Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Cultural Ignorance

Mad Men ended on Sunday. It was about 18 months after Breaking Bad ended. I watched Breaking Bad, every single minute, clinging to my seat as my body filled with tension. I watched Breaking Bad once again just to remember how amazing that ride was. For many people, Mad Men was that show that Breaking Bad was to me, and seeing it end on Sunday Night was that culmination of years of effort watching, thinking and dreaming about that show.

I've never seen Mad Men. Well, that isn't exactly true. I once saw the first 3-4 episodes. I didn't like it. Found it slow, plodding and a little too airy for my taste. Now, this was before I ever watched The Wire (and right after I started watching Breaking Bad), and there is a chance having watched and loved a show that could also accurately be described as slow and plodding, I may enjoy Mad Men before. It was not an enticing experience watching Mad Men. The only reason I thought about continuing because everyone praised that show beyond all others. I still resisted.

I continued to resist as my sister, someone who is generally against those types of shows, watched it and loved it. I continued to resist until today and will continue to do so. It isn't really because I didn't like it the first time: show's shouldn't be defined by their first 3-4 episodes. Now it is because I am quite pleased to be so blisfully unaware of a cultural landmark. There is a certain serene joy in being ignorant about this piece of work that is so omnipresent.

This isn't the first time I've blazed a trail of unawaredness. I have historically been known among my friends as someone who has never watched any of the three Lord of the Rings movies. I've read the Hobbit and not hated it. I have nothing against that genre of movies (or literature), and I readily admit that they are likely very good and likely deserving of the praise heaped upon them. Still, I've never watched them, and I have no intention to watch.

With those movies, it is even more ludicrous given I only have to give three hours of my life three times to finish them - unlike Mad Men, which requires ~50 hours. But that is a miscalculation. It isn't just the time spent watching the movies, it is the time spend debating them, arguing about them, thinking about them. The time I would have to spend reading about them and the characters on Wikipedia to make sure I know what I saw. The time I'll have to invest in watching other things that are by the actors of the movies. Three blocks of three hours can quickly spiral into an unhealthy obsession, one I want to no part of.

To relate this back to sports, I like sports in a very unhealthy way. To better state it, I consume sports in an unhealthy way. It isn't the time spent watching the games, as I usually now have the double screen going and can do other things while watching. It is the time spent reading up on the games, studying the games, listening to podcasts about the games, thinking about last weeks games and next weeks games. The larger problem for me is it is all sports. Football the most, but during the basketball playoffs I'll spend way too much time thinking about NBA, which is generally my 4th sport. This is a problem, and I don't want it extending to other parts of entertainment any more than it needs to.

I know if I watch Mad Men today and I like it, there goes 50 hours in simply watching it (chances are it is NOT the type of show where I can double screen and get anything done), but also hours reading recaps of old episodes, maybe listening to a podcast or 10 about it, and it becomes everything The Wire became to me. This may be the sign of an addictive personality, and it is somewhat, but the first step to overcoming addiction is to admit and accept it. I'll do that and curtail its reach.

Of course there are more whimsical reasons not to engage in this. I do, to some degree, envy people who are oblivious to the NFL, who can live their life not thinking about #DeflateGate, or if Peyton Manning is better than Tom Brady. Those people have what I don't, their sports innocence. I have that with Lord of the Rings, I have that with Mad Men, with The Sopranos, or with Jersey Shore back in the day (that was a big one). I feel the need to hold on to these areas of pop culture where I can revel in the fact that I don't have to spend any time thinking about them.

There are other cases of this cultural blindness to the next big thing, but likely none will be as big as missing out on The Lord of the Rings or Mad Men. Those are two insitutions of 2000s culture and literature in America, and I can walk away knowing that they might as well not have existed to me. It is a heartening brazeness which I approach my ignorance in this matter. It may be driven out of fear of these things consuming my life, but it is a nice fall-back explanation to say that there is joy to be found in not having to care, or not wasting whatever little area of brain is left, to this integral piece of culture.

Friday, May 15, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Finals: Conference Finals Picks

Eastern Conference

(A2) Tampa Bay Lightning  vs  (M1) New York Rangers

State of the Teams: The Lightning are making it this far for the first time in 4 years. That may seem recent, and in a way it is, but it is also an eon ago for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are still there... and that is it. Literally. Two guys remain from a team, a successful team, from four years ago. The Lightning rebuilt their team really quickly, and despite having a slightly worse year this year than last, with a healthy Ben Bishop in the playoffs, they have been able to achieve their destiny. The Lightning are also the highest-scoring team in the NHL. That usually spells doom in the playoffs (the last team to make the Finals with the most goals in the '11 Canucks, before that the '01 Devils), but their offense has played quite well. For the Rangers, they are the first President's Trophy winner to make it this far in a non-lockout season since those '11 Canucks. It took a 2nd straight year overcoming a 1-3 series deficit in the 2nd round to make it. They sleep-walked through the 1st round, but showed amazing fortitude coming back against Washington. The Rangers are on a historic run of playing 14-straight one-goal playoff games, which shows both their strength and also their inability to ever put teams away. They scored goals all season, but for the second straight year their offense has really slowed in the playoffs. Good thing they have the king.

The Matchup: Speed. Both teams have it. Both teams are playing a team that can match that aspect of their game. The Lightning played speedy teams already, but for the Rangers this is a massive step up in terms of the speed they'll face. The Lightning turn their speed into one of the most effective wave attacks I've seen in years, while the Rangers use it to be deadly in the neutral and defensive zone. The Lightning are defnitely playing like the better team, or at least the deeper team. Their top-2 lines have been great, and if Ryan Callahan comes back, that puts Valteri Filpulla on the 3rd line, an amazing sign of center depth. The Rangers have the edge on the blue-line, and probably in goal, though Ben Bishop, for all his shakiness at times, has really good numbers. One edge for the Lightning is they completely outplatyed the Rangers in their 3 regular season meetings, but that doesn't always translate. The Lightning are deeper, younger and healthier, but are they more capable of playing against a team that thrives on winning close games?

The Pick: I'm liking the Lightning, mainly because they have that forward depth that the Rangers haven't really faced. The Lightning also have the speed the Rangers haven't faced. Team speed is the Rangers best strength, aside from Lundqvist, and they might be the slower team top-to-bottom in this series. I don't think it is as simple as that, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a bitch to project anyway.

Lightning in 6

Western Conference Finals

(C3) Chicago Blackhawks  vs  (P1) Anaheim Ducks

The State of the Teams: Just like last year, we have the two true best teams in teh West matched up against each other. Unlike last year, both these two have been dominant in the playoffs so far. The Blackhawks were a trendy pick to be upset by Minnesota, and flew right by them with relative ease. Unlike in the 1st round, where the Hawks seemed a little off when playing on the road, here the Blackhawks somehow played better in Minnesota. For the Ducks, people can criticize the fact that they've played the easiest set of teams, but let's remember they were a really trendy pick to get upset in the 1st round. Let's also remember that while they made history by coming back in the 3rd period three times in the 1st round, they also, against Calgary, won three games by multiple goals, and the one game they lost was when they gave up a late goal to send it into OT. The Ducks brought in Ryan Kesler to let them match up center depth, but the real key for them has been the depth of their blue-line, a flat group of 6 guys that can all play complementary hockey. The Ducks are actually the team with the more stable goalie, though Corey Crawford definitely seems to have put his major issues that surfaced against Nashville behind him. Both teams are very good, and both teams are set up nicely headed into this matchup.

