named Defensive Player of the Year. But Klecko could also stop the run. He played through injuries. He played with effort and energy. And when he moved to the inside, he received from opponents the ultimate sign of respect — a steady diet of double-team blocking. Quite often, Klecko beat those double teams.

His final season was 1988, making him barely old enough to qualify for the Seniors Committee (a player’s career must have ended a minimum of 25 years prior). Besides my vote for him here, Jets fans have taken up a petition to support Klecko’s cause. However, Klecko likely will have to wait a while to see his bronze bust.

2018: Chuck Howley and Drew Pearson — Bobby Bell, Dave Wilcox and Dave Robinson all played outside linebacker in the same era as Howley. All three are in the Hall of Fame — but not Howley, who was just as good if not better. A five-time first-team All-Pro, Howley could stop the run, blanket running backs in pass coverage, or wreak havoc as a blitzer.

The speedy, playmaking Howley could be counted on for the big takeaway, as evidenced by his three interceptions in two Super Bowl appearances. Though Mike Curtis may have been more deserving of the MVP award he received, Howley was a big reason why the original “Doomsday Defense” led Dallas to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1970 and ’71. In six playoff games over those two seasons, the Cowboys allowed just four touchdowns, and Jim O’Brien’s field goal in the final minute of Super Bowl V marked the only time Dallas trailed in any of those games. Yet while the Kansas City Chiefs boast five Hall of Fame defenders from the 1969 championship team that didn’t even win its division, Dallas’ dominant group from 1970-71 has just three players in the Hall of Fame, one of whom (Herb Adderley) spent most of his career with Green Bay. “Doomsday” is underrepresented in Canton, and the addition of Howley — who gets my vote over teammates Charlie Waters, Lee Roy Jordan and Cliff Harris — would help rectify that.

Those who claim that voters historically have been biased against the Cowboys also can point to the fact that of the 22 first-team offensive and defensive players on the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s Team, the only ones not enshrined in Canton are Harris, a hard-hitting safety, and Pearson.

Clint Longley and Roger Staubach didn’t agree on much, but one thing the rival Dallas quarterbacks did agree on was this: When the game is on the line, throw the ball to Drew Pearson. Longley did on Thanksgiving Day in 1974, Staubach did in the divisional playoffs in 1975, and each came away with the most memorable touchdown pass of his career. Besides those two winning bombs, Pearson is also remembered for the two scoring catches he made in the final minutes to deny the Atlanta Falcons in the 1980 divisional round and give the Cowboys yet another comeback victory. Danny White was Dallas’ quarterback in that game.

To Pearson, it didn’t matter who played quarterback. The first of the three star receivers to wear No. 88 for the Cowboys was “Mr. Clutch,” even though he was rail-thin at about 185 pounds. Pearson was a three-time first-team All-Pro, and a two-time 1,000-yard receiver in an era when few players achieved that milestone. He played in three Super Bowls, led the league in receptions in 1977, and finished his 11-year Dallas career with an even 16-yard average per catch.

Is Pearson overdue for induction? I’d say. In his book Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, author Peter Golenbock refers to Pearson as “a certain future Football Hall of Famer.” That book was published 18 years ago.

2019: Jim Tyrer — The 6-foot-6, 280-pound Tyrer was voted the best left tackle in the history of the American Football League. A starter from his rookie year on, he played 180 consecutive games for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs franchise, a streak that began in 1961 and lasted till 1973. A key player on three AFL championship teams, he was a big reason why the Chiefs’ offensive line was able to control Minnesota’s great “Purple Gang” defense in Super Bowl IV.

“He was THE preeminent left tackle in all of football,” said Elvin Bethea, a Hall of Fame defensive end for the Houston Oilers. “All other blockers I faced in the NFL were mediocre compared to him. He would just swamp me each game to where I would be lucky to beat him even once in a game.”

Of all the players not in the Hall of Fame, Tyrer, who was named to nine straight all-star games, might be the best. One reason cited for his exclusion is a general lack of respect for players who spent most of their careers in the AFL. But the biggest reason why Tyrer’s career is not remembered might be that his death cannot be forgotten.

In 1980 — when there was much less awareness of the dangerous long-term effects of repeated blows to the head — Tyrer shot his wife Martha, then himself. The murder-suicide left behind four children.

Like many other former football players, Tyrer in retirement suffered from depression. It should be noted that treatment for depression, like treatment for concussions, has improved since 1980. “I felt my dad’s mental state at the end of his life must have been impaired and that very well could have been as a result of the trauma his brain experienced during his football career,” said Brad Tyrer, oldest son of Jim and Martha.

Tyrer — No. 77 in the photo below, with scratches all over his helmet — played in an era when offensive linemen were taught to use their heads as weapons. Rules of the time made it illegal for blockers to grab their opponents when protecting the quarterback. As if that weren’t enough to give pass rushers the edge, they were allowed to strike offensive players such as Tyrer in the head. Two fierce defensive ends who were contemporaries of Tyrer, David (Deacon) Jones and Rich (Tombstone) Jackson, both claimed to be the inventor of the head slap in long-ago interviews with NFL Films.

More recently, however, Jackson also said: “It is a travesty that Jim Tyrer has yet to be inducted into Canton.”

