Thursday, April 28, 2011

The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Quarter-Finals Recap, Semi-Finals Preview, and a Look at the Last 10 Years of CQF Play

Round one of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs is in the books, and calling the conference quarter-final round a wild ride would be an understatement. Forty-eight games occurred in this post-season-opening tournament, and thinking back over the past decade of playoff hockey, I cannot recall a more exciting round. It’s entirely possible that the round seemed so intense because the final four series went to a game-seven situation, and two of those needed overtime to decide the outcome, but either way, this was some high-octane hockey.

After the jump we’ll acknowledge the winner of each series, skim over the awfulness that was my pick selection, and we’ll preview the semi-final round. And as an added nugget, we’ll look at snapshots of the previous 10 seasons of NHL Conference Quarter-Final play.

I picked the Phoenix Coyotes to squeak past the Detroit Redwings in seven games, and I couldn’t have been wronger. The third-seeded squad that calls the Joe home made quick work of the six-seed ‘Yotes, and broomed them from the picture in four straight. It was the lone sweep of the quarter-finals, which only makes the loss that much more embarrassing for Dave Tippett and company. Every year I pick the Redwings to get eliminated –- both because I loathe them, and because I think their agedness will be a factor –- earlier than they do, and they continue to show a post-season savvy perhaps unmatched across the league.

Phoenix displayed their disadvantage by only losing by one goal once; Detroit handled them 4-2, 4-3, 4-2, and 6-2, courtesy of six series points from center Pavel Datsyuk, and a solid 2.50 goals-against average, .915 save percentage from goaltender Jimmy Howard.

Sticking with series I predicted incorrectly (Anaheim in seven), it was the Nashville Predators that advanced for the first time in franchise post-season history. Fifth-seeded Nashville upset the four-seed Anaheim Ducks by ending their season in six games. Despite incredible performances from Anaheim goalie Ray Emery, winger Corey Perry, and the ageless forward Teemu Selanne, the Ducks could only squeeze two victories out of the series: a two-goal game-two margin, and a three-tally win in the fourth contest.

We’ll stay in the west, and stay with the theme of bad picks of mine.
The previous two post-seasons have seen a scary-looking San Jose Sharks teams not reach the potential they established in the preceding regular seasons. I imagined their playoff skin to still be prime for a piercing, and anticipated that the Los Angeles Kings (seventh-seed) would be a conference-wide surprise. Their shock, though, was short-lived, and they were sent packing in six games. In sum, Jonathan Quick, as well as he played, cannot carry this L.A. team on his royal back. Furthermore, the Kings went a dull 0-3 in overtime contests against second-seeded San Jose, managing their only two wins in games two (a 4-0 blanking) and five (3-1).

Still west, still wrong, it’s Vancouver-Chicago, where the Canucks came in the one seed, and should’ve (in my estimation) sent the defending champions home in five games. Unfortunately for my pride, it took all seven. If you’re a hockey fan –- and even if you’re not but you tuned in a touch –- you know that this series was the gem of the first round. When Vancouver went up three games to none, I was feeling good about my prediction, stoked that the Blackhawks were all but destined to be one-and-done in their attempt to defend their championship, and flat-out amazed at the style of play exhibited by Alaine Vigneault’s squad.

Typically, you have a solid offensive core with one or two playmakers, an aggressive trio of defensive pairings, and a goaltender that epitomizes the last-line-of-defense mantra that a goaltender is supposed to epitomize. This recipe is, obviously, one you follow if you want to go deep in the post-season, and have a shot at winning it all. Vancouver might as well be the Richard Blais of this year’s playoffs. They do things their own way, and the only thing that can get in the way of their own success is themselves. In doing things their own way, the Canucks swarm –- and I mean swarm -- to every loose puck, they win most of those battles in the corners and along the boards, they create turnovers, and they probably cycle better than any offensive unit in the game right now.

They also have aggressive defensemen who keep the puck in the zone, create turnovers, and literally anchor the offensive units. Vancouver’s biggest problem is Roberto Luongo, and as much as I think Blackhawks fans are smug, and over-deserving, they had every right to be in the face of the Canuck netminder when he gave blowing the series the old college try, and then some. How that man managed to steal Olympic gold from the U.S. is still a mystery to me.

But, everyone knew it would be tough for Chicago to defend as they had to blow up their roster for cap space after last season’s championship, and you have to give that team kudos for fighting to the bitter end. In terms of picks, this was the only series winner I pegged, but I went oh-fer in picking correct number of wins per series in each of the four matchups.

Out east, I looked a little better. I nailed Tampa Bay in six right on the head, and boy was I glad for that franchise. I like Tampa Bay. I like Guy Boucher and his gutsy coaching style, and I think having Stevie Y at the helm of this front office will mean good things for this team. I was impressed by Tampa Bay’s championship in the pre-lockout campaign, and it’s nice for this club to have some success in Florida, where the teams in Miami seem to steal all the pub. Pittsburgh definitely had their work cut out for them not having Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby healthy, but I didn’t feel sorry for the one bit, ‘cause screw the Penguins. I did, however, shed one lone tear for our old pal The Lone Reader, who took in his first NHL playoff game ever in this series. Unfortunately for him, it was the 8-2 drubbing the Lightning dropped on Pittsburgh last Saturday.

Regarding Washington-New York, I was money there again, selecting the Caps to finish the Rangers in five. This was also an easy pick though, because it is a proven fact that the New York Rangers are –- in my hockey-viewing lifetime -– atrocious in the post-season. Not that I care, but if you need to, blame Lindros.

The Philadelphia Flyers took on the familiar Buffalo Sabres, and I was only one game off the mark in predicting this Philly win: They needed seven to disperse Lindy Ruff’s team, and I’d called for the Flyers in six. This Philly team really should’ve handled business sooner than they did, as Buffalo was a bit outmatched. You have to appreciate Ruff’s ability to get his group this prepared for a high-scoring, bruiser club like Philadelphia, and you also have to wonder what Peter Laviolette is doing starting three different goaltenders in a playoff series. But hey -– they advanced.

Boston-Montreal was the fourth Eastern Conference pairing, and it was a doozy. They needed all seven –- just like I said -– contests to eliminate the pesky Habs, but eliminate them they did, also in a game-seven overtime. Some good hockey there.

Playoff leaders through round one:

Philadelphia’s Danny Briere has six goals, his teammate Claude Giroux has tallied eight assists, and fellow Flyer Kimmo Timonen has registered a nice plus-nine in the +/- category. And we might as well make this first grouping and all-Philly affair, as noted goon Daniel Carcillo has amassed 26 penalties in minutes. Between the pipes, it’s the aged Dwayne Roloson manning the Tampa Bay crease with a hefty .949 save percentage, while Michal Neuvirth of Washington has generated an impressive 1.38 goals-against average.

Looking ahead to the semi-finals:

Fifth-seeded Nashville hosts one-seed Vancouver, and that series gets underway at 8 pm Central this evening. Keith Jones made a good point in saying that the Predators are thanking the Blackhawks for softening up the Canucks for them, and Mike Keenan threw in his own two cents suggesting that Vancouver will need better play from the Sedin twins this series. Both are correct in that a) the Canucks will struggle early against Nashville, and b) the play –- points-wise -– of Daniel and Henrik dropped off significantly after game three, but it’s possible that the wilted performances of one R. Luongo made matters significantly worse.

Chicago is a bruiser of a team, and they gave Vancouver fits. Jeremy Roenick suspects that the Predators will be an even tougher challenge for the finesse play of the Canucks to overcome, and he might be right as well, but I’m not sold on it costing them the series.

The pick: Vancouver in six

Two tilts tomorrow night, and they come in the form of the five-seed Lightning and the one-seed Capitals; the third-seed Redwings will do battle with two-seed San Jose.

In that Eastern Conference series, I know that Roloson is 41 years old, but I don’t think it matters. He’s got his game face on, and I think the offensive production Tampa Bay is capable of will significantly inflate that nice G.A.A. Neuvirth has put together. The Caps can be fierce, but let’s be honest: They’re a bit limited in forward production, and the Rangers weren’t a test. You can’t expect Alexander Ovechkin to do everything, and that’s a mistake Washington has been guilty of in the past. Sure, he spread it around a bit in round one, but again: That was against New York.

The pick: Lightning in six

I didn’t think San Jose could get past the Los Angeles Kings, but they proved me wrong. Detroit proved me wrong as well, but I always pick against them. I won’t make that mistake again.

The pick: Detroit in five

On Saturday, a pair of bad-boy clubs will get after it when three-seed Boston travels to two-seed Philly. I like Boston. I always jump on their bandwagon come playoff time. Usually they choke. They turned things around last year, and they’ve got a nice collection of players including Tim Thomas in net, Zdeno Chara leading the D, and David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Patrice Bergeron as high-quality point producers. Problem is: It won’t be enough for this hungrier-than-ever Flyers squad, who will pounce on every Bruin mistake. I also give them the coaching edge in Laviolette over Claude Julien.

The pick: Flyers in seven

Now, having assessed what’s already happened, and what will happen, I wanted to take a look at a few statistics. I’m not sure what compelled me to collect this data, but I think it was a hunch that told me I’d see more of all things better when I compared this year’s quarter-finals with the quarter-finals of the previous 10 seasons. That turned out to not really be the case at all. What I think gave me the number-crunching itch was that I a) used to think that the playoffs mattered little until it was Conference Finals time, and b) have been able to neutrally invest myself in this year’s and last year’s NHL post-seasons since my Blues have been absent from competition.

Well, technically they were absent in 2008-09 as well, when they laid a Canuck-sized egg and got swept by Vancouver, but let’s not split hairs here.

