Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rangers Looking For Divine Intervention Tonight

Washington's Alexander Ovechkin is all smiles as Capitals look to come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Rangers in tonight's seventh game of their series at the Verizon Center. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

"He can't play every game like a god. He can't save the game all the time." Even though those statements are true, Alexander Ovechkin fired the first shots of Game 7 between his Washington Capitals and New York Rangers from off the ice Sunday afternoon.

The NHL's leading goal scorer in the regular season had that to say about Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist after Washington's 5-3 win over the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden Sunday, setting the stage for tonight's pivotal winner-take-all matchup at the Verizon Center. Should Washington win, they will advance to the second round to take on either the Devils or Penguins, while the Rangers will lock horns with the Boston Bruins and Vezina Trophy finalist Tim Thomas should they prevail.

After many fans left the Garden following the second intermission of Game 6, where the Capitals had built a 5-1 lead after two periods, Scott Gomez kept things in perspective. "That's over with now," said the Rangers' big free agent signing of 2007. "One game on the road. Anything can happen." The Rangers will have head coach John Tortorella back behind the bench after serving a suspension during Game 6 for throwing a water bottle at a fan during Friday's Game 5 in Washington, an incident that Ranger president Glen Sather attributed to lax security in the arena.

Tonight's Game 7 is the first for the Rangers since they won the Stanley Cup against Vancouver in 1994, ending a much-publicized 54-year drought. However, the Blueshirts have not won any of their four previous seventh games on the road, so something has to give. "The pressure's on them," said captain Chris Drury. "They've smoked us twice, they're going home, and everybody's saying it's over."

The Rangers come into the nation's capital having lost their last two games after taking a 3-1 series lead, and they have never blown a lead that big. "When you get booed in your own building all year long, you change coaches, you go through a lot of stuff, make the playoffs the second-to-last game of the year, we're ready for anything," stated Drury.

It all comes down to tonight. Hopefully Lundqvist and the Rangers are ready for another miraculous outing.

Monday, April 27, 2009

NFL Draft In Review: Winners, Losers & Those In Between

New Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford meets and greets NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being announced as the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft Saturday afternoon at Radio City Music Hall in New York. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)
It's been less than 24 hours since the announcement of this year's Mr. Irrelevant, (Kicker Ryan Succop, who was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs) which means that it is now time to attempt to make some sense of this latest two=day extravaganza by analyzing who was the best and/or worst, as well as figure out who was right in the middle.
After the remaining five rounds went into the books during Day 2 yesterday, the Cincinnati Bengals emerged as the biggest winners with the third-round selections of Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson (a mid-to-late first-round pick in most mock drafts that gives Cincinnati its replacement for Justin Smith, who signed with the 49ers last year) and Missouri tight end Chase Coffman, who was one of the best available at his position and gives Carson Palmer another weapon that will help offset the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Tennessee also came away winners, as the Titans grabbed another potential first-rounder in Auburn's Sen'Derrick Marks at the end of the second round, as well as Michigan State's Javon Ringer in the fifth round, a running back that can be compared to Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook given his all-purpose potential.
Considering that two of their three picks were used to take a player that could have gone in the second round, (Iowa running back Shonn Greene) and the latest player to assume the title of franchise quarterback, (USC's Mark Sanchez) it would be hard to categorize the New York Jets as losers in this year's draft. However, since Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum nearly gave up his whole draft to take Sanchez in the fifth overall spot and Greene in the first pick of Day 2, (65th overall in the third round) Gang Green lost in the long run, just like the New Orleans Saints did a decade ago when they traded their whole draft to the Washington Redskins to take Ricky Williams in 1999. Ironically, Williams was drafted fifth overall, just like Mark Sanchez was two days ago.
Other winners included the San Francisco 49ers, who in addition to having Michael Crabtree fall into their lap at the No. 10 spot, walked away with Ball State's Nate Davis in the fifth round. (Davis was a first-round pick before the combine) Even though their Day 2 was average at best, the Philadelphia Eagles emerged as a winner thanks to their stellar first day, stealing Missouri wide receiver Jeremy Maclin at No. 19 and Pittsburgh running back LeSean McCoy, considered to be a fringe first-rounder to some, at No. 51 overall in the second round.
With great success comes great failure, and even though no one failed miserably in this year's draft, there were notable reaches throughout the weekend. Take the Kansas City Chiefs as Exhibit A in this category, passing on Aaron Curry to pick up LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson at No. 3. Even though Jackson is a need pick for the Chiefs, who will now plug him into the hole Jared Allen left last year when he was traded to the Vikings, Curry was the best player available and would have meshed well with new arrivals Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas in Kansas City's linebacking corps. Denver's selection of Knowshon Moreno at No. 12 is probably an even bigger reach, considering Mike Shanahan is no longer the head coach and new Bronco head man Josh McDaniels has yet to prove that any running back can have a 1,000 yard season in his system. Apparently, Correll Buckhalter will not be given a chance to be the every-down back in the Rocky Mountain City with this selection. Denver atoned for this by taking Tennessee's Robert Ayers with the 18th pick, which Chicago yielded to Denver in the Jay Cutler trade.
Finally, one cannot mention the NFL draft without acknowledging the Oakland Raiders, for better or worse. In typical Raider fashion, legendary owner Al Davis validated his many critics who expected him to take flash and style over substance with the No. 7 overall pick, which he did with the selection of Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey, the receiver who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at the combine, with the aforementioned Crabtree and Maclin still on the board.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Many Teams Looking To Make Their Mark By Drafting Sanchez

