Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Stanley Cup Finals Game 1: L.A. Kings Beat the NY Rangers with Experience

Dan Girardi NY Rangers Stanley Cup Finals Game 1 LA Kings
Dan Girardi made 2 costly errors, one in overtime that cost the Rangers game 1.
By The Greek: 

Shootout, did you say you wanted a shootout? We can do that! Or, sorry, we thought we could anyway. Strong goal tending from both sides of the ice kept the score low. Speed defined the first period, which was appropriately won by the Rangers. Physicality defined the second period, which was where the Kings evened the score. Experience determined the game, as a mistake in overtime was eaten up by the team that won the Cup just a couple years ago.

1st Period
The Kings came out shy and faced an onslaught of Rangers’ on the fly. Nerves seemed to grip the L.A. Kings early in the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals. But the New York Rangers showcased their speed and sent a slew of pucks at LA goaltender Jonathan Quick. The Kings survived the onslaught and finally started playing like themselves about six minutes into the first period. Jeff Carter had perhaps the first real chance at Henrik Lundqvist, when a rebound off the goalie set up right on his stick; but his shot had to find its way through a Ranger player and one of Carter’s own. The traffic was too much and you got the feeling at that point that the game might graduate into goalless doldrums.

And then at the 13:21 mark, the puck, still in the Ranger half slipped out toward Drew Doughty, who tried to get cute with it like a soccer player spinning upon receipt. I saw a Bosnian goal scorer apply the same move in a friendly just a night prior against Mexico. It worked in soccer, but in hockey, on ice, it was stolen away by Benoit Pouliot. He took it the length of the ice on the breakaway and set up right in front of Quick, beating him with a sharp wrister to the top corner.

With about five minutes left, the Kings got their first power play chance when Mats Zuccarello got two minutes for holding Tanner Pearson. Carl Hagelin got a short-handed goal when Brian Boyle sent a puck to the fast moving Hagelin who raced down the ice with Slava Voynov in pursuit. Hagelin took a lucky backhanded shot that bounced off Quick into Voynov’s skate and into his own goal. It was 2-0 Rangers at that point, in a shocking development reminiscent of the start of the Rangers’ every series this playoff run. It sure seems like the Rangers took game 1 in every series anyway.

With about 2:27 left on the clock, Jeff Carter turned on the heat and decided he wanted to win. He took the puck right into the goaltender, failed, but he kept fighting. He recovered the puck in the opposite corner and got it to fourth-liner Kyle Clifford, who put it right past Lundqvist on a sharp angle shot to cut the Rangers’ lead to 2-1.

2nd Period
The Rangers started the second period on fire again, rested now, literally zipping three shots back and forth at Quick from point blank range. But none made it past Quick somehow, by some Hollywood magic or something. It wasn’t the first time this night that Quick seemed to have some spiritual support in goal. Maybe all those mystics in the stands got to their voodoo or whatever.

But a little later on, Drew Doughty was redeemed as he snuck the puck through the offensive zone, keeping it inches from interception. He realigned himself as he slid past goal to shoot at Lundqvist. He forced it through, with the puck striking some unknown body (probably Lundqvist’s) and tied the game at 2-2.

Somewhere near the middle of the period, play slowed down and got seriously physical. Blood was flowing, literally, and more than a handful of players had to be checked out by trainers. Derick Brassard hit Dustin Brown from behind and left him sitting and crying on the ice, though drawing the penalty. The game was seriously physical, even dangerously so, with blood pouring down Matt Greene’s face at one point from a gash that ran from the corner of his eye before turning into a bruise across his cheek.

Not long after that Brown going down, Trevor Lewis shot out of a canon from center ice and rushed toward Lundqvist but ended up shooting from slightly behind him with hope of banking it off the goalie. Then Hagelin followed that run with a second run at goal of his own, but he had his legs taken out from under him by a diving King player, who took away the puck before tripping Hagelin. The Kings countered with a two man rush as Marian Gaborik got the puck passed forward ahead of him to catch up to. He chased it down but only had a chance at a weak backhand.

A high stick on Brassard by Mike Richards of the Kings caught him to the nose, drawing a penalty. Before that though, Drew Doughty caught the butt-end of a stick to the face. It was a cheap shot that you got the feeling some Ranger was going to pay for eventually. Doughty, normally a calm guy, was livid. It was interesting to see him interviewed after the game, though, because a reporter made him to believe it was accidental when it actually wasn’t. We’ll see what he thinks after he sees the tape.

3rd Period
The Rangers started the third period on the power player. The Kings didn’t just hold, they controlled the puck shorthanded and even got a dangerous shot off. It was now the Rangers, playing on the road, looking shy and timid. That’s basically how they ended up losing the game, because of lost confidence in the third.

