Matthews: The Answer Man Tells It Like He Thinks It Is...

THE ANSWER MAN TELLS IT LIKE HE THINKS IT IS...

Question: Do you think the Pegulas will raise ticket prices for the Buffalo Sabres next season?

Answer: I hope not. Carolina clinched a playoff spot Thursday night for the first time since 2009. The Hurricanes were 15-17-5 on December 30 and then went 31-12-2. Sort of Buffalo in reverse this year. Carolina could get away with hiking ticket prices for next season.

The Sabres have the NHL’s new active non-playoff streak (eight years). Average home attendance this season was 17,908 (93.9 percent capacity). That’s 16th in the NHL. Last season, Buffalo’s average home attendance was 18,563 (99.8 percent capacity) and ranked 11th in the NHL – with the worst record in the NHL. The trends are not good.

I believe Buffalo has the potential to be a great NHL franchise. If the team becomes a consistent playoff contender and a marginal Stanley Cup contender, the Sabres probably would sell out every game. Until that happens, the public isn’t going to happily swallow a hike in ticket prices.

Question: What did you think about Bryce Harper’s bat flip Tuesday night?

Answer: Awesome. Even better than his 458-foot home run. It was his Washington homecoming and Nationals fans were on his case early and loudly. After striking out his first two at-bats, he doubled, singled and homered in Philadelphia’s 8-2 victory. The bat flip as the baseball sailed deep into the night was a thing of beauty.

Of course, some baseball traditionalists—including some ex-teammates on the Nationals -- thought Harper’s bat flip was “out of line...against the code.” Thankfully, my hunch is that most neutral people who saw it loved it.

Harper isn’t baseball’s best player. I’m not sure he’s in the top five. But he’s the sport’s most-charismatic and exciting player. He plays with passion. He looks good striking out. He celebrates long home runs. Why not?

Baseball needs more players who look like they’re having fun and ignoring “the code.” It is no coincidence that Harper leads MLB in licensed merchandise jersey sales. Young fans in particular embrace his personality and flair for the dramatic.

Question: Do you still think the Golden State Warriors are a cinch to win the NBA championship for the third straight year? If not, what other team might go all the way?

Answer: Yes. If the Warriors are healthy, no team could beat them in a best-of-seven series.

The only marginal threats to Golden State are Houston and Milwaukee.

Houston is 18-3 in its last 21 games and playing super basketball. But I wonder if James Harden – my pick to repeat as league MVP – could carry the team on his back against an opponent as strong as Golden State. He has not been a great performer in the playoffs in the past.

Milwaukee has the NBA’s best record (59-20) and point differential per game (+9.3). The Bucks are a young team and could be the team to beat in a year or two. They’d need to be completely healthy (they’re not right now) and bring their A-game at least four times in a championship series to upset Golden State this season.

Question: Former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel is a free agent and still unsigned. What team should sign him?

Answer: The New York Mets. Keuchel was looking for a long-term deal worth at least $100 million. He’s 31 years old and coming off a decent 2018 season with Houston (12-11, 3.74 ERA). If I were the Mets, I’d offer him a one-year contract for maybe $25 million. That could give him added incentive to have a big season.

The Mets have an underrated offense and a strong pitching staff. Keuchel would make the terrific starting rotation even better – Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler, Steven Matz and Keuchel.

Signing Keuchel would convince the team’s fans that the Mets mean business this season in pursuit of a playoff spot against Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta in the loaded NL East.

Question: Considering the 16 free agents signed by the Buffalo Bills, what position should the Bills be focusing on with the No. 9 and No. 40 overall picks in the NFL draft?

Answer: I believe GM Brandon Beane has done a fine job shoring up the weakest spots on the roster – offensive line and wide receiver. That means the Bills can add the best available player with the No. 9 and No. 40 picks – presumably an offensive and a defensive lineman.

Question: What is your NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament pick?

Answer: Duke and North Carolina disappointed millions of ACC fans – including me. I’m picking ACC survivor Virginia. I think the Cavaliers are due.

Question: How do you think LeBron James will fare in the post-season All-NBA balloting?

Answer: All things considered, I don’t think he deserves better than Third Team All-NBA.

Question: Who is the most underrated pro athlete today?

Answer: I’m prejudiced because I’ve always enjoyed bowling and watch the pros whenever they’re on TV. By far the best bowler today, and maybe the all-time best, is 35-year-old Australian Jason Belmonte. He uses the unconventional but extremely effective two-handed cranker delivery and blows pins away with an exaggerated hook.

He’s been called “The Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan of Tenpins.” He’s won 21 PBA titles, including a record 11 major championships. He’s a four-time PBA Player of the Year. He’s had the highest per game average in four of the past five years (including 229.49 in 2017) and has led in money won in three of the past five years (including $238,912 in 2017 – that’s amazing for a bowler).

