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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Stanley Cup Asterisk? Not A Chance

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These guys don't care about any asterisks. They want to drink from this large silver chalice and bathe in it. (Getty Images)

Asterisks? All these guys want is to drink from this silver chalice and bathe in it. (Getty Images)

Let’s leave the asterisks for baseball.

The talk of such typographical tripe is an unfortunate inevitability whenever we reach the peak of a strike-shortened sports season. It began in earnest after the 1994-95 NHL lockout, which lasted until 10 days after New Year’s, and wound up reducing the schedule to 48 games. One team, Detroit, reached 70 points that season, and the Red Wings buzzed through the Western Conference playoffs, dropping only two games en route to the Stanley Cup finals.

A funny thing happened on the way to planning a parade down Woodward Avenue in the Motor City, though. Detroit not only lost in the Cup finals but was embarrassed, scoring seven goals in a four-game sweep at the hands of a New Jersey team that finished fifth in the East.

A fluke, it was called. A sham. A series that was the impetus for the often unwatchable hockey that permeated the league for the next decade due to the Devils’ use of the neutral-zone trap.

OK. So that last part is basically true.

Ken Daneyko cries out for a dentist after the Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup win. (

Ken Daneyko cries out for a dentist after the Devils’ 1995 Stanley Cup win. (

But did the fact that the league shaved 36 games – the NHL played 84-game seasons prior to the lockout, not the 82 we’re now used to – off its schedule diminish New Jersey’s accomplishment? Of course not. Vile as their low-scoring, trapping tendencies were to hockey purists, the Devils went on to participate in three more finals – winning two – before Gary Bettman and his minions wiped out the entire 2004-05 season because of a work stoppage.

The same was said of the Spurs’ 1999 NBA title, which came after a lockout that reduced that season’s slate to 50 games. Why does San Antonio’s championship get such ridicule? Because it beat the eighth-seeded Knicks to win the NBA title. As if the Spurs had a say in which team they’d see in the Finals.

You know what San Antonio did control? Itself. The Spurs won 37 games in the regular season, tied for the league’s best record and the equivalent to a 61-win team in a normal year. They had a point differential of plus-8.1, dwarfing the rest of the NBA with a mark that’s still the seventh-best of the post-Jordan era. Then they lost just two games in the playoffs. Only six other teams since 1970 have waltzed through the postseason with such ease.

They’ve been alright ever since, too. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have combined for three more titles, and were a Ray Allen miss away from a fourth just a week ago. But let’s be sure to question the validity of that first one because they missed the chance to go 23-9 in those 32 regular-season games they missed out on and faced a gassed and overmatched Knicks team to cap their run.

Don't worry, guys. The championship hats get WAY better looking. (San Antonio Express-News)

Don’t worry, guys. The championship hats get WAY better looking. (San Antonio Express-News)

Speaking of Mr. Allen’s current club, there were a few bitter folks out there who attempted to knock the Heat last season for winning a title after a lockout that cost the NBA a whopping 16 regular-season contests. What, would LeBron James have been too drained from a mid-December game in Toronto to have dropped 45 on Boston in that Game 6 demolition in the East finals? Miami, with Allen in tow this time, backed up that farcical-in-the-eyes-of-the-crazy title by winning a second straight ring last week.

This is all building to what the city of Chicago is still buzzing about from last night. The Blackhawks scored twice in 17 seconds in the final 1:16 to turn what looked like a certain ticket to Game 7 at the United Center into their second Stanley Cup win in four years.

You know the story by now. Bettman was involved. A lockout nearly cost the league a full season for the second time in under a decade, a proposition that would have been grim for a niche sport that tends to perpetually take one step forward and two steps back in the PR department. Training camp lasted about as long as it takes to make a proper pot roast. The league played as many preseason games as there are children sired by Kanye and birthed by Kim that aren’t named after a compass point. There were 48 games instead of 82.

And just like with our three examples from above, anyone denigrating the Blackhawks’ accomplishments needs to be chained to a couch and forced to watch a marathon of Naked and Afraid. They won exactly three-quarters of their games, 18 at home and 18 on the road. They allowed the fewest goals and scored the second-most. They obliterated an NHL record by not losing for the first TWENTY-FOUR games of the season, and had they had a full season of hockey, were right on pace to challenge the 1976-77 Canadiens’ record of 132 points.

All of those accomplishments, we know, would have meant essentially nothing to Chicago had it not followed through by skating with the Cup, but that’s exactly what it did. Rally from a 3-1 series deficit against Detroit? Check. Temporarily turn 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick from postseason god to just another goalie? Did it. Win two overtime games and then deliver perhaps the wildest rally in finals history to clinch the Cup, scoring as many goals in 17 seconds on Tuukka Rask as the Joanie Cunningham lookalike had given up in four games against Pittsburgh? Yep, that happened too.

“We’ve accomplished a lot as a team with the regular-season streak and President’s Trophy,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp told the Chicago Tribune before the Cup finals on the notion of asterisks. “It doesn’t matter to me or my teammates about the 48 games.”

Asterisks can have a place in sports. Remember the Soviet Union’s still-disputed gold-medal game win over the United States in 1972? The one the US still won’t accepts its medals for? Asterisk. Barry Bonds’ home run record? Asterisk. The end of Armando Galaragga’s perfect game that Jim Joyce decided to miss for a mid-evening nap? Asterisk. Sam Cassell’s status as the ugliest man in the NBA once Chris Kaman entered the league? Asterisk.

Just don’t try slapping one of those suckers on what the Blackhawks accomplished. Being the best team in the regular season and the best team in the postseason gets your name a spot on this.

Toews Cup

No asterisk necessary.


Lost in Translation: A List of Devastating Defeats

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Does this man look happy to you? I didn't think so. (AP)

Does this man look happy to you? I didn’t think so. (AP)

I give myself 60 minutes.

That’s it. One hour.

Thirty-six hundred seconds to think about what I just witnessed, overanalyzing every missed shot, every turnover, every bad substitution, every foul ball that should have been fair, every wide open receiver the quarterback didn’t see, every penalty that could have been called.

When you’re young, watching one of your favorite teams lose is devastating. You think they blew their only chance, that they’ll never come so close again, that your world is crumbling because you don’t know sports are nothing more than a distraction – a really, really great distraction – and you live and die a little with every big game.

Maybe it’s the same when you’re older. You think they blew their last chance, that they’ll never come so close again. Red Sox fans went through went through a Halley’s Comet-plus-10-year drought without a championship. Cubs fans are on their 27th presidential term without a World Series winner. There are now TEENAGERS born in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first year of existence who are wondering if their team will ever as much as hold a lead in a playoff game.

