Sunday, January 28, 2007

Roger King Of Court Down Under Again, Sweeps Past Gonzalez Into History

After Andy Roddick was eliminated in embarrassing fashion by Roger Federer, he was asked to assess remaining semifinalists Fernando Gonzalez or Tommy Haas' chances of getting the better of the Swiss world No.1 in the final. He answered in one word: "Slim."

Ultimately, the American was proven right. Even a solid performance by red hot No.10 seeded Chilean Gonzalez couldn't threaten Federer in Sunday night's epic final in which the incomparable top seed swept past his worthy opponent in a competitive straight sets, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4 before a capacity audience at Rod Laver Arena to repeat as champion, claiming his third Australian Open in four years.

Not surprisingly, the 25 year-old Federer made history by becoming the first Grand Slam champion on the men's side to not drop a set since the legendary Bjorn Borg accomplished the feat back in 1980 when he won the French Open. He became only the fourth player in the Open Era to pull it off and just the second to ever win down under without losing a set since legend Ken Rosewall in 1971. Fittingly, he was in attendance and was acknowledged by a jovial Federer during the trophy presentation.

"Equalling records, doing something that hasn't been done for a long time, it's really nice, there's no doubt," the very pleased winner said afterwards to the AP. "It wasn't ever a goal for me up to win a Slam without dropping a set."

"All I care in the end is to hopefully hold that trophy, even though it might be 20-18 in the fifth set. I don't mind, as long as I win. Of course, now that it's all over, it's great to think, 'Wow', you know, not having dropped a set. It's quite amazing."

Amazing is just one of the many adjectives which can be used to describe Federer's dominant play over the past few years which has now seen him win 10 career slams since claiming his first one back in 2003 at Wimbledon. By doing so, he joined exclusive company which includes Bill Tilden (10), Rod Laver and Borg (11), Roy Emerson (12) and Pete Sampras (14).

"All these Grand Slams since 2003, that's what, for me, is really scary, how many I've won," the very modest champ admitted. "I was thinking about it this morning actually when I woke up."

"Like if somebody would have told me I'd win 10 Grand Slams from mid '03 till today, I never would have thought there was any chance of doing something like that. I would have signed up for just one, you know."

Entering his record-tying seventh consecutive final, the Swiss maestro was the overwhelming favorite against a hot player who had dismissed Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake, Rafael Nadal and Haas en route to his first career slam final. Certainly, in playing his best tennis of his career, the 26 year-old Gonzalez was no slouch. It was in the first set that the very talented Chilean gave Federer all he could handle.

With both players looking to take control of points early in rallies with their lethal groundstrokes and use of every part of the court, each committed more unforced errors than usual. Taking big swings at the ball in an attempt to attack each other's serves, they produced a topsy turvy set which took almost as long for either to get through their semis. The one hour 10-minute set could've easily gone to Gonzalez. It was his resilient play during the eighth game which kept it on serve. Digging out of a hole, he fought off break points to hold and square the match at four all. Continuing to play aggressively, he cameback from 30-0 down to break Federer thanks to drawing a few wild misses. It gave him a golden opportunity to serve out the set. One point from it, he blew the chance as Federer saved two set points before bouncing right back to break. If only he had nailed that open forehand down the line on the second set point instead of hitting the net. But it wasn't to be.

After Federer held for 6-5, he applied heavy pressure on Gonzalez in the 11th game. But to Gonzalez' credit, he saved four set points before ripping a clean backhand winner up the line to force a tiebreaker. So many instances during his brilliant career, Federer has raised his level in these breaking the will of opponents. He did it to recently retired American icon Andre Agassi two years ago during the U.S. Open final. Once again, Federer saved his best for the breaker by getting into a zone taking the first five points before closing out the set on his serve thanks to a crosscourt forehand winner.

"It's just a different game, especially the first set. I was missing a few of them to give him the upper hand. He should have won the first, but I came back and won. That might have been crucial," he said.

"The match may have been different if I had won the first set," Gonzalez admitted after falling to 0-10 against Federer. "Every time I have played Roger, I've never won the first set, so that really may be the key."

