Monday, December 18, 2006

Parity in the Northwest: or, why the NHL's schedule requires revision.

At the end of tonight's NHL games, a vast 2 points separated the Northwest Division's first and last teams. Edmonton led the division with 36 points from 32 games, closely followed by Calgary and Vancouver with 35 each (from 30 and 33 games, respectively). Colorado and Minnesota were tied for last, having picked up 34 points from 32 and 33 games respectively. The rest of the NHL features vastly greater disparities within divisions. The largest gap is in the Pacific Division, where NHL-leading Anaheim's 56 points are 31 more than divisional bottom-feeder Phoenix. In the Central Division, a 27-point gap exists between Nashville and St. Louis, the NHL's lowest-ranking team. The East features slightly smaller divides, with a 20-point separation in the Atlantic between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, a 18-point gulf between Buffalo and Boston in the Northeast, and a 14-point rift between Atlanta and Florida in the Southeast.

This dramatic difference in divisional skill has significant implications for the playoff hunt. Under the post-lockout NHL schedule, teams play each other team in their division 8 times. For the Northwest teams, that works out to 32 games each against teams of similar skill (as indicated by the almost-identical point totals these teams all have at this point of the year). Say that theoretically, each team wins half their games against divisional opposition (collecting 2 points per game), and earns one point from a shootout or overtime loss in half of the remaining games. That works out to a total of 42 points from 32 games. With the NHL's 84-game schedule, this leaves 52 games for each team. Last season in the Western Conference, 95 points were required to make the playoffs. Thus, a team in the Northwest would have to average just over a point per game in their remaining games to reach the playoffs.

In contrast, consider the Central Division's Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators. Both get to play 8 games against each of three teams that were well below a .500 record last season: the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Black Hawks, and St. Louis Blues. All are faring almost as poorly this season, although Chicago has improved of late (but is currently still on 33 points, less than the bottom teams in the Northwest). Let's say that the Red Wings or Predators win six of their games against each of their bottom-feeding divisional opponents, lose one in overtime or a shootout, and lose one outright. This would give them each 39 points from these 24 games. Let's furthermore say that in the eight Detroit-Nashville games, each team wins two outright, and the remaining four are decided by overtime or a shootout, with each team winning two of these contests as well. Thus, Detroit and Nashville would have 49 points from their 32 divisional games, as opposed to the 42 calculated for a Northwest team. This may not sound like a huge gap, but consider that last year's margin between the 8th and 9th teams (in and out of the playoffs respectively) was only 2 points in the Eastern Conference, and only 3 points in the Western Conference. If Vancouver, last year's 9th place team, had earned an extra 7 points, they would have been tied with San Jose for 5th place.

This divisional edge is only one of the features of the new broken schedule. It is ridiculous to have a certain team visit your city only once every three years, particularly in an age of exciting new stars such as Crosby, Ovechkin, the Staals, Phaneuf, Malkin and so many more. This is a league trying to market itself around its star players, as was patently obvious from the TV ads they ran this fall. It doesn't help declining attendance in markets like Phoenix or St. Louis if their fans only have the chance to see exciting young stars once every three years. Furthermore, particularly with the back-to-back divisional games favoured by this current schedule, it tends to dilute excitement around watching the game, either in person or on TV. As an example of this, consider tonight's Canucks-Wild game, offered on Canucks Pay-Per-View. Who would want to pay 12 dollars to see this game, shortly after watching the identical matchup for free on Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday? There certainly is a fair bit of resistance to any change, as exemplified by the lack of progress made on the schedule at the recent NHL Board of Governors meeting: however, teams need to stop thinking in terms of what's best for their franchise short-term, and start considering what will be best for the league as a whole in the long run.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Delocalized wingers

This may possibly be the most geeky sports column I have ever written or ever will write, but bear with me. Delocalized electrons are electrons in a molecule that are not directly tied to one specific bond, but rather shared over larger sections of the molecule (for a more complete definition, see the Wikipedia article here.) The classic example of this is benzene, a 6-carbon ring structure usually depicted with 6 single bonds and 3 double bonds: due to delocalization, the actual bonds are actually between double and single character, and spread evenly out over the molecule. This makes benzene incredibly stable.