No one ever runs down the hard parts of being a fan when you become one. You don’t recognize sports disappointment exists until it rises up and socks you in the face like an Evgeni Malkin slap shot. Unless you were a fan of the 1960s Celtics, the UCLA basketball teams of the 60s and 70s or the Lakers in the 80s, your season is ending in disappointment far more often than not.

This all comes to mind because of last night’s fantastic, pulse-pounding Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

As a Cavs fan, but more specifically as a human being, I was rooting for San Antonio to not only close out Miami, but to do it in the most devastating way possible. So much so that it felt like the Spurs were MY team. I’m over LeBron James pulling the rip-cord on Cleveland by now, but that doesn’t make me feel any less anguish when the Heat win.

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night's Spurs collapse. (AP)

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night’s Spurs collapse. (AP)

I’ve always had a thorough appreciation of San Antonio. Tim Duncan is without peer among power forwards in NBA history. Gregg Popovich is among the top 10 coaches  the league has ever seen and Tony Parker belong in the same breath among point guards. The Spurs, with those guys in charge, had Game 6 in the freaking bag. They recovered from a blown 13-point lead and were up five with 28 seconds left. But Popovich’s decision to remove Duncan – a man who has appeared on the NBA’s all-defensive team FOURTEEN TIMES in his career and averages the seventh-most defensive rebounds per game EVER – cost San Antonio two critical rebounds and led to two second-chance 3-pointers for Miami. The substitution game bit Popovich again in overtime, when he failed to use his final timeout with eight seconds left to get Parker, also off the floor for defensive purposes, back in. Manu Ginobili decided to take matters into his own hands, further dropping trou on one of the worst games he’s ever played by wildly driving into the lane and losing the ball, ensuring there’d be a Game 7.

He probably got fouled, but only after he’d blatantly traveled. No complaints. This one was on Popovich, who always makes the right moves, the Argentine, who had played one of the best games of his life two days earlier, Parker, who missed 17 shots, and Duncan, who had 25 points in his brilliant first half but just five in the second half and overtime.

I’m not going to pretend that loss hurt me as much as it did an actual Spurs fan, who even if Thursday’s decisive game goes poorly can sit back and reminisce about any of their four championships in the past 15 years. But it still stung. The odds are heavily against them in Game 7 – road teams are 3-14 in decisive NBA Finals games – and this may be the last realistic shot for Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili together. It also would provide further validation to the Heat and perhaps increase the likelihood that James stays when he can become a free agent next summer.

The Spurs sounded like they couldn’t get off the mat after the game. Ginobili said he was “devastated.” But that’s the reaction that comes from the immediacy of a game that was one rebound or free throw from being over. Duncan said Wednesday the players aired their grievances during a late postgame meal, and like the veteran bunch they are, the Spurs sounded poised to recover.

It probably took them all of 60 minutes.


I can’t say for certain each of the games on the following list of difficult defeats only took me 60 minutes to get over. I’m still reeling from one of them.

This list is unique to me, and even someone who roots for the exact same set of teams might make a different one. It depends on how old you are, where you were, who you were with and what you were expecting. I’m sure a few of these games will ring a bell, even if they didn’t stick with you as long as they stuck with me. There are two Super Bowl losses, one of which I attended, that don’t even make this top 10 list, so either I’ve seen my share of sports devastation since 1990 (we’re arbitrarily starting this list from games I at least have a solid memory of) or I just really, really like to complain.

Maybe a little bit of both.

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston's 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston’s 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

10. 2013 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 3 – Bruins 2, Penguins 1 (2OT)

This one is all of two weeks old, but it still sneaks onto the list. The Penguins were favored to get to the Stanley Cup finals heading into this series against Boston, but were outscored 9-1 at home in Games 1 and 2. This was their chance to make it a series and perhaps turn the tide, which can tend to happen for the winner and loser of a multiple overtime game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh was arguably the better team in regulation and had numerous chances throughout the first overtime, but Patrice Bergeron ended any hopes of this series becoming a lengthy battle with his goal 15:19 into the second OT. This makes the cut due to the high quality of play in Game 3, the nearly 100 minutes of hockey that took place and the fact that it was essentially the epitaph to a Penguins season that failed to live up to the ever-so-lofty standards they set for themselves.

Manu Ginobili Scale of Devastation Score (out of 10): 3.5

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

9. 1996 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 7 – Panthers 3, Penguins 1

Pittsburgh was an offensive machine led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, averaging 4.4 goals a game and scoring EIGHTY more than anyone in the Eastern Conference. Lemieux and Jagr combined for 310 points on what was the NHL’s last great offensive team. The Penguins score 362 times that regular season, and no one has scored more than 313 in an 82-game season since. This was just as much about who they were playing than the end result. Florida was in only its third year in the league and was in the playoffs for the first time. Pittsburgh went 32-9 at home during the regular season but was just 5-5 on its own ice in the playoffs, culminating with this Game 7 loss that remains the Panthers’ last postseason series victory 17 years later. Florida went on to get swept in the Stanley Cup finals rather than setting up what would have been a fascinating offensive showcase between the Penguins and Avalanche. Instead, this was Pittsburgh’s last great chance with Lemieux and Jagr at their peaks, but it went by the wayside to a team that threw rubber rats on the ice to celebrate goals.


I'm sure you're a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I'm still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

I’m sure you’re a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I’m still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

8. 1999 NCAA Football Week 11 – Minnesota 24, Penn State 23

Penn State was the preseason No. 2 in the nation behind Florida State, and after starting 9-0 it seemed to be destined for a national championship showdown with the also-undefeated Seminoles. The Nittany Lions were led by an outstanding defense that would feature two of the top three picks in the 2000 NFL draft (Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington), and I just so happened to be in attendance for this one, nine months before I’d begin my freshman year in Happy Valley. So, naturally, Penn State let this mediocre Minnesota team hang around until well into the second half, though it seemed like it would survive when Travis Forney’s 44-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter put the Nittany Lions up 23-21. Penn State even got the ball back with under five minutes to go but played conservatively, choosing to ride its top-ranked defense to victory. Except it never happened. Minnesota got the ball at its own 20 with 1:50 to go and marched 65 yards, completing a 4th-down Hail Mary and eventually kicking a 32-yard field goal as time expired. That started a downward spiral that included four losing seasons in five years – three of which I was, of course, in college to witness – and Penn State has never truly been the power it once was since. Oh, and far more significantly than this game, the architect of that great Penn State defense turned out to be using his position of power to sexually abuse children. Other than that, just another loss.


