Seattle Mariners are can do without Robinson Cano

Seattle Mariners are can do without Robinson Cano

Thursday, December 12th, 2013 was a momentous day for the Seattle Mariners.  While I was blowing out candles on a cake in Miami, they equalled the third-largest deal in Major League Baseball history by signing New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year $240 million contract. Then-M’s general manager Jack Zduriencik may have thought it wise to get the deal done before Friday the 13th. Unfortunately, he didn’t think to send me birthday wishes for my 50th, thereby failing to avoid cursing the deal.

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In the four since-completed seasons with Cano in the lineup, the club hasn’t improved noticeably, finishing third, fourth, second and third in the American League West. When you make a signing of that magnitude, you expect to win. Or you should.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018 turned out to be the second momentous day in the marriage between the Mariners and their high-priced second-sacker. Cano was suspended 80 days by Major League Baseball for a positive result to a drug test.

You wouldn’t imagine the Mariners would take the news positively. Not the fans, not Cano’s teammates, not manager Scott Servais or current GM Jerry Dipoto. While Cano had only hit four home runs on the season, he had contributed 24 rbi and 23 runs in 39 games, projecting him into the 90s for both over an entire season. His basic numbers as a Mariner suggest the team was faced with replacing 12 hr, 45 rbi and 40 runs. That isn’t a pleasing prospect.

Robinson Cano's numbers in his first four seasons as a Seattle Mariner.

The Mariners were their typical third in the AL West on May 14th, a game-and-a-half behind the Angels, with the World Series champion Houston Astros nestled in between. Seattle’s suddenly looked like another lost season. How could they stay close until Cano returned?

Only, they’ve gone far beyond staying close. After chasing Dallas Keuchel last night, the Mariners are in first place. In the first 20 games sans Cano, they are 15-5. That’s a .750 winning percentage. With Cano, they were 23-17, or .575.

Former Yankee teammate Mark Teixeira, now an ESPN analyst claimed he wasn’t surprised by the suspension.

Alex Rodriguez got popped by Biogenesis, and Melky [Cabrera, also with the Yankees for a time] got popped. They were best friends.

Cano accepted responsibility for the failed test although he claimed it was prescribed in the Dominican for a medical issue rather than to cheat the system. Nevertheless, it has to create a trust issue within the organisation. When he left New York, former hitting coach Kevin Long lamented his habit of not running to first on sure outs.

When you jog down the line, even if it doesn’t come into play 98% of the time, it creates a perception. But he just wouldn’t make that choice to run hard all the time.

Cano will be eligible to play again for the Mariners’ 121st game, on August 14th in Oakland, ten weeks from now, assuming the club don’t first send him down to the minors for a conditioning assignment. Will Scott Servais be eager to plug him right into the lineup if the Mariners are still rolling along atop the division? How could he ignore an elite power hitter? If the M’s begin to slide with Cano back in the clubhouse and the batting order, what then?

It’s difficult to sit a $240 million player. It’s even harder to trade him when he has a PED suspension on his record. Seattle managed to rid themselves of the original Alex Rodriguez before he went bad. Now, too late, they may have to divorce ARod’s protegé. That’s the Emerald City for you. It never rains but it pours.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

They say no one remembers who finishes second. ‘No one else’ is more accurate. The players who finish second can never forget until they finally win it all.

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Right now, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Vegas Golden Knights are having series they would rather forget in the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals respectively. If they cannot forget now, the end will arrive sooner rather than later and both will have at least a year to replay it all in their minds, wishing after what might have been.


Last night, the team playing with house money took the game to the Washington Capitals in the opening ten minutes. Down two games to one in the series, victory would both level terms and return home-ice advantage to the Golden Knights.

The puck gods had other ideas and, apparently, all their money on the Caps. Ninety seconds in, a shot deflected off Eric Haula’s skate then the post. Reilly Smith was up next. He fanned on a shot with the net gaping. James Neal hit the post on the powerplay with Washington netminder Braden Holtby flat on his back, helpless. Those three misses may have cost Vegas the series and the rest of us an amazing Cinderella story to get us through the next lockout.

The Capitals would not miss three times in the following ten minutes, taking a commanding lead into the second period, one that would translate into a 6-2 victory and a 3-1 series advantage.

Washington Capital TJ Oshie pops in the rebound Vegas Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't control in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Lady Luck has caught up with irrepressible Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, too. The ever-smiling, effervescent ex-Penguin carried the club through the regular season, then the playoffs’ first three rounds. Against Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg, his net was emptier than Donald Trump’s promises. Fleury boasted a .947 save percentage. At the worst possible time, he has regressed to the mean, his number in the Finals 102 points lower.

