Ratto: Sharks set to face familiar foe in first-round


Ratto: Sharks set to face familiar foe in first-round

Ray RattoCSNBayArea.com

Once again, its time forKiss Of Death Theatre, with your host, me. Todays episode How The SharksGot Two Breaks, And Only One Of Them Bad.In a remarkable confluenceof constricted windpipes, the Chicago Blackhawks nearly played themselves rightout of the playoffs Sunday, providing the Sharks with what should be anadvantageous first-round matchup in Los Angeles and a slightly heightenedlikelihood of avoiding the Vancouver Canucks at some point during the postseason.As the final brick in a triangle of must-wins-that-were-losses, Dallaslost, 5-3, to a patently inferior Minnesota team to blow its chance to pip theBlackhawks for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs, which meansthat the Sharks (a) have one more team in the field that could beat them in atight series, but (b) have one more team in the field that could take outVancouver.

Ahh well. Bettman giveth, and Bettman taketh away. That,though, was the chess part of the playoff equation for San Jose. Chicagovs. Vancouvermeans one tough out goes down right away, but it also means that the survivormight still haunt the Sharks down the road if the road goes that far for theSan Joses. The checkers part the linear this-is-whats-in-front-of-us-nowpart remains Los Angeles, the seventh-place finisher with a depleted lineupbut a counter-punchers chance to make some real mischief if the Sharks arentdevoted to their game.
RELATED: Sharks will face Kings in first round of playoffs
And lets be frank, this is Sharks series towin based on the perfectly reasonable truth that L.A. is short two of its best players. Saywhat you want about upsets always being possible, but their likelihooddiminishes when the underdog doesnt have its full complement. TheKings problem in a nutshell is that Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, theteams two best scorers, are injured Kopitar, the Kings version of PatrickMarleau, with torn ligaments in his right ankle that ended his season, andWilliams, more of a Joe Pavelski type, a dislocated right shoulder that maycost him the early part of the series. Head coach Terry Murray stilltermed him questionable, but a strength test may help speed his clearance, ifnot for the opener, then maybe by Game 3 in Los Angeles. Injury, you seem, isthe one thing that separates the teams in the congealed mass that is theWestern Conference. The Sharks have managed to survive their injuries, and willbe back at full strength (save defenseman Kent Huskins) after winger RyaneClowe (wonky hip) was cleared to go.
RELATED: Sharks notebook: Nichol could play this week
But the Kings are a thin groupoffensively without Kopitar and Williams, below average both in even-strengthand power play goal-scoring. They are also not a dominant face-off team, withonly second-line center Jarret Stoll a top-quality draw-taker. Whatthey have, though, is youth, and strength on defense. Goaltender Jonathan Quickis considered an up-and-coming star, though he has been less of a puzzle forthe Sharks of late, and defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson are among thegames best. In that way, they are something akin to Nashville, whichhas Ryan Suter and Shea Weber in front of Pekka Rinne as the core of adefense-first team that can make it hard for indiscriminate snipers to enjoythe freedom of time and space they often need. They are puck-carriers, though,rather than stay-at-homes, and the Kings rank 27th in blocked shots, whichmeans that quick puck movement ought to get the Sharks enough good looks atQuick and the target behind him. San Jose has also tightened its own game through thesecond half, and while it may find the goal-scoring difficult, it has a betterchance of shutting down the Kings entirely without Kopitar to fret upon.
REWIND: Sharks clinch Pacific with 6-1 killing of Kings
Foretellingthe future of the playoffs ahead of time is a way to mock the gods and bemocked tenfold in return, of course, but it is hard to see this as a seriesthat causes either Quick or San Joses Antti Niemi to worry unduly. And whilethere is always a high upset quotient, this doesnt figure on its face to beone of those. It is, in short, a series the Sharks ought to win, andought to win without being extended. The goaltending is equivalent, the Kingshave a better defense but the Sharks have a much better attack, especially ifWilliams cannot return or is rushed back and ineffective. The Sharkshave never done well in postseason series with their California brethren (seeAnaheim 2009; see small sample size; see radically different teams), but thisis a series they should be able to deal with in five games, so that they can berested for the second round.

