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Points for Pelicans center Anthony Davis on Sunday, setting All-Star Game record

Eric Fisher’s weekly column on a variety of topics, but this week Eric sticks to the NFL Draft, serving up opinions on the Eagles’ draft philosophy, Michael Sam getting selected and that annoying “I’m the Man” song.

The Greek god of wrestling offers a complete preview of Hell in a Cell. Achilles Heel also you how and why Tommy Dreamer’s Philly show got even better, when Royal Rumble seats go on sale and why Impact Wrestling looked particularly dark this past week.

The Kings and Spurs won championships after almost being eliminated in the first round. Eric Fisher also uses other examples to demonstrate the slim margin between success and disappointment.

Archive for the ‘From where I sit’ Category

From where I sit

Posted by Ron Opher On February - 23 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

I am a hockey fan.

I am an American.

I was expecting better.

The last 48 hours saw the US women and then the US men go down to defeat 3 straight times.

There was great disappointment, along with a measure of embarrassment for the men – in the bronze medal game.

*****

The US women had beaten the Canadian women 4 straight times in exhibition play and also won four of the last 5 IIHF World Championships. But the Canadians owned the last 3 gold medals, while the US was settling for 2 silvers and a bronze – after a shocking loss to Sweden in 2006. The Canadians also edged the US in pool play, 3-2.

The US team played a formidable game with the gold medal on the line, and held a 2-0 lead early in the third period. Even though the Canadians have substantial firepower, the US was blunting the attack of their northern neighbors, keeping pucks deep in the Canadian zone and covering tightly.

With about 7 minutes left, Canada started mounting a more consistent attack, and the US seemed content to stay back and defend. With 3:26 left, Canada scored what some might say was a fluky goal, bouncing in off the shoulder of defender Kacey Bellamy, who was standing to goalie Jessie Vetter’s left.

But was it entirely a fluke? Vetter made no move to her left as the shot came. Yes, it may have seemed like the shot was going wide – but Vetter still would have eventually needed to track the puck toward the left defensive boards. Had she done so in a more timely and aggressive fashion, she would have been in position to at least have a chance to stop the slow deflection from going in.

It’s fair to question whether Vetter and her teammates were thinking about the magnitude of what they were on the verge of achieving – and were at least slightly distracted from the task at hand.

After failing to capitalize on a lucky tangle between an official and a Canadian defender at the blue line – a 120-foot attempt on an empty net by Kelli Stack hit the post – the stage was set for an even more critical lapse by the US women, which cost them dearly.

First, Vetter, in a play she must have taken care of properly 1000 times in practice and against lesser competition, instead of smothering or sending a centering pass from her left right back where it came, hesitated just long enough to deflect the pass straight in front of her into the slot, and right onto the stick of Marie-Philip Poulin, who deposited the puck into the net for the tying goal with only 54.6 seconds left.

Is Vetter the only one to blame? Hardly. It may not be easy to defend a 6 skaters on 5 situation, but the key to defending it is when choosing whom to leave open, structure your team defense to let it be the furthest person from the puck (and hopefully the goal as well) at the moment. Instead, the US left the best women’s player in the world wide open right in front of their net, about 20 feet from the puck carrier.

In overtime, after storming the net early but failing to score, the US found themselves mostly on their heels. A chance materialized with a US power play 6:09 into overtime, but Jocelyne Lamoreux took a slashing penalty on a frozen puck that seemed to smack of an even-’em-up call.

In the eighth minute of overtime, with the teams skating 3-on-3, Hillary Knight’s pass to Lee Stecklein at the point was hopelessly off target and Knight – who many regard as the best player on the US team – was desperately trying to catch Hayley Wickenheiser to defend the breakaway that her turnover created. Poulin scored on the ensuing 4-on-3 power play to steal the gold.

To her credit, US captain Meghan Duggan, while admitting disappointment, spoke about how it was an honor to be part of such an intense and memorable game. Kelli Stack philosophized that after hitting the post on an empty net, it just wasn’t meant to be.

But the raw, emotional truth came from Nicole Bozek, who said “we train our whole lives to win a gold medal here. It’s the world stage…we’ve been put in situations, not the Olympics like this, [but] the past four years, this is what we trained for. We didn’t train for a silver. We trained for a gold medal.”

*****

The US men had a chance to avenge the women’s loss and put themselves in the gold medal game for the second consecutive Olympics. The US men had not won gold since 1980′s Miracle on Ice, 18 years before the NHL took over the Olympic rosters.

Their opponent: Canada. Just as in the 2010 final.

Things looked good for the US – they were the top scoring team in the tournament thus far, while Canada struggled with chemistry issues, needing a late power play goal to escape with a 2-1 win over Latvia (Latvia?!?) in the quarterfinal.

