OBSERVATIONS FROM THE WEEK IN SPORTS–VOLUME I, 4/24

  • With a lineup against Milwaukee last week that included such names as Billy, Joey, Zack, Scooter and Tucker, are the Reds trying to win baseball games or are they trying to produce a re-booted version of Saved by the Bell?
  • Speaking of Billy, has anyone in the Reds organization told their lead off hitter, Billy Hamilton, that a lead off walk makes it 15% more likely for a team to score a run?  Given Hamilton’s .265 on-base percentage and seven walks in 103 plate appearances, apparently that conversation hasn’t occurred.
  • For those of you keeping score at home, as of Monday May 1, the Reds magic number to clinch the National League Central Division is 141.
  • After learning the Bengals drafted the controversial running back from Oklahoma, Joe Mixon, rumor has it that to commemorate their 50th anniversary in professional football, the team will erect a statue of Mike Brown outside Paul Brown Stadium with the enscription, “Give me your assaulters, your felons, your troubled characters yearning to play in the NFL.”
  • What makes the Mixon selection even more baffling is that the Bengals traded their 41st pick to Minnesota who used it to draft running back Dalvin Cook from Florida State.  You can easily make the argument that if you are going to draft a running back in the second round, why not keep the selection and take Cook, who may be the better prospect than Mixon?
  • At the end of the day, the Bengals 2017 draft should not be judged by their early selections but by their choices after the third round.  In 2016, 65% of the players on NFL rosters were drafted after the third round, including those who were undrafted free agents.  With nine selections this year from the fourth through seventh rounds, the Bengals had a real opportunity to have an impactful draft.  Obviously, only time will tell if they took advantage of those nine selections, but their fourth round choices of Auburn outside linebacker Carl  Lawson and Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone, who had 11 receiving touchdowns and 972 receiving yards in 2016, third best in the SEC, look promising.  Just to emphasize the importance of these late round selections, 10 of the 11 Patriots on the field when they scored their game-winning touchdown against the Falcons in the Super Bowl, were drafted after the third round or undrafted free agents.
  • Many of the so-called draft experts believed the Bengals needed defensive help. The numbers, however, seemed to indicate that wasn’t the case.  In the last eight games of the 2016 season, the Bengals defense allowed only 15.8 points per game, the third lowest in the NFL.  Unfortunately, they could only muster a 3-5 record in those eight games, a signal that the offense was what needed help.     Using their first two picks, then, on a wide receiver and a running back, seems appropriate .
  • But before we completely overhaul the Bengals offense, fans can take comfort in the fact that things could be worse.  The 2016 Los Angeles Rams, for instance,  had more punt yards than offensive yards.
  • Of the four major North American sports, the NHL is undoubtedly the least popular and the least viewed.  If you are one of the many who don’t regularly watch, do yourself a favor and start tuning into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the best post-season in all of sports.  In the recently completed first round, their were 18 overtime games and the average goal differential in the eight series for the winning teams was 4.125 or a little over a goal per game.  Even with no dog in the fight, the NHL playoffs is compelling and exciting television.
  • It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Dale Earnhardt Jr announced his retirement from NASCAR following the 2017 season on the same weekend his father, the iconic Dale Earnhardt Sr would have celebrated his 66th birthday.  Junior is honoring his father’s legacy with the best possible gift and in a fashion Senior didn’t have the chance to do–leaving the sport on his own terms.  Good for you Junior.
  • A signal that tells me it’s time to sign up for AARP benefits:  On Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts signed wide receiver Trey Griffey to an undrafted free agent contract.  Trey Griffey is the SON of Ken Griffey Jr.

LEGENDS OF THE JUNGLE PREVIEW

Boomer Esiason still holds the Cincinnati Bengals record for most passing yards in a game and is tied for the most 300-yard games.

Jim Breech is the team’s all-time leading scorer in points and remains a beloved figure more than twenty years after his retirement.

Cris Collinsworth led the team in receptions and receiving yards several times in the 1980s–and topped the team in receiving touchdowns three times.

But these great players and many others aren’t in the Bengals’ Hall of Fame, and it’s for a simple reason:  It does not exist.  That needs to change, according to me, Mark Powell.

By creating its own Hall of Fame or Ring of Honor, the team would be paying tribute to its great players and personalities.  But it would need to determine who is eligible and who should be honored first.