But if Federer thought it would be easy, his opponent had other ideas. After having his right shoulder treated by a trainer during a break, Gonzalez never went away holding serve the first three times thanks to some outstanding shotmaking which produced 31 winners. The problem was that his opponent was having an even easier time holding. In fact, Federer only dropped two points on his serve the entire set. When he finally broke Gonzalez in the seventh game for a 4-3 lead, the writing was on the wall. After each exchanged holds, he easily served out the set finishing it off with a sliced ace down the middle to pull within one set of his ultimate destiny.

The third set proved to be eerily similar as Gonzalez did everything he could to stay with Federer. But the world No.1's uncanny ability to find ridiculous angles like a short crosscourt forehand which setup a couple of break points in a pivotal seventh game during the competitive 43-minute set proved to be too much. Along with some impressive net play which saw Federer convert 34-of-43 (79 percent) and not allowing Gonzalez another look at his serve, the repeat winner held twice more closing it out in style by striking a backhand winner down the line on the full run. After the crowd pleasing shot which produced his 45th winner, he dropped his racket and fell to the court rolling around in celebration before getting a warm reception at the net from Gonzalez.

"I have to congratulate again Roger," Gonzalez told the crowd after being presented with the runner's up crown. "He's on the way to be maybe the best player ever. He is a great champion who played a really good match today, all week-- almost all his life. So I can take a lot out of this tournament."

" He makes tennis very simple, and when he gets a chance he takes it."

Federer has often been referred to as a genius.

"I mean, look, I guess I'm the best tennis player in the world," he said.

"You can call me a genius because I'm outplaying many of my opponents, kind of maybe playing a bit different, you know, winning when I'm not playing my best. All of that maybe means a little bit of that. So it's nice."

Nice would be one way to describe his tennis along with how well he handles himself off the court. After winning his third straight major and sixth in the last seven with the exception of last year's French falling to repeat winner Rafael Nadal, is a Grand Slam on the horizon this year? First he'll attempt to complete the career Grand Slam this May.

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Unseeded Serena Simply The Best, Pummels Sharapova For Third Australian Open Title

Just call her the Queen down under. When it comes to winning big matches in Australia, Serena Williams is much like rock star Tina Turner's hit: Simply The Best.

Doubted by many entering the tournament as an unseeded 81st ranked player in the world, Williams finished off her improbable run by taking apart top seeded Russian Maria Sharapova in a lopsided final, 6-1, 6-2 in front of a capacity Rod Laver Arena Saturday in Melbourne Park. Needing only an hour and three minutes, she became only the second unseeded woman to ever win the title joining Chris O'Neill, who accomplished it back in 1978 as a No.111.

It was the 25 year-old American's third Australian Open and eighth career slam. Her last one came two years ago in the same setting when she fought off match points against Sharapova in an epic semifinal before saving championship points against Lindsay Davenport before coming back to take the trophy.

This time, it came much easier for Williams as she played arguably her best match of a storied career. With the spotlight on, she came out extremely focused with an intense look in her eyes staring across at her accomplished 19 year-old opponent who the last time they met for a Grand Slam beat her soundly to win Wimbledon three years ago. Maybe that was on her mind as she then went out and executed a gameplan to perfection.

Dictating rallies from the very first toss of the ball, Williams was in a zone. Keeping Sharapova way behind the baseline and stepping in to take full advantage of a weak second serve, the popular American champion struck winners from both sides, finishing with 16 more (28-12) in dealing her opponent the worst slam defeat of the Russian's career.

After holding easily in the opening game, Williams battled back from 40-15 down to break the No.1 seed. Following another routine service hold, she broke Sharapova for a second straight time at love in impressive fashion. Having taken 10 straight points to get within two of another break, Serena emphatically won those points via a sizzling backhand winner down the line and then a forehand return winner to go ahead 4-0. She saved a break point in the fifth game before holding.

After Sharapova had a rare easy service game to get on the board for 1-5, Williams closed out the set without a problem. When she drew a long Sharapova backhand, the American yelled, "Come on!"

Not even a new set could revitalize the resilient Sharapova. Broken for the third time in the match in the opening game, it was an uphill battle just to get into the match. With Serena serving to consolidate the break, the Russian was given a big chance to get back on serve thanks to two consecutive double faults which produced only her second break opportunity. But it was quickly erased by an ace before Sharapova committed two unforced errors to give Williams a 2-0 lead.

It would become a double break cushion for Serena thanks to a Sharapova double and netted forehand. On cruise control, Williams easily held for 4-0. At that point, she had a shot to produce the most lopsided women's final in Aussie Open history.