I went through each quarter-finals series, and found out how many goals were scored, how many shots on goal were generated, how many major penalties were assessed, whether or not home-ice advantage was a factor, how many overtime periods occurred, and the average number of games played per series. (Editor’s Note: Shots on goal are registered shots that would’ve been goals had the goalie not saved them. No, pipes and crossbars don’t count. Major penalties include game misconducts, fighting, spearing, boarding, charging, etc. I left out all the minor infractions. Overtime refers to the number of overtime periods, not games, played. For each of the previous three quarter-finals rounds, come-from-behind-game wins is an available stat.) Why I chose the stats I did is as much a mystery to you as it is to me, but here they are nonetheless:

1999-2000 Conference Quarter-Finals (eventual champion: New Jersey Devils)
Goals: 207
Shots: 2,228
PIMs: 185
Home vs. Visitor: 5/3 in favor of home teams
OTs: 3
Average number of games per series: 5.125

2000-01 CQFs (eventual champion: Colorado Avalanche)
Goals: 212
Shots: 2,428
PIMs: 190
H vs. V: 4/4 tie
OTs: 14
GPS: 5.5

2001-02 CQFs (eventual champion: Detroit Redwings)
Goals: 217
Shots: 2,612
PIMs: 280
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 6
GPS: 5.875

2002-03 CQFs (eventual champion: New Jersey Devils)
Goals: 228
Shots: 2,745
PIMs: 235
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 18
GPS: 5.875

2003-04 CQFs (eventual champion: Tampa Bay Lightning)
Goals: 242
Shots: 2,620
PIMs: 50
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 14
GPS: 5.875

2005-06 CQFs (eventual champion: Carolina Hurricanes)
Goals: 259
Shots: 2,653
PIMs: 220
H vs. V: 3/5, visitor
OTs: 15
GPS: 5.5

2006-07 CQFs (eventual champion: Mighty Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim)
Goals: 216
Shots: 2,576
PIMs: 420
H vs. V: 6/2, visitor
OTs: 11
GPS: 5.375

2007-08 CQFs (eventual champion: Detroit Redwings)
Goals: 256
Shots: 2,929
PIMs: 180
H vs. V: 5/3, home
OTs: 10
GPS: 6

2008-09 CQFs (eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins)
Goals: 225
Shots: 2,723
PIMs: 405
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 6
GPS: 5.5
Come-from-behind wins: 13

2009-10 CQFs (eventual champion: Chicago Blackhawks)
Goals: 289
Shots: 3,103
PIMs: 245
H vs. V: 4/4 tie
OTs: 15
GPS: 6.125
CFBWs: 19

2010-11 CQFs
Goals: 287
Shots: 3,056
PIMs: 375
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 18
GPS: 6.125
CFBWs: 11

So, there’re those numbers. And really, I do know why I chose them. I thought we would see an interesting comparison between the five pre-lockout seasons, and the six since. I imagined that by reducing the size of goaltender pads, containing goalie puck play to the behind-the-net rhombus, and eliminating the two-line pass, that offensive production would be dramatically different, which is what the league wanted since, that’s what the other three major leagues do: The NFL has tailored offensive play to favor the passing game; In baseball, people want power hitting; and in the NBA, if you’re not dunkin’ and droppin’ threes, then you’re a nobody.

We did see goals scored go up and stay up, but not significantly. Shots gradually worked their way up to, and recently crested the 3,000 mark. PIMs have been all over the place. I thought once the Donald Brashears and the Ty Domis were gone from the game, we’d see them taper off, but guys are still getting after each other quite a bit in post-season play. Overtime periods have also been sporadic, but notably high this year and last. We learned that home-ice advantage is a factor: In seven of the 11 seasons examined, teams with the higher seed won. Only twice was there a tie. Number of games per series has sputtered around a bit, but, like shots, they crested a mark (six-plus) last year, and stayed there this year. Come-from-behind wins was an interesting stat to look at for two reasons: 1) The media always discuss come-from-behind series wins, but I wanted to look at it on a game-by-game basis, because 2) Often-times it seems that the club that scores first in a game hangs on to win, and this stat wanted to assess the validity of such a claim.

These numbers also made me think a lot about defense. It seemed that, in the earlier parts of the decade, defense was a massive factor in games and in series. You’d have lower numbers of shots on goal, and thus higher numbers of blocked shots, and even lower-scoring games. And to a degree, we do see that: more shots, more goals, and higher-scoring contests. What I don’t believe is that defensive units are softer, or that the pool of goaltending talent is smaller. I think these are the areas that the post-lockout rule changes have had an impact on, and that it’s better in every way imaginable for the game.
Enough on my own assessment of those numbers, though. There’s something to be said for analyzing your own collected data. There’s also something to be said about this year’s Stanley Cup Conference Quarter-Finals, and that is that it was probably the best opening round of playoff hockey I’ve seen in a long, long time.
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Monday, April 18, 2011

Depots, Hubs, and Automobiles: Our Train Trip to See Railroad Earth @ The Pageant, St. Louis, MO, 04/15/11

It was 4:07 p.m. when our Amtrak Missouri River Runner pulled out of the St. Louis station, and as I’d been reflecting all day on last night’s Railroad Earth show at The Pageant, I’ve finally decided that it’s impossible, on this particular occasion, to separate the musical performance from the entire adventure.

A mere couple of weeks after assembling this post, I discovered that the band would be in Omaha on March 28, and in St. Louis on the evening of April 15th. The wife, ever-intelligent, swiftly solved the which-show-to-see dilemma I’d made into a monster with a quick-fire question: “What night of the week do they fall on?”

Ah, I thought. How logical. St. Louis it was to be.

So it was decided, and the busy weeks between now and then caught up with us. It was suddenly Monday and we’d done little more than call the venue twice to check on ticket sales, and get a feel for what navigating the evening with a four-month old might look like.

At some point, it sort of simultaneously occurred to the both of us that it could be a perfect arrangement –- and a hoot -– to take the train. With that much decided, the wife, in rapid-fire fashion, acquired train tickets, and booked us a hotel room. I was to research, purchase the right noise-reduction protective headphones for our baby, and check in with the venue again regarding tickets, prices, etc.

So, I read up on things like what the environmental noise rate is, and what certain events register at in decibels, and I kept thinking about that display they put up on TV in certain football games where the crowd noise supposedly falls somewhere in between a jet engine and an atomic bomb. It turns out, though, that headphones are something that will deliver sound to your ear pieces. Earmuffs were what we wanted, but I never thought to call them earmuffs because earmuffs are what you wear when you’re ice fishing in Canada, right?

I narrowed my earmuffs down to two different selections –- in case you’re interested, I went for the Pelzors over the BabyBanz –- and, like many other parent-related experiences I’ve had in the last 16 weeks, products, practices, and philosophies of the child-rearing nature, are completely sexist. Yeah, I know. I was, and continue to be, surprised, too. But if you want to try a car seat out, expect the literature to say, Mom –- ours is the safest! Shopping for a crib? Brand X is safe and so easy to assemble that any mother with only a few tools in her recipe box can handle the job, while breast-feeding. Wanna wear your kid in a wrap? I’d tell you that I use and recommend one in particular, but it irritates me that the brand name is a hybrid of the word mother and baby. You doing cloth diapers? Awesome. Great stuff. Don’t expect that your local distributor will be expecting dads to participate in anything diaper-related. Whenever they’re hosting a diaper swap, or announcing a new line, or looking for a blogger, it’s mom, mom, mom, mom, mom. And don’t even get me started on birthing and breast-feeding. That stuff’s completely sexist.

But, you know what? I don’t stand watch for these people to slip up, and then over-publicize the stuff until someone’s fired. I don’t start Facebook groups suggesting that you join me in banning products x, y, and z. And I certainly don’t generate any anti-hype on Twitter. Too much negativity out there as it is.

So, I’ve got several Web pages open, and I’m juggling the office phone and the cell, calling around looking for the pink Pelzor earmuffs. And here’s the thing: Nobody carries any kind of noise-reduction earmuff in stock. Nobody.

A little panic sets in, and this is totally normal for me. Actually, what sticks in my spokes usually look like are this: Frustration, panic, apathy, discussion of frustration, panic, and apathy, and then anger over the fact that I became frustrated, panicked, and wound up apathetic. Finally, I suffer the consequences of my cycle and walk around with my martyr hat on, explaining to those kind enough to listen how I wound up in the situation I’m in. But I’m irritated that these earmuffs aren’t available locally, and I begin to try and picture all of the different humans in the shipping business I must now depend on to get me my Pelzors by the time our River Runner rolls out at 8:15 a.m. Friday morning. And that’ll be the absolute end of the line because if the earmuffs aren’t in stores in Kansas City, I doubt St. Louis is going to have them, and even if they do, we’d have to shell out cab fare to get there.

A little more about that abundant negativity, though: I have this feeling about buying music and the way that the Internet has changed everything. Many times, I discover an artist, or find myself with a chunk of time to run out and buy an album by an artist, and it’s physically not possible for me to do it. I mean, the primary problem is that I just don’t have a flush bank account, and an unlimited access to leisure spending, so if I could fix that situation, then there’d be no issue. But if that were the case, I wouldn’t have this little paragraph to offer you, and besides -– it’s just easier to get my brow and my guts wrinkled in frustration so that I then have to take a Tums to ease the panic, drink to forget the apathy, and then talk about my crisis once I’m tanked.

Obviously, if I had money, I’d just download the thing on iTunes and be on my way. But you know, I don’t always want an electronic version of it. Maybe my iPod shot craps (Editor’s Note: It’s happened. Funny story there, too.), and I don’t feel like sitting at my computer to listen to music. Maybe I happen to have been given a nice, crisp 20-spot from the wife, but told not to use the debit card. Frankly, I’m far too lazy to drive to the bank to deposit my $20 just so I can drive back home and spend it. And the reality of it is that I like going to record stores. I love the process of shopping for music. I get my rocks off taking a gamble on an unheard-of and having it be awesome.

