Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

High School Basketball Featurette (December 2012). Courtesy of the City of O’Fallon, Communications Department

 

Blues Must Keep Pace

Jaroslav Halak stretches prior to a game (Mark buckner/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – The St. Louis Blues are in first place in the National Hockey League (tied with the New York Rangers) after their 45th game for the first time since 2000.  But they know it’s not time to let off the gas.  One bad week and they could be out of the playoffs.  That’s how the NHL goes these days.  Teams can’t just grab the first place spot and ride into the playoffs on cruise control anymore.  The NHL’s playoff scenario will be a fight to the end, and it’s a fight the Blues type of game is made for.

As of Tuesday, the Blues had 60 points, which was good for first place in the Western Conference.  Consider this, however – the ninth place team (Colorado Avalanche) had just ten fewer points (50).  The 12th place team (Calgary Flames) of a 15-team Conference had 47 points.  The Blues are on pace for about 109 points, but they have to keep the pace.

The Minnesota Wild are a perfect example of a good team having a bad week and falling out of the top spot in the standings.  The Blues got their first shootout win against the Wild on Saturday, January 14th, and the Wild found itself in eighth place in the Western Conference (as of Tuesday afternoon).  But the last time the two teams played, Minnesota was among the top three teams.  They just happened to have a bad couple weeks in between.  After the Wild’s 3-2 shootout win on the 19th of November against St. Louis, they went 8-2 in their next ten.  Then the bad stretch happened.  The Wild went 2-9-3 in their next couple weeks, relegating them to the middle of the pack.  They just couldn’t keep the pace.

The Blues can’t fall into that trap.  Luckily, they have a coach, Ken Hitchcock, who won’t let his team get complacent.  He’s also noticed how his team reacts to the pressure of playing the best teams.  “We’re willing to work for our chances,” Hitchcock said last week.  “This is a real competitive group right now.”

With puckmaster Alex Steen and the slippery Andy McDonald out of the lineup, two potent offensive weapons, the Blues aren’t exactly scoring in bunches.  But the team is playing a great team game.  Hitchcock knows Steen’s and McDonald’s presence and imminent return will change things dramatically, but his team has shown a lot about themselves by winning without that offensive punch.  Hitchcock said, “Even when Steener (Alex Steen) was out and with (Andy) McDonald out, we’re still competitive as heck; and we’re a different lineup with them in.”

This is a young Blues team, a nucleus with very little if at all playoff experience.  That’s why General Manager Doug Armstrong added vets such as Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner.  They have contributed a lot of toughness and a bit of scoring, as well.  But they might have supplied the kind of hardhat, professional attitude that the youngsters have absorbed.  If nothing else, the Blues are reacting to their success very well.  They’re not changing their plan because they’re among the best teams in the NHL.  Hitchcock uses the matchups against top teams as measuring sticks for his team.  “We respond well when we’re a little bit scared,” he said.  “If you don’t play well against teams like Vancouver and Detroit, you’re gonna get blitzed.  So we play our best hockey whenever we’re feeling like that.”

Blues fans hope so.  One bad week or two could have the Blues looking up at the standings wondering why they couldn’t keep the pace.

 

NEXT UP

The Blues (27-12-6) host the Edmonton Oilers (17-23-4) at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri Thursday night.  Loaded with young stars, the Oilers have been struggling lately – 2-7-1 in their last ten.  Game time Thursday is 7:00 CST.

 

INTO THE BLUE

  • The Blues are 27th (before Tuesday’s games) in the NHL in power play efficiency, going 22-for-160 (13.8%).  The Blues’ penalty killing units have allowed 27 goals in 155 (82.6%) shorthanded situations (15th before Tuesday’s games).
  • The Blues have allowed the second fewest goals per game (1.98) and the fewest shots per game (26.3).  The Blues are third in the NHL with a 1.44 ratio when playing five-on-five.
  • Alex Steen is still sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, as is Andy McDonald.  Steen could return Thursday; McDonald is skating in practice with a “no-contact” jersey.  Defenseman Kent Huskins (fractured foot) is also skating in practice, but no return date has been set.

 

Brian Elliott makes a save (Buckner/Getty)

 

Copyright© 2012 Missouri Sports Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

All team and league logos are properties of their respective leagues, teams, ownership groups and/or organizations.  Pictures property of Getty Images.

The Blues are Doing it Right

For more from this author, visit www.missourisportsmag.com.

TJ Oshie in Pregame (Mark Buckner/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – You’ve probably heard several times over the last week that St. Louis Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock is the longest tenured coach in St. Louis professional sports.  Tony La Russa retired from the Cardinals and Steve Spagnuolo was fired by the Rams, leaving “Hitch” as the coach who’s been in St. Louis the longest.  He laughs about that fact, but he’s not laughing about the team he coaches.  With a dominant 4-0 win Saturday night against one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League – the Colorado Avalanche (9-1-0 in the ten games preceding Saturday) – the Blues moved into first place in the Central Division, and second in the Western Conference.  Considering the teams they leapfrogged, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings (who play each other Sunday night), the NHL is finding out that the Blues are no laughing matter.  They’re doing it right.

The franchise was collapsing under previous ownership – ever since the Blues traded Norris Trophy winning defenseman Chris Pronger (like him or hate him) the team has been a bottom feeder.  They’ve made the playoffs just once since then, a 4-0 sweep in the first round.  But then a guy named John Davidson came to town.

