When the NHL playoffs began, my upset pick was Penguins-Blue Jackets series, with a pick of Columbus in seven games. My rationale was that Sergei Bobrovksy, the Vezina Trophy winner (the goaltending equivalent of the Cy Young Award) in 2013 would give the Blue Jackets the edge against a vulnerable Pittsburgh defense, at a time of year when defense and goaltending take on a bigger importance.
Columbus won Game 4 and evened up the series at two games apiece, so I suppose I should be happy that my pick is progressing along as anticipated. Only I’m not. Bobrovksy has not been up to snuff in this series, and the Blue Jackets are not going to complete the upset bid at this current pace.
The reason is simple—every game has ended up 4-3, and while that’s not a shootout, nor is it the kind of defensive grind where the Penguins are vulnerable. Furthermore, Bobrovsky has blown two-goal leads in both of his team’s losses—actually, as a major oddity, the winning team in each game has been behind by at least two goals.
Pittsburgh can win crazy, up-and-down games like this. When your offense has the game’s best passer in Sidney Crosby keying the offense, and then filling in James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin, you’ll find ways to keep getting shots and staying on the attack. Heck, the best Penguin defenseman, Kris Letang, is probably a better offensive threat than anyone in the Blue Jacket lineup.
Against all that, Columbus threw Bobrovksy, against Marc Andre-Fleury, the Pittsburgh goalie who has done nothing since the franchise won the 2009 Stanley Cup (and Fleury was not as important to that championship as, for example, Tim Thomas was to Boston in 2011 or Jonathan Quick to Los Angeles in 2012).
That’s a lot to ask of a goaltender, to overcome a huge talent discrepancy between the nets, but we see this happen in hockey—especially in the first round—every year. The goalie in hockey is more important to his team than the quarterback in the NFL, and no one thinks twice about reducing the whole of NFL handicapping to who has the superior signal-caller.
I’ve always resisted that in football, and perhaps I should consider applying it to hockey. Because right now, even though the series is even, it’s because Columbus has had players like Jack Johnson step up and be surprisingly competitive with Crosby and his mates up and down the ice. It’s a tribute to them, and regardless of what happens, this is a successful season for the Blue Jackets.
But with this battle against the Penguins down to a best two-of-three, it has the potential to be more. That’s not going to happen if the scores of games don’t get down to 2-1 or at least 3-2. And that means Bobrovsky has to show he’s the kind of goalie that can put a team on his back.
Elsewhere in the world of sports…
*The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are waging a real grudge match, with the home team having taken each of the first four games. Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook was suspended for three games for a vicious hit on St. Louis’ David Backes. It’s not enough—Backes is out, and Seabrook should be out until Backes can play again. And if it can be confirmed that Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith taunted Backes while the man lay unconscious, Keith should be suspended. Enough is enough.
*Quick may have led the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012, and to the conference finals in 2013, but his team is staring at a 3-0 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks. Quick has been mediocre for each of the last two regular seasons, he was nothing special as the U.S. Olympic goaltender and now he appears to have extended the mediocrity into the Stanley Cup playoffs. His last stand begins (and perhaps ends) tonight.
*The NBA playoffs have been marked by surprises, perhaps none more so than the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers. Each team is a 5-seed, so either one winning their series would certainly not be a shock, even given the historic chalkiness of the NBA bracket. But winning each of the first two games at home? That’s big. Washington has taken out Chicago by being better and tougher in the fourth quarter. Portland is winning because Lamarcus Aldridge is lighting it up, while James Harden is clanging bricks.
*Are the Indiana Pacers finished? I’m not talking about the first round, where they bounced back from their shocking Game 1 home loss to the 39-43 Atlanta Hawks with a decisive Game 2 win. But the Pacers have been free-fall mode for a couple months, even if they did hold the 1-seed in the East. I picked them to win the NBA championship back in October and am holding on out of blind loyalty, but I don’t know how I’d convince an independent observer. Even closing this series in five games isn’t going to answer the concerns.
*The powers-that-be in the West, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, have each lost one of the first two games at home. In the short term, I’m concerned for the Thunder, because Memphis finished the regular season as a hot team and can match up with anyone in the paint. But at least that means it’s legitimate for OkC to be pushed. San Antonio is the long-term concern—I can’t see them losing the series to Dallas, but they’ve taken a decisive loss and pulled out a narrow win, playing some sloppy offensive basketball in the process.
*NASCAR returns to the track Saturday night in Richmond for the Toyota Owners 400 (7 PM ET, Fox). The new scoring rules, emphasizing wins over points, even prior to the Chase For The Cup, have created an intriguing dynamic. Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth are 1-2 in the points standings, while Kevin Harvick is 22nd. But it’s Gordon and Kenseth who need wins (and in fairness, they have until the end of August), while Harvick’s two wins all but assure him a spot in the Chase.
*How stupid is New York Yankees’ starting pitcher Michael Pineda? There was controversy over his use of pine tar following his last start against the Boston Red Sox a little over a week ago. Pineda takes the mound last night in Fenway Park and what does he do? Yep, puts pine tar on his neck. He was ejected in the second inning. Yankee GM Brian Cashman openly expressed his disgust with the pitcher, and for everyone in the organization (i.e., manager Joe Girard) for not catching Pineda in the act. Even though I’m a Sawx fan, I’m not in some state of moral outrage at Pineda cheating—truth to be told, I find this sort of chicanery rather humorous. But Pineda is clearly an idiot.
*And just how good is Cincinnati Reds’ starter Johnny Cueto? Cueto tossed his second three-hitter in less than two weeks against the Pittsburgh Pirates and has a 1.38 ERA after four starts. Cueto does his work in a small hitters’ park, making the numbers even more impressive. When health—which, admittedly, is not nearly often enough—this guy is as good as there is anywhere in baseball.