October is usually a great sports month, and this year surely did not disappoint. I’ll review the MLB playoffs and the start of the NHL season, but let’s start with a quick peek ‘behind the curtain’ in NASCAR.
-As my colleague Dustin Parks reported, Matt Kenseth was suspended for intentionally causing a wreck last weekend, depriving Joey Logano of a shot at the series title. This was revenge for a wreck between the two earlier in the year. My pappy always told me you reap what you sow, and NASCAR is getting what they asked for here – after the ‘golden years’ of 1992-2002 ended and ratings started to suffer, the ‘powers that be’ (i.e. the all-powerful France family) decided to encourage more aggression and confrontation.
If you’re into bread and circuses (and wanton violence) as opposed to actual racing, then maybe you enjoyed this. I did not, I went from being a dedicated fan who even attended some races to someone who watches the carnage from afar. Drivers kept upping the ante, edging closer and closer to using their car as a weapon, until a few years ago there were a few hits that were CLEARLY intentional – Gordon vs. Bowyer in 2012 was a clear example – but all NASCAR did was impose a relatively small fine and take a handful of points away. Now that the aggression has eliminated a top contender, they decide to suspend a driver? How inconsistent, how typical of NASCAR brass.
At this point the France family has no credibility left. They should sell while there’s still some value left in the NASCAR brand and let a new group try to rebuild this once-proud organization. Knowing the France family, though, they will stubbornly hold on..until one day they have nothing left.
-On to baseball, where the Royals did some things no one has ever seen before. The Mets led in EVERY World Series game, and led in the 8th in four out of five…and somehow managed to win only one game. For the postseason Kansas City outscored opponents 51-11 from the7th inning on. Part of that is their own bullpen’s dominance, some of that (especially in this series) was the weakness of the Mets bullpen, some of that was the skill of their batters, and some of it was just plain luck.
Now, I know, some of you are thinking I’m foolish to invoke luck here. I’m not taking away from the Royals’ talent or the amazing job their front office did in building this team…think about how quickly they went from laughingstock to champs! What I am saying, however, is that with this format, ANY winning team needs some luck/fortune/breaks/whatever you want to call it. As I said in the last column, if the Royals hadn’t made two miracle comebacks in elimination games (vs. Oakland in 2014 and Houston this year), they’d be an afterthought. No team can consistently enter the 8th inning behind and win, history has shown us that time and again. Praise the team for a well-earned title, admire their tenacity and their ability to pressure a defense, but please don’t think that doing nothing for the first seven innings of a game is a strategy to be copied.
What WILL be copied, to various levels of success, is the Royals’ speed, defense, contact approach. They don’t often walk, strike out or hit home runs. They do put the ball in play and force tough plays, and on defense they are solid across the board. It takes a very special, very specific group of players to pull this off, and I think a lot of teams will fail where the Royals succeeded. It may be a long time before we see a team like this win a Series again…but they sure were fun to watch!
-An aside, which I’ll expound on in the spring – unlike the other major sports, baseball does not have a salary cap…but the current playoff system works almost as well. The barrier to entry for October ball is now MUCH lower – prior to 1995, you had to shoot for at least 97 wins and often 100 to have a shot most years. Now, if you win 90 you’re almost certainly in, which allows teams to be competitive with less talent – and hence, less payroll in many cases.
Conversely, the Yankees and Dodgers can win 95, 100, 105 games and STILL have to traverse the same short-series minefield as everyone else. The NFL uses the cap to get their parity; baseball uses their postseason and so far, I’d say it’s worked out pretty well. Like they say in poker, all you need is a ‘chip and a chair’ to have a chance.
-Finally, the NHL. What a weird start for much of the league, especially Pittsburgh (I’ll get to them in a minute). Scoring is down (AGAIN) around the league, despite some high-end young talent entering the league.
There are a few surprise teams and a few disappointments – Montreal started 9-0 and still is the class of the league at 11-2-1. I expect them to cool off rapidly, they don’t have the depth to maintain such dominance. Dallas has started 10-3, including two wins over Pittsburgh, and while they won’t maintain that pace I do think they are a legit Cup contender – they have a top-three offense, revitalized goaltending, and a top coach in Lindy Ruff. LA has also made a comeback after an awful 2014-15 season – they currently lead the Pacific Division.
Then there are the disappointments – led by Columbus and Anaheim. The Blue Jackets were favored by many to make a playoff run, but after starting 0-7 they fired their coach, and at 3-10 they face a STEEP climb just to be relevant again. They are scoring (30 goals in 13 games is decent in today’s NHL), but their goaltending has been horrid – 48 goals against already!
Anaheim has the opposite problem – they’ve only allowed 29 goals in 11 games, but they’ve only scored 14 – and four of those came in their last game. This team shock-full of star power has had a complete power outage, and it’s tough to figure – or to figure out if they can turn it around.
Overall it’s too early to tell who the truly dominant teams are, but those teams off to rough starts have their work cut out for them. As they say, you can’t win a Cup in October but you can sure lose one.
-On to the Penguins…all kinds of strange stuff going on here. For years you knew what the Penguins were: high scoring, questionable defensively, slightly above-average goaltending. So far this year, that formula has been turned on its head – they don’t score (24 goals in 11 games, 25th out of 28 teams), Sidney Crosby has been ice cold (five points, scoreless in nine of 11 games), and their power play is a mess (dead last). However, they lead the league in goals allowed (only 20), their penalty kill has been excellent, the defense corps has been surprisingly consistent, and Marc-Andre Fleury has been better than ever. They’ve done all that despite playing some very good offenses – Dallas (twice), Montreal and Washington are three of the top four offenses in the league thus far.
Additionally, they are finally healthy and look to have four solid lines. All that adds up to a 7-4 record, solidly in playoff position, yet I don’t think ANYONE knows what kind of team this is; are they ever going to be an offensive powerhouse? Will they continue this solid defense? I watch them very carefully and I’m just not sure.
I’m very worried about Crosby, he’s just so inconsistent now from game to game – and that won’t work, I always called him ‘the most skilled grinder in NHL history’ because he made his living through hard work in the corners and in front of the net. With those qualities lessened, I’m not sure he can still be considered a top player – but I’m giving him another month to see if this is just a slump.
Overall I have to believe they still will figure it out, especially on the power play – there’s simply too much firepower to be converting at 10%. I’ll check back on the Pens in a month or so, for now at least they’ve overcome their 0-3 start and are relevant again.
I’ll finish with a request for some feedback – it’s easy to find wide-ranging topics in October, but in the winter I’m limited to hockey. Are you interested in a weekly look at the Pens and around the league over the next two months? Yes or no, I’d like to hear from you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. Thanks!