Divisional Round picks

The real story of this weekend is whether or not Tim Tebow will have enough magic to get past Tom Brady and The Hoodie in Foxborough.

San Francisco and the New York Giants will try to prevent us from seeing the Brees-Rodgers NFC title match up we’re all dreaming of and Joe Flacco will become the first QB in history to start a playoff game in his first four seasons, but all storylines take a backseat to Tebow. I don’t know if he can do it again, but it’ll be interesting.

Saturday night. 8 p.m. CBS. Be there.

New Orleans at San Francisco (+3 1/2)
New Orleans

Denver (+13 1/2) at New England
New England

Houston (+7 1/2) at Baltimore
Houston

Giants (+7 1/2) at Green Bay
Giants

Playoffs:

Northrop: 3-1
McKissic: 3-1
Sullivan: 2-2
Always Game Seven 2-2
DiCesare: 2-2
Gaughan: 1-3
Skurski: 1-3

This week in sports

You miss a lot when your laptop is broken. Now that it’s finally back from the shop, here’s a rundown of things I wanted to hit but couldn’t get to.

  • U.S. soccer and the Gold Cup

It’s good to be watching U.S. soccer play competitively again in the Gold Cup. It is always good when the States beat Canada. But following it up with a 2-1 loss to Panama was yet another step backwards for the Yanks.

Gabriel Gómez beat Tim Howard on a penalty kick in the 37th minute.

The 2-0 win over Canada was nice, but far short of a convincing performance. The lineup for the States doesn’t get much stronger than it is right now. The Yanks are back on the pitch tonight against Guadeloupe (who?), and nothing short of domination will be acceptable.

It looks like the States will still advance from Group C based on the standings, but that shouldn’t even be a question. Mexico is the second-best team in the tournament by FIFA rankings — despite having the best player, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez — but it has taken care of business, winning all three games with a goal differential of plus-13.

There is no reason the Gold Cup final shouldn’t be USA vs. Mexico every time. It likely still will be, but this tournament should give us a time to perfect our game against weaker regional opponents, not squeak through on a few lucky bounces.

The USA lineup has started the same for the first two games, in a 4-4-2:

Altidore-Agudelo
Dempsey-Bradley-Jones-Donovan
Cherundolo-Goodson-Ream-Bocanegra
Howard

  • FIFA rankings

The States came into the tournament ranked 22nd in the world by FIFA and first in CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football — we need a new name). Mexico is second in the zonal ranking and 28th in the world. Canada, USA’s first Group C opponent, is ranked 76th in the world (seventh zonal) and Panama is ranked 67th (sixth), though it will likely move up next month after beating the States.

Guadeloupe, if you notice, is not in the ranking. I wondered why, and got an answer.

  • Griffs drafted

Jamieson was drafted into the Oakland system.

Three Canisius baseball players were drafted in this year’s MLB draft: shortstop Sean Jamieson in the 17th round (526 overall) by the Oakland Athletics, relief pitcher Chris Cox in the 39th round (1,189 overall) by the Toronto Blue Jays, and starting pitcher Shane Davis in the 42nd round (1,279 overall) also by the Jays.

I talked to Sean before the draft, and basically asked him something I will never get to experience — how much fun is it knowing you’re going to get drafted:

“It’s pretty cool. Not too many people get the chance to go off and play in the minor league system. … [I hear from scouts in] emails, over the phone, after games. It’s always fun hearing from a big league scout. You try not to let it get to you and just take it one at bat at a time.”

  • The MLB draft

The Major League draft goes 50 rounds and had 1,530 players selected. Kolya Stephenson, right-handed pitcher from Ocean City High School (N.J.), was the last player selected, if you really want to know. With that many players you might think there’s more than just one “Mr. Irrelevant,” but not necessarily so. Fifty rounds sounds ridiculous, but there are a ton of minor league levels out there, and every organization needs to fill out the roster of every one of its affiliates.