But to Sharapova's credit, she had her two strongest holds and forced Williams to serve for the title. After winning the longest point of the match on a Sharapova forehand error, she nailed two aces to setup three championship points. When a big serve up the tee produced a short reply from her overmatched foe, Serena put the exclamation point on the huge victory with a backhand winner down the line before falling to the court in jubilation.

Congratulated at the net by Sharapova, an excited Williams then walked over to her corner to slap hands with her Mom Oracene Price and other supporters. It was a special moment for a player written off by skeptics after only playing in four tournaments last year due to a knee injury. But as her runner-up pointed out during the trophy ceremony, she shouldn't have been overlooked.

"You can never underestimate her as a performer...I know what she's capable of and she showed that today," a gracious Sharapova admitted to the audience. "She has showed it many, many times."

For the three-time Australian Open winner who seems to like odd years as evidenced by her victories in '03, '05 and now '07, it was clearly very emotional.

"I'm really enjoying this!" she boasted after lifting her ranking to No. 14 in the world.

"I'd like to thank my mom. I was a bad student this fortnight," she joked to the crowd's amusement. "I yelled at her, said some things under my breath. But she just kept coming. I really appreciate it."

As she thanked her family, coach and trainer, Serena made it a point to remember her late half-sister Yetunde Price, who died tragically of gunshot wounds in 2003.

"Most of all I would like to dedicate this win to my sister, who's not here. Her name is Yetunde. I just love her so much," she said getting emotional. "I'll try not to get teary-eyed but I said a couple of days ago, if I win this it's going to be for her. So thanks Tunde."

If that's what inspired her, it was truly a memorable tribute which won't soon be forgotten.

Gonzalez Routs Haas To Reach First Grand Slam Final, Faces Federer: The easy part is over for Fernando Gonzalez. That's if you consider the No.10 seeded Chilean's impressive wins over No. 19 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 5 James Blake, No.2 Rafael Nadal and No.12 Tommy Haas easy. All would probably conclude the same thing about the rejuvenated Gonzalez. That the 26 year-old is playing the best tennis of his career.

With a new coach, he's playing terrific and continued his run Friday night by dominating Haas in straight sets 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 to reach his first career Grand Slam final. So dominant was Gonzalez that he took the first 11 points of the match to set the tone. Moving freely from the baseline and using an effective slice backhand to setup a monster forehand which produced a ridiculous 18 of his 44 winners, he controlled the match from start to finish never allowing Haas to get untracked.

Serving flawlessly and attacking the German's serve, Gonzalez was never threatened in a match which took only an hour and 31 minutes to complete. Remarkably, the Chilean made only three unforced errors with them all coming in the second set. The only one which was marginally close. Striking an array of winners which featured backhands up the line and crosscourt, forehands every which way including one on the dead run which spun in, Gonzalez kept his opponent off balance even mixing in some deft touch on drop shots. He even finished it off with a running backhand crosscourt winner.

So overwhelming was his performance that invoked memories of defending champion Roger Federer's destruction of Andy Roddick the previous night. In that match, Federer allowed just six games and struck an eerily similar 45 winners as Roddick searched for answers. So can the man known as "Speedy" keep up this wonderful display against the best player in the world?

"He's the No. 1 player in the world by far...I lost many times with him," he admitted afterwards. "But now I'm playing much better than the last time we played. And it's only one match. I'm going to give everything that I have to try to win my first Slam."

For his career, he's never beaten Federer losing all nine times they've played. But he's also never played this well. In past years Gonzalez would go for broke too much and usually compile a large amount of errors to go with his winners making for a risky proposition when it came to just advancing. Now he's cleaned that up and will enter with a lot of confidence as he attempts to stop Federer from claiming his 10th career slam.

"I'm going to try to do the same thing that I've been doing: playing good tennis, don't do it too much, because my forehand side I feel I can do whatever I want. Is going to be a tough, but I'm playing a great level."

If he can maintain his high level, it could make for a compelling final. The action will take place live on ESPN2 Sunday morning at 3:30 Eastern time, 7:30 PM Australian time. If you can't catch it live, it will be replayed Sunday at noon. The way Gonzalez has played, there could be a surprise in store. We'll soon find out late tomorrow night.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Federer Shows Roddick Who's In Charge

Just cue up the theme from Charles 'N Charge and change the theme song to "Roger In Charge."