You know where I’m going with this, though, don’t you? Maybe you don’t. Maybe your city is big enough that it can still have a variety of music stores in business. Mine is not. No, the Sam Goody’s and the Musiclands have left the malls, and frankly, the multi-story Virgin stores were never here in the first place. No, it’s mostly been smaller chains and mom-and-pop types of joints, and even the long-tenured Streetside Records closed its doors the other day. Sad, sad times. What’s left are stores like Vintage Stock, which are cool if you’re looking for a Sammy Winder bobblehead (Note: See that Broncos fans? I just threw you a bone? I could’ve gone Barry Word, but I’m trying to be positive, so appreciate it. Clowns.), or maybe you’re geeked up about Scre4m and you wanna get the movie posters for the first three movies. Could be that you just dusted off the Sega Genesis in the basement and you’re havin’ the boys over for a Mortal Kombat (Note: Dibs on Rayden.) tournament.

Vintage Stock is great for all of those things, and they have a ton more: movies, baseball cards, memorabilia, and yeah – they even have a healthy collection of CDs. You know what they don’t have, though?

Nope. They are fresh out of the CD you’re looking for. The one that’s creating that acidy feeling on the back of your tongue because you have to have it today. Here’s where you get phases two and three of the triple-whammy letdown boxed across your cheeks. They’ll go to the computer, and you know what they’re going to do, and you can already feel your brain running through the motions with them. You think, I drove all the way out to your Iowa branch. No chance I can make it to your Utah location and be home in time to get ready for the party. Zero chance. An impossibility. But Sally goes over to the computer, and her fingers start pecking the keyboard as the words, “Let me check for you and see if any of our other stores have it” fall from her lips like she’s the character in an action film that screams the slow-motion “Nooooo” just as a loved one is shot 37 times in the torso.

While I have you, think about that scene for just a second. Thirty-seven times. And the shooting victim always lasts long enough to reminisce about that one summer where they all ran away from home and formed that band and lived off of s’mores and comradery and how they wouldn’t trade that summer for anything. And then the “Nooooo” friend has his turn to return the sentiment, but instead watches his friend die before he can mutter one syllable. I do not think that this is the way that things go down. I try to picture this as a real-life scenario, and I’m capable of doing so from both perspectives.

In real life, if I were shot, things would be different. Not only am I certain of this, but I’m certain of it, regardless of whether I get shot 37 times or once, whether I get shot in the chest or in the little toe. Either way, the scene would look like this: I get shot, vomit, soil myself, weep for six seconds about the frailty of life and that which I did not accomplish, then die. And if things were the other way around, and I’d just watched a friend or love one get shot, it would look a little different: My friend gets shot, I vomit, soil myself, weep for six seconds about the frailty of life and that which I have not accomplished, then pass out.

But anyway, Sally is looking on the computer. You know you can’t make it to the other store, but you’re thinking about that secret, undiscovered route, that sequence of streets paved with glistening, golden time where no driver in front of you goes seven miles-per-hour under the speed limit, where all of the traffic lights are as green as an overripe pear, that path that has never yet felt the rays of a law enforcement radar gun wilt the blades of its hillsides. You can picture it. So distinct you even envision yourself whisking past a billboard that reads, “Plenty of time!” in bright orange letters, and you can feel the warmth of the afternoon sun on your neck, the breeze coming in through the windows, and all of it, the stability of the scenery, the record store in the near distance, your waving family members happily greeting you from the porch as you turn into the driveway, your car still plastered with the smell of molested shrink wrap, suddenly uproots, swirls, and vanishes with a gurgle, down the stool of reality as Sally begins to shake her head, also in slow motion.

She turns to face you. You know what’s next. You feel your heart rate rise, and a few beads of anxious sweat begin to form on your upper lip. The front door. You can’t spot it fast enough. You’re suddenly overwhelmed by the thought of every second you waste by continuing to stand there, and those that you already cashed in by making the trip out there. It’s too late. You know the words will pelt your ear in any instant. The weight of defeat crushes your rib cage as if Sally were British Bulldog Kid Dynamite herself and she’d just power slammed you from the top turnbuckle. You’re waving hands of submission to the ref, but he doesn’t see you. There’s no forfeiting now. You. Will lose.

“I can order it for you,” she says.

“Oh,” you start with a pause. “No. I, uh…I’ll just…Thanks.” You turn, and briskly exit as if you’d just asked her to the prom, via microphone, from the stage in the cafeteria, and before the entire school.

So here we are again with another example of how the Internet has changed everything. You can learn all of the information you want about a product, competitively shop for it, have it shipped directly to your house, and write a review once you’ve used it. But you can’t have it today.

Naturally, we’re supposed to take the good with the bad, which reminds me: I’ve been trying to omit two things from my posts of late, and those things are negativity and profanity. A few months ago, Jason Whitlock lost his mind over the Jay Cutler/NFC Championship Game, and Charlie Sheened his way through all of the media outlets to make sure his voice was heard. And he sounded like a lost sheep, trying to bleat his career-challenged self back to the herd. It was bad.

Or take your pick of the myriad female sports journalists that have had bad encounters in their field over the past year, or better yet, they’ve had them across their whole career, but maybe only the most recent one became public. I wanted to write about all of that, too. Either topic, though, would’ve resulted in a post with a negative theme, so I opted not to. I’m fairly passionate about both of those topics, though, and I’m also a pretty opinionated person, so chances are, I would’ve gotten on a good cursing bender, and not stopped until it was too late. I’m glad I didn’t do either.

But I’m sitting there, already having sighed out of frustration, paced to calm my panic, checked out of work for the day, and feeling mad about the fact that my wife is frequently unavailable to take a phone call at work. Because of some pink Pelzor earmuffs. I decide to proceed with the online order, and the cycle immediately starts again once I put the Pelzors in my cart, and peruse my shipping options at the end of the checkout stage. For seven dollars, I can choose 3-5 days. I can guarantee their arrival in 1-2, but it will cost me $27.65. Drowning in my second round of apathy, I text the wife. She responds with a phone call, goes through the same procedure I just had, but with me on the phone, and says she’ll handle it.

A little while later I get a text from her saying that she ordered them, that she went the seven-dollar route, that they will get here in time, that I need to send out some positive energy so that they will.

Suddenly it occurs to me that maybe all of the sexist peddlers of baby paraphernalia are onto something, that maybe us dads should just sit back and do as we’re told.


Anyway, I did manage to call the venue, find out that tickets were cheaper if you paid cash at the box office, that it didn’t look like they were in any danger of selling out. And I actually did pack (mostly) the night before we left. But when the reality settled in that an online purchase had to be the way to go if I wanted my baby wearing pink Pelzors Friday night, I had two thoughts: 1) I really want to put my fist through this monitor, and 2) Fuck.

The wife and I decided some time ago that since we were grown-ups now, i.e. we got married, don’t have bill-collections phone calls to dodge, seldom kill an entire day trying to recover from the previous night, and are also now responsible for the safety and care of another human being’s life, that we should have one goal in life that we strive to attain, and that’s not to be late for stuff when we travel.

Here’s another little nugget regarding dysfunction in my life: At some point, probably in my late 20s, it occurred to me that I had developed this habit of going out the night before I had to catch a flight. And at some point, it occurred to me that, on said nights, I would not have two beers and an order of nachos, or a few beers over the course of a game on TV. Rather, I would handle the day’s business (except packing of course), and go out for several hours, having somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 drinks. It’s a fascinating pattern of behavior, one with what I imagine to be some significant psychological theory attached to it, like, I’m deathly afraid of flying, or I’m loathing this trip, or I’m stressed because I had a lot to get done before leaving town, and that which I did not get to will haunt me the whole time I’m gone.

Funny part is, I’ve noticed that I’ve done it on nights before road trips, on evenings prior to trips I’m really looking forward to, and after a week in which I didn’t leave any project half-done, so who knows. Either way, one of two results is certain to occur every time I travel: 1) I feel like complete garbage, and wind up forgetting to pack something really important, like, say sunscreen for my trip to Mexico, or the tickets for my trip to the away game in Denver, or, and this was a real good one, my suitcase full of clothes for my trip back home; 2) I miss my flight.

The second part isn’t worth getting into, but know that I’ve, on many, many occasions, either been nauseous upon arrival at my destination, or gotten to said destination at a time later than intended. And frankly, option two is much, much better, even if you have a bridesmaid pissed off at you for missing the rehearsal dinner, or dad had to make two trips to the airport because there is nothing worse than being hungover and going through the arduous, ice-pick-to-the-eardrum process of TSA. And those jerks just swell with power, don’t they? This is why you’ll never hear of someone going postal at a TSA checkpoint or officer.

I mean, I’ve been in some seriously slow post offices with some seemingly intentionally slow, lethargic postal workers, and I’ve wanted to scream at both them and their customers, but I maintain my composure because I’m not that insane. But I can see where some have snapped, and at the end of the day, they’ve decided that their rage outweighs the need to ship that particular letter or package at that particular moment. At the airport, though, that chartered flight on that particular air bus might not be available in a few hours. Or tomorrow. But those creeps know what’s up. They know the look on your face. That look of panic that says, If you don’t pick up the snail’s pace with which you’re using to investigate the number of teeth in my comb, that plane, right outside that window right there, will leave without me. You have the power to not let that happen, should you choose to exercise it.

I’ve not ever met anyone that deals well with the one-two combo of stress and hangover, but I don’t suppose I’ve ever really asked, either. I’ve always thought, though, that sprinting to your gate, bags in hand (Note: Who can afford to check luggage anymore?), and trying to catch your breath while taking off your shoes, belt, emptying your pocket, pulling laptops out, and sending bagged liquids and gels in tubs through a scanner, all while stressing about missing your flight might be the worst modern experience available to those of us stubborn enough to never, ever plan anything in advance.

