After dropping the first two games of the Western Conference Finals on the road to San Antonio, the Memphis Grizzlies need to improve on both ends if they’d like to win Saturday’s Game 3 at home. Here are just a few keys for victory on Saturday and the duration of the series.
1) Get Zach Randolph’s confidence back- When Z-Bo plays well, Memphis wins. He had two points in Game 1 and was 6-for-18 shooting in Tuesday’s overtime loss in Game 2. He had 18 rebounds, which means he was active, but he needs to improve. Marc Gasol does also after shooting 4-for-12 in Game 2. Without their big men excelling, there’s no way the Grizzlies will win one of the next two at home.
2) Keep 3-point attempts down- Memphis is 10-for-29 shooting from deep this series, a little better than its 33.3% percentage this postseason, and at its 14.5 attempts per game. The Grizzlies have an identity, and that’s pounding the ball into the paint and getting to the rim. Shooting the three plays into San Antonio’s hands and will result in losses. Simple as that.
3) Solve the small forward problem- One of the biggest advantages the Spurs have in this series is at the three, where Kawhi Leonard is a huge mis-match against the likes of Tayshaun Prince. Leonard had 12 points, nine boards and a +15 in Game 2 and there isn’t really anyone Memphis can put on him other than Tony Allen. And doing that opens things up for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
4) Get Conley more involved- There’s no reason for Jerryd Bayless to put up more shots than Mike Conley, but it happened in Game 2 (18-14). Conley has become one of the better point guards in the league by being more aggressive and assertive, and he must do that against San Antonio to avoid a series defeat.
Yankees @ Orioles- First and fourth place in the AL East are separated by four games, as Baltimore looks to rebound from a sweep at the hands of the Rays. CC Sabathia takes the mound against former Yankee Freddy Garcia Monday on ESPN, and Tuesday’s game will be on MLB Network. New York OF Brett Gardner is feeling it on the base-paths now after four steals last week. He’ll be this series’ player to watch.
Athletics @ Rangers- Oakland is back over .500 after its sweep of Kansas City and will now look to gain ground against the AL West-leading Rangers. Yu Darvish pitches for Texas on Tuesday against Dan Straily. Elvis Andrus and Mitch Moreland have been tearing it up for the Rangers over the last week, and are the players to watch.
Diamondbacks @ Rockies- The two surprise clubs in the NL West are separated by one game, and first place in the division could be at stake. Sensational rookie Patrick Corbin goes for Arizona on Monday, while lefties Ian Kennedy and Jhoulys Chacin pitch on Tuesday. Carlos Gonzalez and Paul Goldschmidt were two of the top hitters in baseball last week, and are the players to watch.
Nationals @ Giants- Two of the NL’s most talented teams square off out west, with two tremendous pitching matchups on tap for the series. Stephen Strasburg and Matt Cain pitch on Tuesday, with Gio Gonzalez and Madison Bumgarner going on Wednesday. Adam LaRoche belted four homers last week to go with 10 RBI’s, and is the hitter to watch.
Tigers @ Indians- Coming off his three-homer performance on Sunday, Miguel Cabrera and Detroit are now in second place in the AL Central thanks to Indians. Jason Kipnis and Cleveland have won 17 of 21 going into this crucial two-game series. Ace Justin Verlander takes on former ace Ubaldo Jimenez on Wednesday.
AL MVP- Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Detroit- A .373 average with 42 RBI’s and the third best WAR in the AL will give Cabrera the early leg up on his second consecutive AL MVP.
NL MVP- Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati- Look past his six homers and 20 RBI’s and gravitate towards his .346 average and absurd .473 OBP. He’s second in the NL in WAR to two Brewers and led the Reds to a 26-17 record.
AL Cy Young- Yu Darvish, SP, Texas- The Japanese righty leads the AL in wins and strikeouts and is third in WHIP for the first place Rangers.
NL Cy Young- Matt Harvey, SP, NY Mets- Clayton Kershaw came close to topping the Mets sensation and has a better ERA, but Harvey has more wins, strikeouts per nine innings, a better walk ratio, a better xFIP and a higher WAR.