The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

7. 2001 AFC Championship game – Patriots 24, Steelers 17

The Steelers were once again the class of the AFC in the regular season, going 13-3, outscoring opponents by a conference-best 140 points and featuring what was by far the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They were at home for their fourth conference championship game in eight seasons, two of which they had lost and the third of which they came within a whisker of losing as a 12-point favorite. Pittsburgh was favored by 10 in this one, but the oddsmakers forgot to weigh a few key factors – the Steelers’ dreadful special teams and the presence of Kordell Stewart. New England got on the board late in the first quarter via a Troy Brown 80-yard punt return touchdown and Pittsburgh never recovered, with an Antwan Harris blocked field goal TD return midway through the third putting the Pats up 21-3. The Steelers got within 21-17 but Stewart threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions and Drew Bledsoe – filling in for some injured rookie named Tom Brady – helped New England hold on. Stewart started five more games the following season before mercifully earning his ticket out of town, and Brady and the Patriots went on to win three Super Bowls in four years – again beating the Steelers at home for the AFC championship after the 2004 season. You may be starting to notice a preponderance of New England-related heartbreak on this list, but don’t worry – there’s more to come.


Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

6. 1993 NHL Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 – Islanders 4, Penguins 3 (OT)

The third and final entry involving the Penguins on this list, it’s debatable whether to put this higher or lower. On one hand, Pittsburgh had won the past two Stanley Cups, so bowing out of the playoffs and failing to three-peat (trademark: Pat Riley!) is hardly something to be ashamed of. On the other hand, this was EASILY the best of those three early 90s Penguins clubs. They’d set an NHL record with 17 straight wins, Lemieux had 160 points despite missing 22 games while being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the team had THREE 48-goal scorers. One of those, Kevin Stevens, went down with a nasty injury following a collision with the Islanders’ Rich Pilon early in Game 7, and New York built a 3-1 lead midway through the third period. The Penguins scored twice in the final four minutes to force overtime, though, and seemed to have all the momentum in the world heading into the locker room. But little-known winger David Volek scored his second goal of the game 5:16 into OT, ending Pittsburgh’s pseudo-dynasty and breaking the heart of 10-year-old me. Volek, in his fifth year in the NHL, scored twice more in the Islanders’ conference finals loss and had five more goals the following season before never playing again. The remainder of the Penguins’ Lemieux-Jagr years ended in playoff disappointment – one of which we covered earlier.


Sniffle. (AP)

Sniffle. (AP)

5. 2009 NBA Eastern Conference finals Game 4 – Magic 116, Cavaliers 114 (OT)

I probably could have gone with Game 1 as well in a series that seemed like a mere formality for James and the 66-win Cavs before they went head-to-head with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the finals. That matchup never came to fruition, though, as Dwight Howard thoroughly dominated Cleveland’s empty interior, the Magic shot lights-out from 3-point range and the lack of a second offensive option weighed heavily in the Cavaliers’ collapse. Cleveland built a 16-point first-quarter lead in Game 1 before falling 107-106 and almost went down 2-0 before James’ miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer saved it in Game 2. Orlando won Game 3 by 10, but this was the one the Cavs had to have to make it a series. Cleveland led by eight at the half but faltered down the stretch, losing in overtime despite 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists from James. The Cavs won Game 5 in Cleveland but never led in a 13-point loss in Game 6, ending the franchise’s best season in history as the writing on the wall began to appear that James’ next season in Cleveland could be his last. We’ll get to that, though.


Mario Manningham celebrates. I'm pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

Mario Manningham celebrates. I’m pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

4. 2005 NCAA Football Week 7 – Michigan 27, Penn State 25

This seems a bit early in the season for a college football loss to register as devastating, but just a week earlier, the Nittany Lions seemed to announce their return to college football prominence. They’d beaten sixth-ranked Ohio State in a raucous 17-10 home victory under the lights that literally left the stadium shaking, and next week had to make a trip to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team they’d lost to six straight times. The Wolverines kept Penn State’s powerful offense off the board entirely until the final 10 seconds of the third quarter, and led 10-3 heading into what became a surreal final 15 minutes. Three touchdowns were traded in a 2:24 span early in the fourth before Garrett Rivas’ 47-yard field goal put Michigan ahead 21-18 with 3:45 left. Like he seemed to do so many times that year, quarterback Michael Robinson led Penn State back, taking his team 81 yards in 13 plays and scoring on a 3-yard run with 53 seconds left to grab a 25-21 lead. Unranked but hardly untalented, Michigan fought back, getting an outstanding kick return from Steve Breaston and going 53 yards from there, scoring with no time remaining on a strike from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Penn State finished third in the BCS standings, behind USC and Texas. Had it held on at Michigan, it’s unclear whether the Nittany Lions would have spoiled the Trojans and Longhorns’ classic of a national title game. What they would have most certainly done was jump-start the conversation for a playoff, as that would have marked two years in a row with three major conference teams unbeaten in the regular season.


Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

3. 1994 AFC Championship game – Chargers 17, Steelers 13

The Steelers’ days of Super Bowl glory all happened prior to my arrival on this Earth, so one could understand my excitement as they tore through the AFC with a 12-4 record, the conference’s top seed and bounced the hated Browns for a third time with a 29-9 divisional round victory. It was time to sit back, relax and watch Pittsburgh pound the heavy underdog Chargers in the Steel City’s first AFC title game in 15 years. You, of course, know where this is headed. Up 13-3 in the third quarter, the Steelers allowed someone named Alfred Pupunu to break lose for a 43-yard touchdown catch on their vaunted defense, the same magical distance covered by Tony Martin on a TD reception with 5:13 to go in the fourth. Down 17-13, Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field with time running short, but his fourth-down pass to Barry Foster fell incomplete in the end zone and 12-year-old me got my first serious lesson in taking a game for granted. The Chargers went on to get absolutely annihilated by San Francisco in the Super Bowl, while the Steelers made it to the big game next year. But this is the loss that set the tone that defined Bill Cowher’s career on the Pittsburgh sidelines. Five conference championships were played on the shores of the Allegheny in Cowher’s tenure and the Steelers won but one of those.


