A Year in Review

As we approach the end of 2009, I feel it’s time to reflect on how our teams performed in 2009 and think about how they might perform in the new season. So without further ado, a look at all four sports teams.

Bruins: For the first time I got into hockey for the 2008-2009 season. It was surprisingly entertaining. The Bruins had a strong young group with Phil Kessel, Patrice Bergeron, and especially Milan Lucic. It carried them to the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Carolina Hurricanes. In my opinion, sweeping the Montreal Canadiens in the previous round drained them of all of their fight. They looked tired and emotionless, and they got consistently outplayed by Carolina. They were lucky to make it to seven games against them. This season seems to be marked by injury and inconsistent play. Once the Bruins get healthy, I foresee good things for them. They’re a lock to make the playoffs come 2010, and maybe it’s finally their turn to win a championship.

Celtics: The 2008-2009 team played pretty well despite the loss of Kevin Garnett for most of the season. They had a phenomenally exciting playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, then got beat in the 2nd round by the Orlando Magic, who went on to the NBA Championship. We saw the emergence of Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis in those series, and their growth and maturation will pay dividends for the C’s as this season continues. This season has seen a very strong start for the Celtics, especially on the road. The addition of Rasheed Wallace has bolstered an already deep bench. We’ve also seen the emergence of Tony Allen as a solid NBA player as he’s gotten more playing time in the last couple of weeks. The main issue with the team this year and moving forward is going to be its starters’ age and health. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have already missed games due to injury, and Ray Allen is playing more minutes than ever before. Doc Rivers needs to balance PT with keeping the starters fresh for the playoffs, and right now I’m not sure he’s doing a good enough job. The Celtics are an elite team this year. When they’re healthy, I think they’re the best team in the NBA. They will go to the playoffs and, as long as their starters remain healthy, will do some definite damage.

Patriots: The 2008 Patriots ended their season without making the playoffs, so there’s not much to say about them in 2009. This season’s team remains an enigma. They looked great against Jacksonville, but HORRIBLE against New Orleans. They gave away more leads than they ever have before. And the one-dimensionality of the offense has made it hard for them to get into an offensive rhythm. Teams are sitting on the pass, and it’s killing the Pats’ chances to score points. The bright spot has been the career year for Wes Welker. He is quicker than any wide receiver I’ve ever seen. He made the Pro Bowl as a reserve (he got snubbed), and he deserved it. So come the playoffs, it will come down to which team we get. If we get the team we saw against Jacksonville, the AFC is in trouble. If we get New Orleans Patriots, we might be a one-and-done team this year. What’s frustrating is that you just don’t know.

Red Sox: The 2008-2009 Red Sox came within a game of the World Series, but fell to Tampa Bay. This season was marked by inconsistency. The Sox tried out a number of aging pitchers, such as Brad Penny and John Smoltz, none of whom worked out. The back of their rotation never stabilized, and it hurt the Sox’s ability to win multiple games in a row. The offense was equally inconsistent. At times the team struggled to score runs, at other times they scored in bunches. David Ortiz had an off year (or maybe just succumbed to age and stress from the revelations of his steroid use), but Jason Bay had an All-Star year. The addition of Victor Martinez was a shot in the arm for the team. Unfortunately, it was not enough to get them anywhere in the playoffs. The pitching was there, but the offense never got started against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This coming year, I am worried that the Sox didn’t do enough to bolster their lineup. John Lackey will help lengthen an already strong rotation, but none of the offensive additions will strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. And the Sox still need to figure out what to do with Mike Lowell. They can’t keep snubbing him year after year and expect him to try if he’s still with Boston come April.

So there you have it: 2009 from the perspective of our four major sports teams. 2009 seemed like a season of “almost.” The Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox almost got to the championship round. The Patriots almost made the playoffs. And Boston almost celebrated another championship. Here’s hoping 2010 will be stronger. To all my readers, I thank you for following me since I began this blog six months ago. Happy New Year!

Badgers End Season with Bowl Victory

Badgers 20, Hurricanes 14. Well, it finally happened. Brett Bielema was able to beat a ranked opponent this year. Congratulations to him. While the Champs Sports Bowl is certainly not the BCS bowl every team has dreams of at the beginning of the season, it is nonetheless a tremendous victory for Wisconsin. They had failed in their previous attempts to defeat teams ranked higher than them, and this victory should pay dividends next preseason in getting them seeded higher. It was also their 10th win of the season, which always looks much better than 9 wins.

