Lucic shapes up his point against Rangers

985689.jpg

Lucic shapes up his point against Rangers

The beaming, wide, knowing grin on Milan Lucics face said it all on Saturday night. It was the only fitting reaction after he potted the Bruins first goal of the season with a little less than six minutes to go in the first period.

It lit a raging fire of emotion under the posteriors his Bs teammates and lifted them up amid what had been a scoreless first which Boston largely dominated while out-shooting the Rangers by a 14-7 margin. It also resoundingly answered all of the critics that reasoned the 24-year-old Bruins power forward was woefully out of shape while idling in Boston during the four-month lockout.

The doubters expected the worst out of Lucic to start the season, and the doubters got it wrong.

Instead the wide mark of happiness on Lucics visage was about the first thought that popped into his head after snapping home the rebound: his newborn eight pound, one ounce baby girl Valentina Lucic born just two days prior after 18 hours of labor.

Thats what was really important amid so much sound and fury with the NHL season cranking up this week.

It was a whirlwind last week for Lucic with the start of a week-long training, the birth of his first child and Saturday nights 3-1 win over the New York Rangers in impressive fashion. So youll forgive No. 17 if he didnt have enough energy or care for a round of I told you so sound bytes to everyone that doubted him after Boston's big win.

It is what it is. I dont want to make too big of a deal about it. I feel good; Im just going to go out there and play my game, said Lucic. You guys get to watch from upstairs, and you guys can make your own judgments and opinions about it.

Whether it was answering the naysayers or simply missing the game of hockey while the NHL was away for the last four months, Lucic was playing with the snarling edge that makes him one of the league's most fearsome forces. He actually could have had a goal even earlier in the period when Henrik Lundqvist kicked the rebound of a Nathan Horton shot toward the post.

But Lucic instead chose to crash the straight down the middle of the ice and wasnt in position to slam home the loose puck.

Instead Lucic took a mental note for later in the period, and crashed the far post the second time around. That's where the rebound of a David Krejci shot bounced right onto his stick for the put-back score, and the Bruins were off and running while following Lucic's lead.

The goal seemingly announced that Lucic wouldnt be suffering from the slow start to the hockey season many predicted. It also made it difficult to discern which players had or hadnt played in Europe during the lockout as everybody looked pretty close to equal in effort, output and energy levels through 60 minutes.

I give credit to the guys that went over to Europe and played were playing at a high level and doing a good job, but I also give credit to the guys who didnt, said Andrew Ference. I think a lot of guys out there tonight didnt look out of place and I thought the game was good, professional. The guys were acting like professionals even during the frustrating time of not playing.

Lucic was a professional force around the net with his big body on rebounds, he led the team with four registered hits that served notice to the Rangers he meant business for the evening and he ended up cutting his night short early after a late dust-up with Mike Rupp and Ryan McDonagh. The altercation earned him a 10-minute misconduct late in the third period when Lucic didn't leave the area once the refs told him it was time to head back to the bench.

Claude Julien loved what he saw out of Lucic after he was among many players that struggled badly in Tuesday nights scrimmage against Providence.

Lucic was very good. The microscope was on him for a long time because he didnt play in Europe and people thought that maybe he wasnt in the best of shape, said Julien. There were a lot of question marks on him, but I thought he played a solid game.

Not only did he score that goal from driving the net, but physically and everything else he was good. I dont really have any complaints about anyone on our team tonight, because I thought from top to bottom we were a pretty good hockey club.

While key forwards like Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand also didnt play in Europe during the 113 days of the NHL lockout, it was Lucic alone that bore the brunt of unfair criticism that he hadnt worked hard enough to prepare for a shortened campaign. It was always true that he hadnt been on the ice much in November or December and because of that he wasnt in game shape.

But anybody with eyes could also see Lucic hadnt gained any bad weight or suddenly fallen into terrible shape that was going to hamper his ability to at least work himself back into game shape" over the first few weeks.

Instead people ran with the narrative and tweeted out pictures of Lucic sucking wind and down on one knee when the Bruins players first got together at Boston University prior to organized training camp. That raised questions and, to be truthful, aggravated some of Lucics teammates.

Looch has been in shape this whole time, and it was great for him to go out and score proved that he hasnt missed a beat. He was physical out there as well, said Johnny Boychuk. Thats the way he wants to play and thats the way hes going to play. For him to go out and get that goal to show that hes not slacking really means a lot to everybody.

The challenge now for Lucic is to tap into that same motivational force time and time again this season once the adrenaline fades away, and the grind of the 48-game sprint begins to weight him down.

Lucic goes from tough-to-play-against to impossible-to-stop beast when hes got something to prove, and that was definitely the case while passing his personal fitness test against the Rangers.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.