The Matchup: There's no 'speed' key element here. To me, the real key is who wins the battle of 2nd lines. The Ducks have the best pure line in hockey, with Getzlaf and Perry playing at just ridiculous levels, but the Hawks top line has the defensive ability to neutralize them, as Toews and Hossa are to defensive forwards with the Ducks duo is to offense. The 3rd lines are pretty even. The Blackhawks can throw Patrick Sharp out there, but the Cogliano-Palmieir-Thompson line is playing really well and is far faster than a normal 3rd line. The key to me is who wins that 2nd line matchup. The Hawks have more talent there - hello Patrick Kane! - but Brad Richards and Brian Bickell have been really quiet so far. Belesky/Silvferberg/Kesler have not been quiet, not at all. Kesler has been great in the palyoffs, and Belesky woke up against Calgary. That line has the potential to dominate shifts as a group in a way Chicago's doesn't. The Blackhawks have four great defenseman, but losing Michael Roszival hurts as it forces Kimo Timmonen to play far too many minutes for a 40-year old. That could also shift this ever so slightly in the Ducks favor.

The Pick: Last year we saw a truly great Western Conference Final, with the Kings outlasting the Hawks in 7 games. This year could match it, and I think it does. The amount of talent in this series is ridiuclous. The amount of depth is ridiculous. Fredrik Andersen and Corey Crawford are equally good or equally shaky, depending on how you look at it. Both teams have special teams that cancel each other's out (Ducks better PP, Hawks better PK), so I think it really comes down to two small areas the Ducks are better: 2nd line, and defensive depth, and that depth becomes bigger the longer the series goes, and I think it goes a long time.

Ducks in 7

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Suppressing the Urge to Get Excited

The Astros are 20-12. That's on pace for a 101-61 season. (Math!). That would almost assuredly win them the AL West, and send the Astros to the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons. That record isn't built on a fluke. They've scored 140 runs and allowed 120. They have a high FB% and HR%, but their BABIP is extremely low. You can say that guys like Marisnick and Rasmus are due to drop off, but Chris Carter won't hit .150 all year, and George Springer likewise will end up above .200. Dallas Kuechel won't have an ERA of 1.39, but he'll likely be in the 2.00s. Their pythag record is 18-14, so two games better isn't a sign of a fluke. So, am I happy? Sure. Do I think they'll actually make the playoffs? No. Do I care about that? Not at all. Relevance is exciting for an Astros fan, but more than that is the relevance coupled with the fact that even better days are ahead.

I avoided writing about them in their 10-game win streak that took them from 8-7 to 18-7, and then avoided feeling bad about that when they promptly were swept at home by Texas, but following that they split a four-game set with the Angels, and have finished a full fifth of the season. This team is changing my expectations, but I would still be shocked if they end up with more than 85 wins. But more than anything, what I want the Astros to do is realize that they'll end up with 85 wins, and not do anything rash to get that to 90.

My dream season would be to see Springer improve as a 22-year old should, to see Marisnick continue to develop, to see Altuve continue to hit .330+, and to see this team just relatively play well. The 2011-2013 Astros were an embarrassment. True, that was partially by design, but even Jeff Luhnow has gone on record saying he didn't expect them to be that bad. But it is hard to say anything other than Luhnow's plan not working. It did, they are set well right now to be competitive and set even better for the future. It is just making sure they know the difference between now and the future, and now the right time to blend those two.

In the 2012 drat, the Astros took Carlos Correa with the first pick. At the time he was 17. He's still just 20. It was seen as the Astros passing on the consensus best player for a guy that had a top-5 grade, but could be paid less than the top guy on the board, Byron Buxton. This was not a sign of cheapness, but a calculated way for the Astros to then pay someone at the end of the 1st round more than his slot and get a better play. Weird thing, though, it turns out Carlos Correa is awesome.

As an 18 year old in Single A he hit .320, showed good patience (OBP over .400), and great fielding. Last year, as a 19-year old, in high-A, he hit .325, still showing good patience, and was on his way to an unbelievable year before breaking his leg on a slide. Now this year, as a 20-year old in Double A, he's batting .385, with an OPS of 1.185. These are not human numbers. He was promoted to AAA today, and there is a chance he's in the major's this year. That's faster than anticipated, but if it does happen, I don't want it to be because the team wants to squeeze out a few games.

The Astros achieved their goal of being relevant in 2015. They are not a laughingstock, they are a real team that should end up somewhere around .500. That is a huge step up and shows they are right on track. They still have the trump card of Correa, and a few other good cards in Top-100 prospects Mark Appel, Lance McCullers Jr., Vincent Velasquez, and Colin Moran, all in Double A. The Astros are loaded, they have the money that will come by playing in the #4 media market to eventually pay the good guys. Things are headed in the right direction, what they can't do now is make that panic trade, or more accurately make that greedy trade to try to steal a playoff spot this year. One playoff game that will surely end in a loss is not worth giving up any one of those guys. Getting to 88 games is really no better than 84. Jeff Luhnow preached the long game, that this was a long process. Sports Illustrated called them the 2017 World Series Champs. Just because 2015 is going better than expected does not mean they should change it up now. That time will come, for now it really is enjoying being relevant, with the knowledge that soon we won't have to worry about that for a long, long time. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Acceptable Loss 2.0

I wrote two years ago that the Spurs loss in the 2013Finals, and in reality it was a choke in Game 6, was a rare ‘criticallyacclaimed’ loss, one that would actually bump up the legacies of the loser. These are quite rare – I believe my own Devils had this type of loss in their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, a last hurrah for the great Marty Brodeur. The Spurs loss was the same, coming years after their last trip to the Finals, playing the best of the four Heat teams (by regular season calculations), and playing them so well, including blowout wins in Game 3 and Game 5, only to lose because superior talent won out. Somehow, someway, despite winning the title the next year, entering the playoffs as a favorite in their 1st round matchup, and losing in the 1st round as a defending Champion, the Spurs might have had that type of loss again.

In reality, everyone knew coming in this was a Conference-Finals worthy series in the 1st round. The Spurs and Clippers had the 3rd and 2nd best point differentials in the NBA. They should not have met in the 1st round, something the Spurs could have avoided by beating the Pelicans in Game 82. Yet it happened, and we all were given the classic series we deserved. Outside of a Game 1 semi-blowout and a Game 3 real-blowout, we were given one good game (Game 4), one great game (Game 6), and three incredible games (Game 2, Game 5 and Game 7). All of the last three games played in Los Angeles were perfect examples of how great basketball can be. There was strategy, there was coaching genius and coaching blunder, there was clutch shot after clutch shot, and a little bit of controversy (Jordan’s in-the-cylinder tip ruining Game 5 for the Clippers, and the weird buzzer going off ruining Game 7 for the Spurs). In the end, given the Spurs injuries to Parker/Splitter, the better team likely won – but like the Heat in 2013, or the Thunder in 2012, it took a talented team playing at their very, very best to beat the Spurs – in Year 18 of the Duncan-Popovich relationship.

I really hope Popivich and Duncan do not retire. I am pretty sure Pop is coming back for another year – coaches don’t really have an expiration date, especially in basketball where staffs are as large as in the NFL, but not as pressurized. For Duncan, I don’t know. He’s still playing well, about as well as he was in 2010. He’s actually been healthier the last three seasons than the three before it. He just finished a series where he had games of 28-11, 22-14, 21-11, and 27-11. This is a guy who turned 39 in the series, and not only played more minutes than normal, but held value across those minutes. Tim Duncan can’t retire, he just can’t when he’s playing this good, evidently still loving basketball, and still has that #6 in his head.

The Spurs have been doing this so long that they’ve actually truthfully entered a Patriots/Barcelona/Yankees like status where despite their amazing success and number of titles and playoff consistency, they’ve racked up a bunch of heartbreaking moments. For the Pats, it is things like losing two close Super Bowls, or blowing three home playoff games in 4 years. For the Yankees, it is blowing the ’01 World Series, or losing up 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS, or the embarrassing playoff losses to Florida (’03) and Detroit (’12). For Barcelona, sure they’ve won La Liga eleventy-times, and won two Champions Leagues, but they’ve also blown Champions League’s ties to Chelsea in 2012, or been embarrassed by Bayern in 2013 (losing 7-0 on aggregate). It’s really that if you get to the show enough times, you will eventually have stage-fright and lose yourself.

