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The impossible playoff comeback happens again PDF Print
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Tuesday, 13 May 2014 16:12

By Rob Ficiur
Unlikely (impossible) playoff comebacks is why fans follow sports. Even though it can be done, usually comebacks fall short. This year the Los Angeles Kings became just the fourth team in NHL history to win a playoff series after trailing three games to zero. 
In NHL playoff history, a team has been down three games to zero 178 times. The four teams that made the comeback represent 2.2% of the trailing teams. Mathematically the chances of winning four consecutive games are ? x ? x ? x ? = 6.25%. The success rate of the “Impossible Comeback” is about one third of what the math tells us it should be. There are at least three simple explanations why so few teams make this comeback. First, the team that is ahead 3-0 is probably a better team. Second, after falling behind three games in a row the losing team has lost confidence and momentum. While they will say all the right things, in their mind they know the chances of winning are slim. Third, every great comeback takes some luck; a bounce here or there and a game is lost. Who were the four teams that made these comebacks? What had they done in the past? What did they do years later?
1 - Toronto Maple Leafs 1942 - were the first team in North American pro-sports to complete the Impossible Comeback. The Leafs finished second in the seven team NHL, three points behind the first place New York Rangers. Teams three through six played each other in the next two rounds of the playoffs. From these four teams, the two winners played off in round 2, with that winner going to the Stanley Cup final. The top seated Rangers and Leafs played each other in round 1, the winning team going to the Stanley Cup championship.
The 1942 Stanley Cup victory was Toronto’s first championship since 1931. However, the Maple Leafs won five of the next ten Stanley Cups after their 1942 comeback.
2 - New York Islanders 1975 – It took thirty three years for another team to make the Impossible Comeback. In 1975 the New York Islanders (88 points) were evenly matched with the Pittsburgh Penguins (89 points). The Islanders were in the third year of their existence and this was their first ever playoff year. The Penguins were another mediocre expansion team. 
The 1975 New York Islanders had some young players who would become household names in the next decade. Leading that comeback team were Dennis Potvin (20), Clark Gilles (20), Bob Nystrom (22) and Billy Smith age 24. These four players were part of the Islanders teams that four Stanley Cups in a row starting in 1980.
The amazing 1975 New York Islanders almost repeated the feat in the next round. Fresh off of their comeback against Pittsburgh, New York played the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers. After losing the first three games with the Flyers, the Islanders won three in a row. Their run for two Impossible Comebacks in a row felt short in game #7 against the eventual Stanley Cup wining Flyers.
3 - Philadelphia Flyers 2010 – Thirty five years later it was the Flyers who did the nearly impossible. The Flyers (88 points) and the Boston Bruins (91 points.) met in the second round.  Down three games to zero, the Flyers won Game 4 in overtime to prolong the series. 
Unlike the 1942 Leafs and the 1975 Islanders these Flyers have not built on their Impossible comeback. In 2011 and 2012 the Flyers were eliminated in the second and missed the playoffs in 2013.
4 - LA Kings 2014 – After the 2011 Flyers were eliminated in the second round management made some changes. They traded Captain Mike Richards top scoring winger Jeff Carter to Columbus. By the end of the 2012 playoffs Richards and Carter were together again leading LA to a Stanley Cup championship.
When the 2014 Kings fell 3-0 down to the San Jose Sharks in Round 1, the former Flyers were barraged with questions. Mike Richards got the bulk of the questions. When the Kings came back and defeated the San Jose Sharks Mike Richards became the first player in NHL history to play on two teams that made the “Impossible Comeback.” When asked to explain why he was able to do it – twice – Richards replied “Maybe I am a loser who falls behind too often.”
The Kings comeback this year is different than the other four Impossible Comebacks. Fourteen members of the 2014 Kings had won a championship with the team two years earlier. As a championship team, they learned how to win when they should not. Experience, not youthful potential won the series for this year’s Kings.
Impossible Comebacks are even less common in baseball and basketball – more on them in a future column.

 
Peter Maher Calgary's Mr. Hockey PDF Print
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Tuesday, 06 May 2014 14:33