Posted August 20, 2015

Sources — St. Paul Pioneer Press; crazycantoncuts.blogspot.com; endzonescore.com; mmqb.si.com; NFL.com; ProFootballHOF.com; pro-footballreference.com; Great Teams’ Great Years: Kansas City Chiefs by Dick Connor, prepared by NFL Creative Services Division (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974); The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman (Simon and Schuster, 1984); Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes by Peter Golenbock (Warner Books, Inc., 1997).

Some gamblers are likable, but Pete Rose isn’t one of them

Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions appeared on NBC News’ “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on January 16, 1963. “Yes, I have bet on ballgames,” Karras said. On games in which you were playing? he was asked. “Yes, I have.”

That same month, Paul Hornung was called into the league offices to answer questions about whether he, too, had gambled on football. Hornung even submitted to a lie-detector test. “The Golden Boy,” mere days after Green Bay’s second consecutive championship, at first denied the allegations but soon admitted to an NFL investigator that yes, he had placed bets on Packers games.

As ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” uncovered last week written evidence that Pete Rose bet on baseball while still a player — a violation he had denied for decades — comparisons were made to the Hornung-Karras gambling scandal that rocked the National Football League half a century ago. The question is raised: Why has Rose been a baseball pariah for 26 years, while Hornung is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Karras, who died in 2012, is remembered fondly?

The answer goes beyond the differences in the ways baseball and football are perceived by the fans and presented by the media. Simply put, Hornung and Karras are a lot more likable than Rose in the court of public opinion — mainly because they were honest.

They paid for that honesty, too.

Hornung, the versatile halfback who had been league MVP in 1961, and Karras, a standout defensive tackle later named to the league’s All-Decade Team, were suspended for the entire 1963 season by NFL czar Pete Rozelle. Having met the good-behavior requirements set forth by the commissioner, Hornung and Karras resumed their playing careers in 1964 after Rozelle reinstated them.

Hornung placed his bets through Bernard (Barney) Shapiro, a businessman whom he had befriended at the end of his senior season at Notre Dame. Shapiro split his time between San Francisco and Las Vegas, where his investments included a pinball and slot company called United Coin Machine. After Hornung joined Green Bay in 1956, Shapiro would call him to ask: How do you think the Packers will do this week? By 1959, Hornung was both giving information to help Shapiro with his own bets and asking Shapiro to place bets for him. Shapiro, however, was not a bookie, and Hornung’s wagers were often on the Packers. “Not once did I ever bet against us,” Hornung said.

The wagers were made in Vegas, so they weren’t illegal — except that they violated the terms and conditions of an NFL player’s contract. “I did wrong,” Hornung said at the time. “I should be penalized.”

Sportswriter Dick Schaap recalled that he witnessed Hornung placing a bet on the Packers; when Green Bay covered the point spread, Hornung’s payoff was just $100. And Packers teammate Ron Kramer, likewise reasoning that Hornung’s bets were harmless, had implored Hornung not to incriminate himself at the NFL’s interrogation. “Why he did, I don’t know,” Kramer said. “I guess because he’s an honorable man.”

The same cannot be said of Pete Rose. As columnist Rick Reilly put it in Sports Illustrated in 1993, “Born without shame, Rose does not spend a whole lot of time with regret.”

He’s certainly had more than his share of regrettable moments. In 1990, a year after he was banned from baseball for life by commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, Rose tarnished his image even more and damaged his standing in baseball circles even further when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Pete served five months in a federal prison camp, but his issues with the IRS didn’t stop there. In 2004, he was hit with a nearly $1 million lien for unpaid back taxes.

Rose also has associated with a convicted drug dealer and other characters so shady that when Rose managed the Reds, his own players felt uncomfortable around them. Ted Power, a pitcher on Rose’s Reds teams, said he “thought they were Pete’s bodyguards.” And despite a directive from the commissioner prohibiting anyone except club personnel and accredited media from entering a major-league clubhouse, Rose routinely invited his posse behind closed doors. As another former Reds player put it, “I was scared. I didn’t like the kind of people Pete had around him. You would think that a guy of his reputation and stature would be more careful who he’s friends with. But Pete didn’t care.”

Not until 2004 did Rose admit to gambling on baseball, and even then he did so on his own terms. He said he did it only as a manager, and he made the “confession” within the pages of his autobiography. That’s Pete “Charlie Hustle” for you — he’ll tell you the truth, but he wants you to shell out 25 bucks for the hardcover version of it.

Published in 2004, Rose’s book is titled My Prison Without Bars. Karras has written an autobiography, too. Its title: Even Big Guys Cry. It was published in 1978, three years after Karras played George Zaharias, husband of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, in the made-for-TV movie “Babe.” Karras fell in love with the actress who played the title role, Susan Clark, and soon life was imitating art. The couple married, and from 1983 to ’89, they starred together in the situation comedy “Webster,” about a retired football player who adopts a black child, the orphaned young son of a former teammate.

Karras’ most memorable screen role, however, was as Mongo — “only pawn in game of life” — punching a horse in the 1974 Mel Brooks western spoof “Blazing Saddles.” Karras in the mid-’70s also became a commentator in the “Monday Night Football” booth, where he made Howard Cosell chuckle by singing a capella and remarked that Otis Sistrunk, a defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders whose head was completely shaven, looked as if he had played college ball at “the University of Mars.”