For the Spurs, this loss goes right up there with losing the 0.4 second game in 2004, stopping them from taking a 3-2 lead in the series (they would lose Game 6 in LA), or even the loss in 2006, when Ginobili fouled Novitzki on a lay-up up 3 to send Game 7 into OT. Reverse those two things, and there is a chance the Spurs win five straight titles from 03-07. This isn’t blowing Game 6 to the Heat – nothing will top that for the Spurs, but this is another epic game where they lost. Chances are the Spurs weren’t beating the Warriors anyway – that team is on an epic roll right now, but it would have been fun to see them try.

The other immediate takeaway from Game 7 was just how incredibly well played a game that was. The two other classic games had some factors that hurt them, like the hack-a-jordan slowing Game 2 down in the 4th quarter, and the same and a few other officiating concerns impacting Game 5. The final game had none of these. I believe the largest lead of the game came with the Spurs up 19-11. The Clippers scored the next 9 points, and then it was back and forth the entire time. I read a tweet that the record for lead changes in a Game 7 was 11 – and in that game there were 31. I’m not sure if that’s true, the 11 seems awfully low, but the 31 is about right. That was about as good as basketball can be played. A true titanic 7-game series, the best series I’ve seen combining great quality of play and great drama – at least since those same 2013 Finals.

I don’t think the Spurs are done, but I think that their ability to gain from these sorts of losses is one of their defining legacies. Win or lose, the Spurs made the NBA enjoyable in the last 5 years following their Great Awakening heading into the 2010-11 season. They become an offensive juggernaut that year, and ever since it’s been an absolute joy to watch them play. There are reports that if Manu retires they’ll try to finagle some cap room to go after a LaMarcus Aldridge, or even a Marc Gasol (who probably fits better), and that along with Kawhi will keep this team competitive, but there was something so amazing about them never depending on outside free agents to be one of the top-4 options.

I have no idea if that was the last game of the Spurs dynasty, but if it did it went out the way it should, with a team who’s been emboldened and driven to replicate what the Spurs themselves have done, beating them at their own game. It was Chris Paul who hit the amazing shot, and the Spurs who got flustered when the buzzer went off wrongly and then threw a low-percentage lob play. It was the Spurs who couldn’t close game 7, and the Spurs who lost Game 6 at home up 3-2, something they had never done. The Clippers deserved that series, but the Spurs deserved to be so good to lose by 2 in a 7-game series against another great team.

From 1999 to today, 17 NBA seasons will have been played – and in those 17 years, no team has won like the Spurs. But as importantly, no team has lost like the Spurs. No team has been able to change our view of basketball and our view of them in losing like the Spurs have. I’ve gone over the major losses that will stand the test of time (’04, ’06, ’13, ’15), but the Spurs also were on the other side when we finally saw Phoenix and Steve Nash exorcise the demons in 2010, or when we saw the apex of the Durant-Westbrook Thunder, when the Thunder won 4 straight in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Just remember, the Spurs showed how good they were in those 4-straight losses, as those four games by the Thunder may have been the scariest four games a team has ever played. It looked like they would never lose again.

Somehow, someway, three years later, the Spurs have made two more Finals, and won one, and the Thunder haven’t gotten back. The NBA’s strange like that. Nothing last forever, even the Spurs run. But enjoy it while you can. Enjoy Tim Duncan turning back time – his patented bank shot going from a sign of how boring he is to a sign of how brilliant he is. Enjoy Greg Popovich being an irascible genius. Enjoy it all, because when it is gone, we’ll maybe see another team that stokes to fire of basketball brilliance in the way they win, but we’ll never see a team get so much credit and create so much enjoyment in the way they lose.

NHL 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs 2nd Round Picks

The NHL Playoffs never disappoints. The worst playoffs in recent memory was probably in 2012, when the Western Conference was an absolute disaster of upsets and blowout series (only three of 7 series went more than 5 games) - but that still had the whole suspension madness in the 1st round, and of course a surprise run to the SCF by my Devils.

Even this year, only two series went 7 games, but every single series had something to love:

NYR vs PIT - Watching the Penguins choke again!
WAS vs NYI - Closing out Nassau Coliseum, and a very well played and close game 7
TBL vs DET - Seeing a team grow up before our eyes in Detroit, and another really good game 7
MTL vs OTT - The end of the hamburgler, and a mni-comeback before a really tense game 6

STL vs MIN - OK, this series was pretty much a waste
NSH vs CHI - A good rivalry with two OT games and three great games
ANA vs WIN - It was a sweep, but had that incredibly dramatic, energized Game 3 in Winnipeg
VAN vs CGY - Probably the best played series, with incredible intensity and energy from the crowds

Anyway, let's get to Round 2, which really sets up nicely this year

Eastern Conference

(M1) New York Rangers  vs  (M2) Washington Capitals

This is a different Capitals team. The Capitals have tried to embrace defense before. In 2010-11, with Dale Hunter as coach, they tried to play more two-way hockey. They got the #1 seed in the east, but then bowed out in Round 2 to Tampa Bay in a sweep. This is different, they are embracing defense not by having their top offensive players do it, but by getting in guys who can play that way (Glencross, Niskanen, Orpik). The Capitals have something going on, they just dominated that game 7. The Rangers are a better, deeper team than the Islanders. They can roll lines better than any team in the East. There has to be some concern that all their wins were by 1 goal against a bad, struggling Pittsburgh team, but that really shows that they can hold their composure in close games. These two teams have quite a history, meeting in the playoffs in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and now this year. The Rangers won the last two, but the Caps won the first two. All but one of those went seven games - so I think history repeats and this one goes 7 as well. I'll take the Rangers because of home ice, but part of me wants to see both these teams advance. I like seeing HOF-level players win a title at least once, and both these teams have those guys (Lundqvist and Ovie). One will continue his chance, and I think it will be the handsome Swedish goalie.

Rangers in 7

(A1) Montreal Canadiens  vs  (A2) Tampa Bay Lightning

These two teams met last year. That time the Lightning were higher ranked, but were swept. They were missing Ben Bishop - the guy who played awesome in Game 7 against Detroit. Montreal also had a lot more offensive firepower and depth last year. This year the Canadiens are more defense and goaltending - a pure opposite than the high-flying, fast Lightning. The Lightning, though, have a few holes. Steven Stamkos is either not healthy or has the yips. Their team got shut-out twice by Mrazek, and Carey Price is an upgrade. However, I do think the other side is what will win this matchup for TB. Ben Bishop is playing really well, and the Lightning defense and goal-tending, as a whole, is a lot better than people thing/.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

My Trip to Italy, Pt. 2

The Smaller Cities

To be honest, while country-side is nice, and beautiful and all around fantastic, I’m a city guy, and a secondary city guy. Like the Krakow’s of the world, Italy has a bunch of smaller cities that are smaller, more intimate and more colorful than the usual Giants (Rome, Milan, Florence, Venice, Naples). On this trip, we spent quite a bit of time in Parma, Alba, Cherasco and Turin. Two are at least secondary cities, in Parma and Turin. Alba is a tertiary city, somewhat the size of Queretaro, the city I worked in when I was in Mexico. Cherasco is basically a rural outpost, a true rural town. All were differing levels of special.

Parma was the first, and the place where the vacation really started in earnest. It’s a nice little see, easily walkable, with enticing alleyways with various levels of debauchery and decorative stores. Our hotel was actually a set of apartments built close to the main square, and main church (the Duomo – every town in Italy has a Duomo). From there is a small lane leading to the real main square, Piazza Garibaldi, where another small lane leads off that, Str. Farini. It was Str. Farini that became my pre-dinner and after-dinner home. It was a winding lane that mixed mid-scale to above-mid-scale stores with a slew of bars with indoor and outdoor seating. My Dad and I shared a beer at one place before dinner while my Mom and Sister shopped, and afterwards, my sister and I returned for a night on the town.

