PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – Chances are if you’re a sports fan, you’ve at some point gotten into the discussion with friends about what the most wonderful time of the year really is.
October is great because the MLB Postseason puts the weight of the world on seemingly every single pitch. At the same time, the NFL and college football are separating the wheat from the chaff, the NHL season is officially underway, and the NBA is soon to follow.
Nothing though, and let me put this in all bold, underlined capitals to make it perfectly clear for you, NOTHING beats March. And without much debate, many people would point to the first Thursday or Friday of the NCAA Tournament if a single day had to be chosen as the best on the sports calendar.
I was among that group for my entire adult life.
No, give me a day like March 8, 2017. For a sports fan, especially one in a hotbed like Pittsburgh, there could be no single better day.
Here are 16 reasons why:
1) The Pittsburgh Penguins, having fallen from a solid second in the Metro Division into a third place tie with the New York Rangers after two days off, started an 8-day, 5-game, 5,800-mile road trip in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This wasn’t your typical late winter/early spring sojourn from 50-degree temps to the subzero tundra of the Canadian prairie, though. This was a rematch following a particularly nasty meeting between the two teams in Pittsburgh less than three weeks ago.
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2) Matt Murray got the start for the Penguins after getting blitzed out of PPG Paints Arena on Sunday night and promptly gave up 2 goals on the first 4 shots he faced. And then another goal 7 shots later. And then made 22 consecutive saves. Not since Will Ferrell ran through the quad to the gymnasium, inviting Snoop-A-Loop and his green hatted friend to join him, has someone been so streaky.
3) Less than four minutes in to the game, Evgeni Malkin got in to a fight. With Blake Wheeler. And survived. Mostly.
The rarity of the Malkin fisticuffs aside – he’s dropped ‘em just half a dozen times in his decade in the NHL – the circumstances were about as significant as they can be in early March in Manitoba. Geno knew he’d caught Wheeler with a questionable hit last month and that he may be asked to answer for it. The MTS Centre was shaking as Jets’ fans booed Malkin with every touch of the puck, and the Penguins expected as much, as they recalled Tom Sestito from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. (More on his shenanigans later.) In a situation many superstars would choose to avoid, Malkin decided to stand toe-to-toe with a 6-foot-5 USHL veteran who grew up in the hometown of Nikita Koloff, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, and “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig.
4) An aside on Wheeler while you consider whether you’d like to wrestle a grizzly of a human while teetering on a pair of tightly-laced steak knives: There are only two things they do in Robbinsdale, MN: Play hockey and wrestle. Rude, Koloff, David Backes, the aforementioned Hennig family, Barry Darsow – aka The Repo Man, or “Smash” of Demolition if you prefer, former Chavo Guerrero sidekick Bam Neely, a handful of other jobbers over the years, and “Mean” Gene Okerlund all hail from this quaint, Minnesota slag heap.
And Blake Wheeler.
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5) Anyhow, after surviving a dust-up with one of Phil Kessel’s old college teammates, Malkin promptly returned the ice and scored a goal. Two of them, actually, and assisted on another. That’s a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” in hockey parlance – a fight, a goal, and an assist in the same game.
6) According to the Society For International Hockey Research, Penguins’ Assistant Coach Rick Tocchet is the NHL’s All-Time leader in Gordie Howe Hat Tricks, with 18 including the postseason.
7) Malkin’s night still paled in comparison to the man they call ‘Bones.’ Nick Bonino netted his second career hat trick as the Pens went on to beat the Jets, 7-4. And prove in the process that you don’t need meatheaddery to keep a game fast, fun, and in line. Just ask resident meathead Sestito, who was called up to act as muscle in case a crazy thing happened like a 6-and-a-half foot tall human challenging one of the Pens’ stars to a fight. After Malkin and Wheeler scrapped, Sestito promptly executed a choreographed routine with Chris Thorburn that would have unimpressed the French judges.
Minutes later, seeking to confirm that his attendance at the evening’s affair was not utterly moot, Sestito hit a man from behind who’s been playing the game for nearly two decades yet whose claim to fame is that he plays with a stick taller than him, Tobias Enstrom. Enstrom and Sestito can both rest well now knowing that their presence DID matter Wednesday night.
8) Almost everything I just described to you happened in the first period of that hockey game.
Hockey can get crazy sometimes.
9) Not so crazy though, that a franchise would let its fans and media outlets believe for nearly a week that one of their stars was out with either a concussion or a recurrence of possible stroke-like symptoms. No, I’m pretty sure something like that would get put to bed right away. The NHL, after all, isn’t TOTALLY insane.
10) Meanwhile, let’s get back to the reason you came: Basketball of the collegiate variety. 34 games were played over the course of about 13 hours and across 13 different conferences on Wednesday, March 9, and of the 68 teams playing, maybe – maybe – a half dozen of them knew that a loss wouldn’t mean the end of their season. The other 60+ squads were in do-or-die, survive-and-advance mode.
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11) The most heartbreaking of those that didn’t and died was Duquesne. The Dukes had a terrible season, winning just two games after the New Year, and struggling to find any consistency as they were led by two highly talented freshmen, Isiaha Mike and Mike Lewis. Yet they had the world by the tail, with their conference tournament being hosted in Pittsburgh and an opening night match-up against an eminently beatable St. Louis Billikens team.
And they dominated them early. And through most of the second half.
Somehow though, an 18-point lead slowly evaporated. With 9 seconds left, one of the few veteran leaders on the team, Emile Blackman, had two free throws to attempt up by just one. He could essentially guarantee no worse than overtime and for all intents-and-purposes salt away a victory, just a 2-minute walk from campus.