Get a detailed look at one of the NFL’s most interesting franchises, discover its rich history, and decide for yourself who deserves to be among the Legends of the Jungle.

Legends of the Jungle is my first book and is now available at iuniverse.com.  Simply go to the website and select the Bookstore link.  From there, choose the Advance Search link and enter “Mark Powell” in the author field to get your copy.  You can also order it online at Barnes and Noble or at Amazon.com.

Any copy you purchase, I will be happy to sign.  Get your copy and today and share this post with all of your friends!

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

With just four regular season games remaining, the Indiana Hoosiers face a task they never thought possible at the beginning of the season, the need to win their final four contests just to even be considered for an invitation to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.  Heading into their game against Iowa on Tuesday night, IU is currently not in the field and is just barely on the fringe of being considered, according to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi.  The Hoosiers are one of the four teams Lunardi considers “The Next Four Out”, a quartet of teams that at a minimum have four teams ahead of them in the selection process for the final few spots.  A loss on the road against a mediocre Iowa team on Tuesday will put Indiana in the precarious position of having to win the Big 10 Tournament if they want a spot in the NCAA tournament, a prospect that seems more than just improbable since they would have to accomplish something within the Big 10 they haven’t done all season, win at least four or possibly five consecutive games. Winning at Iowa won’t guarantee by any means a spot in the NCAA tourney but a loss will permanently seal their fate.

LIGHTNING 3, DUCKS 2 (SO)

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Those were the words Thomas Paine wrote in his famous pamphlet, American Crisis, in an effort to renew the spirit of the American soldier and discourage them from deserting or going home during the early days of the Revolutionay War.  If Paine were alive today, he surely would have used those same words to motivate the members of the Tampa Bay LIghtning prior to their game last night against the Anaheim Ducks.  Facing the prospect of falling further behind in their quest to make the playoffs, Tampa desperately needed the same encouragement Paine offered the Revolutionary troops with his pamphlet that enabled the upstart Americans to cross the Delaware in desperate conditions and then defeat the Hessians in the Battle of Trenton.  As it turned out, the ghost of Paine and his immortal words may have filtered into the Lightning’s locker room, as Tampa defeated the Ducks, 3-2 on a game-winning shootout goal by Brian Boyle, in a game one could argue was a must-win situation.

In reality, the game never was as close as the score indicated.  The Lightning, who mustered only 21 shots on goal in each of their previous two games against the Boston Bruins and the Ottawa Senators, outshot the Ducks 37-16, including a 30-7 advantage from the second period through the overtime.  Tampa also dominated Anaheim in total shot attempts, 82-39, including 15 by Jonathan Drouin and 10 by Nikita Kucherov.  Even more impressive, was the Lightning’s work in the face-off circle.  Facing the NHL’s best team in face-offs won, Tampa won 36 of the game’s 67 face offs, symbolizing the overall dominance they displayed against one of the Western Conference’s best teams.  If it wasn’t for the fact that the Lightning hit three goal posts during regulation, the game never would have gone to a shootout.  In what is hopefully a sign of things to come, the game, according to most observers, had the intensity of a playoff game and if the Lightning hold out any aspirations of making the playoffs, that type of effort is needed every night they take the ice.  More importantly, the two points the Lightning earned with the win, coupled with Boston’s loss to Toronto, moved them to within six points of third place in the Atlantic Division.

According to most historians, Paine’s publication of American Crisis, played a crucial role and was a turning point in the American’s battle for independence.  Hopefully, the Lightning can take inspiration from those same words and use it as a renewal of their own morale in the next couple of weeks.  As impressive as their effort was on Saturday, it will go for naught if they can’t follow it up with another dominant performance on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings at Amalie Arena for their second consecutive victory, a feat they haven’t accomplished since December 20 and 22 when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings, 4-1 and the St. Louis Blues, 5-2.  A loss to the Kings before they embark on another road trip and the Lightning may need more than just some historical words of inspiration for them to have any chance at qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