A lot of the draftees are high school kids, many of whom will play college ball instead and re-enter the draft later. For some college draftees, “livin’ out the dream” may take a back seat to a job offer or a girl. Don’t forget about injuries. If you pitched for your high school team that played 25 games this spring, your arm might not be able to take the rest of the season in rookie ball. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Major League dream die every year due to injuries. Those players need to be replaced with healthy ones.

  • The NBA Finals

Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title on Sunday. I watched the second half, which is about the longest I’ve ever watched an NBA game on TV (I went to my first NBA game in Los Angeles earlier this year; Clippers beat the Nuggets, 100-94).

I follow the storylines in the NBA, but I have a hard time watching the games. They are slow and there are way too many whistles. I don’t even see half the fouls when they show the replay. Putting your head down and dribbling into a guy to try to draw a foul and then having putting up an off-balance shot that has no hope of going in because you didn’t get the call is not exactly entertaining.

Part of the reason we love watching sports is because we want to feel like we could be there, too. I’m not Derek Jeter, but there are some ground balls hit to him I’m sure I could field. In the NBA, I’d have to be an outside shooter. There’s no way I could ever go inside or get a rebound. You almost have to be a freak of nature to make it in the NBA, and that idea of “there’s no way I could have ever done that” takes a lot away from the experience.

I enjoy college basketball. I love covering it and I’ll watch even if the teams playing don’t mean anything to me. I don’t really know how to explain it, or maybe how to back it up, but it’s almost like the college kids try harder. There is a lot more hustle in the college game and they certainly go a lot harder on defense. I think the millions have something to do with it, but I don’t know how much I could really do with LeBron James or Dwight Howard coming at me full speed, either. Maybe it’s easier to defend in the college game because they guys aren’t so gargantuan, but that makes up part of the human element that is the reason NCAA round ball is so much easier to follow, and that much easier to love.

  • Playoff format

With the NBA and NHL finals going on at the same time, there is some debate going on about the playoff series format in a best-of-seven — the NHL’s 2-2-1-1-1 versus the NBA’s and MLB’s 2-3-2.

I prefer the 2-2-1-1-1, and not just because I’m biased towards hockey. To me, the 2-3-2 says we are more about the money than the game. It’s about the media travel and the television deals, not the outcome of the series, which the former takes into account.

If you really wanted it to be fair, they would alternate every home game, 1-1-1-1… until a winner was crowned. That’s a little ridiculous on the travel, which is why the 2-2 start is used, plus it rewards to higher seed with two home games at the start. The 2-3-2 really doesn’t reward the home team at all. If they split the first set, then the home team has to go play three times away. Who cares if you have six and seven at home, you might not even get back that far. If the lower seed takes the series in five games, then they would have had more home games than the higher seed. The higher seed should never be at a disadvantage.

Ask the players, they’d travel across the country if it meant getting a home game instead of a road game. The home team has won all six games so far in the Stanley Cup final. I think Roberto Luongo would rather travel across the country to sleep in his own bed and play in front of people who love him. The 2-3-2 makes travel easier, but for who? The players or the media?

  • Sedin twins

Speaking of the Stanley Cup finals, where have the Sedins been? Daniel has one goal and three assists, Henrik has one goal and no assists this series. Vancouver won’t win tomorrow without its best players. The Crimson Chins better give Harry Potter his invisibility cloak back, because this is the biggest game of their lives. If anybody in Vancouver has the Crimson Chin spotlight to shine on the night sky, now would be the time to bring it out.

  • Women’s soccer

I still haven’t seen Marta and the WNY Flash play in person yet, but I watched a few games on TV and I’m trying to figure out what level of competition they are on par with. I’ll hold judgement until I see them live, but from the comfort of my couch, it looks like a Division I men’s team would handle the WPS. I’m against coed sports because it’s hard to go all-out against women, but if there was a way it could happen, it’d be interesting to see FC Buffalo take on the Flash.