Alex Karras made people laugh. Pete Rose makes them groan.

When Karras starred with his real-life wife on “Webster,” he was considered a “lovable TV dad” and the series lasted six years. When Rose appeared with his fiancee in “Pete Rose: Hits and Mrs.” in 2013, the reality show was largely ignored and bombed after just six episodes.

Rose, then 71, co-starred with model Kiana Kim, a buxom beauty roughly half his age who has posed nude for Playboy. One episode deals with Kim’s breast reduction — “It’s no problem. She’s still bigger than most girls,” Rose says, trying to hide his disappointment. In another episode, Kim and her two children, ages 14 and 11, are visiting Cooperstown with Pete, and when they ask whether he’ll join them as they enter the Hall of Fame, Rose says he won’t unless he’s invited. As Pete is left standing on the sidewalk, Kim says, “Because he is this tough guy, he just can’t show to the rest of the world how much it’s hurting. And … it hurts.”

A weak attempt at sympathy if ever there was one. Just another reason why “Charlie Hustle,” in sharp contrast to “The Golden Boy” and “Mongo,” is a very difficult gambler to like.

Filed June 28, 2015

Bibliography

Books:

America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, by Michael MacCambridge, Anchor Books (2005).

Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster (1966, 1967)

Sunday’s Heroes: NFL Legends Talk About the Times of Their Lives, by Richard Whittingham, Triumph Books (2003, 2004).

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster (1999).

Magazine articles:

“Rose’s Grim Vigil” by Craig Neff and Jill Lieber, Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1989.

“A Rose Is a Rose” by Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated, Aug. 16, 1993.

Other sources:

CNN.com; thebiglead.com; bleacherreport.com; talkoffamenetwork.com; The Associated Press.

’Hawks’ ‘dynasty’ ushers in Chicago’s greatest hockey era

As commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the crowd Monday night at United Center, he spoke a word that has not been associated with the NHL in a long, long time. “Well, Chicago,” Bettman said, “that’s three Cups in six seasons. I’d say you have a dynasty.”

The Blackhawks clinched this championship — also their second in three years — with a 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. As it had in 2010 and again in 2013, Chicago needed six games to finish the job in the Stanley Cup Final. But unlike their two previous championships in this run, the Blackhawks did not need a shocking, dramatic finish to pull Game 6 out of the fire. Workhorse defenseman Duncan Keith, who logged 30:19 of ice time, erased what little suspense there was about who would be named MVP of the playoffs by following up his own shot and knocking in the rebound for the lead in the second period. On a 3-on-2 break in the third, Brad Richards looked toward goal as if to shoot and made a perfect pass across the slot to Patrick Kane, who fired it into a wide-open net for the insurance goal. Corey Crawford, in a last-ditch effort to unseat Keith as Conn Smythe Trophy winner, made 25 saves for the shutout.

Kane gave Chicago the only two-goal lead for either team in the series, as this title set came up just 5:14 short of being the first Stanley Cup Final without a single multi-goal lead. As it was, Game 6 turned out to be the only game of the series that did not have the winning goal break a tie in the third period. None of the six games went to overtime, but Tampa Bay-Chicago was a closely contested series nonetheless.

Tampa Bay’s top scoring threat, Steven Stamkos, hit the crossbar with a shot in the first period, which was scoreless despite the Blackhawks’ huge 13-4 edge in shots on goal. The Lightning came out flying at the start of the second period, a stretch during which Stamkos was again frustrated; a pass sent him skating in alone on Crawford, but he couldn’t lift the shot over the goalie’s leg pad because the puck was rolling on its edge. Chicago went more than 10 minutes without a shot on goal as Tampa Bay kept applying the pressure.

Take this scenario and apply it to another team and it likely would lead to defeat. If the Islanders, for example, failed to finish their scoring chances in the first period and allowed their opponents to buzz around the Isles’ net in the second, I’d be worried. Not with these Blackhawks. At no time during Tampa Bay’s push did I think Chicago would lose. And with Tampa Bay looking to make a line change as the second period neared its conclusion, the Blackhawks pounced. Richards passed through center ice to Kane, who passed to Keith, who fired a shot as he streaked into the zone, then beat Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette to the rebound and knocked it past goalie Ben Bishop.

In Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final at Philadelphia, Kane clinched the ’Hawks Cup with a stunning overtime winner that went over the goal line but disappeared from view under the base of the net — the red light did not go on, and Kane danced around as if he were the only person in the building who realized he had scored. Against Tampa Bay, however, Kane’s goal was much easier to see, and it prompted the crowd of 22,424 to start the celebration. For the first time since 1938, the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup in front of their own fans.

The Blackhawks have been around since 1926, and this current period must rank as the most successful era the club has ever enjoyed. Three of the franchise’s six NHL championships have come in the last six seasons. Bobby Hull was feared for his powerful slap shot and — helped by teammate Stan Mikita — had five 50-goal seasons for Chicago. But the era of Hull and Mikita, which began in the final years of the NHL’s “Original Six” period, brought only one Stanley Cup party to Chicago. After winning the Cup in 1961, the Black Hawks (two words back then) endured a series of disappointments, losing Stanley Cup Finals in 1962, ’65, ’71 and ’73. Of the four, the hardest defeat to swallow had to be the ’71 Final — they led the series against the underdog Canadiens 3-2 before losing Game 6 in Montreal and Game 7 in Chicago. The Blackhawks of Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour had some good years, too, but their only appearance in a Cup Final resulted in a four-game sweep for Pittsburgh in 1992.