Turns out I was wrong.

You can, adult plan implemented, stay in the previous evening and you can pack. You can wake up with sufficient time to get yourself ready and out the door, but I am here to tell you that whatever amount of time you set aside to get you, your wife, and your baby ready to get out the door -- add an hour. You won’t regret it.

Friday morning might’ve been one of the worst travel experiences I’ve ever had. By the time we got in the car to drive to the train station, we were supposed to be at the train station. And it was raining. In case you’re unaware of these two predicaments, allow me: 1) The train station wants you there a half-hour prior to departure, and earlier at busier depots; 2) When it rains in Kansas City, people drive as if they have never been on a mountain before, they’ve just been given an overwaxed set of sharp skis, no poles, and shoved off the lift on a double-black diamond run.

On the 25-minute drive to the train station, very little is said, and what is said refers, mutteringly, to which lane I should be in and whether or not I was trying to get in it. We’ve not taken a train out of Kansas City in years, so we’re unsure about where to park, what entrance to Union Station we use, and what the check-in process will look like. When we approach, we ignore our better judgment and wind up having to set through two extra sets of traffic lights to get back to the spot we were just in, and when we get there, the wife grabs the baby in her car seat, which she puts into the stroller, and sets a shoulder bag on top of that. We have a B-o-b, which is a monster, off-road sort of stroller, so they run. No problem.

I park, and get significantly wet trying to get my rain jacket on. It’s now pouring. I’m wearing flip flops and my baseball hat is packed. When she got out of the car, I was roughly aware of what my totes would consist of, but didn’t process it because my entire brain was occupied with the idea of missing the train, and the idea that we’d put ourselves in this situation. But now is when the reality sets in: I’m in charge of the suitcase with all of our clothes in it, the shoulder bag with all of the electronics in it, my armful of knick-knacky things like the morning paper, my coffee, etc., and the pack-n-play.

By the time I get everything situated, I am soaked. I have arguably the most cumbersome travel load I’ve ever carried, I am really late, and I’m in flip flops. I run, drenching my pants with every splashy step until I get to the sets of front doors. These doors are very narrow, very heavy, and very locked, except for the one on the end. I was not quick to discover that last part. I manage, with significant effort, to pull off some clumsy sequence of tackling-dummy drills to get through each door, and as I step inside, I am certain my lungs are going to pop. Beneath my sopping rain coat, I feel my phone buzz in the breast pocket of my shirt.

God, I think. I really hope that’s not the wife. Whatever she might have to say to me now that’s not good news certainly cannot wait for me to reach the train.

I empty my burning hands and arms of their load and retrieve my phone. Of course, it is her. I look around. The ceilings in Union Station are probably 65-feet high. The foyer stretches in three directions for roughly 10 football fields. Or at least it seems so this early with no one, save two men chatting in front of me, in here this early. I know precisely where entrance to the train station is, but my eyes are still swollen with panic, and I cannot locate it. I look at the two men. They’ve finished their conversation. One is walking briskly to the east, away from me, vanishing into the shadowy empty morning of the dry inside. The other walks north, at a slow pace, toward the center of the vast open room. I missed my shot at asking for help. I open the phone. I am hopeful that there, as she is want to occasionally do, is a detailed, fool-proof set of directions that will take me directly to the seats adjacent to her and the baby on the train. In this scenario, I will not have to speak with anybody, produce any tickets, identification, or money. I will just sit, and try to enjoy what’s left of my coffee, the majority of it long since sloshed on my clothes. Instead, I see her one-word message: Run.

And it was in that fleeting moment, that I longed to be hungover, cursing a TSA under my breath.

Well, not really, but what a start, (Note: Yes, the headphones did come.)

and precisely 10 seconds after I'd stepped onto the train, it began moving. It took two trips up and down the train steps to bring in my load, and once permanently inside, I was informed by the conductor that our gear was sprawled across three different cars. In that moment, I hadn't considered what I must look like, but the first seat I walked past had two ladies in it. One turned to the other and whispered, "This reminds me of that scene from Home Alone. Hearing that gave me a pretty good idea.

Some six hours later, we de-trained, and several minutes later, a taxi dropped us off at the Drury Inn. We got checked in, the wife did a little bit of strange shopping across the street, and I hung with the baby in the room, where we most certainly did not try to watch any television or YouTube videos. These things, you see, are not good for infants. Mama got back in time to allow me to grab a 15-minute nap, even though she once demanded from me the answer to, "What 30-something naps?" The answer, of course, would be the 30-something that stays up ‘til 1:30 in the morning writing about Aerosmith debates.

The nap, however, was huge, and the three of us strolled over to the MetroLink, and caught the westbound blue line to the Delmar Loop and hoofed it over to The Pageant.

We purchased two tickets, and were about to enter when questioned by the sales representative if we had a ticket for our baby. This was troubling. We’d waited to purchase tickets in person to avoid the fees and surcharges, and I had had several conversations with Pageant employees about bringing a baby into the venue, and was reassured that an infant would not need a ticket. I conveyed this to the representative who said he’d need to clear it with his manager, who was a guy sitting at a computer behind him.

This manager got up, and went somewhere, presumably to come around and speak with us. Twenty minutes later, the representative told us that they were “still checking into the matter.”

Now, I’m not an expert in the ticket-sales industry, but it seems like there should be clear-cut rules for this sort of thing, and that your employees should be aware of said rules. And for the representative himself, why would we be purchasing tickets for ourselves, in person, and already have one for the baby? Regardless, we waited, and people kept coming in and out of the tiny sales nook, many of whom were either on the guest list for Railroad Earth, or for opening act, The Greencards. At one point, two young ladies came in, announced that they only needed two of the three reserved for them, and the fox-like wife, piped up: “Oh, can we have your third for our baby?”

The young ladies were ecstatic about giving it to us. Problem solved. So we exit the nook, and enter, only to be intercepted by the vanishing manager. I’m not including this bit to bag on The Pageant. I’m really not. The venue was nice, clean, well-staffed, and had all of the appropriate amenities, but this was the kicker. The manager had two things to accomplish during our brief exchange: Inform us of the favor he was doing our family, and repeatedly adjust his waist-length pony tail. Listening was added at the end, but not prioritized. Our exchange went a little something like this:

Pony-tailed manager: “I apologize for the confusion, but I just want to let you know that I’m waiving the minor surcharge for you this evening.”

The wife: “Oh, we actually have a ticket for our 16-week-old baby now, so we don’t need you to do that.”

PTM: “I’m referring to the minor surcharge (points to the part of the ticket that says $2 minor surcharge>), and I just want to let you know that I’m waiving that for you this evening.”

Me: “What I don’t understand is this: I called down here three times before we traveled here specifically to see this show. In each phone call, discussions regarding having a baby occurred, and I was led to believe there would be no cost for an infant to enter. Now that we’re here, we’re told the infant has to have a ticket and there’s a surcharge?”

PTM: “Correct, and I apologize for the misunderstanding.”

Me: “Well, we waited to buy tickets to avoid fees and surcharges, and it might have been helpful, during multiple conversations about bringing a baby to the venue and avoiding surcharges by paying cash, that there is a surcharge for a baby.”

PTM: “I understand, but I’m waiving the surcharge for you this evening, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of this.” (begins to walk away)

Me: “All three conversations were with females, and they were all friendly and helpful. The most-recent conversation was during the Mumford & Sons pre-sale, where there were some glitches happening.”

PTM: (turns back, adjusts pony tail) “During Mumford & Sons?”

Me: “During the pre-sale.”

PTM: “I appreciate that.” (walks away)

The exchange itself was harmless, but the underlying concept was extremely annoying. Our baby was in a wrap, where she’d remain for the duration of the show, not taking up any real estate, not listening/viewing the show. The phrase “milking it” came to mind, as did the Leo/drive-thru scene (NSFW) from “Lethal Weapon III”.

We found a great spot to set up camp inside, and enjoyed a Schlafly (Note: When in Rome…) while we sat and listened to The Greencards, who were quite enjoyable, and, as an added bonus, they have a cute little Australian bass player.

What I enjoyed about them, in addition to their music, was that they were prompt with start/stop times, and they added the perfect amount of crowd conversation. The same could be said about the headliners.

Railroad Earth took the stage right on time and right after we’d switched from Schlafly to the hoptastic Ranger from New Belgium. We’ll get into the details in a moment, but I think now is an appropriate time to mention that, at the conclusion of Set I,

“Bird in a House,” “Happy Song,” “Mighty River,” “Storms,” “Seven Story Mountain,” “1759,” “Water Fountain Quicksand,” “The Jupiter & the 119,”

the wife turned to me, and said,” Wow. That was so awesome, I could leave now.”

I’ve often discussed –- on a few blogs, and on Twitter -– the notion of having expectations when entering a show, and my definition of that notion goes like this: Don’t have them. It took me a long time to get to that point, because for years, regardless of who I was seeing, I always had that hope-they-play approach to favorite songs, covers, and, (Note: I do not like this term, but I’m using it.) “bust-outs,” and the result is almost always one of disappointment. Even if it’s a stellar performance from your favorite band, entering a venue with particular-song expectations will typically let you down. So I haven’t done that for some time, and this evening was no exception.

That said, we’d just acquired Bird in the House (2002), The Good Life (2004), and Amen Corner (2008), and I played a fun little game with my wife, who happens to absolutely adore birds. Okay, she adores chickens, but she loves birds. In said game, I lined up those album titles in reverse order, and said (knowing the answer), “Which title do you like best: this one, this one, or this one?”