The Blues made Davidson the President of Hockey Operations, and things have improved ever since.  Davidson changed the attitude of the franchise.  He brought in some bright management people – such as wisely bringing the great Al MacInnis aboard as VP of Hockey Operations.  Jarmo Kekäläinen (who moved back to his native Finland) set the stage for what we’re seeing on the ice with some excellent drafting.  Bill Armstrong also was instrumental in the strong player development since 2004 – and it was no surprise he took over the team’s drafting.  The Blues brought in some great names as scouts, as well, and longtime Blues fans can’t help but crack a smile at some of the names – Rob DiMaio (pro scout), Basil McRae (part-time amateur scout), Rick Meagher (part-time amateur scout), Michel Picard (part-time amateur scout).

The result is a stockpile of talent.  Since 2004, the Blues have eleven draftees that are currently playing in the NHL – and many more who are on the cusp, such as Phil McRae and Ben Bishop.  Since 2005 (not counting developing first round picks from 2010 Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko), the Blues haven’t missed on a first round pick.   Every player drafted by the Blues in the first round between 2005 and 2009 are currently in the NHL, and five of those eight (TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Perron, Ian Cole and Alex Pietrangelo) are productive players on the team right now.  When it comes to scouting, the Blues are doing it right.

Blues Celebrate a Goal (Buckner/Getty)

So many ex-Blues have stayed with the team – most notably Bruce Affleck, who’s been a fixture with the team for decades.  Affleck is Vice President, Broadcasting and Blues Alumni.  He’s part of an alumni group that shows what Blues hockey is all about.  They are constantly seeking ways to help the community and grow the game of hockey in St. Louis.  The franchise should be extremely proud of what their ex-players do for the city.  The team has reached out to the community in many facets, with names you never hear despite their contributions such as Randy Girsch and Lamont Buford.  When it comes to the greater St. Louis community and having a group of alumni that develops the game in the city, the Blues are doing it right.

But let’s get back to the current Blues.  And if we do that, we have to talk about Doug Armstrong.  Armstrong didn’t have much salary room to work with, but he signed the players the Blues needed to take the next step.  The depth he added to the team, supplementing what the Blues have done in drafts, gave the team the kind of roster that could get them back to the playoffs.  He didn’t just fix the roster to get back to the playoffs, though; he adjusted the roster to go deep in the playoffs.  Goaltender Brian Elliott has been a nice surprise, but the contributions of veteran forwards Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner have given the Blues an element they didn’t have – playoff experience.  Both have won Stanley Cups, and Arnott even scored the Cup-winning goal.  Before this previous offseason, the Blues were so young that the team parties should have been held at Chuckie Cheese.  After Armstrong was done adding experience, the Blues looked more like a championship team.  He added well over three hundred career playoff games to the roster, nearly tripling the amount of playoff games played by players on his team’s roster.  The attitude in the locker room changed.  The Blues went from a team that felt it could make the playoffs to a team that felt it could compete long into the NHL’s second season – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Armstrong’s work over the offseason is the biggest reason the Blues are doing it right.

The Blues didn’t take the NHL by storm, however.  They struggled around the .500 mark for the first month of the season.  The “maybe” attitude seemed to be returning.  Enter Ken Hitchcock.

Hitchcock simplified the game for the Blues; and the team’s record since he started with the team (18-5-5) really gives the team hope that they truly are a Cup contender.  The Blues brought in a coach with a Stanley Cup and over 500 career wins in Hitch, and his confidence and work ethic has infected the Blues.  Bringing in a winner such as Hitch is yet another reason the Blues are doing it right.

Finally, the Blues never take for granted the kind of fans they have.  Oshie, Perron, Hitchcock and others have praised the kind of lift they get when they play in front of the home crowd.  They know how much this town loves their Blues, and they know how much this town deserves a parade down Market Street with the team carrying the Cup.  They know it is time to dethrone the perennial contenders in the Western Conference.  And they must know they’re doing it right.

(Buckner/Getty Images)

NEXT UP

The Blues (24-12-5) head north to take on the Montreal Canadians (16-18-7) in Montreal, Quebec Tuesday night.  Game time Tuesday is early, 6:30 CST.

 

INTO THE BLUE

  • Blues first round pick Jaden Schwartz (14th overall, 2010) was Team Canada’s captain at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships.  Schwartz, 19, is currently second in scoring at Colorado College with 21 points (7g, 14a, +5) in 14 games.  His older brother, Rylan, is first in scoring on the team with 26 points (17g, 9a, +4) in 19 games.  Schwartz had two goals and three assists in six WJC games.
  • The Blues are 22nd (before Sunday’s games) in the NHL in power play efficiency, going 21-for-142 (14.8%).  The Blues’ penalty killing units have allowed 25 goals in 140 (82.1%) shorthanded situations (18th before Sunday’s games).
  • Rookie defenseman Cade Fairchild (4th round, 2007) was sent back to Peoria due to the return of defenseman Ian Cole from his three-game suspension.  In four games played, Fairchild had no points, one shot and a minus-1 plus/minus rating.
  • Alex Steen is still sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, as is Andy McDonald.  However, McDonald is skating in practice with a “no-contact” jersey.
  • Rugged forward Ryan Reaves returned from a hip injury on Saturday night.  He had just over eight minutes in ice time, and had 12 minutes in penalties.
  • Defenseman Kent Huskins (fractured foot) is skating in practice, but it will take time for him to get in a game.
  • The St. Louis Blues Alumni played the Lindenwood Lions ice hockey team (coached by former Blues defenseman Rick Zombo) in an exhibition game on January 8th.  The proceeds went to the Disabled Athletes Sports Association.