LINING BASEBALL HITS TO ALL FIELDS

New York Mets ace Jacob DeGrom is off to a great start in his bid for a repeat National League Cy Young Award: 2-0 record; 0.00 ERA; 13 innings; 8 hits allowed; 2 walks; 24 strikeouts; .174 batting average against; 0.77 WHIP (walks + hits per inning).

xxxMinnesota’s Willians Astudillo was 3-for-5 Wednesday to boost his career Major League Baseball career batting average to .382 (39-for-102).

xxxThe Red Sox (2-6) and the Yankees (3-4) are off to poor starts. The difference is that Boston is healthy and the Yankees have been hit by injuries to several key players.The Red Sox wasted a golden opportunity to take the lead in the AL East.

xxxThe list of big-name hitters are off to lousy starts this MLB season includes:

Migiel Cabrera (Detroit) -- .148 (4-for-27); 0 2B-0 3B -0 HR1 RBI.

Yadier Molina (St. Louis) -- .083 (2-for-24); 1-0-0 1 RBI

Brian Dozier (Washington) -- .091 (2-for-22); 0-0-0 0 RBI

Andrew Benintendi (Boston) .160 (1.25) 0-1-0 3 RB!

Corey Seager (Dodgers) .130 (3-for-23); 0-0-1 3 RBI

Jose Ramirez (Cleveland) .136 (3-for-22); 1-0-0 0 RBI

Yasiel Puig (Cincinnati) -- .150 (3-for-20); 1-0-0 2 RBI

Max Muncy ( Dodgers) .100 (2-for-20), 0-0-1 4 RBI

Daniel Palka (White Sox) .000 (0-for-17); 0-0-0 2 RBI

Brandon Nimmo (Mets) -- .087 (2-for-23); 0-0-0 1 RBI

...and, of course, Chris Davis (Baltimore) .000 (0-for-17), 11 Ks.

COULD THESE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING BE ONE OF NHL’S BEST-EVER TEAMS?

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been the class of the National Hockey League this season.

They won 3-1 Thursday night in Toronto to boost their record to 61-16-4 record (126 points in the standings). The next-most points was 107 by the Calgary Flames.The Lightning goal differential is +100 (319 to 219). Thesecond-best is Calgary at +64.

Tampa Bay is leading the NHL in scoring and has the league’s No. 1 power play and No. 4 penalty killing. Andrei Vasilevsky is a top-notch goaltender.

Ryan Lambert of Yahoo! Sports recently touted Tampa Bay as “the best hockey team ever assembled.”

Who knows? He could be right.

Of course, no NHL team deserves a spot in the “best-ever team” discussion unless it wins the Stanley Cup.

The NHL record for most points in a season is 132 by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. They had a 60-8-12 record, outscored opponents 387-171 (+216) and won the Stanley Cup. I’m throwing that team into the best-ever contest.

The NHL record for most wins in a season is 62 by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. But they outscored opponents by a mere 144 goals (325 to 181) and lost in the third round of the playoffs.

The 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings set a Presidents’ Trophy (since 1985-86 season for the best record in the regular season) with 124 points (topped by Tampa Bay’s 126 this season) but they were upset in the first round of the playoffs.

The Lightning are a team without a weakness. They have three solid lines, a deep defense and a very good goalie. Eleven players have double-figure goals and five have at least 22 goals. The goal leaders are Steven Stamkos 44, Brayden Point 41 and Nikita Kucherov 40 (he also has 86 assists). Rochester’s Ryan Callahan is in his sixth season with Tampa Bay (7 goals, 10 assists in 50 games this season).

Kucherov is a cinch for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. The 25-year-old right wing leads the league with 126 points – 10 more than runner-up Conor McDavid.

Another plus for Tampa Bay in the “best-ever” discussion is the foreign talent on the roster. Kucherov and Vasilevsky are among the four Russians on the squad. The defense includes two Russians and two Swedes. Many of the great teams of the past – including the parade of Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens – were almost exclusively Canadian.

The bottom line: These Tampa Bay Lightning obviously are among the great regular-season teams in NHL history. But they’d need to win the Stanley Cup to enter the “best-ever” debate.

SHORT SHOTS

Opening night couldn’t have been much better for the Rochester Red Wings Thursday in Allentown, Pa. They hammered three home runs in a 4-2 victory over Lehigh Valley and struck out 16 Iron Pigs. The announced attendance was 9,290.

Ronald Torreyes, Wilin Rosario and Randy Cesar hit the HRs for Rochester. Winning pitcher Kohl Stewart (8), Ryan Eades (4) and Tyler Duffey (4) logged the strikeouts for the Wings.

xxxIt was nice to see the Buffalo Sabres end their home season on a winning note Thursday night with a 5-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. Entering the game, the Sabres were 2-15-2 with no wins in regulation and had been outscored 78-37 since the NHL trade deadline February 25. I guess they should’ve made a few more deals.

xxxTim Tebow was 0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts for the Syracuse Mets Thursday night in their home-opening 6-3 loss to Pawtucket before 8,823 fans...Buffalo drew 12,898 for an 8-3 home win over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

xxxFormer Irondequoiit high school baseball star and New York Yankees 2009 first-round draft pick Cito Culver has signed with the Rockland Boulders of the independent Can-Am League. He’s 26 and still loves to play. He was on the New Orleans Baby Cakes (Pacific Coast League) last season. In nine minor league seasons, primarily as a shortstop, Cito hit .231 with 43 HRs and 329 RBI in 902 games. He never reached the majors. In 2017 with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (International League), he hit .223, with 12 HRs and 48 RBI in 103 games.

