Thursday, April 30, 2009

Toronto Blue Jays Leading the Way in MLB



Despite last night's 11-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals, the Toronto Blue Jays continue to be a surprise this season and find themselves tied for first with the Boston Red Sox in the American League's East Division. Not only are they leading their division with a 15-8 win/loss record and a .652 winning percentage, the Jays lead Major League Baseball in wins headed into today's games. While the season is still young, wins in the month of April can go a long way to being in contention in August and September.

Last year, the Jays were 35-39 on June 19th and had lost 13 of 17 games to fall 10.5 games behind Boston when General Manager J.P. Ricciardi fired Manager John Gibbons and brought back Cito Gaston. While with the team, Gibbons compiled a 305-305 win/loss record but horrendous hitting with runners in scoring position would often ruin a strong outing by the pitching staff. After Gaston returned to the team, he concentrated on improving the offence and the team went 51-37 to finish the season, including a ten game winning streak.

With half a season and this year's spring training to improve the club's hitting, Gaston has worked wonders. The players now feel they have a game plan when approaching the plate for their at-bats and will often sit next to Gaston to discuss the situation before heading to the on-deck circle. While the season is only one month old, the Jays lead the Major's in runs (136), hits (242), batting average (.290) and total bases (391). Leading the way after missing most of last season with a concussion is Aaron Hill. In his first 101 at-bats he has 38 hits and a .376 batting average to lead the team in both categories. Adam Lind, Marco Scutero and rookie Travis Snider have all been impressive to start the season as well. Veteran infielder Kevin Millar has been a dependable bat when filling in for first baseman Lyle Overbay and has 11 hits in 38 at-bats (.344 batting average).

The improved hitting has been a blessing as the pitching staff has been hit by injuries. After having the best pitching in baseball last season, this year's starting squad currently consists of pitching ace Roy Halladay and several rookies. Halladay is having his usual stellar start to the season; second in the Major's with 4 wins and 1 loss. He has 32 strikeouts in five starts this season. Rookie pitcher Ricky Romero was a surprise in training camp and started three games for the Jays before going on the 15 day disabled list with a right oblique muscle strain. According to the Jays web site, he "played catch" April 29th with no problems and should be back by mid-May. In his three starts he is 2-0 with 13 strikeouts and a 1.71 earned run average.

Another rookie pitcher on the Jays is North Vancouver native Scott Richmond. Only two years ago he was pitching for the Edmonton Cracker-Cats of the Independent Northern League. When his contract in Edmonton expired, he signed a minor league contract with the Blue Jays in 2008. He was a late season call-up last year, posting a 1-3 record in 5 starts and had an ERA of 4.00. He did not have a stellar spring training but stayed with the Jays as the team's fifth starter. He has proven that Gaston's faith in him was warranted; he is 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 2009. In his last outing versus the Royals he pitched a career high seven innings while striking out 5 batters. A rookie at 29 years of age, Richmond hopes to be a Blue Jay for years to come and is not just a token Canadian on the Jays staff, he has earned his spot in the starting rotation.

As the Jays continue to celebrate "Flashback Friday's" this season - honouring past Blue Jays players, I was quick to dismiss the hiring of Cito Gaston last year as a marketing ploy. I'll be the first to admit a mistake, I believed the two-time World Series winner as Manager of the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993 was brought in to keep interest in the struggling team alive. Playing the game of "remember when we were good" to distract fans from the on-field mistakes. However, Gaston has done a tremendous job since re-joining the team and brought a calming presence to the dug-out. The early success of the hitters prove he is doing exactly what he has brought in to do, win games.

Already leaders in their division, the good news keeps on coming for Toronto as starting pitchers Romero, Jesse Litsch and Casey Janssen will soon join the club after time on the disabled list. With five quality starters, one of the best bullpens in baseball for the past several years and timely hitting, the Blue Jays could be in position to reach the post season for the first time since their World Series Championships. The season is young, but this year's Jays are on the right track. Have a great sports day everyone.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The 32nd Time is the Charm



It would appear that the Boston Bruins are set to wrap-up their first round series against Montreal in the NHL playoffs. The Canadiens have won twenty-four of thirty-one playoff meetings between the teams, but it seems that the thirty-second time is the charm for the boys from Boston.

Unlike the first place team in the Western Conference, the San Jose Sharks, the Bruins are looking like a true number one seed against the struggling eighth place Habs. Tim Thomas has been solid when needed in goal, Zdeno Chara has been his usual towering presence on the blue line, and Marc Savard and Phil Kessel have delivered the knock-out punch in the offensive zone.