The first place we went was one of the first locations on the alley. It was a small bar that served wine and a really interesting beer selection – somewhat of a rarity in Italy – and had outdoor tables that were actually just barrels. It was a perfect little setting, something that may be either lost in anonymity or overcrowded and painful in a large city. Instead, it was a perfect place to drink while the calm wind blew through. After, we went to a bar further down the street and settled in for the night. A few hours later, we had retreated inside, where the Indian bartender/waiter gave us a free pizza and a free round of drinks because we were Indian. I’m not saying that is the reason I like small Italian towns – but that’s a pretty darn good reason.

Alba was a city that had all the elements of normal small-to-medium-town Europe. It had a few picturesque squares and lanes, indoor/outdoor cafes, a lot of green, and a giant center-city market where local vendors sold everything from (a lot of) salumi y formaggi, to fruit, to honey, to raw fish. The market was our first stop, right before we headed out of Alba to the wineries. We got our lunch from there (salumi y formaggi on fresh bread – simple, but tasty), and all the while going from vendor to vendor, tasting a little bit of their offering. We returned to Alba after the wineries, looking to see a different part of the city before heading to our hotel.

When we returned to Alba we parked in one of Italy’s many underground city-center garages, and walk around looking for Aperitivo, an afternoon tradition in Northern Italy, where one goes to one of the many, many cafes or bars, orders a drink and then gets pilloried with appetizers. These appetizers vary by place (and by price, the standard set comes free with the drink, the more expanse – some are basically buffets – come with a small charge above the drink), but are generally the normal Italian meal starters, bruschetta, salumi and other cured meats and formaggi. I have no idea the name of the place we went to, but on a reasonably warm, calm day, we sat outside, drank a drink each and then dug in to their plate of food.

The rest of Alba was a walk down lanes with shops of all kind, including a massive two-story shop that sold truffles, and a store that sold everything from chocolate confectionary, to pasta, to wine. These little charming stores are always more authentic, more price-sensitive and more quaint in the smaller cities than, say, Rome. We spent way too much time at these stores, making us get late enough that we decided to go to our resting spot for the night, and easily the smallest place we went to, Cherasco for dinner.

Cherasco is a small town, a town smaller than the one where I live in New Jersey. But unlike my town which is rows upon rows of suburban neighborhoods, Cherasco finds time to mix in some charm between the 8,000 people that live there. The main city is essentially a 10x10 block of streets, with ornate gates on either side. The city is up on a hill, but is isolated up high. We were there on a Saturday night, and despite the fact that there were cars everywhere, lining every street, it was hard to find anyone actually there. The stores were closed, the restaurants empty. We were searching for a place to have dinner among the common-folk, but that presented a challenge. After a while, we just stopped someone who looked like they spoke English and asked where we could get some good pizza. He ended up leading us to a pizzeria, a small mom-and-pop joint, but a packed one.

It really seemed like all the people in those cars were in the two room pizzeria. We were given a table in the back, near the pizza oven. The menu was roughly 10 pages of pizza, fifteen to a page, all between 6-10 Euros. We chose three pizzas, a pretty impossible choice given the amount of options, and all three were varying degrees of good. One was a seafood pizza which was essentially just seafood on a pizza (not a bad thing), and the others were a normal meat and cheese, and a white pizza with parma prosciutto. The pizzas were all good, but the real highlight was the familial feel of the place. The chef was speaking to two patrons near us in Italian, but mentioned Brooklyn. That led my Dad to talk to him, and then it all kind of rolled from there.

First he explained on how his girlfriend (our waitress) studied in the US for a couple years, and that he hasn’t gone to New York, but goes to Munich for Octoberfest instead. Soon we let slip it was my Dad’s birthday the next day, and before we knew it, we had a dessert on the house, a cake on the house, and the gregarious pizza chef, with the restaurant close to shutting down, serving us all (including the two other patrons next to us) a limon liqueur to drink in my Dad’s honor. It was a great evening, something that fit a small, tiny town in Italy so well. Cherasco has some tourism presence in the relative sense, but they all seemed so interested in what we were about. Little did they know I was fascinated on what they were all about as well.

The final small(er) city was Turin, a city that is not really all that small. It is one of the five largest cities in Italy, the home of the Italian car industry, and home of Juventus FC. We didn’t do anything regarding Juventus FC, but had a fascinating day walking (and walking and walking) around Turin. It was Easter Sunday, so we weren’t sure if anything would be open. When we drove up to right below the city center, almost everything was. Luckily, the first place we wanted to visit, a Gelato place, was very open and very good. While we walked closer to the true city center, the two main plazas, more and more things became open and the weather got better, revealing a really nice city.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Look Ahead at the 2015 NFL Prime-time Games

Once again, the NFL made a big show of releasing their schedule. I understand why some may think ESPN and NFL Network having 2-hour specials detailing the schedule is another sign of the NFL's too-big media presence, but in reality, the NFL is just flexing one of the key aspects of its brilliance: the short season. The NBA can't do this because there are 82-effing games. Here there are 16 games for each team, they happen at distinct times, and distinct days. It is meaningful. A bad start and you're climbing up-hill all season. An easy start and you can bank some wins that can prop you up when injury hits (KC in 2013 for example). The NFL schedule matters, and it is the first sign that the 2015 season has begun. So with that, here are a few thoughts on the primetime games:

Monday Night Football

Once again, ESPN is drawing the short end of the primetime stick, despite paying way more than CBS is for its limited TNF package, or NBC is for SNF. Having live NFL is just that important to ESPN. Apparently the NFL is pimping out Super Bowl rematches since this year it is Super Bowl 50, which explains why we have Jets @ Colts and Chiefs @ Packers in Wk 2-3 (rematches of Super Bowl III and II). The Chiefs @ Packers game might actually be one of the better ones in this slate. The early-season games aren't bad, with Lions @ Seahawks potentially frisky, and Steelers @ Chargers a nice game, but then we get a lot of NFC East (glad they shuffled some of those off to ESPN instead of having them on SNF each week), and some real questionable ones. Bears @ Chargers is garbage, as is Texans @ Bengals, a matchup that was boring even when it was a playoff game as recently as three years ago. Giants @ Dolphins, Lions @ Saints and Bengals @ Broncos end the year, all three could be good, but don't look so great. I do like having Rex and the Bills going to Foxboro on MNF. Overall, there are a lot of games that are a 5-6-7 out of 10, few real duds like in years past, but also few real marquee games, at least with a perspective 4-months before they kick off. One huge note, a Philip Rivers trade really hurts ESPN, as Steelers @ Chargers is far less interesting with a rookie Mariota, and makes that Bears @ Chargers game even worse.

Thursday Night Football

For the past couple years since it's expanded to full season (first happened in 2012), the NFL has tried to play as many inter-division games on TNF, and they've done it again, as all the TNF games through Thanksgiving Weekend are inter-division. In teh 2nd year of CBS having some of the games, they've given CBS the goods, as these games are, to me, better than the MNF games. Broncos @ Chiefs is a great way to kick the slate off in Week 2. Ravens @ Steelers in Week 4 is always fun (once again, though, both Ravens/Steelers games are slated for prime-time). Colts @ Texans is good as the Texans often play up to the Colts in Houston, Falcons @ Saints has been a nice game for years now, and while the 49ers have fallen, them hosting the Seahawks will bring out the intensity. Even Dolphins @ Patriots could be a really nice game. The late season stretch (again, we get Saturday Night games in Week 15-16) is all on NFL Network, and a lot more precarious. The inter-division thing goes out the window, and we get some really iffy matchups, like Buccaneers @ Rams, and Jets @ Cowboys, and Chargers @ Raiders, but a strong early schedule is enough to make up for it. People will still compain about TNF, but the games this year definitely seem better than normal years.