What relevance to sports does this have, you may ask? Well, it perfectly describes the innovative style of football (soccer for those of you who insist on North American terminology:P) that Manchester United have been playing thus far this season. On paper, their regular lineup appears as the standard 4-4-2 formation (four defenders, four midfielders (two in the middle, two on the wings), and two strikers). However, the key difference this season is how they have been utilizing their wingers.

Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the best wingers in the game, and have been effective in previous campaigns with the standard winger tactics of deep runs down the sides. This year, they have taken things to a new level, via a delocalization process. Giggs usually plays the left flank, and Ronaldo the right, but this year, they both frequently move into the middle or even to the other's side of the pitch. In fact, frequently when watching United this year, Ronaldo and Giggs will combine on one side to form an attacking run, flooding one side of the defence much like the Canadian football or basketball tactic used against a zone system. This creates no end of confusion for opposing defences, and is one of the reasons that United are at the top of the Premiership table. A perfect example of this was United's second goal in the Middlesbrough match. The play developed off an attack down the left flank, but then Ronaldo darted in to the middle from his position on the right, received a cross in the box, came over to the left side of the goal and played a short pass back to Giggs, who delivered a perfect cross that Darren Fletcher headed into the net.

The other reason that this system works is the play of the wingbacks, or outside defenders. The typical problem that faces teams attempting a system like this is that when the wingers move to the same side, the width of the field is decreased, providing less attacking options. However, this is not the case for United. Wingbacks Gary Neville and Gabriel Heinze frequently step up into attack, often even at the same time, and fulfill the winger's role. This also helps when either Giggs or Ronaldo moves towards the middle, drawing the wide defenders with them: Neville or Heinze will then create an overlapping run down the open flank, which has frequently led to excellent scoring chances. Having the wingbacks press forward so aggressively means that attacks on both flanks can be maintained, even with the wingers moving into the middle or to the other side. This system is certainly unconventional, but it works very effectively. As benzene shows with its exceptional stability, sometimes delocalization can be the best tactic!

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Noble souls, through dust and heat, rise from disaster and defeat the stronger."

The title quote, taken from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, will hopefully apply to the Canadian national women's soccer team. Ironically, their defeat came at the hands of Longfellow's fellow Americans last night, in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The Canadians played a strong game, and battled back from trailing 1-0 early, due to a sixth-minute strike from Leslie Osbourne. In the 45th minute, Randee Hermus, a defender from Langley, B.C., equalized for Canada off a corner kick, driving a loose ball just under the crossbar from 12 yards out. In the second half, the U.S. had excellent chances to take the lead, but the respective defences were up to the challenge. Canadian keeper Erin McLeod made some huge saves, and defenders Hermus, Robin Gayle, and Melanie Booth played large roles in nullifying the American attack. Christine Sinclair, a strong contender for FIFA's Female Player of the Year award, could have won it for Canada in the 91st minute when she broke into the box, but her finish went off the side of the net.

The game went into extra time, where the Canadians seemed to tire: the U.S. squad kept pressing forward, and continually created excellent chances for strikers Abby Wambach and Natasha Kai. The Canadian defence showed their quality, and held the Americans off the board for most of the 30 minutes, despite being pinned in their own end for the majority of the extra time. However, tragedy struck towards the end of the game, with yet another controversial refereeing decision. Mexican referee Virginia Tovar, who had already ejected Canadian head coach Even Pellerud in the 86th minute, awarded the U.S. a dubious penalty in the last minute of the match after midfielder Carli Lloyd collided with Gayle in the area. Captain Kristine Lilly coolly stepped up to the spot, and executed a perfect penalty drive to the bottom right corner of the net to give the Americans the victory.