Naturally, when I showed her the Bird in the House title, she chuckled and selected it as her favorite. There were two things I wanted to tell her about that title, but refrained until after we’d returned home from our journey: 1) I really dig the title track to Bird in the House, but I try not to mention favorite albums and tracks so as not to sway the development of her own opinions, and 2) In addition to just plain being a great song with both literal and figurative lyrical themes, it reminded me of this story.

We have this cat. I do not like cats. I do not dislike cats. They are just cats. I prefer dogs.

Five years ago, however, a good friend of mine, Dave, decided to take his own life. The anniversary of his death was one week prior to our evening at The Pageant. He was a remarkable human being, and is still dearly missed. He owned two dogs and a cat. My long-time friend Matt volunteered to adopt Dave’s animals, which was obviously very noble of him to do. Logistically speaking, it was not a realistic gesture, as, at the time, he had a dog and two cats of his own. After a few days, my wife, who was my fiancée at the time, said –- and she loves to quote herself on this line -– “I have a cat door. I’ll take the cat,” when it became known that Dave’s cat was not getting along with Matt’s cats.

I loved this gesture. Even though she barely knew Dave, I thought it connected the three of us in some way that, if I tried to explain it, would probably result in me being called crunchy, or a tree hugger, neither of which would be original. We did not cohabitate at the time, but I loved seeing the cat because it reminded me of Dave, and I liked that his animals were in homes of his friends. We still have the cat, and the cat and I have a unique relationship. I have a short list of behaviors I would prefer he avoid, and mostly, he spends his days trying to get away with them, and I spend mine trying to catch him in the act. This practice drives the wife crazy, and for decent reason: The cat is no spring chicken.

He is a pretty good cat, though, and he likes going outside. We quickly learned, however, that we cannot leave any doors propped open, including the garage, because the cat is a great hunter, and he will bring his catches home -– bunnies, birds, chipmunks –- alive and in search of praise. In case you have not experienced this first hand, these are not easy-to-catch-and-release animals inside a two-bedroom house. On one occasion, he did in fact, bring home a bird (Note: I believe it was a crow –- Cacaw!) and release it in the living room. The bird was less than pleased with this particular predicament, and may or may not’ve flown like mad around the house, smacking into windows, defecating, and, much like the Railroad Earth song, “trying…to get out.”

When they opened the show with this number, I was tickled. And they nailed it.

“Happy Song” followed. I am not familiar with the tune, but I dug it. “Mighty River” was up next, and it was both solid, and apropos of our travels. Big fan. Up next was “Storms” from The Good Life, which was really moving, and the point in the evening where we, without speaking, decided that the band was not going to play anything shy of really good. At “Storms”’ conclusion, drummer Carey Harmon went into this percussive tirade that prompted me to say, “This sounds familiar” to the wife. And familiar was right: “Seven Story Mountain” is easily one of our favorite Railroad Earth tracks, and even though this rendition felt a little rushed, it was wonderful to hear. It is such a moving number, and I recommend everyone give it a musical/lyrical listen at least twice.

A track titled “1759” was next, and I’m unfamiliar with this one, but like “Happy Song,” it was great, and it’s possibly related to this song. “Water Fountain Quicksand,” from The Good Life, felt like the set closer, but we were blessed to have one final number: “The Jupiter & the 119,” which I could not possibly say more about than I already have. It too, felt a little rushed, but the experience of hearing it heavily outweighed.

At intermission, Mama took the wee one into the ladies room for a diaper change, and Daddy, doing his respectable daddy duties, smuggled some cash out of Mama’s purse in case Daddy was told prior to the close of second set to close the tab at the bar. Daddy may or may not’ve further taken advantage of this opportunity to knock back a Grape Bomb on said open tab. It could’ve been the Grape Bomb that afforded Daddy the opportunity to appreciate the perfectness of the Railroad Earth lineup:

Stage left is John Skehan on mandolin. To his right is Andy Goessling on the banjo. Front and center is Todd Sheaffer on acoustic guitar, vocals. Behind him is Harmon, and to Sheaffer’s left is Andrew Altman, who just might play the largest upright bass in the world. And at stage right, it’s Tim Carbone handling the fiddle duties. Several members play multiple instruments, but these are their primary bones, and they all contribute vocally as well. Intermission was also a good time for Daddy to get a sticker:

Set II began with some more Bird in the House, this time taking the form of “Saddle of the Sun,” which was a great second-set opener. From there, they reached back to their debut album and busted out “Colorado,” and I’ll say this about this song: It should be illegal to dislike it. Great tune.

“Lone Croft Farewell” from their most-recent, self-titled release (as is "Jupiter") came next, and they stuck with that album, following up with “Potter’s Field.” What came next was a fascinating decision time-wise. Tyler Andal (violin), and Carl Miner (guitar) from The Greencards joined the band on stage for a ditty entitled “Cuckoo Medley.” Kym Warner (aforementioned cute Aussie) donned the mandolin for a segment of the jam, or at least that’s what and the earthboard said. I thought she was off-stage-right for a chunk of the jam,

stomping her foot in a boogie, then came out and rubbed her buns up against somebody while playing her bass, but that could’ve been the Jager shot –- Jager shot? Where’d you come from? –- talking.

“Old Man & the Sea” was up next. That one’s available on their double-disc live album Elko, which I don’t own. Dug the jam, dig the Hemingway reference. Back to Railroad Earth for a little "Black Elk Speaks," which is a real moving number that always makes me think of the hunt scene in “Last of the Mohicans.” Win, win. “Spring-Heeled Jack" was next. Don’t know it. Sounds pretty Dead-ish, which I like, and I enjoyed it. Second Set closed with “Head,” from The Black Bear Sessions, which doesn’t have a bad track on it. Naturally, we were graced with an encore: A track called “Acadian Driftwood,” made semi-popular by The Band, was a nice cover to wrap up the evening.

Set II

“Saddle of the Sun,” “Colorado,” “Lone Croft Farewell,” “Potter’s Field,” “Cuckoo Medley,”* “Old Man & the Sea,” “Black Elk Speaks,” “Spring-Heeled Jack,” “Head”

E: “Acadian Driftwood”

*w/ Andal, Warner, and Miner of The Greencards

In sum, the show was a really nice time. Like heading into it without expectations, I also didn’t head into it with any plan of how this review would look, which is why I’m not breaking down the tracks quite like I did for the Mike Gordon write-up. These guys are talented musicians, their songs well-crafted, and they generate a great energy live. The wife and I each made one brief trip down to the floor, where things –- as the floor is want to be –- had a much-amplified vibe about them, and had we spent the evening down there, these words would likely be different. I did leave it with a two-fold thought, though: I need to figure out a way to refrain from two other concert tendencies: comparing the studio versions of songs to the live and comparing shows in general. I need to lighten up, and just have a good time.

I did have one other thought about the performance, and that was that we got nothing from Amen Corner, which is quietly becoming a favorite album of mine, and the thought is this: Amen Corner is not only a Railroad Earth album, it is a) a British pop group from the '60s, b) a musical from the '80s, c) a novel by Rick Shefchik, d) a play by James Baldwin, e) the nickname for holes 11-13 at Augusta National Golf Club, f) a song from a Swedish progressive metal band called Opeth, g) a nickname for a stretch of Auburn University's football team schedule that either begins with Georgia and ends with Alabama, or vice-versa, and h) one-time London and New York locales. In case you were wondering.

Upon leaving the venue, we hoofed it back to the MetroLink, where we caught the eastbound Red Line back to the Union Station stop, and across the way to our room, where we all slept soundly. And by “all,” I mean Daddy. Mama got in a work-out in the morning, while baby and I had some complimentary breakfast. We packed, checked out, and stowed our luggage in the hotel-lobby closet, then asked a high-school basketball player to key us into the pool, where baby had her third meal of the day, and we took grabbed the MetroLink over to the Arch (Note: Again, when in Rome…) for a chilly walk-around and some photos.

We stopped in at the Morgan Street Brewery for some coffee. The wife enjoyed a Pilsner, even though she thought it was an I.P.A., and we split an order of pretzels that come with pureed horseradish disguised as mustard. The baby, as the baby is want to do -– got lots of compliments from the bored FOH staff.

Back to the hotel, luggage retrieved, taxi hailed, and we were at Union Station, this time, with plenty of time to spare to catch our train back to Kansas City. So you see, I couldn’t really separate the show from the trip. It was an action-packed adventure with cars, trains, and lightrails, our first travel as a family, one we won’t soon forget. One primary thought stuck with me throughout the long walk to the car: The walk wasn’t any shorter, and the pack-n-play/suitcase/shoulder-bag combo wasn’t any lighter, but this time my feet and pants stayed dry, and most importantly, this time I didn’t have to run.
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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thursday ThinkTank: How an Arizona DJ and Facebook Choked 5,000 Words About Aerosmith Out of Me

A number of months ago, I started wrestling with the idea of deleting my Facebook account. That match is currently in the 137th round, and no clear winner appears on the horizon. I like Facebook. I really do, but my use of it has gone way beyond the initial two-tiered appeal: 1) keeping in touch with those you no longer see often, and 2) checking out pictures of people’s babies and cool vacations/sharing your own. It’s gotten to the point where I am bored with it, yet, out of habit, I long onto it almost daily, and if I do so after being at the bars, well -– let’s just say my Facebook page needs a breathalyzer.

So, yes, the honeymoon is over, and I want to delete it, but know that I might regret it, because underneath the layers of mindless games, obnoxious applications, and the occasional seven-posts-a-day friend, it really is a useful tool. What happens, though, is that I wind up getting involved in commentary with posts –- be it of friends or my own –- and later, when I see that friend, a real-life conversation picks up from where the comment thread started, and then left off. It’s a very dehumanizing sensation. There are also photos of oneself –- plenty to go around, I might add –- that only amplify the general disgust images of my likeness can tend to generate.

