Welcome, Canada, to the wonderful world of Rugby Union.

September 25, 2008

by The Sports Fanatic…
A game played by well over fifty countries worldwide - and, if you’re a little tired of ice hockey (we know that’s a long shot), then rugby might just be the sport for you. We here in New Zealand, home of the mighty All Blacks, think of rugby as a way of life.  It’s our identity in much the same way ice hockey is for you, so we thought we’d share all the latest news from our neck of the woods.

After all, it’s our dream to see the game we love grow across the world.

Rugby is in a transitional faze at the moment, as the International Rugby Board (IRB) looks to develop the laws of the game to speed it up, and to create a more attacking version of the game - which has been a welcomed change for fans.

The Experimental Law Variations, or ELVs, as they’re known, were trialled in this year’s Super 14 competition - and the response from the players has been overwhelmingly supportive of the new laws. The Super 14, which is the premier competition between sides from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, has enjoyed a revival this year due to the ELVs, which has seen the game open up.  Ultimately, the fact that there was an increase in trys scored meant that the fans gave the new laws the seal of approval.

With the Southern Hemisphere sides in support of the ELVs, the challenge now is that the Northern Hemisphere nations - namely England, Ireland and Wales - are opposed to the changes, and are at this stage are not willing to trial them in their national competitions.

The Northern Hemisphere sides don’t traditionally like to play open rugby.  Rather, they prefer to play tight rugby, which suits their kicking game well. The ELVs will force them to keep the ball in play a lot more, rather than kicking it out - which will essentially mean they will have to completely change the way they play the game.

It’s up to the IRB to make sure that the Northern Hemisphere nations trial the new laws before they dismiss them completely. It would be a shame to see the ELVs scraped, just because England doesn’t want them. The fans love the faster form of the game - and isn’t sport about pleasing the paying fan?

The new laws have proven to be a winner - the game has sped up, and we are seeing much improved contests at both provincial and Test level. For the game to progress and spread to new countries, the ELVs must stay.

We couldn’t comment on rugby without mentioning the All Blacks and their current situation, which is an extremely good one right now. With last years shock quarter-final exit at the World Cup, many people felt that heads would roll - namely, coach Graham Henry and his assistants, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith.

The frontrunner for the coaching job seemed to be Robbie Deans, who had led the Canterbury Crusaders to five Super rugby titles. His credentials made him the obvious choice, but at announcement time it was Graham Henry who was given the job again.  It came as a surprise to a lot of people, especially in the Canterbury region where Deans has such a loyal following.

After missing out on the All Black job, Deans headed over to Australia to take up the vacant Wallabies coaching position there, which came as no surprise to anyone - why wouldn’t New Zealand’s greatest rival take one of our greatest coaches?

The future for Australian rugby looks very good, and with wins over South Africa and the All Blacks in this year’s Tri Nations, they look like the Wallabies of old.

The All Blacks are in a rebuilding phase after losing a heap of experienced players to European clubs at the end of last year, and for the first time (in a very, very long time) they look slightly vulnerable as the new batch of talent develops. New Zealand has always had an eye for emerging talent, though, and the recent Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cup win over Australia is testament to that.

We’d like to briefly touch on the growth of rugby worldwide, and what the IRB needs to do to help expand the game in places like North America, the Pacific Islands and Japan. It’s important for these sides to be given more Test matches against quality opposition (like the All Blacks and Australia) if the game is to improve in these regions.

Sides like Canada and Japan certainly have the ability to develop into competitive rugby nations, but at the moment they do not get to play quality opposition on a regular basis - and when they do play them, they usually get a sound thrashing.

The IRB needs to think about the current situation, and start including these fringe sides in the top-level international competitions.  If they don’t, the game will not grow, and expand into new regions around the world.

It will certainly take a while before these sides can compete with the best in the business, and we’re not saying they are going to become the best in the world.  But with regular Tests against top opposition, they at least have a chance. Just look at Argentina, and how they’ve developed into a top ten side - all because they’ve been given regular Tests against the better sides.

We certainly hope we’ve opened your minds to the great game of rugby, and we look forward to sharing our beloved game with you. For more rugby news, conversation and debate, check out www.sportsfanattic.co.nz - we’d love to hear from you.

If you want to get involved in rugby, either as a player or a fan, check out TOsports.ca sports directory,the “Where to Catch the Game Guide” for a complete list of local clubs in your area - you might just be surprised at how many Canadians are out there playing rugby.

BT’s 2008/09 NHL Season Preview: The San Jose Sharks

September 25, 2008

by Bryan Thiel…

Preface: It’s the last team in the Pacific division! You know what that means?

Ten more teams until I can get my life back, start bumping up those marks, and get my girlfriend back from the pool boy!

Well….two of those things are guaranteed at least. She seems to be very attached to Edmund.