 

Copyright© 2012 Missouri Sports Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

All team and league logos are properties of their respective leagues, teams, ownership groups and/or organizations.

Three Rams Selected as Pro Bowl Alternates

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – The Rams will not have starting Pro Bowler this year, to the surprise of few.  However, DE Chris Long, MLB James Laurinaitis and RB Steven Jackson will serve as alternates.  The Rams haven’t had a starter in the NFL Pro Bowl since 2007 – wide receiver Torry Holt.  The Rams had three Pro Bowlers that year: Holt, QB Marc Bulger and RB Steven Jackson.

In 2008, Holt was the lone Rams representative.  The Rams had none in 2009.  Jackson was selected as an alternate, but did not play due to injury.

So even though things didn’t exactly work out for the Rams this year, if you’ll excuse the understatement, they had individual contributions from three players who truly deserved recognition.  Long, Laurinaitis and Jackson all had very good seasons despite a not very good season for the team.  Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo said “to me you get recognized in this league at all in the conversation of Pro Bowl I think is something we all ought to be proud of. The landscape, the way they have it now with the Pro Bowl before the Super Bowl, there’s a decent chance that one, two, three of those guys might find their way into the game.”

Steven Jackson (244 carries, 1069 yards, 5 TDs) needs no introduction; he has been the heart of the Rams for some time now.  Jackson’s seventh straight one thousand yard season puts him in the history books, but his one hundred yard rushing game against the Steelers in a lost cause shows how he isn’t history.  Jackson still has some great football in him, and hopefully the Rams will put a good enough team around him to make a run before it’s too late.

 

Long has had a breakout season.  The Rams were 16th in total sacks this year (36), but Long is tied for sixth in the NFL with 13.  He had one-third of the team’s sacks.  Long has become someone whom teams have to prepare for, and he’ll be the first to tell you he has room for improvement.  This is the beginning of a great career.

 

Laurinaitis is tied for fifth in the NFL in tackles this season, with 133.  He also has three sacks and nine pass deflections.  He had one interception on top of all that.  Laurinaitis is a team leader who knows the game as well as any middle linebacker in the game.  And this is only his third season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RAMS SECONDARY FINALLY CORNERED

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – It’s official – all five of the cornerbacks that the St. Louis Rams started the season with are gone for the season.  After Jerome Murphy, Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher all were put on the Injured Reserve, the Rams were left with veteran Al Harris and young corner Justin King.  Then Harris fell, and King was the last man standing.  Finally, ailing with a bad shoulder after fighting through several minor injuries, King was shut down for the season.

Ron Bartell

This has been a punishing season for the Rams cornerbacks, with…11, 12…we lost count…cornerbacks going down for the season.  It’s where cornerbacks go to disappear.  ESPN’s Mike Tirico made a joke during the Rams Monday Night Football game against the Seattle Seahawks about how Justin King should go on the show “Survivor” because of how he’s survived the injury pandemic on the Rams roster.

You have to feel bad for the cornerbacks whose season has ended, but the guy you really must have sympathy for is Rams Defensive Coordinator Ken Flajole.  Whatever plans he had for his secondary went out the window when he had to tutor several new players not even on the Rams roster when the season began.  Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo, a master blitz planner, and Flajole have been limited as to who and how often they send blitzes because they’ve had to supplement the ailing secondary with extra linebackers and safeties playing pass defense.

Not many coaches, if any, can just sign a d-back and expect him to perform up to task in a complicated Spagnuolo/Flajole defense.  But that’s what the two defensive schemers had to do.  It is admirable how they have made the best of what they had every game.  “You know,” Flajole said last week, “we’ve had some freak injuries and some unexpected turns.”  But they just go back at it every week with new blood. “The guys that we’ll put in, they’ll go play hard and they’ll give it their best shot.”

Flajole further explained, “As you guys know this league is all about matchups and we spent a lot of time trying to find out if we can get guys in position where we don’t get a bad matchup in our mind, for us. Sometimes that’s not always doable, but we work on it. I think sometimes it forces you to play maybe more coverages, different types of two-deep coverages that you maybe weren’t planning on because you’re trying to make sure that you can hold up in the back end. But the young guys again, I take a guy like (CB) Josh Gordy, I know Josh is not going to get elected into the Hall of Fame but I would say this,  that kid has improved in my opinion more in the last three or four weeks since he’s been in it. I think he gets as much out of his God given ability as anybody does. And those are things you look for as a coach. If guys are getting better, that’s what you look for and I think you can hang your hat on it. I’m proud of a guy, (there are) other guys on our football team, but Josh Gordy comes to mind because we’re addressing the secondary and I think he’s done a marvelous job and I’m proud of him.”

Justin King

Even Gordy has had to fight through bumps and bruises – the fill-ins of the fill-ins have gotten hurt at cornerback this season.  But the good news is that the Rams have found a way to – for the most part – get things done.  The future at cornerback doesn’t look as tragic because of how some newbies have played.  Rod Hood, for instance, certainly hasn’t embarrassed himself out there.  Spagnuolo said about Hood’s play on Saturday, “He was very productive. He broke up, certainly the pass on our sideline, then they went to throw a rocket screen, tackled him for a negative play. Supported really well on a run play, backside. Like I just said, chased the ball carrier down on that one play and gave us a chance to line up in red zone goal line. Who knows you hold them to a field goal there, I think they scored right on the next play, but you’re always looking to line up and play the next defensive play and keep them out of the end zone. He had a good game.”