Throughout the 2007 Australian Open, there was plenty of build up for a semifinal clash between top seeded Roger Federer and sixth seeded Andy Roddick. After how well the 24 year-old American finished up last year under the guidance of tennis legend Jimmy Connors, it was clear that more was expected of the former 2003 U.S. Open champion. Especially after falling in four hard fought sets to Federer for the U.S. Open and then even having match points at the Masters Cup before the Swiss sensation rallied to defeat him.

A couple of weeks ago at the warm-up exhibition, he beat the world No.1 in three sets at the AAMI Classic to give him even more confidence that the gap was finally closing. Though the match didn't count on the ATP Tour, it had to be considered a huge step.

Clearly, Roddick came into this year's first slam believing he could finally exorcise the demons against Federer and finally snap the eight match losing streak if they met in the Final Four and reach his first Aussie Open final. After posting impressive well earned victories over '05 winner Marat Safin and ninth seeded Croatian Mario Ancic, he blitzed former high school pal Mardy Fish in straight sets to setup the much talked about rematch with the defending champion down under.

Maybe it was because of all the talk from Roddick and even some media who really believed the affable American had a real chance to finally reverse his luck against Federer. Or maybe it was just the nine-time slam winner's immense talent which was on full display in a 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 dismantling of his biggest threat at Rod Laver Arena Thursday night in Melbourne. Or maybe it was Roddick's nerves getting the best of him knowing what was at stake.

Whatever the reason, the out of this world Swiss maestro was in a different stratosphere than his opponent to improve his career head-to-head record to 13-1 against Roddick, advancing to his seventh consecutive final at a major which matched a record established by Jack Crawford in 1934.

Hitting 45 winners from every conceivable angle, the 25 year-old took apart Roddick in the first men's semifinal, which lasted only an hour and 23 minutes. So stunning was the performance that it even left his part-time coach Tony Roche and 68 year-old Aussie legend Rod Laver who made the trip from California in shock. One point in particular early in the second set told the story. Taking it to Federer, Roddick moved him from corner to corner and was in a winning position at the net but somehow, the two-time Australian Open champ ran down a deep approach and then in one motion knifed a backhand crosscourt winner off the frame which drew quite a reaction from the audience even leaving Roche to smile.

Amazingly, a match which had started so competitively turned into a tennis clinic by maybe arguably the best to ever play the sport. Though Federer broke Roddick in the opening game to start, the fiery American fought back to get on serve with a break of his own in the fourth game, taking advantage of a rare gift game from the Swede in which he commited four unforced errors. Defying logic, he made only eight the rest of the match.

After each held serve twice more for four apiece in the first set, Federer took control by breaking Roddick a second time. He would then serve out the set, finishing it off in style with an ace. As fate would have it, that would be the end of the match. From the point he trailed 3-4 in the opening set, Federer ran off the next 11 games en route to what amounted to a routine victory. Something that even left him at a loss for words.

"I had one of these days when everything worked," he admitted to the AP. "I was unbeatable. I was playing out of my mind. I am shocked myself."

So dominant was Federer on one of the biggest servers that he converted all seven break points. An unlikely scenario which probably won't be repeated.

Not surprisingly, the extraordinary level of his play was something he wasn't used to in Melbourne even though he was accustomed to it at the other three slams.

"I've played good matches here, but never really almost destroyed somebody. I've done it at the US Open, Wimbledon, French Open. Maybe not so much here because I didn't get so many chances yet," he noted.

"Here at the Australian Open I've won good matches, but never outright dominated another top player in the big stage in the semis or the final. For me, that's a highlight of my career to do it right here tonight, so I'm very, very happy about it."

Federer awaits Friday night's winner in the second semifinal between 10th seeded Chilean Fernando Gonzalez and 12th seeded German Tommy Haas. Neither has ever reached a slam final. Whoever prevails will try to do what Roddick couldn't. Make Federer sweat.

For Roddick, though he tried to stick to Connors' strategy of being more aggressive coming into net and applying pressure to Federer, he had little success only winning nine of 31 points there as too often he watched winner after winner sail out of reach. Never before had he been so outplayed at a major.

"It was frustrating. You know, it was miserable. It sucked. It was terrible. Besides that, it was fine," Roddick sarcastically remarked during an entertaining postmatch conference.