AL Rookie- Nick Tepesch/Justin Grimm, SP’s, Texas- No AL rookie has been impressive at all, but this duo has six combined wins and an ERA around four. They’ve been instrumental in helping an injury ravaged Rangers rotation.
NL Rookie- Shelby Miller, SP, St. Louis- This top prospect has more than lived up to the hype, posting a 1.40 ERA in over 51 innings to help the first place Cardinals. He narrowly gets this award in a stacked rookie class with Arizona starter Patrick Corbin and Atlanta hitting phenomenon Evan Gattis.
AL Manager- Terry Francona, Cleveland- Tito has taken all the additions the Indians amassed during the offseason and transformed it into a legitimate playoff contender. Joe Girardi gets an honorable mention as well for the job he’s done with the Yankees.
NL Manager- Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh- The Pirates do nothing exceptionally well, but they’ve been just good enough and have won enough close games to be just 2 1/2 games out of the division and league lead.
NEW YORK– By Joseph Wasserman
This season was supposed to finally be the end of a long, super-successful run in The Bronx. Six weeks into it, that has been anything but the case.
The Yanks have won six of seven after Monday’s doubleheader split in Cleveland, and currently sit in a familiar spot atop the AL East. The roster is without several big-name stars, and yet it all feels so similar. Lacking the usual star-studded lineup, this Yankees squad hasn’t been too different from the other ones since 1995, when the Yanks began this major string of success.
On Sunday, Joe Girardi fielded a team with Chris Stewart behind the dish, Lyle Overbay at First, Jayson Nix at Short, Chris Nelson at Third, Brett Gardner in Center, Vernon Wells in Left, and Travis Hafner cleaning up in the DH spot. The only stars were the 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki in Right, and Robinson Cano at Second. But with a lineup of replacement players, Girardi still got his club a win, which has become nothing but routine as of late.
It may feel strange looking at a Yankees box score and seeing these names on the roster, but other than the names, nothing has changed. The guys in the pinstriped uniforms are getting it done, as per usual.
Going into the season, the hope for the Bombers was that they could “hang in there” until the starters came off the DL. Well if “hanging in there” means leading the division, the Yankees are certainly “hanging tough.”
The Yankees have to be thrilled with the early-season results they are getting. The Toronto Blue Jays, a team many picked to win the division after the franchise had a busy offseason, are in dead last in the division, with a dismal 15-24 record. While the Jays have already proved the experts wrong—it would be a shocker if they turned things around—the Yankees seem to be in the early process of doing the same thing and silencing those critics who wrote them off after a rash of offseason injuries and free-agency departures.
With expectations lower than they have been in years, and a ball club full of backups and cast offs, the New York Yankees are, in some ways, an underdog. But to have that outlook is more than ridiculous; it is just about impossible. Underdog and Yankees are forever incompatible, regardless of who’s at short. And right now, Jayson Nix is more than a starter—he’s a Yankee.
1) I think just like in the NBA playoffs, the first round of NHL postseason play will feature two series sweeps. I don’t see the New York Rangers overcoming their offensive woes to beat the intensity of the Washington Capitals any time soon. The Caps are playing too well, and are riding some insane momentum (which got them to the 3rd seed). Sorry to the folks on Broadway, but this may be a short postseason for New York fans.
2) The other sweep will be of the Vancouver Canucks by the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have SUCH a good team, and are clicking a whole lot better than the Canucks are right now. You can’t have goalie issues in the playoffs – it’s as simple as that. Either figure out who’s in net, or go ahead and book a tee time.
3) I think a Toronto-Montreal series would have been epic, but I like the current rivalry and intensity behind the Toronto-Boston matchup. The big trade which sent sniper Phil Kessel from Boston to the Leafs has been a great point to ponder for fans of both teams and is continuing to be a key point in the series. In Game 2 on Saturday night, Kessel netted his first even strength goal against his former club in 24 games which turned out to be the game winner. Will Kessel help his team move ahead to the next round, or will it be the guy the Bruins drafted with the picks they received in the trade, Tyler Seguin? We’ll see, but I have my money on Kessel.