But mostly, I’m just bored with it, and every time I find myself close to pinning the shoulders of my delete-account opponent to the mat, something good comes along, like a cool sports video, or a fascinating article, or just some random thing that starts an amazing thread of commentary. For example, 10 days ago, a pal of mine spent the evening watching a biography program on Aerosmith. As he is want to do, my friend posted a YouTube clip of an Aerosmith song. Ironically, I had very briefly written about this song almost three years ago to the day. Well, I didn’t so much write about the song as use its title for a thematic vehicle, but I did go so far as to say that the song was “a terribly awful, monotonous and uninventive song.

And at the time, when I saw he’d put up this clip, I didn’t even remember writing about the song, but my feelings regarding it were apparently the same, as I commented, “Used to be a massive 'smith fan back in the day. That song's one of their worst, though.” He responded by saying I was being judgmental, and I challenged him to find a more-qualified Aerosmith expert –- awful as that sounds –- than myself. In terms of commentary, I expected that two things could happen: 1) One or two random folks might chime in with opinions of their own, and 2) the conversation between us would endure one, maybe two tops, more exchange of comments, and fizzle out.

What did not occur to me was that this gentleman used to be employed in the radio business, and he therefore, knows a few people in music. One person in particular took issue with my statement of opinion regarding “Same Old Song And Dance,” and the comment thread went all Usain Bolt on those involved.

Before I get into that, though, know that the thing fizzled out by day’s end, and we all went about our ways, no harm no foul.

This week, music has been on my mind for various reasons. Tomorrow, the wife, our baby and I will be getting on a train to St. Louis to see Railroad Earth. I’m very excited for the trip in general for three reasons: 1) I’m absolutely stoked to see this band, 2) It will be our first family trip together (the baby is 16 weeks old today), and 3) We’ve always talked about taking a trip on a train somewhere together; my last trip was 25 years ago with my Boy Scout trip, and hers was similarly some time ago. As I’ve mentioned once before regarding show-going, I like to have first-hand knowledge of an artist’s studio repertoire, and heading into the week I only owned two of their five (live releases not included) albums, and due to some technical issues with my iTunes account, I hadn’t yet been able to purchase them.

A download of iTunes solved the initial problem, but then another one arose: I could not –- and still cannot -- sync my iPod with the newly downloaded version. In a fit of haste, I burned the downloads to CD, but selected the wrong format, and discovered, once in my car and en route to work, that they were unreadable. Naturally, these were not rewritable discs, so the two copies I’d made of each album –- the wife’s gotta study up, too –- were wasted, as was one more day for listening. That evening, bad mood finally shrugged off, I burned them correctly, and our cars were loaded Tuesday morning, now only two driving days of listen-time available. But we’ll make do.

On Wednesday, I went to lunch with some family, and afterwards swapped cars with my mother for an errand. While driving her vehicle, I popped on the stereo to see what she had in the CD player, and I was half surprised, half not surprised at all to discover that she had a compilation of ‘60s tunes in there. Now, there’s nothing wrong with oldies, but the half-not-surprised part can be explained like so: There are some music lovers out there in the world that have, at some point in their lives, established what it is they like to listen to, and it is then and there that their personal growth for music appreciation is forever stunted.

This is not to imply that my mother is one of these people, but she sometimes resembles one. This is also not to imply that I am constantly devouring new music. I’m not. I take in new music with a high rate of inconsistency, but were time and money not significant factors, said rate of inconsistency would be much lower. Anyway, I thought about this notion last week when compiling the final installment of our HoG25 project, and it made me thankful that Cecil, Old No. 7, and myself all have tastes in music that are at times similar, and at other times, quite different.

Anyway, back to Aerosmith.

When I first had the privilege of earning money via babysitting, mowing lawns, and later tax-paying employment, I would, regardless of occasional criticism from family and friends, ride my 10-speed to the music store, and spend significant portions of my earnings on cassette tapes. The name of the music store changed numerous times over the years –- Peaches, Sound Warehouse, CD Warehouse –- and I eventually drove my own car (although it hurt my music-purchasing budget to buy one) there, but all told, I probably bought over 1,000 tapes from the joint, even continuing to stubbornly due so post-compact-disc debut.

As I moved through high school, and financial responsibilities grew, I sold off some of the crappier albums I bought, and I never regretted owning any of them really. I had one and only one mantra: Never, under any circumstances, buy a greatest-hits compilation. I wanted the album, the final product released after studio-recording sessions. This is not to say that I didn’t violate it from time to time. When shrouded in doubt, i.e. the undying notion that I was supposed to love the Grateful Dead but overwhelmed by the massive discography, I purchased Skeletons from the Closet, which is really a terrible collection of Dead tunes, and because of those songs, it would be a few years before I would discover the true gems of their legacy. I also bought Bob Marley’s Legend, and conversely, loved every song so much that I bought every single album of his before giving away my copy of the compilation.

If there was one flaw to my purchasing habits, it was that it was way too classic-rock heavy. Now, this provided me with quite the mental arsenal of lyrics, album-release years, and factoids, but I didn’t branch out enough.

Sure, I started buying rap and hip hop, and later ventured elsewhere genrewise, but I bought a ton of classic rock, fortifying my addictive personality with the belief that I couldn’t be a true fan if I wasn’t legitimately familiar with everything they’d ever recorded. I went through this with many artists, and enjoyed almost every minute –- even through the bad songs and the crummy albums –- of this lengthy experience, but it just so happened that Aerosmith was my first.

I was first lured in by classic-rock radio. You know the staples: “Dream On,” “Walk This Way,” “Sweet Emotion,” and, right around the time I was getting fully invested in their old staples, the Permanent Vacation (1987)and Pump (1989) albums came out, so I devoured those, too. Once I knew those newer two releases front to back, I began to dig around for the stuff that came out after 1977’s Draw the Line. And I bought it all. Then they released the Pandora’s Box (1991) box set, and I bought that, too, simply because it had some unreleased stuff and some other tidbits not included in my collection. It was the last Aerosmith purchase I ever made.

Pause for a moment to note that, in my estimation, there are four phases of Aerosmith, and they look like this:

Phase I

Their self-titled, 1973 debut through Draw the Line is a period that comprises some of the rowdiest, rockinest, most-original material they ever wrote. Each of the five studio releases -- Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, and Rocks are the other three -- from Phase I has its duds, make no mistake. But if I may paraphrase Christopher Walken’s Vincenzo Coccotti in "True Romance," This was as good as it was gonna get, and I can promise you: It’s not gonna get that good again. It should be noted that Draw the Line is the weakest of the five releases, and a sign of what was to come in Phase II.

Phase II

In the second stage of the Aerosmith discography, we have what could be called a seven-year stretch of mostly garbage, a stretch that includes three releases and truckloads of drugs. Nineteen seventy-nine’s Night in the Ruts contained the mediocre “No Surprize,” and the sappily enchanting “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” a cover of the 1964 hit from the Shangri-las. Nothing else from the session is noteworthy. Three years later, the band released Rock in a Hard Place, which was mildly better than its predecessor, but only a few cuts had doses resembling Phase I. Another three years, and the Done with Mirrors album dropped, one that suggested their notorious partying days were behind them. It is stone-cold awful.

Phase III

Permanent Vacation kicked off the third tier of this band’s undying legacy, and I’m not gonna lie: I didn’t even reach for a spoon; I ate it up, face-first. This was a special album for me, even though I knew it wasn’t that good. I did, nevertheless develop some semblance of relationship with each track, even the hits. I liked that a band I knew so much about was still putting out music, and, at the time, hits mattered to my feeble mind, and this release had three big ones. And speaking of big ones, there was a healthy dose of sexual innuendo happening inside these cuts, which was a magic elixir for a dude dancing on the doorstep of pubescence. Two years later came Pump, and there were no tricks here: This album was dripping with sex. It was in the lyrics, the MTV videos, and even the Things That Go Pump in the Night VHS tape that, yes, I bought. With Pump, Aerosmith was back, on the covers of all the magazines, touring hard, and, as a matter of fact, bigger than ever.

Phase IV

This final chapter of Aerosmith can, to me, be summarized as everything post-Pump. It began four years after the massive release, and reaches to 2004. This stretch includes four studio albums, all the videos with Alicia Silverstone, and who knows what else. After Pump, I checked out. Not because I tired of them –- although maybe I did –- but because my musical development had taken me elsewhere. It should be noted that, of 11 of Aerosmith’s compilations, 10 came out during this stretch, so, uh, the phrase “milkin’ it” comes to mind. They have, since the late ‘70s, also released five live albums.

Needless to say, Aerosmith had a huge influence on me, but I never imagined any of the musicians to be better than the true phenoms of the era, i.e. Eddie Van Halen, Neal Peart, Bootsy Collins/Flea/Les Claypool, but they were a foundation from which to grow, and I’ll always appreciate the time and money I invested in getting to know their albums.

What does all of this mean? It’s a tie-in to that Facebook thread, the one that started with me saying, “Used to be a massive ‘smith fan back in the day. That song’s one of their worst, though.”

That, in case you forgot, was in reference to “Same Old Song And Dance,” an opinion with which one Paul “Neanderpaul” Marshall disagreed. Our exchange -– all sic -- went like this:

Paul Marshall: Regading “Same Old Song & Dance”…far from one of their worst. In fact, it’s considered one of their benchmark songs. YOU may not like it. But you’re certainly in the minority. The fact that it remains an in-concert staple of their set, part of Rock radio playlists all over the world, and included on no less than seven different Aerosmith releases would prove opposite of your assertion. SOSAD is one of Aerosmith’s BEST songs in the court of public opinion.

bankmeister: Oh, okay. So continuing to play a number live when you’re all 60+ years old, and continuing to have said number aired on the mindless, soul-numbing entity known as classic-rock radio, *and* continuing to release greatest hits, sundry other compilations with the same collection of tracks warrants *proof* of benchmark status? I was unaware. Funny, though, when I check their list of 21 singles in the Top 40 chart, guess what’s not one of them?