Mark Sanchez holds Rose Bowl trophy after leading Southern California to victory. Now, Sanchez gets to lead an East Coast squad onto the field, as Jets select him fifth overall in this year's NFL draft. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times)

Just hours after the Detroit Lions put an end to the drama surrounding the first pick in the 2009 NFL draft by signing Matthew Stafford late last night, the token attention surrounding the quarterbacks whose names get called at Radio City Music Hall in New York has now fallen on yet another big name, Southern California's Mark Sanchez. Yes, the same Sanchez that led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl win last season as a redshirt sophomore. The same Sanchez that declared for the draft a month later and was called out by USC head coach Pete Carroll for doing so. Regardless of his past history, Sanchez will certainly make some today when he is drafted, potentially as high as No. 2 overall to the St. Louis Rams or maybe as low as the 17th pick to the New York Jets, but Gang Green is reportedly interested in trading up for Sanchez if he gets past the Cleveland Browns at No. 5, who have two quarterbacks already. However, Browns coach Eric Mangini is not enamored with neither Brady Quinn nor Derek Anderson.

The scenario involving Sanchez going to the Rams is by far the most outlandish, and it would have major implications on nearly every pick throughout the top 10, as the Seahawks, Jaguars and 49ers have their sights set on him as well. A blog on NFL.com has written that the Rams have reportedly bought Sanchez a one-way ticket to St. Louis for tomorrow, where they would introduce him as their top pick during a press conference. (You can see this by clicking here) Personally, Sanchez would have a better chance of falling outside the top 10 than going second overall, but this is the draft, where anything is possible. (All except the first pick now that Stafford is off the board)

Meet Your New No. 1 Overall Pick

Detroit Lions have made it official, locking up Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford to a $72 million deal over six years, making him first pick in today's NFL draft. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

After four months of speculation, the Detroit Lions have officially announced what many expected them to, and that is the signing of University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, thereby making the junior the first pick in the 2009 NFL draft. The Lions will make this official shortly after 4 p.m. Eastern time this afternoon when they hand their card to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Stafford and the Lions reached an agreement late last night on a six-year contract worth $72 million, with $41.7 million guaranteed, the most guaranteed money handed out this offseason. This deal could reach as much as $78 million if Stafford reaches the incentive requirements in the contract. Nonetheless, the former Bulldog is the seventh quarterback in the last nine years to be the first name called on draft day, not to mention the second SEC quarterback to go No. 1 in three years (JaMarcus Russell was taken first overall by the Raiders in 2007) and the second consecutive quarterback named Matt to be the first passer off the draft board, following Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback who led his team to the playoffs last year and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year for his efforts.