4) Going back to the Sharks, I think they are the real team to beat out West. Sure Chicago is great and all, but the Sharks are scoring at an amazing rate, and have Niemi playing like he did when was back on the …wait for it… Blackhawks. This is such a powerful and deep team that you wonder how they weren’t a higher seed. After dismantling the Canucks so far, the Sharks should be the top club in the next round in the Western Conference.
5) Back East – I don’t really buy into the Penguins just yet. Sure they’re amazing, but the Islanders have been scoring against them fairly easily (except for Game 1, of course). The Islanders are a solid team and I don’t think anyone figured they’d be swept, but eight goals in two games is not something the Pens can sustain. Game 3 definitely could have gone either way and this could’ve been a 2-1 New York advantage going into Game 4 at home. The Isles are young and are fueled by their intese fans – this series could slip away from the Pens.
(1) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. (8) NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Sunday’s 5-4 overtime loss at Nassau Coliseum put the Penguins ahead 2-1 in the series. It was a tough pill for these young Islanders to swallow.
Still, the Isles showed a lot of heart and promise. As TSN’s Pierre LeBrun said after the game, “regardless of how this series ends, I think they’ve made their point.”
After getting blown out in Game 1 and falling behind 3-1 within the first eight minutes of Game 2, New York roared back to score three unanswered goals and steal a win in Pittsburgh. They showed that same resolve in Game 3, erasing a 4-2 deficit in the third period and sending the contest to overtime.
Evgeni Nabokov has to be better if the Isles are going to have a shot to even this series. I wouldn’t even say that most of the goals have been his fault, but he’s looked far too shaky nonetheless and, as the most playoff-tested player on the roster, he needs to step up and be a leader.
John Tavares did that yesterday, scoring the game-tying-goal and igniting an eruption at Nassau Coliseum that was, in many ways, very reminiscent of Shawn Bates’s penalty shot goal against Toronto in the 2002 playoffs. This man is deserving of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP and he did one heck of a job making a case for himself on national television.
If Nabokov can rise to the occasion and his team does a better job of staying out of the penalty box, there’s no reason why the Islanders can’t push this series to the brink.
As for the Penguins, they’ve looked awfully-human for a team that’s a supposed Stanley Cup shoo-in. Defensively, they’ve been abysmal and, at times, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been equally abysmal. He’s made some big saves but some bigger mistakes and that has to change if the Pens are to fulfill those championship aspirations they undoubtedly have.
On the other hand, Sidney Crosby has been sensational. He made an immediate impact upon his return in Game 2, scoring twice in the first eight minutes and assisted on three of the five Pittsburgh goals during yesterday’s tilt. The Islanders have to do a better job defending him and taking away his options. If you try and defend Crosby man-to-man, you’re probably going to fail.
However, I must say that Crosby does continue to get away with embellishment and that it is absolutely unacceptable for any sports league to have a double-standard when it comes to officiating. The Islanders lost because of multiple reasons yesterday, but that weak penalty call on Brian Strait for an apparent “hold” on Crosby was a horrible one, whether it’s overtime of Game 3 or a Thursday night during the regular season.
All in all, I like Pittsburgh’s chances to win the series, but I do think the Isles have another win in them. I also think that, even if the Penguins do advance to the next round, they are very, very beatable.
(2) MONTREAL CANADIENS VS. (7) OTTAWA SENATORS
These last few weeks have been an utter disaster for the Montreal Canadiens. Sunday night, they fell behind 2-1 in the series and in did so in catastrophic fashion.
At the start of the third period, the Habs were still very much in the hockey game, trailing by a single tally. Four-straight goals by the Senators changed all of that, and they ended up blowing the doors off the Canadiens, by a final score of 6-1.
A controversial hit by Eric Gryba of the Senators on Montreal’s Lars Eller resulted in a two-game suspension and some not-so-nice comments by ex-Rangers fan-favorite Brandon Prust about Sens’ head coach Paul MacLean. I’m not going into details, but there were sea creature references involved.
Regarding the hit itself, I did think it was a suspension-worthy; an opinion that was not widely-shared and that I’ve taken a lot of heat for. People want to talk about how Eller’s teammate, Raphael Diaz, sent him a “suicide pass,” which is true and about how Gryba wasn’t necessarily targeting the head and that it wasn’t the principle point of contact.