For Canada, the loss is disappointing, but bittersweet: they should be pleased that they were able to take the Americans, who Sinclair described as "maybe the best team in the world" in an interview with Sportsnet, into overtime. They deserved at least to make it to a shootout, and, as often seems to be the case with this country's national teams, were hindered by questionable officiating. However, the US also received some harsh calls during the match, and were the better team overall, demonstrating that they deserve at least their world #2 ranking. This is an important result for the Canadian team to build on: their appearance in the final means that they are already qualified for the 2007 World Cup in China, and they'll have almost a year to prepare for that competition. They've come a long way, and they didn't appear out of place on a pitch with the Americans, as they so often have in the past. Hermus' goal was the first Canada had scored in their last 5 matches against the U.S., and also the first Canadian goal against the Americans since 2003, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Their young players, such as Sinclair and Brittany Timko, are making considerable progress and having an impact on the field, and the defensive performances from Hermus, Gayle, and Booth prove that this squad can have a strong back line without Charmaine Hooper.

The performances during the game are also good news for Vancouver Whitecaps fans: their players, such as Sinclair, McLeod, Hermus, Timko, Martina Franko, and Andrea Neil, provided strong showings on the pitch, and appeared to still be in the form that won them this past year's W-League Championship. Having so many starters from the same club side can only be a good thing for the squad: as a whole, the team showed excellent on-field chemistry, and were very aware of each others' positions. With so many national team players playing together during the W-League season on the Whitecaps, this chemistry can only improve with time. Hopefully, the possible concentration of men's national team players on the new MLS side, Toronto FC, will have a similar effect on that squad, which has been hindered in the past by players' unfamiliarity with each other.

Overall, this should be a positive experience for Canada. They were unable to pull out a victory, but they were in the game against the U.S., and proved that they can compete with the elite sides in women's soccer. This game provides further evidence that their fourth-place showing, the highest ever for Canada, in the last World Cup in 2003, was not a fluke. The young core of this squad should continue to improve under the tutelage of veterans such as Neil and Franko, and hopefully, they can "rise from disaster and defeat the stronger." As the sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.” As a fan of Canadian soccer, I sincerely hope that this will prove to be one of those defeats.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"No absolute is going to make the lion lie down with the lamb unless the lamb is inside."

The title quote, from D.H. Lawrence, appropriately sums up today's Grey Cup game. The B.C. Lions lived up to their name, and thoroughly devoured the surprisingly lamb-like Montreal Alouettes. There's a very good reason why the Lions dominated the CFL Awards last week: their collection of outstanding talents is unsurpassed in this league, and the big names delivered today. Outstanding Canadian, Outstanding Defensive Player, and Warrior of the Year Brent Johnson, only hours after collecting his new truck for his Warrior of the Year prize, proved he is worthy of his hardware, having a strong game. He and CFL Outstanding Rookie Aaron Hunt, along with front-four compatriots Tyrone Williams and Chris Wilson, had Als' quarterback Anthony Calvillo on the run all day. Hunt played extremely well, and forced Calvillo into a key fumble and turnover, which helped to increase the Lions' momentum. The CFL's Most Outstanding Player, Geroy Simon, made a few key catches, but played a more vital role in drawing the attention of the Als' secondary, and opening space for the other B.C. receivers. Dave Dickenson, named the game's most outstanding player, stepped up and delivered a huge performance. Dickenson was great through the air, and did a terrific job of reading the coverage: however, what played an even bigger role for the Lions was his performance on the ground. In scenes reminiscent of former understudy Casey Printers, Dickenson was fantastic at producing something from nothing: he frequently took off running on broken plays, outmaneuvering the Montreal defence to gain his own first downs. Rob Murphy, recipient of the league's Outstanding Lineman award, and the rest of the Lions O-line, provided tremendous protection for Dickenson, giving him time to pick apart the Als' defence.