I think by the end of the season the Badgers had figured out a working formula for their offense: run first, pass later. John Clay ran 121 yards on 22 carries. Montee Ball chipped in with another 61 on 15 carries. This meant there were 37 running plays for the two of them (not to mention 5 running plays without them), as opposed to just 26 passing attempts for Scott Tolzien. Clay also picked up two touchdowns, the only two scored by Wisconsin. By limiting Tolzien’s touches, the Badgers were able to eliminate the possibility of him making a critical mistake. It worked to a fair degree, as Tolzien only through one interception all game, and that was a ball batted at the line that went straight up in the air (more bad luck than a bad pass). When he WAS passing, Tolzien did all right. He put up 260 yards through the air, averaging a first down (10 yards) per reception. This means that the Badgers did a good enough job running the ball that any time they went to pass, the defense played soft out of fear of the run. Wisconsin used play-action several times, and every time they were able to break off big throws to the wide receivers or tight ends, more specifically Lance Kendricks (128 yards on 7 receptions) and Garrett Graham (77 yards on 6 receptions). This is a testament to John Clay’s running ability, that he was able to get the defense to bite on play-action just about every time they ran it.

Before I get to the defense, I want to give a quick shout out to the special teams unit. Philip Welch made all of his field goals and extra points, and Brad Nortman did an excellent job pinning Miami deep in their own territory just about every time Wisconsin had to punt. While I think they passed up some reasonable field goal opportunities late in the game, they instead forced Miami to eat up clock time having to move the ball down the field so much. This, combined with the long scoring drives of the Badgers, led to a time-of-possession difference of nearly 2-1 in Wisconsin’s favor (40 minutes to 20 minutes).

Defensively, the strength of this team all season has been its two defensive tackles, JJ Watt and O’Brien Schofield. The Champ Sports Bowl was no exception. They completely shut down the Miami running game and did a phenomenal job getting to quarterback Jacory Harris. They played punishing defense that took its toll on the Hurricanes quarterback, ultimately ending with a strip sack that gave Wisconsin the ball back  deep in Miami territory. Watt and Schofield are two very strong defensive players, and I look forward to seeing what they can do next year, either with the Badgers or pro. They have great tackling ability and a fierce desire to get to the quarterback every time. If you hold the ball for just a minute too long, they will chew you up and spit you out.

So the Badgers season comes to a close on a high note. It was an absolute blast covering these games, mostly from the comforts of the Baseball Tavern in Kenmore Square, Boston. The team is losing several of its key players this offseason, so next year may be another “rebuilding” year for the Badgers. But another year of experience for Tolzien should help him transform from the role player he is to the leader he can be. And when that happens, watch out. Next year I hope to be covering these games again, possibly from Camp Randall (I applied to Wisconsin for grad school). So if you want to be a Badger, just come along with me!

Patriots Tame Jaguars, Clinch AFC East

The New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars met up Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. New England was looking to clinch the AFC East division title, while Jacksonville was looking to gain ground in the hunt for a wildcard playoff birth. New England was undefeated at home this season coming into the game, and Jacksonville had never won at Foxboro before. Both trends continued, as the Patriots cruised to an easy 35-7 victory, winning the AFC East and guaranteeing another trip to the playoffs.

Patriots on Offense

The offense looked more in rhythm during this game than they had at maybe any point prior in this season (and that includes the Titans blowout). Tom Brady was Tom Terrific once again. He connected for 23 out of his 26 passes, racking up 267 yards, 4 touchdown passes, and a quarterback rating of 149.0. He was nearly perfect today. He threw no interceptions, and he averaged more than ten yards a completion. This means every time he connected, the Patriots got a first down. The passing game on the whole was incredible today. Wes Welker continued his quest to break the record for average receptions per game, catching 13 passes for 138 yards. He has simply been unstoppable this season. Every time he gets open he makes the play. And even if you hit him, it’s no guarantee you will knock him down. This has been his best year as a Patriot, and it’s been a bright spot in what has otherwise been an inconsistent and at times boring offense. Meanwhile, Randy Moss answered his critics with three touchdown receptions and good strong blocking on screen plays to his side.

