Lightning prove the curse of record regular season is real

The fate of the Tampa Bay Lightning proves that there is a curse that follows teams with historic regular-season performances.

The Lightning tied an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season. Then they went out and got swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets, becoming the second President’s Trophy winner to do that.

Moreover, as this ESPN graphic proves, teams that have had historic regular seasons often falter in the postseason.

There is some logic to this. Everything has to go right for a team to set a record in a regular season for the most wins. On top of that, the team could be so focused on winning in the regular season that it feels a measure of satisfaction for what it has accomplished when it’s over. Contrarily, teams that didn’t achieve as much might be hungrier when the postseason comes around.

Still, seeing the Lightning, with the three 40-goal scorers in their lineup, get swept, is nothing short of shocking.

By: Larry Brown

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Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter entering 2019 NBA Draft

For the second time today, a member of Virginia’s title-winning team has confirmed his intent to enter the 2019 NBA draft. Following Ty Jerome‘s announcement earlier in the day, sophomore wing De’Andre Hunter has made an announcement of his own, revealing in an Instagram post that he’s declaring for the draft and signing with an agent.

Hunter, who had 27 points to go along with nine rebounds in the NCAA championship game last Monday, had a big year for the Cavaliers, posting 15.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 2.0 APG with an impressive .520/.438/.783 shooting line.

A probable top-10 pick, Hunter considered entering the draft a year ago after his freshman season, but ultimately decided to stay with Virginia for another year, and that decision paid off in a big way. Besides winning a title in his sophomore year, the youngster is also a more promising NBA prospect now, having moved up from No. 18 on ESPN’s big board a year ago to No. 5 now.

In his scouting report on Hunter, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony praises the sophomore’s efficiency on offense and his versatility on defense, observing that the 21-year-old has “prototypical physical tools” for a modern NBA forward. Givony has Hunter going fifth overall to the Hawks in his latest mock draft, noting that Atlanta could use a big wing/combo forward alongside scorers such as Trae Young and Kevin Huerter.

By: Luke Adams

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Demetrious Johnson’s next ONE Championship Flyweight Grand Prix opponent confirmed

On Friday night in Manila, Philippines, Tatsumitsu Wada (21-10-2) defeated Gustavo Balart (8-1) and advanced to the semi-finals of the ONE Championship Flyweight Grand Prix.

All three judges scored the bout in favor of the Japanese mixed martial artist but the decision has proven to be controversial. Balart appeared to be the more effective of the two fighters in all three rounds. He used his patented forward blitz to close the distance and unload fast and powerful punches. He also scored with plenty of well-timed leg kicks throughout the bout. Wada had his moments too, but they were few and far between.

With his unanimous decision win against Balart, Wada has earned a three-round bout with former UFC champion Demetrious Johnson.

Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson (28-3-1) recently moved forward to the semi-final round after he submitted Yuya Wakamatsu (10-4) with a brilliant guillotine choke at ONE: A New Era in Tokyo, Japan. Johnson was tested by the 24-year-old at times in the first round and it wasn’t exactly the walkover that many fans had anticipated before the event.

The other ONE Flyweight Grand Prix semi-final bout will see former ONE flyweight champion Kairat Akhmetov go head-to-head with former title challenger Danny Kingad.

The event and dates of these two flyweight bouts are yet to be announced.

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By: Jake Nichols

Watch: Alex Ovechkin knocks out Andrei Svechnikov in fight

Alex Ovechkin wasn’t looking to get into a fight during Game 3 of the Carolina Hurricanes-Washington Capitals first round playoff series on Monday night, but once he engaged, he looked to end it quickly.

Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov kept dogging Ovechkin, trying to bait him into a fight during the first period. Ovechkin seemed to be declining at first but then dropped gloves.

He took a shot or two and then unloaded two big right hands to drop Svechnikov:

If the sight of Ovechkin fighting seemed odd to you, it should. That was only his fourth career fight, according to HockeyFights.com. His record is now 1-3 with this one knockout.

By: Larry Brown

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Sharks’ Joe Thornton receives one-game suspension

The Sharks will be without center Joe Thornton for Game Four of their first-round series against Vegas after the Department of Player Safety announced (video link) that he has been given a one-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek.

The incident occurred in the second period on Sunday night when Thornton caught Nosek’s head with his shoulder after Nosek had made a pass. Despite receiving a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head on the play, Thornton told reporters postgame, including Curtis Pashelka of The Mercury News, that he didn’t think it warranted any supplemental discipline:

I honestly thought I barely touched him.  He just came right back; it was just one of those plays that it is what it is. I think my son hits me like that six times a day, it’s just a weird position to put himself in. That’s all.