Dammit LeBron, I just can't quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

Dammit LeBron, I just can’t quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

2. 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals Games 5/6 – Celtics 4, Cavaliers 2

The only spot on this list I felt had to be occupied by two games instead of one to tell the complete story. The Cavaliers bounced back from their ouster to Orlando to win 61 games even with James’ free agency the only story the media was interested in talking about for seven straight months. Cleveland was up 2-1 in the series when Boston won Game 4 at home, but that wasn’t unexpected. The series was shifting back to Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs were 39-7. Sure, they’d lost Game 2 at home by 18 points in a complete and utter no-show, but that certainly wouldn’t happen again. Or would it? Cleveland led 29-21 early in the second quarter before the wheels began to fall off and the RV it was driving careened into the side of a mountain, spritzing gasoline on the city below before igniting in flames. The Celtics outscored the Cavs 99-59 over the final 34 minutes, James finished with 14 points on 3 of 14 shooting in arguably the worst performance of his life and seemed disinterested at the boos rained down in the arena he’d turned into a sold-out, opened-ended Broadway show. The series wasn’t over, but it might as well have been. Cleveland played better back in Boston for Game 6, but James’ triple-double nearly became a quadruple-double due to his nine turnovers. His headband came off – hi there, Game 6 of the 2013 Finals! – and as he walked down the tunnel of the TD Garden and ripped off his wine and gold uniform, there was an overwhelming sense that jersey was never going back on. He was off into the night, beginning a two-month process of toying with the entire league’s emotions, and on that sticky July evening when the decision came down, the Cavaliers entered an abyss from which they’ve yet to emerge. There have been worse losses, but this one wasn’t about the end of a singular season. It was the end of an era, the end of a dynasty that never got going and the beginning of James being branded a traitor. James has come up short in playoff games before and since, but never has a player of his caliber delivered the absolute shit sandwich that he submitted in Game 5.


The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

1. 1992 National League Championship series Game 7 – Braves 3, Pirates 2

A moment that, quite frankly, the Pirates have yet to recover from, and I think one that any Pittsburgh fan still feels whenever he or she watches any team, anywhere, suffer a particularly gut-wrenching loss. It was the playful impetus for my Twitter handle, but there was nothing funny about what happened in the 9th inning at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium during the hour 9-year-old me spent sobbing, disconsolate, on the couch as my parents wandered by and wondered when I’d get over it. For those unfamiliar, the Pirates were in their third straight NLCS, having fallen short in the previous two. They lost to these same Braves a year earlier in seven games, scoring a grand total of zero runs in the final two. This was the last hurrah as the team had been constructed, with Bobby Bonilla already gone to the New York Mets via free agency and Barry Bonds – then a skinny, speedy, twig of a man – and former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek headed out of town as well. This time it was the Pirates rallying to force a Game 7, scoring 20 total runs in winning the fifth and sixth games after falling down 3-1. Drabek pitched eight spotless innings in Game 7 and manager Jim Leyland decided to let him start the ninth rather than go to a bullpen that was shaky during the regular season and downright bad in the series against the Braves. Drabek ran into trouble, loading the bases with no outs via a double, an error and a walk, and Leyland brought in closer Stan Belinda. Atlanta cut the lead in half with Ron Gant’s sacrifice fly, Damon Berryhill walked to again load the bases but Brian Hunter popped out. Needing only one out to make it to their first World Series in 13 years, the Pirates saw Atlanta send pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera had 10 at-bats during the regular season and was a non-prospect approaching journeyman status, but he cemented his legacy in Braves history and Pirates nightmares by lacing a single into shallow left field. David Justice scored the tying run and former Pirate Sid Bream – carrying not a piano but an entire orchestra on his balky back – stumbled around third and slid into home, just under Mike LaValliere’s tag. The throw from Bonds in left wasn’t great, and that was his last act in Pittsburgh before ballooning up via illegal means and becoming baseball’s all-time home run king. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since. If ever a singular moment became the defining fork in the road for a franchise, it was Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Pittsburgh’s baseball club has been a laughingstock since, underspending, overdrafting and failing to properly evaluate talent from the top down. There are losses, and then there’s THIS loss.

Give me 60 years and I won’t forget it.

MGSODS: 11 out of 10

Stanley Cup Finals primer: Bruins vs. Blackhawks

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Barring anyone waving a beer or pretty lady in front of his face, Patrick Kane is due for a big series. (Getty Images)

Barring anyone waving a beer or pretty lady in front of his face, Patrick Kane is due for a big series. (Getty Images)

Contrary to what some may believe, I haven’t sworn off hockey for good after the Penguins – the same Penguins who were averaging more goals than any team in the playoffs since 1990 – managed to score TWICE IN 275 MINUTES in their embarrassing no-show in the conference finals.

Rather than focusing on Pittsburgh’s ineptitude, though, don’t forget to credit Boston for controlling that series from the opening puck drop and Tuukka Rask for never allowing the Penguins the life they were so desperately seeking in the double-overtime Game 3 thriller, which was one of the best hockey games I’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Blackhawks are a minus-150 favorite in Vegas, which means they should win this series approximately 60 percent of the time. But nearly all of the experts I’ve seen throwing their hat in the prediction ring have picked Boston, and it’s pretty easy to see why after the Bruins clogged up the neutral zone, beat down the Penguins’ forwards and allowed nearly no rebound opportunities.

The Blackhawks and Penguins are both similarly skilled teams, but Chicago is faster. The Blackhawks also will not allow Boston to put up police tape in a 20×20 area in front of the net to keep everyone out of Rask’s way.

Aside from Patrick Kane’s hat trick in Game 5 against the Kings, Kane and captain Jonathan Toews had combined for 4 goals in 16 playoff games. Yet here the ‘Hawks are anyway, having had little issue against either Minnesota or Los Angeles even with that Detroit scare in between.

Boston may very well win this series. They might have gotten that massive scare from the Maple Leafs in Round 1 and then taken off like a Lamborghini. After they held the Penguins scoreless for 60 more minutes in Game 4, I was all ready to pick the Bruins in six. But if there’s ever been a stronger case of recency bias getting in the way than this, I’d love to hear it. Chicago might be similar to Pittsburgh, but it’s also a smarter, more well-coached team that will adjust on the fly. Corey Crawford will need to be stellar, as Boston has the ability to get goals in bunches – Game 2 in Pittsburgh, anyone? – but he’s proven to be up to the task. This should be a tight series featuring strong goaltending, great penalty killing and not too many goals. I’d imagine we’ll have an overtime or two to digest in the coming few weeks, and plenty of nerve-wracking finishes.

The pick: Blackhawks in 7

Conn Smythe winner: Marian Hossa

Orphan Black: The Actress and the Show That You Shouldn’t Be Missing

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Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black. (BBC America)

Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black. (BBC America)

The idea of an actor playing multiple roles in the same television series isn’t any sort of revelation. It’s happened on soap operas for decades. It’s been a staple of recent sci-fi shows like Fringe and Heroes. John Stamos once ventured outside the complex box that was Jesse Katsopolis to play the stunningly different Cousin Stavros in an episode of Full House.

And I’m still not convinced it was Jaleel White alone who was responsible for Steve Urkel, Stephan Urquelle and Myrtle Urkel.

Damn you and your suaveness, Jaleel White. (Syfy)

Damn you and your suaveness, Jaleel White. (Syfy)

What Tatiana Maslany is doing on BBC America’s Orphan Black, though, is an actual game-changer.