It will have to come back up and the skaters in front of him will have to start converting their chances. As hard as it is to relax when it’s win or go home, Vegas can’t afford to grip their sticks any tighter or make that one extra pass out of uncertainty.


It wasn’t three misses that put the Cavaliers under the cosh in the NBA Finals; it was one shot declined. Things had been going swimmingly for the Cavs in the NBA playoffs. LeBron James had been carrying the load and the supporting cast was ensuring he had a clear path to the basket against Indiana, Toronto and Boston. Matters were much the same for 47 minutes and 56 seconds or so of Game 1 in the fourth instalment of their annual NBA Finals confrontation. Then JR Smith happened.

In case you were locked in your bathroom for five days [it happens, I’m not judging], the 6’9″ Freehold, New Jersey native who the game program lists as a shooting guard suddenly declined to do so. Collecting the ball under the rim with the score tied [NHL Fan Book rule number 14: Never listen to Don Cherry], Smith dribbled to the sideline to run out the clock, apparently thinking the Cavs had the lead when the score was tied. Cleveland then lost in overtime.

Needless to say, LeBron was displeased. He’d been driving the bus for three series just to get the chance to beat the Warriors, and now JR Smith decides to hop out for cigarettes?

Game 2 was a debacle. Cleveland suddenly couldn’t trust each other while Golden State had to believe the stars were aligned and the moon was in the house of Klay and Curry. The Warriors won by 19 to take a two-games-to-none lead as the series switched to The Land.

Another time-honored truism in best-of-seven series is that you’re never in trouble until you lose at home. Well, the Cavs are 48 minutes from trouble of a kind they absolutely do not want. They cannot afford to give Golden State a 3-0 or even 3-1 lead. There will be no coming back. JR Smith, at 32, may face a lifetime thinking, “I could have sworn we were up one.”

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


Blue Jays and Dodgers both face lost seasons but only one is desperate for a rescue

Blue Jays and Dodgers both face lost seasons but only one is desperate for a rescue

Toronto and Los Angeles are just over 2,700 miles apart. That’s not the farthest distance between Major League cities. Seattle is baseball’s most isolated franchise. It’s over 3,000 miles away from every East Coast club, and 2,750 miles from Toronto, but I mentioned LA for a reason. The distance between Canada’s most populous city and America’s second-most is emblematic of the dichotomy between the Blue Jays and Dodgers’ respective approaches to their most prized assets.

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Two months and one-third of the way into the 2018 Major League Baseball season both teams are struggling. Toronto’s 25-31 record projects to a 72-win season. The Dodgers are a game better and on pace for 75. The Jays are two seasons removed from an ALCS series against the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. The Dodgers are the defending National League Champions.

The Dodgers pitching staff has been hit hard with injuries. Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda are on the 10-Day disabled list; Tom Koehler is on the 60. Clayton Kershaw was just activated, which I’ll get to in a minute. Corey Seager [60] and Chase Utley [10] are also on the DL.

The Blue Jays have also lost players. Troy Tulowitzki is on the 60-day DL after surgery to remove bone spurs in both heels. Josh Donaldson has been day-to-day with a calf problem. Marcus Stroman’s shoulder fatigue has him on the 10-day DL and closer Roberto Osuna’s temper has run him afoul of the league’s domestic violence policy. He is indefinitely suspended.

There are still more than a 100 games remaining for both clubs but the Dodgers, with their massive payroll, are feeling the pressure to salvage their campaign far more than the Blue Jays. For one thing, despite similar records, LA is only four games off the pace in the NL West.The Dodgers brought Clayton Kershaw back from injury too quickly.

Clayton Kershaw had missed all but the first and last days of May with a shoulder problem. when he was medically cleared this week, the club put him back on the mound. No rehab stint to shake off the rust, test all the moving parts, or build up lost strength. Just give him the ball and hope he can turn the season around.

Instead, Kershaw may turn around and head back to the DL, this time with stiffness in his back. In his return against the Phillies, manager Dave Roberts limited him to 60+ pitches in five innings. The lefty gave up just one run but ESPN’s Dave Schoenfeld highlighted a disturbing statistic.

Kershaw threw 20 four-seam fastballs. Not one reached 90 mph. Compare that to the 1100 or so he threw in 2017, of which not a one went under 90, and there is reason to be concerned. Even at 88 or 89, the Dodger ace was an effective pitcher, but he’s not Greg Maddux. Over several starts, hitters will catch up to him. He needs that dominant fastball.