BRUINS 4, LIGHTNING 3

In their first game after the All-Star break, the Lightning desperately needed a home ice win against an Atlantic Division opponent ahead of them in the standing in the Boston Bruins.  The end result was a disappointing 4-3 loss that was emblematic of Tampa’s season after 51 games played.  The offense once again seemed stuck in neutral, managing only 21 shots on goal and missing on several golden opportunities to hit the back of the net, including Jason Garrison’s slap shot that skidded between the pads of Bruins goalie, Tuuka Rask only to have defenseman Colin Miller slap the puck away before it crossed the goal line.  The defense, which looked like it had turned a corner during the recently completed six-game road trip, fell back to its old ways of failing to clear the puck out of their defensive end and allowing the Bruins extended time in the offensive zone that resulted in 35 shots on goal.  Especially back-breaking was the two goals they allowed in the last 1:52 of the second period, including David Krejci’s goal with less than a second on the clock that turned a 1-0 Lightning lead into a 2-1 Boston advantage after two periods.  Or as Tampa defenseman, Anton Stralman said afterward, “We just lose our game plan when we hit a bump.  There’s been too much of that happening.”  Despite a late rush at the end of the third period that included a goal for the returning Braydon Point, the Lightning fell agonizingly short, a frustrating loss that was embodied by Victor Hedman’s reaction of smashing his stick on the ice once the final horn sounded.  The loss put the Lightning 8 points behind the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division and six points behind the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.   The season isn’t over but with three games left on this current homestand, things need to turnaround, and turnaround soon, if Tampa wants any chance of making the playoffs.

With the season essentially in the balance over the next 30 days, it’s time for head coach Jon Cooper to make a decision about who his number one goaltender is and allow his choice to start the majority of the remaining games.  So far, Cooper has employed essentially a platoon system between Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy that rarely sees either goalie playing more than two consecutive games unless an injury to either one (specifically Bishop) forces him to do otherwise.  The results of Cooper’s strategy, unfortunately, have failed to produce any consistent results.  The tandem of Bishop and Vasilevskiy has combined for a 2.78 goals against average and each has earned 11 victories, numbers that are mediocre at best.  It just seems neither goalie has been given the chance to gain any rhythm and history shows that those teams who contend for a Stanley Cup have a bellwether goalie that plays game in and game out.  Personally, my choice is Bishop, a goalie who led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and the Eastern Conference Final last year.  More importantly, when Bishop was out earlier this season for an extended period of time, Vasilevskiy was essentially given the chance to win the starting job and he failed to capitalize on the opportunity.  There’s no denying that the chances of Bishop, a free agent at the end of the season, staying in Tampa after this year are slim at best.  However, if Cooper wants to take a shot at the Cup this year, his best chance of success starts with handing the starting goaltending reigns to Bishop on a permanent basis.

No one wants to hear any excuses as to why the Lightning have arguably been the most disappointing team in the NHL this season but here are a few facts that, at the very least, may explain, why they are struggling just to become playoff contenders:

  • Five players have made their NHL debut for the Lightning this season.
  • The Lightning have played a total of eight games  with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan and Nikita Kucherov in the same lineup.
  • Only two players have dressed for all of the Lightning’s 51 games–Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.
  • 31 different forwards and defensemen have dressed in the team’s 51 games.
  • Through 51 games, the Lightning have a -11 goal differential and are 15th in the league in goals per game (2.7) and 23rd in goals against (2.9).

 

COYOTES 5 LIGHTNING 3

Tampa Bay’s 2016-17 season officially hit rock bottom Saturday night in Glendale, Arizona.  The Lightning’s 5-3 loss to the Coyotes was the result of a total breakdown in all phases of the game–offense, defense, goaltending, the power play and the penalty kill.  After four games, the current six-game road trip has been a microcosm of the season since Thanksgiving:  One step forward, three steps backwards.  The loss also signified the first time all year that the Lightning’s record fell below the .500 mark.  With two games on the road, at Chicago and at Florida, before the All-Star game next Sunday, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that gaining three points in their final two games before the break is imperative if Tampa has any hopes of making the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The one positive thing to come out of Saturday’s loss was the continued solid performance of Tampa’s “French Connection” fourth line of Cedric Paquette, Michael Bournival and Gabriel Dumont.  Since being put together, this line has been the most consistent and seemingly the only line creating any energy each time they take the ice.  They constantly keep the puck in the offensive zone with their aggressive forechecking and grinding style of play.  It was good to see that all of their hard work paid off against the Coyotes on Saturday when Paquette scored his fourth goal of the season on assists from Bournival and Dumont.  If the Lightning are to make any kind of second half push for the playoffs, the rest of the team needs to play with the same desperation this line has done over the last two weeks.