xxxAccording to Andy Marchant (New York Post), Stephen A. Smith is “in line” to make $10 million per year in his next contract with ESPN. He’d be the network’s highest-paid on-air talent. Give him credit. Many viewers can’t stand him but many more viewers like him.

xxxThere will be a new taco stand at Frontier Field this Red Wings season. Roc Taco will be located on the third base side where Bog Red BBQ was located....A Buffalo Chicken Waffle Cone dressed with chucks of blue cheese and Red Wing Wing Sauce will a new offering At Batter Up....A new Budweiser product stand will open in the Walk of Fame.

xxxFormer Western New York Flash star Alex Morgan (4 goals in 14 matches in 2011) scored her 100th international goal for the United States women’s national soccer team Thursday night in a 5-3 victory over Australia in Denver. It was her 159th international game (cap). She is the seventh U.S. player to hit the 100 mark. Abby Wambach still is the world’s all-time goal scorer with 184 in 256 caps.

xxxThe turning point of the 2019 National Lacrosse League season for the Rochester Knighthawks was the day last summer when free-agent goalie Matt Vinc decided to sign with the Buffalo Bandits. Long-time back-up goalie Angus Goodleaf became Rochester’s starter. Their performance lines this season:

Vinc (Bandits) – 10.30 goals-against average (best in the NLL); .799 save percentage (best in the NLL); most wins and best record in the NLL (12-1).

Goodleaf (K-Hawks) – 13.60 goals-against average (worst in the NLL); .747 save percentage (worst in the NLL); most losses in the NLL (2-9 record).

Don’t blame Goodleaf. Vinc has the much better supporting cast.

HAPPY SPORTS BIRTHDAY TO...

Friday, April 5

John Curtiss 26...Matt Bonner 39...Stephen Jackson 41...Marc Bulger 42...Henrik Stenson 43...Ike Hilliard 43...Tony Banks 46...Jon Morris 67...Brad Van Pelt 68. Pharrell Williams 46 and Colin Powell 82 are invited to the birthday party.

Saturday, April 6

Spencer Dinwiddie 26...Aaron Maybin 31...Clarke MacArthur 34...Jeff Faine 38...Tim Hasselbeck 41...Donnie Edwards 46...Randall Godfrey 46...Olaf Kolzig 49...Oliver Miller 49...Sterling Sharpe 54...Lorenzo Lynch 56...Bill Brooks 65...Janet Lynn 66...Spider Lockhart 66...Bert Blyleven 68.

Sunday, April 7

Jared Cook 32...Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 33...Suzann Petterson 38...Adrian Beltre 40...Tiki and Ronde Barber 44...Bret Boone 49...Ricky Watters 49...Steve Wisniewski 52...Don Biggs 54...Mike Cofer 59...Buster Douglas 59...Ted Nolan 61...Tony Dorsett 65...Clark Gilles 65...Rod Martin 65. Russell Crowe 55 and Francis Ford Coppola 80 are invited to the birthday party.

ON THIS DATE IN SPORTS...

April 5

38 years ago (1981), the Philadelphia Flyers amassed an NHL-record 2,621 penalty minutes...35 years ago (1984), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar beat Wilt Chamberlain’s career scoring record of 31,419 points...32 years ago (1987), Wayne Gretzky won his seventh straight NHL scoring title...26 years ago (1993), the Colorado Rockies played their first game and lost 3-0 to the New York Mets...9 years ago (2010), Duke beat Butler 61-59 for the 72nd NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

April 6

84 years ago (1935), Harold “Bunny” Levitt, shooting underhand style, sank 499 consecutive free throws, missed one, and then sank 371 more...67 years ago (1952), Sam Snead won the 16th Masters Tournament by four strokes over Jack Burke Jr. ... 61 years ago (1958), Arnold Palmer won the first of his four Masters...42 years ago (1977), the Seattle Mariners played their first game and lost 7-0 to the Angels...39 years ago (1980), Gordie Howe completed his record 26th NHL season...27 years ago (1992), the Baltimore Orioles beat Cleveland 2-0 in their first game at Camden Yards.

April 7

79 years ago (1940), Jimmy Demaret won the first of his three Masters titles, beating Lloyd Mangrum by four strokes...68 years ago (1951), Ben Hogan won his first of two Masters titles by two strokes over Skee Riegel...61 years ago (1958), the Dodgers erected a 42-foot screen in left field at the LA Coliseum to cut down on home runs; it was only 250 feet down the line...42 years ago (1977), the Toronto Blue Jays played their first game and beat the Chicago White Sox 9-5...16 years ago (2003), Syracuse beat Kansas 81-78 for the 65th NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

Bob Matthews' Column

Bob Matthews' Column

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