If he goes on the DL again this weekend, Los Angeles should consider taking their time bringing him back to the rotation.

For their part, the Blue Jays have been resisting pressure from all sides to get a sensational player into the lineup yesterday if not sooner. For one thing, they are 13.5 games behind Boston in the AL East. For another, their potential hero is not a veteran Cy Young winning left-hander. It’s a 19-year-old third-baseman whose father will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame this summer.

Vladimir Guerrero is rated the Blue Jays' top prospect by MLB and Baseball America.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr is rated as the Jays’ top prospect by MLB’s scouting bureau and Baseball America. This season, he’s living free while opposing pitchers die as a third baseman for the New Hampshire Fishercats in the AA Eastern League.

In 49 games, Baby Vlad has 11 HRs, 53 RBI and 44 runs scored. His line reads .414/.464/.691. He has been so consistent at the plate that his OPS (1.155) is over 1 in every meaningful split, be it by the month, vs lefties or righties, or in various critical pitch counts and out situations. Unlike his heralded dad, who would swing at anything from ankles to eyebrows that was thrown between first and third base, Junior has some plate discipline. He’s walked 19 times while striking out just 21.

Comparing Josh Donaldson's numbers with Vladimir Guerrero Jr through May 31st 2018

Slowed by injury, Josh Donaldson’s big league numbers pale in comparison. He’s hitting 180 points lower, with 40% of the hits, half the homers and runs scored, a third as many driven in.

There’s a school of thought that advises trading the 32-year-old while his value is still high and letting Vlad show what he can do at the big league level. In a throwaway year, there would be less pressure on the teenager.

On the other hand, he’s doing fine in AA. Not only would he have to adjust to big league pitching in Toronto, he’d be exposed to a negative culture. It’s no fun coming to work when you’re 11 games under .500 going into June.

More importantly, Donaldson is a much better fielder. Toronto GM Ross Atkins has already stated he wants Guerrero to stay on the farm to improve his defence. If he can’t, he’d still have to stay down to learn a new position. Right field, like dear old Dad?

Either way, it’s a sound decision. It’s never a good sign for your major league career if you’re a DH before you can legally drink.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

We live in an age of instant gratification. Our attention spans have dwindled to almost nothing. Virtually everyone’s kids–look at me when I’m talking to you–are diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or ADWTF. They’re all heavily medicated. Moms and dads take out one-year leases on cars built to last a decade. We trade in our old phones for the newest on a monthly basis. Nothing is ever good enough. In the immortal words of Freddie Mercury, we want it all and we want it now.

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Except when it comes to the NBA. Then, we’re happy to slog through an 82-game season listening to Charles Barkley make no sense, followed by four rounds of playoff action just so we can get to what everyone knows is coming: another episode of the LeBron and Steph Show known as the NBA Finals.

Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors deserve credit. They tried to throw us off the scent, teasing us that maybe this was the year a new team would step up to move the NBA forward by taking their respective conference finals to seven games. Golden State even let a Houston Rockets side without Chris Paul run out to a double-digit lead in the first half before pulling out another patented shock-and-awe third quarter to put the series to bed.

In the end, though, there will be a fourth consecutive final between the Cavs and Warriors, and people couldn’t be happier. If LeBron can somehow drag his supporting cast of cable repairmen and UPS drivers to a title, it could tie this best-of-seven-years series at two and force it to at least a sixth season. And the fans would eat it up. So would the television executives. Guaranteed ratings for the foreseeable future.

The opening matchup of this year’s series is tonight in Oakland. Golden State open as 12.5 point favorites. My gut wants to buy into that line by taking Golden State. I can see Steph, KIay Thompson and Kevin Durant outshooting King James. Both teams won on the road to close out but the Warriors went last and have the momentum.

On the other hand, I remember that opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West. The planks on the train platform are too rotted and warped to dribble a ball, but the tension in the three-against-one gunfight is dead-on. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) asks Not Frank (Jack Elam) if he brought a horse for him. Not Frank laughs and says, “Looks like we’re shy one horse.” Harmonica shakes his head and replies, “You brought two too many.” Then he outdraws Not Frank and his two cohorts, gunning them all down.

I worry that LeBron James is feeling his inner Harmonica coming into Game One. He certainly felt it in Games 6 and 7 against Boston, when he ripped off 81 points.