Now those difficult times are merely steps the Blackhawks had to take in their climb to hockey’s pinnacle.

Much of the credit for building the Chicago machine belongs to general manager Stan Bowman. Born in Montreal when his father — the legendary Scotty Bowman — was coaching the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s, Stan in 2010 became the youngest GM to put together a Stanley Cup-winning team. The 1995 graduate of Notre Dame joined the Blackhawks’ organization in 2000 as special assistant to the general manager, and the rise of his team has paralleled his ascendancy up the decision-making ladder.

The Blackhawks’ website acclaims Bowman as “the first GM to win two titles in the salary cap era.” He has done this by avoiding sentimental attachments and correctly assessing which players are must-haves and which are expendable.

When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, Antti Niemi was their goaltender. But the playoff hero from Finland became a free agent soon thereafter, and Blackhawks management allowed him to sign with the San Jose Sharks that September. It must have been difficult to part with the goalie who ended Chicago’s 49-year Stanley Cup drought, especially since Niemi was just 26 years old at the time. But Bowman saw potential in Crawford, who played only one game in 2009-10 but took over as the ’Hawks’ starting goalie the following season.

Forwards Troy Brouwer and Andrew Ladd and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brian Campbell also played roles during Chicago’s 2010 title run — and all of them were traded. Brouwer’s size and toughness fit the Washington Capitals’ physical style of play. Ladd and Byfuglien (traded by Chicago in separate deals a week apart) have remained teammates through stops in Atlanta and Winnipeg, as the Thrashers relocated and became the Jets. Campbell won the Lady Byng Trophy as a veteran All-Star for the Florida Panthers.

All quality players, yet within three weeks of the ticker-tape parade in Chicago, none of them were Blackhawks anymore.

Three years later, when the playoffs went deeper into June because of the lockout, Bowman had even less time to determine who should stay and who should go. In Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at Boston, Bryan Bickell scored the tying goal with Crawford pulled for an extra attacker and Dave Bolland scored the winner just 17 seconds later. In a stunning turn of events, the scenario went from headed to Chicago for Game 7, to headed for overtime, to the Blackhawks have won the championship.

That was June 24. On June 30 — less than a week after scoring a Stanley Cup-winning goal — Bolland was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It sounds cold and impersonal, but such is life as an NHL general manager in a salary-cap system. Builders of past NHL dynasties, such as Bill Torrey of the four-time champion 1980s Islanders, didn’t face such collectively bargained financial restrictions.

“We were like, ‘Boy, we could stay here forever and keep this thing going,’ ” Islanders great Bryan Trottier told NHL.com. “The trend now is free agency, movement, the salary cap, and Chicago has been capable of keeping it together.”

Mere days before the regular season started last October, Bowman sent defenseman Nick Leddy to the Islanders for three prospects in what was clearly a salary dump. With Keith, two-time champion Johnny Oduya and three-time champions Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bowman knew his blue-line crew would be strong even without Leddy, who had been a key player during the 2013 Cup run. The Islanders signed Leddy to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract in February, preventing the 24-year-old from becoming a free agent this summer. Bowman couldn’t match those numbers, but taking Leddy off the payroll made it easier for the Blackhawks to absorb the twin eight-year extensions given last July to star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, each of whom earns $10.5 million per season.

One thing Bowman has not changed is his man behind the bench. Now Joel Quenneville has more championships as a coach than Mario Lemieux won as a player.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Quenneville said. “Once you do it once, you can’t wait to do it again.”

Only Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Islanders dynasty coach Al Arbour (782) have more regular-season coaching wins than Quenneville (754). So the Blackhawks have Toews and Kane, a clutch goalie in Crawford, a Hall of Fame-bound coach, and a set of four tireless defensemen who can do the work of six. Chicago has so much depth on its forward lines that Bickell, a Cup hero in the 2013 finale, was a healthy scratch for Game 6 against Tampa Bay.

This is the greatest era in Chicago’s hockey history — an era when the commissioner isn’t the only mover and shaker proclaiming the Blackhawks a dynasty. Two days after the Cup clincher, in announcing a parade that has become a biennial event in the Windy City, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the chorus.

“The City of Chicago is so proud of the Blackhawks,” he said, “which is why we are going to throw them a celebration that only Chicago can throw, a celebration worthy of a hockey dynasty.”

Filed June 16, 2015, updated June 17, 2015

Sources: Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup; The Associated Press; Hockey Hall of Fame; hockey-reference.com; NHL.com; NBC Sports.

 

Parity plus low scores equal postseason drama in NHL

The NHL went 29 years, starting in 1972 and including 2000, with only two Stanley Cup Finals going the full seven games. Ten times in that span, the title series was a four-game sweep, including four consecutive following the Rangers’ epic seven-game battle with Vancouver in 1994.