Last year, people thought, “This is it! This is the year the San Jose Sharks go all the way!”

Down in the Shark Tank, they were excited to watch their team, complete with the addition of Brian Campbell, compete in the playoffs.

Well, after a stirring seven-game series against the Flames, San Jose just couldn’t keep pace in the second round against the Stars.

But in other news, thanks to TSN I’ve just been told three things:

A) Def Leppard is hosting a season-opening concert in Detroit on October 9.

B) The NHL thinks it’s still 1988 (Thanks for that one Jay Onrait—you’re the man).

C) Even the Vancouver Canucks think Kyle Wellwood is out of shape.

As nice as it is to hear that the Canucks are as unimpressed with Wellwood as Toronto was, we have work to do! On to the San Jose Sharks!

Roster Additions: Dan Boyle-D (Trade), Brad Lukowich-D (Trade), Rob Blake-D (F.A.)

Roster Subtractions:
Brian Campbell-D (F.A.), Patrick Rissmiller-F (F.A.), Sandis Ozolinsh-D (F.A.), Curtis Brown-F (F.A.), Craig Rivet-D (Trade), Matt Carle-D (Trade)

How did 2007/08 go?
49-23-10, 108 points, second in Conference, first in Pacific, lost in first round of playoffs 2008 (Western Conference)

2008/09 Goal:
First in Conference, make conference finals

Let’s break’er down…

The Sharks had a very busy offseason of movement, reshaping their defense and expelling former head coach Ron Wilson.

You may wonder why I don’t often mention coaches in these. Well that’s because the NHL is a little different than the NFL. In the NFL, I could probably name a few more coaches because each has quirks about them—unless you’re Herm Edwards, in which case he IS a quirk.

But the coaches in the NHL I find harder to keep track of, because they all blend into their suits. Ken Hitchock and Mike Keenan stand out, and it has nothing to do with the fact they did/do have mustaches. Oh, and Barry Melrose is a season-opening streak of 14 losses away from re-growing his mullet.

It’s the NHL—where we encourage gratuitous facial hair and the ’80s! Feel the magic!!!

Whatever. Let’s do this.

Make sure you put a bra on, it’s a bit Nabby out

There’s being a starting goalie, and then there’s being Roberto Luongo, Martin Bordeur, or Evgeni Nabokov. Last year, Nabby joined the legion of goalies who started more than 75 games last season—a far cry from his previous carry highs of 67.

Nabokov didn’t disappoint however, as he posted a sparkling 46-win season, tied together with a 2.14 GAA and a .910 save percentage. His emergence proved that he was past splitting time with a Miikka Kiprusoff or a Vesa Toskala, and San Jose looked to be a contender for the Stanley Cup.

Those dreams of Cup glory came to a screaming halt last season as the Sharks lost 2-1 in a four-overtime game to the Dallas Stars in the Conference Semifinals last season. With a renewed fire for this upcoming season, and the drive to take the Sharks even further, Nabokov is back, looking to be the iron man that he was last season.

If Nabokov ends up on the injured list, the Sharks aren’t completely up the creek, with Brian Boucher ready to head between the pipes. In just five games with the Sharks last season, Boucher went 3-1 with a 1.76 GAA and a .932 save percentage.

Aside from that limited backup experience last season, Boucher was also a fairly adequate NHL starter—he had three consecutive seasons of 40 or more games played, and he also set the modern NHL record of five consecutive shutouts with Phoenix in 2003-04.

So Lightning does strike twice?

The defense for the San Jose Sharks will have a distinctly different look entering 2008-09.

Gone is Matt Carle and finished is the abbreviated stay of Brian Campbell. Entering the picture is the veteran presence of Rob Blake.

To be honest, it’s very hard to assess Blake—he’s played on a weak Los Angeles team for the past two seasons, so one has to wonder if his slip in point production (51 in his last year with Colorado and 34 and 31 in each year with the Kings) is due to the environment of Los Angeles, or Blake just getting older (he’ll be 39 this season).

Although I think Blake’s numbers suffered more from the growing pains taking place in L.A., I wouldn’t expect a resurgence of any kind. I think his offense may slip to the 25-point range, but due to the increase in talent surrounding him, Blake will get a little bit of extra help on the back end.

The other two big imports this offseason came in the form of Brad Lukowich and Dan Boyle from Tampa Bay. After the Lightning’s spending spree, there was just no room for the holdovers from the 2004 Championship team.

Due to a horrific wrist injury, Dan Boyle’s season was abbreviated, and his numbers reflected it. Boyle had only 25 points last year, and posted a minus-29.

As he works his way into a new system, Boyle’s offense will come back, but it’s how he performs on the back end that will concern the Sharks the most this season.