But the Canadians stuck to their defense-first formula. Never before did a 1-0 lead seem so insurmountable, as the US forwards were barely able to get a sniff of a scoring chance after storming Carey Price early in the game and coming up empty. Even more disappointing, US captain Zach Parise – who scored the tying goal which sent the 2010 gold medal game into overtime – had two great chances and didn’t finish them. One was a deflection on which announcers correctly pointed out that Parise didn’t angle his stick properly for an upward trajectory, instead smothering the shot’s momentum. The other was a point-blank opportunity that Parise must have heard footsteps on, and instead of picking a corner, he panicked and hit Price right in the Maple Leaf on the goalie’s chest.

The one coverage mistake by winger David Backes – who left Jay Bouwmeester open at the point for an opportunity to set up Jamie Benn for the game’s lone goal – also loomed large.

Disappointing, to be sure.

But the scene shifted – as Parise would admit on camera as he stepped off the ice at the end of the bronze medal game – from disappointment to embarrassment, as the US mailed it in during a 5-0 loss to Finland, apparently choosing to brood over what might have been instead of showing the fortitude to want to come home with a meaningful souvenir of their time in Sochi.

As a result, they relegated T.J. Oshie’s shootout heroics against Russia to a 4th and 26-like footnote.

*****

The Finns are happy to walk away with bronze. They’ve done it 4 times since 1994, and 3 times since NHL players began playing.

Is it coincidence? I think not.

The Finns could have been brooding over having to deal with losing goalie Tuukka Rask hours before their 2-1 loss to Sweden in their semifinal – a game in which replacement Kari Lehtonen was barely adequate and in which the Finns squandered a 1-0 lead. They also were without Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu, each of whom suffered an ankle injury just before the Olympics.

Instead, the Leijonat (Lions) of Suomi demonstrated “sisu” – translated as a certain kind of grit and perseverance in the face of adversity.

It’s food for thought when Americans might think it understandable for their emissaries on ice to lack motivation to win bronze after losing out on gold.

Young people may not believe this, but I’m old enough to remember the “consolation game” played for third place he NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Penn Quakers lost to future Celtic Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell’s UNC-Charlotte team in the 1979 game (while everyone else awaited the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson showdown that very well may have resuscitated both NCAA and NBA basketball).

There were also – amazingly – similar games in the NFL playoffs before the AFL merger.

It’s unthinkable now that we should have asked the 49ers and Patriots to square off in the less-than-super Bowl in the off week leading to the game everyone cared about.

In our culture, if you can’t win it all, why keep playing?

It’s a fair question – but the bigger question might be why recruit players who won’t go all out even in a bronze medal game?

For crying out loud, the captain of the Stanley Cup champions from 2 seasons ago gave up on a play and coasted instead of backchecking on the Finns’ second goal, which came 11 seconds after their first and was clearly a backbreaker.

Head coach Dan Bylsma nailed Dustin Brown’s rear end to the bench the rest of the game. It gave the team a momentary lift, but after Patrick Kane missed the second of two penalty shots he took – this time hitting the post after shooting wide on the first one – the team sagged even further.

By the time it turned 3-0, the rest of the game became a frustration-induced penalty-fest. There was no refuge on the bench, none on the ice – so why not get some peace and quiet in the penalty box?

In the end, the US men went from being the top scoring team in the Olympics to one that was shut out for 120 straight minutes when it counted most.

I could analyze it as them having less time and space to operate and being broken down by superior competition to expose their flaws.

Or I could muse as to whether NHL players should play in the Olympics – especially in-season. Watching the Islanders’ John Taveras get knocked out for the rest of the season and watching his GM Garth Snow go on a tirade about lost ticket sales, no shot at the playoffs (and failing to state the obvious – that after making a disastrous trade for Thomas Vanek, the first round pick Buffalo acquired will likely be in the top 5 with Taveras now out), it gives one pause. Even more so when watching the US defense pound on Sidney Crosby – everyone except for his Penguins teammate Brooks Orpik, who noticeably pulled up. This could very well be the NHL’s swan song at the Olympics.

Either way, I’m left wondering…where can I order up some sisu?

From where I sit

Posted by Ron Opher On August - 22 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Something is not right with this picture.

Players universally loved playing for Charlie Manuel. Even players who are no longer with the Phillies, like Jayson Werth, said that Manuel deserved better than an in-season firing as a thank you for being the all-time winningest manager in Phillies history, and one of only two to deliver a World Series championship. Werth spent 15 minutes talking to the media about Manuel and the impact he had on Werth’s career.

Despite the outpouring of affection from  all corners of the baseball world, many of the same players who love Manuel let him down.

They simply weren’t good enough in 2012 and 2013. Not nearly close to what they were from 2007-2011 when they were winning 5 straight NL East crowns.

So let the posturing begin.