Even the running game looked strong today. While no one went over 100 yards rushing, the team as a whole garnered 197 rushing yards to complement its 267 passing yards. They rushed 36 times to balance out 26 passing attempts. If they can maintain a running game like this in the playoffs, they will be incredibly dangerous. Teams will no longer be able to sit back and wait for the pass. The one blemish of the game DID come from the running game however, as Laurence Maroney fumbled the ball away in the Jaguars’ red zone, killing the Patriots’ first drive of the game. It turned out to be for nothing however, as the Patriots got the ball back after playing good 4-down defense, getting the ball back at the Jacksonville 35 and setting up Moss’s first TD catch. Lastly, the 4th quarter featured a run-based drive that ate up nearly the entire quarter, leaving the Jaguars just 30 seconds in the game to try for a comeback. Obviously, they could not.

Patriots on Defense

The Patriots defense played spectacularly today. They kept Jacksonville off the scoreboard for three full quarters. They recorded two interceptions, once when Jacksonville had penetrated to within the New England 10-yard line. And they stopped the run. The key to beating the Jaguars is to stop Maurice Jones-Drew, and the Patriots did, limiting him to just 63 yards on the ground. This was the kind of defense that wins playoff games. They got good pressure on the quarterback, they defended well in the secondary, and they forced the Jaguars into a one-dimensional passing offense that had no hope of working. And this was all without their two best defensive players, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. When those two get healthy, this defense will be dangerous.

Looking Ahead: Playoffs!

Congratulations to the Patriots for winning the AFC East. Despite an up and down season, this game was indisputably theirs. They outplayed the Jaguars on both offense and defense, and showed they are capable of playing exceptionally well when everything is clicking. Their last game of the season is a road game against the Texans. It should be an opportunity to rest key players who are battling injuries (Brady, Wilfork, Warren) and get them ready for the playoffs. The Patriots made a statement with today’s game: we are ready. They are ready to take on the elite teams of the AFC. This was a momentum-building game in preparation for two weeks from now. All we can hope for is that the momentum doesn’t die next week in Houston.

A Tale of Two Celtics

Well, the Celtics won tonight, 103-94. In the end, this is a good thing. They came back from a 15 point deficit at halftime. That’s another good thing. And they put up 35 points in a single quarter. That’s a third good thing. So there were definitely good things about tonight’s game. It was exciting, even getting several of my roommates who don’t watch basketball to sit and watch almost the entire game. And come the end of the season, no one will really remember anything about this game other than that the C’s won and the Indiana Pacers lost.

Offensively, the player of the game was Ray Allen. He scored 23 points, most among any Celtic, and he was perfect from the line, nailing all nine of his free throws. Defensively, the players of the game were Rajon Rondo, who had 6 steals, and Paul Pierce, who had 5. You could say that what Ray Allen started in the 3rd quarter with his and Kendrick Perkins’ buckets, Paul Pierce finished in the 4th with his free throw shooting and heads up defense. All of the starters came to life in the second half, nailing shots, playing tough defense, and bringing down rebounds. But the inconsistency of this game was troubling.

We saw two teams tonight: First Half Celtics and Second Half Celtics. The First Half Celtics couldn’t do anything right. They committed multiple turnovers. They couldn’t shoot, not one of them. They gave up too many shots on defense. And they rebounded poorly, letting the ball go in and out of their hands over and over again. They allowed numerous three-point shots in the first half, a sure sign that things were not going to go well this evening. Three-point shooting is the benchmark for this team’s defense: if the other team is getting open looks from beyond the arc and draining their shots, the defense as a whole will not perform well for the game. If the opposing team is not making shots, being contested every time, and having to constantly go inside and take on big men like Perk, Sheed or KG, then the defense will probably be fine. While most teams can’t win by allowing three-pointers, for the Celtics it’s almost like a metaphor for their whole defense. Or maybe a simile, for those taking standardized tests: Nailing 3-pointers is to playing generally bad defense as protecting against 3-pointers is to playing generally good defense. When the treys are raining, the whole defense breaks down. And in the first half, the threes were falling, the Pacers’ lead was building, and the defense was breaking down.

However, it cannot be said that this team lets itself get discouraged. Second Half Celtics played phenomenally. They put up 61 points to Indiana’s 37, tying the game in the third and leading through most of the fourth quarter. They started protecting the perimeter and forcing errant passes. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo started racking up the steals. And Rasheed Wallace, despite playing with pain in his right shoulder, started playing the kind of defense we’ve come to expect from him. He blocked shots, surrounded players, and broke up passes. And defense is contagious, as Ray Allen started hitting the boards for rebounds and playing solid trap defense behind the rest of his team.