Sunday Night Football

Week 1: Steelers @ Patriots - it was an obvious choice given the options and the NFL's general dislike to make the opener a division rivalry game. People were saying the Eagles, but after Chip gutted the team it became far less attractive. The only complaint is the Steelers have a history of getting blowed out in Foxoboro. 8/10

Week 1: Giants @ Cowboys - Ah, the old standard NFC East game. From 2009-2013, the Giants @ Cowboys game was on National TV 4 times (2009-11 - all Giants wins - and 2013 a Cowboys win). I'm predicting a mini-Giants renaissance so this might be good, but it is tiresome. 6/10

Week 2: Seahawks @ Packers - Considering I feel the Packers would have beaten New England in the Super Bowl, let's just move on. I'll say this, there's no chance the Packers eff up the onside pick this time. 9/10

Week 3: Broncos @ Lions - Interesting choice, a rare game that may be good but has no historical or relevant ties - other than maybe Jim Caldwell and Peyton Manning reuniting. Not sure why they picked it. 6/10

Week 4: Cowboys @ Saints - These two play way too much in primetime. The Saints have probably peaked as a public team, but the Cowboys very much are. Still, not really inspired. 6/10

Week 5: 49ers @ Giants - Again, two public teams, but the 49ers have peaked as well. This may be the worst game on the SNF slate, but that's a credit to the overall slate more than anything. It should be noted, this and all following game are flex-able. 5/10

Week 6: Patriots @ Colts - Lot's of potential story-lines (#DeflateGate; The Old vs. The Young, etc.) for a game that's been really one-side each time since Luck came on board. Still, it's one that will draw a lot of attention. 7/10

Week 7: Eagles @ Panthers - This would have seemed far more appealing before all the Chip Kelly shenanigans; but getting Carolina on SNF as a host is a real welcome surprise, an opportunity to show that they've built something really nice in Charlotte. 7/10

Week 8: Packers @ Broncos - In what will be, excepting a possible Super Bow, the last time Rodgers and Manning play, will also be the first time Manning ever hosts him. The last time they played was 2008, Rodgers 1st year as a starter, so getting those two on the field again will be much appreciated. Really nice game here. 9/10

Week 9: Eagles @ Cowboys - Well, it took a whole 8 weeks before a 2nd all-NFC East game. Nicely NBC is scheduling them early this time, though of course they'll flex all NFC-East games each week in December. 6/10

Week 10: Cardinals @ Seahawks - If the Cardinals can sustain their level from the last two years and get a healthy Carson Palmer back, this is a real nice name for a budding little rivalry. Still, I feel like the better divisional rival now for Seattle in St. Louis. 8/10

Week 11: Chiefs @ Chargers - I'm assuming Philip Rivers stays put, which makes this game of Wild-Card contenders a real nice one. They've played a few prime-time games in KC over the years, but this is the first I can remember in San Diego. 8/10

Week 12: Bears @ Packers - Our Thanksgiving Night game is a storied rivalry, so it's a nice game in that sense, but also has gigantic blowout potential, for which I'm dinging it a bit. Still, Bears and Packers in cold Lambeau on Thanksgiving is a great set-up for a awesome Thanksgiving night. 7/10

Week 12: Patriots @ Broncos - This would be the latest that they've played against each other since 2003. This is also the first time a regular season game has been played in Manning's house since 2009, so that's a nice change. No matter how many times they play, the lead-up is always fun, and the prime-time games have either been epics, or comfortable Manning-team wins. 10/10

Week 13: Colts @ Steelers - Assuming it isn't the Ben Roethlisberger special like last year, this is a nice rivalry between two teams that are fighting to be the 3rd best team in the AFC, and a good look at the future rivalry in teh AFC if Ben stays healthy. Like it a lot. 8/10

Week 14: Seahawks @ Ravens - Despite losing a lot of players, I think the Ravens will be pretty good, again, so this lines up to be a great game. The Seahawks travel to one of the better prime-time environments in the NFL, and the Ravens get to flex their muscles. I'm almost guaranteeing the black uniforms for the Ravens will be out in this game. 9/10

Week 15: Bengals @ 49ers - I'm not sure about this game. I guess the 49ers could surprise and be fringe playoff contenders, and the Bengals will always be their 10-6 or 11-5 type of plodding 'good'-ness, but I'm not feeling this game at all, ending a pretty spectacular run of 5-weeks of games. 5/10

Week 16: Steelers @ Ravens - I really hope this game is meaningful, because if so it could be a classic. Really hard to judge these Week 16 games this far in advance, but I'm guessing both will be about as good as each other and this game will mean a whole lot. the Ravens get two primetime games at home late in the season, but they're two tough opponents. I can't wait to watch M&T Bank Stadium in this game. 9/10

Week 17: Top Five Potential Options:
#5: Seahawks @ Cardinals - This could be for the division
#4: Ravens @ Bengals - Ditto, though why do these two almost always play Week 17
#3: Broncos @ Chargers - This could be for the division, but almost definitely will have some seeding implications
#2: Eagles @ Giants - Token NFC East choice
#1: Patriots @ Dolphins - Imagine if somehow this game is meaningful for both teams

There's my thoughts on the prime-time sked. NFL Season has officially begun.

Friday, April 17, 2015

My 10 Favorite Things About Hockey

10.) The Handshake Line

Sure, it is somewhat a lifeless tradition that is done more out of necessity and history than real sportsmanship, but it is one of the more interesting moral experiments in sports. Other than baseball, there is always a little co-team fraternization after games, but hockey forces it. The handshake line has some awful moments, like the Bruins' thug Milan Lucic saying he's going to 'fucking kill' various members of the Montreal Canadiens; but generally the hockey players either go through the motions, or give the hockey-loving public some really nice scenes. My favorites are guys who battled it out for 4-7 games embracing, or old friends. Take Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara, who shared the ice a lot during the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, embracing like two long friends - which of course they are given they live next to each other in Slovenia. The handshake line also shows who is really respected across the league, the Toews of the world (no way Lucic would tell Toews to fuck off), or the Brodeurs, Neidermayers and Lidstroms of generations past. It is a symbolic tradition more than anything, but given the physicality and the length of series, there is no more incredible sign of sportsmanship in US sports.

9.) Doc Emrick

Being a Devils fan has a lot of negatives, apart from the team's mediocre run of play recently. But one of the great positives was that for years and years, Doc Emrick was our announcer. Until about 2011, he played double-duty as the Devils play-by-play guy, and the overall NHL's, as the leading voice for NHL on NBC. Following he gave up the Devils gig, but his presence still lasts in New Jersey. It was cool that our local guy was given the national gig, and he certainly deserved it. Doc Emrick is about as seamless and brilliant a play-by-play guy in all sports. Hockey is the fastest game, and arguably the game with the hardest names to quickly rattle off. Emrick barely every messed up, always shifting easily from player to player. Emrick also excelled at all the words that surrounded player names, like going through an entire thesaurus of how to say 'pass' during a game (lofted, spun, handled, caressed, shuttled, shuffled, etc.). Finally, Emrick had just the perfect level of mixing of volumes. He's generally excitable but nothing was better than a close chance. That amazing of pitch, ending with a virulent 'Ohhh, and it WOULDN'T GO!!" Canadian fans may disagree (or just non-Devils fans who grew to love him on the plainest of Devils games giving the same enthusiasm), but personally I think Emrick is the best match of play-by-play and sport out there today.