Make of it what you will, but to me, this was not your ordinary body-on-body, “oh shucks” open-ice hit. Not only that; I’ve watched the hit about 50 times now and can tell you with absolute certainty that Eller’s head was the principle point of contact and that a vast majority of the impact was to the head.
The NHL has made it abundantly clear that such hits will garner a suspension. So while TSN and Co. went on and on about how Gryba wasn’t going to receive any supplemental discipline, I knew precisely how this story was going to end.
But I digress…the Habs have lost a lot more than Lars Eller thus far; they’ve lost a pair of games now and look completely out-of-whack. Carey Price was superb in Game 2, but that wasn’t the case in Games 1 and 3. His defense let him down yesterday, but he also needed to be better.
Ottawa has more talent up front but the Habs are the deeper team. If they can get back to playing that fast, dizzying, puck-moving style, they can fight back in this series. If Carey Price can stand toe-to-toe with Craig Anderson, and I say this because he has more than enough talent to do that, the Canadiens have a shot.
I picked Montreal to win this best-of-seven and, guess what? They still can.
(3) WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. (6) NEW YORK RANGERS
So, how about those Rangers? It really depends on who you ask.
Head Coach John Tortorella would say they’ve been generating chances but haven’t executed. Others will tell you that the Rangers have “outplayed” the Capitals throughout this series but just haven’t gotten the bounces.
I’ll tell you what’s happening here: the Caps are setting the tone from the opening face-off and the Blueshirts are letting them dictate the pace of play. That’s essentially forced them to try and beat Washington at their own game, and to be blunt, this Ranger team is not equipped to handle a firefight.
Perhaps they could have been, had they held onto Marian Gaborik, but to dwell on that would be to cry over spilled milk at this point. Most of you already know my opinion about that particular transaction.
Heading back to MSG down 2-0, the Rangers need to establish their game and slow things down. They need to make the opposition battle along the boards and in the trenches. It’s not only the Caps’ wide-open offensive style that they have trouble matching, it’s their skating and speed as well. Simply put, if New York can’t slow things down, it won’t be long before they’re running on empty.
Henrik Lundqvist has been very sharp and will always keep his team in the game. He does need a little bit of a pick-me-up from that offense, though. Braden Holtby has been just as good as Lundqvist and because his guys are actually putting some pucks in the net, he has two wins under his belt in this series.
I have Washington in seven games, but at this rate, the Rangers will be lucky to stretch this series out to five. Look for more of the same, unless the Blueshirts make some significant adjustments. It’s not something they can’t handle, but they haven’t exactly shown they’re willing to do it yet, either.
(4) BOSTON BRUINS VS. (5) TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Bruins and Leafs split the first two games in Boston. Now the series shifts over to Toronto, a city that’s been clamoring for playoff hockey and went two lockouts without it. You just know that Air Canada Centre is going to be electric on Monday night.
Phil Kessel didn’t speak to the media before Game 1 and did not score. He saw the error of his ways, made himself available to the press before the next game and, sure enough, scored a big goal that night.
Is there any correlation between these two developments? Of course not. He is, however, quite good at scoring goals, and the Maple Leafs will need more where that came from, regardless of who Kessel does or doesn’t talk to after practice.
Speaking of quality performances, how about the play of James Reimer, who I think has been fantastic for Toronto, making 36 and 39 saves in Games 1 and 2, respectively. If the Leafs are going to have a chance in this best-of-seven, they need Reimer to keep those floodgates closed and he’s certainly done his part.
The Bruins have Tuuka Rask, an excellent netminder in his own right who, like Reimer, can also stand tall between the pipes. I do think Rask is better than Reimer and I think his Bruins are just a deeper team.
If the Leafs are insistent upon trying to match Boston’s aggressive, physical, defensive game, this is going to be a quick (and painful) series. I had the Bruins in five, but it definitely wouldn’t surprise me if Reimer found a way to steal a second game for Toronto.