All in all, this was a gutty win that should have been easier but was a win nonetheless. This was clearly a game that the Celtics were not in mentally, and it starts with the decisions of the head coach. Starting Rasheed Wallace, resting Kevin Garnett when it was unnecessary, and putting Brian Scalabrine in for 22 minutes are all signs that Doc Rivers was looking past this game and towards Friday’s game at Orlando. It will be a huge game, with potentially the conference lead on the line. Hopefully Doc’s strategy will work, and the extra rest for Kevin Garnett will pay off with more minutes, solid shooting, and stifling defense (all of which KG is quite capable of doing). It didn’t bite him in the rear tonight, and with any luck it won’t backfire Christmas Day either. Happy Holidays!

Pierce’s 29 Leads Celtics Past Timberwolves

The Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves met up Sunday night at the TD Garden. The Celtics were coming off a difficult, last-possession loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, and they were itching for some payback against a Timberwolves team with only 4 wins coming into the game. It was a high-scoring affair, but in the end the balanced attack of the Boston Celtics prevailed, beating Minnesota 122-104.

Celtics on Offense

All season long, this team has been defined by its balance. It’s what makes them such a strong team in the NBA this season. Every time a team shuts down one player, another two or three step up the scoring, making it impossible to successfully defend. And we saw more of the same at Sunday’s game. All five Boston starters scored in the double digits, along with Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen off the bench. The Celtics nearly doubled the Timberwolves in terms of assists, racking up 34 to Minnesota’s 18. When Boston is passing this way, they are difficult to defend. If you force them to go inside, they have strong big men who they’ll find for easy buckets. And their perimeter shooting is good enough that if you defend the lay-up they’ll just go outside for the deep two or the three-pointer. Boston made nine three-point shots at this game, proving that they are as dangerous from deep as they are on the inside.

All talk of balance aside, Paul Pierce was the offensive player of the game. The simplest reason: he put up 29 points, far and away the most by any player on any team. He was also perfect from beyond the arch, hitting six three-point shots, and perfect from the free-throw line, making all seven free throws. After a few games of playing beneath his abilities, Paul Pierce responded with a fantastic offensive game. With the team shooting less than 52%, he shot over 57%. He carried the load offensively, and yet he did not play selfishly. He simply played a phenomenal game.

Celtics on Defense

It can’t be said that the Celtics played a brilliant defensive game. They gave up 104 points. They lost the turnover battle, 16-12. And they barely won the rebounds battle, 45-41. But in a game where Boston held a double-digit lead almost the entire game, it’s understandable for the defense to loosen up a little bit. The Celtics played their bench for a lot of minutes, and that went a long way towards the Timberwolves scoring so many points. And yet, the Celtics did some things right too. They out-stole Minnesota 7-6, they out-blocked Minnesota 7-5, and they never really allowed Minnesota to get into an offensive rhythm, holding them to 42.2% shooting. Most importantly, they defended the three-pointer well, only allowing 4 treys. Three-point shooting has been the marker for the defense this year. When they defend the three-pointer, the Celtics tend to win. When they don’t, they tend to lose. And tonight, they defended it well.

The View from the Balcony

TD Garden is an excellent place to catch a basketball game. Even with the snow keeping some of the crowd away, Boston still managed to put up decent attendance at the game Sunday night. As a result, the Garden was nice and loud for most of the game, even when it became clear that a rout was coming. Chants of “defense,” “Scalabrine,” and clapping hands filled the air. People danced in the stairwells. And the place erupted with every three-pointer or slam dunk (and there were plenty of both). The Garden gives the Celtics a distinct home-court advantage. Hopefully the place will be even louder come Tuesday’s game against Indiana.

The Red Sox So Far

The Red Sox have made a couple of moves so far this off-season, so I thought I’d way in on what I thought of them.

First, the John Lackey signing. Love it. John Lackey brings a number of skills to our pitching staff. He’s a workhorse, logging over 200 innings four times in eight seasons. He has a career ERA of 3.81. And he is a big game pitcher, with a postseason ERA of just 3.12. He has been a major part of multiple successful Angels teams, and I look forward to seeing him in a Red Sox uniform. With him in our starting rotation, it looks something like this: Beckett, Lester, Lackey, then some combination of Daisuke, Wakefield and Bucholz. Tell me that’s not a scary lineup. A 3-game series featuring our top three pitchers give us a legitimate chance to sweep every time things line up in our favor. The Red Sox probably overpaid for him, but that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to starting pitching.