As far as Lukowich goes, he’s nothing flashy. He’ll be a consistent defensive defenseman, and that’s about it.

Two of the biggest keys for San Jose going forward though are Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Christian Ehrhoff. Vlasic played well enough the past two seasons to earn himself a four-year extension. He’s got the smarts and attitude to be a fan favorite and quality defenseman for the Sharks, but still needs to show some consistency on offense.

Ehrhoff, who also earned himself a new contract this offseason, has really started to develop his puck-moving game, and he’s also been working to improve his defensive play with and without the puck. The only real consistency that the Sharks need from Ehrhoff is from his shot.

If he can score seven to ten goals a season, then the Sharks can wheel it to him and let him unleash on the power play. If he’s only a one- to five-goal scorer, then he’ll be used more as a puck-mover.

Kyle McLaren will be providing his big-body presence on the back end for San Jose for the sixth-straight season. Although he’ll never be an offensive dynamo, McLaren can provide a gritty, hard-hitting rock on the back end.

Douglas Murray rounds out the defense as a solid, physical option at the bottom of the rotation.

Joe’s emergence is a Thornton in the side of Patrick Marleau

As is prone to happen throughout training camp, the San Jose Sharks just suffered an injury to their forwards.

Torrey Mitchell will be out up to eight weeks. Although his offense is nothing like that of Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau, the Sharks will miss the 23-year old in the face-off department, as well as on the penalty kill.

Speaking of Marleau and Thornton—despite an offseason of doubt, they’re at the top of the Sharks’ depth chart once again.

Following a very down year of only 48 points in 78 games, Marleau is looking to rebound heavily this season. If he can put behind last season, Marleau could return to being the 30-goal man he was in 2006 and 2007. So long as he keeps the legs moving, Marleau could produce at a point-per-game average once again, as he works to avoid another down year.

As for Thornton, there’s not much to say about him. Granted, he’s had trouble producing in the playoffs, but the Sharks should also be able to help him out.

You may not know this, but team-wise the Sharks played the most games amongst teams that made it to the second round of last year’s playoffs, with 13. They also tied for the fewest goals scored with 26—with the Avs, who played a full three fewer games than the Sharks.

But back to Thornton. In Joe, the Sharks have a center unmatched by many in the NHL. The man could easily put up 100 assists in a season. He’s got the size and skill needed to be great, and he’s got the ability to improve the performance of his line-mates.

Down the middle, the Sharks also have exciting youngsters Logan Couture (an exciting young prospect out of the OHL), Marcel Goc (a speedy young German), and Joe Pavelski (a young playmaker with good vision). Each of them have the ability to line up anywhere. Veteran Jeremy Roenick can provide a 10- to 15-goal, 30-point presence, with the ability to line up down the middle as well.

On the right side, the Sharks have three very different players. Jonathan Cheechoo—coming off an injury plagued season—seems to be a good bet to score 30 goals, especially while playing with big Joe Thornton. He’s proven in the past that he has the hands and the moves to score 50, and if Thornton and Cheech can stay on the same page this season, there may be no stopping them.

If Devin Setoguchi plays an entire season in the NHL, however, Cheechoo could have a bit of a challenge for the team lead in goals. The 21-year old is a two-time 30-goal scorer in the OHL, a good two-way player, and a speedster—to say the least.

Meanwhile Mike Grier can be a great third-line option, and woll chip in the occasional goal and offensive support.

Opposite Grier, Setoguchi, and Cheechoo, the Shaks have some young effective weapons on the left side.

For the past three seasons, Milan Michalek has used his tools very effectively. He’s scored 17, 26, and 24 goals respectively, and he’s always proved to be a strong two-way player. As he continues to develop this season, the 23-year old could come to establish himself as a threat to break the 30-goal plateau, or he could simply settle into the comfort of the 23- to 26-goal range.

While Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo may be more familiar names for those who don’t consistently follow the Sharks, another name that seems to come up in conversation is Ryan Clowe. Clowe is a hard-working player—much like Mike Grier—who missed most of last season with a knee injury. If given the opportunity Clowe could post 20 goals over the course of a season, although he’s more likely to straddle the 13- to 15-goal range.

Jamie McGinn and Lukas Kasper could also be pleasant surprises for the Sharks this season, but inexperience may play a large factor. Jody Shelley can give you a (quite literally) fighting chance, but not much else.

So what does it all mean?

As I said with Dallas, the Stars have a lot of weapons up front.

The Sharks made strides to try and give a fresh look to their defense, and with Evgeni Nabokov in net, you can’t discount that the Sharks have a chance. Despite that, the forwards need to play with urgency this season, as they need to prove they can keep stride with the suddenly-resurgent Stars.

Second in the Pacific

And now it’s time for another edition of The Community Leader’s View from the Pressbox! And this time, Ken Armer ISN’T here!