SOSAD. An acronym for a *best* song, or a summary of your assertion?

(Note: Those songs include: 1) “Sweet Emotion,” 2) “Dream On,” 3) “Last Child,” 4) “Walk This Way,” 5) “Back in the Saddle,” 6) a remake of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” 7) “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” 8) “Rag Doll,” 9) “Angel,” 10) “Love in an Elevator,” 11) “Janie’s Got a Gun,” 12) “What It Takes,” 13) “The Other Side,” 14) “Livin’ on the Edge,” 15) “Cryin’,” 16) “Amazing,” 17) “Crazy,” 18) Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees),” 19) “Pink,” 20) “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing,” and 21) “Jaded.”

Six of the 21 Top 40 hits came from Phase I. “Same Old Song And Dance” reached 54 at its peak position.)

PM: Yes. That’s the benchmark. Market dictates it. If there were no demand, the song would disappear. You cannot demean the fact that the song appears in their set for almost 40 years, and appears on their best-selling CDs and exists on Radio, and then cite Top 40 charts to defend your position. Your logic is not just flawed…it’s contradictory. You may not like the song, but unlike some of Aerosmith’s big Top 40 hits (“Angel, “Dueces Are Wild” “Amazing” “Pink”) “Same Old Song & Dance” has stood the test of time. It is one of their enduring benchmark tracks. You may not like it. But, you are clearly in the minority.

(Editor’s Note: At this point in the thread, I was informed by the video’s poster, that “Neanderpaul” is “FMQB’s two time Rock Music Director of the Year and repeated nominee for Radio & Records Magazine's Music Director of the Year.” It should also be noted that “Deuces Are Wild” never registered anywhere on the Top 40 chart, but did peak at number one on the U.S. Rock chart.)

b: Being “clearly in the minority” of classic-rock radio is like saying one can think for one’s self. Cut out all of your parenthetical tracks there, and look at the tunes that actually rock, the ones that don’t reek of redundancy. Better yet, go straight to Get Your Wings, the album of its release. Of the eight tracks recorded, four are 10X the song SOSaD ever dreamt of being. They put out an album a year for their first five in existence, yielding 43 tunes. SOSaD doesn’t make the top 25 in my book, and frankly, I couldn’t care less if I’m in the minority. It’s simply not an inventive cut. It’s repetitive, has a lame solo, and could be argued, nominally speaking, to be a parody of itself. Oh, hey –- that also turns out to be the definition of classic rock.

(Note: Said top 25 would include (listed in chronological order) the following: 1) Dream On,” 2) “Mama Kin,” 3)”Walkin’ the Dog,” 4) “Lord of the Thighs,” 5) “Spaced,” 6) “Woman of the World,” 7) “S.O.S. (Too Bad),” 8) “Train Kept A Rollin’,” 9) “Toys in the Attic,” 10) “Uncle Salty,” 11) “Walk This Way,” 12)“Big Ten Inch Record,” 13) “Sweet Emotion,” 14) “No More No More,” 15) “Round and Round,” 16) “Back in the Saddle,” 17) “Last Child,” 18) Rats in the Cellar,” 19) Sick As a Dog,” 20) “Nobody’s Fault,” 21) “Lick and a Promise,” 22) “Draw the Line,” 23) “Kings and Queens,” 24) The Hand That Feeds,” and 25) “Sight for Sore Eyes.” )

PM: See…now you’re backtracking. You wanted to cite top 40 charts to measure proficiency on one hand, and then dismiss examples provided that refute your argument. The fact is; YOU do not like “Same Old Song & Dance.” That’s it. Everything else is simply an attempt to support your argument. Which is merely subjective. The world views “Same Old Song & Dance: as one of Aerosmith’s greatest songs. You are always free to disagree. And as far as which songs (in your words) “Actually rock,” Again, you’re being subjective. Your original assertion was that “that song is one of their worst.” I’ve proven through facts that can be substantiated, that your statement is incorrect. It is one of their best. It may not be one of your favorites. But you…are wrong.

(Note: Yes, I am FJMing this thing, and I’ll take the opportunity here to mention that a) Mr. Marshall never again referred to the song by his initial acronym of choice, b) I’m not in the slightest concerned with hits, but in the hasty throes of the exchange, I sought something that would set SOSaD apart from great tracks, something other than the fact that it’s a lame song.)

b: You threw around benchmarks, setlists, and radio play, sir. I tried to join you by using a similar vehicle, and, in my estimation, you used the easy route of citing nothing but newer, poppier Top 40 hits to refute my claim. Of *course* I’m attempting to support my argument. My original argument -– I, as a rehabilitated Aerosmith junky –- find SOSaD to be a weak, diminutive example of balls-to-the-wall Aerosmith. You came on board -- speaking on behalf of the majorities and, currently, the world -– saying that I was incorrect. I’m aware of what my argument was. What I’m not aware of are these substantiated facts you stated. Did the world vote when their greatest-hits albums were produced? Does Steven Tyler channel his inner Lynyrd Skynyrd with a, “What song is it you wanna hear?” before every show, and the fans respond with booming SOSaD chants? Can you really sit there and insist that fill-in-the-blank on any subject is “the best” and accuse your opposition as being subjective? I know solid Aerosmith, and I’m sorry to melt the wax into your cake, but you be bein’ the one that’s wrong.

PM: You seem to remain confused. Simply by its inclusion on a “Greatest Hits” collection, “Same Old Song & Dance” is classified as “Great.” And your reading comprehension apparently lacks as well. Your original assertion never implied personal opinion. What I have done, is provide empirical evidence to the contrary of your statement. This is not about me vs. you. Although when you challenge someone to find a “more qualified expert” (Note: I had done precisely so to the poster.) on Aerosmith, and one appears before you, you cannot seem to handle it. Aerosmith don’t play songs that the masses don’t want to hear live. They also don’t include songs people wouldn’t want to purchase on their Greatest Hits compilations. It’s the indisputable law of supply and demand. There remains demand for that song. And as such, that refutes your assertion of it being one of their worst songs. Whether or not you agree is irrelevant. You’re wrong. What you choose personally is another matter altogether. There exists enough data to support the contention that “Same Old Song & Dance” is a great Aerosmith song…despite what you may believe.

b: I see. So, when people say, “That was the worst” they’re tossing around blanket statements, substantiated facts, and empirical evidence? I’m learning so much today. Or, when a guy cuts me off in traffic, and I call him “the worst driver ever,” but somebody who later gets run over at a crosswalk and says the same thing, do we go to court to attempt to devalue one another’s factual testimonies? This thread is littered with your opinion. Use of the word “great,” telling me I’m wrong, and claiming yourself as a superior Aerosmith expert are all examples of it. But check this out: I’ll admit the error of my original statement of it being one of their worst songs, and I’ll -- backtracking alert! – change it to this: “Same Old Song and Dance: is not one of Aerosmith’s greatest songs, nor is it a great Aerosmith song. In fact, it’s not even a great song at all. Put that in your data machine, General Greatest Hits. *Handle* it, even.

PM: You appear to be unable to discuss this without emotion. I never said I was a superior fan. But, I can say that I am a qualified expert in all things Aerosmith. And once again, and try to pay attention here…”Same Old Song & Dance” is one of Aerosmith’s greatest songs. Whether you agree or not. The fact that it remains part of their current presentation live & included on multiple “Greatest Hits” collections makes it so. That’s it. End of debate Were this not truth, the song wouldn’t still be played live, on radio, or purchased. Hate it all you want. But it remains the truth. Best of luck in your world. I’m sure it’s difficult to accept that the world is not as you believe it to be. Must be very frustrating to you.

b: That (the fan assertion) was a typo that I edited to read “expert,” which you did assert, and did so again in the previous comment. I wondered when you thought I was confused, unable to read, and not paying attention, but you won some points back by noting that there is emotion involved in my statement. That’s what happens when you’re both fan and expert: You get to look at it both subjectively and objectively. I’m amazed that you continue to think that you, or anybody, putting the label of “great” on something makes said thing fact. If I deem you unqualified to judge Aerosmith songs, does that make in the stores don’t make something great. They make it popular. Best of luck to you, too, buddy. I’m looking to get out of my difficult-to-accept world where things are not only frustrating, but not as I believe them to be. Maybe one day I’ll get to drink from your fact-loaded water cooler and see things in a more enlightened fashion.

And thus, it ended.

What I (apparently unsuccessfully) wanted to communicate to Mr. Marshall were a few points of interest beyond the fact (Note: I’m kidding; it’s my factual opinion.) that “Same Old Song and Dance” is a weak song, and those are these:

1) Hits matter to some people.
2) I am not one of them.
3) They did, at one point, matter considerably to me. Heck, as a real young kid, I’d tune into Casey Kasem every week, and stay plugged in until we were at number one.
4) Classic rock does not care about hits, per se, in the traditional sense.
5) It cares only about a select collection of rock and roll tunes from a particular era.
6) That era used to have specific boundaries, but they have flexed some in recent years.
7) Classic rock used to be my one-and-only go-to. I outgrew it. When I think about it now, I think about those United Negro College Fund commercials.
8) Many classic rock fans never outgrow classic rock, and are therefore subject to an eternally close-minded view of music.
9) Such close-mindedness can be seen in one (or more) of the following forms:
a) A music collection
b) A music philosophy
c) A certainty that radio stations, record labels, concert setlists, and the demand created by the unity of the three write the music-book laws.
10) Mr. Marshall, at the time of this thread, appeared to be disturbingly associated with 8) and 9).

