We’re into the rum rations now, and I’ve got this nagging feeling that I’m coming down with Stanley Cup fever. I’m fiending for yet another crack at the Bruins after Montreal played their cardiac role to perfection in getting all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Flyers. But there’s more to it than just the rivalry at stake.
Every year we get the joy of watching underdogs rise up and hold their own on sheets of ice across North America. It is a thrill that is by no means exclusive to the NHL, but there is an electricity that accompanies playoff hockey that can hardly be matched by any other North American sport. (And this is coming from the guy who watched his beloved Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl XLV just a few months ago!)
No, there is something about the NHL that is like Nigel Tufnel’s amps — while everyone else is playing at ten on their amplifiers, hockey’s amp goes to eleven. Everything intensifies upon what is already one of the most intense regular seasons in professional sports. No longer does a shootout decide games… no, hockey goes overtime after painstaking overtime, deep into the wee hours of the morning, until a winner emerges each time out.
This time around, my favorite teams are as far at opposite ends of the spectrum as they are positioned on the continent. Montreal, locked in their 33rd playoff series all-time with their divisional rival in Boston, were a better defensive team this season than the one that upset Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the conference finals against Philadelphia… yet they still showed remarkable lack of a flair for the kill when it comes to offensive might. Vancouver, meanwhile, opens this playoff campaign in its 40th anniversary season as the toast of the NHL. As the only team to eclipse the 50-win plateau this season (and handily at that, with a 54-19-9 record) the Canucks were also the best offensively (262 goals scored) and defensively (185 goals against).
I’ll be picking both to advance out of the first round, along with Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference and Detroit, San Jose and Nashville in the Western Conference. Be sure to catch all the Cup action you can, because the fever is spreading…
… but beyond the icy environs of the hockey rink, there have been a slew of underdog stories this past week as we enter the heart of spring proper. From the rough roads of northern France to the rare sight of clay-court tennis in the United States, a surprise team on fire in Formula 1 to an unexpected entrant amongst the final four in the UEFA Champions League, we’ve got tons we can talk about this week. So like a skater on a line change, let’s hop on over the boards and headhunt our way Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken-style through the neutral zone and dive right on the offensive to tackle all the issues in this week’s edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America…
FLEMISH AFTERTHOUGHT UPSTAGES FAVORITES IN ROUBAIX…
Had you asked a hundred cycling fans before this past Sunday in Hell on the pavé of Paris-Roubaix which Flemish rider’s chances of victory they favored best, there might possibly have been one or two people who decided to go out on a limb and name a rider like Vacansoleil’s Stijn Devolder (two-time winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and 7th in 2008 Paris-Roubaix) or Katusha’s Leif Hoste (three times the runner-up at the Ronde and a disqualified runner-up at Roubaix in the infamous 2006 train crossing incident that saw the first three finishers struck from the official results for crossing at a closed gate). More likely, though, they would have said two words: Tom Boonen.
The current incarnation of the Belgian king of the cobbles, Quick Step’s Boonen came to Compiègne for the start of this year’s race with three Roubaix titles already to his name along with two victories in his native Flanders at the Ronde. Fabian Cancellara broke his streak last season when the Swissman completed his Flanders-Roubaix double, but even having reached the age of 30 Boonen still came to the race as a top-shelf favorite for victory once 258 kilometers (160.3 miles) had passed behind them and the velodrome came into sight at the other end.
But it was not meant to be. Boonen was felled by a mechanical failure in the treacherous Arenberg Forest section of cobblestones, where a wait for a bike change on the narrow roads that allow for no automobile passage while the peloton is present has killed many a dream before. The difference this time, though, was that no rider had previously been in the situation of sitting in that centuries-old stretch of entrenched roadway while trying for a record-tying fourth title. Boonen, hunting Roger de Vlaeminck and the standard-bearer for the Belgian hard men, once again failed to claim his fourth cobble-chunk trophy on Sunday on those hellish surfaces that only a masochist could deign to use for racing purposes
The cobblestones always render their own judgments, wreaking havoc on even the most threatening of riders when they feel so inclined. It has led to some memorable results over the years, but few can match the bravado that was revealed as this race unfolded. It all started swiftly, with the first half of the course spent traveling at a record pace for the first few hours on the smooth roads north. Riders seemed almost anxious to begin their suffering on the old farm trails that race organizers constantly sniff out to increase their physical agony and mental anguish.
A lead group of eight — David Boucher (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Martin Elmiger (AG2R), Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun), Maarten Tjalingii (Rabobank), Mitchell Docker (Skil-Shimano), Nelson Oliveira (Radioshack), David Veilleux (Europcar) and Timon Seubert (Netapp) — had a ninety-second gap when they hit the first section of cobblestones at Troisvilles à Inchy.