Since Colorado defeated New Jersey in 2001, however, six of the 13 Stanley Cup Finals have been seven-gamers — and none have been sweeps. Even Los Angeles’ victory over the Rangers last spring was an ordeal, with three of the five games decided in overtime — after the finalists had endured five seven-game series and one six-gamer in the first three rounds.

So if you think watching your favorite hockey team in the playoffs is more stressful than it used to be, you’re right. As Mike Emrick might say while calling another nail-biter on NBC, this sport is not for the faint of heart.

This is an era of parity in the NHL. Partly because of the salary cap, there is neither a dominant team nor a transcendent scorer.

Goaltenders are bigger. Gone are the days when Bernie Parent and Billy Smith, both 5-foot-10, could lead their teams to multiple championships. Today’s game belongs to tall goalies such as Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, who at 6-7 is the latest obstacle in the Rangers’ road to the Cup, and Frederik Andersen, the 6-3 Dane who stopped 32 of 33 shots as Anaheim beat Chicago in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.

As if the goaltenders’ height and reach weren’t enough to make scoring a challenge, their pads are bigger than they used to be, too. Rules prevent netminders from ballooning the way Garth Snow did in leading the Flyers to the 1997 Stanley Cup Final, but some observers (including yours truly) believe that goalie equipment needs to slim down to 1970s or ’80s dimensions. There simply isn’t enough net to shoot at when big goalies are wearing big pads.

All game long, forwards scratch and claw to deflect a shot from the point, block the goalie’s vision, lure him out of position, or knock in a rebound. When the shooter faces a goalie who is not screened, it takes a perfectly timed shot taken with uncanny accuracy to score — such as Ondrej Palat’s one-timer for Tampa Bay in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers.

No wonder that in the last two years, only one player (Sidney Crosby, with 104 last season) has been able to register more than 87 points over a regular-season schedule. Yet while scoring is down, comebacks are commonplace, in both series and individual games.

The Rangers in the last round became the first club in NHL history to rally in consecutive years from 3-games-to-1 down. And of the four comebacks from 0-3 series deficits in league annals, two have come in the last five years — Philadelphia over Boston in 2010, and Los Angeles over San Jose last season.

The Ducks led wire-to-wire today, but in four of their first eight playoff wins this spring, Anaheim trailed after two periods. That’s nothing compared to what Boston did to break Toronto’s heart two years ago, when the Bruins — who trailed 4-1 in Game 7 five-and-a-half minutes into the third period — scored two goals 31 seconds apart with the goalie pulled, then completed the stunning rally in overtime.

Those Bruins ultimately fell victim to another kind of frantic finish — the last-minute goal that breaks a tie. In Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Chicago scored the tying and winning goals just 17 seconds apart, evening the score with the goalie pulled and adding the Cup clincher with 58.3 seconds remaining. Just like that, a 2-1 win to force a Game 7 became a 3-2 loss and a handshake line before a shocked Boston crowd.

During this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Tampa Bay scored with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation to beat Montreal, less than a week after Washington had scored with 1.3 ticks left to stun the Rangers. The score of both of those games was 2-1. In fact, 10 of the Rangers’ last 15 playoff games have ended 2-1, part of a league-record stretch of 15 consecutive one-goal playoff games spanning two years. This is in stark contrast to the Islanders’ stretch of four straight Cups from 1980-83, when they played just three 2-1 games and 16 decided by one goal — over a span of 78 playoff games.

And I haven’t even mentioned what it’s like to watch overtime, when there are no commercial breaks for the first 10 minutes and play continues for such long stretches that you can’t take your eyes off the ice. This isn’t basketball, where the last two minutes of a close game are usually interrupted by fouls and timeouts. When the game is on the line in hockey, coaches let the players play.

So if you have a heart condition, keep your cardiologist close at hand. Every goal is huge because these games are low-scoring, but no outcome is predictable because this is the NHL of the 21st century.

Filed May 17, 2015

Sources: NHL.com; Hockey-Reference.com; Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup; 60 Moments That Changed the Game (special edition of The Hockey News).

 

Amazing numbers favor Rangers in Game 7 vs. Capitals

Any hockey fan — even a disappointed Islander fan like me — can see that the Rangers and Capitals have played one heck of a series and that their playoff rivalry is the hottest the NHL has produced in the last 10 years. This is the fifth time in seven seasons the Blueshirts have faced Washington in the playoffs, and the fourth time the series has required seven games to determine a winner. Amazing.

In fact, this series is loaded with amazing numbers. Start with this: the Caps are on the verge of losing a series they led 3-1 for the fifth time in their star-crossed playoff history. And the Rangers, who won Games 5 through 7 to oust Pittsburgh last season, are on the verge of becoming the first team in NHL playoff history to overcome 3-1 series deficits in consecutive years.

The blown leads and playoff comebacks are naturally reflected in the teams’ records in elimination games. When it has a chance to finish a series, Washington is a miserable 3-10 in its last 13. When facing elimination, the Rangers are a sparkling 13-3 in their last 16. So while the Caps have built a reputation as a team that can’t seal the deal, the Blueshirts have become known as a team tougher to kill than Rasputin.

Those reputations have tarnished or polished the legacies of the series’ biggest stars — “The Great 8” for Washington and the man who wears No. 30 for New York.

Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist both broke in as NHL rookies in the fall of 2005. Ovechkin has never played in a conference final; Lundqvist is one victory away from his third conference final in four seasons.

Historical trends say he’ll get it. Lundqvist is 9-0 in elimination games at Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers have never lost a Game 7 there. New York has won a league-record five consecutive Game 7s overall, including two against the Capitals, with Lundqvist allowing just four goals in those five games. Although he has yet to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, Lundqvist ranks among the greatest postseason goaltenders in history. His career goals-against average in the playoffs (2.18 in 103 games) is better than that of four-time champion Patrick Roy (2.30 in 247 games).

Much was made of Ovechkin’s victory “guarantee” Monday, but the Caps’ captain was only giving his teammates a vote of confidence while placing more of the spotlight on himself. His comment to Lundqvist after scoring in Game 1 — when an on-ice microphone picked up his “All series, baby” — was much more of a taunt. Since his highlight-reel goal in Game 2, however, the NHL’s leading goal scorer during the regular season has not been able to back up his boast.

The Capitals’ main scoring threat recently hasn’t been Ovechkin but Joel Ward, who used to be the other wing on Ovechkin’s line. That was until Game 6 Sunday night, when Washington coach Barry Trotz created a new unit with Ward and Jason Chimera between center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Each of those players scored, accounting for Washington’s three goals in a 4-3 loss. The Caps fell behind by three goals in the third period but dominated thereafter — they had 34 shot attempts in the final 14:56, while the Rangers had none. Lundqvist finished with 42 saves, but made just 10 in the third period as his legion of shot blockers bravely put themselves in the way of the Caps’ barrage.

The end of Game 6 also included a 6-on-4 power play, as the Capitals benefited from the officials’ incorrect call of delay of game. Unable to lure the Rangers’ patient penalty killers out of the shooting lanes, Washington failed to capitalize on the break, wasting valuable time with passes along the perimeter. Their hesitance to shoot and lack of movement inside the Rangers’ zone marked the standstill Caps as a power play that’s struggling with its confidence; they looked more dangerous playing 5-on-5 than they did 6-on-4. Part of the problem is Nicklas Backstrom, the center on Ovechkin’s line, who has made an impact on the ice only during those GEICO commercials that appear on NBC Sports Network telecasts far too frequently.

In Game 5, Braden Holtby was looking impenetrable and the Capitals were 101 seconds away from clinching the series. Since then, Holtby has allowed Chris Kreider’s tying goal, Ryan McDonagh’s goal on the Rangers’ sixth shot of overtime, and four goals on just 28 shots in Game 6. With today’s temperature in New York reaching the high 80s, the Capitals can only hope their cooled-off goaltender heats up again — fast.

Filed May 12, 2015

Sources: NHL.com, NBC Sports Network

 

Game 7: Capitals 2, Islanders 1 Farewell, Nassau Coliseum

For a while, it looked as if the Islanders might win this thing, even after being badly outplayed over the first two periods. First, Washington goalie Braden Holtby allowed an easy shot by Frans Nielsen to slip through his pads and tie the score 3:13 into the third. Then Jaroslav Halak reacted to a fluke bounce off the boards and robbed Jay Beagle when he had a wide-open net to shoot at. Troy Brouwer soon pounced on an awful giveaway, but Halak stoned him too, and Brouwer was so frustrated he made a motion as if to snap his stick in half.

In the end, the difference maker in the series turned out to be a talented young center from Russia who had scored just 11 goals during the regular season.

Evgeny Kuznetsov wears the year he was born (92) on his back — he turns 23 in May — and this is his first full season in the NHL. Unlike the Islanders’ 24-year-old Anders Lee, also in his first full season, Kuznetsov blossomed into an increasingly dangerous threat as the series went along, scoring three goals in the Capitals’ last two victories. This was in stark contrast to Lee, who was second on the team with 25 goals during the season but so ineffective during the playoffs that he was a healthy scratch for Games 6 and 7.

At 12:42 of the third period, Kuznetsov took matters into his own hands. Closely watched by Nielsen along the boards to Halak’s left, the left-handed shooter suddenly sped across the slot, drew Halak down to the ice and flipped a wrist shot past the goaltender for the series-winning goal. The Isles’ best chance to score after that came when Kyle Okposo waited and waited and waited for Holtby to give him some net to shoot at — only to fire his shot wide.

This defeat, however, was to bring one final indignity upon the Islanders.

For the first 57 minutes of the game, not a single penalty was called. In the second, Alex Ovechkin got away with slamming Isles defenseman Thomas Hickey into the boards face-first, and Joel Ward whacked Johnny Boychuk in the head with his stick just before shoving in the rebound that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead at 18:35 of the period.

The only penalty in the entire game came at 17:06 of the third, when Caps defenseman John Carlson was called for roughing Casey Cizikas. And with their season on the line, the Islanders’ power play once again failed to produce even a scoring chance, never mind consistent pressure in the Capitals’ zone. Halak was pulled with about a minute left, but the attack deserted the Islanders when they needed it most.

