This week in Around The Dorm (ATD), it’s a heavyweight bout between three ATD veterans: staff writer Duncan Slobodzian, Sports Editor James Queally and WTSR News Director Pat Lavery. Sports Assistant Bobby Olivier will dish out the points as we try to predict which tri-state hockey team has the best chance of capturing the Cup, who will win the NFC BEAST (East with a B) and which 2008 NBA Finals team is likely to return to the promised land.
1. The New York Rangers are off to a great start while the Devils and Flyers are faltering early. Which local team will prevail come postseason in the NHL and why?
DS: Definitely the Fly guys. I think everybody saw their resilience throughout last season’s playoff run. If last season’s team was out for “vengeance,” then this year’s team has all the more motivation. In all the major American professional sports, it’s tough to gauge how the respective divisions will shake out after just a handful of games. It’s equally tough to assess whether winning one’s division is a prerequisite for enjoying a long playoff run. Think about how the powerhouse Atlantic division shook out last year in the NHL, for example. Though the Devils and Rangers finished ahead of the Flyers, it was Philadelphia who went deepest in its Stanley Cup playoff run. Remember, Philadelphia has retained nearly all its key players for this season. Expect their collective energy and tenacity this winter to translate into a play for Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice next spring.
JQ: First of all, the Devils stand at 5-2-1. I wouldn’t call that faltering. The Flyers stumbled out of the gate with six losses – that’s faltering. Both of these teams have some inherent problems. The Rangers had a Marlins-style fire sale, losing fashion-minded bad boy Sean Avery and former captain Jaromir Jagr, among others. A large portion of their roster has been shuffled around, leaving me to wonder about their team chemistry. An early inability to score goals at home should also raise some red flags. Across the river, the Devils are still hung over after the Rangers bounced them from the playoffs in round one last year. They’ve also got scoring problems (27th in the NHL in scoring last year). But if we’re talking about playoffs here, the equation is simple. If you can’t score at home, then you can’t win at home, and that doesn’t bode well for a seven-game series. I’ll favor the Devils in the playoffs for now. The Martin Brodeur factor helps immensely.
PL: First of all, it’s way too early to tell which of these teams will go deepest into the playoffs, let alone make it into the postseason at all. Still … New Jersey, the once-proud postseason juggernaut, has averaged 102 points in the regular season over the last four years but hasn’t made it out of the second round since 2003, when the team won its third Stanley Cup in eight seasons. Philadelphia has made the conference finals twice in that span – including last year – yet despite keeping the roster pretty stable, the team has been doomed so far by goalie Martin Biron’s struggles (his 2008-2009 goals-against average is up a full point over 2007-2008). That leaves the Rangers, who have neither the playoff history of the Devils nor the recent success of the Flyers. However, right now it looks like it’s their year to make a serious run at Lord Stanley’s silverware.
BO: Queally gets the 3 on this one for mentioning the Brodeur factor and talking about the key losses for the Rangers. Duncan gets 2 for making the bold prediction that the Flyers will turn it around. Pat gets the 1 for not giving me enough about the Rangers’ chances.
2. After the Cowboys faltered and the Redskins got back on track, along with the Giants righting the ship, the NFC East is up for grabs. Who wins the division in the end and why?
DS: I might as well show an iota of respect to last year’s Super Bowl champs, and project them to win the highly competitive East. They have boasted among the most complete rosters – on both sides of the ball – in the league through the first seven weeks. It wasn’t until their nationally televised game against the Browns that they missed a beat. Sure, their early season schedule is cake, but they still had to go out and win the games. We’ll know a lot more about their mental makeup as they enter their division schedule, but what they have been able to do as defending champions, with the proverbial “target on their back” every week, is nonetheless impressive. Until teams can consistently stop their multifaceted offense, featuring the impossibly big Brandon Jacobs, or bomb up their fundamentally sound defense (whose 2008 play is even better than the sum of its parts), Big Blue is a force to be reckoned with.