Is he still up to it? Maybe, but he’ll definitely be alone. Kevin Love remains doubtful as he undergoes Concussion Protocol. Larry Nance Jr isn’t likely to be effective simply because Golden State doesn’t go inside as often as Boston. He should be around to clean up for James at the other end, however.

The critical point in this series will come when Golden State starts strongly. If they are even or ahead going into the half, how will Cleveland respond in the third quarter? If they have an answer for the Warriors berserker onslaught, it will be a long series. If they don’t, well, LeBron will have to take Harmonica lessons in the off-season.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


Do a new owner and player alter the Carolina Panthers’ chemistry?

Do a new owner and player alter the Carolina Panthers’ chemistry?

Even though we’ve moved on from the atomic to the information age, we all have a basic understanding of atoms. There are three components. Protons and neutrons cuddle together in the nucleus. Electrons buzz around on the outside. In simple terms, and NFL team can be likened to an atom.

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Think of the stadium as the nucleus. The various non-playing personnel, such as trainers, marketers, and maintenance staff are the neutrons. They perform essential tasks that keep the team functioning. Although there is turnover in the ranks, it’s an anonymous group that is easily interchangeable. Owners, GMs and coaches are the protons. Their collective energy is directed inward. Owners finance the team. GMs recruit players and coaches. The coaches organise and direct the players. The players’ energy is directed out. They buzz around the perimeter competing with other teams, driving away other electrons. As such, they are the most vulnerable. Their careers tend to be the shortest unless the coach is ineffective.

As well, there is magnetism to consider. Neutrons are neutral. Protons are positive. Electrons are negative. Neutrality equates to anonymity, rendering a football team’s support staff irrelevant to this conversation. Owners, as protons, are positive solely in the context of the team’s existence. Until they decide to sell, they are wholly committed to the nucleus, investing their money and influence to improve the team’s value. Players are negative in two ways. They buy into the team concept on the field, allowing positive and negative to attract, but their primary interest is in furthering their own careers, supporting their families, improving their own lives. Unlike a real electron, they can resist the magnetism to walk away at any time.

In terms of labor relations, two observations can be made:

  1. Owner/protons and player/electrons are polarised opposites whose attraction remains at a distinct distance.
  2. It’s little surprise that fans [permanently vested in their team’s welfare] side with the owners who share that interest over the players, who [like them] are ordinary working stiffs.

At the moment, the NFL comprises 32 atoms. One is the Carolina Panthers. It’s been a busy offseason in Charlotte. It’s main proton, owner Jerry Richardson, cuddled a little too close to some attractive neutrons and made a disparaging remark about another. The controversy forced the franchise founder to sell the team to a new proton, hedge-fund manager David Tepper.  Meanwhile, the Panthers traded electrons with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Cornerback Daryl Worley went to Philly. Receiver Torrey Smith came to Carolina.

As protons go, Tepper is a pretty big one. Forbes values his net worth at $11.4 billion. In 2012, he was the highest paid hedge fund manager in the US, collecting $2.2 billion. This year, he paid $2.275 billion for the Panthers. The man is playing with house money.

New Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper was eager to discuss the NFL anthem rule with his players.

Even though his stewardship doesn’t begin for another month, Tepper flew into Charlotte to meet with players regarding the league’s new anthem rule. No one involved is divulging what was said but North Carolina is a very pro-military state. Among others, Fort Bragg, Pope Air Force Base, and Camp LeJeune are all within a few hours drive of Bank America Stadium. When defensive end Julius Peppers remained in the dressing room during the anthem last year, Richardson personally intervened and it did not happen again. Nor has any Panther ever knelt during the Star Spangled Banner.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is notoriously liberal in his political views and fully supported his players when they were outspoken. Torrey Smith, while moderate in his approach, supports the anthem protests. Many Carolina fans may consider him a highly charged electron. He responded to those who hold the belief the movement disrespects veterans.

He followed up when accused of not seeing both sides of the issue.

They didn’t ignore the reasons why folks thought it was disrespectful but they told you what their intentions were. Folks are ignoring why men were protesting and [that] they have facts that prove this country doesn’t treat everyone the same. One [group has] an opinion, the other has facts.

Smith was even clearer on the Panthers website.

I think when you see a reactive policy, and when I say that I mean something that’s done in response to what guys have done in the past, I always think that’s a problem, especially when the [original] message has been changed. Guys aren’t against the military. [Colin Kaepernick] originally started it against police brutality. It was never against the military, it was never about the military, but that narrative changed.

In the early going, Tepper and Smith seem to be giving each other space. The new owner hasn’t complained that the player’s views are on the official team website. The player has embraced the owner’s proactive approach.