The network TV season is over, Mad Men is winding down and I just started to finally dig into Game of Thrones – at the recommendation of my wife and literally every other person in North America – but Orphan Black is as demanding of your summer attention as any of those other critically claimed series.

Orphan Black is BBC America’s second sole-produced original series after Gangs of New York-knockoff Copper. I’ve yet to see Copper, which got fairly favorable reviews for its first season and is about to kick off No. 2, but BBCA’s No. 2 series is a can’t-miss. And Maslany is the reason why.

The premise for Orphan Black sounded a bit convoluted for something that would be able to be successful in the long term. In the pilot, a troubled woman named Sarah Manning witnesses the suicide of a girl who looks identical to her. She assumes her identity, but quickly finds the shoes she stepped into are part of a far-reaching and complex conspiracy. It turns out Beth Childs, the woman who jumped in front of a train with Manning watching, wasn’t merely a lookalike. As Manning begins to discover later in the pilot and more fully in episodes two and three, she has clones.

[Please, keep rolling your eyes. I’ll wait. Gonna put on a pot of coffee, though.]

Sarah? Beth? Alison? Cosima?!? I give up. (BBC America)

Sarah? Beth? Alison? Cosima?!? I give up. (BBC America)

Good, you’re back!

In an effort to keep these reviews #spoilerfree, I won’t delve into anything that gives too much away plot-wise. But performance-wise, there’s much to discuss. It starts and ends with Maslany, who  plays characters with British, American, German and Ukrainian accents – none of which are the actress’ country of origin. She doesn’t just have to figure out how to create multiple unique characters with very similar looks, though. Maslany often has to act as one clone masquerading as another. While that seems rather elaborate, it’s a device creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett return to often, and it’s something that works extremely well within the organized chaos that the show reins in so well.

The show is filmed in Toronto but it’s very ambiguous as to where the events are actually supposed to be taking place. Sarah gets off a train as another is announced as heading to New York City, and we see NYPD mugs at the police department where two central characters work. But multiple references are made to neighborhoods in Toronto and cars feature Ontario license plates, so I guess Orphan Black can really take place anywhere you want it to take place.

Fitting with its Canadian production, BBC America went for a Canadian cast, and nearly all the main actors have roots north of the border. That might explain why you’ve almost certainly never heard of Maslany, but that’s about to change.

Maslany is just 27 but has 10 years of comedic improv in her background. That experience pays off in a big way in Orphan Black, which features more light moments than you’d expect for a sci-fi series that’s slowing revealing a mystery in what are often very dark ways. While Sarah is the show’s central character, she spends most of her time straddling between that and two other primary clones, and she’s at her best when playing neurotic soccer mom Alison. Alison has a healthy amount of skepticism when she first meets Sarah, but that relationship is one of the show’s bedrocks throughout the first season. Maslany seamlessly weaves between the two – one a con artist and the other a proper suburban housewife – and that’s how Orphan Black really takes off. Despite the obvious physical similarities between the clones – and the makeup department deserves a massive amount of credit for making Maslany appear distinctive enough in each role – you actually forget that one actress is playing so many characters.

“I didn’t know what I was. I was very self-conscious, a fish out of water,” Maslany said of leaving Canada for Los Angeles. “I never felt like myself. If I’d had any calmness about me, I would have talked about films I love and actors I like and not the weather and driving. How do you make an impression in five minutes anyway?”

While that improv background certainly helps, watch two episodes of Orphan Black and try to picture your favorite current or former SNL cast member forming enough unique personas to carry a dramatic series. Kristen Wiig? Maya Rudulph? Ana Gastayer? Didn’t think so. I’m not saying Maslany has the comedic chops some of those ladies had or that the SNL alums had nearly the same desire to transition into drama, but it’s still a hypothetical worth considering.

Maslany is from Saskatchewan and ventured out to LA to try her luck there, but ultimately moved back to Canada. “I didn’t know what I was. I was very self-conscious, a fish out of water. I never felt like myself. If I’d had any calmness about me, I would have talked about films I love and actors I like and not the weather and driving. How do you make an impression in five minutes anyway?” she told NOW Toronto.

She did enough little stuff to get noticed in a variety of Canadian movies and television series, but she might have to give Hollywood another shot soon. On Monday she won the award for best actress in a drama series at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards. (In case you’re concerned those are made-up Canadian awards, the male winner was Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.) Oh, and she beat Claire Danes, Vera Farmiga, Julianna Margulies, Keri Russell and Elisabeth Moss. Decent company.

Maslany at the Critics' Choice Television Awards, where she out-crazied Claire Danes. (AP)

Maslany at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards, where she out-crazied Claire Danes. (AP)

There are enough questions answered toward the end of Orphan Black that it could have ended at least somewhat satisfyingly as a 10-episode standalone. But there were also plenty of season-long mysteries that went unsolved, and Maslany’s versatility and some developments in the final two episodes leave lots of potential for future seasons. BBC America announced midway through season one that it would be back in 2014, by which time Maslany could have an Emmy nomination to really give the series a bump to the ratings. HitFix’s outstanding critic Alan Sepinwall isn’t convinced it’ll happen, but neither Maslany nor Orphan Black need awards to justify their place at the table in this golden age of dramatic TV.

The show might even inspire a clone or two.

CHECKING THE SCORE: 4 stars out of 5


Oh, hi. You’re still here and wondering how you can watch Orphan Black since you checked your local listings and don’t get BBC America. Or, even if you do, you noticed it’s not airing the recently concluded season anytime in the foreseeable future for some shortsighted reason. My best bets would be Amazon Instant Video, XBOX Live, Vudu or iTunes, all of which will charge $1.99 or $2.99 (HD) per episode. If you don’t feel like doing that, the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the first season come out July 16 and likely will be available at your local library or Blockbuster Video if that was still an actual place. If you can’t wait, give your cable or satellite system’s On-Demand feature a shot – DirecTV’s is sadly less useful than a turtle with a Ferrari – or there are many less legal means through which you might be able to find it.

Not that that’s encouraged. Forget it, this never happened.

NBA Finals Preview: Spurs vs. Heat

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Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker don't want to hear about any other Big Threes (Sports Illustrated).

Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker don’t want to hear about any other Big Threes. (Sports Illustrated)

Let’s give a round of applause to the Indiana Pacers, who despite looking like they’d never played organized basketball together Monday night, did two things in taking the vaunted Heat to a Game 7.

1) Gave the Spurs, and the rest of the league, at least somewhat of a blueprint for attacking Miami’s vulnerabilities.

2) Gave the world the gift of the yapping caricatures on ESPN and elsewhere only having two days – rather than the week we’d have had if Pacers-Heat ended in 5 – to break down and overanalyze this series before it begins.

