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Georges St-Pierre sees all; Sidney Crosby makes contact and more

Georges St-Pierre, from Montreal celebrates after defeating Josh Koscheck, from Waynesburg, PA., with a unanimous decision to retain his welterweight title at UFC 124 Sunday, December 12, 2010 in Montreal. UFC boss Dana White may insist that Georges St-Pierre is more famous than Wayne Gretzky but Canadians still rate The Great One over GSP THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Ryan Remiorz

And they're off. A good night for the favourites to start the NHL post-season; four games and the hometeam won in each case with the exception of Nashville's 4-1 win over Anaheim, and a No.5 seed winning the opener over a No.4 can't really be considered an upset, I don't think. I'm sure the fans in Vancouver can breath a bit better this morning after the Canucks came out and played like their regular season selves against their playoff rivals. But will beating this version of the Blackhawks be as meaningful? We have that, a really nice Sidney Crosby story; Georges St-Pierre's preparations for his big night in Toronto and more:

1. These aren't your Stanley Cup champions of old:

The Chicago Blackhawks represent a bogeyman of sorts for the Vancouver Canucks -- or at least their fans. Or at least Roberto Luongo. But how much does a sweater really matter, anyway? As Vancouver came at Chicago in waves in the opening game of their first-round playoff matchup, a comfortable 2-0 win for the Canucks, it's worth remembering that these Blackhawks -- carved up by the NHL salary cap -- aren't the same Blackhawks that bounced Vancouver from the playoffs last season, as Mark Spector writes: we should have been prepared for this, after seeing the Hawks scuffle through the regular season; as we averted our eyes while the once-mighty Stanley Cup champs backed into the playoffs on the final day of the season, courtesy a win by lowly Minnesota.

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Somehow though, you have to see the machine in a playoff atmosphere before you can appreciate that the sum of its current parts is, obviously, nowhere near as great as what the Vancouver Canucks faced a year ago.

Daniel Sedin had said it best at Wednesday's morning skate, when he said, "The balance we have, it's probably a deeper lineup than they have. We are a deep team - that's how we are going to win games.

"If we play against Keith and Seabrook, and the Toews line, and we do a good job against them, we know that our other lines are going to step up and win the games for us."

By the time Game 1 was over, neither the Sedin Bros., nor the Blackhawks top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa - who was replaced by Patrick Kane - had picked up a single point.

2. Sidney Crosby's not cleared for contact, but he can still have an impact:

If the episode recounted here ends up a being fodder for a reality TV show I might think otherwise, but this anecdote reflects awfully well on the Pittsburgh Penguins star, who saw some fans in his jerseys and went out of his way to do what fans wearing player's jerseys probably wish for when they plunk down their money. In the process he proved himself a decent, friendly guy who appreciates those who pay the freight, and understands that a small, spontaneous gesture can mean a lot to someone: Sidney Crosby actually pulled up behind my family and me in the parking lot adjacent to the Consol Energy Center and asked, from his vehicle, who the young man in front of me was. I did manage, after a brief moment of awe, to introduce him to Kyle, and proceeded to ask Kyle if he knew who this man in the suit and tie was. (The two are only a year apart in age). Kyle - being Kyle - squealed with happiness and did a dance in his wheelchair in confirmation. From there, Crosby offered Kyle an autographed picture of himself, made casual conversation - asking how many games Kyle attends, where Kyle is from - and even got out of his car to take a picture with his young fan. And if ever we were wondering what made him stop, he did offer, "Well, I saw you were wearing my shirt, so"

He motioned to Kyle (as well as our mom and myself), who were all wearing his unmistakable captain jersey. He even touched Kyle's shoulder in kindness and told him thanks for coming to the games.

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This whole incident absolutely blew all of us away. Never, in a million years, would I have expected this man to seek us out - even Kyle - and do what he did.

3. Some reason for optimism for Raptors fans:

If Raptors fans had a contest for their bleakest seasons they'd have a lot of choices. The 16-66 doozy in 1997-98 would certainly have to be up there. My vote would go to 2008-09 or 2009-10 because there was so much sincere - if misplaced ( Jermaine O'Neal? Hedo Turkoglu?) -- optimism that the results had more of a kick-in-the-gut feel . But this season? This season was like starting out a cleaning the basement of some house you bought from a hoarder who had died. You knew it was going to be bad but there was no choice to get on with the task at hand. But -- as Jeff Blair writes -- the season has at least brought one potential treasure shining through the junky Sonny Weems and Julian Wrights and the costume jewelry of Andrea Bargnani: [Ed]Davis, the 13th pick overall out of North Carolina, is a keeper, despite needing every inch of his 6-foot-10 frame to carry the 225 pounds he claims. Davis, who turns 21 on June 5, has done more than merely survive. Entering the game Wednesday against the Miami Heat, his 13 double doubles led the Raptors - yeah, yeah, statistics on a bad team and all that stuff - while his field-goal percentage was first among NBA rookies. He was fourth in boards and third in blocks and had a shot at rookie of the month, when he is averaging 34 minutes a game.