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun


A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

I’m liking this 2017 so far. Then again, after 2016, nearly any year would be an improvement.

Just this last weekend we got a flat-earth scandal that turned into a mock-up about media self-importance and fake news (yay Kyrie Irving and his impish sense of satire!).

We got the overblown Russell-Hates-Kevin narrative, and the faux Russell-Secretly-Loves-Kevin counternarrative, all because we are stunningly attracted to meaningless and utterly contrived drama (yay our ability to B.S. ourselves!).

We got the NBA All-Star Game ripped for having no defense even though last year’s game was, if anything, worse (yay short attention span!).

We got the Boogie Cousins trade and the national revulsion of all the thought processes the Sacramento Kings put into this perpetually rolling disaster (yay making Boogie and Vivek Ranadive household names!).

And now we got the Great Sutton United Pie-Fixing Scandal. Yeah, pie-fixing. Hell never felt so fun.

So here’s the deal. Sutton United, a very small fry in English soccer, got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition in which all the clubs in England are commingled and play each other until one team remains. The big clubs almost always win, so any time a small club goes deep, it’s a big deal.

Anyway, Sutton went deeper in the competition than nearly anyone in the last century, a charming development given that it is such a small club that it had a stadium caretaker, goalie coach and backup goalie all in one massive fellow, a 46-year-old guy named Wayne Shaw. Shaw became the globular embodiment of the entire Sutton Experience, a jolly lark for everyone involved and especially when he ate a pie on the bench in the final minutes of Sutton’s Cup-exiting loss to Arsenal.

And now he’s been eased into resigning his jobs with the club, because – and this is so very British – there were betting shops taking action on whether he would in fact eat a pie on the bench, and he either did or did not tip off his pals that he was going to chow down on television.

He did eat the pie. His pals collected on their bets. The sport’s governing body opened an investigation into market manipulation by gambling – which is hilarious given that no fewer than 10 gambling establishments have advertising deals with English soccer clubs. Shaw was invited to quit to kill the story, and he took the hint.

Hey, dreams die all the time. But it’s still pie-fixing. Let that rattle around your head for a minute. Pie-fixing. Not match-fixing. Not point-shaving. Pie-fixing.

Now how can you not love this year?

Sure, it sucks for Shaw, but it serves as a series of cautionary tales for athletes around the world.

* Gambling is everywhere, and every time you inch toward it, you dance on the third rail.

* If you want to help your friends, give them cash.

* This is a horribly delicious way to lose your gig.

* And finally, fun in the 21st century isn’t ever truly fun because someone in a suit and a snugly-placed stick is going to make sure you pay full retail for that fun.

But it is nice to know that something that has never happened before is now part of our year. Pie-fixing is a thing now, as silly in its way as Irving’s flat-earth narrative was. And as we steer away from normal games as being too run-of-the-mill-fuddy-duddy entertainment, we have replaced them with sideshows.

Or do you forget how many people complained Saturday and Sunday that the dunk contest wasn’t interesting enough? How stupid is that?

Lots. Lots of stupid. But against pie-tin-shaped planets and pies turned into betting coups, how can it possibly compare?

We chase a lot of idiotic narratives in our sporting lives. The great What Will The Patriots Do To Roger Goodell story died like the old dog it was. We still try to flog Warriors-Thunder as a rivalry in search of better TV ratings when all the obvious evidence is that it is no such thing unless you think a couple that broke up nine months ago is still a solid story. We have Bachelor fantasy leagues, for God’s sake.

This would leave most normal folks in despair, thus matching their everyday experiences, but yin meets yang, and every time it looks like we are all barrel-rolling into the sun, we get Irving, and then we get Wayne Shaw.