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By: Brian La Rose

Brandon Phillips intends to play in 2019

Veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips is still hoping to continue his playing career, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reports on Twitter. He has not signed with an organization since wrapping up a brief stint with the Red Sox last year.

Now 37, Phillips is well removed from his days as a stalwart performer with the Reds. He topped 120 games for the 12th straight season — and topped 140 for the 11th time in a dozen years — in a 2017 campaign split between the Braves and Angels. But Phillips didn’t sign on with the Boston organization until late last June and ultimately appeared in only nine contests at the game’s highest level last year.

Phillips didn’t exactly thrive in his brief MLB time last year, though a 27-plate-appearance sample isn’t much to go on. He was strong at Triple-A, turning in a .302/.348/.477 slash line with four home runs over 161 plate appearances. And Phillips was still capable of near-average offense in the majors in 2017, posting a .285/.319/.416 slash in 604 trips to the plate.

That ’17 effort wasn’t far off of Phillips’ career mean. Trouble is, he’s no longer an elite defender at second base. Even though UZR graded Phillips as approximately average at the position in his most recent full MLB campaign, DRS assigned a well-below-average -7 score for the second consecutive season. Phillips has also posted some notable negatives in the baserunning game, although he’s still capable of stealing a bag.

Phillips’s low-walk, high-contact skill set could still hold appeal, particularly to a team that still believes in his glovework. The grading systems were neutral to bullish on his 218 innings at third base in 2017, the first time he had ever played there in the majors. Phillips is no shrinking violet; his occasionally brash presence might not be for every team but could be seen as a bonus in the right circumstances.

It isn’t apparent what kind of opportunity Phillips is seeking. He says he’s staying in shape, but there’s no indication of his preferred timeline. Phillips showed last year that he’s willing to undertake an extended run in the minors, although he surely did so knowing there was a chance at an important role for a championship contender. Whether he’ll be able to secure such an opportunity this time around remains to be seen.

 

The biggest storylines in 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs

The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs are set to begin, so settle in for two months of unpredictable chaos, madness and excitement. Some of the big stories worth watching include the Washington Capitals‘ pursuit of a repeat, Tampa Bay’s quest to finally get over the hump and Sergei Bobrovsky’s attempt to solve his postseason demons. All of these are among our 20 biggest storylines to watch in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Can the Capitals repeat?

Winning the Stanley Cup once is incredibly difficult. Winning it two years in a row is even harder. It is something that has been done only three times since 1990, and the Capitals are going to try to add to that list. They still have all of the superstars that made their 2018 championship possible and made some smart additions at the trade deadline to bring in Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen to sure up the defense. They have all of the ingredients at their disposal to do it.

Will the Lightning finish it this season?

After experiencing repeated playoff heartbreak over the past four years, the Lightning are back and better than ever this season. They completed one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, and they enter the playoffs as the clear favorites to win the Stanley Cup. If they do not reach at least the Stanley Cup Final with this roster, it will be their biggest postseason disappointment yet.

The Golden Knights’ encore performance

So much to watch with the Golden Knights. Will they have their over-the-top pregame performances? Will they be able to make another run to the Stanley Cup Final? Can they actually win it all in Year 2? You have to like their chances not only because of the strength of their roster but also because their path through the Pacific Division bracket features two teams with significant question marks in goal. That is a good position to have an advantage in this time of year.

Joe Thornton’s last ride?

The only thing Thornton’s Hall of Fame career is missing is his name on the Stanley Cup, and this might be his last best shot to do it. He is not getting any younger, it is not known how much longer he is going to play in the NHL, and the San Jose Sharks went all in on this season to try to get a championship. They will need a healthy Erik Karlsson to get there and for Martin Jones to get his act together in net after a miserable regular season.

Will the Stanley Cup return to Canada?

A Canadian-0based NHL team has not won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did so all the way back in 1993. There are three Canadian teams that have a chance to do it this season with Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg all punching their tickets to the playoffs. The Flames, having finished the year with the best record in the Western Conference, seem to be the team with the best chance to do it, but they have major questions in goal. The Maple Leafs have to get through their arch nemesis in Boston, while the Jets have been trending in the wrong direction down the stretch.

 

Can the Maple Leafs get out of the first round?

If they do not, there is going to be some intense scrutiny in Toronto. Not only do the Maple Leafs need to win as a team, but coach Mike Babcock also needs to advance for the sake of his own reputation. There have been 23 different coaches who have won a playoff series since a Babcock-coached team has, while he has made it out of the first round just once since 2010. That is not what you want from the highest-paid coach in the NHL

The Islanders return to the playoffs

Nobody expected the New York Islanders to be here. After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and then losing John Tavares in free agency, expectations were as low as humanly possible for them at the start of the year. But they defied the odds all year and put together one of the most incredible one-year turnarounds in recent NHL history, going from the worst defensive team in the league a year ago to the best this season. How long can their goalies continue their great play and will they find enough offense? Those going to be the big questions for them.