We got our first serious glimpse of the unlikely victor of the race when the lead group was bridged and then culled into a pack riding tenstrong into the Arenberg Forest. Lars Boom (Rabobank), Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Cervélo), Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank-Sungard), Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad), Matthew Hayman (Sky), Manuel Quinziato (BMC) and 1997 Paris-Roubaix champion Fréderic Guesdon (FDJ) had a minute’s gap on the first chase group of seven as they hit the hallowed stretch of cobbles that had defined so many races.
Boonen would be irrevocably delayed here. But things weren’t all easy for Johan Van Summeren, either. With around seventy kilometers left to race, he and Roelandts hit the deck but soon caught back up to the leaders. The seven chasers from behind ended up catching the group, while behind a fierce battle was waged between the favorites as some had teammates up the road and others were without that tactical luxury.
One by one the riders whittled away under the pace until, with less than twenty kilometers to go and the just-as-infamous Camphin-en-Pévèle sector of cobbles in their sights, there were just four riders off the front still. Van Summeren rode like a man possessed; nothing seemingly could have stopped him from gaining the finish line. Less than ten miles remained and the others around him were fading away and finally he hit the accelerator and nobody matched the intensity.
Well… almost nobody, that is. Behind in the main chase group with all the favorites, Fabian Cancellara was stewing. The defending champion was being saddled with a bunch of albatrosses. Thor Hushovd had come to Paris-Roubaix to earn another skin for his own hide — but he was compelled to sit on the wheel of the Swiss star and keep things neat and tidy for his teammate up the road. Cancellara would eventually break the bonds, navigating through Mons-en-Pévèle to springboard as he did back in 2006 when he won his first Roubaix title. But despite passing seemingly everyone, he could not pass one rider.
Van Summeren rode in solo, on a rapidly-flattening rear wheel, to the applause of the rapturous croud in the Roubaix velodrome. Less than twenty seconds behind, Cancellara would prove he had made up the gap by taking second place after an astounding solo effort. But honestly… we really shouldn’t have been this surprised about this year’s champion.
Yes, Johan Van Summeren failed to finish the race last season, a story that conveniently lines up as a “worst-to-first” tale that every sports word-jockey salivates over as they craft leads and headlines in their minds immediately upon hearing such juicy nuggets of filler. But in reality he has been an up-and-coming rider who was eighth in the 2008 edition of the race and had reached top-five status in the 2009 race. At 30 he is just as experienced and capable of victory as his more highly-touted Flemish compatriot contemporaries, the same age as Boonen and younger than either Hoste or Devolder.
Ultimately a quality rider finished the ride of his life with the perfect result. This is hardly a case like Nick Nuyens winning the race in the Ronde with absolutely no precedent or career trend to foretell such a conclusion. Van Summeren slid his name into the annals of his country’s history of dominating their southern sister’s riders at their own race by doing what every strong rider does on their way to a victory — pressing hard, remaining tactically sound, biding his time and giving the necessary bursts when most beneficial to the cause. While Cinderella might be too much to call this result, it was certainly still an upset in every appreciable sense. An upset, indeed, but also a revelation about a rider who finally had his breakthrough two months after turning 30…
VETTEL THE WINNER BUT NOT THE STORY IN MALAYSIA…
The second race of the 2011 Formula 1 season saw fast young German (and defending world champion) Sebastian Vettel earning every one of the comparisons that some have started to make with the great Michael Schumacher himself. At Sepang, Vettel gets his second straight win to open the season… with credit to Adrian Newey and his crew for creating what has proven so far to be an unbeatable RB7 chassis. Even without their KERS flywheel power-boosting system working right, the Red Bull team’s technology has proven so aerodynamically superior to every other team that it has been a non-factor through the Australasian swing of the spring campaign.
We’ve seen that machinery put to perfect use by Vettel to this point, and his teammate Mark Webber sits fourth in the standings after showing tremendous poise to recover for fourth in Malaysia after getting fifth in Melbourne to start the season. Clearly Newey has separated this team from the field, and it is only the fact that McLaren’s KERS is operational that has kept the British outfit anywhere near the Red Bull car. At this point Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton — the 2009 and 2008 world champions respectively — sit 2-3 in the drivers’ standings and have McLaren positioned in second in the manufacturers’ race.
But the real story is neither of these teams, nor any of their four incredibly talented drivers. Nor is the story about Ferrari. The standings may say that the flagging Italian outfit is the third-best team in the field, but the eye test says they are chasing after more than merely McLaren and Red Bull. Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa are sitting 5-6 in the standings at the moment, good enough to plug Ferrari into a distant fourth, but the real story is the team nipping at their heels and stealing their podium placings amongst the big boys.