8.) The Stanley Cup

Might seem low, but I don' want to be obvious with these 10. Let's just state the obvious: this is the best Championship trophy in team sports. The World Series trophy is nicely ornate, and the Lombardi Trophy has become about as iconic (the Larry O'Brien trophy is a disaster), but the Stanley Cup is so far and away the best sports trophy it isn't worth the time to debate. No trophy is bigger or heavier. No trophy has so much history, with the names of all past Champions engraved into its metal. No trophy is more celebrated, with each player getting a day with the trophy all to themselves in the offseason. No trophy allows the winning team to drink out of it (underrated aspect to its brilliance). The Stanley Cup just looks amazing. The image of a captain hoisting the trophy above their head is an iconic image in sports. The trophy also is preceded by one of the best moments of the year, when Gary Bettman goes out to a parade of boos, done more out of tradition than anything else nowadays, to hand out the hardware. No Sports trophy will ever come close to giving so much joy, so many emotions, to the people that hold it. Few things in hockey are so famous their image extends outside the NHL and across US sports; the Stanley Cup does.

7.) The Trophy Names

In continuing with the trophy theme, I love the fact that all the trophies in the NHL have awesome old-timer names. There is no 'MVP' trophy, there is a 'Hart Memorial Trophy'. The best goalie gets the Vezina Award; the best defenseman the Norris. There's the Selke (defensive forward), the Calder (rookie), the Jack Adams (coach), Masterson (comeback player), Maurice 'Rocket' Richard (most goals), Art Ross (most points), and of course, the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP). I also love that the Conn Smythe is for 'all four rounds of the playoffs' giving way to guys like JS Giguere winning for a team that lost the Stanley Cup Final (in fact, it should probably happen more often - Chris Pronger definitely deserved it over Cam Ward in 2006). The NBA has somewhat tried this, as the NBA Finals MVP is now the Bill Russell award, but let's be real - these hockey trophies have roughly 50-75 years of history each. Their names are old enough that few really know who/what they're named after, but we all immediately know which one is which. Even the Conference Champion trophies, the two trophies so despised the winning captain generally refuses to touch them, are given cool names (the Prince Of Wales trophy and the Clarence Campbell trophy). By the way, I love how the trophies themselves have remained unchanged, timeless classics that look like they were designed in 1950.

6.) Goal Horns and Songs

Other than maybe batter and pitcher entrance music, no sport has one distinct music and sound tied to it more than the Goal Horn and Songs in the NHL. First comes the horn, those blaring notes that are slightly different in each stadium. There's a site (link here) that lets you play around and hear all 30. There are some common themes. Western teams generally have lower, more bellowing, horns. Eastern teams a little louder and higher. Following the three blows of the horn is the goal song, another unique little treat in all 30 arenas (some use the same, like Rock and Roll, Pt. 2, or Seven Nation Army). The site actually gives you both, it's a fascinating time waster. The most famous example is probably the Blackhawks pretty well sounding horn and then 'Chelsea Dagger', which cuts off nicely before the actual words part. The Blackhawks have become essentially so tied to that song it is no longer annoying (to me at least). Some of my favorites are the Ducks, the Rangers, the Blues (when the Saints go marching in), Flames, Stars (personalized song by Pantera), and of course, the Whalers, with their inimitable Brass Bonanza!

5.) The Game Day Experience

To me, there is no sport that is better live than hockey. The NHL game-day experience in arena is second to none. First, the fans are really knowledgeable. It is no secret that the NHL draws about the same amount of in-arena fans as the NBA, so arenas are mostly full - and they're mostly full of hardcore fans, the type that drink just the right amount, care just the right amount, and have the volume set at just the right amount. Each arena has their own traditions, their own chants, their own games. I personally think that it is closest to a European Soccer environment in the US. We get cool things like Canadian fanbases singing O Canada (a tradition started, as far as I know, with Edmonton in their miracle run to the 2006 Final). We have the ocopii in Detroit, the rats in Florida, the shark-meat in San Jose. All sorts of random things get flung on the ice. Hockey's also the game with no live-action music, no fake pump-up-the-crowd gimmicks in most places, the most color-coordinated events, and generally the craziest fans. I love nothing more than just watching awesome crowds from my own TV, like we'll see all across the playoff landscape. Even the Devils, who don't sell out, even when the team was a juggernaut, had a great game-day experience. Hockey is awesome to watch live anyway, as you can see so much more of the action inside the building, but even the atmosphere itself is close to the price of admission.

4.) Goalie Masks

Goalie Masks are so awesome that they dribbled into another entire different sport, with some catchers starting to use them in baseball. Goalies are padded up and hard to tell apart, so how did they figure out how to show their individuality? By making their masks all unique, and different, and awesome. Some were very understated, like Marty Brodeur's, or some were wild and crazy, like Evgeny Nabokov, or Roberto Luongo. They all have their own flair. Some are incredibly intricate, like Marty Turco's back in the day, or Ryan Miller's, and some or perfectly themed, like Ray Emery's Ottawa mask. Some are just plain weird, like the Teddy Bear on Braden Holtby's mask. No sport has so much individual flair tied into a uniform piece of equipment. It's like the golf shirt, on steroid, and put in a team environment where the name of the front is supposed to be more important than that on the back.

3.) The Fearlessness of Leaders

All US sports have the concept of a captain, but no sport embraces it more than hockey. No one really cares who are the captains on a football team, or, if they even name one, who it is on a baseball team. Soccer embraces it nicely, and no sport that I know of does it play a more reasonable role than in cricket (the captain essentially is the on-field manager), but in US sports, hockey has it locked down. The person who wears the 'C' matters, because the strength of that player really seems to correlate with the ability of the team. The Sharks choked year after year, and it didn't help that their two captains in that stretch were Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. On the other side, the Devils had Scott Stevens in their prime. They were the best when he was on his game, taking out opposing best players in all their main series. The image of the captain coming over to lift the Stanley Cup, especially when the captain is not the team's best player. In recent years, it has become more common to just give the 'C' to the best player (Crosby, Ovechkin, Chara, Getzlaf, Tavares, Stamkos), but there are a few teams that use it the old way: giving the 'C' to the emotional fulcrum of the team. Dustin Brown is far from the best player on the LA Kings, but he's held the cup twice in three years. Many argue that Toews is the best player on the Blackhawks, but part of that equation is his leadership. I love that captains lead the handshake line (generally), and touch the cup first, and just lead their darn team.

2.) International Politics

There are a lot of international players in the MLB and ever more so in the NBA, but no sport has the international tension of hockey. Even taking out the drama of the Winter Olympics and limiting it to just the NHL, we get some great nationalism. First of all, Canadians are really protective of the game, of the fact the US seems to not care about Canadian teams, of how no Canadian team has won the Cup since 1993, including losing the Cup Final in 2004, 2006 and 2011, all in 7 games (the first two to Sun-Belt teams in Tampa Bay and Carolina). Then we get the subtle racism for knocking European players with tired, but somewhat real, stereotypes. Ovechkin and Semin choking in the playoffs on Washngton, or Yakupov being a bust in Edmonton after being a #1 pick. For years, only Canadians were captains of Stanley Cup winning teams. Darien Hatcher ended that in 1999, but until the Red Wings won in 2008, it handn't been won by a non-North American, until Lidstrom's team won. Chara's team won three years later. Stereotypes for different players run rampant in the NHL, and while that isn't commendable, it definitely adds to the drama of the game. No sport has had to face so much impated nationalism, and kudos to the NHL for embracing it and spinning it into an amazing quality of the team.

