Division Series round was one to remember

912355.jpg

Division Series round was one to remember

NEW YORK -- If baseball had tried, it could not have staged a better Division Series round.

For all the attention paid to the introduction of the second wild card and the one-game, winner-take-all format, it was the Division Series that most captivated fans.

Consider: all four of Division Series went the maximum five games, something that had never before happened since the format was introduced in 1995.

Moreover, three of the 20 games went into extra innings while seven were decided in the winning team's final at-bat. And more than a third of the first-round games (eight) were one-run games.

"If you wanted to see one round of great baseball, we got to see it,'' said New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi before Saturday's Game 1 of the ALCS. "(You had) four series that went five games, teams coming back, dramatic home runs. Pretty amazing. This first round was probably as good as it gets, probably as good as it can be with eight teams.''

The Division Series saw one team -- San Francisco -- win after losing its first two games at home and another -- Oakland -- which forced a fifth game after losing the first two on the road.

Twice, the Yankees won games in extra innings. Once, the A's rallied from being down by three in the bottom of the ninth.

And, for the capper, the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals rallied from being down 6-0 early and trailed by two heading into the bottom of the ninth in an elimination game.

The Cardinals' late-inning rally, though not quite as dramatic as their comeback in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, was spectacular nonetheless.

The Division Series made stars of Raul Ibanez, and, for a time, Jayson Werth, just as surely as it made goats of Drew Storen and Jim Johnson. In successive games, Coco Crisp was, alternately, goat and hero.

The week served as a reminder that, at its best, no sport can match baseball's post-season drama. Even in the first round, before story lines had a chance to fully form, the tension was unmatched as momentum swung wildly from game to game.

Ironically, MLB had hoped that the "knockout'' format of the wild-card games would offer that instant drama. But win-or-go-home games carry with them a built-in disadvantage: in the span of nine innings, there isn't time to build the back-and-forth that come from a longer series.

And if the games themselves aren't instantly compelling, they call attention to inherent questions about the equity of the format. Sadly for baseball, the most noteworthy thing about the first two ''play-in'' games was a infield fly ruling by the umpires that may have precluded the Atlanta Braves from mounting a late-inning comeback.

But there was no denying the quality of the games that followed.

Perhaps the competitive nature of the Division Series games are a reflection of the parity that exists in the game. There were no clear absolute favorites heading into the post-season this fall, and now that there are only four teams remaining, that's still the case.

Before 2011, there had been 64 Division Series since 1995 and only 14 had gone the maximum five games. In the last two Octobers, however, seven of the last eight first round games have gone the distance.

If that's a preview of things to come, baseball wouldn't argue.

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

bruins_ryan_spooner_120216.jpg

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.