Now introducing San Jose Sharks Community Leader Danielle Marchell:

Goaltending for San Jose should not be a problem at all. Evgeni Nabokov is still the clear-cut go-to guy for the Sharks, and I wouldn’t expect anything less than another nomination for the Vezina. I would also expect to see Brian Boucher starting in goal more often this season, since he’s a respectable and dependable backup goalie.

The injury to Torrey Mitchell will not be as big of an impact on the team, and thankfully happened at the start of the season as opposed to sometime in mid-April. Yes, he was very skilled on the penalty kill and in the face-off circle, but the loss should not put too much of a damper on Stanley Cup hopes.

It should be interesting to see if Mitchell’s injury opens up a door to some of the young prospects—or more specifically, for Jeff “I want to make a comeback” Friesen. Also, anticipate more of a contribution not only from seasoned veterans like Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Milan Michalek, but also from younger members of the squad like Devin Setoguchi.

As for defense, I’m going to be expecting more offensive contributions from the defensemen on the team, especially with Todd McLellan’s new coaching style. The current roster of defensemen the Sharks have is probably one of the deepest I have seen in a long time, and the addition of Dan Boyle provides a skilled puck-moving offensivedefenseman that Brian Campbell proved not to be for the Sharks.

The Sharks are currently over the cap, and it seems to me like the most logical person to eliminate from the team would be Kyle McLaren, as he is not the physical presence that he once was with his infamous hip checks.

I see this team improving greatly from last season, especially if they do not start off the season by just relying heavily on Joe Thornton and Evgeni Nabokov. I honestly believe that this team can finish first in the Pacific Division.

I think the Sharks co-Community Leader MJ Kasprzak also has something to say:

I never thought we were going all the way last year, because I recognized we did not have the blue line to carry us through the Western Conference. Even after we got Brian Campbell, we were clearly behind the Ducks and Red Wings.

A player to watch who you did not mention as an addition is Jeff Friesen. He is over some health issues that have hindered him in the past and early indications are he has his speed and shooting touch back—he could be a huge addition for what is already a top-three forward unit.

Losing Ozolinsh and Carle is nothing—they couldn’t even crack the lineup. And while Carle may develop, the Sharks goal is to win NOW. As for Rivet, his leadership, savvy, and grit will be missed, but his lack of speed was a liability; overall, this is a vastly-improved blueline.

However, among forwards we will miss Curtis Brown a TON, as he was probably the team’s best penalty killer, an outstanding checking line center with the ability to score a few workmanlike goals. Rissmiller was also better than his numbers indicated.

I agree with everything you said about our goaltending, but Nabby’s performance did drop off in the playoffs. He needs to get more rest because the Sharks goal is to WIN THE STANLEY CUP (not just make it to the conference finals!), so all indications are that he will get more games off.

Ehrhoff still struggles in the defensive end WITH the puck…I’m sure Danielle has A LOT to say on this so I’ll leave that to her! McLaren has been hurt two of the last three years and pretty ineffective; I believe the team will waive him and hope someone picks up his salary to drop under the cap. We would need to pick up a seventh defenseman then, but Mac’s hitting has become Murray’s job, and he does it better.

Finally, Clowe has a nose for the goal and should hit 20 even though he is likely to be on the third line. And I don’t understand why everyone is saying Blake is too old to perform at a high level. Yes, he’ll turn 39, but he has the same trainer as Chris Chelios who is seven years older, and people still recognize that his re-signing helps the Wings. Blake will score 10-plus goals and get 30 assists—book it!

Wake Up With Arianny Celeste

September 25, 2008

by The Captain… What can you say about Arianny Celeste, she’s a babe and can kick your ass too. I’m going out to catch some rays, and check out some scenery! Maybe King or Queen St West, be nice to your nurse, I mean waitress… The Black Bull’s always a good place to park yourself on a sunny day. Get outside and enjoy the weather!

2008-2009 NHL Eastern Conference Preview

September 25, 2008

by Nicholas Case…

Training camp is starting and that means speculation begins.  Without further ado, I give you what I think the end of the season will look like in the Eastern Conference.

1.) Montreal Canadiens- Too much for them to not be too good. Deep with talented forwards and good defense, the only real question mark is Carey Price. Even then, his play in the playoffs was due to a bad hand. The only question mark is age. Some of their vets aren’t getting younger and they traded for a declining Robert Lang. Will this hurt them?

2.) Pittsburgh Penguins- Too much talent in two players alone. Two scoring wingers for each, a few talented players in the line up as supporting cast, and an above average plus defense. Also a goaltender who may or may not be coming into his own. Satan and Crosby, Malkin and Sykora will be point monsters. They’ll also be getting back one of the better young defensemen in Ryan Whitney around the deadline.