1.) The Playoffs and Overtime

I don't think this needs explanation. There is nothing better in sports than a close NHL playoff game. Just watch it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Picks

It's that time of year again, the 10-week ecstasy of ice that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In just 2 months time, we'll have 20 sweaty, bearded, crying men carrying around a giant steel cup, there are few better things in sports. Even better this year, everyone's favorite hateable newcomer, the Kings, flamed out spectacularly and missed the playoffs, and then so did everyone's favorite hateable old-timer, the Boston Bruins (first time missing since 2008). These are different times, Canada is over-represented, and there are some great storylines. I have to say, I am looking forward to these collection of games a whole lot. Let's get to the series and the breakdowns and the picks:

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

(A1) Montreal Canadiens (110 pts)  vs  (W2) Ottawa Senators (99 pts)

The Senators are the Eastern Conference surprises this year, taking the Bruins spot (quite literally, 6 of the other 7 teams made the playoffs last season), and what an incredible ride it was, as the Senators closed the season on a ridiculous 24-4-4 run to nab the last playoff spot. A lot was written about Andrew 'The Hamburgler' Hammond, who became a cult hero big enough to have Sens fans throw hamburgers on the ice, but the real story for the Senators was their offense suddenly coming alive. Mark Stone, one of the many great rookies, played great down the stretch, but so did the offensive trio of Bobby Ryan, Kyle Turris and Mike Zibanejad, the future of the team. Then they have the brilliant Erik Karlsson as their top defender. On the other side are the Canadiens, who will be missing their best offensive player, Max Pacioretty, for some portion of the series, and are a little too dependent on their all-world goalie Carey Price. The Canadiens have home ice, and the great goalie, but to me the Senators are the team with the better roster. At some point, Hammond's clock will strike midnight, but I don't think it is here, against an offensively challenged Montreal team. I don't like many upsets in the 1st round, but I do like this one.

Senators in 6

(A2) Tampa Bay Lightning (108 pts)  vs  (A3) Detroit Red Wings (100 pts)

Somehow, the Red Wings are in the playoffs again, the 24th straight time. Somehow, despite them being a combined 70 years old, Zetterberg and Datsyuk lead the team in scoring. The Red Wings defense has definitely slipped considerably over the years, and their goalie situation is a little strange, with Petr Marazek and his mediocre stats expected to start. On the other side are the Lightning, the highest scoring team in the NHL, who enter the playoffs this year with a healthy Ben Bishop (he got hurt late last year, ruined a team about as good). The scoring is a little more spread out this year from non Stamkos-players, as Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov both pumped in 29. The Lightning are a really well put together team, as they bring the #11 scoring defense to supplement that top ranked offense. Victor Hedman is the star on defense, but getting Anton Stralman as almost a throw-in in the Marty St. Louis trade last year is really paying dividends. Overall, the Lightning are just better, and Detroits lack of defenseman depth is an awful problem to have against the Lightning's depth on offense. There's really no area where the Red Wings are better.

Lightning in 6

Metro Division

(M1) New York Rangers (113 pts)  vs  (W2) Pittsburgh Penguins (98 pts)

I still can't believe the Penguins came that close to missing the playoffs, as they ended the season just awfully. In a weird twist, the Penguins actually ranked better in goals allowed (9th) than goals scored (18th), which is a nice change, if not for the fact that their best defenseman is out for the season given Letang's surgery. Crosby and Malkin are still good, but their bottom-6 on offense and their bottom-4 on defense are weaker than ever. The Rangers, on the other hand, have arguably the best bottom of their lines in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers are just so deep right now. Their top-8 scorers are all forwards, which is a good thing in their case, indicating how all their top-3 lines are capable of scoring. Their defense is about as good. If you list all their players by minutes played, you have to go down to #17 before you get a player with a negative +/-, which is peak Lidstrom-era Red Wings good. Lundqvist is back and healthy, but even if his injury issues flare-up, Talbot is a proven back-up. The Rangers are just really good, and the Penguins have three good players, one of which won't play.

Rangers in 5

(M2) Washington Capitals (101 pts)  vs  (M3) New York Islanders (101 pts)

This might be the best Capitals team in terms of overall balance in a long time. They don't have the scoring prowess (or the number of points) of their President's Trophy winning team in 09-10, but this team mixes the #6 scoring offense with the #6 scoring defense. The defense as a whole goes 4-deep with really good players (Carlson, Alzner, Green, Niskanen), and their offense has recommitted to rolling lines and playing defense - oh, and they have the best goal scorer in the NHL paired with a breaking (re-)breaking out Nicklas Backstrom. The Islanders can easily match their offensive firepower, with Tavares heading up a laundry-list of offensive talent, but they really can't match the Capitals in either defense or, more importanlty, goal-tending. It's amazing how many goalies have started playoff games for the Capitals in the Ovechkin era, but Holtby this year is easily the best. The Islanders counter with Jaroslav Halak, the man who has lived off his performance aginst those very same 2010 Capitals in a 1st round upset five years ago. I do think this series goes long, because almost all Capitals series end up going 7, and because this being potentially the last few games in Nassau Coliseum, but I think the Capitals make it.

Capitals in 7

Western Conference

Pacific Division

(P1) Anaheim Ducks (109 pts)  vs  (W2) Winnipeg Jets (99 pts)

I don't get the Ducks. Their roster is loaded with talent at every position (though the defense is more having 6-7 quality players rather than any outstanding one), and a coach who has been excellent in the regular season, and yet they scored just 10 more goals than allowed. I have no idea how they translated all that into 109 points, but anyway. The Jets actually have twice the goal differential, but half the top-flight talent. The Ducks have, arguably, the three best offensive players in this series, and the better goalie, but the Jets have all the intangibles, in a way. They have that chaotic crowd in Winnipeg, that will be even more amped than usual in the first playoff series in Winnipeg in 20 years. They're already very good at home. The Jets also have better 3rd and 4th line production on offense, though when your 1st-2nd lines are that much worse it may not matter. The Ducks should win, discounting their totally perplexing point total given their goals total. I guess you can credit an almost fake-looking record in one-goal games - the Ducks are 30-1-8, that is not a typo. One goal games matter, and for a few years now the Ducks have shown an ability to win those, and I think that, and their experience, carries them through.

Ducks in 6

(P2) Vancouver Canucks (101 pts)  vs  (P3) Calgary Flames (97 pts)

By number of points, the Flames are the worst team in the playoffs. Then why do I like them so much? Given their reasonable goal differential (+25) they probably should have done better. They definitely did do better in the second half of the season. Should it bother me that four of their top 8 scorers are defenseman? Maybe, but they made some trades at the deadline so that's a volume factor, and also their style is to push defenseman up in the zone, with incredible team speed to make up for it. They also have two super youngsters, in Johnny Gaudrea, the favorite for the Calder trophy, and Sean Monahan. Obviously both teams have incredible fan-bases, but there is something so awesome about all that red that literally bleeds through in games in the Saddledome. The Canucks are kind of the opposite, depending on their forwards for all of their scoring (11 of their top 12 in points are forwards), and they got nice years from secondary offensive guys like Nick Bognino and Radim Verbata. Their defense is an issue though. Their old, aging and a little slow. The Flames are not any of these things. The Canucks used to be able to tout a speedy team, but that was a few years back. The Flames also have a slight edge in goal, as Jonas Hiller has had a better year than either Ryan Miller or Eddie Lack. The Flames were supposed to be a tanking team, but they shed that a long time ago, held off for a playoff spot, and I really do think they'll upend the Canucks

Flames in 6

Central Division
(C1) St. Louis Blues (109 pts)  vs  (W1) Minnesota Wild (100 pts)

Both these teams have easy Eastern Conference anologues. For the Blues, it is the Rangers, as they also mix the Rangers stable of depth everywhere. The Blues have a great top line, with Steen, Teresenko and Backes, but have a really good 2nd and 3rd line. They have quality D-Men with a great top pairing (Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo). Their just a really good team, whose shrewd personnel move in the offseason of getting Paul Stasny, and good fortune to not draw Chicago in the first round, gives them a clear path. Sadly, while they avoided Chicago, they got the Senators of the West, the hottest team in the NHL since the all-star break. The Wild were about as good last year as a whole, but even though their top young guys didn't improve as much as expected (Coyle, Neitereider, Grandlund), a few refugees from teh Sabres tank-pocolypse in Jason Pominvile and Thomas Vanek exceeded expectations. The Wild also have the hottest goalie in the NHL in Devin Dubnyk, compared to the Blues having to pick either Jake Allen or Brian Elliott. This is probably the hardest series to pick. The Blues are a great team, one that could easily win the Cup, but the Wild have been playing so well. More than anything, I can't wait to watch this - two teams that should bring out the best in each other playing against each other. I'll take the Blues because of home ice and overall I think this is their year, but I wouldn't be shocked at all for it to go the other way.