For the second straight race, Ferrari found itself failing to represent on the podium. For the second straight race, it was not the Italians but the “French” squad Renault (which as of this year is now registered as a British outfit since their merger with Lotus) that nabbed the third-place spot, those crumbs left after Vettel has taken the top step and McLaren’s two drivers have split runner-up spots in successive placings. And while Massa and Alonso have managed to finish in the points in both races, neither has been able to surpass the best that Renault’s two drivers have brought to Melbourne and Sepang.
First, two weeks ago, it was Vitaly Petrov scoring his first career Formula 1 podium when he finished behind Vettel and Hamilton in Australia. Yet everyone had their doubts, assuming it was a fluke. Perhaps, it was reasoned, Petrov had merely managed to surprise the favorites while they were watching for his teammate Nick Heidfeld, who everyone had presumed to be the number-one driver in the French squad’s stable after Robert Kubica was injured before the season.
But it is far more than merely one driver’s jackpot. Renault, if you don’t recall, has been atop the manufacturers’ standings as recently as 2006 when Fernando Alonso won his second consecutive world championship. The most telling fact that shows this team might just be in position to pip the Ferraris and McLarens of the F1 world yet again, though? The Renault RS27 V8 engine, the same motor propelling Vettel and Webber in the Red Bull cars, is what’s getting Petrov and Heidfeld around the track as well. While the team has not yet acquired the aerodynamic sophistication of Newey’s team, they nevertheless are on the right track back toward prominence.
And Petrov’s victory was proved anything but a fluke when Heidfeld landed his own podium spot, the fifth of his career, surviving a late surge by Webber to hold off the second Red Bull car and land his team another fifteen points toward the manufacturers’ competition. After Button won the 2009 championship with Ross Brawn at what is now Mercedes, I assumed that they would be the team that would provide the greatest dark-horse challenge to the hegemony of the big three in the field. But with Schumacher and Nico Rosberg floundering in Brawn’s offerings, it now looks like new Renault technical director James Allison is going to be the one to push Newey and Aldo Costa and the McLaren braintrust in this season and those ahead.
The sport is better for the spread of technical expertise. The greater the weakest link in a field, after all, the better the overall competition will be. And with the middle-class citizens of Formula 1 edging closer to greatness, the season is sure to take us through at least as many twists and turns in the plot as we’ve experienced the past few seasons. After all, who would’ve thought that Renault would already have two podiums?
THE LITTLE GERMAN CLUB THAT COULD (UPSET THE CHAMPS)…
As the top eight clubs in Europe whittled themselves down to the final four, we were treated by the draw with a semifinal matchup that pits Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid against one another. Slated to square off four times in eighteen days in league play, the Copa del Rey final and their two legs of their showdown in the UEFA Champions League semifinals, the two clubs guarantee La Liga a place in the championship match opposite either Manchester United or Schalke. The center of the soccer universe will be Spanish for the next three weeks as the two Goliaths duel to the finish line.
It is enough to drown out the conversation about that other semifinal pairing. The smart money says Manchester will prevail, but we can never forget that Schalke were the giant-killers who took out defending champs Inter Milan… and Raúl would love nothing more than to get a matchup against old club Real in the final if it can work out that way.
In a feat even more impressive than the night in 1997 when they beat the very same Italian club to win their first-ever European hardware in club history, Schalke dominated Inter 5-2 in the San Siro before returning home to Gelsenkirchen and winning the second leg 2-1. Along the way, the German side showed just how different their opponents truly looked compared to the well-oiled machine that knocked off Bavarian squad Bayern Munich in last year’s final. Raúl got what proved to be the game-winner in the 53rd minute of the first leg, and then followed the performance with the first goal of the match at home to pace his squad to victory with anything but complacence after the previous drubbing.
While all of the other three semifinalists have been here and done that before, Schalke is in uncharted territory. Only once before had the club even been in the quarterfinals, when they lost to Barcelona at that stage in 2008. But at least one thing is going in their favor, if you like to look at quirky statistics as I do. Quite simply put, they have the benefit of toppling the king in their favor.
Each of the past two years, the defending champion has been knocked out of the tournament… by the eventual champion. Barcelona won in 2009, defeating 2008 winner Manchester United in the final. Last year Inter Milan kept Barcelona from trying to repeat as champs when they wrested away the crown at the semifinal stage. And now Schalke has their chance to be the third in a row…
Is it just crazy talk, predicting results in such manner? It is no more crazy than you might have accused me of being had I told you a month ago that Schalke would soundly defeat Inter by a four-goal differential over two legs. Nothing is crazy… there’s no need to fear. As long as you keep searching around and keeping tuned into the wider world of sports out there, Underdog will always be here…