Nate Ness and Chris Smith have contributed, as well.  Spagnuolo said “those guys have been scrambling learning-wise, obviously. But Nate’s been here a little bit and Chris has gotten some reps here since Gordy hasn’t been in there and Nate’s kind of sprinkled in. Right now we’re relying on those two guys to help us on special teams. That’s where they’ve got to surface for us. It’s a scramble for them. The coaches are trying to get them up to speed and they’re trying to get up to speed.”

With the NFL Draft already the talk of the St. Louis Rams fans, at least they can take solace in the fact that even if the Rams lose all five cornerbacks they start the season with, there are some guys who can still get the job done.  Justin King has played well enough to earn a sure spot on the team, and he was the fourth CB on the depth chart coming into preseason (if Al Harris was considered the fifth).  A position of drastic need this season might be one of the few positions they don’t have to worry about so much next year in the draft.

 

NEXT UP

The Rams (2-13) face the San Francisco 49ers (12-3) Sunday.  Game time is noon CST.

 

Copyright© 2011 Missouri Sports Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

All team and league logos are properties of their respective leagues, teams, ownership groups and/or organizations.

Jackson: “To Finish Out with One Team is Special”

Steven Jackson Still Honored to Be a Ram

For the original article and more, follow this link: http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=43192

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – The St. Louis Rams weren’t exactly the talk of the town over the past 48 hours, with St. Louis Cardinals legend Albert Pujols heading west to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  In fact, with sincere apologies to outstanding St. Louis Blues defenseman Barrett Jackman, Rams punter Donnie Jones might now be the best #5 in town.  Even Steven Jackson had some words about Pujols’ departure.  Jackson said, “I was a little disappointed for Cardinal Nation. He’s been a huge attraction for us for quite some time. He’s the reason why, one of the reasons, I can’t say the only, but one of the main reasons why I started following the Cardinals.  I was a huge fan and still am a huge fan of his. (It’s) a business decision; I think he made a business decision at the end of the day.”

Jackson has been in St. Louis since 2004, and couldn’t help but become part of Cardinal Nation, himself.  Being from Las Vegas, Nevada, Jackson wasn’t a big baseball fan prior to his St. Louis residence.  “I was not. It’s one thing about Las Vegas, you don’t have any real ties to any sports teams – you just watch the winners. Since I’ve been here the Cardinals have been some winners, so I’ve jumped on the bandwagon with that.”

And that contract Pujols got might make Jackson think twice about what sports he has his kids concentrate on. He said, “I tell my kids, ‘Anything with a round ball; no oval shaped balls.’ You can do pretty good in the round ball department. We check that off – Dad did the football, you guys do something else.”

The defection of the megastar from St. Louis has become more than a sideshow, overshadowing both a very exciting Blues team and the Rams making an appearance on the big stage of the NFL – Monday Night Football.  But the Rams aren’t letting this chance to rise above their troubles slip away.  “Honestly I don’t really listen to sports talk or anything else,” Jackson said. “On Monday night this is what we all hope, during the regular season you get a Monday night game and to put on a show for the nation and kind of propel yourself for the postseason. We’re not going to have a postseason, so this is our shot to show the nation what we’re trying to do here and what we’ve been building here over the last three years. Although we have our backs against the wall and some young guys playing or some guys that wouldn’t normally be playing in circumstances, this is also time for them to show off their talent too. It’s a stage that I think everyone looks forward to being on.”

It will be interesting to see how the Rams approach the game on Monday night.  Both Sam Bradford and A.J. Feeley were held out of practice so far this week, with ankle and thumb injuries respectively.  You’re thinking they should run 50 times, right?  Well, the offensive line injuries haven’t helped the run game excel.  “Well to answer that,” Jackson said, “I expect a big load every Sunday or Monday. Whoever is going to be the field general on that particular day I think he’ll be ready. I’m expecting that I’ll be a part of the game plan. I don’t know how much, but whenever my number is called, just try to go out there and execute to the best of my ability.”

Come on, Steven; what will it really take to make the run game work? “It’s not going to be easy,” he said, “but I think just getting me in a groove, getting me back in my groove that we were at about a month ago, continue to just get guys to focus in and hone in on different assignments. Once we get that into rhythm, it’s hard to catch your rhythm when guys are constantly rotating in and out of the lineup. If we could just get our core guys together for this last month of football and get into a rhythm, I think we’ll be able to put up a pretty good fight against these next four opponents.”

One thing is for certain – Jackson and the Rams will do everything they can to make their fans proud.  Though playoffs aren’t in the immediate future for the Rams, there is much more to play for.  “Well,” he said, “the first thing is you play for pride and then secondly the love of the game. You don’t want to turn on the film on Mondays or Tuesdays or whenever you’re doing a grade sheet and have guys questioning your heart or your love for the game. The passion that I try to display each and every Sunday, I hope that it fuels the guys around me, just be a lightning bolt for what to expect out of this team and out of this club. Anytime we hit the field I expect that we never give up and never throw in the towel.”