JQ: The NFC East is going to be an endless game of king of the hill until Week 17. Everyone is going to knock off everyone else at least once, and it’s probably going to take 12 wins to claim this division. The Cowboys will make the playoffs when Romo comes back, but they are staring 4-6 in the face since Brad Johnson will be at the helm for a tough stretch of schedule that includes a matchup with my G-Men. They’re out. Philly has looked good when they win and awful when they lose. Westbrook is bruised and beaten on top of that. They’re out. That leaves the Skins and the Giants as the only real threats. Now that Jason Campbell has figured how to run Jim Zorn’s offense, the N.Y..-Washington rematch will be very interesting. The Redskins schedule gets soft in the later portion of the season, including matchups with the horrendous Seahawks and 49ers. The Blue Crew has to take on playoff contenders every week from here on out. Advantage, unfortunately, Skins.
PL: I’ve said it since day one: the no-respect New York Giants, the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL, are the best team in the division. Dallas has been torn apart by Tony Romo’s injury, Terrell Owens’ renewed interest in himself, the peculiar acquisition of wide receiver Roy Williams and Adam Jones’ legal troubles (don’t say we didn’t warn you, Jerry Jones). Considering the Cowboys’ struggles, the big win the Redskins registered over them in Week 4 might have been a fluke. Neither Washington nor Philadelphia has played winning clubs well, despite the excellent play of Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Clinton Portis and a rejuvenated Donovan McNabb for the Eagles. The Giants’ key, though, is depth. What other team can lose both of its starting defensive ends and barely feel a letdown? That, combined with Eli Manning’s best season yet, means they’ll be around deep into the playoffs.
BO: Pat gets the 3 here for throwing it out there that the d-ends are out and the Giants haven’t missed a step. Queally gets the 2 for talking about the strength of schedule. Sorry Duncan, you get the 1 for not giving enough info about the other teams.
3. There’s a lot of talk going on about the Lakers being the favorites for NBA champs this year, but many still say Celtics. Who will go further in the ’08-’09 season and why?
DS: Gotta go with the Lake-show here. Granted, they really got it handed to them during the NBA Finals. But the Celtics were primed for a run and had some considerable momentum working for them after they overcame seven-game marathon series against the Hawks and Cavs. As an ardent C’s hater, I have to dismiss their “redonkulous” season as a flash in the old pan. One of the more underrated elements of that finals was the sheer absence of the Lakers big man phenom, Andrew Bynum. The addition of Bynum to Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol makes for a formidable frontcourt. Plus, everybody already knows how strong the backcourt is, featuring the game’s most talented overall baller in reigning MVP Kobe Bryant. Phil Jackson’s hungry for that 10th ring, and he won’t stop until that hunger is satisfied. Expect the Zen Master to pinky-whistle his boys in gold all the way to a title.
JQ: Stop making us predict stuff. Andrew Bynum is the key to figuring this one out. Last year L.A. was not a very defensive-minded team, and that allowed Boston’s big three to outdo Kobe in a hard-fought seven-game series. With him back in the middle, teams like Boston that have players who can slash and create passing lanes will find their offenses slowed. Hard to make a sweet Rondo-esque pass when Bynum, who is deceivingly fast, gets on you higher up the key and clogs your escape routes. I would love to see Boston-L.A. II in 2009, because yes, Bynum’s presence is that significant. Who goes further though? Repeating in the tough-as-nails West sounds like an impossible feat, while Boston has to plow through cake and the Pistons to re-capture the conference title. Celtics have the advantage.
PL: Last year, while the Celtics’ “Big Three” was a nice story, they always seemed to me like a one-year fix to return Boston basketball to glory (and keep up with the Patriots and Red Sox). Granted, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce got some help, but Garnett, Allen and late-season contributor Sam Cassell are all on the wrong side of 32. Pierce is 31. Can players like Rajon Rondo show enough progress to make up for what I expect will be diminished play by all those 30-somethings? Doubtful. Now, the Lakers: Kobe Bryant is (finally) only 30, and the only older player on Los Angeles’ roster is Derek Fisher, 34. This team, with an average age of 26, has already made it to an NBA Finals, and probably will do so again in 2009. With apologies to R. Kelly and the late Aaliyah, age is everything but a number.
BO: Queally gets the 3 for giving reasons why Bynum is so important. Duncan gets the 2 for using big words and the term “redonkulous.” Sorry Pat, but the Celts are still going strong no matter the age, 1.
Here is your winner, by a score of 7-6-5, Queally!