"I was playing well coming in. There's no reason to think...if you would have told me this beforehand, I probably didn't foresee it."

For the down to earth American who was clearly frustrated last night, it's back to work.

"You do your best not to get discouraged. I caught an absolute beating tonight, no two ways about it. You deal with it and you go back to the drawing board."

"I thought it was a good tournament. But I've proven to myself that I can get to the semifinals of Grand Slams," he added. "I'd love more than anything to get past that, to get over that hurdle for sure."

In order for that to happen, he'll still have to find a way to climb the ladder against the best the game has to offer and forget about this one. It just wasn't his night. There should be plenty of opportunities to gain revenge the rest of the year. Hopefully for tennis, he'll finally breakthrough.

Comebacking Serena To Take On Sharapova For Title: Before Roddick was dismissed by Federer, the women took center stage in the semis.

Serena Williams continued her successful comeback down under by posting a straight sets 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory over 10th seeded Czech Nicole Vaidisova. Ranked No.81 entering the tournament due to injuries, the two-time Australian Open champion once again was tougher during the most crucial points in her hard fought win to go from longshot to making the final. It's her first final in two years since winning down under over Lindsay Davenport.

In a seesaw first set, the 25 year-old seven-time slam winner traded breaks with Vaidisova before fighting off a set point to force a tiebreaker. In it, she built a 5-1 lead but couldn't hang on as her 17 year-old opponent valiantly fought back to square it at five all. But then as she usually does in the biggest moments, Williams stepped up by smacking a backhand winner to get a minibreak before closing out the set by drawing an error.

It looked like she would cruise to victory in the second set as she jumped out to a 5-1 double break lead. But one game away from the final, Williams couldn't put away her fiesty opponent. After Vaidisova held, she got one break back with a backhand winner to cut the lead to 5-3. Then the match got even more intense as Vaidisova fought off four match points before holding for 4-5. With Williams serving for the match, she even saved a fifth match point. But when Serena emphatically slammed an overhead, she had finally secured a spot in the final leaving the intense American thrilled with the result.

"I can't believe it," she expressed. "That's awesome. If I play well, which I don't think I've even reached yet at all in this's really hard for anyone on the women's tour to beat me."

That kind of confidence will be huge against her opponent, Maria Sharapova. The top seeded 19 year-old Russian advanced into her first Aussie Open final by posting a straight sets 6-4, 6-2 win over fourth seeded Belgian Kim Clijsters.

It was last year that the same two met in the quarterfinals and Clijsters proved to have too much in three grueling sets over Sharapova. But a year older with a U.S. Open fresh in her repertoire, the two-time slam champion outslugged her opponent from the baseline, finishing with 16 more winners- 27-11.

Though she got off to a slow start, Sharapova fought back twice from a break down in the opening set before going on to claim the up and down frame. After Clijsters broke her to go ahead 4-3, she raised her level to break consecutive times, taking the final three games of the set.

When she broke Clijsters for 2-0 in the second set, the Russian was in control. But the triumph wouldn't come without a challenge. In the fifth game, she overcame four double faults and fought off three break points to hold for 4-1. After each held serve, Sharapova broke for the fifth time in eight chances ripping a clean forehand winner down the line to clinch the match and end the retiring Clijsters' Australian Open career.

The 23 year-old former 2005 U.S. Open champ is planning to retire at the end of the season and start a family with fiancee Brian Lynch. It was an emotional sendoff for the popular player who once dated Australia's own Lleyton Hewitt.

"There are a lot of people I want to talk to face to face, people that work here and people I want to keep in touch with," she pointed out. "I have so many great memories from my times in Australia, not just tennis wise but also all the friends I have made."

The good news for Aussie fans is she hinted that she still planned to comeback as a spectator in future years and enjoy the event.

For Sharapova, she'll try to avenge her crushing three set semifinal defeat two years ago against Williams. It was an epic battle in which eventual champion Serena fought off match points before coming out on top. It won't be easy.

"I think she has nothing to lose," said Sharapova, who already has secured the No.1 spot in the world no matter the result Saturday. "Those are always dangerous opponents."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Islanders Blowing Golden Opportunity

They lost a tough one to the Lightning on home ice 4-3 before a near capacity crowd in a rare noon start on Martin Luther King Day. For Ted Nolan's Islanders, it was a missed opportunity against a club they've had little success against recently. The latest defeat dropped them to 0-2-1 this season with a final meeting set for March 20 in St. Petersburg.