It’s awesome that (Tepper) has come in right away and embraced the community. And keep the main thing the main thing, which is winning.

For now, it seems proton and electron can cohabit the same atom in Carolina, but if tensions rise, bet that politics will win out over chemistry and the electron will be cut loose.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


A Stanley Cup primer for the conflicted

A Stanley Cup primer for the conflicted

Either the National Hockey League made a mistake or exhibited rare foresight.  On Wednesday, the Washington Capitals shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Tampa in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference final to advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, who had earlier dispatched the Winnipeg Jets in five games in the Western Conference final. Then the league gave Washington time to rest, scheduling Game 1 of the Stanley Cup for tonight.

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That decision allowed the NBA to catch up. Game 7 in their Western Conference final is also tonight, between the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. The hook is whether we’re going to see a fourth consecutive Cavs/Warriors showdown in the NBA Finals. Last night, LeBron James won two consecutive elimination games, coming from 3-2 down to win the Eastern Conference final over the Celtics in seven.

[Full disclosure: I’m not crediting the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers because after the L-Train scored 81 points, pulled down 26 boards, rang up 18 assists and blocked three shots in Games 6&7, no one else is, either]

LeBron James carries the Cavaliers to a fourth straight NBA Finals.

But the point here is that the NHL didn’t have to cede the spotlight to the NBA. They could have cranked up Game 1 on Friday or Saturday to maintain the momentum they had built with fans in what has been yet another thrilling Stanley Cup playoff year. Instead, they let those fans discover two exciting seven-game series on the hardcourt, assuming they would be back on the ice Monday and the two leagues would carry on their tradition of alternating evenings during their Finals.

Here’s why you should come back to watch the “Better Late Than Never” Washington Capitals and the Sin City Wedding Crashers, more familiarly known as the Vegas Golden Knights fight it out for Lord Stanley’s chalice.

Breaking new ground

Expansion teams are supposed to be bad. They are not expected to contend for a championship straight out of the birth canal. Vegas’ opponent in this series posted the NHL’s worst regular season record when they debuted in 1974/75. In an 82-game season, the inaugural Washington Capitals failed to win ten. Their 8-62-12 record, in the immortal words of Tommy Boy Callahan, “left a mark” that still stands.

The last time an expansion team made the Stanley Cup Finals, the deck was stacked. The St Louis Blues were the best of six expansion teams in 1967. The group doubled the league’s size to 12 teams and the NHL saw fit to put them all in the same division and the so-called Original Six in the other. Therefore, an expansion team was guaranteed to get its butt kicked in an anticlimactic Stanley Cup Final for three consecutive seasons, until the league expanded again, moved the Chicago Blackhawks to the West and placed the Vancouver Canucks in the East.

[Further disclosure: The NHL is not good at this sort of thing]

How has Vegas broken out of the expansion dungeon? Well, when you pony up $500 million for an NHL team, you expect to get value for your money. Every NHL team was allowed to protect seven or eight players and one goalie, but that left significant talent available. Further, the league’s rigid salary cap provided opportunities for Vegas GM George McPhee to wheel and deal. And, as Sean McIndoe, otherwise known as @DownGoesBrown so adroitly observed, it gave the Golden Knights a built-in advantage. As a team without any players, it had no bad contracts to artificially lower its cap. Unless it took on a bad contract here or there [mind the foreshadowing], it had more room to sign quality players.

McPhee made several deals, hired an astute coach, and assembled a solid cast with speed and skill that surprised the hockey world. They started quickly and, despite everyone waiting for the other skate to drop, never faded. For all that, not everyone, including yours truly, is completely convinced. Washington is also something of a Cinderella story and has far more talent than the Golden Knights.

The exorcists

After beginning life as a doormat in the 1970s, the Washington Capitals developed a reputation as a strong regular season club that couldn’t cut it in the playoffs. The only Finals they reached came in 1998 when they were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings. More recently, they had become the whipping boys for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. As Sidney Crosby and friends skated to back-to-back championships, they ripped through the Caps in the second round both times.

This season has been about putting the demons to bed for Barry Trots’ Capitals. First, Washington emphatically reversed their curse against the Pens, eliminating the champions in five second-round games. Then, as already noted, they made it past the Lightning, whose GM Steve Yzerman captained those ’98 Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings two decades prior.

So, while Vegas is living the dream, Washington is intent on exorcising a nightmare. Which brings us to their high priest.

