Friday, April 29, 2011

Working Overtime

Overtime hockey in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs can test the mettle of players, coaches and fans alike.
The ultimate goal for any team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

For three periods and roughly two-and-a-half hours, those with a vested interest in the game pour their attention and energy into it, knowing the stakes of a best-of-7 post-season matchup. Whether it's executing plays on the ice, developing strategies on the bench or just screaming at the top of your lungs in the stands...everyone inside the arena has a role.

Sometimes that's not enough, however. Unlike the regular-season, where games are decided by a shortened overtime -- and if necessary, a shootout -- playoff hockey is settled the old-fashioned way. Teams skate 5-on-5 in a sudden death format -- whoever scores wins. If the game isn't decided during the first 20-minute extra session, the show goes on until the goal lamp is lit.

This year's playoffs have already featured a number of dramatic OT games

In the 1st round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there were 14 games that required overtime. Ask anyone who was at those games, and they will speak of the drama involved. Every shot-on-goal could be the winning one. Every save could be a game-changer. Every mistake could be remembered for years to come.

Of the 14 OT games in this year's playoffs, three required multiple overtimes. Under this scenario, it becomes more than just a game. It is a classic, epic struggle...a test of endurance...a badge of honor. The winners gain a tremendous amount of momentum, while the losers are left with a feeling of emptiness.

It should be on every sports fan's bucket list to attend a multi-OT hockey game. One small problem, never know when it might happen.


On April 14th, 2003, the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators met in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.

The Islanders and Senators had their 1st (and only) playoff meeting in 2003

The atmosphere in Uniondale, New York was tremendous. The Islanders, seeded 8th in the East, had "upset" on their minds. Although Ottawa won the NHL's President's Trophy and top overall seed with 113 points in the regular-season, the Islanders earned a split during the 1st two games of the series in Ottawa. Now, they return home to a raucous Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and a sold-out crowd of 16,234.

Nassau Coliseum was ready for some playoff hockey

It had been a strange season for the Islanders, who were expected to take the next step after a hard-fought playoff loss to Toronto the year before. Instead, the blue-and-orange struggled at the end of the regular-season, backing their way into the playoffs with 83 points. There reportedly was dissention in the locker room, as some players accused head coach Peter Laviolette of playing favorites. In the playoffs, however, the off-ice drama took a back seat.

Upon walking through the arena doors, everyone was handed a white rally towel with the words "2003 Islanders Playoff Drive." It's always an impressive sight whenever the rally towels are being waved en a blizzard spontaneously broke out in the seating bowl.

The playoff rally towels were out in force at the Coliseum

The towels would provide visual accompaniment to a crowd that was intent on splitting eardrums. Thanks to its low ceiling and relatively cramped conditions, Nassau Coliseum can get very loud at major events...providing a valuable home-ice advantage.

As Game 3 in the best-of-7 series got underway, loud chants of "Let's Go, Islanders!" echoed throughout the arena. Fans near the top of Section 313 were pounding on the ceiling to amplify the noise. When those chants died down, new ones would spring up...usually directed toward Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime. Heckling chants of "Paaaaaaaa-triiiiiiiiiick" would go on for minutes, in the hopes that they would somehow distract him.

Patrick Lalime was between the pipes for the Senators

Fueled by the sold-out crowd, the Islanders got on the scoreboard first. Midway through the 1st period, former Senators' captain Alexei Yashin poked a loose puck across the goal line, sending Islanders' fans into a frenzy. Once the goal was confirmed by video replay, the blizzard of towels broke out once again. Long Island believed in their underdogs.

The Islanders would open up the Game 3 scoring, thanks to Alexei Yashin

After a goal by Ottawa forward Todd White tied the game late in the 1st period, the Islanders were determined to keep the momentum on their side. During a power play, forward Randy Robitaille fired a shot past Lalime to give the Isles a 2-1 advantage. The tie lasted all of 24 seconds, giving the hometown crowd a belief that this was their night.

Randy Robitaille would give the Islanders a late 1st period lead

The momentum would shift in the 2nd period. Although the Islanders outplayed the Senators and received multiple power plays, it was the team in red, black and white that did the scoring. In the final minute, Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips tipped a pass in the slot past Islanders' goalie Garth Snow.

Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips tied things up in the 2nd period

After two periods, the game was tied 2-2. It would remain that way for awhile.

The Nassau Coliseum crowd was nervous at the start of the 3rd period. The Islanders were taking it to the NHL's best team in 2003, yet the game -- and the series -- still hung in the balance.