The Stafford selection also stabilizes the top of the draft, as St. Louis is now expected to draft a tackle with the second pick, choosing from either Baylor's Jason Smith or Virginia's Eugene Monroe. The Chiefs are more than likely going with Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry in the third spot, with Seattle behind them at No. 4, with the likely selection being Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree or USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. If Crabtree is the pick here, the Browns may scoop Sanchez up at No. 5, but expect new Browns coach Eric Mangini to draft a defensive player in that spot.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lions Ready To Roll Out Welcome Matt For Stafford

Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, the likely No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

The Detroit Lions have been on the clock with the first pick in the 2009 NFL draft for the last four months. Tomorrow afternoon at Radio City Music Hall, new head coach Jim Schwartz and the Lions will have a new face of their franchise, and all indications are that it will be University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, projected by many to be the best player in the draft.

The Lions are also considering Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith and Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry with the top pick, but Stafford is arguably the most pro-ready of the three prospects, and he would give the Lions something they have not had since Bobby Layne graced their huddle half a century ago: a franchise quarterback.

It is common knowledge that if a team has a chance to draft a franchise quarterback, they usually do not pass up the opportunity. However, if they do, it can set the team back several years, just as a blown draft pick on a potential franchise QB can be. (See Alex Smith and Tim Couch as Exhibit A in this category)

Should Stafford go to the Lions at No. 1, expect the St. Louis Rams, on the clock at No. 2, to select Jason Smith as the replacement for Orlando Pace, who signed with the Bears after twelve seasons in the Gateway City. Kansas City is expected to take Aaron Curry with the No. 3 selection, and the Seahawks follow them at No. 4; with their pick likely to be either Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree or USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is now more of a possibility after Seattle signed free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The Browns and new head coach Eric Mangini round out the top five in the draft order.

The 2009 NFL draft can be seen on ESPN starting tomorrow and continuing Sunday. Coverage starts tomorrow at 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Drury Is Captain Clutch As Rangers Take 3-1 Lead

Rangers captain Chris Drury gives Blueshirts and their fans reason to celebrate, as his game-winning goal puts New York up 3-1 against Capitals. (Photo courtesy of NHL.com)

Throughout the season, since becoming the 25th player in his illustrious franchise's history to wear the letter "C" on his jersey, Chris Drury had been criticized for failing to produce in situations where he was needed most. Yet last night, the man that is known to some as "Captain Invisible" put the critics to rest, at least for the time being.

After missing the first game of the Rangers' best-of-seven series against Washington with a wrist injury that almost caused him to miss last night's fourth game, Drury delivered a performance that conjured memories of a former captain on Broadway, scoring the game-winning goal in the second period as the Blueshirts defeated the Capitals 2-1, setting up a potential series-clinching Game 5 tomorrow night in the nation's capital. "We should go in thinking we're down 3-1," said an ecstatic Drury after the game. "We need to be a desperate team." Teammate Brandon Dubinsky called Drury a "warrior" that "went out there and made a huge play."

The Rangers were anything but desperate last night, killing off all six of Washington's power plays during the game, not to mention another stellar performance from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 38 saves last night, now giving him a grand total of 142 for the series. "That's why they pay me the big bucks," quipped the netminder after another outing that demonstrated his status as the team's most valuable player this season.

Lundqvist may not have shut out the Caps as he did in Saturday's Game 2, but he has been nothing short of brilliant against Washington's high-powered offense led by Alexander Ovechkin, who picked up his first goal of the series in the third period last night, but has yet to advance past the first round of the playoffs in his career.