3.) Washington Capitals- Someone has to win this division and it will be the Caps. Ovechkin alone gives them the edge. While they will miss what Huet brought them in net during the playoffs, a decently able defense and offensive talents like Mike Green, AO, Semin, Niklas Backstrom, Viktor Kozlov, and Sergei Federov they’ll be able to score their way through the weak South Eastern division.

4.) Philadelphia Flyers- A team with depth that made a great bounce last season from worst to Eastern Conference Finals. Offseason moves and injuries have made them lose some of the offensive punch they had, but they remain steady in the top six. The “loss” of Darian Hatcher will only help the team become more mobile. Biggest question lies in the health of Simon Gagné.

5.) New York Rangers- Henrik Lundqvist. Prepare to hear a lot about him this season. He will be the main catalyst for this team’s success. A large roster turn over with the loss of Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka, the additions made in offseason result in a lot of question marks. Will Nik Zherdev finally produce as expected? Will Markus Naslund regain his old form? Will Wade Redden produce?

6.) New Jersey Devils- Marty Brodeur’s decline continues, but his talent alone and a boost in offense is still enough to see them sneak into the playoffs. Their thin defensive core continues to be masked by the team’s overall defensive play, especially with the return of former stars Brian Rolston and Bobby Unibrow who know the trapping system employed and will pop in a few goals to go with their ability to cover for the young and less talented defenses mistakes.

7.) Boston Bruins- Claude Julien surprised everyone last season, taking an offensively starved team to the playoffs and then leading them to the brink of upsetting the team with the best record in the East in the first round. This season starts with the return of Patrice Bergeron. Early reviews have him back in fine form, providing a huge boost to the meager offense that accompanies a superb defense headed by My Giant Zdeno Chara.

8.) Buffalo Sabres-A team torn apart by free agency in the last few years still finds a way to squeak in. Super Coach Lindy Ruff pieces together a roster with youth and talent. Ryan Miller, a high quality goalie, will be the backbone for their run toward the playoffs while Derek Roy looks to be the go-to star along with long time Sabre Maxim Afinogenov.

9.) Tampa Bay Lightning-They’re a more talented version of the post lockout Pens. Enough young players will establish chemistry to not make them in the basement, but too many questions on the back end, in net, and in scoring depth. In the end their thin blue line and lack of true role players and solid goaltending will do them in.

10.) Carolina Hurricanes- Early season injuries and lack of goaltending will sink the team. They will miss Eric Cole more than they realize, especially with the loss of Justin Williams to a ruptured Achilles Tendon. Joni Pitkanen is not an upgrade on the blue line and they made little other moves. Tuomo Ruutu is a question mark and injury prone, but could have a huge year if healthy. Another “almost” year harmed by injuries.

11.) Ottawa Senators- The mighty continue to fall. Not much done in the offseason to right a quickly falling ship and the loss of Wade Redden on the blue line. The big three will still produce, but not much beyond that will fill the net. The blue line takes a big hit and while Ray Emery is gone, look for goaltending to continue to be an issue.

12.) Florida Panthers- Another year of almost. They’ll be in the race until the trade deadline when someone will wow them and pry away Jay Bouwmeester who is riding his one year contract. While the return may be something decent, don’t count on it being enough to get the Panthers to the top eight. Poor Nathan Horton.

13.) Atlanta Thrashers- Ilya Kovalchuk. Kari Lethonen. Who else? True talent is hard to find on this team. They have nothing in the cupboard. Kovalchuk is in the final year of his contract and has been the face of the franchise from the start. For a team talking about having Angelo Esposito and this years No. 3 pick Zach Bogosian in the line up, it doesn’t look pretty.

14.) Toronto Maple Leafs- They finally came to their senses and decided to actually play poorly for a high pick. They’re anxious to get in the Tavares lottery to really draw them in and upper management finally decides that they need to rebuild. Or they’ll just suck that badly. The latter is more likely.

15.) New York Islanders- Garth Snow continues his reign of terror as the Islanders once again toil in mediocrity. The only thing keeping this team relevant is Rick DiPietro coming off of hip surgery. That’s bound to not last. And for the sake of any Isles fan, hopefully neither will Snow.

College Football Preview: Week 5 Features Big 10 Play Getting Under Way

September 25, 2008

by Hollis Warren…

This has been a week of controversy in college football.  Let’s review:

Starting off with my favorite whipping boys, Notre Dame and Charlie Weis. During last week’s game at Michigan State, an intern apparently took a laptop into the coaches box, a big no-no according to the NCAA (for obvious reasons).  Oh the irony.  Where’s Belichick when you need him?

Weis claims this was simply a misunderstanding on the part of the student intern, and I agree with that sentiment.  While his connections to the master of illegal technology Bill Belichick run deep, it’s not like you are going to get away with using a laptop in a restricted location for too long.  And Notre Dame lost 23-7 anyways.