However, the aspect of the game that played the largest role in the Lions' victory was their superior depth. It was the role players who stepped up to win the Lions the game. Paul McCallum was fantastic, going 6/6 on field goals to tie a Grey Cup record, and consistently pinning the Alouettes deep in their own end with well-executed punts to the corners. As a reward, he was named both Warrior of the Game and the game's outstanding Canadian. Korey Banks made some huge blitzes from his defensive back position to keep Calvillo under pressure, with one resulting in a quarterback sack. Javy Glatt and Otis Floyd combined for perhaps the most crucial play of the game, where Glatt went over the top of a huge pileup of players to hit Montreal running back Robert Edwards on the Lions' one-yard line, forcing a fumble that Floyd recovered. Ian Smart, most frequently utilized on punt returns, took advantage of the Montreal defense's focus on running back Joe Smith and star Lions' receivers Simon, Jason Clermont, and Paris Jackson, with a 25-yard touchdown run. The score was both the Lions' only major of the game and the first touchdown of Smart's CFL career. Kendrick Jones was also able to find some space as a result of the Montreal secondary keying on the more established receivers, and made some key catches to move the down markers for the Lions. Quarterbacks Buck Pierce and Jarious Jackson also came in and played their roles for B.C. as they had all year, executing well in short-yardage situations to pick up some crucial first downs. The ensemble effort by the entire team was the real reason why the Lions were successful in becoming the 2006 Grey Cup champions.

Gaels win national silver medals

Last Sunday, the Queen's women's varsity soccer team concluded their season in the CIS championship match against the UBC Thunderbirds. Confronted with a grim day and soggy field, they came out aggressively, and took an early lead on a third-minute strike by Renee MacLellan. The Gaels maintained the pressure, and had several chances to extend their lead. UBC responded with two quick goals shortly before the half, and added a third after the break to clinch a 3-1 victory. Anyone interested in more details on the match can check out my article in last Friday's Journal: I'll post a link to it here once it is put up on the Journal website. Despite the loss, the Gaels still had an excellent season, and proved that they are clearly one of the elite teams in the country: they should have a lot to build upon for next year. In particular, the injuries that the squad battled through all season resulted in the formation of a strong team character, and also provided some of the Gaels' younger players with valuable game experience, both of which may prove vital in the coming seasons. Their success this year will also leave the team hungry for more in future seasons, and may possibly result in greater attention and support for them on campus next year.

Update: My Journal article on the final can be found here.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Gaels in CIS Final!

Since my last post, a lot has happened with the Gaels' women's varsity soccer team. They battled hard in last Sunday's OUA Final against Ottawa, enduring cold weather and a muddy pitch, but came up short, falling 1-0. The day dawned grey and cold, but a large crowd of supporters from both schools still came out to cheer the teams on. The muddy pitch at Richardson Stadium diminished the GaelsÂ’ usual creativity, turning the match into a midfield battle. Early on, Ottawa created most of the chances, but the QueenÂ’s defence, anchored by Andrea Pigozzo, Katie Dalziel, and Ali Skinner, made several excellent plays to stifle the Gee-GeeÂ’s attacks, and Gael goalkeeper Katie McKenna came up with a number of crucial saves. The Gaels had many scoring chances of their own, but were in turn stopped by quality defending and goalkeeping from Ottawa. The lone goal of the game came in the 57th minute, when a high shot from Gee-GeeÂ’s defender Laurel Fougere beat McKenna from 25 yards out.

After the tough loss, the Gaels packed up for their next day departure for Victoria, to compete in the CIS Championships this week. The one-shot elimination format of the championships made their first game, which took place on Thursday, especially important: if they lost, the highest they could finish would be fifth place. They took to the field against the Cape Breton Capers, and almost instantly went down 1-0, when Kristina Weatherbie beat McKenna on a breakaway. However, the Gaels withstood further early pressure from the Capers, keeping the score 1-0 at
the half. In the second half, the Gaels' fortunes changed, largely due to the efforts of Eilish McConville, recently named the CIS Women's Soccer Player of the Year. McConville was thwarted several times by Jessica MacDermid, the Cape Breton keeper, but set up fellow striker Renee MacLellan for the equalizer in the 63rd minute. McConville, named Player of the Game, also was involved in the winning goal, crossing the ball to Dalziel, who scored in the 83rd minute to send the Gaels through to the semifinals.