Two days after calling out his best players, head coach John Tortorella now has a reason to smile, and could be headed to the second round as early as tomorrow night, where the Boston Bruins would be waiting for him and the Rangers after sweeping Montreal to end their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Henrik The Magnificent Keeps Rangers Alive

Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist to thank for their series lead against Washington, as the goalie has been absolutely brilliant in net for Blueshirts. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

The New York Rangers may have been shut out last night as the Washington Capitals cut the Blueshirts' 2-0 series lead in half, but the primary reason why Broadway is alive and well once again is the 27-year-old Swedish import that currently graces the net for a team that has been historically rich with accomplished netminders, from Eddie Giacomin to Mike Richter.

Henrik Lundqvist has been taking matters into his own hands all season, saving not just shots, but games too, for the seventh-seeded Rangers, who host the Capitals tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden for the fourth game in their best-of-seven series, one that the Rangers currently lead two games to one.

Lundqvist was at his best Saturday afternoon while dueling with 20-year-old Capitals goalie Simeon Varlamov, who was making his first career playoff start and just his seventh career professional appearance in goal. However, the reigning Olympic gold medalist Lundqvist got the better of Washington that day, stopping all 35 shots Washington took as Ryan Callahan's first-period tally held up as the lone score in a 1-0 Ranger win.

However, 36 saves last night wasn't enough for King Henrik and the other Blueshirts as Washington took advantage of defensive miscues to score four against Lundqvist, despite only five shots from the NHL's regular-season goal leader, Alexander Ovechkin. Last night was a harrowing reminder that one man cannot do it all himself, and Rangers coach John Tortorella made sure to rehash it in his postgame press conference, as he stated that the team was "chasing its tail all night long," and that they "can't be watching the puck."

Tomorrow night at the Garden could go a long way in determining the winner of this series one way or another, as the Rangers look to go up 3-1, and Washington attempts to return home with a tie, thereby making the series a de facto best-of-three.

Who Will Make A Bold Statement With Anquan?

Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin could have a new home on draft day, as many teams are lining up to be his suitor. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

With the NFL draft fast approaching, (it's this Saturday and Sunday) many teams are reaching out to one another regarding potential trade offers, with some having already been completed. For instance, the Bears picked up Jay Cutler last month, and the Giants have been in pursuit of Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards. The Edwards move is particularly relevant because if the Giants cannot get the Michigan product, they have also been rumored to target a certain disgruntled person in Arizona that apparently could be heading to the city where the old Browns headed for thirteen years ago instead.

A report in the Baltimore Sun indicated that the Ravens are interested in Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, but only if Arizona will take a player on top of either a first or second-round draft pick. The Cardinals have reportedly asked for No. 1 and No. 3 picks in exchange for the 28-year-old Pro Bowler, and Baltimore has clearly stated they will not pull the trigger on a trade involving multiple draft picks, since the Ravens only have six selections this weekend. Baltimore's salary cap is also a concern, and the team is interested in using its remaining cap room to extend Terrell Suggs' contract.

Other than the Giants, other teams interested in Boldin include the Jets and Eagles, and Philly may be willing to trade its other first-round pick to do it. The Eagles already traded the pick they got from Carolina on draft day last year when the Panthers selected offensive tackle Jeff Otah to the Bills to get fellow tackle Jason Peters.