Moving on to Moscow (Idaho, that is) and the bowels of the WAC
, Idaho is making headlines for the first time in, well, history, this week thanks to risque cheerleader uniforms.  This comes just a couple weeks after the school logo was removed from the buttocks area of the football team’s pants.  Frankly, I don’t see what the big deal is when it comes to these uniforms.  Maybe people in Idaho are just that far behind the times.  I’d be more offended by some of the girls wearing the uniforms that anything else (specifically the bottom one…finding beautiful women must be a problem in the potato state).

Georgia has decided to wear their alternate black uniforms for Saturday night’s showdown against Alabama
, and for some reason, everyone is making a big deal out of it.  Nick Saban seemed a little peeved when asked about it earlier this week, and I don’t really blame him.  Black jerseys, red jerseys, my God no jerseys at all, this is going to be a hell of a football game.

And apparently, counting to 11 is not part of the Pac 10 officiating curriculum.  At least this call did not affect the outcome of the game, but isn’t it ironic that the Pac 10 coordinator of officials, Dave Cutaia, was the referee during the Oklahoma-Oregon fiasco two years back?

Moving on to this week’s schedule, which is a little light.  Things should begin picking up next week as the Big 12 kicks off conference action:

SMU at Tulane, 8 (CBS College)
USC at Oregon State, 9 (ESPN)

FRIDAY 9/26:
Connecticut at Louisville, 8 (ESPN 2)

Michigan State at Indiana, 12 (ESPN)
North Carolina at Miami (FL), 12 (ESPN 2)
Virginia at Duke, 12 (ESPN U)
Northwestern at Iowa, 12 (ESPN Classic)
Minnesota at Ohio State, 12 (BTN)
Army at Texas A&M, 12:30 (Versus)
Wisconsin at Michigan, 3:30 (ABC/ESPN)
Colorado vs. Florida State in Jacksonville, 3:30 (ABC/ESPN)
Fresno State at UCLA, 3:30 (ABC)
Arkansas at Texas, 3:30 (ABC)
Tennessee at Auburn, 3:30 (CBS)
Purdue at Notre Dame, 3:30 (NBC)
Houston at East Carolina, 3:30 (CBS College)
Navy at Wake Forest, 3:45 (ESPN U)
TCU at Oklahoma, 7 (FSN)
Mississippi State at LSU, 7:30 (ESPN 2)
South Florida at North Carolina State, 7:30 (ESPN U)
Alabama at Georgia, 7:45 (ESPN)
Illinois at Penn State, 8 (ABC)
Virginia Tech at Nebraska, 8 (ABC)
UCF at UTEP, 8 (CBS College)


Alabama at Georgia

I don’t think too many people expected Alabama to be in the top 10 at this juncture in the season, but aided by the big win over Clemson, the Tide have climbed the polls rapidly.  While I believe Nick Saban has a very good football team, I am not ready to put them on the level of SEC elite just yet.  Let’s see how they handle Matt Stafford, Knowshaun Moreno, the Dawgs defense, and the UGA faithful participating in a “blackout.”

After being criticized for not beating South Carolina convincingly, Georgia responded nicely at Arizona State last week.  They can take another step in getting back in the good graces of pundits by handling Alabama.  If you are going to watch anything specific in this game, keep an eye on the play of the two star true freshman receivers who will be featured.  A.J. Green of Georgia and Julio Jones of Bama are already major parts of their team’s offenses.  I’ll take Georgia by a touchdown.

Illinois at Penn State

Penn State is 4-0, and already many people are pegging them as the favorites to knock Ohio State off their perch in the Big 10.  While the offense has strayed from their traditional, conservative ways this season with enormous success, none of their opponents were on the level of Illinois.

Regardless, I think JoePa woke up and smelled the coffee: in order to win in the Big 10, it was necessary to adapt some kind of spread offense to keep defenses guessing.  Illinois’ spread attack is impressive as well, and Juice Williams creates all kinds of problems for the opposition.

What this game will come down to is defense, and while the Penn State offense has a new look, their defense is no different than it has been for the better part of four decades: full of potential playmakers.  In front of a charged crowd at Beaver Stadium, the Illini don’t really stand much of a chance.

Virginia Tech at Nebraska
When this game was initially scheduled, I am sure both institutions had visions of a top 10 matchup.  Here we are several years later, and Nebraska fans are trying to find Doc Brown to transfer them back to 1995 and Tom Osborne, while the Hokies are suffering from a slow start.  The Bo Pelini era has gotten off on the right foot in Lincoln, but if you were wondering why you hadn’t heard from the Huskers yet in 2008, it is because they have played Western Michigan, San Jose State, and New Mexico State.  Both the offense and defense have played well, but we should probably hold off all judgment on how much progress the team has made until after this game.  The defense probably won’t be challenged by an inconsistent Hokie offense, but it will be intriguing to see how the unit holds up against the scoring machines of OU, Kansas, and Mizzou once they get into conference play against the Tigers next Saturday.