The unstoppable force

As already stated, Vegas is a roster comprising the rest of the league’s 8th and 9th-best players or worse. Some have displayed ability we never knew they had [more of that foreshadowing stuff] but if you’re looking for a LeBron James in this series, you have to look to the Caps, who definitely have one. Alex Ovechkin ticks several L-Train boxes.

To begin, the Great Eight has the catchy nickname to match King James and just as you know who anyone means when they say “LeBron”, “Ovie” refers to just one star. The Russian tank has also had to contend with living in Sidney Crosby’s shadow in the same manner James has struggled to reach the same altitude in fans’ eyes as Air Jordan. Finally, there is the winning.

LeBron has now made eight straight finals. Michael only appeared in six but won them all. James has only three rings. Meanwhile, NHL fans will have to find another nominee for best player never to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. After 13 years, 607 regular season and 58 playoff goals, one Ross [scoring], three Hart [MVP], and seven Richard* [goals] Trophies, Alex Ovechkin has finally made the big dance.

*for any NHL neophytes, that’s a French Richard, pronounced Rishard.

Vegas will be doing their utmost to make him a wallflower. It will be difficult. To start, they must stay out of the penalty box. Ovie proved that he remains the king of the one-timer in the last round and that Steven Stamkos is the pretender. The Lightning captain does an almost perfect impression, but he’s the pretender nevertheless.

Another problem is that, while teams like to get physical to intimidate the opponent’s best player, Ovechkin hits back. Harder. And that’s if he doesn’t get in the first lick. If Washington emerges triumphant in this series, there is every chance their captain will add a Conne Smythe Trophy for Stanley Cup Playoff MVP to his collection.

Dark horse heroes

Here’s a short list of other skaters who can do damage in this series.

William Karlsson — The golden knight among Golden Knights, Karlsson was Vegas’ top scorer in the regular season with 43 goals and 35 assists, stunning NHL aficionados. In three seasons split between the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Swede had peaked at nine goals and 25 points. He had been pigeonholed as a third-line centre and tasked with checking the opponents more dangerous forwards. George McPhee agreed to take David Clarkson’s ridiculous contract off Columbus’ books providing Karlsson came with it. Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant then gave him the chance to showcase his offensive skills and was repaid handsomely for his trust. He’ll be Washington defensemen’s first priority throughout the series.

Evegeny Kuznetsov — If you want to describe Ovechkin as Washington’s thunder, comrade Kuznetsov is the lightning. Less physical but more technically gifted, Washington’s no.92 tends to be quiet for long stretches then strike out of nowhere in highly charged moments. If he gathers any momentum, well, let’s just say Vegas won’t be able to handle the chain-lightning.

Jonathan Marchessault — The Golden Knights may be a group that other NHL clubs didn’t value, let alone consider top stars. That doesn’t stop the former Florida Panther center from showing up to Vegas home games in a Golden Knight-themed Lamborghini.

Marchessault’s 27 goals and 48 assists put him only three points behind Karlsson during the regular season. The undersized forward has been hot in the playoffs, too.

Nicklas Backstrom — The Swede is Washington’s playmaker. He runs the power play and provides goals at even strength. He missed most of the Lightning series with what may have been a broken hand. It’s hard to be certain because transparency is another thing the NHL does not do well. Every injury throughout the season is listed as an upper or lower body injury. The former covers everything from a concussion to whatever damage Backstrom suffered. The latter includes everything from a sprained toe to irritable bowel syndrome. Backstrom has returned, surely benefitting from the five-day layover between series. He’ll make Ovechkin’s one-timer all the more dangerous with his pin-point passing.

James Neal, TJ Oshie, Andre Burakovsky — All three are snipers. Veteran left-winger Neal had 25 regular season goals and was in the Cup final last year with Nashville. Oshie is the silky-skilled winger you forget about on the power play while worrying about Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. He also famously took every penalty [because you can do that in international hockey] in the USA’s shootout win over Russia in the 2014 Olympics, scoring on four of six attempts. Burakovsky may be the most dangerous of the three. He was starving for goals until Game 7 against Tampa, when he broke out for two, clinching the series. Momentum to carry into the Finals?

The Baddies

Hockey is not a game for pacifists. That said, Vegas tends to get chippy by committee. Marchessault has a reputation for being something of a dirty player. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, too. The enforcer on the team is Ryan Reaves. He gave as good as he got from Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien* in the Western final, which officially puts him at the grownup table.

But Washington can add the nasty edge to their advantage in skill. Beyond having to keep your head up whenever Ovechkin is on the ice, Mr Tom Wilson will happily introduce himself if he feels you aren’t showing proper deference or attention. He’s already taken a three-game suspension for a nasty, illegal hit to the head in these playoffs.