For their part, Montreal has struggled for months to find consistency in their play and the end result will be an early exit from this year's playoffs. It has been such a struggle in Montreal, if the season had continued for another week the Florida Panthers or Buffalo Sabres would be in this series against Boston and the Habs would be tenth in the East.

Carey Price put forth a better effort in game three in a losing cause, but unlike last season, he is often out of position after the first save and is being beaten on the second shot. Price will have to steal game four and hope the team gains momentum from his effort. Price can't do it alone though, the defense has been allowing over thirty shots per game on a regular basis and the forwards are not allowing the defensemen the opportunity to make a quality first pass. With Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider questionable for game four, the mountain to climb gets higher and higher.

In an article at the Canadiens web site - "It ain't over till it's over", the history books and statistics get dusted off to explain that one hundred and fifty-five playoff match-ups have started three games to none and only two teams have won four straight; the 1942 Maple Leafs and the 1975 Islanders. Will we see history made in this series? In a word, no. Let's take a quick look at the numbers...

Boston's goal scorers are doing their jobs - scoring. Marc Savard has 2 goals and 5 points, as does Phil Kessel (3 goals, 5 points). Former Montreal cast-off Michael Ryder has 2 goals and 4 points. Every Bruins player has at least one point except for Aaron Ward, Blake Wheeler and the injured Matt Hunwick. On the Montreal side, Alex Kovalev leads the way with 2 goals and Saku Koivu has 2 assists. When Glen Metropolit, Chris Higgins and call-up Yannick Weber are tied with Kovalev and Koivu in points, trouble is brewing. Three other players have 1 point and everyone else has been shut down by the Boston defense.

In goal, Boston's Tim Thomas is 3-0 with a 1.67 goals against average and a .940 save percentage. He has faced 84 shots but never truly been tested. In game two, Boston had twenty scoring chances to Montreal's five. At the other end of the ice, Carey Price sports an 0-3 record and has a league worst 4.15 GAA. His .882 save percentage is second from the bottom, beating out Jose Theodore's league worst .810%.

The final game of the season between Montreal and Pittsburgh illustrated the confidence issues Price is having this year. After giving up a short handed goal to make the score 2-1 Penguins, Price's shoulders slumped and he looked defeated. Still on the power play, Montreal lost the puck to Chris Kunitz. Leaving his own zone, Kunitz almost dumped the puck down the ice but decided to push for the Canadiens blue line. When he got to the line he almost dumped the puck again but took another look towards Price and lobbed the puck at the net. The result? The Penguins third goal of the game.

A few weeks ago, a host at the Fan 590 in Toronto told this joke: How many Habs fans does it take to change a light bulb? The answer - 10... 1 to change the bulb and 9 to talk about how good the bulb used to be. Yes, to quote the Habs site, "it ain't over till it's over", but this one's over... Have a great sports day everyone.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The St. Louis Blues and the Other Mason



The Columbus Blue Jackets are on the verge of qualifying for the NHL playoffs for the first time in their franchise history. A major factor in their improvement has certainly been their goaltender and Rookie of the Year candidate Steve Mason. However, since January one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference has been the St. Louis Blues. As the Blues make their own playoff push and the young stars begin to shine, one story in St. Louis this season is the other Mason; thirty-two year old Chris Mason.

The first Blues goalie to post a five game winning streak since Fred Brathwaite in the 2002-03 season, Mason has continued to establish himself as a legitimate number one goalie in the league. Having played in 55 games this season, he has a 25-21-7 win/loss record, 5 shutouts, a 2.48 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. Acquired from Nashville in exchange for a fourth round draft pick in 2008, Head Coach Andy Murray is getting full value from Mason and his $3 million per year contract.

The Red Deer, Alberta native was a fifth round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in 1995 but Mason spent several years in the IHL and AHL before seeing regular playing time in the NHL with Nashville in 2006. In 190 career NHL games, he has a 83-64-1-18 record, a 2.57 GAA and a .913 save percentage. In his first season with St. Louis, Mason has established career highs for wins and games played and has brought stability in nets to a team that has used five goaltenders this season (Mason, Manny Legace - 29 games played, Ben Bishop - 6 gp, Marek Schwarz - 2 gp, and current back-up Chris Holt - 1 gp). Making Mason's overall numbers more impressive is the fact he was 3-13-1 in his first 18 games with the Blues.