There’s something to be said about Jackson being a part of St. Louis sports for so long.  He’s been through some of the hardest years to be a Ram, and never made a public spectacle about wanting out.  In modern sports, with all the free agency opportunities to go to greener pastures, Jackson finds loyalty to be divine.  “To finish out with one team is special,” he said. “That particular franchise that gave birth to a dream and allowed you to live it out and be embraced by the community, so I would believe that he would have wanted to stay here and I think any athlete, whoever drafts you or signs you when you’re a young guy, you would love to finish with that particular team.”

And we’re proud and happy to have you, Steven.

Other players who were held out of practice were: DE Chris Long (ankle), RB Quinn Porter (abdomen), FB Brit Miller (knee) and DT Fred Robbins (back).  DE Eugene Sims (ankle) was limited and T Mark LeVoir (chest) progressed to full participation.

 

NEXT UP

The Rams (2-10) will have their rematch with the Seattle Seahawks (5-7) Monday night in Seattle, Washington.  Game time is 7:30pm CST.

Running to Punish – Jackson vs. Lynch

Just try and tackle Steven Jackson

This article can also be found on Missouri Sports Magazine: http://missourisportsmag.com/?author=17

St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson doesn’t just run the football to get yards; it looks like he runs the football to punish defenses.  Jackson runs the ball fast, but he also runs the ball hard.  If you’re a secondary player, the last thing you want to see is that Rams helmet and long hair sticking out the back, and a #39 jersey running full speed your way.  Just ask the last three teams the Rams have played – he’s run for 417 yards in the last three weeks.

Seattle Head Coach Pete Carroll said, “Yeah, he looks great, man. He looks great and it’s no coincidence that they’re 2-1 (in their last three games). They could have won another game too with him on the rise like this. He’s such a fantastic player. I’ve watched this guy and played against him for years, way back in college and all that. He’s always been the same guy that just…he’s the only guy you can see on the field when he’s playing. So, we’ve got our hands full with this. The fact that he’s stacked up three big games in a row and they’re getting their confidence and they’re roaring off the football, that doesn’t help us at all. It’s going to be tough.”

Jackson plays running back like a linebacker, and is now – despite missing time with a thigh injury – seventh in the league in rushing yards (707 yards, 88.4 average, 4 TDs) before Thursday night’s game.  And he’s done that without having more than two 40+ yard runs, meaning he’s banging those yards out.

But there’s another running back in the league that plays that same way, and he just happens to be in the same division as Jackson.  Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is a bruiser, himself.  Lynch has run for 244 yards in the last two weeks, and last week pounded out more than 100 yards against the second-best run defense in the league – the Cincinnati Bengals (86.8 run yards against per game).  After a slow start (507 yards on the season, 63.4 average, 5 TDs), he’s showing the kind of runner he can be.  Carroll said, “I think he’s just working with the guys. We’re all growing together at the same time kind of. Again, you can’t get any younger than these guys are, but they’re figuring it out. He’s hitting runs well as they give him the opportunities and we haven’t always been doing that. I think it’s just he’s taking advantage of their growth and the progress they’re making.”

Lynch breaks free from Baltimore's defense (AP/Ted S. Warren)

The Seahawks are trying to reinvent themselves as a running team.  Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said, “That’s what we’re hoping for. We want to be able to run the football whenever we feel, something that we can hang our hat on. The history that (Offensive Line/ Asst. Head) Coach (Tom) Cable has in the run game is pretty good, so we want to make sure we keep that going and we know that he knows what he’s doing. We’ve just got to trust him and the guys have been trusting him the last couple weeks and we’ve been doing a better job. We want to be able to run the football, then just do everything off the run.”

Carroll agreed, “You know, this is a very young (offensive) line and it’s taken us some time. I don’t think we’ve arrived by any sense, but we’re getting better and coming off the ball with more confidence. We’ve run the ball the last two weeks against two very difficult defenses in Dallas and Baltimore. We take that into account that those guys are about as physical of a style that you could play. One’s a 3-4 team, one’s a 4-3 team more so. So we’re getting better.”

Looking at the two backs you might give Steven Jackson the edge over Marshawn Lynch.  But the Seahawks have done well against the run this year, ranked 12th in the NFL with an average of 106.4 yards allowed per game.  They haven’t allowed a run longer than 40 yards all season long.  But they haven’t seen a banger like Jackson yet.

For the Rams, it’s been well-documented – they’re the worst run defense in the league statistically (150.6 yards allowed per game).  They’ve done much better the last few weeks; Chris Ogbonnaya’s 90 yards is the most they have allowed a runner since DeMarco Murray’s 253 yards in Week 7 for Dallas.  Pete Carroll thinks they’re underrated.  “Yeah,” Carroll said, “they had that game against Dallas that threw everything out of whack. All those yards went up and that day on the big runs. Listen, we know this is a good solid group that knows how to do the things on the line of scrimmage. This is a physical tough group that attacks the heck out of you. I think their numbers are skewed from that game in particular.”

Steven Jackson and Marshawn Lynch will go head-to-head this weekend in St. Louis.  Both teams are coming off big wins, ones they want to build off of.  And they’ll be counting on their punishing running backs to put their teams on their backs.

The Rams (2-7) come home Sunday to host the Seattle Seahawks (3-6) at 3:05 CST.