*****

Ryne Sandberg, Manuel’s replacement for the foreseeable future, wants to put his imprimatur on things – and started by calling out Jimmy Rollins. More about his approach at the plate than anything else.

But Roy Halladay piled on even more. In comments that some took as being critical of Manuel, those who know how to read between the lines know that Halladay was firing a salvo at Rollins, talking about how Sandberg stresses the importance of “guys being at places on time, being on the field on time, taking ground balls, taking extra BP, all those things that nobody thinks makes a difference.”

The irony is that Manuel was Rollins’ biggest protector – and that Rollins let him down by his declining play, which has reached new lows in 2013. Rollins didn’t help matters – as I recently pointed out on our Sunday BlogTalkRadio show – by belligerently waving his desire to get to the top of many Phillies all-time individual statistical categories in all of our faces when he was asked about the possibility of waiving his no-trade rights.

Even Chase Utley, who earned himself the opportunity to finish his career as a Phillie, and who generally is lauded as a leader and among the smartest ballplayers of his era – basically took two straight off-seasons off and didn’t take care of his knees (one knee per season), costing the team half a season of his services in two consecutive years. Is it merely a coincidence that this season – a contract year – Utley finally showed up healthy and ready to play in the spring? He has been among the most productive Phillies in 2013 – but it really is too little, too late.

*****

Here’s Manuel’s own spin – that he “had the best seat in the house” during the Phillies’ run. It may seem humble of him to dismiss his impact on the wins, but it also was his own way of distancing himself from the losing as well.

When asked if he thought his team had the pieces in place to be able to win the last two years, Manuel shot from the hip and quickly said “The last two years, no…I can straight-face tell you that.”

And that’s a fair point.

The team rose and is now falling based on a core that is aging, and with the exception of this season’s breakout by Domonic Brown, has been woefully short of impact players coming up from the farm system to make up for the veterans’ decline – especially in the bullpen, which is chock full of young arms who throw in the mid-90′s with poor command. Patching the situation up with free agents (Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Delmon Young) hasn’t worked, nor have the trades for lower-cost options (Hunter Pence, Michael Young). The acquisition of Ben Revere may turn out well, but the Phillies are suffering from the bad luck of Revere’s broken ankle – which when combined with Ryan Howard‘s knee surgery – started the Phils on their post all-star break free fall that led to Manuel’s dismissal.

That puts the onus squarely on Ruben Amaro, Jr. – along with those in charge of scouting, drafting American and Canadian players, signing international players and developing them. These folks reaped what was sown for them ten years prior, and in an effort to keep the good times rolling, drove the tractor into a ditch.

*****

I’m not buying WIP host Angelo Cataldi’s opinion that Phillies fans were “snookered by [Manuel's] bumbling charm.” Phillies fans were quick to notice that Manuel was a poor in-game manager early on, but improved somewhat with time. The more important thing is that the team performed well over time. Their even-keeled demeanor – a reflection of Manuel – helped them overcome slow starts and finish strongly. Arguably that approach, more than anything else, was responsible for the hot streak that culminated in a World Series championship in 2008.

Cataldi blames Manuel for 2009, claiming that the Yankees were inferior. I seem to recall Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels being inferior – compared to the Lidge and Hamels of 2008.

Cataldi says Manuel blew the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals. I seem to recall Cliff Lee blowing a 4-0 lead in Game 2, squandering what would have been a 2-0 series lead in a 5-game series and turning a laugher into a tense battle. I also recall Manuel using his bench effectively, getting a game-winning pinch home run from Ben Francisco in Game 3. I also recall the Phillies’ bats failing to bail out Lee in Game 2, getting stymied by a parade of relievers who are currently in the minors, and in Game 5, when they couldn’t figure out Chris Carpenter after chasing him early in Game 2.

*****

The simplest answer for the picture of Charlie Manuel’s tenure being askew is this: Human nature. It’s human nature to rest on one’s laurels. To get comfortable with success. To expect it without necessarily putting forth the same effort that one put forth before they tasted success.

Manuel clearly was loyal to his players and they were loyal to him. He established roles for them, and when the team was winning, he was an ideal manager. But when individual players increasingly failed in their roles – either for complacency or lack of talent – Manuel was very slow to react and make a change.

It’s easy to say that his style encourages complacency.

He might tell you that he didn’t have a deep enough roster where he could effectively use competition for playing time as a motivator.

Others would say that Manuel was loathe to dig new wells when the current well was obviously dry.

It really comes down to whether you think the manager has more to do with a team’s success than the players (preposterous) or the general manager (less so in today’s game than when the reserve rule was in effect and player movement was practically nonexistent).

Maybe Charlie was along for the ride…but it was a great ride.

We’ll look back on it fondly.

And now it’s over.


 

Classic George Steele (RIP) match, interview