The he missed them. Both of them. And St. Louis’s Davell Roby tipped in a put back at the other end of the floor with less than 2 seconds left.
And Duquesne lost. Again.
Just like that, from one more game at home for a grad student to no more games, at all. Ever.
Blackman was crushed. Distraught doesn’t even begin to describe it.
That was just one of the 34 games played on Wednesday, March 9.
12) A very similar scene nearly played out in Washington, D.C. Penn State, who came in losing 10 of their last 14 games, blew a pair of 9-point second half leads against Nebraska and was forced to go to overtime in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. They righted the ship behind a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) from redshirt freshman Mike Watkins, but their prize is they get to face Michigan State. That’s still not very enviable, even in a down year for Sparty.
13) The only other team locally that’s still alive didn’t play in the Big XII Tournament, as they had a bye, but the West Virginia Mountaineers watching their possible Quarterfinal opponent in a Texas/Texas Tech First Round game would have to be the least interesting thing in Kansas City for a Pittsburgh sports fan on Wednesday.
That’s because Jamie Dixon was coaching his first postseason game as a head coach since leaving Pitt. And he was doing so against Oklahoma while trying to erase a 7-game losing streak.
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If you’re a Pitt Panthers basketball fan, your misery is likely either abated or compounded by the utterance of Dixon’s name, as seemingly every member of the fan base has been relegated to either the “Dixon left us nothin’!” camp or the “Kevin Stallings stinks, Jamie’d have us in the tournament!” camp. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little in-between in Oakland these days.
Dixon succeeded, by the way, in extending the Horned Frogs’ season by at least one more day, opening up a can on the Sooners, 82-63.
It looked like something Pitt used to do to the Seton Halls and DePauls of the world back Dixon’s salad days at the Big East Tournament.
Sorry. Too soon?
More on the Panthers in a second, but first…
14) Spring Training is not just fully underway in Florida and Arizona, but due to the three-year rotation of the World Baseball Classic, we’re also getting treated to something usually reserved for a live batting practice or an intrasquad game: Teammate vs. teammate matchups like Gerrit Cole vs. Starling Marte or Tyler Glasnow vs. Gregory Polanco.
Usually, this is a good time for a player to measure himself against guys he feel she may know something against, being as they are teammates and all.
It doesn’t usually result in one of those players getting on base 5 times in 5 plate appearances. Or driving in 2 runs on 2 hits in 3 at bats. Or giving up 6 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks in just 2 1/3 innings.
There was nothing very “normal” about the Dominican Republic putting a 10-6 exhibition shellacking on the Pirates in Bradenton, other than the 3 scoreless innings Gerrit Cole threw.
Gregory Polanco showed of his increasing patience and his wheel son the basepaths.
Starling Marte made hard contact and drove in runs.
So maybe not everything was out of the ordinary.
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But Tyler Glasnow, who acquitted himself well early in Grapefruit League action, especially in striking out a Baltimore side of Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Mark Trumbo in something like 12 pitches in his first outing of the fifth Starter Sweepstakes, looked as bad on Wednesday as he had good in that first outing. Fourteen batters faced, 9 got on base, 4 of them walked to first base.
At this point, you’d have to think Drew Hutchison’s right arm would have to fall off for him to somehow not start the season in Pittsburgh’s rotation and Glasnow in Indianapolis.
15) Equally strange a couple of hours down the Gulf coast was Andrew McCutchen batting eighth. And playing left field, not center or even right. Team USA lost an exhibition to the Minnesota Twins, 3-2, and Josh Harrison saw his first action of the spring anywhere other than second base, relieving Nolan Arenado at third. All of these peculiarities fall right in line with the first few days of the WBC, which saw The Netherlands and Israel playing each other in Seoul, South Korea on what was Thursday afternoon, but for the purposes of this column was Wednesday night, partially because it only just now became Thursday afternoon here, and partially because I heard they drink so much in Korea that you can never really be absolutely certain what day it is.
Not only were The Netherlands – made up mostly of MLB stars from Curacao – and Israel – made up mostly of American-born players of Jewish ancestry – playing each other, but they’d each already clinched spots in the next round in Japan. So no South Korea, no Chinese Taipei, and Israel and The Netherlands are now two of the 8 best national teams on the globe.
No, March isn’t mad at all.
16) Speaking of mad, for a guy who’s continuously thrown his players under the bus this season – up to and including a colorful verbal barrage aimed at Ryan Luther on Tuesday – Stallings seemed surprisingly sedate after the Pitt Panthers season-ending 75-63 loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament on Wednesday. Maybe it was the late hour. Maybe it was the unsurprising nature of Pitt’s expected departure. Or maybe, just maybe, Stallings has quite simply had enough of this season, this particular set of players, and is relieved he’ll never have to coach Mike Young, Jamel Artis, or Sheldon Jeter ever again.
It certainly feels like the latter, as Stallings effusively praised – at least for him, anyway – Luther and Cam Johnson in the last 24-48 hours, talking of each as though they were grizzled veterans who would contribute to some sense of decorum and normalcy next season when three-quarters or more of the roster will have turned over.
Presumably, we can at least expect them to show up to a free breakfast on the day of a game. That’s how low the bar had been set for Young and Artis by the end of the season, and the belief here is that things at The Pete may get worse before they get better, if only because Stallings has to install some law and order before he even gets to coach a single lay-up this coming fall.
We didn’t even get to discuss NFL Free Agency, the release of Tony Romo, the possible departure of Steelers’ fixture Lawrence Timmons, or another 16 or more reasons March is so sweet for sports fans.
And we’re only 10 days in.