North Carolina at Miami (FL)
Butch Davis restored a sense of responsibility, dignity, and respect to an out-of-control program in his time at Miami, only to see it destroyed by his successor, Larry Coker.  For the first time as head coach at UNC, he returns to the institution that put him on the map in the first place.  Davis is already having a positive influence on the Tar Heel program, although I am sure he still has a bitter taste in his mouth after blowing a 17-3 lead against Virginia Tech at home last week.  That very well could have swung the ACC Coastal in their favor.  Now, they have to recover from that loss with a visit to another division contender, minus QB T.J. Yates to boot.   In a twist of irony,  Mike Paulus, younger brother of Duke basketball star Greg Paulus, takes over under center.   I think the Canes use this as a statement game.  They are 2-1, but those two wins were against Charleston Southern and Texas A&M.  Keeping it close against Florida was a positive to build on, but they didn’t get a W.

TCU at Oklahoma
Move over BYU and Utah: the Mountain West has a third team inside the top 25 with the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian.  They probably won’t be there after Saturday night, but here is a great opportunity for the league to get some attention, as if the efforts of the Utah schools weren’t doing enough.  But then again, TCU has won the last two times they have gone to Norman, Oklahoma, so never say never.  If the Horned Frogs want to take home the upset, they must find a way to slow down Sam Bradford and the OU offense.  A good place to start would be ball control and that shouldn’t be a problem, considering TCU has racked up 26, 67, 31, and 48 points in their four games.  This will be the Sooners’ biggest challenge to date, but they rise to the occasion and enter Big 12 play with an unblemished mark.

Other games to keep an eye on:

USC at Oregon State
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard from an expert to go ahead and lock up USC’s spot in the national title game, I could retire tomorrow.  Yes, the Pac 10 is down.  Yes, USC is insanely talented.  But there are still ten games left, and anything can happen in college football.  Plus, some of the teams they visit in 2008 have caused them problems in recent seasons, led by the Beavers.  Corvallis is a tough place to play.

Connecticut at Louisville
This is a rematch of that infamous game last season where the UConn punt returner appeared to have called a fair catch, Louisville players stopped, the officials didn’t recognize the fair catch, and the punt was returned for the deciding touchdown.  The winner here gets sole possession of first place in the Big East.   After all, this is the first conference game of the year.

Minnesota at Ohio State
Ohio State hasn’t had an impressive performance yet, unless you want to count a 43-0 win over Jim Tressel’s former FCS employer Youngstown State.  At least Beanie Wells is on track to return for this game, and Terrelle Pryor has provided a spark under center.  What happened to Todd Boeckman?  Ten weeks into 2007, he was a Heisman contender.  Since then, the guy seems to have lost his confidence, and his play deteriorated to the point of being benched.  As for 4-0 Minnesota, the honeymoon’s over: it’s time to play someone their own size after a cupcake non-conference slate.

Wisconsin at Michigan
Considering the struggles of Ohio State, the Big 10 race looks to be wide open, and Wisconsin figures to play an instrumental part in who wins the crown.  They host Ohio State and Penn State the next two weeks, but they cannot overlook the business at hand in Ann Arbor.  Big Blue may be struggling, but now that conference play has commenced, they can roll the clock back to zero and start over essentially.  Whatever happens, Wolverine fans will likely be an ecstatic bunch on Saturday considering the fact Matt Millen finally got fired by the Lions.

Colorado vs. Florida State
CU and FSU come into this intriguing non-conference showdown at opposite ends of the spectrum.  The Buffaloes are riding high at 3-0 after a home win on national TV against West Virginia.  The Seminoles, meanwhile, are still wondering what the hell happened against Wake Forest in a key ACC Atlantic game.  Frankly, the offense was about effective as teaching monkeys fractions.  It may be time to turn back to Drew Weatherford at QB.

Tennessee at Auburn

Phil Fulmer is quickly becoming unpopular in Knoxville, as the once elite Tennessee program has slipped to mediocrity by their standards.  Not even putting up a fight against Florida at home is unacceptable, and it won’t get any easier from this point forward, starting with a trip to Auburn.  In all likelihood the Vols will drop to 1-3 after this one, with that single victory against C-USA doormat UAB.

Fresno State at UCLA

This may seem shocking in the aftermath of Fresno State’s loss to Wisconsin, but if they win it out, an at-large BCS berth is an outside possibility (assuming both BYU and Utah falter along the way, and at least one of them is guaranteed to do so since they play on November 22).  Of course, to help their chances, they should be rooting for the Badgers to run the table and win the Big 10.