The Islanders, a team that averaged nearly 34 shots on goal per game during the season, managed just 11 — or one period’s worth — for the entire game tonight. Five of those were by Boychuk, a defenseman; Nielsen and Okposo were the only Islander forwards to get a shot on net, as John Tavares and the rest were completely bottled up. The Isles had just 20 shot attempts — not shots on goal, attempts — through two periods, while the Capitals had 47. That’s how much Washington dominated puck possession for the first 40 minutes, most of which were spent in the Islanders’ zone.

Despite all that, Halak’s goaltending made the game winnable (he finished with 24 saves and was named the game’s third star). And with the puck bouncing the Islanders’ way for much of the third period, I dared to dream.

But instead of witnessing the Islanders’ first playoff series win since 1993, I saw Evgeny Kuznetsov steal the spotlight from his countryman Ovechkin. And instead of forcing overtime in the final minutes, the Islanders’ power play finished the series with the same numerical ineptitude as the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 0 for 14.

So there will be no more Islander games at Nassau Coliseum, no playoff matchup with the rival Rangers to turn New York into Hockeytown USA. The postseason series I’ve been dreaming about for months — a series that even had some non-hockey fans on sports-talk radio buzzing with anticipation — will not come about.

Sigh.

This is not acceptable to me. Washington was a beatable opponent for the Islanders, who came close to taking the series in a sweep. They had a two-goal lead in the second period — and were facing a backup goalie — in Game 2, and they lost Game 4 in overtime. Missed opportunities — beginning with their failure to secure home ice in the final week of the season — came back to haunt the Islanders, who could have had control of the series but instead needed a Herculean effort Saturday to force a Game 7.

At least Nassau Coliseum went out with a victory. Still, the Old Barn deserved better than a first-round exit, and the fans who brought so much noise and energy to the outdated arena deserved better than Rangers vs. Capitals in the second round.

Filed April 27, 2015

Sources: NHL.com, fantasysp.com, MSG Network

Game 6: Islanders 3, Capitals 1 This one’s for the Old Barn

Nassau Coliseum is open for NHL business for at least two more days, thanks to the Islanders’ most gutsy, most important and perhaps most physical win of the season. The goal that broke a 1-1 tie in the third period today was unlike any goal I have ever seen, and I have been a hockey fan for 40 years. The empty-net goal that sealed the win was scored by a fourth-line winger who richly deserved to be on the score sheet. The cheap shots as the final horn sounded give me hope that the Capitals are becoming frustrated and that maybe, just maybe, they might succumb to the pressure when Game 7 is played in their building Monday night.

Today, like Game 4, was a bruising battle in which players on both sides smashed into each other all game long. The physical price that hockey demands in the quest for the Stanley Cup leaves me shaking my head in awe sometimes. Players in this series have shown that kind of courage. I think of Lubomir Visnovsky in Game 3, getting crushed by the much bigger Alex Ovechkin, then bouncing right back to fire a shot that Kyle Okposo deflected in for the lead. I think of Game 4, when Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik rushed off to the dressing room, his face bleeding, then reappeared on the bench a few minutes later with a visor attached to his helmet, ready to put himself in harm’s way again.

Today’s courage award goes to John Tavares. The Islanders’ captain did all he could to carry his team on his back. He scored the first goal, skating to his left and firing back to his right to fool goalie Braden Holtby. He got involved in the physical play more than he usually does, and was in the penalty box for a slashing penalty when John Carlson tied the score with just 4.3 seconds left in the first period. That’s how it stood until 9:27 remained in the third, when Nikolay Kulemin — set up by Tavares — scored a goal like no other.

The play started in the neutral zone, along the wall in front of the benches, where a battle for the puck involving two players from each team escalated. First there was a brief wrestling match. Then Isles defenseman Johnny Boychuk dumped Capitals winger Joel Ward on his back and stood over him. But rather than blowing the whistle and calling coincidental roughing penalties — or holding, or interference — the officials allowed play to continue. And with the four combatants taking themselves out of the play, the opportunistic Tavares skated through the open ice into the Washington zone, where he was confronted by Ovechkin and defenseman Karl Alzner.

Boom!

Tavares was crushed along the boards to Holtby’s right (see photo above). For a split-second, I thought the Islanders’ captain, star and leading scorer had been knocked out cold. Amid the chaos, Ovechkin spun around in a circle looking for the puck as Tavares lay face-down on the ice.

But again, play was allowed to continue. And suddenly there was Nick Leddy, alertly retrieving the puck along the wall and centering it to a wide-open Kulemin, who made a move and slipped a forehand behind Holtby for the lead. Tavares returned to his feet slowly, but he stayed in the game (One of my worries heading into Game 7 is that he might have a concussion).

The Islanders have had so much working against them in this series. Three of their top six defensemen are out with injuries, so they chose to dress rarely used Matt Donovan and minor-league call-up Scott Mayfield for today’s elimination game. Washington has scored three times after an Islander had broken his stick; the first two goals helped the Caps win Game 2, and the third was an overtime winner in Game 4. And Game 4 might have been settled in regulation if Cal Clutterbuck’s shot had not clanged off the crossbar with the score tied in the third period, or the referees had decided to enforce the rules instead of making it easier for the Capitals to throw their weight around with impunity.

In this game, too, Mikhail Grabovski, whose return has injected some speed into the Islanders’ attack, fired a shot that Holtby bobbled and allowed to fall behind him. But instead of trickling into the net, the slow-moving puck went just wide of the post.