The nice thing about this deal is we still have Clay Bucholz to dangle during trade negotiations. We can use him to bring in a hitter like Adrian Gonzalez or keep him until the trade deadline next season and see who’s available then. And from the looks of things, a bat is what they still need. Mike Cameron provides a good bench option for outfield, but he doesn’t have the pop that Jason Bay had. Marco Scutaro can probably play shortstop well enough, but he’s also never been known for his power. So far, the Sox lineup looks pretty thin in its bottom 3. At the top you have Ellsbury and Pedroia, which no one can argue with. Then you have Youkilis, Ortiz, Martinez and Drew. Youk is great, but there’s no telling what you’re going to get from Papi this year. V-Mart should be fine, I can’t wait to see what he can do with a full year at catcher. And Drew will probably be the same as always: a combination of inconsistency and injury. After that, your lineup looks like this (in no particular order): Cameron, Scutaro, and Kotchman. Do any of those players scare you? I thought not.

Unlike in the NL, AL teams have to be strong 1-9. You can’t win if you have easy outs in your lineup. The Yankees won it all last year because they had no easy outs. The fact that the Yankees are in our division compounds the problem. The Yankees are a very difficult team to beat. You can’t out-defend or out-pitch them, because they’re still going to put up four or five runs a game (especially now that Curtis Granderson is on their team). Your only chance is to out-score them and hope your pitching does enough to keep their scoring to that minimum. If you can put up 5 or 6 runs, you can beat the Yankees. Any less, and you’ll probably lose. Right now, the Sox are not built to score 5-6 runs a game. They’re more built to score 3-4 runs a game and try to keep other teams to less. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a pitching staff. Can our rotation handle it? Yes. But I’d feel a lot more comfortable with another bat in that lineup.

Declawing Tiger

So I haven’t written recently about my sports writing book, in part because I’ve slowed down on reading it, in part because few of the essays I’ve read have seemed relevant. Until now. It’s called “The Chosen One,” written by Gary Smith in 1996. It’s the history of Tiger Woods and his family, set right after he’d won Sportsman of the Year from Sports Illustrated. The essay is written with such assurances, both by Tiger’s father in his speech and by Smith in his analysis. Tiger Woods will win. He will change the world. He will do things for golf, nay for humanity, that no man has ever done before. It all seems so naive now, so simply optimistic, in the face of everything that has happened to Tiger Woods.

Let me begin by saying that everything that has happened to Tiger Woods is his own fault. He chose to cheat on his wife. He chose to behave promiscuously while on the PGA tour. Whether or not the public response to Tiger has been warranted is another question, but there’s no pretending that Tiger is being victimized or targeted unfairly. Tori Spelling’s character on a previous year’s episode of “Smallville” said “the only thing people like more than building up heroes is tearing them down.” And that’s what’s happening here to Tiger Woods. He has been built up for the last 13 years since the time that article was written. Now he has been exposed, and it’s all being taken away from him: his family, his money, his endorsements, and now maybe even the game itself (Tiger has stated he wants to take a break from golf in light of all that’s come out recently).

It’s sad that the media foments a culture such as the one we have in the U.S. Nothing is private, not once you reach a certain level of stardom. At that point, every tiny aspect of your life falls under scrutiny, and the most well-hidden of secrets will inevitably be found and exposed to the world. And Tiger has certainly reached that level of celebrity, between his winning and his status as a media icon. So it’s inevitable in our society that he would eventually fall from grace. If for no other reason than athletic talent doesn’t last forever (although it lasts a lot longer in golf than in other sports), we knew at some point Tiger would go away, perhaps replaced by the next heir to the title of “greatest golfer in the world.”

But I never expected that fall to happen so fast and so hard. Tiger was a beloved sports icon. He didn’t have detractors the way most dynamic sports figures do. He may have behaved unprofessionally from time to time, but fan attendance at his games (and the age breakdown therein) would show that no one minded his occasional antics. In fact, they may have appreciated an athlete acting slightly more human on the golf course, reveling in success and showing frustration in defeat. Tiger did succeed in revolutionizing golf, just as his father and Gary Smith projected that he would. But for as legendary as his rise to prominence and power was, his fall will be that much more so. This is not over, not by a long shot, and when all is said and done we may be left with a barely more than a carcass which was once a powerful Tiger.