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By: Adam Gretz

How MLB players performed in first season after signing massive deals

Giancarlo Stanton: $325 million (2015)

The deal Stanton signed in November 2014 with the Marlins blew away the previous MLB high-water mark by more than $50 million; the 13-year contract also set a standard for length. The first year of the deal was a disappointment for Stanton, who was limited to only 74 games due to a broken bone in his right hand. At the time of the injury in June, he had 27 home runs, four that traveled more than 460 feet.

Alex Rodriguez, $252 and $272 million (2001, 2008)

A-Rod redefined the game’s financial high-water mark not once, but twice, the first time coming when he inked a $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers in 2001. In his first year in Arlington, Rodriguez led the American League with 52 home runs and 393 total bases. He also became the third player in history with 50 homers and 200 hits in a season. He made $20 million more on his second epic deal, this time with the Yankees in 2008. That season he hit 35 home runs, scored 104 runs and led the AL with a .573 slugging percentage.

Miguel Cabrera, $247 million (2014)

On the heels of his third consecutive batting title and second straight AL MVP, Cabrera was signed by the Tigers to a $247 million extension. Although 2014 would be the only year between 2011 and 2015 that Miggy would not top the AL in batting, he still managed to hit .313, drive in more than 100 runs for the seventh consecutive year for the Tigers and lead the league with 52 doubles.

Robinson Cano, $240 million (2014)

The Mariners shocked the baseball world with the deal for Cano’s services, reaching a level the Yankees refused to go for their All-Star second baseman. In Year 1 in the Pacific Northwest, Cano made his fifth consecutive All-Star team and finished fifth in AL MVP voting. However, he posted his lowest power numbers in seven years (14 HRs, 82 RBI) because of a gastrointestinal issue that plagued him late in the year.

Albert Pujols, $240 million (2012)

Angels owner Arte Moreno stunningly lured Pujols from St. Louis with the second-largest contract in MLB history at the time. Although Pujols hit 30 home runs and 50 doubles and drove in 105 runs for the Angels in 2012, his overall performance was well short of the lofty standards he set in St. Louis. He hit at least 40 HRs six times with the Cardinals.

Joey Votto, $225 million (2012)

With an NL MVP, Gold Glove and two on-base crowns already under his belt, the Reds made Votto the highest-paid player in franchise history in April 2012. He led the NL in walks (135) and on-base percentage (.474) and had a career-best .337 batting average. Votto’s torrid 2012 season was interrupted in mid-July because of a meniscus tear in his left knee. He missed 1 1/2 months.

David Price, $217 million (2016)

At the time of his signing, Price’s deal was the richest in history by a pitcher, earning him just under $1 million per start. Although he finished with 17 wins and led the AL in innings pitched with 230, his first year in Boston was an up-and-down affair. His first-half ERA was over 4.00, and he allowed the most hits in the AL that season. His postseason struggles continued as well — he allowed five runs over 3.1 innings in an ALCS defeat.

Clayton Kershaw, $214 million (2014)

Kershaw had arguably the greatest new-money season in MLB history in 2014. The Dodgers’ lefty went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA in a season that also included a 41-inning scoreless streak. He was a unanimous NL Cy Young Award winner and the first hurler named NL MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968.

Prince Fielder, $212 million (2012)

The Detroit Tigers surprisingly signed the slugging first baseman to a nine-year, $214 million deal. (In 2011, he carried Milwaukee to the NLCS.) In his first of two seasons in Detroit, Fielder hit a career-best .313. slugged  30 home runs, drove in 108 runs and scored 83. He also won his second All-Star Home Run Derby crown, joining Ken Griffey Jr. as the only player with multiple Derby crowns at the time.

Max Scherzer, $210 million (2015)

In his first NL season, Scherzer threw two no-hitters, becoming the sixth player to accomplish the feat twice in a season. At one point, the Nationals’ pitcher retired 52 consecutive batters. He led the league in complete games (4) and shutouts (3).

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By: Matt Whitener

 

 

NHL playoff primer: 5 intriguing matchups to watch in the 1st round

It’s playoff season once again.

Before you fill out your postseason bracket, we break down one key matchup across five first-round series that could make or break a team in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Top-line takeover

It’s no secret – for the Leafs to trump the Bruins, they need to find an answer for the three-headed monster of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand.