This is the matchup the NBA needed, featuring two teams that have combined to win five of the last 10 titles. As soon as Russell Westbrook’s knee collided with Patrick Beverley’s in Game 2 of Oklahoma City’s first round series, this became the clear-cut marquee finals matchup, and despite Indiana’s best efforts, it’s here.

You hear a lot about legacies around this time of year, and what it means to the NBA afterlives of guys should their team triumph or come up short in the finals. You’ll hear what it would mean to Tim Duncan’s status as the game’s best power forward to win a fifth title, how Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can cement their Hall-of-Fame cases with a fourth, how Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the game’s greatest coaches if he can join Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley in the five-timers club.

Tim Duncan with a whale, because, why not? (Mark Langford)

Tim Duncan with a whale, because, why not? (Mark Langford)

Ignore it. Duncan is the best power forward ever, and that doesn’t change even if he shows up for seven games of this series drunk and wearing Tobias’ “The Thing” costume from Arrested Development.  Parker is a Hall of Famer. The Spurs have won SEVENTY-FOUR percent of their regular-season games when he’s been in the lineup, he’s a five-time All-Star who has been the game’s best point guard (sorry, Chris Paul) for the past eight seasons and has won a finals MVP. Ginobili may be as well based on his international achievements, but these finals won’t make or break his case.

But the one legacy that will at least take somewhat of a hit, fairly or unfairly, is that of the man Joe Thiesmann thinks can be an NFL quarterback.

Look, LeBron James is already one of the five best players to ever set foot on the hardwood. He’s transcendent in every sense of the word, a true showman who is, right now, arguably at the apex of his powers. Every night you turn on the TV to watch the Heat – or in Justin Bieber’s case, show up at center court looking like an M.C. Hammer video vomited on you – you’re witnessing perhaps the pinnacle of the best basketball player ever.

And that’s why he’s the only one with much at stake here. A loss to the Spurs isn’t going to take away from James’ accomplishments. It’s not going to take away his status as the league’s premier player. But it would leave him 1-for-4 in NBA finals appearances.

Let’s take a look at some of the other greats of the game. Any reasonable top 10 list of NBA players would include Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Duncan. Those seven in the finals are a combined 37-13. Only Wilt, more interested in individual awards and being a Ladies Man, had a losing record in the finals of that bunch (2-4).

When you look at many of the 13 series losses of that group, though, many came against another player on the list. Chamberlain’s teams lost twice to the Russell-led Celtics. Kareem and Magic’s Lakers lost to the Bird-led Celtics and again to a 76ers team led by Moses Malone, who’s not far down that list of all-time studs. Bird lost twice to the Lakers.

Heat? This guy might get some if his team loses. (AP)

Heat? This guy might get some if his team loses. (New York Daily News)

Neither of the teams LeBron has lost to in the Finals even won its division in the regular season. Not that that’s some sort of all-encompassing barometer of measuring failures, but getting swept by San Antonio in 2007 – even if Sasha Pavlovic was prominently involved – and losing three straight against a clearly inferior Dallas team in 2011 are hardly resume highlights.

And that brings us here. This Spurs team isn’t exactly an all-time great – San Antonio’s plus-6.4 point differential during the regular season was only the EIGHTH-BEST of the Duncan era – but it’s still a machine with two slam-dunk Hall of Famers, Ginobili, the best coach of the last 15 years, Matt Bonner’s non-tan and Tracy McGrady’s warmups. This isn’t a green Oklahoma City team from a year ago that the peaking Heat saw as ripe for the picking. This is the best organization in the league since Jordan left.

Potential free agency is a year away. Dwyane Wade’s career is aging as well as hot milk. Chris Bosh is a replaceable third banana.

Lose here and the LeBron era in Miami officially becomes a lame duck.

That dinosaur is ANGRY. (AP)

That dinosaur is ANGRY. (AP)

1.) Miami vs. 2.) San Antonio

What’s in the past: For the Spurs, a lot of rest. The last time a team had as long a layoff between the conference finals and the NBA finals was also the last time there was a conference finals sweep – the 2003 Nets had TEN days off between sweeping Detroit and facing – you guessed it – San Antonio in the finals. A lot of help that did the then-Jersey dwellers – they lost Game 1 by 12 points and the series in six stale, uneventful games.

For all the credit they get for going 4-for-4 in the finals, this is really the Spurs’ first legitimately interesting matchup in the championship round. San Antonio got the eighth-seeded Knicks after the lockout season in the 1999 finals, a Nets team that had very clearly gone as far as it was going to go four years later, a Pistons team that was on its 212th game in a 20-month stretch by Game 7 in 2005 and a woeful Cavs team in 2007 that James willed through a watered-down Eastern Conference.

The Heat have only had two days to recover from what was a toll-taking seven-game series against the Pacers, while the Spurs have had nine days off since finishing off Memphis. Might those brittle old bones get a bit stiff from going more than 200 hours without playing competitive basketball? Think again. San Antonio is 7-0 in playoff series openers on five or more days of rest since its Big Three has been together.

Can the Heat shake off their injuries and emotionally move on from Indiana in just a couple days? Take a look at last year’s postseason and you may have your answer. After coming back from 3-2 down to beat Boston in Game 7 of the East finals, the Heat had exactly two days to recover before starting the NBA finals in Oklahoma City. Miami rode that emotion to a 13-point first-half lead but ultimately lost by 11 before winning the series’ final four games.

All those Rest vs. Rust angles would seem to give the Spurs an edge in Game 1. It’s hard to disagree.

What’s to come: It’s hard to believe, but the Spurs vs. Heat as currently comprised – and by that, we mean with their respective BIG THREES (remember, we’re in an era where each team MUST have a Big Three. Even if it’s Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions) – have played only twice in three seasons. They both came back in 2010-11, and don’t look to draw too much info from those matchups considering they traded 30-point home victories.

There are fascinating matchups all over the floor in this series, but the most interesting will be how Miami handles Parker. Parker doesn’t necessarily have to be the best player in the series for the Spurs to win – that LeBron guy figures to get his – but he most certainly has to be San Antonio’s best player. He’s been that throughout the postseason, and in a conference finals matchup with Mike Conley that some people felt was fairly close to even, Parker owned him, averaging 24.5 points and 9.5 assists.

Rajon Rondo has given the Heat fits over the past two seasons and Parker presents similar problems with his penetration – with the bonus of being a far better finisher. Parker had few issues getting into the lane against Memphis’ excellent perimeter defense, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have many issues with Norris Cole or Mario Chalmers chasing him through pick-and-rolls.