  • Chicharito

Chicharito has five of Mexico's 14 goals in the tournament.

Oh, and remember Chicharito from Mexico soccer? His nickname means “little pea” in Spanish. His dad was “Chícharo” — pea — because of his green eyes, so naturally, he became little pea. That’s a fun fact.

Ryan Miller ought to be furious

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I have about six thousand different thoughts right now about Game Seven that I’ll get to tomorrow, but right now I just want to make a brief mention about Ryan Miller.

Nobody should be more pissed off right now than Miller. I’m usually harder on him than most, but after Danny Briere, I think he was the best player in the series. (Have you ever seen so many 1-on-0’s from point-blank range? And he stopped almost ever single one.)

Ryan Miller single-handedly kept the Sabres afloat for a large portion of this series, and Game Seven especially. The first period was an absolute atrocity, but Miller was there every time for the first 19 and a half minutes. He let his team down once. They let him down half a dozen times.

Miller rarely got to play with the lead in this series, a huge advantage for goalies, and as soon as the Sabres built one up for him, they let their guard down shortly after.

Every Buffalo win in this series was by one goal — two 1-0 games and an overtime win. How often does a goalie steal a game for his team in the playoffs with a shutout, not once, but twice, and then still lose the series?

That has to be maddening for a goalie. I’d imagine this scenario has happened a few times in NHL history, but it can’t be very often.

To his credit, I can’t remember Miller being very vocal about it. If CC Sabathia threw two no-hitters in the same series for the Yankees and they still managed to lose, I’m sure he’d have a few choice words for the hitters after the fact.

Looking at Miller’s play might show just how bad the rest of the team was. The two shutout wins were basically gifts to the offense. What did they do besides that? Not much. The pooped out after a hot start a few times and disappeared completely not long after.

Ryan Miller was even credited with an assist in the series. He had the same amount of points as Brad Boyes, Mike Grier, Mike Weber, Chris Butler, Steve Montador and Jordan Leopold, all of whom played at least five games in the series. Try as he might, Ryan Miller can’t be counted on to provide the offense, too.

Miller faced more shots than any goalie in the playoffs, and finished with a 2.93 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, respectable numbers that should have been more than enough to win given the poor goaltending Buffalo was going up against.

Every Buffalo Sabre not named Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford or Rob Neidermayer (the only players with positive plus-minuses) better chip in and take Miller out for a nice dinner after this is all said and done (Chris Butler can leave the tip, too). If anybody should be mad about the loss, it’s Miller, and I respect him for not saying anything about it.

Game Seven: Whatever it takes

Bill Wippert/NHLI

It all comes down to this. Game Seven. It’s always Game Seven, but now it’s really Game Seven, if that makes sense. Every game in the playoffs is a must-win, but this is about as big as it gets.

After two consecutive collapses, I’m not going to say I think the Sabres will win. I’d also have a hard time saying I think the Flyers will win. I think Philly has been the better team in the series, but neither has been great.

I don’t think Ryan Miller has been as good as he gets credit for being, but he has done well given the poor defensive showing in front of him.

People are talking about the Sabres’ new-found toughness this series. Being tough is a lot more than pushing a guy after the whistle when he just bumped your goalie. That needs to happen 82 times a year, minimum. That’s basic hockey.

The Sabres really need to check themselves. They all need to take a long look in the mirror before they head down to the arena tonight. Game Seven toughness is different. When you go down to block a shot, you can’t secretly be wishing it misses you. Blocking that shot is going to hurt, but if you want to win the game, you need to go out and actively seek that pain.

It’s not enough to want it. Everybody wants the glory. Giving everything you have on every single shift may not be enough. If you want to win a Game Seven, you need to find some other level inside you that you haven’t been able to get to.