By Rob Ficiur
After 3162 consecutive games the first (and only) radio voice of the Calgary Flames has retired this week. Sixty four year old Peter Maher originally wanted to be an NHL goalie, but soon realized her could talk faster than he could skate.
He is the only person with the Calgary Flames for every one of their games. Not missing work for 34 years in a row is a great feat. But that is only the beginning of what made Peter Maher a fan favorite.
As I have read and listened to Peter Maher stories this week, five things stand out about Calgary’s Mr. Hockey.
1. Respect
In his farewell news conference Maher gave some advice to whoever will take over his role as the play by play commentator. “Treat every game and every broadcast with respect and reverence, remember it is an honor to be a broadcaster in the best league in the world.” After more than three decades on the job, he still had respect for the league and the team. 
2. Professional – When Maher first began broadcasting with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Harold Ballard gave him one piece of advice.  “Remember there are two teams playing the game.” In the past 3126 games, if the Flames opponent scored a goal, Maher would announce it with some enthusiasm. Some “homer” announcers barely whisper it out loud when the other team scores.
Lanny McDonald (of the Toronto Maple Leafs) scored the first goal that Maher announced in the NHL. Later Maher called Lanny’s 500th goal; and Lanny’s final goal the day the Flames won their 1989 Stanley Cup. Twenty five years later, Lanny was at the Peter’s farewell press conference, a tribute to Maher’s professionalism.
3. Stories
As I have listened to Maher in the Morning for the last ten years, Peter could add stories from 10 or 20 or 30 years ago about what the Flames players and events. Sports fans can tell stories, but Peter Maher was there.
This week Maher was asked about his weirdest interview. His response was the morning before a Oilers Flames game, Peter asked Wayne Gretzky for an interview for the pre-game show. Wayne replied shyly “The Oilers have asked me not to do game day interviews.”  With Wayne being the focus of so much media attention, it is understandable why Edmonton would want to limit distractions. Wayne said to Peter, “Meet me over there in fifteen minutes.”  
4. Humility
There will be no farewell game or season for Peter Maher – though fans would have liked it.  Maher did not seek publicity for himself, it is not about him.
Two years ago, I wrote an article entitled 3000 consecutive games, Yah Baby!”  When I Googled “Peter Maher” my column was the 13th article to come up. Two of the other twelve have nothing to do with the Flames announcer – so there are only 10 articles ahead of mine. I don’t know how search engines work – but what this tells me is that Peter Maher was not in the news very much. It was not about him; his goal was to tell the world about the Flames and entertain.
When Maher handed in his resignation, he suggested that all that was left was to send out a press release. It was suggested that there should be a press conference. Peter was uncertain about a press conference. His worry was “What if no one comes?” No worry, the room was packed to overflowing with Calgary media, Calgary Flames from the past and present. Their tribute to him. 
5. Yeah Baby!
Was a phrase Peter first used in the 1986 playoffs. He was coming home from a game and listening to the radio when these words came on in a song. During the 2004 Stanley Cup playoff run, Maher’s "Yeah Baby’s" got shared across an internet that did not exist in 1986. Peter got to call the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal game, with a "Yeah Baby!" as Sidney Crosby scored the overtime winning goal.
As he gave his farewell press conference, Peter Maher did not give a farewell “Yeah Baby!” for those in attendance. He said that would have been about him and the game is not about him.
For the rest of our lives, when we will think of Peter at those high points in our lives when we exclaim: “Yeah Baby! Yeah Baby!”

 
Economic slaves want rules changed PDF Print
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Tuesday, 29 April 2014 16:39