Their last win against John Tortorella's club came almost three years ago via a 3-0 shutout at Nassau Coliseum back on March 21, 2004. A month later that same year, they were eliminated during the first round in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup winners.

"It was a tough loss," losing netminder Rick DiPietro told the AP after finishing with 20 saves to drop his club four points behind eighth in the East Tampa Bay and the seventh ranked Rangers. "That was a big two points we let get away."

Had they gotten them, they would've tied the Bolts in the standings and had a couple of games at hand in what continues to be a tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Seven total points separate the seventh seeded Rangers from 14th ranked Florida. So there isn't much margin for error in what should be an exciting race the final three months.

Truth be told, there isn't much difference between these clubs which is why when a potential four point swing game takes place, you must take advantage. But against a team they're battling, DiPietro's club wasn't disciplined enough in dropping their fourth straight at home. Ironically, their last victory there came against the archrival Rangers three weeks ago, a 2-0 blanking by the former 2000 first overall pick. If only they could play the Blueshirts more. They've dominated the series so far taking the first four with four crucial contests left.

"You have to expect a team like that to do well on the power play," the frustrated goalie pointed out after his team gave up two power play goals in five chances against. "We've got to stay out of the (penalty) box."

Instead, they once again allowed Islander killer Martin St. Louis to strike for his league-leading 29th goal. The former 2004 Hart recipient has made a living of destroying the Isles. His dominance began during that first round three years ago in which he torched them for four goals including the series clincher against DiPietro in overtime from a sharp angle. Since then, he's made life miserable for the Islanders by finding the back of the net six times in the last seven Lightning wins totaling nine points (6-3-9) including a goal and assist Monday.

The 31 year-old Vermont product helped put his club up 3-1 after two periods. After Viktor Kozlov cut it to one with a power play goal 1:10 into the final stanza, the Bolts' waterbug notched a helper on Vincent Lecavalier's eventual winner just over six minutes later to increase his point total to 62. It tied him with Caps' sniper Alexander Ovechkin for second, trailing just Sidney Crosby (21-45-66) for the Art Ross.

To their credit, the Isles didn't quit. Trailing by two, Trent Hunter scored his ninth of the season to cut it to one with 9:20 left. But in a period they controlled outshooting Tampa 16-5, they couldn't come up with the equalizer to at least get a point. With DiPietro pulled in the final minute-plus, Miroslav Satan came close but Johan Holmqvist held the post. The one-time Ranger stopped 33 Islander shots en route to his third consecutive victory over them. Maybe it's the logo.

Even though they probably deserved a better fate, the Isles were left with nothing and fell to just 2-7-1 in their last 10. Clearly not good enough if Nolan's team wants to make the postseason and silence many critics. Something they're capable of accomplishing. Most nights, the effort has been there. But it's all about getting more W's.

Right now, they're a mediocre 21-20-4 with 46 points, which puts them in a three-way tie for ninth in the East with Boston and Toronto. Both Pittsburgh and Washington are one point behind while Florida trails by three. There's plenty of time for the Islanders to separate themselves from the pack and challenge both the Rangers and Lightning for the final two spots.

They have 37 games remaining and will need to get back to the formula which worked over a month ago and had them challenging for the Atlantic lead. Now 12 points behind the red hot first place Devils, they've got a lot of work to do. The good news is that struggling team captain Alexei Yashin finally scored breaking a 12-game drought. Maybe it will get him going. Since returning from a knee sprain last month, he's only had points in seven of 15 games. That must change.

They'll also need lone All Star representative Jason Blake to start finishing again. The gritty 33 year-old Minnesota native is without a goal in his last six. He leads the club with 23 for the season including a team best 11 on the man-advantage. If Blake can rediscover his scoring touch, it should provide a lift.

In the mean time, Nolan's bunch will look to bounceback Tuesday night against one of those teams they're competing with in Pittsburgh before traveling to Philadelphia Thursday for the final game before the All Star break. The Pennsylvania trip is a chance to reestablish momentum in what's been a nice season.

It's time for their best players to step up.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Calling Out Mr. Lupica

It's way past time someone called out this little hypocritical weasel who writes for the Daily News. I can only be referring to the overly biased Mike Lupica. This is only one of the most accomplished writers out there. But I have had enough of this clown!