On the ice, both teams played conservatively, knowing that one mistake could cost them dearly. The "Let's Go, Islanders" chants continued and towels randomly waved throughout the arena, trying to will the home team to a victory.

Neither team would score, however, and the game was headed to a crucial overtime.

Despite having the NHL's best record in 2003, the Senators were in for a fight

During the intermission, some fans remained in their seats...pondering the potential outcome. Others wandered through the cramped Coliseum concourse, just to distract themselves from the game at-hand. Those 18-minutes felt like they took forever, as numerous questions enter the mind. "Who will be the hero?" "Who might make the big mistake?" "How long will this game last?"

That final question is always present during a playoff OT. Games could last into the wee hours of the players test their physical limits on the ice, while fans deal with a combination of nerves and fatigue.

Todd White scored one of Ottawa's goals in regulation -- would another await in OT?

In the overtime period, the Islanders did everything they could to survive. Ottawa outshot New York 12-6 during the extra session, but Snow kept the puck out of the net. Although the talent gap between the two teams was apparent...the Islanders still had a chance to win and gain control of the series.

Garth Snow kept the Islanders in the game during the 1st overtime

The game's intensity had a direct effect on the crowd. Although the "Let's Go Islanders" and "Paaaaaa-triiiiiiiick" chants continued throughout Nassau Coliseum, they were not as boisterous as they were earlier in the game. As butterflies built in fans' stomachs, the ability to make noise was compromised.

The horn sounded at the end of OT, and the game was still tied 2-2. The Islanders and Senators were headed to double overtime.
No one knows just when this game would end

Throughout my life, I wanted to attend a game like this. The more overtimes, the better! Regardless of who would end up winning, I knew I was witnessing a historic performance.
On the scoreboard above center ice, the start of the 2nd OT was reflected as "Period 5." It was a unique sight, and some players and fans alike were venturing into uncharted territory.

After two minutes of play in double OT, the game would be decided. A neutral zone turnover by Islanders' forward Oleg Kvasha game Ottawa a chance. Senators' forward Magnus Arvedson carried the puck into the Isles' zone and fired a shot toward the net. Standing in front of the goal crease was Todd White...who deflected the puck past Snow and into the net for the game-winner. For White, it was his 2nd goal of the game...and one of the biggest in his career.

Todd White tips the puck past Garth Snow for the game-winning goal

In an instant, Nassau Coliseum fell silent. Some dejectedly headed for the exits...while others stayed in their seats, staring blankly at the scoreboard that now said "Ottawa 3, Islanders 2." The game clock was now frozen, with 17:35 remaining in the "5th" period.

The momentum-crushing loss was too much for the Islanders to handle. The Senators took control of the series, ousting the Islanders in 5 games.

The top-seeded Senators eliminated the 8th-seeded Islanders in 5 games

To this day, I still slightly cringe when I hear the name "Todd White." That's the result of overtime playoff hockey...especially when a game requires multiple OT's. The hero's name is magnified, while the goat's role in the loss is embellished.

The next time you step into an arena for a playoff hockey game, plan ahead -- you never know how long you might be there.

Nowhere on the ticket did it say, "Prepare for a multi-OT game"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Philadelphia Story

Attending any professional sporting event can require a significant dedication of time and energy on one's part.

Going to two games on the same day is strictly a labor of love.

Let's play two in Philadelphia -- in different sports!

On April 18th, 2010, the "City of Brotherly Love" offered a unique opportunity -- a multi-sport doubleheader in the same complex. The Philadelphia Phillies, who were just getting into the flow of the MLB regular-season, were hosting the Florida Marlins that afternoon. During the evening, the Philadelphia Flyers would host the New Jersey Devils in Game 3 of their NHL Stanley Cup Playoff series.

The marathon sports Sunday would begin upon arriving at Citizens Bank Park that morning.

Under a seasonably cool, partly cloudy sky, some fans dressed in red, white and blue Phillies' gear were tailgating in the parking lot...preparing for the day-at-hand. Those who were planning on attending the Philly double-dip were relaxing and pacing themselves for a roughly 11-hour sports day. Others were partying it up and enjoying life.

The first leg of the doubleheader took place at Citizens Bank Park

Inside the ballpark, it was a typical day on the MLB calendar. Phillies' pitcher Joe Blanton, who was rehabbing from an oblique injury, threw in the fans who arrived early some up-close access to his craft.

Phillies' pitcher Joe Blanton throws a bullpen session before the game

On the field, both the Phillies and Marlins participated in batting practice...getting ready for the game and providing some souvenir baseballs for those who gathered beyond the outfield fence for home runs.