Playoff points leader, Anze Kopitar, got a good opportunity shortly after the even play began, knocking a shot off Lundqvist and following his own rebound that was eaten up by the defenseman and goalie. Not long after that, the Rangers’ Dan Girardi (remember that accursed name) got lazy on a puck he had a good lead to, and Gaborik beat him to it. That forced the failed Girardi to hold him, and the Kings were back on the power play.

With about 6 minutes left in the third, Tyler Taffoli (that’s not a caramel treat) took the puck in with determination right up into Lundqvist, shot into him and then lost the handle just as he was shooting the rebound. It was 2-2 with five minutes left and Stanley Cup tension was building.

Rick Nash, who seems like he should be a country singer, led a charge in with 3 minutes remaining. It was a 3 on 2 but he stopped to shoot and had the puck stolen by the hard playing Gaborik. Play meandered to and fro, with each team seeking it (the win), but in a sneaky slow sort of way that led you to believe there wouldn’t be more than one goal.

It was the Rangers, though, who seemed to return to their earlier fervor toward the close of the game. Then Brian Boyle broke the stick of a King in half, drawing a penalty with a minute to go in the game. Boyle is a critical penalty killer, and he was sitting in the box for it now.

The final minute of play were the most exciting. Jeff Carter and Gaborik had two great chances on two separate occasions. Then Hagelin had another shorthanded break-away, tried to go top shelf and got it taken away by Quick. If you only watched that last minute, you were satisfied, trust me.

Dan Girardi fumbled a play earlier in the game, and did it again in overtime, costing the Rangers game 1 of the Stanley Cup. He had the puck as the rest of his teammates started moving forward. But as Girardi skated backwards, 2 Kings closed on him and he felt pressured lost the puck from his stick and then gave it away in an errand pass. It ended up in the clutches of Richards inside the blue line, who passed to Game 7 king, Justin Williams, who put a sharp wrist shot past Lundqvist to end it.

Final Comments
Has the magic ended for the fast and furious Rangers, who in the past had won Game 1? We won’t know until game two Saturday night. Justin Williams attributed his teammates’ resiliency for the team’s victorious ways, and humbly accepted praise in an after game interview. The Kings move on to game 2 with a lead and some leeway. So it will be interesting to see if they can pull off another victory or set this series loose to New York, where anything is possible when the New York faithful fill Madison Square Garden.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Eagles Destroy Bears on Sunday Night Football

Philadelphia Eagles versus Chicago Bears
By The Greek:

The Philadelphia Eagles’ razzle dazzle offense was on the mark Sunday night when the team faced the Chicago Bears at home. It was a meaningless game for the Birds, as far as their playoff hopes were concerned, but it still meant a lot to the team that had a disheartening loss the week before to the Minnesota Vikings. The Eagles now needed to renew momentum heading into an all or nothing final week matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. For Chicago, the NFC North Division title was on the line, yet they spent most of the game watching Philadelphia march up and down the field.

Philly’s fast paced organized chaos had the opposition dazed and confused. In fact, after two consecutive scores by the Eagles to start the game, the camera panned over to find Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler seemingly waking from a nap. Chicago didn’t manage to put its first three points on the board until the end of the second half, and only thanks to a poor spot by a referee on a third down play that allowed the Bears a free set of downs to spike the ball, stop the clock and kick the field goal.

Otherwise, it was all Philly, with Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Bryce Brown, Jason Avant and Chris Polk all getting into the action. Of course, McCoy was the main reason Philadelphia was able to move the ball at will, as he gives every play call to him at least two chances of succeeding. Having him on the team is effectively like having 12 players on the field, an advantage any offense would benefit from. Nick Foles, in a postgame interview, helped us see that the offensive line’s masterful performance was also a key force behind the Eagles success.

McCoy was unpredictable, incomprehensible, undeniable and most of all unstoppable all night long. He leads the league in rushing by a wide margin and is but 37 yards off breaking Wilbert Montgomery’s Eagles full-season rushing record of 1,513. On the night, McCoy ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns, with his longest run going for 19. LeSean added another 29 yards on 6 receptions. His 18 carries highlight the greatness of the performance, which measured at 7.4 yards per carry. The great rushing night was padded a bit by the weakness of the team the Birds matched against, as Chicago’s defense ranks last against the rush. It seems the Eagles were aware of that, as Bryce Brown added another 115 yards and a touchdown, while Chris Polk also scored on the run. Even Nick Foles had a couple nice runs on the night, and that’s saying something.