Scottie Doesn't Know

Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds takes game-winning shot against Pittsburgh in East regional final. Reynolds has declared for the NBA draft, but will not sign with an agent, leaving the door open to return to the Main Line for his senior season. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

After leading his team to the Final Four this past season, it looks like Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds could be a surefire NBA prospect. Therefore, it came as no surprise to fans of 'Nova Nation and basketball fans across the country when Reynolds announced that he is declaring for the NBA draft earlier today, according to ESPN.com. However, Reynolds has yet to sign with an agent and does not plan to; which means that he could very well come back to the Main Line for his senior season, one where he may see more time at shooting guard to accommodate Corey Fisher's move into Jay Wright's starting lineup to run the point for the Wildcats.
A Villanova press release quoted Wright as saying that this move by Reynolds would "give him a better understanding of what it takes to play at that level." Reynolds averaged 15.2 points per game last season as the point guard in the Wildcats' backcourt, and his return, should he come back, would bolster an already deep Villanova team that is the likely favorite in the Big East next season, with Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Syracuse losing the likes of DeJuan Blair, Hasheem Thabeet, and Jonny Flynn, respectively; all of whom have declared for the draft as well.
However, if Reynolds were to defect, his spot in the lineup would open the door for already stellar reserve Corey Stokes to see more playing time, along with a top 10 recruiting class that includes McDonald's All-American guards Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek. Whichever road Reynolds does choose to follow, it will undoubtedly be a win-win situation for whoever acquires his services for the 2009-10 basketball season.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Farewell To The Voice Of God

Legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, who passed away Monday at the age of 73. (Photo courtesy of MLB.com)

It's been a rough week in the sports world. Less than 24 hours removed from the retirement of John Madden and just a few days after the tragic death of former Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych, sports fans are still recovering from yet another hard blow that took place Monday afternoon, as a legendary announcer known to his fans as the "Voice of God" took on a higher position as a play-by-play announcer for the Lord.

While preparing for a game Monday night, iconic Phillies play-by-play man Harry Kalas fatally collapsed before the Phillies took the field against the Washington Nationals. He was 73. Said Phillies president David Montgomery when addressing the media about Kalas' passing, "We have lost our voice today. He has loved our game and made just a tremendous contribution to our sport and certainly to our organization." Such a contribution was felt for 37 years, as Kalas assumed the play-by-play duties in the City of Brotherly Love in 1971 after serving as the voice of the Houston Astros for the previous six years. Kalas also called games for the Philadelphia Eagles and Westwood One, not to mention his work on NFL Films voiceovers and the recent Campbell's Chunky Soup commercials starring, among others, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, one of the greatest players in Phillies history, mourned the broadcaster by recalling how Kalas would refer to him as Michael Jack Schmidt. "He gave me my name, my sports name," said Schmidt. "Every time I hear it, his smile will resonate." Schmidt also praised Kalas by saying he would eventually "go down as one of the top two or three to ever grace a microphone." For someone perceived in broadcasting circles as one of the lords of his profession, such a divine honor would be only too appropriate.

Madden Lowers The "Boom!" On A Great Career

John Madden, pictured here with Al Michaels, retires after over three decades as a color commentator for NFL coverage on four different networks. (Photo courtesy of Digital Sports Daily)

We all knew this day was coming, but even the most rabid of football fans did not want to acknowledge it. Yesterday, after a career that included 30 years of color commentary for four networks, countless Super Bowl assignments, not to mention revolutionizing the broadcasting and video game industries after starting out as a head coach of the Oakland Raiders, 73-year-old John Madden has decided to call it a career.

"You know, at some point, you have to do this," said Madden on the decision to hang up the microphone and headset. Madden's world-famous bus, which he used to travel to and from games after suffering a bout of claustrophobia while flying to one of the first games he covered in 1979, finally pulling into the parking lot for the final time. "I got to that point." Madden will be succeeded on NBC's Sunday Night Football telecasts by Cris Collinsworth, who will now work alongside play-by-play man Al Michaels, who saluted his former partner yesterday by saying that there has "never been anyone like him," and that he was the "gold standard for analysts for almost three decades."

Madden spent most of his career paired with the great Pat Summerall, who worked as the top play-by-play man for CBS and Fox. "I don't think he had any other hobbies," said Summerall of his partner's love for football. "He was the hardest worker and he never lost that passion for the game." Madden's ability to break down football so that the common man can understand it has no doubt instilled the same passion in fans, and hopefully the fire will never burn out.