Hitchcock Takes Over the Blues

Ken Hitchcock with Jason Arnott and David Backes (Getty Image/Mark Buckner)

To see the original article from Missouri Sports Magazine, follow this link: http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=40651

ST. LOUIS, MO. (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – If you don’t think the St. Louis Blues are serious about winning, just ask Davis Payne.  If there’s an automatic positive out of the Blues relieving their head coach, Payne, of his duties, fans won’t have to put up with all the bad puns from sportswriters (and “House of Payne” puns from marketers).  There’s another positive: Payne’s replacement, Ken Hitchcock, is a winner.

My initial reaction upon hearing the news Sunday night of Payne’s release was “wow, the Blues aren’t messing around.”  They obviously want to reward their fans for continuing to support the team despite years of playoff absences.  Blues GM Doug Armstrong went out and added lots of playoff-experienced players such as Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner to supplement the young talent.  And now they added a coach with the same credibility.

The numbers don’t lie.  Hitchcock brings a career record of 534-350-88-70 (for a .588 winning percentage) to the Blues.  He won the Stanley Cup in 1999.  His teams have accrued more than 100 points in a season an astonishing eight times – and many of those were before the current procedure of shootout winners getting two points, instead of settling for a one-point tie.  Hitchcock has six division titles, as well as nine 40-win seasons.  Are you convinced yet?

Ok, chew on this, then.  When asked about what it will take to fix the Blues power play problems (last in the NHL), he said, “One practice.”  I got chills.

Davis Payne has given us some good hockey since taking over; he leaves the Blues with a 67-55-15 record (6-7-0 this year, with most of those games on the road).  At the age of 41, he was one of the youngest coaches in the league.  At age 59, Hitchcock is now the second-oldest coach in the league.  Age isn’t the end-all for a coach, but experience might be – especially in the playoffs.

Not that there was a lot of nonsense going on with Payne as coach, but a no-nonsense coach (Hitchcock) is exactly what a young team needs.  Former Blues star and Stanley Cup winner with Hitchcock’s ’99 Dallas Stars, Brett Hull, expressed that very sentiment.  Hey, if he got Hullie to change his game to fit his system, I would hope he can get the best out of players like Patrik Berglund, TJ Oshie, and Chris Stewart – who have underachieved at times this season.  Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets is a perfect example of a Hitchcock getting a young player to blossom under his tutelage.

Another aspect of Hitchcock is his ability to get the best out his goalies.  And if there’s anything the Blues need more, let me know.  Jaroslav Halak has been perhaps the biggest underachiever on the team.  True, the team hasn’t played its best in front of him, but we all know Halak is better than he has played.  Looking at some of the goalies that Hitchcock has worked with, they have had some of their best seasons under his system.

We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves; the Blues have a long season staring them in the face.  It will take time to really get things together for the new coach.  But five games in a row at home, along with six of their next seven, should give “Hitch” a chance to get organized.

At least he might be able to fix that blasted power play.  And at least he might be able to make the team serious about a playoff run.  The fans are serious, and now the Blues proved they’re just as serious.  It’s time to win.

From the Bleachers of Game 6 – A Personal Recollection of a Fan

Native St. Louisan, and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra said it best of Game 6, “Boy that was exciting.  I always say it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, but that one should’ve been over a while ago.”

To be honest, Yogi, the Cardinals season should’ve be over a while ago.  But, as Joe Buck said on the Game 6 telecast, the Cardinals “just won’t go away.”

When Game 6 of the 107th World Series was postponed, it sent several fans’ schedules into a tizzy.  Some people who could make it Wednesday, couldn’t on Thursday.  By someone else’s misfortune, this author was able to go.  I didn’t have to sit in the pressbox with all our venerable authors in St. Louis; I got to sit with the true fabric of the city – its far more venerable baseball fans in the bleachers.

Between the shirtless morons and the MC Hammer-type red pinstripe suits, there were the fans who’ve agonized with the team over last couple months as they’ve all but stopped our hearts.  While all those mentioned added to the fun, it was the fans who’ve never been to a World Series game in person that deserved the kind of game they saw.  It was the kind of game that requires the line score to truly make sense of what really happened.

In the bleachers there were no “Glee” actors leaving after the fourth inning.  In the bleachers there were no former heads of state.  In the bleachers there were diehards hell-bent on every pitch.  There were folks who just couldn’t sit down; personally, that worked better for me, as my legs would not stop shaking.  Because of my obvious nerves, my friend told me to remind him never to be in a foxhole with him.

I sat in section 527, a stone’s throw away from the “grassy knoll” in centerfield.  Behind me and to my right was a female with a great sign – “He told me I could have an engagement ring, or World Series Tickets.  I’m here!”

In the end, I’m pretty sure she made the right decision.  In fact, we’re all glad we were there – whether we were at the game, at a local establishment, or just at home with our families.  It was a game not easily forgotten.  If someone turned the play-by-play into a Hollywood script, the studio heads and critics would say it’s too unbelievable.  They’d say, “Rewrite it without the hometown boy going from the goat with two errors to hero with two comeback hits; that’s just silly, and would never happen.”

I’m not going to give you stats in this column; I’m only going to give you emotions.  To me, that’s what this game was about.  I sat with two of my best friends – neither of whom had ever experienced the World Series in person.  They couldn’t be more different.  One is the loudest jerk I ever heard at a sporting event – born in another city, St. Louis is now his home, and the Cardinals have been his team for years.  The other is the diehard baseball purist who lives and dies with every pitch and swing by his beloved Cardinals – born and raised in St. Louis, he’s known nothing other than cheering for the birds on the bat.