The Bears couldn’t get anything going except for one nice drive that concluded with a Brandon Marshall touchdown reception. They added a two-point conversion, making for their weird point total of 11 on the night. The Eagles scored 54, seemingly besides themselves while trying not to towards the end. Still, every time they handed the ball off, Chris Polk or Bryce Brown was scoring toward the close of the game. Nick Foles threw for 2 touchdowns on 230 yards. Celek and Cooper caught the TDs, with each of those two catching 50+ yards worth of real estate. DeSean Jackson caught 4 for 29 and added two runs for 12 yards, so it really was an all around team effort.

The Eagles defense really kept the Bears bottled up, with Cutler sacked five times, and Matt Forte, the league’s third best rusher, limited to just 29 yards rushing. The Bears only had 257 total yards, despite possessing it for about as long as the Eagles did after all was said and done. Rising star Brandon Boykin caught his team leading 5th interception on a great anticipation of a Cutler attempt into the flat. Trent Cole had a big night with three sacks and Mychal Kendricks added two. Bradley Fletcher had 9 tackles on the night, and Cedric Thornton had an impressive shoestring tackle for a safety. Even Alex Henery had a stellar evening, hitting a 49 yard field goal to go along with his seven extra points.

Still, this game will prove meaningless for both squads as they head into the final week of the NFL season. Each is now set to face division rivals in play-in matches for the playoffs. The Bears will wait at home for the Green Bay Packers, who may get their star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, back for the game. The result will probably depend on that. When the Bears played the Packers a few weeks back they only won by seven despite sidelining Rodgers with a broken collar bone. That feat almost ended the Packers’ season, so the star’s return for this game is fitting and makes for a storybook ending to the season. The Eagles match against a Cowboys team that manhandled them last time out, 17-3. Like the Bears vs. Packers match, this one will be full of revenge factor. The Cowboys literally knocked out Foles in that game, forcing the Eagles to turn to rookie Matt Barkley. The only spoiler for the Eagles is that they have to play in the Cowboy’s barn. If the Eagles win, though, it’ll mark the third straight season Dallas has been stopped from making the playoffs in the final week. As a result, it could also mark the end of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett’s career with Dallas.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Greece Advances to the World Cup in Brazil

Greece beat Romania Mitrouglou Goal
By The Greek:

Greece overcame Romania with a 1-1 tie in the second leg of its playoff series after winning the first match 3-1 in Athens

The game was like a novel with three chapters. The first chapter would have been entitled, “Hero Comes Home.” Romania returned to Bucharest to face a Greek team that it submitted to in Athens, losing that first leg of the traditional two-game playoff series 3 - 1. Romania started this second match out determined, and set a sharp pace to the game. The second chapter to the novel would have been entitled, “Greece Shows its Class”. That’s because after surviving that first thrust by Romania, Greece suddenly discovered skill akin to Spain, with sharp passes finding open players on creative runs. Suddenly a Greek team that had lost the time of possession game in Athens was controlling and containing the ball. The third chapter to the novel should have been entitled “War Breaks Out,” as the reality of the result bred desperate play and physical clash. It was man versus man, and it got personal toward the end, as the Romanians, who had advanced this far, did not want to see their dream end prematurely. The Greeks would not give way now though either. The play got physical as the fire-fashioned real men of these two angry nations franticly sought the ball. The fouls increased, though they were not called as quickly. The referees let the two teams fight it out.

Greece entered a hostile environment, though the jovial squad did not seem to notice. Laser beams flashed across the players’ faces as they stalled to take corner kicks, and a significant firework, I would say a quarter stick of dynamite even, landed but 10 feet from Greek goaltender Karnezis’ head. It was loud enough that it caused him to jump and to hold his head and ear. A defender fell to the ground, but that seemed like a manufactured attempt to draw a red card against the crowd, which obviously deserved one. We were quickly reminded of how hard things still are in Eastern Europe, where countries like Georgia (been there 3 times so I know) and Moldova are sometimes forced to play in empty stadiums or at third party locations due to hooligan interference. This was a Romanian squad with some players who had little else than this, and so they played desperately at times and excessively physical, cheap even. Dorin Goian, for instance, is just a thug with a jersey, and thank God for that, because it sure seems like another life path for him would have been painful for his fellow countrymen, aka victims. He is the kind of player you hate when he’s on the other team, though rally behind when he’s on yours. It is possible that it is his strength and fire that ignites Romania so fiercely.

I issue kudos to the Greeks, though, for mostly keeping their cool through the hellfire. In decades past, Greece would have welcomed a full on brawl. This more civilized and better classed squad, however, found every opportunity to draw fouls and keep from making them. Except for one very human reaction by Holebas when assaulted by some Romanian squirt, the Greek team kept its poise. I’m Greek, as you may have noticed by now, and I’ve played high level soccer, and I can say that if I were out there, bodies would have bounced off broken. But this wise Greek squad was more disciplined than that. They were not about to draw a red card and go short-handed in the second half, which would have given Romania a chance in hell, or Bucharest.