Many players may not even know they have it in them, younger guys especially. Every one of Jerry Sullivan’s columns lately has been about Danny Briere. He’s feeling it. He’s in the zone. I don’t like the guy anymore. He’s a cake eater now; he’s one of them. But dammit do I respect him. Briere has been on another level lately. It’s been Game Seven for him for quite some time. Thomas Vanek has shown flashes. He’s not there yet, but almost.

I think I just referenced the Mighty Ducks and Anchorman in the same paragraph. I love it.

It looks like Derek Roy will play. Andrea Sekera might too. The Sabres are going to need the lift. If anything, it gives two fresh bodies who haven’t taken a beating yet.

Finishing your checks and standing up for your teammates, your brothers, does not make you a playoff hero. It makes you a decent player in the regular season. Every player needs to find the heart of Nathan Gerbe, the feistiness of Pat Kaleta and the killer instinct of, well, Briere.

Everybody talks about composure this time of year. Composure might last for 60 minutes, but at some point tonight, grown men will cry. If it’s not from pain, it’s going to be from sadness.

It’s much better to be watching your boys play in the next round from a hospital bed because you sacrificed your body for the team than it is to be watching someone else play because you weren’t willing to.

Everyone wishes they would have given a little bit more of themselves when they see someone else kissing the Cup. There’s no flea-flicker or hidden ball trick in hockey. If you are going to get somewhere in the NHL Playoffs, you’re going to earn it.

If you want to take a Game Seven, that’s how hard you have to go. That’s the kind of sacrifice it takes to win in hockey. Honestly, I’m not sure the Sabres have it in them. The Flyers were an eight-seed that made it to the Cup finals last year. I’m thinking they might. Maybe it’s better to be a road team. All Buffalo will have in that arena is the 20 guys in blue jerseys on the bench. You do it for the guy next to you, you do it for yourself, and you do it for the Stanley Cup Champion you’ve always wanted to be.

When I think of “Stanley Cup Champion,” I don’t think Sidney Crosby or Pat Kane. I think Ray Bourque and Scott Neidermayer. These are grizzled vets who would do absolutely whatever it took. When the Ducks won the Cup in 2007, Chris Pronger said he separated his shoulder after getting hit during the game, but when it kept popping out, he just popped it back in and kept playing.

I know Drew Stafford wants to win Game Seven. I’m not sure if he is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Were going to find out just what our Sabres are made out of tonight, and for the sake of the city, I hope they have it in them.

Eighty-eight games and it all comes down to one. The Sabres have their fate in their own hands. Grown men will be left crying tonight. I just hope Terry Pegula isn’t one of them.

The apostrophe in Brind’Amour

I never liked Philadelphia. I’ve hated the Flyers for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until the third period last night I actually tried to think of a real reason for my feelings other than they were going against the Sabres.

As a kid I always hated Rod Brind’Amour for his stupid nose and his stupid apostrophe and just fact that his name was Rod, but it had to be more than that.

I dug through the family archives and came up with this beauty. That me in my dad's arms. I wouldn't face the camera because I was too upset over breaking the bell.

Maybe it started when I was 4 years old on my first-ever vacation. My parents took me and my brother to a few different toddler attractions — Hershey Park and Sesame Place stick out in memory — and the last stop on the trip was to see the historic Liberty Bell.

As you know, the bell cracked after its initial ring. However, I had yet to learn that history lesson.

My dad convinced me that I broke the Liberty Bell. I didn’t remember touching the bell, but my dad would never lie to me, right?

Immediately, I started balling my eyes out. I couldn’t believe I was responsible for that. I found it odd that no one else seemed notice that the bell had such a large crack, or if they did, they didn’t seem too upset about it. I figured it was only a matter of time before security came and locked me up for good. The sooner I could get out of that miserable city, the better.

I don’t remember when I first understood it had been broken for 200-and-some odd years before I ever visited Philadelphia, but maybe I’ve had Philly hatred inside me for a lot longer than I thought.

That disdain got a lot stronger my freshman year of high school. It was spring 2006, and R.J. Umberger was largely concussion-free.