LeBron stopper? Not really. But the Heat might want to keep Kawhi Leonard out of the paint. (Getty Images)

LeBron stopper? Not really. But the Heat might want to keep Kawhi Leonard out of the paint. (Getty Images)

The game changes a little bit if Miami chooses to apply some ball pressure just past half-court to get the ball out of Parker’s hands. But Ginobili is capable of creating himself, getting into the lane and finishing at the rim or kicking out to shooters like Danny Green, Bonner or Kawhi Leonard. In crunch time, or possibly earlier than the final five minutes should Erik Spoelstra deem it necessary, look for James to be in front of Parker. When that’s the case, look for Popovich to counter by having Parker off the ball, where he’s still quite dangerous. The Heat will happily have James deal with Parker should he have the ball late in games, but they want no part of him chasing Parker off the ball.

Indiana had 54 more rebounds than Miami in that seven-game series but was ultimately done in by its lack of reliability in the backcourt. The Spurs won’t have that problem, but they’ll also want to trot out a big lineup whenever it’s prudent to keep the Heat off the glass. Miami’s four losses in the postseason have had a transparently common theme:  The Heat have been outscored by an average of 12 points in the paint and outrebounded by 15 per game.

That should mean plenty of minutes for Tiago Splitter, who was outstanding in the final three games against Memphis, and plenty of time for the versatile Boris Diaw. Aron Baynes probably won’t get much time, but I’d be surprised if Popovich doesn’t give DeJuan Blair some run inside.

You want another key for the Spurs? Leonard is going to have his hands full defending James much of the time, but he can’t afford to give up his looks on the offensive end. Leonard has taken 59 shots from eight feet or closer to the basket in the playoffs and made FORTY-SEVEN. He’ll presumably spend much of the time here with James fronting him as well, so looks may not be as easy as they were against the likes of Tayshaun Prince and Klay Thompson.

We haven’t even gotten around to discussing Duncan, who is basically exactly what Miami just struggled with in Roy Hibbert on the defensive end. Duncan may not have the springy legs to get to and affect as many shots as Hibbert does these days, but he’s as intimidating in the paint as ever.

You want Gregg Popovich coaching your LIFE. (San Antonio Express-News)

You want Gregg Popovich coaching your LIFE. (San Antonio Express-News)

He’ll certainly challenge James at the rim, but I think if Miami is going to win this series it will be because of the re-emergence of their shooters. The Heat need to get more than they got from Wade and Bosh in the Indiana series, for sure, but they also need to recommit to making the corner 3 a priority after the Pacers largely shut their perimeter game down. Opponents are shooting 40 percent from the corners against the Spurs in the playoffs, while Miami has largely taken that shot away from their opponents, holding them to just 25.4 percent. These, of course, are advanced stats that our man Popovich isn’t necessarily a fan of.

“I think today we’ve had a proliferation of geniuses who have come up with new formulae to prove what wins and what loses,” Popovich told USA Today on the increased presence of advanced stats. “… So everything being copacetic, maybe shots and making stops on demand wins a lot of games.”

The Heat basically abandoned Shane Battier against the Pacers, and why not? He’s shooting 23.0 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. But Ray Allen gave them some big shots in Game 7 in Indiana and they’ll need him again here.

While the shooters must be better, Bosh, to me, may be the biggest X-factor for Miami. He’s averaged 23.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and shots 60.5 percent in five games against the Spurs since arriving with James to South Beach, and if he’s anywhere near 100 percent, the Spurs don’t have a ton of great options to deal with him. They won’t want to have Duncan as far away from the basket as Bosh typically plays, and he’s capable of overpowering someone like Diaw if he’s right.

But I don’t think he is. James won’t shrink from the moment at all in this series, but I think San Antonio have just a little bit more in the tank and more around Parker than James has around him.

The pick: Spurs in 7

The NHL Playoff Primer: Eastern Conference Finals

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Sidney Crosby's mustache is undoubtedly wispier than yours (AP).

Sidney Crosby’s mustache is undoubtedly wispier than yours (AP).

If your son or daughter was born the day of the last time the Penguins and Bruins met in the playoffs, he or she just enjoyed a legal beer for the first time last week.

It seems like it’s been 21 years since the Penguins and Bruins played a hockey game at all, and perhaps that’s fitting considering it seems like it shouldn’t have been more than two decades since these two last faced off in a best-of-7 spring showdown. These teams have played 55 playoff series since Pittsburgh swept Boston out of the 1992 playoffs en route to its second Stanley Cup. Only nine times in 40 combined seasons since have the Pens or Bruins missed the playoffs, yet they never ran into each other.

While this seems like it could be that family reunion where you vaguely know everyone yet  recognize no one – I think that’s Great Aunt Gladys over there! Is that Cousin Billy? The last time I saw him he wasn’t even up to my knees! – there is no shortage of storylines, familiarity, and on at least one side, a little bit of hatred.

In no particular order:

That hair needs no introduction.

That hair needs no introduction.

Excuse me sir, please tuck in your mullet: Aside from Mario Lemieux, who was the best player on the ice when the Penguins and Bruins last met in the playoffs? The ageless Jaromir Jagr, who scored 439 goals in 11 years in Pittsburgh and has spent the last decade roaming around the Eastern Conference looking for a return to glories past. He’s flirted with a return to Pittsburgh in each of the last two offseasons, but he doesn’t have the greatest relationship with his former linemate-turned-owner. How effective is Jagr at 41? He hasn’t scored a goal in his last 21 postseason games, and this is his first trip to the conference finals since leaving nearly 12 years ago. But he’s still a physical presence who is capable of possessing the puck and getting to the net, even if he’s not leaving a trail of dandruff in his wake from a hairdo that made it look like he was carrying a passed-out Bichon Frise under his helmet.

Send it in, Jarome!: Perhaps the hottest property available at the NHL’s April trade deadline was Calgary Flames lifer Jarome Iginla, the type of first-class guy everyone looks at and says “boy, he deserves to leave Going Nowhere Team X and contend for a Cup with Going Places Team Y!” And that team was Boston, where he could team with David Krejci and Milan Lucic and inject some life into an inconsistent Bruins offense. More importantly, the acquisition was a coup for GM Peter Chiarelli, who needed to respond to Pittsburgh’s trades for Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray.

Until it wasn’t.

That was the report on plenty of credible outlets for a few hours late on March 27, and the Bruins had even informed prospects Alex Khokhlachev and Matt Bartkowski they were about to be playing in a city best known for a massive rodeo. But just a little while later we learned Iginla had in fact been dealt to Pittsburgh after expressing a preference for the Penguins over the Bruins to Flames management.

Desperate to add a bit of scoring punch, the Bruins got Jagr five days later. And obviously by virtue of the deal for Iginla falling through, they kept Bartkowski – a Pittsburgh native who scored his first NHL goal in Boston’s wild Game 7 win against Toronto.