But with 5:33 remaining, the Isles clinging to a 2-1 lead and every minute off the clock feeling more like an hour — finally, some puck luck! As the Capitals were buzzing around the net, Jay Beagle lifted a shot that a prone Jaroslav Halak barely touched. The puck flew over him — but it hit the crossbar. The officials’ call stood after a replay review, and the Coliseum crowd erupted with glee as the final decision was announced.

That glee turned to relief and exultation when Clutterbuck scored into an empty net with 53 seconds remaining. The Islanders’ fourth line of Casey Cizikas between Clutterbuck and Matt Martin had set the tone all game long, hitting Capitals at every opportunity. It was fitting that one of them should score the clincher.

Now both teams are one loss away from elimination. Washington is 3-9 all-time in Game 7s, and has lost four of its last five. One of those defeats came in 2010 against the Canadiens, whose goalie stopped 41 shots as underdog Montreal upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps 2-1. The name of that goalie? Jaroslav Halak, who with today’s win is now 6-1 in elimination games in his career.

If those historical trends continue, this will not be the final game ever played at the Old Barn before the Islanders move to Brooklyn next season.

“It was great to win in this building,” Martin said. “We don’t want it to be the last one.

“It’s been home to me my whole NHL career. It’s the best atmosphere to play in. They don’t really make them like this anymore.”

Question for Game 7: Will the Islanders’ power play, now 0 for 13 in the series, finally solve the riddle of the Capitals’ penalty-killing unit?

Question for beyond Game 7: Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of all this pounding will be the Rangers, who closed out their series Friday night and can now rest while the Isles and Caps knock the snot out of each other. Will the winner of this series have anything left for Game 1 at Madison Square Garden?

Filed April 25, 2015

Sources: NBC Sports, MSG Network, NHL.com

Game 5: Capitals 5, Islanders 1 Pushed to the brink

Like the Islanders’ season as a whole, tonight got off to a promising start. But just like the Islanders’ trends over the 82-game schedule, tonight grew worse and worse as it went along and, in the end, got downright ugly.

This was by far the Isles’ worst performance of the series. They were outshot 41-23. Their power play, given a chance to answer shortly after Washington had taken the lead, instead fizzled for the umpteenth time while I screamed at the TV set for them to shoot the puck. The Islanders trailed 2-1 after two, but the third period was a disaster. Twice they gave up goals immediately after killing off a Capitals power play, making the score 4-1. One of those resulted from a bad line change that allowed 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov to skate in with ridiculous ease. Goalie Jaroslav Halak was mercifully replaced after giving up the fifth goal, an easy shot he should have stopped. Later, Calvin de Haan limped off to the dressing room, leaving the Islanders to finish with just five defensemen for a second consecutive game.

This was not the finish I envisioned during the early part of the game, when the Islanders looked as strong as they had when they were in first place in the Metropolitan Division in November and December.

After Tuesday night’s frustrating 2-1 overtime loss at Nassau Coliseum, coach Jack Capuano said he needed “a little bit more” from his top three lines. And with Mikhail Grabovski, out since February with a concussion, returning in the lineup, Capuano mixed up his combinations to reunite pairings that have worked well in the past.

Game 4 was a chippy, nasty game that left hard feelings on both sides, and Game 5 started off with similar snarl. At the very first whistle, the teams engaged in a brief scrum in front of the Islanders’ net. Anders Lee, who rarely fights, responded to the call for something extra by battling Tom Wilson, public enemy No. 1 in the Islanders’ eyes for his hit that knocked defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky out of Game 4. Just 26 seconds after that, John Tavares took his lumps along the boards to set up Josh Bailey for a goal. For the third time in three games in Washington, the Isles had taken the lead before the game was seven minutes old.

But Kuznetsov was left all alone to knock in a rebound at the post, tying the game at 1-1 after one period. And when Halak was unable to cover the puck at his left post in the second, Karl Alzner capital-ized to put the Caps in front with his second of the playoffs. Alzner is the only defenseman on either side to score a goal in the series.

Then again, the Islanders’ defensemen are having trouble just surviving the series. Travis Hamonic appears nowhere near returning after he was hit in Game 81 of the regular season. The undersized, 38-year-old Visnovsky has been hammered several times by the big, physical Caps, and the crushing blow by Wilson left him unable to continue. If de Haan cannot go in Game 6, the Islanders would have to stave off elimination with three of their top six defensemen unavailable.

I’m trying to keep the faith, but the Islanders tonight looked worn down and worn out. Washington has the advantage in size, and as Game 5 trudged on, the Islanders appeared unable to stand up to the pounding. They have been outscored 6-1 in the third period in this series, and the only goal they’ve managed to get was an empty-netter.

But the Capitals have failed to finish off playoff series before, and Game 6 is at Nassau Coliseum. The last thing the Islanders want to do is end their tenure at the Old Barn on the losing end of a handshake line. And these days, even some Ranger fans are rooting for the Islanders, looking ahead to a rivalry series that would send the metropolitan area into a hockey frenzy.

It takes four games to win a series. Right now, the big, bad Caps have just three.

Filed April 23, 2015

Sources: MSG Network, NHL.com