With all due respect to head coach Jon Cooper, it drives me nuts to see how much he shuffles his lines throughout the game.  The only line he seemingly leaves untouched is the aforementioned “French Connection” line and interestingly enough it’s has been his most productive on this current six game road trip.  With an offense that has seemingly gone into hibernation since January 12 (9 goals in five games), it may be time for Cooper to find some consistency with the line he sends out onto the ice.  If he’s looking for suggestions, here’s where I would start:

“The Triplets”–Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov

Valteri Filppula, Jonathan Drouin and Brian Boyle

Vladimir Namestnikov, Alex Killorn and Nikita Nesterov

“The Tampa Frecnh Connection”

Granted, Nesterov is a defenseman, but when Cooper has played him as a forward, he’s played his best hockey.  If and when Ryan Callahan returns, he could replace Nesterov on the wing.  At this point, anything to jump start the offense would be in order.

NEXT GAME:  Tuesday at Chicago, 8:30 pm

INDIANA 82 MICHIGAN ST 75

A few random thoughts about Saturday’s game…

When the executives at ESPN scheduled the Hoosiers vs. the Spartans before the season began, surely they thought they would have two top ten teams if not the two best teams in the Big 10 battling it out in late January.  Instead they got two teams, both beset by injuries, who have spent the entire season struggling for consistency and failing to live up to some lofty pre-season expectations.  Today’s game was a mirror image of the problems both of these teams have faced–an up and down roller coaster of a season that has seen their share of big victories and tough losses.  The first 20 minutes saw the Hoosiers arguably play their best half of the season, taking a 44-30 lead into the break.  In the second half, the Spartans outplayed Indiana, cutting the lead to as few as four points late in the game.  In the end, Michigan State couldn’t overcome a 20 point deficit and the Assembly Hall crowd as the Hoosiers won their third consecutive game for the first time since December and now stand 4-3 in the conference, their first time above .500 in the Big Ten this season.

With O.G. Anunoby out for the season, the most important player for Indiana is Zach McRoberts.  Anunoby’s absence means the Hoosiers lose out on one of their top defenders but it gives McRoberts, who is the best defender on the team, more playing time.  Given Indiana’a propensity to fall asleep on the defensive end, seeing McRoberts play 32 minutes like he did Saturday means Indiana has a much better chance of keeping their opponents off the scoreboard and more opportunities to play to their strengths on offense.

Before Indiana fans start to press the panic button on the season because of Anunoby’s season-ending injury, we should take solace in the fact that the Hoosiers were a Sweet 16 team last season despite incurring injuries to James Blackmon and Robert Johnson.  It’s a blueprint coach Tom Crean needs to use again.  I have been critical in the past of Crean’s tactic of constantly shuttling players in and out of games before any  offensive or defensive rhythm can be established.  Just like last year, however, with a shorter bench due to injuries, employing that strategy is less likely to occur and in the end made the Hoosiers a better team at the end of last season.  Let’s hope it can happen again this year.

At the end of last season, the Hoosiers best player was freshman Thomas Bryant.  His defensive prowess and his ability to score in the low post made him almost unstoppable at times near the end of the year.  When Bryant announced he was returning to Bloomington for his sophomore year, I expected even better production.  Coming into Saturday’s game, that wasn’t the case.  In fact, Bryant seemed to be spending more time shooting three pointers and pouting when something didn’t go his way on the court.  Against the Spartans, we saw, at times, the Bryant from last year, scoring from the low block and making good plays on the defensive end.  If Indiana has any hope of making the NCAA tourney and achieving any kind of success, they need the Thomas Bryant many experts believed was a NBA lottery pick last spring.

The secret to Indiana’s success is pretty simple.  Don’t turn the ball over and they become one of the best and most potent offenses in the country.   Saturday’s game was no exception.  In the first half, Indiana scored 44 points on 50% percent shooting with only five turnovers, positive production that gave the Hoosiers a 14 point lead that they used to defeat a Michigan State team they hadn’t defeated since 2013.  Protect the ball and Indiana has a chance to make some noise in March.