In addition, wingers Devante Smith-Pelly, Lars Eller and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik all possess sadistic, opportunistic traits. The Golden Knights will have to oil their swivels before the series begins or they’ll lose their heads like Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese.

*Don’t worry neophytes, even lifelong NHL fans don’t know how you get ‘buff·lin from Byfuglien. 

For the defense

You may be detecting a pattern here, but while Vegas’ defensive corps hasn’t any real standouts, they’re a solid, cohesive unit. Former Capital Nate Schmidt will sneak into the attacking end if Washington isn’t mindful.

I’ve already mentioned Orpik and Niskanen, who provide the muscle at the back for the Caps. John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov like to join the attack. Respectively, they’re Washington’s Ovechkin and Kuznetsov at the back. Carlson’s size and skill are a tough blend for opponents to handle and he has a cannon for a shot. Orlov, meanwhile, is the George Clooney of puckhandling, which is to say, with Pavel Datsyuk retired, there are no danglers smoother and more handsome than the Russian backliner.

Who was that masked man?

Goaltenders have a well-deserved reputation for being strange. Why not when we are willing to throw our bodies and heads in front of a dense, frozen object moving at speeds that would help a traffic cop meet his weekly ticket quota? The puck isn’t the only danger. When you smother one you can occasionally expect a knee or skate to ‘accidentally’ find your skull. At other times, opposing forwards might lose their feet [or not] and barrel into you. You’re lucky if they simply stuff you into the net rather than pinning you against a post. If a goalie wasn’t a bit off before getting between the pipes, time will correct the error. Vegas and Washington both have unusual personalities in goal.

Marc-Andre Fleury — The Vegas netminder came from Pittsburgh in one of those trades where George McPhee squeezed out a little extra. The Penguins threw in a 2020 second-round draft pick to ensure McPhee didn’t select any other player from their roster. Pittsburgh had two Stanley Cup proven goaltenders, could only protect [and pay] one, and elected to go with the younger, saner Matt Murray. Again, give it time.

Earlier in his career, Fleury had two or three inconsistent playoff series that had tagged him a liability. He laughed it off. Literally. The French-Canadian’s spirit is unquenchable. He never stops smiling no matter the situation. After losing his starting job to Murray, he stepped in when the youngster was injured, carried the Penguins through a difficult series against the Ottawa Senators, and left many fans worried when Murray was reinstalled in goal after recovering. In the Western Conference final, after losing Game 1 decisively to Winnipeg, then evening the series, Fleury delivered a wet willy to Blake Wheeler as the Jets forward tussled with Golden Knights’ defenders behind the goal after a whistle.

Despite posting a ridiculous .947 save percentage in these playoffs, Fleury will be overmatched in this series. As usual, he won’t care.

Brandon Holtby — At the other end, the Capitals’ goalie is the opposite kind of strange. His intensity is legendary. Teammates won’t go near him before a game. They’ll rarely talk to him during. Which is fine. Holtby talks, or chants, to himself. He stares vacantly out from his mask in a way that makes you wonder whether he might have been a serial killer if hockey hadn’t provided an outlet. Dexter and Jason Voorhies have nothing on him. The Capitals and NHL may be saving innocent lives by keeping him employed.

Add to that Holtby’s ridiculous talent. His reflexes are blindingly quick; his positioning perfect; his ability to move post-to-post unrivaled. Ask Steven Stamkos.

Holtby came into the playoffs riding the bench after a rough late-season patch. Phillip Grubauer struggled in the first round, and Holtby reclaimed his net. He was the difference in Game 7 against the Lightning, posting a shutout, making several defiant saves while counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy struggled 200 feet away. His .930 save percentage doesn’t match Fleury’s but he’s trending up.

If I were a betting man…

Despite all the talent on their roster, the Capitals struggled through a regular season they usually dominate. Vegas finished four points above them in the overall standings. But the regular season is not the playoffs and Washington is gathering momentum. The Golden Knights keep proving people wrong and maybe it’s my turn but, while I don’t think they’ll roll over, I can’t see them handling the Caps.

The series begins in Las Vegas but the Stanley Cup won’t stay there. Washington in six.

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Martin Palazzotto, former goaltender, is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

There are two kinds of people in the world: the results oriented and those who are all about the journey. The results-oriented crowd will tell you only the last minutes of a basketball game are worth watching. All that matters is who won. The backpackers will counter that landing a helicopter on a mountaintop doesn’t provide the same breathtaking view as when you climbed to the top through the wind and the cold under your own power. Then they’ll dare you to snatch a bottlecap from their hand and call you ‘Grasshopper’.

In Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference final between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, LeBron James kept both groups happy.

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The Vince Lombardi acolytes tuned in just in time to see LeBron set up on the left, then feint towards the hoop against Jayson Tatum before sidestepping and burying a long three with 2:22 on the clock.

Forty-two seconds later, the King provided his own instant replay. Tatum bit on the fake again. James stepped to his left and let fly before an enraged and embarrassed Tatum leapt at him. James slithered further to his left. Tatum stumbled past. The Quicken Loans Arena erupted when the ball went in. James, chest puffed out, did his best Kimbo Slice impersonation for the crowd, including an ‘accidental’ bump and a very intentional game-over stare for Tatum as he cavorted back on defense.

And that was that. Even though there was another minute-forty remaining, the score read 107-96 Cleveland. The results-oriented crowd’s viewing experience was complete. None of them felt any need to have their blood pressure checked.

On the other hand, those of us who watched the game in full did our part in helping to pay off a few med school loans.

Cleveland started out on the front foot, jumping out to an early first-quarter lead. Then James took over on the way to a 46-point night. Boston’s five-point lead after 12 minutes became an 11-point deficit at the half. When the Cavs opened the lead to 16 halfway through the third, that third group of people I forgot to mention assumed there was nothing more to see and moved along.

It was understandable. James couldn’t miss; Boston couldn’t hit. When the Celtics tried to sneak a fast break after one James layup, the King came storming back to swat away Terry Rozier’s response.

When Boston inbounded, Tristan Thompson blocked another. But the Celtics weren’t as done as they looked. A minute before the block, Tatum had made his first field goal of the game. JR Smith had shut him down for 2-plus quarters. Early in the third, he’d passed the ball to Cleveland’s George Hill, then was called for traveling. But, as is often the case when one basket finally goes in, more followed.

Tatum ended the quarter with nine points and an assist. At the other end, LeBron began to look human. He missed a shot and made a bad pass. JR Smith began pleading with referees as he was blown for two fouls. He was back to being the Cav’s drama queen. LeBron would later remind everyone it was the drama king who sat on the throne.

But to begin the fourth quarter, Cleveland continued to struggle and the Celtics began to carry the play. Smith drew another foul. Kyle Korver drew a couple. James continued to miss. It was obvious the Cavs were holding on in an elimination game. If you were rooting for them, a gnawing feeling grew in the pit of your stomach. If you were backing Boston, hope grew.

Especially when James tripped over a teammate three-and-a-half minutes into the final frame. He rocked on his back like an armadillo, clutching his right shin. The suspense in that moment–would he continue or, [OMG!] was Cleveland’s season over?–demanded full emotional commitment from everyone watching. Sorry, you last-two-minute guys, but you f***ed up. James pushed himself to his feet, hobbled gingerly for a possession, then attacked the basket. Another miss came, followed by a driving layup after letting the shot-clock drop to critical mass.

Larry Nance Jr had come on for Tristan Thompson with a minute to go in the third. He was the one who, off balance, had crashed into LeBron. The second-generation baller wasn’t about to be the guy who broke LeBron, however.  Whenever James drove the lane from that moment, Nance cleaned up so much garbage he could star in a Men at Work reboot. After Marcus Smart rejected no.23, Nance picked up an offensive rebound and put it back. He slammed the next one home.

Not one to be ungrateful, LeBron would set him up for another dunk with a little less than three minutes remaining.

Nance’s six points and two offensive boards kept the pushing the gap to nine rather than allowing it to drop below seven. Had Boston managed a three-point play to cut it to four at any time, you had the feeling Cleveland wouldn’t hang on. That was the knife’s edge on which we all balanced. James had the same feeling. The difference was he did something about it. With the pain subsiding, LeBron switched tactics. Following the pass to Nance, he set up against Tatum on the left and dropped the two bombs.

There is a Game 7 to come tomorrow night. In Boston. Neither team has won on the road in this series. Cleveland hasn’t even come close at the TD Garden. After watching LeBron James exert his will in Game 6, you get the feeling the script could undergo a last-minute rewrite. And it’s your choice. You can tune in around 10:45 or so to catch the last few minutes, and come away with mild satisfaction or disappointment. Or you can put your heart through a wringer for two-and-a-half hours so that your cardiologist can make his next BMW payment. I think you’ll find the latter was worth it.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.