With only two games remaining for the Blues - Friday at home versus Steve Mason and the Blue Jackets and Sunday in Colorado against the Avalanche, their destiny is truly in their own hands. After 80 games, St. Louis has a 39-31-10 record and are 8th in the Western Conference with 88 points; the Anaheim Ducks are 7th (also with 88 points), Nashville and Minnesota are chasing the pack with 86 and 85 points. The Blue Jackets play in Chicago this evening (Wednesday) and a loss to the Blackhawks could make Friday's match-up between Columbus and the Blues a battle for 6th place in the West. The Blues are 3-1-1 against Columbus this season.

Chris Mason's only playoff appearance was a first round loss to the San Jose Sharks while with Nashville in 2006. After winning game 1 for the Predators, the Sharks won four straight to take the series. While Mason would love the chance to avenge the loss, moving up the standings and avoiding the NHL's best team in the regular season could help the Blues continue their winning ways into the playoffs. Have a great sports day everyone.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Eyes of the Hurricane



The Carolina Hurricanes have quietly stormed up the standings in the Eastern Conference with a seven game win streak and now find themselves in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. With only four games remaining, Head Coach Paul Maurice and goaltender Cam Ward have set the table for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Besides the overall win streak, the Canes have won ten straight at home and will make life difficult for any visitors to the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs two years in a row after winning the Stanley Cup over Edmonton in a hard fought series in 2006, but that will certainly change this Spring. Cam Ward has returned to form and is leading the way this season. The NHL Player of the Month in March with a 10-1-2 record, a minuscule 1.98 goals against average and a .938 save percentage, Ward will return to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season. His previous trip to the playoffs resulted in a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. Carolina's first round pick in 2002 (25th overall), Ward is among the league's best goalies with a 37-22-5 record in 65 games played. His 2.45 GAA ranks 11th in the league and his .916 save percentage is 12th. His numbers have been steadily improving as the season progresses, but he hasn't been the only story in Carolina.

While great goaltending is essential in the playoffs, so is veteran leadership. The Hurricanes have a true leader in Ray Whitney. The Sharks second round pick in 1991, Whitney joined the Canes in 2006 as an unrestricted free agent and helped win the Cup with 15 points in the 2006 playoffs. A former member of the Oilers, Panthers, Blue Jackets and Red Wings, he has played in 988 regular season games and currently leads Carolina in scoring with 24 goals and 71 points. He will once again be called upon come playoff time, as will Eric Staal.

Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has become an integral part of the Hurricanes. While he got off to a slow start, since he was reunited with former line-mate Eric Cole at this year's trade deadline he has regained his All-Star form. Going into the last four games of the season, he has scored 35 goals and 34 assists to rank second in team scoring and 10th in the league in goals.

The Ottawa Senators have had a puck moving D-man on their shopping list since they traded away Joe Corvo to Carolina with Patrick Eaves in exchange for Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore. Stillman is third in team scoring in Florida, Commodore is an integral part of the Blue Jackets defense and while Eaves has had injury troubles, Corvo leads the Hurricane blue-liners with 14 goals and 24 assists and has dressed for every game this season. Never a defensive D-man, Corvo is thriving in the Carolina sunshine and has 6 game winning goals this season. As Ottawa starts playing golf next week, they should be wondering if that trade was worth it.

Going into the final week of the season, Carolina is relatively injury free. Only Matt Cullen is on the injured list with a "lower body" injury and he is considered day-to-day since suffering the injury March 21st.

Ward's monthly honours give him a special place in franchise history. Eric Staal is the only other Hurricane to receive the award; he was the Offensive Player of the Month in October 2005. Hartford Whaler - Mike Rogers in 1980, was the last player to win a monthly award for the franchise before Staal and Ward came along according to a Hurricanes press release. If the winning streak continues, the Canes may be earning more trophies when the season is over. There is one in particular they hope to be bringing home to Raleigh in June. Have a great sports day everyone.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Voice is Expanding...


Thanks for your emails everyone. Many have wondered, where is the new stuff? Well, The Voice of Sport is expanding... While there will be a few less postings here at blogspot.com, I am pleased to have found several new homes for my writing. In the grand scheme of things there will be more articles then ever before; available on a more regular basis. Voice of Sport readers know I write for a monthly newspaper - Main Street. I am pleased to announce that I will be a featured writer in their new weekly on-line edition - Main Street Week. Look for the first one Friday, April 17th, 2009 at laurentianlife.com. With the NHL playoffs about to start, MLB getting underway and this summer's CFL season, it is a truly exciting time for sports fans and I am looking forward to writing The Voice of Sport in all its new locations. Have a great sports day everyone.