In short, 2017 is going to be fun of grand surprises for us all. I look forward to the day President Trump tries to fete the Patriots and only gets to Skype with Bob Kraft and the equipment guys who midwifed DeflateGate, and Mark Davis in Las Vegas, just to see if he can get a P.F. Chang’s into the Bellagio.

Why not? This is sport’s year-long tribute to sketch comedy, and evidently everyone is signing on enthusiastically to replace lessons of morality and honor and equality and dignity and sportsmanship with slackened jaws and belly laughs.

So yay sports! Or as it is clearly becoming, A Night At The Improv.

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

The price of watching Roger Goodell being booed back to the Bronze Age is a subtle but real one, and one that people will feel very dearly soon enough.

The last great cathartic Super Bowl is now done, with the New England Patriots winning the brilliant and decisive battle to be sports’ new evil empire. In doing so, it rendered Goodell a permanent and risible punch line in National Football League history, the mall cop who wanted the death penalty for littering, and in the words of the song “got what he wanted but he lost what he had.”

True, $40 million a year can make the dissolution of your public persona a reasonably decent tradeoff, but we lost the argument about who won his windmill tilt with the Patriots. It’s done, and he is now permanently and irrevocably a figure of ridicule.

But that’s not the only debating point America lost Sunday night, and while you wouldn’t think it given how much time we are willing to shouting at each other, quality arguments are not easily replaced.

We have almost surely lost the mindless debate about the best quarterback ever, because there is nothing anyone can bring up that the words “Tom Brady” cannot rebut except calling his own plays, and since that is no longer allowed in football, it is a silly asterisk to apply.

We have almost surely lost the equally silly shouter about the best coach ever. Bill Belichick is defiantly not fun, but he has built, improved and bronzed an organizational model that is slowly swallowing the rest of the sport. That and five trophies makes him the equal if not better of the short list of Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry.

Plus, Belichick locked up the most absurd response to a question in coaching history Monday when he said, “As great as today feels . . . we're five weeks behind the other teams for the 2017 season.” Even allowing for Gregg Popovich in-game interviews, the so-grim-he-could-make-a-robot-cry worship-the-process response has now become a cliché. If 2017 prep was so important, he should have skipped yesterday’s game, and he definitely should have chosen not to waste so much time on the trophy stand after the game when training camp drills needed to be scheduled.

Oh, and DeflateGate died. Dead. No zombie possibilities here.

We do have a meatheaded argument ahead of us about which championship in the last year is the best, which can be settled here.

1. Leicester City, because 5,000-1 is 5,000-1, and the whole world understands that. Plus, there was invaluable three-month buildup that engaged non-soccer fans.

2. Chicago Cubs, because 108 years is 108 years.

3. New England Patriots, because . . . well, I don’t have to explain it unless you have no useful memory span. “Down 25 In The Third Quarter” is the new “Down 3-1.”

4. Cleveland Cavaliers, because they slayed the first unbeatable Warrior team by coming from 3-1 down, and even as a silver medalist, it will always be an internet meme, which is what passes for memorable in our decrepit culture.

5. (tie) Villanova basketball and Clemson football in a tie, because they were essentially the same great game.

7. The Pittsburgh Penguins, because the Stanley Cup Final was devoid of drama or high moments, and only 14:53 of overtime. Feh.

But everything else is settled, and this Super Bowl will not be topped for a long time. Our current cycle of absurd championships is almost surely going to end soon, because “Down 3-1” has happened twice in eight months (three times, if you count Warriors over Thunder), and the bar has now been placed well beyond reasonable clearing.

Indeed, the only thing left is for a championship team to spontaneously combust on the award stand. But if they do so and ignite Roger Goodell along the way, that would be an ending America would cheerfully endorse.

But that also isn’t an argument any more, and yes, that includes Gary Bettman.