Blues in 7

(C2) Nashville Predators (104 pts)  vs  (C3) Chicago Blackhawks (102 pts)

The Avalanche last year somehow won the Central Division, making the Blackhawks and Blues play each other. The Predators almost did the same thing this year before the Blues terrific 2nd half won the division. Still, most people think the Predators are just a stepping stone the Blackhawks must cross before the Blues / Hawks division final. But should we thing that? The Predators were not supposed to be this good, but Peter Laviolette is a very good coach, and the team has quite a bit of 'B+' level talent. They have depth down the middle, and have one of the best defender / goalie combinations in the NHL, with Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, who remains very good in his early 30's. Problem for them, and this is why most are picking the Blackhawks, are that the Hawks are arguably better everywhere. With Patrick Kane expected back (and make no mistake, had Kane stayed healthy, they would have at least finished 2nd in the division), the Blackhawks are just better everywhere. This may be the last hurrah for the full core (both Sharp and Hossa may not be back next year), but they are proven playoff performers, with a deep blue line and a goalie who gets better every year. It's boring picking chalk here, but I think the Predators were a very good regular season team; the Blackhawks are just a very good team.

Blackhawks in 5

No mater who wins whatever series, the playoffs are the Greatest. Watch them, watch all of them. Get excited, the best, most intense, playoff sporting event is back!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Italy Trip Review, Pt. 1

I just went to Italy for 5 days. Actually, it was more like 4 days. In that time, my family and I stayed in 4 different hotels in 4 different cities. We couldn’t spend a ton of time in any one city, and I think I barely saw any of Milan despite flying in and out of it. Sure, this sounds like a trip on a whim, but when you get together two siblings both working, it is hard to free up time to take off together. In fact, this was our first family vacation out of the US since 2010, not counting our trip to India for my cousin’s wedding in Dec., 2011. We took advantage of a splendid 2-for-1 deal that Emirates was giving for their 5th-Freedom flight to Milan from JFK, getting there and back for a scant ~$350 each. Like a modern family, we took separate methods to reach the airport this past Wednesday, and then took two different flights back home (my parents are staying an extra day). Still, it was four days together, which was great, and gave me a good look at a little sub-set of Italia.

It started in Milan, but Milan is not a ‘sub-set’ city, it is a main city, the largest financial center in Italy, and the most cosmopolitan and modern city in the country, a hub of current day commerce. Then again, we barely spent time in Milan. We arrived about 1:00 PM, and only got to the hotel in central Milan at 3:00. The only bit of sightseeing I did in Milan was visit the San Siro, home of AC Milan and Inter Milan. Much like the tour of the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, the tour of the San Siro involves trips to the locker room of both teams (oddly, both right next to each other), the tunnel to the field, the side of the field, and the stands. All were open and well maintained, though the Inter Milan locker-room is downright dingy compared to the AC Milan room.

The stadium is giant, yet small considering the 80,000 people that can fit there. Apparently, given their relative standing in the current Seria A (8th and 9th at the date of our visit), they rarely fill it 50% at the moment. The stadium is beautiful, a monumental pitch given the history that has taken place there over the years, the museum with all the greats proving that. We left the stadium and headed back to Milan for a happy hour with appetizers at our hotel and then went for a lovely Milanese dinner, fill of various pastas, meats (fowl and veal), and an interesting appetizer of ‘nerves’ and octopus. We went back early to the hotel that night, needing to leave the next morning at 8 AM, all the while fighting off limited jet lag. When we did get up at 8:30 or so, and left around 9:00, the real trip began:

The Country Side

(I’m splitting this up to two different parts, mainly because there were really two distinct parts of the trip. However, that removes any sense of chronologicality to this review. Anyway, try to keep up.)
The first place we visited on the trip, and the reason we had to leave Milan at 8:30, was for a tour of the Cheese Factory in the country-side in Parma, home of the famous Parmiggianno-Reggianno Cheeses (basically, Parmesan cheese, but real type). The factory tour really showed a couple things, first how simple the process seems, but also just how much effing cheese this little factory can produce. The process is basically mixing milk from special cows, with the leftover whey from the previous day, in a giant mixing bowl (or 12), first spinning around with added enzymes, then mixing to separate the whey from the cheese underneath. Within 20-25 minutes, the cheese has separated underneath. They then leave the cheese to sit for an hour, during which time we were sifted through first the salting room, where wheels of cheese are kept for 14 days in a salt-brine, then the holding room, and finally the storage room, with literally walls of cheese 20 feet high and 40 feet long, and there were about 20 of those. All those cheese wheels in one room, some 2-3 years old. I really wondered if I just walked away with one, would they even know?

We then returned to the main cheese making area to see them move the cheese sitting in the bottom of the mixing bowl into a large mound of cheese, and then cutting it. We really saw the end-to-end one day process, but so much more time goes into it. That said, their set-up is amazingly simplistic:

The next tour we went to right after was a visit to a Balsamic Vinegar factory in a town called Modena. Like the cheese, it was part of a consortium of balsamic vinegar factories, but ‘factory’ in this sense is basically a big house. The house as areas where the vinegar is put into barrels, and transferred from barrel to barrel over the course of 6-12-25 years (they offer vinegar at those year intervals). At the end, we got a tasting of the different vinegars, which were all excellent. The 12 and 25 year versions are basically a vinegar-y syrup, pointedly strong and amazing, really. They also had a jelly, which I bought, and they gave us, kind of funnily, a tasting of store-bought vinegar as a comparison. The tour was over in about an hour, and then the congenial Italian owner and runner of the factory gave us a nice lunch location about a 200 meters away. This really is a small town in Italy in the Parma region, and this place had an extensive spread of local treats, with a nice cheese and cured meat appetizer buffet. The small towns still had great service, spread and a lot of customers. We left the vinegar factory for Parma, which is big enough to be in the next section.

The next morning, I woke up in a daze and was ushered to a breakfast I barely got through and we left for wine country. I am not the biggest wine fan, and I’ll get to an awful little development with my relationship with wine in the next area, but both my Dad and my sister are. My sister is a huge win aficionado, though I guess that’s a big enough and intense world that she may not be happy with her calling her one. She had picked two Piedmontese (area of Piedmont, Italy) wineries that were recommended for a local wine-shop proprietor in Princeton (Corkscrew), who imports from various mid-size wineries across Europe. The two wineries were Ettore Germano and Elio Grasso. Both were mid-size, between 75,000-100,000 bottles a year, specializing in the Nebiollo grape that produces Barollo wine. By the end of two wineries, it was clear that it had been a wine-derful day.

The first winery was Ettore Germano, situated nicely in the Hills of the Piedmont. The building was under an expansive renovation, so the gregarious Italian winemaker, Sergio, apologized for the cramped conditions inside. In one of the most intense wine tasting experience was paired with one of the most impersonal, as Sergio regaled us with story after story; almost like a conversation that also included tasting some excellent wines. After the drinks, he took us for a quick tour of his place, including trips down to the basement with the giant GIANT barrels. Finally, he took us to a view of the winery behind his house, an expansive look of rolling hills and neatly catered rows and rows of grape plants. It was stunning, it was beautiful, it was nice enough to make a windy, cloudy day seem amazing.

The second winery was a little larger, and a little more upscale. Elio Grasso had only three wines to taste, all Barollo’s of different vintages. The real treat with them was the tour of their wine-making facility, including a massive underground tunnel that first contained scores and scores of barrels, and then the second half of the U-shaped tunnel containing hundreds and hundreds of bottles, each waiting to be assessed and labeled. The whole underground tunnel was an amazing bit of simplistic brilliance in wine-making. The wines themselves were fine, but the setting, the ingenuity and the beauty of rural, mountainous area near Alba.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.