The Marlins' Hanley Ramirez takes batting practice

With lunchtime now at-hand, the smell of Philly cheesesteaks and barbecue filled the air in Ashburn Alley. Fans mingled in the area...with some buying food and drinks, and others taking pictures of their surroundings.

Ashburn Alley is a popular pre-game destination

While it appeared to be a typical baseball Sunday on the surface, some subtleties suggested that it was anything but that. On the opposite side of the Philadelphia Sports Complex parking lot, the Wachovia Center sat quietly...but in a few short hours, it would be filled with a playoff hockey atmosphere. Some fans at the Phillies' game were already prepared for the evening, dressed in Flyers' jerseys.

Fans arrive at Citizens Bank Park as the Wachovia Center sits quietly

On the Citizens Bank Park scoreboard, there were promotional updates for the Flyers' game. It was a revealing look at the cameraderie that exists between Philadelphia's sports teams. Rather than feeling pressure to compete against each other, there was a partnership among the franchises.

Cross-promotion between the Phillies and Flyers

The Phillies and Marlins were both off to decent starts in the 2010 season. The Phillies sported an 8-3 record, while the Marlins were 7-5. Still, there was an expectation among Phillies' fans that this would be their their team boasted a powerful lineup and solid pitching.

National League East foes go head-to-head

On this day, pitching would dominate in a typically offense-friendly ballpark. Two left-handers -- Nate Robertson for Florida, and Cole Hamels for Philadelphia -- went head-to-head.

Cole Hamels pitched brilliantly for Philadelphia

During this pitching staring contest, Hamels would blink first...allowing a solo home run to Marlins' 2nd baseman Dan Uggla that bounced off the left field foul pole in the 2nd inning. Aside from that, both pitchers were stellar...matching zeroes on the scoreboard, as I looked on from Section 421.

Nate Robertson held the Phillies scoreless

After receiving an RBI double from Uggla in the 9th inning, Marlins closer Leo Nunez shut the door on the Phillies' hopes. It was a 2-0 win for Florida, and many in the sold-out crowd of 45,405 were going home unhappy. For the others, it was time to look toward the Flyers for redemption.

The Marlins top the Phillies in the afternoon session

Back in the parking lot, the party would some fans tried to drown the sorrows of a Phillies' defeat. Those who were attending the hockey game were trading their Phillies' red for Flyers' orange-and-black, changing right at their cars.

Outside the Wachovia Center, there was a FanFest area for get people in the mood for playoff hockey. A band played while some kids and adults had their faces painted with Flyers' logos. Playoff merchandise was being sold, revealing some of the financial windfall that comes with a post-season appearance.

The Sunday sports marathon continues at the Wachovia Center

At the arena doors, orange t-shirts were handed out to everyone in attendance, intended to create an "orange crush" effect throughout the seating bowl.

The Flyers handed out t-shirts to all in attendance

On paper, the New Jersey Devils held the edge in this playoff matchup. Winning the Atlantic Division and clinching the Eastern Conference's #2 seed with 103 points, the Devils boasted one of the all-time greats in goal -- Martin Brodeur. They also featured some talented offensive players, such as Zach Parise and mid-season acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Devils and Flyers met in the playoffs for the 5th time

The Flyers needed every game of the regular-season to even qualify for the playoffs...defeating the New York Rangers in a shootout to qualify as the #7 seed in the East. The Flyers' goaltending was a question mark, with a combination of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton between the pipes. Still, with gritty players like Chris Pronger and Mike Richards, in addition to scorers such as Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne...Philadelphia was determined to make its mark in the post-season.

The atmosphere inside the Wachovia Center was so much different from that across the parking lot. The crowd at Citizens Bank Park, while passionate for their Phillies, had a laid-back, "it's only April" attitude...knowing that a long regular-season still awaited.

A sea of orange inside the Wachovia Center

For the Flyers, it was the pivotal Game 3 in a series that was tied 1-1. The winner of this contest would potentially have momentum for the rest of the series. That intensity was reflected in the audience, with loud "Let's go Flyers" chants buzzing throughout the arena.

Philadelphia fans were ready for this key playoff matchup

The crowd erupted into cheers when the Flyers broke out a post-season tradition before the game. Instead of singing the "Star-Spangled Banner," the players and fans stood for "God Bless America." On this night, Lauren Hart -- daughter of the late, longtime Flyers' broadcaster Gene Hart -- performed a "duet" with the recorded image of the late Kate Smith, who sang at many important Flyers' games during the 1970s.