(1) CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS VS. (8) MINNESOTA WILD
Everyone’s been busy crowning the Pittsburgh Penguins since the trade deadline. Meanwhile, outside of Never Never Land, it turns out that the Blackhawks are really the NHL’s best team and have done nothing to suggest otherwise here in the first round.
Are they deeper than Pittsburgh on offense? They aren’t, and to be perfectly honest, no one is. What they are, however, is far more well-rounded. Chicago can score but they can also play defense and, oh by the way, have a goaltender in Corey Crawford who’s played well for them.
A gutsy overtime win put Minnesota back in the series, which they now trail 2-1. I still fully-expect the ‘Hawks to finish off the Wild.
Josh Harding has done an admirable job filling in for the injured Nicklas Backstrom, but without the latter, Minnesota will have a tough time staying afloat. And while Ryan Suter is as reliable a defenseman as one could possibly ask for, there isn’t a whole lot of depth there, aside from Jonas Brodin, who’s been outstanding in his rookie year.
That lack of defensive depth was certainly exposed in Game 2, when the Blackhawks pumped five goals past Harding, en route to their second-straight win in the series.
I don’t see Minnesota getting out of the first round. They’re just not there right now.
(2) ANAHEIM DUCKS VS. (7) DETROIT RED WINGS
This has actually turned out to be a very entertaining series thus far. I’ll admit, I’m surprised the Red Wings are down 2-1 but am still convinced that they are the better team here and will come away with the four wins they need to advance.
Gustav Nyquist was the hero of Game 2, scoring the overtime-winner in an absolute thriller of a hockey game. He’s very talented and, in my opinion, is on the verge of a breakout.
If you’re a Wings fan, you have to be pleased with Jimmy Howard, even though the box scores might sway you in the opposite direction. Howard has made some big stops and, with the exception of Game 3, I can’t say he hasn’t played well.
This series has “seven” written all over it, and regardless of who wins, it’s going to be a hard-fought battle every night.
(3) VANCOUVER CANUCKS VS. (6) SAN JOSE SHARKS
Both of these teams have had a knack for underachieving in the playoffs, albeit to different extents. But someone’s string of misfortune is going to end, at least as far as getting out of the first round is concerned.
Given that they’ve lost all three games and are one away from elimination, the Canucks appear to be well on their way to being punched out of the first round for the second-consecutive year.
It really doesn’t surprise me that this is happening to the Canucks. They are a vastly-talented team with no direction that has essentially rewritten the definition of a goaltending controversy. This Luongo/Schneider conundrum impacts everyone in that locker room, regardless of what someone like Alexandre Burrows or Kevin Bieksa might tell you.
When you have confidence in your goaltender, that allows you to really go out and do your thing, without having to worry as much about what’s going on between the pipes and when the puck’s not on your stick. When you don’t even know who your goalie is going to be on any given night, that can be even worse.
Alain Vigneault also happens to be an awful coach. His decision-making is very questionable, and his team tends to take a lot of dumb penalties at the worst-possible times. This has been an issue for quite a while now and that lack of discipline starts with the bench boss.
It also happens to be that San Jose is a good hockey club and, if they are truly inclined to do so, can absolutely challenge Chicago, Pittsburgh, or anyone else in this league as a legitimate Cup contender.
(4) ST. LOUIS BLUES VS. (5) LOS ANGELES KINGS
Two stunning losses and a home win later, the defending champs find themselves down 2-1 in the series.
It’s not like they haven’t played well though, and they were definitely in both games that they lost. I would say they are still very much alive right now.
This is another matchup that I fully-expect to go six or seven games, and I think that while the Blues have a very bright future, the Kings are ultimately the better hockey team and will come back to win this series.
Jonathan Quick’s Bill Buckner-esque gaffe at the end of Game 1 is all anyone seems to remember, but believe it or not, he has played well and, the way I see it, has even been the better goaltender. If he keeps that up, the Blues aren’t going to get two more wins very easily.
Neither will the Kings, but at the end of the day, I do think they are better-equipped to move on to the Semis.
I would say that Drew Doughty needs to elevate his game and become a difference-maker, much like he did last year when the Kings won the Cup. If he wants to prove that he is in fact better than Alex Pietrangelo, now would be an excellent time to do that.