By Rob Ficiur
During the European Industrial revolution people flooded to the cities to get factory jobs in terrible working conditions. Workers put in long hours and received minimal pay with no benefits. Factory owners knew that the workers could easily be replaced if they demanded more money. 
In recent weeks two “Economic Slaves” in the world wide sporting community have come to a cross roads and hope that changes can be made to ensure their workers are compensated properly.
NCAA sports is big business in the United States; bringing in about $71 billion colleges. While there are expenses in their programs, the NCAA avoid the largest expense that haunt professional sports because the NCAA pays their athletes zero ($0) dollars for playing. Athletes compete with the hope that once they will sign professional contracts and make more in a year than most of us will in several life times.
In the meantime NCAA athletes must find other ways to make money while in college. NCAA rules do not allow special gifts of money or merchandising opportunities to increase athlete’s income. During their college years, the average NCAA “Slave Athlete” bring in $375 000 for basketball and $178 000 per athlete for football. 
Changes are coming that will help NCAA athletes get through the school years. Rules passed in 2009 allowed schools to provide snacks such as bagels, fruits and nuts to athletes. However, schools were prohibited to buy meals for their players. Now that has changed. NCAA teams can now provide meals for their underpaid athletes. Next year athletes can have the previously forbidden cream cheese with their bagel. Cream cheese is not a code word for an illegal substance. Cream cheese was considered to be have moved a bagel from the snack category into a meal. Now that teams can pay for player’s meals, athletes can go all out and eat a full meal at the team’s expense.
The NCAA is light years away from paying College Athletes for their services. Nor are the masses demanding millions in salaries for these college athletes. For the majority of college players who never make big money in the pros, cream cheese on their bagel may be the only improvement to their basic needs they will see in their college career.
Across the world the Sherpas of Tibet have gone on an impromptu strike that has crippled the country’s $100 million Mt. Everest Tourism industry. After the death of sixteen Sherpa guides in an avalanche, the remaining 400 climbing guides walked away from the 2014 Everest Hiking Season. The Sherpas are not like professional referees who can be replaced minor league referees. These natives of Tibet are the seasoned guides who carry the bulk of climber’s supplies to the base of Mt. Everest. In the month before the 2014 climbing season, no one on Earth can train their bodies and acclimatize their system to the high altitude of the world’s largest mountain.
The average climber pays about $75,000 to attempt to hike to the top of Mt. Everest. The average Sherpa makes about $5000 per year helping the elite get to the top of the world. While $5000 a year is ten times the average wage of most people in Nepal ($500 per year). The final straw came when families of the dead were offered about $415 in a life insurance type death benefit.
Unlike most strikes labor disputes a simple solution could (and may yet be) found to this before the Sherpas took their packs and went home. One report said that the Sherpas were asking for 30% of all climbers’ fees be put into a fund that will go towards supporting those injured. They are also calling for insurance pay-outs of $20,000 dollars for every Sherpa that dies on the mountain. At some point a re-negotiated wage and life insurance contract will be worked out for the Sherpas.
Deaths on Mt. Everest are not staggering by numbers. In the last sixty years about 250 people have died trying to summit Mt. Everest. Of this number 83 have been Nepalese Sherpas. In 2012 and 2013 seven of the eighteen deaths on Everest were Nepalese Sherpas. At one level the Sherpas are asking for is compensation to the families of those who lost a loved one. While money won’t bring them back, the rich of the world could provide money to replace the income that the families will have lost with the deaths.
If elite climbers of the world are willing to pay $75,000 per year to climb Everest, then charging them 10% more to help better compensate those who risk life and limb seems both reasonable and affordable. If a deal is not reached within a week, 2014 might be the first year since 1987 when no one summits Mt. Everest, because the guides who know the trails the best, have put their life ahead of their need for money.
Had the Sherpa strike been a premeditated job action by unionized workers, labor negotiators from around the globe would have provided mediation in exchange for a free trip to the top of the world; and the Sherpa walkout would have been averted. This walk out was inspired by grief and loss, not dollars.

 
Unexpected playoff season in Toronto PDF Print
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Tuesday, 22 April 2014 15:49

By Rob Ficiur
As playoff fever spreads across the land, Toronto fans have an unexpected strain of the fever. On March 13 the Maple Leafs went into LA, and defeated the Kings who were on an eight game losing streak. The Leafs were solidly into a playoff spot.  Sportsclubsstats.com calculated on that day that Toronto had an 89.6% chance of making the playoffs. The seven game losing streak that followed put the Leafs in a hole they never recovered from. For the eighth time in the last nine years the Toronto Maple Leafs missed the playoffs.
Newly hired Team President Brendan Shanahan has the responsibility of figuring out what when wrong and how to fix it. A good start would be to note that the 2014 Maple Leafs set an all-time record by allowing an average of 35.6 shots against per game.
Even more surprising than the Maple Leafs sudden collapse has been the Toronto Raptors turn around. On December 8, the Toronto Raptors were 7-12; their .368 winning percentage had them well on their way to a sixth straight non-playoff year. Experts felt the team was tanking the season (hoping for a high draft pick) when they traded their top scorer Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. 
Since the Sacramento trade, the Raptors had a record of 41-22. Their .658 winning percentage since the trade would have ranked them about sixth in the league. I can’t remember a team trading their top player and then doubling their winning percentage to make the playoffs.
In their twenty year history the Raptors have made the playoffs five times; winning one series. What changed to turn around their season?
1. Raptors learned to play like a team. Before the trade, the team had only three games where they had 20 or more assists. After the trade the Raptors had twenty or more assists in 41 of 51 games. Another way to look at it is that before the trade they had twenty assists in 15.7% of their games; after the trade they had twenty assists in 75.9%. Of all the team sports, basketball has more focus on individuals. Without Rudy Gay they knew they had to pass the ball around and play as a team. (Interesting to note that Sacramento went from a .315 winning percentage before the trade to a .349 winning percentage after the trade; in other words not much change in Sacramento.)
2. Players bought into the coach’s plan – In his three years as Raptors Head Coach Duane Casey always preached defense first. After the trade it the team bought into the defense first approach because their key offensive weapon had just been moved. As they began to win, playing defense first became a habit and a trade mark of the team.
3.  New Roles for Rising Stars – With Rudy Gay out of the picture, two Raptors moved into new roles. DaMar DeRozan became the team leader scoring leader, averaging 22.5 points per game. Last year he averaged 18 points per game, so the numbers are not the only change. DaMar became a first time All Star because he was dependable at key times of the game. 
Second year forward Terrance Ross moved from a bench player to a starter and excelled in his new role. His points per game went up from 6.4 last year to 10.9 this year. Many sophomores struggle with higher expectations from their team, T – Ross improved.
3. Depth Builds a team – Rarely mentioned in the articles about the Sacramento trade are the players the Raptors got back. However, during the impressive run by the team three of the four new Raptors were the first players off the bench. Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivas Vasquez rank sixth, seventh and eighth for the Raptors in minutes played and points per game. Vasquez and Salmons ranked second and fourth in assists per game. The Raptors traded their number one offensive player but added solid depth, which won games.
In game where a starter was hurt or struggling the newly acquired players filled in.  Often in close game Salmons or Patterson came in and played a defensive role in the final minutes. Without the depth Terrance Ross could have been forced into a defensive role he may not have been ready for.
4. Come back team – On December 22, the Raptors overcame an 11 point deficit to defeat the Oklahoma Thunder. It was the Thunder’s first home loss of the season. On January 22, the Raptors overcame a 21 point deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks (and former Raptors Star Vince Carter). As the Raptors began to win more, I began to watch more games. 
The January 5 loss to the defending champion Miami Heat, defined for me what the Raptors have become this season. After falling behind early in the game, the Raptors pushed back in the second half. By the end of the third quarter the Raptors were up 84-79. Miami had a great fourth quarter, and the Raptors made mistakes. With a minute to go the Raptors pulled within one point of the defending champions before losing the game. The Raptors have proven they can play with any team. They can overcome a lead against any team.
The Toronto Raptors have not won a playoff series since 2001. With home court advantage, the Team, (spelled with a capital T) has the potential to give Toronto and Canada its worst case of basketball playoff fever ever.