Patriots Take Care of Business at Home

Patriots 20, Panthers 10. Well, this was a good victory. Every victory is good, but after losing two in a row, it was especially important to win this game. Not only to move the team in the right direction as we approach the playoffs, but also to keep Miami and New York in second place, both teams having won this afternoon. I’m glad for the win, but there’s still some serious questions about this team that this game did not help to address.

First the good: Wes Welker. He caught 10 balls today for 105 total yards. He now has over 100 catches with the New England Patriots, and that’s commendable. He has been, far and away, the most consistent and best offensive weapon this season. He is simply uncoverable. He always gets open, always makes the catch, and always holds on despite some serious hits that he takes each game. Frankly, I think he’s playing better than Tom Brady, who threw for just 192 yards and recorded a passer rating of a mere 74.0. Mentally, Welker is the most focused player on this team. As the league’s leading receiver, he’s pretty much guaranteed a starting spot on the Pro Bowl roster, and he deserves it mightily.

But there are far more negatives with this team than there are positives. It starts with Tom Brady. Today he had a terrible game. His passes were errant, and they didn’t have the usual crisp spiral to them that we’re all used to seeing. But more serious than his mechanical problems are his mental ones. Quite simply, the guy looks like he doesn’t care. Brady has never been emotional, but it seems like he’s mentally checked out on this season. Granted this team pales in comparison to the 2007 team, the last team he played more than a game for. But that doesn’t excuse the leader of this team playing like he has no interest in the outcome of the game. And players are sensing this and it’s hurting their performances as well. In the first half alone there were five dropped passes. These drops were a result of a lack of concentration by both Brady and his receivers. All of the dropped passes were balls that were a little off, either slightly too high, slightly too low, or slightly wide of the receiver. That’s Brady’s fault. But they were still catchable balls, and therefore the fault also lies with the receivers. I think they’re seeing Brady’s lack of effort and enthusiasm and its affecting they’re concentration in the game. Our QB isn’t in this game, so why should we be? Tom Brady needs to get his head in the game if he wants to keep his players in it.

This disinterest has had the most direct effect on Randy Moss. We’re all seeing that he has almost completely checked out on this season. Team’s are always double-covering him, and that’s causing him to get far fewer passes per game than he’s used to. But when he’s not getting thrown to, he doesn’t try. He doesn’t put effort into his routs. He doesn’t block on screens and reverses. And he doesn’t concentrate when the ball comes his way. He had a few drops today, not to mention fumbling his one reception. For as much as Moss has grown up playing for the Patriots, he still needs to be getting the ball on a regular basis or he loses interest in the game. He’s not getting the ball this season, and he’s not interested in being an effective player without them.

I’ll end this with a quick shout-out to Stephen Gostkowski. He went over 100 career field goals today, just the fourth kicker in franchise history to do it. He’s been a valuable member of our special teams unit and has done a decent job of replacing Adam Vinatieri. Congratulations to him.

Engineers Overpower Terriers

The RPI Engineers and the BU Terriers faced off Friday night. It was a battle of the bottom of the barrel, as both teams were second to last in their respective divisions in the Hockey East conference. BU put up a good fight, but in the end too many mistakes an an inability to score during 5-on-5 play cost them the match, as RPI defeated BU, 5-3.

BU On Offense

Oddly enough, the heroes of tonight’s game from an offensive perspective were the penalty kill unit. Two of the three goals scored by BU were shorthanded, one from junior Nick Bonino in the first period and one from junior captain Kevin Shattenkirk in the second. The other goal, scored also in the second period by senior Zach Cohen, came on a power play. So the offense can be summarized as playing very well during 5-on-4 situations. When both sides were even was another story altogether.

Passing was a serious problem for the Terriers, and it made it difficult for them to ever really get into an offensive flow. Hockey is naturally chaotic, but this was especially out of control. Too often were passes sent astray or deflected the wrong way, sending BU players scrambling after what would otherwise have been shooting opportunities. While BU out-shot RPI 35-25, most of the shots were not very good. Bad passing set up less than ideal shooting conditions most of the time, and it wound up costing BU the game.