So, naturally, my curiosity arose, and I dug around a bit, to see if I could learn more about this award-winning music director. What I found – all sic – follows:

A few tidbits from a Q&A with “NeanderPaul”:

• Describe your weekly music meeting:

It's good to be the king. For how long have I been talking smack about which song deserves airplay ... and which one is crap? I have the power to destroy careers! BWA HA HA!

• What is the process when you listen to new music?

Truth be told, I don't get a whole lot of new music sent my way. (Note: Wait, what? Get outta here.) Even though we play current music in a city of over three million, and cume the population of entire markets, apparently because we have yet to be officially added to "the panel," our station is not deemed worthy of the effort. Pardon my bitterness. But, this is simply asinine on the part of the record industry. I will try to maintain my composure for once.

• What format does not exist that should?

Ready? I don't think "Classic Alternative" has been done quite right yet. The format is deep, mass-appeal and 25-54 friendly. The diversity in that old "skinny tie rock" is phenomenal! Everything from Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, The Smiths and Big Country to Thomas Dolby, Psych Furs and The Cult.

(Note: Um…what?)

• Would it work?

Sure it would. (Note: No. It would really, really not.) It's the same concept as Classic Rock. There are enough core artists such as U2, The Cure and REM. Plus, the pool of one-hit pop/alt songs combined with punk/new wave is stupid-deep. I'd like to think it would. But if it did, wouldn't someone have done it already? Maybe they are and I just don't hear it. I'd roll every song from every John Hughes movie. (Not that they resonated with anyone.) I am actually shocked it isn't really being done. Too many stations think Stone Temple Pilots is Alternative.

• Tell us what music we would find on your mp3 player right now and what is it you enjoy about that particular selection?

Perhaps this influenced my previous rant. But, today I've enjoyed The English Beat and P.I.L. I like how that old Alternative music was definitively unique. There's a big difference between U2 and REM. I use them as examples because they're so ubiquitous. As a music fan, I find a lot of the current music to be so similar, that it lacks character (Note: This, coming from a guy that likes hair bands, and just finished professing his beliefs regarding the diversity of ‘80s music.). I'm not sure when cloning whatever flavor-of-the-month sound became a good idea again. But, if you look at how musically diverse we were 25 years ago, I think you'll see what I mean. I am so passionate about great music, that I have rediscovered bands I hated from back then, and now appreciate what they did. Drop the Feelies "The Good Earth," or The Pretenders' first record on and then tell me how good that sounds.

• In your opinion, what is the greatest song ever that never made it as a hit?

This changes so often. I always come back to a handful -- "Say Ahh" by Merchant of Venus and "Shine" by Sevendust are up there. But ... there was a band from England called Moke that, to me, is the greatest band that never made it, of all time. The CDs came out on Ultimatum and the debut is criminally overlooked. Somebody please re-release this stuff! It deserves to be heard.

Tweets of interest from “NeanderPaul”:

• “One of the best covers of all time!” (link to “Can’t Find My Way Home” by House of Lords)

• “Radiohead? zzzzzz & Jeff Buckley was never my thing either.” (link to Rolling Stone magazine’s Readers Pick the Top 10 Albums of the ‘90s article)

• “Figured it made sense today.” (link to “It’s Not Love” by Dokken)

• “Always found these guys to be a bit underrated.” (link to “(You Can Still) Rock in America” by Night Ranger)

• “Great tune that gets lost in the shuffle too often.” (link to “Wild Child” by W.A.S.P.)

• “Say what you will…these guys wrote some GREAT songs…this one included.” (link to acoustic version of “Fly to the Angels” by Slaughter)

• “Better than they ever got credit for.” (link to “What You Say” by Saigon Kick)

• “Oh you KNOW you loved this song.” (link to “Give It to Me Good” by Trixter)

Other “NeanderPaul” miscellany:

“People don’t listen to the radio to hear music, but they listen to the radio to feel connected to the music. No matter how great that new Linkin Park or Shinedown album is, they’re not listening to their iPod to feel connected with that.”

“My audience doesn’t care if you’re a +15 this week; they just want to hear the best music from their favorite radio station. If I worked for a record company I would recognize that and say, “Here’s the brand new Nickelback album. Play what you want.” Ultimately, if a kid goes and buys the album, you’ve done your job.

And that leaves me with only two things to say about this whole thing: 1) My job is far from done, because I thought I had an idea of who this journeyman radio personality was, but the more I looked around, the more confused (Note: Hey, look -- He was right!) I got, and 2) “Same Old Song And Dance,” crappy of a song as it might be, does serve a purpose: It’s easy as pie to play on Guitar Hero. Lord knows we’ve all heard it enough times.
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The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Quarter-Finals Preview, Part II

National Hockey League playoff action kicked off last night with five games, each amazing in its own regard. Tonight, the three remaining series will get underway. Previews and predictions follow the jump, as do some stats and links of interest from the Tweeds. As for my predictions, on yesterday's games, well, if they were all decided on one game, I'd be 2-3. There's still plenty of hockey left in this first round for my horses to find their giddy-up, though, so I'll hold off on the face-palming. For now.

The Eastern Conference, tonight

In what could easily be called the biggest match of the first round, the third-seed Boston Bruins meet rival, six-seed Montreal Canadiens at 6 p.m. Central. Head Coach Claude Julien led his club to a Northeast Division-winning campaign, compiling 103 points (Montreal had 96), and saw the point production evenly distributed among his forwards. David Krejci led the way with 62 points, while defenseman Tomas Kaberle posted a four-goal, 43-assist season. In net for the Bs is Tim Thomas, who quietly put together a 2.00 goals-against average, and a .938 save percentage through 55 starts.

On the Habs side of things, Head Coach Jacques Martin has to be proud of a similarly even distribution in production from his club. Tomas Plekanec had a nice 22-goal, 35-assist season, while blue-liner James Wisniewski, despite having his face gashed open, amassed 51 points. Between the pipes for Montreal is Carey Price, who, through 70 starts, posted a 2.35 GAA, a .923 save percentage. The Canadiens have the edge in both the season series (4-2), and playoff history (24-8), although Boston made easy work of the Habs last post-season, eliminating them courtesy of a sweep. And, of course, I'd be remiss not mentioning a key aphrodisiac in this rivalry's spice cabinet.

The pick: Boston may have proved last season that they're beyond first-round chokes: Bs win in seven.

Thirty minutes after the action gets underway in Boston, the two-seed Philadelphia Flyers host the seven-seed Buffalo Sabres. Peter Laviolette's defending Eastern Conference champion Flyers saw his first three lines of forwards combine for an astronomical 480 points this season, while his defense held their own (Matt Carle alone tallied 40 points). Through 52 starts in net, Sergei Bobrovsky posted a 2.59 GAA, .915 save percentage, all while curiosity bubbled concerning his kinship to a certain animated-TV character.

While Philly took the Atlantic Division with 106 points, Buffalo was not too far behind in the Northeast, with 96 of their own. Head Coach Lindy Ruff -- the current third-longest-tenured coach in American professional sports, deserves credit for seeing his Sabres squad through several rebuilding phases, and now, courtesy of seasons like Thomas Vanek's (32 goals, 41 assists) and Tyler Myers' (37 points), looks to make another post-season push. The Sabres have none other than U.S. Olympic badass Ryan Miller (2.59 GAA, .916 save percentage) protecting the net, and will have his work cut out for him: Philadelphia took three of four against Buffalo during the regular season, and owns the playoff edge -- 5-3 -- against the Sabres as well.

The pick: Buffalo has made strides to their return of five-years-ago, 10-years-ago status, but the Flyers will be too much for them: Philly in six.

The Western Conference, tonight

The lone western series of the evening is an all-California dual. It gets going circa 9 p.m. Central, and features the two-seed San Jose Sharks against the seven-seed Los Angeles Kings. Bench boss Todd McLellan captained the Shark ship to a Pacific Division title, via 105 points, while Los Angeles was not far behind with 98. Leading the offensive charge for the Sharks is Patrick Marleau (37 goals, 36 assists), and Dan Boyle shores up the D with an impressive 50-point effort. Wielding the big stick and blocker pads for San Jose is Antti Niemi (2.38 GAA, .920 save percentage through 60 starts).

For the Kings, it's Terry Murray wearing the tie and carrying the grease board. His club was led by Anze Kopitar (73 points), and defenseman Jack Johnson (42 points). Jonathan Quick (2.24 GAA, .918 save percentage) roams the blue section of ice for L.A., and must be on point, given that San Jose took the season series at 3-1-2. This is the first post-season meeting for the two clubs, and if memory serves, the first time that four of five Pacific squads have qualified for tournament play, especially when one of them is not the Dallas Stars.

The pick: San Jose still has some playoff-choke kinks to work out of their skin: The Kings are this season's dark horse: L.A. in five.

NHLNewsNow's Twitter feed offers some insight into Philly/Buffalo.

Darren Pang tweets some interesting NHL television ratings spikes: "The top 5 NHL ratings growth on cable RSNs were: 1.St.Louis (+43%),Boston (+41%), 3Tampa Bay (+33%), 4. Dallas (+29%), 5. Nashville(+25%)."

Never a dull statistical moment from John Buccigross on Twitter:

* "Sabres: won last four games of regular season and 9-1-2 in last 12 games overall.

* "Sharks making seventh straight postseason appearance, the second-longest active streak in the NHL."

* "Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams hurt. Kopitar led the Kings in points with 73.. Williams was tied for second on the team with 57 points." (Editor's Note: So much for that dark horse thing.)

Here's your broadcast schedule. Take a look at who the computers think will compete for the Cup. And if you haven't had enough bracketology, here's one of the coolest ever. Enjoy the first round of the playoffs. Come back for more NHL nuggets as the semi-finals approach.
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