This guy is a first rate nerd who shows off his disgusting biases at every turn in his columns. According to Lupica, the Mets have never overpaid for an aging pitcher or two while the BIG BAD Yankees have done it repeatedly breaking some sort of unwritten rule.

Oh really? Didn't Mets GM Omar Minaya give two years to 50 year-old El Duque? We kid. Nobody really knows the real age of the Cuban pitcher who's done quite well for himself in the majors, helping the Yankees three-peat from '98-00 and of course playing a pivotal role in the White Sox World title a couple of years ago. But let's be honest. Why would any GM give him two years? At any minute he could breakdown. How come Lupica never mentioned how the same pitcher injured himself in warmups and was done for last postseason? Because that would've required this Mets phony to take his own team to task. He would never do it because he has no backbone.

Only an angry Lupica would make his column today solely on bashing the Yankees when they finally came to their collective senses and unloaded the Old Unit back to Arizona for reliever Luis Vizcaino and three prospects. And only this idiot would make some off the wall comment like if Randy Johnson had performed better in October and led the Bronx Bombers to that elusive 27th World championship, then they would've treated him differently. Duh!

Are the Yanks going to go after the biggest money grabber in baseball Roger Clemens? They could. But should it take away from what Yankee GM Brian Cashman was able to get for a 43 year-old washed up pitcher coming off back surgery? Of course not. But in Lupica's warped world, he would never recognize the fact that for the third time this offseason, Cashman has gotten rid of dead weight for younger players cutting payroll in the process and pissing off Mets fans. He has done so much more than Minaya to improve his club this winter. Though Doug Mientkiewicz doesn't count.

Lupica contended in his column that because Johnson pitched in the AL, he had as good a season as returning 34 year-old Yankee Andy Pettite. Johnson won 17 games and had a 5.00 ERA while Pettite won 14 games with a 4.20 ERA in the Senior Circuit. Considering that the AL has much better lineups, it looks like he has a point. But Lupica didn't do his homework. While Johnson continued to be up and down all season, Pettite turned it up finishing 7-4 with a 2.80 ERA after the All Star Break. Even more impressive was his 86 strikeouts in 93.1 innings. The best news for Yankee fans was that the southpaw got stronger down the stretch posting a 5-2 record with a 2.40 ERA the final two months to almost vault the Astros over the Cardinals for the NL Central. More than you can say for Johnson, who limped to the finish line with a 5.47 ERA in September before another disappointing October outing in the Yanks' first round loss to Detroit.

Here's a question to New York baseball fans. Who would you rather have? Thirty-eight year-old Mike Mussina or 41 year-old Tom Glavine? Who's more durable? Pettite or El Duque? You decide which staff is older and has more question marks. Oh btw...26 year-old real Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang won 19 games with a 3.63 ERA in his second year and finished second to Johan Santana for the Cy Young. Is that young enough for Lupica?

Was it my imagination that while Lupica's Amazins added another 40+ year-old outfielder in Moises Alou who won't play more than 100 games, the Yanks got rid of 38 year-old knucklehead Gary Sheffield and somehow managed to get three prospects including highly rated pitcher Humberto Sanchez?

So who's had the more productive offseason? You decide.

Monday, January 01, 2007

League's Hypocrisy Unbelievable

A month ago, Caps' sophomore star forward Alexander Ovechkin caught Buffalo's Daniel Briere with a blatant cheapshot during a line change. The 2005-06 Calder winner's check from behind knocked the Sabres' offensive leader into the boards. For all parties involved during that December 2 incident at Verizon Center in the nation's capital, they were fortunate that the Buffalo captain wasn't seriously injured. Especially on a dangerous blindside hit which could've resulted in a concussion.

If you give Ovechkin the benefit of the doubt, maybe he didn't realize his strength. The fiery 21 year-old Russian plays the game like a bull giving everything he has every shift. It's resulted so far in another great season with the former 2004 first overall pick tied for the league lead with Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis in goalscoring with 25 goals. With an assist in Monday afternoon's 3-2 loss to Phoenix, the Washington sniper moved into fifth in scoring with 51 points.

There's little doubt that he is a special player who gets the most of his talent. And that is a good thing for not only his team but for the NHL. He is a superstar who the league should promote at every turn. However, they shouldn't turn the other cheek when he makes a mistake and nearly injures another player. Unfortunately, that's essentially what happened. Instead of facing suspension, the affable Russian got a slap on the wrist, instead being fined $1,000.

