On Choking

June 3, 2009

(By which I mean, a team playing miserably in an important game. What kind of blog do you think this is, besides a poorly-updated one?)

I've had this floating around in my head since game seven of the Caps-Pens series, but I've had a major problem of not wanting to write anything. Then the Cavs went and did the same thing against the Magic, so I guess it's time to crank this thing out. Beats working, at any rate.

Outside the first round of the playoffs, when you get the best team in the conference playing a squad that just barely made the playoffs, it's pretty rare to see a team be completely outclassed. (An exception is made for the final game when teams from the two conferences play. Sometimes one half of the league is just that much better.) But it happened twice: In the NHL's eastern conference semi-finals between the Capitals and the Penguins, and in the NBA's eastern conference finals between the Cavaliers and the Magic.

The Capitals had been living and dying by their ability to out-gun their opponents, and had been extremely lazy about playing defense. Against the Rangers, who are a low-scoring team, this didn't work out so badly -- though it should be noted that the Caps had to force and win a game seven in order to advance. In the Penguins series their rookie goaltender Varlomov showed that he is, in fact, human, and let in a few crap goals at bad times.

In his defense though, any time your defense lets the other team uncork 45 shots in a game, some are going to get by, some are going to be at bad times, and some are going to be absolute crap goals. And the Penguins do a lot more shooting than the Caps. Which is kind of an interesting turnaround, because when I was living in Pittsburgh it was the Pens who would lose 3-2 and only take about 20 shots on net. Maybe the pass-at-all-costs mentality follows me around.

But it's not just the Caps' lack of offense that did them in; it was also poor defense (see also: 45 shots per game, above). It wasn't uncommon at all to see Pittsburgh unleash a flurry of activity in the zone, with no action from the Washington defenders. On at least two of Sidney Crosby's goals he was simply standing there in front of the net waiting for a rebound, and nobody challenged him.

I realize that coaches try to get their guys to "play smart" and not take penalties, but sometimes taking a penalty is a smart play. Better to take a two-minute cross-check or interference call and let your goalie get back on his feet than keep a 5-on-5 with your guy laying flat on his back and flailing at the puck with whatever limb happens to be closest. Or even just ice the thing even though the face-off will come right back to your zone. At least you have about a 50-50 shot of controlling it and doing something constructive.

On a related note, if someone scores on the first rebound I can kinda see blaming the goalie -- if he isn't caught flat-footed he can steer the puck a little bit as it bounces off him. On the second, third, etc., rebounds that's all on the defense get the puck (or the offensive player) the hell out of there.

After six close games, two of which went to overtime, the Caps appeared to just give up on game seven, and got blown out. A very disappointing end to the season. Funny thing is, the Red Wings run the same neutral zone trap as the Pens do, and they're using it to win. Either nobody's done this to Sidney and his boys yet, or the Wings are just that damn good. Either is a possibility.

And now on to the Cleveland Cavaliers. With the Bulls being an also-ran and having the league's next Michael Jordan*, the Cavs can actually get beyond the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, they're not quite good enough to win it all.

After destroying their first two opponents, the Cavs came up against an actual good team in the Orlando Magic. After losing a couple heartbreakers they got blown out by 13 points in the game six they needed to win to stay in the playoffs. And that 13-point margin is actually a lot closer than what I saw of the game was.

Just like the Capitals, they looked like they'd given up. At several points I saw the other players turn and head up the floor while the first shot was still in the air! Forget rebounding; there was nobody from Cleveland there to try for one. All or nothing, and a lot of the time it was nothing.

Their defense also stank up the joint. I realize that basketball formations can be very fluid, but letting a guy camp out behind the three-point line waiting for a pass is just ridiculous. I think I saw one shot (that went in) where Cleveland couldn't even get a defender close enough to get a hand up before the Magic player could take the pass, set and shoot. Swish, three points. I think Orlando might have been up by 20 at one point in the third. That would be about when I flipped over to the NHL game and stayed there.

I don't have much to say about Cleveland, because I honestly don't know much about basketball. At 5'7", 30 pounds overweight and possessing the athletic ability of a fern, that was never a sport I enjoyed playing, or even enjoyed watching. But still, aren't defense and rebounding two generally-accepted parts of the game?

Oh well. Detroit-Pittsburgh is shaping up to be a sweep, and I suppose I'll find out who wins between Orlando and the Lakers at some point before the next season begins. Until then I can watch the Nationals get embarrassed on a nightly basis and it's only a few months until the Browns start making fools of themselves again.

Ah, the life of a sports fan: Moving from one disappointment to the next.

* People forget that when Jordan won all those championships he had a bunch of good players around him. Name one player (besides LeBron James) who plays for the Cavs. If the best you could come up with is an incorrect spelling of "┼Żydr┼źnas Ilgauskas", I think I've made my point.

May 1, 2009July 15, 2009