 
HIstory predicts 2014 Stanley Cup winner PDF Print
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Wednesday, 16 April 2014 18:55

By Rob Ficiur
The following statistics from the last 24 years will predict with mathematical certainty who win the championship in June. (The statistics used in this article are based on the playoffs from 1989-2013).  To keep the statistics accurate as possible, numbers from the  lockout shortened 1995 and 2013 seasons were not included in the total points, goals for and goals against ranking. (Teams like Vancouver and Toronto were doing well this year at game 44, but missed the playoffs, so I chose not to use partial numbers.) 
This is the sixth year I have used the statistical data to predict the Stanley Cup winner. (These mathematical calculations have never predicted the champ, but we will try it again. I was never good at predicting by logic or emotion when I tried it that way either).
1. a) Total Points: The team that finished first overall in league standings has won seven Stanley Cups in the last 23 years. First overall has won more Stanley Cups than any spot in overall standings (Mode). Mode: 1st overall is the Boston Bruins (1 vote for them.)
b) Adding up the 22 years, the average (mean) overall ranking is 4.04; meaning the fourth place overall team has the best chance of winning the Cup. This year team that finished fourth overall is the St. Louis Blues, one vote for them.
c) The average number of points of the Stanley Cup champion is 105. The team with the most points to win it all was the 1989 Flames with 117 points. The lowest team to win was the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins with 87 points. This year no team finished with 105 points, but the closest is the Chicago Black Hawks; one vote for Chicago.   
d) The mode (most common number) for Stanley Cup champs is 112 and 103 points. Three champs having earned that 112 and three have earned 103 and won the Stanley Cup. This year the Colorado Avalanche have 112 points; no teams have 103 points. Mode: One vote for the Colorado Avalanche.
2. Goals Against. We have been brainwashed to believe that defence wins championships. That may not be so.
a) The average ranking of the Stanley Cup champs in goals against average is 7.0. The team with the seventh best goals against average this year is the Minnesota Wild; one vote for them. 
b) The 3rd best defensive teams have also won four Stanley Cups. This is the mode (most commonly occurring number). That means that the St. Louis Blues get one more vote. 
3. Goals For. In 2012 the LA Kings were the 29th best offense in the NHL. 
a) The average Stanley Cup champion ranked 5.2 in goals for during the regular season. So which team ranks fifth this year in goal scoring is the San Jose Sharks; one vote for them.
b) The mode in team offense is 2nd overall. Six teams that finished second in overall goals claimed the championship. One vote for the Anaheim Ducks.
Sub Total Conclusions: Total Votes so far: St. Louis 2, while the following teams have one: Boston, Chicago, Anaheim, Colorado, San Jose and Minnesota.
Tie Breaker Round (using only the eight teams from the previous list). 
4. How did the team do the previous playoffs? 
Of the last 24 Stanley Cup winners – ten of them won zero playoff rounds the year before. Of these ten teams who went from winning zero playoff rounds to champs three missed the playoffs and seven lost in the first round of the previous season. Of our eight finalists, only the Colorado Avalanche missed the playoffs last year. However, three of the teams, Minnesota, Anaheim and St. Louis were eliminated in the first round. One point will be added to each of those four teams round one total. 
The Winner Will Be: Added together, the numbers conclusively precisely and positively predict that the St. Louis Blues will win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 44 year history.

 
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