South Florida at NC State

The Bulls better be weary, considering the fact the Pack knocked off ECU at home last Saturday.  They are certainly more than talented enough to win this game easily against a program still trying to get back on its feet under Tom O’Brien.

Toronto Maple Leafs Preseason: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

September 25, 2008

by Shane House…

This year, for the Toronto Maple Leafs will have a lot of highs and lows—probably more of one then the other.

But after Monday’s shelling of the Buffalo Sabres, there seems to be some optimism. Here is the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of what to expect this preseason.

The Good

1. Luke Schenn and Justin Pogge

It is still early in the season, but there is a lot of promise being shown already this pre-season. Luke Schenn logged twenty minutes of ice time in his first game, and was a plus-two on the night. He showed poise and was calm on the ice, and was always positioned soundly—which is great, considering he is still only 18.

Another promising sight was the play of Justin Pogge.  In the second period, Pogge showed the promise that made him a number-one prospect for the past two years in the Leafs system. He turned away 15 shots in that frame, while making a couple amazing saves that show glimpses of what he can be.

These performances lead me to predict that Pogge—even though he did well—will start the regular season in the minors as the starting goalie. Schenn, if he can keep up the good play from the first game, will likely start the season with the Leafs—but after a couple games will go back to the minors for the year.

2. No Smelly Finger

In his first game, Jeff Finger was—to say the least—solid. He displayed the type of play that warrants the big contract he received in the offseason. He did exactly what we signed him for—he blocked shots, he kept people away from the front of the net, and he was positionally sound.

3. Speed and Forecheck

I am proud to say that for the first time in years, the Leafs aren’t the slowest team in the league. They were fast—really fast—and forechecked relentlessly.  They were always in the face of the other team, always going hard, and nobody was scared of getting their hands dirty.

4. Shades of Darcy Tucker in Ryan Hollweg

I am not saying that Hollweg is as good as Tucker by any means. The man still can’t score, but he can hit and cause problems.

In the first half of the game, he pissed off Andrew Peters so much Peters was kicked out of the game with 22 PIMs. The last player I remember who was that much of a sh*%-disturber was a young Darcy Tucker.

If Hollweg can learn not to take stupid penalties, he will be a huge asset to the Leafs this year.

The Bad

1. Where In The World Was Nikolai Kulemin?

In the entire game on Monday, I only heard the name Kulemin once. He was absent the whole game. When the game was over, after a surprising win, I was left to ask—where was Kulemin?

I don’t know why, but Ron Wilson decided to have him play on the Fourth Line with players like Ondrus and Boyce. Nikolai Kulemin isn’t like Ovechkin or Malkin—he will need time to adapt to the different-sized ice surface and the speed of the NHL game. I give it ten games until you see the real Kulemin on the ice.

2. Cujo Looked a Little Rusty

I am as happy as the next person that Curtis Joseph is back. Before the game started, I was yelling at the T.V. “Cujo, Cujo!” just like everybody else, excited to see the former starter back in the Blue and White.

Sadly, he didn’t have the form I remember, letting in a goal in the first minute of the game on a shot from Marek Zagrapan. He stopped the rest of the shots that period—four in all—but I frequently saw Cujo not square his body to the puck, and sometimes looking awkward in net.

Personally, I think it’s rust which he gathered by not playing last year. He’ll be back to good playing shape by preseason’s end.

3. Bad Penalties, Along with a Bad Penalty Kill

One problem that I didn’t see go away was the habit of taking bad penalties. It cost the Leafs three goals, and almost let the Sabres back in the game.

The Leafs had a potent attack to counterpart the penalty problems, but what about the games when they can’t score? I think Ron Wilson will straighten up the PK and the straighten up the players as well by preseason’s end.

The Ugly

1. No Discipline

Overall, I will admit I loved how the Leafs looked. They were fast, physical, and high-scoring. But there was still a lack of discipline, and too many penalties were taken.

The power play was still good minus Bryan McCabe, but the penalty kill was still bad. I think they will get better on the PK, but it will be ugly until they do.

2. No Star Forwards

Dominic Moore was great, netting two goals, and everybody played their part in goal-scoring—but that was one game. I think over time we will see that this offense is lacking a top-notch forward.

They need that game-changing player that can do it all—and until they do, they won’t be able to live up to the potential they showed on Monday on a consistent basis. Somebody needs to step up on the team, or Fletcher needs to add that player via draft or trade.

I like what I see so far. This is a fast, gritty team that makes plays with a solid forecheck and puck movement in the corners. There is obviously a plan in place to make this the style of play for the future.

There is still a long way to go, but we are on the right track.  It should be an interesting year for the Blue and White.