The championships featured quite a few upsets: No. 1 ranked Victoria and No. 2 ranked McGill both fell in the quarterfinals, leaving all three OUA entrants and the UBC Thunderbirds as the only teams still in the quest for the national championship trophy. Earlier today, the Gaels took on the York Lions in a soccer version of the "Battle of Ontario". Queen's created some early chances for both McConville and MacLellan, but were unable to convert until the 56th minute, when Dalziel banged home a cross for her second goal of the tournament, giving the Gaels a 1-0 lead. York came on hard, attempting to tie the game, but both the Gaels' defense and the score stood up. Queen's will face UBC in the final tomorrow, with the national championship on the line. The game takes place at 6 PM Eastern tomorrow (3 PM in Victoria), and will be webcast by Wavelit on a pay-per-view basis: any Queen's fans interested in seeing our team compete to be tops in the country can watch the game for $6.95 at Best of luck to the Gaels: see future posts here for how the game turns out, and hopefully my story on the championships will run in Friday's Journal.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Gaels off to CIS Championships!

Well, the Gaels' women's team played another excellent game today, defeating the Western Omelettes (er, Mustangs,) by a score of 3-0. Eilish McConville recorded a hat-trick to lead the Gaels to victory, but every Gael on the pitch performed well to nullify the Western attacks and create their own scoring opportunities. It was great to see that a sizeable amount of Queen's students made the trek out to St. Lawrence College to support the team: hopefully that trend will continue tomorrow when the Gaels take on the Ottawa Gee-Gees in the OUA championship match (2 PM at Richardson Stadium). Both teams have already qualified for the national CIS championships, to be held in Victoria next weekend: however, there is still the title of Ontario champions up for grabs, so both sides should have a lot to play for. Unfortunately, the men's side fell 4-1 in their OUA semi-final against Western (held at Brock University). They will have a chance to end the season on a high note tomorrow morning, when they play Brock in the OUA Bronze Medal match. It was still an excellent season for the men's squad, who finished first in the OUA East and won more games than any other OUA team, and then defeated Trent last week to move on to the Final Four: they've gained a lot of excellent experience that they can build upon for next season.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Gaels' success

For those of you who don't know me in person, I'm a student at Queen's University, and a sports staff writer for the school paper, the Queen's Journal. This year, I've been doing a lot of coverage of the Queen's Golden Gaels men's and women's soccer teams. They have been playing terrific soccer of a very high calibre all year, and the matches are always tremendously entertaining. However, despite the terrific success of the teams (both are off to the OUA Final Four this coming weekend: the men's side are ranked #6 in the country, while the women's side are ranked #3 nationally and #1 in the OUA), Queen's students have been giving them very little support. Most of the Gaels' home games are played in front of only 30-50 fans, including supporters of the visiting teams, and a large proportion seem to be players' friends and families. In contrast, the Gaels' football team, which suffered through a .500 season and barely stumbled into the playoffs (which they haven't even made in recent years), managed to draw at least 350 people to the one game of theirs I attended this year over Thanksgiving weekend, where they were blown out by Ottawa. According to the subsequent story in the Journal, this attendance was very light by their standards. I have nothing against football, and follow the CFL very closely: however, it surprises me that so many students will go to see a team with an average record, but very few come out to see two of the best university soccer teams in Canada. Hopefully, this will change this coming weekend, when the Queen's women's squad hosts the OUA Final Four. They play at the St. Lawrence College field Saturday at noon, against the Western Mustangs in semi-final action. It would be awesome to see our students out in support against the hated rivals from "Omelette U"! It also may be the last chance for Queen's students to watch Eilish McConville, arguably the most gifted athlete at Queen's, compete for the Gaels. McConville, a fourth-year Applied Science student, had an incredibly impressive season in what is likely to be her final year with the Gaels: she led all CIS players with 22 goals, and was awarded CIS player of the week twice during the season. If the women's team win on Saturday, they will qualify for the national championships, held in Victoria from November 9-12. They'll also play in the OUA championship game against the other semifinal winner, which will be held at Richardson Stadium at 2 PM on Sunday. The men's team is off to Brock for their Final Four, and also will qualify for the CIS championships with a semi-final win. Best of luck to both teams: if they continue their excellent play, it might just raise the profile of soccer here at Queen's!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