Jack Edwards and Matt Cooke are currently seeing other people (USA Today).

Jack Edwards and Matt Cooke are currently seeing other people (USA Today).

Cooke-ing up trouble: Ahh, Matt Cooke. You hate him if he’s on the other team and you … well, you pretty much hated him if he was on your team until the past two seasons. Cooke was a checking-line pest with some scoring punch but he was also a nasty cheap-shot artist. His most infamous was this shot on Boston’s Marc Savard in March 2010, which was not illegal at the time yet prompted a nearly immediate rule change outlawing such a check. Regardless, it was a nasty shot from a repeat offender and it essentially ended Savard’s career. Cooke has become somewhat of a changed man over the past few years, managing to stay near the edge that made him a valuable player but not skate well over the line like he had in the past.

You’re not going to believe this, but that hasn’t made him any more well-liked in Boston. What you also might not believe is that Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards, who’s a tad bit prone to eye-rolling hyperbole, compared Cooke to Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan when discussing the Pittsburgh media’s decision to nominate Cooke for the Masterton Trophy last season.

Turns out the man on skates isn’t the only one who can fly well past a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

If that wasn’t enough reason for Bruins fans to have a little animosity toward the Penguins, those with even longer memories will be more than willing to point out Ulf Samuelsson’s knee-on-knee check of Boston’s Cam Neely in the 1991 East finals, a hit that Neely recovered from but was still believed ultimately to have shortened his career.

There’s a silver lining with that one, though. The Bruins coach at the time was none other than professional shit-stirrer Mike Milbury, a man whose professional failures were apparently so highly thought of that he now is one of NBC’s lead hockey analysts. Milbury ends most broadcasts with his foot firmly in his mouth, which is rather ironic considering one of his most infamous transgressions involved using a shoe to slap a fan.

I think most hockey fans can agree anything that made that village idiot upset at least had some semblance of use in the world.

Tuukka Rask may be grabbing this water bottle for relief once or twice in the upcoming days (Getty Images).

Tuukka Rask may be grabbing this water bottle for relief once or twice in the upcoming days (Getty Images).

1. Pittsburgh vs. 4. Boston

The Penguins will win if: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh can win this series even if the combination of outstanding two-way center Patrice Bergeron tall Bond-villain defenseman Zdeno Chara can keep Crosby and Malkin’s production somewhat minimal, but if they can’t, this could be over quickly. Crosby has been as advertised in these playoffs, turning every shift into 50 seconds of terror for the opposition with his remarkable vision and incredible balance. Malkin, on the other hand, failed to show up for large chunks of the Penguins’ teetering-on-the-edge-of-trouble first-round series with the Islanders. He played much more disciplined hockey against Ottawa despite relatively meager production, and that can’t be a good sign for Boston. If turnover-prone, careless Malkin shows up, the Bruins should have a chance to make this a long series. If Conn Smythe Malkin is locked in, it could be over quickly.

There’s more to the Penguins than Crosby and Malkin, of course. Pascal Dupuis has been one of the best players not named Crosby or Jonathan Quick in this postseason, Kris Letang has been a huge difference-maker offensively (proving the NHL’s award for the best defensemen has little to do with defense) and James Neal and Iginla got going late in the Ottawa series.

Pittsburgh still has some issues defensively and guys like Malkin and Letang have the tendency to cough up the puck attempting to make a perfect cross-ice pass that can lead to a break the other way. Tomas Vokoun has been good if not someone most people think can steal a playoff series, but he certainly shouldn’t have to with this bunch in front of him.

The Penguins are averaging 4.27 goals in the playoffs, the most by a team that’s made it through two rounds since 1987-88. The Bruins have been the NHL’s second-most productive offense in the postseason and they’re averaging 1.10 goals fewer. You can say Pittsburgh hasn’t seen a team in the playoffs with the capability to truly slow it down yet, but Ottawa was just as good of a defensive club as Boston during the season. They may not be the Miami Heat of the NHL as a certain Bruin wants to get people to believe, but they’re pretty darn close.

Bergeron getting Crosby to do what the fans of 29 other teams think he does best. It rhymes with "driving." (AP)

Bergeron getting Crosby to do what the fans of 29 other teams think he does best. It rhymes with “driving.” (AP)

The Bruins will win if: They’re the better team at even strength and Tuukka Rask turns into a playoff stopper. The first is an awfully difficult proposition, but it won’t be completely unmanageable. Pittsburgh has scored on 28.3 percent of its power plays and killed all but four of its 39 penalties, so Boston will have its hands full on special teams.

But the Bruins were the third-best team in hockey at even strength during the regular season – not surprisingly, Chicago and Pittsburgh were 1-2 – and need to be even better in this series. Boston needs Rask to be excellent, but it can’t rely on winning more than a game or two in a tight-checking, 2-1 or 3-2 style that’s become the norm in these playoffs. The Bruins need to do what the Islanders did, which is get up and down the ice and, as best they can, run with the Penguins.

The good news for the Bruins is that they’re not overly reliant on one guy or one line to produce offensively. Krejci leads all playoffs scorers with 17 points, but he was quiet for much of the New York series. Brad Marchand, who was all but invisible against the Maple Leafs, had six points against the Rangers. Bergeron, Nathan Horton,  Lucic, Johnny Boychuk and Jagr are all capable of producing, but the Bruins could conceivably go to another level – and perhaps wins this series – if Tyler Seguin can start producing. The former No. 2 overall pick has just one goal on 45 shots and four points in the playoffs, though he scored in all three regular-season meetings against Pittsburgh. Boston, however, lost all three.

“No doubt they’re a great hockey club,” Lucic said of the Penguins. “In my mind, they’re almost like the Miami Heat of the NHL with all the star power.”

Seguin isn’t the only young gun the Bruins may be relying on. Defensemen Wade Redden and Andrew Ference are still hurt, but youngsters Bartkowski and Torey Krug – he of the four goals in five games, three of which have come on the power play – have stepped in nicely. That gives Claude Julien some options to chase around Pittsburgh’s bumper crop of forwards.

One thing the Bruins have going for them is their propensity to get shots through, which certainly can only help against a team with a somewhat unproven goaltender that wants to turn things into a track meet. Boston was second in the league in shots during the regular season and is averaging a ridiculous 38.3 per game on net in the playoffs. Sounds simple, but the more rubber Vokoun sees, the more likely he is to let a soft one in (that’s what she said?!?).

Fun fact: The Penguins are 18-4 since March 1 when they score a power-play goal and 20-3 when they keep their opponent off the board with the man-advantage.

The pick: Penguins in 6