The loud jerk, as I’ll refer to him, was suddenly best friends with the fan next to him; it’s funny how a dramatic baseball game can bring complete strangers together like it did Thursday.  The diehard, as I’ll refer to him, was in his own baseball world – seemingly bothered when his friends interrupted his concentration.

The entire section went nuts when Lance Berkman’s homerun landed just a few feet away from my seat.  But no matter if you were the loud jerk or the diehard, the errors the Cardinals made as the Rangers took a lead buried our heads in our hands.  The Cardinals, though, just would not go away.

Fans in the section nearly turned on the loud jerk at one point.  David Freese had a pop fly hovering over him.  The loud jerk screamed, “Don’t drop it!”  As if Freese heard him from the bleachers, he did the opposite.  Fans turned to him in sheer anger, as if the loud jerk had dropped the ball himself.  Things looked bleak.  The diehard said, “We’re embarrassing the franchise in an elimination game.”  He later added, after Matt Holliday was picked off of third base with only one out, that the performance was “an abomination.”  He wasn’t alone.  Homers from Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz, followed by an RBI single by the impressive Ian Kinsler, turned the crowd to desperation.  The Cardinals, though, just would not go away.

This was erroneously reported before the Cards comeback

In the bottom of the seventh, hope was granted to the fans by Allen Craig.  “Torty”, nicknamed after his pet tortoise, hit a bomb to left field to bring the Cardinals back within two runs.

The Cardinals were down by two runs with three outs left to their season.  The flame-throwing Texas closer, Neftali Feliz, came in to give the Rangers their first-ever Championship.  The Ranger fans in our section had been vocal throughout the game.  They seemed to be quieter in the ninth.  It was as if they knew it wouldn’t be easy to end the season of the team whose season would never end.

Everyone was on their feet in Section 527.  If you weren’t standing, you weren’t alive.  The Cardinals needed to stay alive.  Feliz had two strikeouts in the inning, but had allowed a double to Albert Pujols and a walk to Lance Berkman.  Then the Hollywood script too unbelievable to even be a movie began to write itself.  David Freese had two strikes.  The Rangers were one strike away from a World Series title.  But the Cardinals just would not go away.  Freese blasted a triple off the wall over Nelson Cruz’s head, scoring Pujols and Berkman to tie the game.  The word “pandemonium” comes to mind when thinking back to our section.  The diehard traded his intense countenance for an ecstatic one.  The loud jerk was getting high fives and hugs from the fans who had given the look of death after the Freese error.  Me?  My legs were shaking even though I was standing – I didn’t know that was physically possible.

Then the tenth inning came around.  The Rangers made a statement about how great their ballclub really is.  They scored two more runs to make it 9-7 off a homer by the guy whose power was supposedly absent – Josh Hamilton.  Hope, once again, seemed to dissipate.  Fans looked to each other to commiserate their pain.  The Cardinals were three outs from having the season end.  The Cardinals, though, just won’t go away.

John Jay had been 0-for-16 in the World Series, but got his first hit of the Series in the eight.  In the tenth, those 16 at-bats without a hit were forgotten.  As far as Cardinals fans were concerned, Jay was 2-for-2 after he followed Daniel Descalso’s single with one of his own.  Kyle Lohse – a pitcher – bunted them over.  Ryan Theriot then drove Descalso in, and brought the Cardinals within one.  Hope…

The “Gray Bush”, “Big Puma”, “Extra-Medium Puma”, whatever you want to call him, Lance Berkman did it again.  He drove Jay in with a single to center, erupting 527 and the rest of the stadium with a single swing of the bat.  When he returned to the outfield, he was compelled to tip his cap to the fans that never stopped believing in their beloved ‘birds.

I don’t remember sitting down, at all, in the final innings.  I don’t remember the count.  I don’t remember how many outs there were.  What I do remember was David Freese at the plate.  “There’s no way he can do it again,” I thought.  Freese drove the ball to centerfield.  I became Mike Shannon, yelling, “Get up, baby; get up!”  For me, the ball seemed to stay up for an eternity.  And then it landed.  Just a few yards away from me, the ball landed in the “grassy knoll”.  Pandemonium?  No, that’s not good enough.  There’s no way to describe it in words.

I guess the only way to describe it is as Joe Buck did, “The Cardinals just won’t go away.”

And now it’s Game 7.  Two great clubs and two incredible sets of fans – Cardinals and Rangers fans – will be there.  No matter what happens, no one is a loser.  The two cities should be proud of their teams, and the way that diehards, loud jerks, and fans of all kinds for these teams (along with a sports writer with the night off) came together to make a mere sporting event a night to truly remember.

Oh, and Yogi?  We’re all glad it’s not over.

Rangers fans deserve better...

Jackson vs. Marcum Round 2

Edwin Jackson hopes to take the Cardinals to the World Series tonight

Link to the original article on Missouri Sports Magazine:  http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=38385

ST. LOUIS, MO. (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals took a 3-2 series lead on the Milwaukee Brewers – their 16th straight getaway game win.  The Cardinals beat the Brewers 7-1 in front of a crowd of 46,904 in St. Louis.

Now each team’s fate lies in the hands of two pitchers who wouldn’t be considered their “ace”.  The two pitchers faced each other in Game 2 of the NLCS, with the Cardinals winning 12-3.  Sunday is Round 2.