My Stanley Cup Prediction

Well, given the amount of hockey predictions popping up these days, I figured I'd throw my hat into the ring. Obviously, it's tough to predict a Cup winner this early in the season, especially with the enforced parity of the salary cap, but there is one team that stands above the rest for me. For any of you who read my other blog (, this one may not come as a surprise: I predict that this year's Stanley Cup champions will be the Anaheim Ducks. Over the off-season, they may have lost the "Mighty" from their name, but they've improved the on-ice team significantly. General manager Brian Burke once again proved how he belongs with the very best in the game, acquiring superstar defenceman Chris Pronger from the Edmonton Oilers to further solidify what was already a capable defence. Scott Niedermeyer, named the league's top defenceman in 2004, had a terrific season last year, and sophomore Francois Beauchemin should be able to build on a solid rookie season to elevate the Ducks' offensive output from the blue line even further. This team is also very solid in goal: the combination of 2003 playoff MVP Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov (who reeled off the second-longest playoff shutout streak of all time last year) should work well for them. Up front, they feature established stars like Teemu Selanne (last year's Masterton Trophy recipient), proven veterans such as Andy McDonald, Todd Marchant, and Rob Niedermeyer, and one of the strongest crops of young players in the league, featuring Corey Perry, Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf, and Dustin Penner. No wonder the Ducks were the overwhelming favorite to win the Cup in TSN's poll of NHL general managers: they received 11 votes, and the next closest team was Calgary with 4 (!
So far this year, the Ducks have lived up to the hype, reeling off three straight wins to share the Pacific Division lead with San Jose. They may not have Gordon Bombay or the Flying V, but these Ducks should soar into history this year when they raise Lord Stanley's mug.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

United v. Tottenham

This weekend's English Premiership fixture between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur should provide quite a thrilling soccer match. United currently sit atop the EPL table, with a perfect nine points from three games, which is good enough to be two points clear of Portsmouth, Aston Villa, and Everton, and three points clear of Chelsea, the defending League champions. Tottenham are in 14th place, with a win and two draws. However, they are not to be overlooked: their squad contains a wide variety of talented international players, including England's Paul Robinson, Aaron Lennon, and Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane of the Republic of Ireland, Edgar Davids of the Netherlands, and even Canada's own Paul Stalteri. For United, a couple of key storylines will play a role in the match. Firstly, midfielder Michael Carrick, recently signed from Tottenham, will have his first chance to face his own side, which is always an interesting fixture for a newly transfered player. Secondly, according to, Alan Smith may come in off the bench for his first first-team appearance in the seven months since he broke his leg and fractured his ankle in United's FA Cup clash with Liverpool. If he makes a strong showing, he may be able to earn a regular place up front for United: the only problem is that the pairing of Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha has performed exceptionally thus far this season. This will be a crucial match for both teams: Tottenham will be looking desperately for points as they try to work their way up the table towards potential European spots, whereas United badly need the full three points from a win to maintain their lead on Chelsea.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Real Ricky Bobby?

Recently, I went to see the movie Talladega Nights, starring Will Ferrell as redneck NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby. The movie was hilarious, and a great send-up of racing in general. However, it wasn't until I began my usual perusal of the sports world the next day that I realized how similar the movie is to the real-life situation currently taking place in the Champ Car World Series (open- wheel racing). Consider this: you have a driver with "two first names" (Paul Tracy) who, just like Bobby, "either wins or crashes" (more crashes than wins lately, though), to the extent that he could be a living example of Bobby's motto, "If you ain't first, you're last." Instead of the arrogant Frenchman Jean Girard from Talledega Nights, Tracy's main rival is another arrogant Frenchman in Sebastien Bourdais. Also, rather than get into the movie's barroom brawl, Tracy and Bourdais recently got into a physical fight on the track after a crash (look here for details). Further parallels: filling the role of Cal Naughton Jr., Bobby's underrated teammate in the movie who starts having success after Bobby's downfall, is Tracy's underrated teammate, A.J. Allmendinger. Allmendinger also won in Denver due to a crash between Bourdais and Tracy, which will seem eerily familiar to those of you who have seen the movie. Furthermore, he also happens to have a blond girlfriend who looks quite a bit like Carly, the floozy from Talledega Nights who starts out married to Bobby, and then leaves him for Naughton. The only real difference is that Ricky Bobby's a proud redneck southerner, and Paul Tracy is Canadian... perhaps Canada is the world's new producer of rednecks?