The Leafs were tormented by the Bruins’ top line in their seven-game series last postseason. Bergeron and Co. controlled possession, posting a Corsi rating of 64.90, and dominated Toronto in high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five, 49-26. An encouraging note for the Leafs is that the Corsi number dropped to 54.84 when matched with Auston Matthews and shot up to 75 when going against Tomas Plekanec – suggesting the trio dominated much of the play against a veteran player who is no longer in the league.

Looking at the regular season, both Matthews and Bergeron were out of the lineup for two of the teams’ meetings this season, so we’ll have to see how the coaches choose to deploy their top talent with the pair back in the mix.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders

Goaltending vs. star power

The Islanders claiming home-ice advantage was key, but perhaps their biggest edge sits between the pipes. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss combined to capture the William M. Jennings Trophy this season, and their dominant play must continue for the team to be successful against the Penguins’ offensive arsenal.

Though neither netminder has a ton of playoff experience, the job will likely be Lehner’s to lose. Since returning from injury on March 19, the 27-year-old has posted a 5-2 record with a .942 save percentage.

Barry Trotz’s club allowed a league-low 191 goals on the campaign and posted a record of 38-2-2 when scoring at least three times in a game. Led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins boasted the fifth-best offense this year and rostered four players with 70-plus points.

Pittsburgh mustered 13 goals in four games against the Islanders during the regular season, with Crosby and Malkin combining for eight points.

Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche

Can ‘Johnny Hockey’ outperform MacKinnon?

Calgary’s Gaudreau and Colorado’s MacKinnon each notched a career-high 99 points this season. Though they play different positions up front, the two will be a joy to watch compete as they best embody the speed and skill that will be on display in this series.

The All-Stars have no problem facing the pressure of playoff hockey, either, as MacKinnon has tallied 16 points in 13 career contests, with Gaudreau posting 11 points in 15.

Both men know how to deliver when it matters most, too. “Johnny Hockey” racked up 39 points and 17 goals in the third period or overtime this season, while MacKinnon contributed 37 points and 15 goals in those clutch moments. When the game is on the line, look for one of these two studs to follow through.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Stingy penalty kill vs. Electric man advantage

Special teams will heavily influence this matchup between one of the greatest regular-season teams ever and a franchise looking for its first playoff series victory.

The Lightning’s power play was lethal this season, clicking at a league-leading rate of 28.2 percent. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, deploy the NHL’s top penalty kill.

The Lightning and Blue Jackets posted similar possession numbers with Corsi ratings of 51.59 and 50.21, respectively. The more even-strength hockey Columbus can play, the better its chances of pulling out the upset – in the regular season, the Lightning erupted for six power-play goals on 11 attempts in their three victories over the Jackets this year.

St. Louis Blues vs. Winnipeg Jets

Battle in the crease

This Central Division clash is about as even as any playoff series on the slate. The Jets won 47 regular-season games and sported a goal differential of plus-28, while the Blues won 45 contests and were plus-24. Both teams finished with 99 points, but what may ultimately separate the two in this series is the play in the crease.

The Blues netminder was one of the best stories of the season. In 32 appearances, Binnington posted a .927 save percentage and an unbelievable 1.89 goals-against average en route to setting a franchise record for wins by a rookie goaltender with 24. The 25-year-old has yet to face the Jets this season, perhaps to the Blues’ advantage.

Hellebuyck was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season but will need to regain his form in a hurry after taking a step backward this year. The 25-year-old won 10 fewer games and saw his goals against average spike from 2.36 to 2.90.

With two netminders trending in opposite directions, goaltending will be the deciding factor in this series.

By: Matt Teague

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Johnny Manziel set to get another shot at the NFL?

Johnny Manziel hasn’t been on an NFL roster the past three seasons, but he could be getting a second chance to play in the league heading into the 2019 campaign.

Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report wrote in his weekly 10-point stance column that “the sense I get from people in the NFL is that Manziel may well get another chance to play on football’s main stage.”

Because the NFL is so talent poor at the quarterback position, Freeman added, “if he can show even a modicum of skill, someone will have him in for a tryout or on a training camp roster.”

Most recently, Manziel appeared in two games for the AAF’s Memphis Express. He had an electric first game with the club before suffering a concussion in his second game. Then, of course, the league shut down to the surprise of many.

Prior to his quick stint in the AAF, Manziel spent a season in Canada playing for the Montreal Alouettes. He did little to impress, passing for 1,290 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Once a first-round pick by Cleveland, Manziel’s off-field issues derailed his career in short order. Since that time, he seemingly has cleaned up his life and remains committed to making his way back into the NFL.

But if that doesn’t pan out, he has an alternate set of plans to remain connected to the sport he loves.

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By: Jesse Reed