On Sunday, Cardinal RHP Edwin Jackson will get his third start of the postseason (1-0, 3.48 ERA).  Jackson was acquired by the Cardinals in July as part of a three-team trade with the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays.  Since becoming a Cardinal, Jackson solidified the rotation and allowed native St. Louisan Kyle McClellan (Hazelwood West High) to shore up the (at the time) ailing bullpen.  As a Cardinal, Jackson went 5-2, with a 3.58 ERA – and showed resiliency by getting out of jams.  In the playoffs, Jackson is 1-0 with a 3.48 ERA.  11 out of 14 times in taking the mound for the Cardinals, Jackson has allowed fewer than three runs.  In Game 2 in Milwaukee, Jackson went 4.1 innings, allowing 7 hits, 1 walk, and 2 earned runs.  Much like Garcia did early in Game 5, Jackson will need to keep the ball down in the strike zone.  He relies on his mid-90s four-seam fastball and hard slider.

Game 6 starter, Shaun Marcum, is 0-2 and has a 12.46 ERA in his two starts in the postseason.  For a team that has been applauded for their work at home this season (61-27 regular season and postseason combined), Shaun Marcum is the oddball – he actually pitched better on the road (8-3, 2.21 ERA).  Marcum was 5-4, with a 4.81 ERA at home in the regular season.  Marcum has given up 30 runs in his last 32 innings, and 12 runs in his last 8.2 innings.  The Brewers lost 12-3 in Marcum’s last start, Game 2 of the NLCS.  But he won 13 games in the regular season, and shouldn’t be underestimated.  Brewer manager Ron Roenicke said, “We expect a real good game from Shaun.”  Roenicke elaborated, saying, “The first two months of the season, he was probably our best pitcher.”  In April, Marcum was 3-1, with a 2.21 ERA.  Much like Randy Wolf did in Game 4, Marcum will need to get ahead in the count, change his speeds, and have command of his pitches.

In Game 5, Cardinal hitters had a good night at the plate (the first seven lineup spots all had hits), but the four errors by the Brewers might have made the difference.  The Cardinals bullpen was the real star of the game, shutting down the Brewers sluggers in 4.1 innings of work – allowing only two hits and one walk (all by RHP Lance Lynn).  The Cardinals went 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position; Milwaukee was 1-for-8.

“It’s a group effort,” Matt Holliday said of how his team just won’t let their season end.  “It’s never one guy.  We’ve just been finding ways to win, and hopefully we can find a way to win five more.”

In the NLCS, Cardinal starters have a 6.04 ERA in 22.1 innings pitched, while the bullpen pitchers have a 1.69 in 21.1 innings.  The Cardinals have a 3.99 ERA in the postseason, and have hit .279.  The Brewers have given up 5.38 ERA in the postseason, and have hit .258.

The Cardinals want to have another “happy flight” home.  The Brewers just don’t want to go home for offseason.

Game 6 is Sunday, 7:05 CDT, at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Former Cardinal Colby Rasmus (traded for Jackson) is wondering, "Dang, if only..."

Arnott’s Fountain of Youth

Jason Arnott celebrates a Blues goal he assisted on Oct. 10th (Mark Buckner/Getty Images)

Link to the original Missouri Sports Magazine article. http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=37943

ST. LOUIS, MO. (Missouri Sports Magazine) – Blues GM Doug Armstrong knew that if the team truly planned to make the playoffs this year, he had better add some players to the roster that have actually played in the playoffs.  So he added 343 career playoff games to the roster by adding Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Brian Elliot, and Kent Huskins.  Before the offseason, the entire Blues roster had only 131 career playoff games.

With experience, though, usually comes age.  The first player mentioned there, Arnott, turns 37 on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.  But he doesn’t look like he’s lost a step.  In the first two Blues games, Arnott has scored a goal in each, and added an assist in Monday’s afternoon matinee against the Calgary Flames.  His faceoff winning percentage has been off the charts, as well, at nearly 66 percent.  After having a down year offensively last season, Arnott is telling everyone he still has a lot of hockey left in him.

His new linemates, puck-master Alex Steen and gritty winger Matt D’Agostini are only making it easier for him to prove himself.  “They’re easy guys to play with,” Arnott said, underscoring how well Steen and D’Agostini have connected with him.  Steen set up Arnott’s first of the year on Saturday, and Arnott returned the favor on Monday on Steen’s first.

With all that experience (and now 37 years) under his belt, Arnott knows this team has a long way to go – including eight of their next nine games on the road.  And he’s glad he can here to help lead the Blues back to the promised land of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blues next play on Thursday, October 13 at 7:30 CDT against the Dallas Stars in Dallas, Texas, at the American Airlines Center.

BLUES NOTES

  • Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo was put on the Injured Reserve List, injured on an inadvertent trip by Nashville Predator rookie defenseman Blake Geoffrion in the second period of Saturday’s home opener.  It is classified as an “upper body injury”.
  • The Blues have claimed Edmonton Oiler defenseman Taylor Chorney, 24, off waivers.  Chorney, the 6-1, 189-pound defenseman has played in 56 career National Hockey League games (1g, 7pts).  He scored four points in twelve games last season.  Chorney was originally drafted 36th overall (second round) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
  • Defenseman Kent Huskins made his Blues debut Monday afternoon, finishing a +3 in the game (18:48 ice time).
  • Monday was the first time the Blues have scored 5 goals against Calgary since 2003.
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