Lauren Hart and Kate Smith's image perform "God Bless America"

As the game got underway, an above-capacity crowd of 19,957 watched intently. When Devils' winger Brian Rolston scored a power play goal roughly 7-minutes into the game, putting New Jersey up 1-0, the Philadelphia crowd let loose one of its famous "boos."

The Devils struck first

Those boos would turn to cheers a minute-and-a-half later, as Flyers' winger Claude Giroux scored a power play goal of his own to tie the game. Many of the orange-clad Philadelphia fans high-fived and hugged, as the players did the same.

The Flyers immediately responded with a goal of their own

The intensity of the Flyers-Devils rivalry just added to the playoff atmosphere. Only a 90-mile New Jersey Turnpike drive between Philadelphia and Newark separated these teams' arenas. Year-round bragging rights would go to the series winner, giving fans another incentive to cheer along.

The I-95 rivalry is alive and well

During the course of the game, Philadelphia and New Jersey would unleash bone-rattling body checks on each other. Players would dive for pucks, trying to sustain or relieve offensive pressure. Every Brodeur save was greeted with an "Ahhhhh" from the crowd, every save by Brian Boucher would receive a "Booosh" chant.

Brian Boucher makes a glove save

The Flyers and Devils would trade goals in the 2nd period, making it a 2-2 game as 20 minutes remained in regulation.

In the 3rd period, the tension inside the Wachovia Center mounted. Every shot, every save, every check and every penalty took on extra significance. The ice was tilted in Philadelphia's favor, outshooting the Devils 12-3. Some of the scoring chances resulted in spectacular saves by Brodeur, leaving Flyers' fans to wonder if they would get any more pucks past the future Hall-of-Famer.

Martin Brodeur made some amazing saves to keep the game tied

As the horn sounded to end the 3rd period, the score was still 2-2. Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the Flyers and Devils was headed to sudden-death overtime. Whoever scores next would win and take control of the series.

The sign on the scoreboard says it all

The teams switched sides for the overtime period, but the ice remained tilted for the Flyers. Their sustained pressure led to a Devils' penalty by David Clarkson at the 1:30 mark of OT, giving Philadelphia an all-important manpower advantage on the ice.

The Flyers go on the offensive during overtime

While the Flyers would not score during the power play, the scoring opportunities continued as Clarkson exited the penalty box. Forward Mike Richards was at the left side of the goal, trying to chip the puck past Brodeur. Suddenly, the puck trickled across the front of the crease. At the goalmouth was Flyers' winger Dan Carcillo, more known for his fisticuffs than his scoring touch. But in the blink of an eye, Carcillo became an unlikely playoff hero, stuffing the puck into the net for the game-winning OT goal!

The Flyers win in sudden-death OT

As the Flyers mobbed Carcillo in celebration, the fans in Section 220 and elsewhere inside the Wachovia Center celebrated wildly. Screams, cheers and hugs were commonplace. Only a few scattered Devils' fans would glumly head for the exits, enduring taunts from some Philly fans along the way.

Philly fans send their message to the Devils

Philadelphia now led the best-of-7 series by a 2-games-to-1 margin. The momentum from this game would benefit the Flyers, eventually eliminating the Devils in 5 games as part of their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Flyers' playoff hopes received a big boost from this game

It was a memorable Sunday in Philadelphia. It started at Citizens Bank Park at roughly 11 am. One baseball game and one hockey game later, it concluded at the Wachovia Center at around 10 pm.

The end of a long, but memorable day

While doubleheaders are not all that uncommon, they usually involve the same sport. Being able to experience a professional baseball and hockey game in the same day -- and in the same sports complex -- required a perfect alignment of the stars.

I guess it's true that "timing is everything."

Two events -- one day -- one sports complex

Thursday, April 14, 2011

For Openers

Opening Day -- two words that can bring hope, joy and comfort to any baseball fan.

After a long winter in which Mother Nature left her mark across much of North America, it's time to play ball once again. Regardless of the expectations that exist for the season, positive or negative, Opening Day represents a homecoming -- a chance for fans to welcome back their team.

Hope springs eternal -- even on chilly, gray days

On Opening Day, pre-game nuances seemingly take precedence over the actual game itself. Some traditions are renewed, while others are born. It's a day of "firsts," both on and off the field. It's the 1st game, the 1st pitch, the 1st ballpark beer, etc.

Friday, April 8th marked the 50th home opener in New York Mets' history. After starting the season on the road in Florida and Philadelphia, the 3-3 Mets set foot inside Citi Field for the 1st time in 2011...eager to put a tumultuous off-season behind them.