Fast forward to the rematch between the teams last week in Buffalo. The Sabres made a statement by scoring the game's first six goals in a dominant first before cruising to a 6-3 win at HSBC Arena on December 26. In the same game, Briere took a cheapshot of his own spearing Ovechkin to the ice while officials were screened out by Buffalo teammate Brian Campbell, causing it to be undetected. To Ovechkin's credit, he got up and challenged Briere to a fight. But Briere's teammates prevented it.

According to the rulebook, a deliberate spear attempt is cause for a five minute major, automatic game misconduct and a league review. A few days ago, this incident was reviewed by the league before the Sabres took on Carolina. Predictably, nothing happened allowing Briere to dress and notch an assist in a 4-1 win over the Hurricanes on December 28.

So, in two instances where a star player was involved in a cheap play, they didn't miss a game and only one was fined.

Now let's examine what took place this past Saturday night at the Garden during the Rangers' 4-1 victory over the Caps. Throughout the relatively chippy contest, Washington goon and NHL bad boy Donald Brashear ran several Rangers including star captain Jaromir Jagr. This wasn't any surprise as playing the moody Czech physical has seemed to get him off his game. However, during a faceoff in the third period, the ex-Flyer enforcer elbowed Jagr. On the same shift, No.68 retaliated by taking down the big man drawing an interference penalty. When Brashear returned to the bench, he was called out by Ranger star Brendan Shanahan. During their next shift, Shanahan challenged Brashear to a fight, sticking up for Jagr and gaining a ton of respect from teammates and the home crowd who ate it up chanting, "Shanny, Shanny, Shanny."

It was quite a statement made by the 37 year-old leading goalscorer for the Blueshirts. Never one to back away from a challenge he issues, the 600 goal member took his lumps and did relatively well even landing a couple of uppercuts. When the scrap concluded, Brashear's theatrics weren't over. Apparently Ranger defenseman Aaron Ward uttered something to him which he didn't like. He reacted by suckerpunching Ward in the face, drawing a match penalty and automatic ejection ending his night.

Not to be outdone was Ranger enforcer Colton Orr, who late in the second stuck up for Ryan Hollweg and took on Brashear. With under five minutes remaining in the contest, the 24 year-old Manitoban cheapshotted Ovechkin with a high hit to the head knocking down the star and drawing a charging minor before accepting Washington defenseman Shaone Morrisonn's challenge.

There's little doubt that Orr's move was dangerous and could've resulted in serious injury to Ovechkin. So when NHL Senior Executive VP of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell ruled on it yesterday, it was no surprise that the former Bruin faced serious suspension. As a first time offender, he was given five games and lost $13,235.29.

Now consider that 34 year-old Brashear has been in the league much longer and was a repeat offender who had already been suspended three games this season. Somehow, he only got one game for his suckerpunch.

Here was Mr. Campbell's statement on why Orr received four extra games:

"The Rangers player’s actions with his stick were reckless and dangerous. Although no injury resulted, the action is unacceptable."

This seems like a fair assessment. For the record, I don't have a problem with why Orr got five games. However, how does Brashear get only a game? Was that not dangerous? He could've fractured Ward's cheekbone. Was it as bad as what Orr did? Probably not. But it should have been worth at least three games.

Punches like that can do damage. Just ask former Ranger Jeff Beukeboom, who suffered a career ending concussion after a Matt Johnson cheapshot to the back of the head.

But what's the sense trying to make sense of a league which has gone soft? This is the new corporate NHL. Where they protect superstars even when those stars are in the wrong committing violent acts like the ones Ovechkin and Briere got away with on each other. Do you think for one second if it was a little known fourth liner, they wouldn't have been severely punished?

And that is what's wrong with this newer softer product which is full of hypocrisy. Why should one set of players be held to a higher standard? Shouldn't there be some consistency? Not anymore.

All commish Gary Bettman's game is doing is turning off diehard supporters. If you don't believe me, just look at the responses this got on TSN:

The real hockey fans know the deal with what they're seeing. But they no longer matter in Bettman's NHL. An NHL which has turned its back on the diehards.

Is it worth it? But hey. As long as they have enough corporate sponsors telling them what to do, it's not going to change anytime soon. That's who they're selling the game to.