Another issue with the team was overall effort on offense. BU had several break-away opportunities, but every time they would get something started RPI would just skate back and cut off the lane to the goal. RPI outraced BU a number of times, and it made it very difficult for BU to ever get off clean shots on goal. Only the penalty squads managed to muster the energy to outrace RPI, and it led to zero power play goals for the Engineers and two short-handed goals for the Terriers.

BU on Defense

Most of BU’s problems Friday night could be traced back to their goalie, sophomore Kieran Millan. He was often out of position, moving too far away from the net to be able to effectively guard it. For a member of the 2009 National Champion squad, it’s surprising how porous his goal-tending skills are this year. Perhaps his heart isn’t in this mediocre team after playing for such a great team last year. Perhaps he’s hiding an injury. Either way, he’s not playing well, and it’s costing the Terriers game.

On the whole, BU played o.k. defense. There was only one goal where they really allowed RPI to set up the shot and strike it cleanly. Everything else (except for the fifth goal, which was an empty-netter) came via the general chaos of hockey. The defensive line did a good job of holding their own, however they had trouble doing it cleanly. This led to numerous penalties that forced the penalty-kill squad to work extra hard. This wasn’t a bad thing, as I mentioned, because they were the most effective line on the ice.

The View from the Seats

Maybe it was the mediocrity of the opponent, but the crowd at the Agganis Arena was on the quiet side. Nothing like the raucousness of a BU-BC game, everything was somewhat muted Friday night, and there were definitely empty seats in the stands. The biggest cheers may have come during the second intermission teddy toss when someone threw a teddy successfully from the seats into the buckets on the ice. Overall, it was an underwhelming response to an underwhelming game.

Celtics Stupefy Wizards

Points if you get the reference. Anyway, Boston 104, Washington 102. This was an interesting game, featuring a point guard battle between Rajon Rondo and Gilbert Arenas. The Celtics started slowly, then built up a 15 point lead, then allowed it to dwindle to nothing in the second half. The result was a back-and-forth 4th quarter that saw multiple ties. In the end, it came down to free throws, and the Celtics made just enough to keep the game out of reach from the pesky Washington Wizards. It was their ninth win in a row.

Offensively, the key to this game was distribution. There were 20 assists dealt out in this game (11 by Rajon Rondo), and the Celtics moved the ball well around the perimeter of the court, finding the open man for the open 17-footer. What was surprising was how little they went into the paint. The Celtics had a distinct size advantage over the Wizards, they just refused to exploit it nearly as much as they could have. This is not to say they didn’t go inside from time to time. They did, and the result was a series of mammoth dunks, most notably by Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rondo. Props to Ray Allen, whose 18 points put him over the 20,000 point line. He is just the 37th player in NBA history to achieve this, and he should be commended for it. He is my favorite Celtic to watch. His shot is technically the most beautiful shot I have ever seen. He is lethal from the free throw line. I hope that when they teach little kids how to shoot free throws, they just show him shooting over and over again.

The distribution I mentioned earlier also played itself out in all five starters scoring in the double digits. Tony Allen, playing in just his second game of the season, also scored 8 and played with great hustle and effort. The offensive hero of the night, though, was without a doubt Rajon Rondo. He put up 21 points to go along with his 11 assists, the 9th double-double of the season. When he is on, the Celtics as a team are on. He has phenomenal court-vision, and this enables him to just rack up the assists. When he’s scoring, it’s like icing on the cake.

Defensively, the Celtics played in spurts. When they were building their 15 point lead, they were looking great. They were stuffing shots, forcing turnovers (13), and overall playing excellent defense. But they came out flat in the second half and allowed the Wizards to get back in the game behind the scoring power of Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood, and Andray Blatche off the bench. This was a Wizards team that was hungry for a win, and they were playing at home. For these reasons I can forgive the Celtics for their defensive difficulties. They still held Washington to six three-pointers, and that has been their Achilles Heel in all of their losses. As long as they can minimize shooting from the perimeter, their natural size advantages will allow them to play successful all around defense. They also out-rebounded Washington, 30-26.

Overall, this was a nice win for the Celtics. It’s the start of the three-game road trip, and next up is Derrick Rose and his pesky Chicago Bulls. It should be another great point guard battle, and I can’t wait. If tonight was any kind of confidence builder for Rondo (and it should be), we should be in for one hell of a performance.