Some Mets' fans have mixed feelings about the upcoming season

The party in Flushing started hours before the Mets would take the playing field.

Beneath an overcast sky in the parking lot, fans dressed in combinations of blue, orange and black. The 42-degree temperature seemed more appropriate for a football game, rather than baseball. Still, it was a festive atmosphere.

Opening Day draws just about everyone to the ballpark

Some people held pre-game tailgating sessions...allowing the aroma of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers to fill the air.

A father and son have a pre-game catch

Elsewhere, fathers and sons played catch together...while others wandered around the ballpark exterior, taking in the Opening Day sights and sounds.

Once the gates opened, thousands entered Citi Field through the ballpark's main entrance, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. As fans collected their Mr. Met bobblehead giveaway item, many then scattered to different areas of the park.

The Jackie Robinson Rotunda was a busy place on this afternoon

Everywhere you looked, there were reminders of this special day in the season. Opening Day logos and graphics were proudly displayed on the main scoreboards, as well as the accompanying electronic message boards. On the field, "Opening Weekend" logos were painted into the grass near the Mets' and Nationals' dugout.

Opening Day has its own logo

My favorite reminder, however, is the bunting that surrounded the field. There's just something about those red, white and blue half-circles that make an event seem more important. The patriotic fabric hung from every level in the seating area. It is a baseball tradition that has spanned decades.

Celebratory bunting surrounded Citi Field

Another tradition that has lasted throughout the Mets' history is the Opening Day floral arrangement, which is presented to the team's manager before the beginning of every season. The blue-and-orange flowers are in the shape of a horseshoe, to represent good luck during the upcoming year.

On this day, new Mets' manager Terry Collins received the gift from a family that is synonymous with the franchise's existence. Members of the Shea family took part in the ceremony, maintaining the Mets' connection to the late Bill Shea, the New York lawyer responsible for bringing the team into the Major Leagues in 1962.

Mets' manager Terry Collins and Shea family members with the floral horseshoe

Next, it was time for another Opening Day tradition. Each team's entire roster -- from the starting lineup, all the way through the equipment managers -- are announced and brought onto the field. The Nationals, in their gray uniforms with navy blue, red and white trim, occupied the 3rd base line. The Mets, wearing their off-white pinstriped uniforms with blue-and-orange trim, set foot along the 1st base line.

The Mets and Nationals line up on the field for pre-game intros

With the Star-Spangled Banner about to take place, military service men and women walked a gigantic American flag across the outfield. Between the flag, and the players who were lined up along the was a moment that illustrated baseball as still being part of the national pastime.

A giant American flag makes its presence for the Star-Spangled Banner

Next, the Mets looked to their past to lead them into the future. Throwing out the ceremonial 1st pitch was Ralph Kiner, a Hall-of-Fame player who had been a member of the Mets' broadcast team since the franchise's inception. He had been a part of the Mets' 49 previous home the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium and Citi Field. Kiner's throw would reach former Met and current coach Mookie Wilson on the fly, drawing a loud ovation from the sold-out crowd of 41,075.

Ralph Kiner throws a strike to Mookie Wilson

After all of the pre-game pomp and pageantry, the Mets would take the field as the home team for the 1st time in 2011.

The Mets take the field

R.A. Dickey would get the game started for New York, delivering the 1st pitch among a sea of flashbulbs to Nationals' shortstop Ian Desmond. A fly-out to the warning track, and the Mets' season at Citi Field was underway.

R.A. Dickey throws the 1st pitch at Citi Field in 2011

For many of the players, most of the Opening Day butterflies dissipate once the game gets started. The pitchers pitch, the hitters hit, the statistics count. It becomes just another contest in a 162-game marathon.

Eventually, it turns into a normal baseball game

As I watched from Section 516, the Nationals would get the better of the Mets, winning 6-2. Fireballing 24-year-old Jordan Zimmermann outpitched the knuckleballer Dickey, and knocked in the 1st two runs of the game with a bloop single to right field in the 2nd inning.

Mets' fans hoped for a better Opening Day result

While Mets' fans left Citi Field disappointed in the game's result, there was still that comfort that baseball was back for yet another year. Day-in and day-out for roughly the next six months, the Mets will take the field -- both at home and on the road. It's the only professional sport where there is that constant daily presence, giving the fans an extra connection with their team and its players.

Opening Day is not about the game, but rather a celebration of the sport itself. Baseball dates back to at least the 1800s...and while the rules, teams and players have changed over the years, its fundamental aspects remain roughly the same.

Welcome back!

Back for another baseball season