After years of pre-lockout struggle, the success of the ’05-’06 Sabres led to a rampant outbreak of Buffalo fever through the community. Add in a cafeteria full of 400 young, stupid, immature high school freshmen and you have a recipe for disaster awesomeness.

A poor classmate of mine, born in Pennsylvania, made the mistake of coming to school decked out in vomit-orange Philadelphia Flyers apparel. We loved our Sabres and we didn’t hesitate to let anyone know it.

So we booed her.

Four hundred kids in the freshman cafeteria booed a 14-year-old classmate because she wore the wrong shirt at the wrong time. And yes, it was a she.

If your line of thought right now is, “how rude and inconsiderate,” I’m going to need to close out this window right now. This is sports. Hatred and being mean are a lot different than they are in regular settings. Injuring someone in public is looked down upon (generally). On the ice, you set out to cause your opponent pain. Being in the stands (or the lunchroom) isn’t quite like playing, but it’s the same idea.

The poor girl didn’t know what to do. She was an intelligent person, but this moment was psychological overload. She looked like a deer in the headlights, kind of like Peter Laviolette trying to decide which goaltender should play Game Six.

But it didn’t stop there. A kid at the table next to me picked some food off his tray and threw it at her from across the cafeteria (with astonishing accuracy, I might add). Others joined in shortly thereafter. Honestly, it was impressive how dead-on these kids were with tater tots from four rows over.

She finally had the presence of mind to run out of the room after the tears started flowing. We were pumped and we needed a new way to channel our emotions. There was no one else to yell at, so we just started banging on tables and chanting “Let’s go Sabres” for the last 10 or 15 minutes of the period.

Was hatred just the logical opposition of so much passion? Either way, we hated the Flyers and their fans, and sticking it to them was always a reason to celebrate.

Game One of that series was cause for celebration. It started when Brain Campbell nearly ended Umberger’s life in the first overtime. I don’t know how I did it, but I was lying on the couch one second, and the next, I was on my feet screaming “OHHH! OH! OH! OH!” with my brother in the living room. We scared the crap out of my mom, who was bored half to sleep from an overtime game. She didn’t understand why were cheering for violence, but we didn’t expect her to anyway.


(Yeah, I put that video in two posts in a row. I’ve watched it at least 1,000 times in my life. I’m okay with it.)

This hit was awesome, and it great for one of our own guys to finally give the Flyers some of their own medicine.

Every hockey player in Western New York knows about that hit, and monstrous body checks have been dubbed “umbergers” ever since.

I was looking for something in my desk today and I came across a letter I got back from Merriam-Webster in high school when I tried to get the word “umberger” in the dictionary.

It was for a class project — writing a professional letter to a company — but really it was another way to try to stick it to the Flyers. It’s great that a bunch of kids toss the term around. If the entire (English language-speaking) world did too… how awesome would that be?

It turns out a slang word for a few hundred kids in the country’s 70th largest city isn’t enough to get a word into the dictionary, but even today reading this letter made me smile. This was so Buffalo, I thought, something we would do. That hit, and those %$#&ing Flyers.

That’s the same type of feeling I had last night when Tyler Ennis buried Mike Weber’s rebound to put those Flyers against the ropes heading into Game Six. The little guy had gone missing for the better part of the series, but he went hard to the net at the right time and was able to knock in a huge rebound.

Scott Hartnell is quickly becoming the most hated Flyer of this decade.

Last night’s Game Five wasn’t a defining moment as a Buffalo sports fan, but it did put the Sabres one game away from advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Going through a hated rival to do so makes it that much sweeter.

So maybe I’ve hated Philly longer than I thought. It’s Garth Snow, it’s Eric Lindros, it’s Danny Briere and it’s the 1975 Cup finals. Game Five isn’t making the list of the most influential moments in what it means to be a Sabres fan, but we beat the Flyers and we made it hurt.

You can’t really ask for much more.