There was some class on the Romanian squad, both talent wise and as far as civility goes. While the only goal scored against Greece was an own goal, there easily might have been another if not for a heroic save by Karnezis late in the second half. He had to stretch out fully to reach a solid shot just a foot off the ground with a straight trajectory. And he had to make solid contact with the ball, or it would have trickled through on its velocity.

The best player of the game on the Greek squad is hard to isolate, but Karnezis certainly deserves mention. He was flawless. Samaras also seemed to discover old form later in the second half, after playing a less than his level first game and first half of this game. I feel he may have felt slighted in losing his central role to Mitroglou, who is on fire right now in the Greek league and in international play. Mitroglou scored two goals in the first leg of this matchup and added Greece’s only goal in the second leg. Though, other than the goal, his presence was not intimidating, in my opinion. Samaras draws the respect of international rivals because of his serious ball skills and will to win. Mitroglou just gets the job done, and to be honest, that’s been the missing link for this squad known for its rock solid defense. It’s clear, though, that Mitroglou also has a sneaky wisdom that allows him to find open space where his teammates find him with the ball.

I had one quarrel with Coach Fernando Santos. I would have pulled Mitroglou in the second half because of his one yellow card and the risk of having to go short-handed to a desperate Romania if he drew a second. Theofanis Gekas is more than capable of substituting for Mitroglou; he’s a Greek superstar who just has not shown brightly beyond qualifying rounds - yet. He scored a goal in the first match against Romania while playing just five minutes or so, if not for an offside call. Also, why risk losing Mitroglou to an injury that might put out his fire before Greece even gets to Brazil?

Holebas played very well also, showing his ability to score when he took a strong ground hugging shot that just deflected off Romanian goaltender Tatarusanu to pass outside the post. The Romanian goalie was strong throughout the match, stopping a sharp header from Samaras and several other Greek threats. Romanians Tanase, Marica and Stancu earned their keep and certainly deserve some international attention along with the thug. Torje is strong as well, but he was pulled for some reason during the game. The Romanian Coach, Victor Piturca, wanted the game more than any of his players, and he had at it with a player or two after the game. They’re a good squad with the right fight, but there were just too many teams a little better in the way.

Greece was definitely among that group, though the Netherlands took the group stage top spot from Romania, and it’s hard to compare Greece to Holland. However, Greece is quickly rising, and I suspect it will catch some teams by surprise in Brazil. This team is better than any Greek team that has ever taken the field, even the one that won the European Championship roughly ten years ago. No longer is Greece relegated to defense, luck and fire. There’s a new tool on their belt, class.

It is not an exaggeration to say Greece is rising to the challenge put forth by Spain over the last decade. Like Italy, Greece is not sticking to its tried and true defensive style, but looking to learn from the Spaniards high skill and emulate it. They are not there yet; of course not, but at times they seem to be. No longer can rivals look only to Samaras as a threat on his own, along with the flashes of Salpingidis, Gekas and Karagounis. Now, there’s a true goal scorer in Mitroglou, and talent across the field. Old players are playing better and new players are already there. There was a moment during this last game when I could not believe I was watching Greece, and I liked that very much. Usually, even after victories, I am frustrated with Greek play. Today, I was not only proud of the result, but also of the class of play.

In Brazil, if Greece is to be successful, it’s going to need to add a little bit of what Romania displayed today, hunger. Greece has been cursed with true hunger over the past few years, thanks to the financial crisis and the austerity that came after. In Brazil, many of Greece’s opponents will desperately want victory against them. When that time comes, for Greece to do well, we will need to see Mitroglou make a run for a ball he’s not sure he can get to, rather than pulling up and saving energy. We will need to see Samaras’ fire flame higher and his love of team to run deeper than his pride.

I saw a renewed spark in Samaras start there in Romania. This man who should be captain, and I’m sure someday will be a coach, is directing his teammates; and he is not only frustrated when they revert to old ways, but also impressed by their new play. I noted he fought for a ball at the feet of an opponent after a teammate had sacrificed for it, and I noted he ran full speed for another deep downfield that he should not have been able to close on, but did. I also noticed Holebas getting hungry for goal, and for ball control. I noticed Greece’s defenders rising to the challenge posed by the physical Romanians, and showing their superior strength.

Yes, Greece has a chance to make a serious run at the World Cup in 2014. In the past, that would have been an ignorant statement, or more recently a hopeful one. Today, it is a realistic one. Watch out for Greece in Brazil, because they are good enough and are actually this time deserving of their high FIFA ranking. Equipped with this new tool, which is class , if the Greek Nationals can find that heroic fire they had when they won the European Championship, there may be impossible challenges from the likes of Germany, Spain and Brazil, but there could also be awesome and tremendous victory for Greece.