For many Raptors fans, Davis arrived on the scene during the Heat's previous visit, when he knocked former Raptors star Chris Bosh to the floor in a game that the referees handed to the Heat 103-95. Davis had 13 boards, although it mattered not as the officiating crew upheld the established NBA rule that mandates a team with superstars can get away with whatever it wants.

Terry Davis admitted he has been surprised at his son's productivity. Not that he doubted the talent or the instincts - Terry Davis says his son has a real sense for the game - but, well, that body? Yikes. Yet Davis' shot-changing wingspan and sure-footedness have stood him in good stead and allowed him to match up with bigger, heavier players.

"The coaching staff there did a really good job developing Ed, to the point where I think he has a home in the NBA," said Terry, who played 10 seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, Heat, Washington Wizards and Denver Nuggets and was handed the nickname Chop by one of his coaches, Ron Rothstein.

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"I just thought he didn't have the weight, you know?' Terry continued. "I thought he'd be in a lot of situations where he'd have three, four fouls early. But he's found a way to hold his own in the paint. It's a man's game down there, and Ed hasn't shied away. I just think he's going to be a terrific pro."

That word - pro - might not mean much on its own but when a player calls another player a "pro" it speaks volumes and goes well beyond a father's pride.



4. Star power doesn't automatically make soccer not boring:

Nothing like a 0-0 draw to excite a sold-out crowd on a cold wet night at BMO Field, but that is the problem with soccer. Even the presence of one of the world's most famous players can't necessarily lift an early season game on a Wednesday night. But then again, David Beckham of the LA Galaxy did flash the one gift that made him famous and will remain in his arsenal a while longer, no doubt: Surprisingly for a man with a penchant for the fastest, and most luxurious, cars that money can buy, the man of the moment was unable to stir his team out of first gear for any length of time, although the visitors were missing usual captain Landon Donovan from their quick-fire attack.

Still, when you possess a cultured right foot like the former Manchester United and Real Madrid man you only require a second to change a game, and No. 23 nearly produced what everyone in the sellout crowd of 22,453 had come to see in the 70th minute.

Following a foul by TFC centre back Adrian Cann L.A. midfielder Juninho, Beckham was presented with the opportunity for one of his trademark free kicks and with a hushed crowd waiting expectantly, he stepped up to crash his shot off the right upright and the opportunity was gone.

5. Georges St-Pierre has seen it all before:

We are barely two weeks out from the first-ever UFC card in Ontario and the biggest night for the sport in it's fairly brief history. There will be 55,000 screaming, blood-lusting fans; the biggest crowd the UFC has ever had. That the card comes here after years of the sport being denied sanctioning promises only to make the build-up that much more intense. In the centre of it all come April 30th will be Georges St-Pierre, of Montreal. He isn't immune to pressure, but he uses specific visualization techniques to help him prepare for it: Fighting is not easy, even if watching Georges St-Pierre tear through the cream of the crop of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's welterweight division makes it seem so.

The UFC welterweight champion has won 14 of his past 15 fights and also won 30 consecutive rounds. Much of his success, obviously, is due to physical gifts that the rest of us mere mortals don't possess, as well as a work ethic unsurpassed in the sport.

St-Pierre isn't content with being great, each time out, he's looking to improve upon his last performance.

What gives Georges St-Pierre a heads-up over the competition? It's all in the eyes.

It's almost impossible to prepare for the scene, since it's never been seen in MMA before, but nothing he encounters will surprise St-Pierre. He's already made the walk from the locker room and stood in the center of the cage, gazing around at the raucous crowd.

He has, that is, in his mind. St-Pierre is a large believer in visualization and took advantage of a promotional stop in January to check out the stadium. He made certain to replicate the walk he'll make as he heads to the cage to meet Shields, and to close his eyes and imagine the scene when he finally hits the cage.

"It's something I've done for a while and it helps me to be more comfortable in whatever the situation may be," St-Pierre said. "It's going to be a huge crowd that night, and I just went over in my mind what it will be like so there are no surprises."

It's called mental rehearsal and is almost always far more productive than just "focusing," as many athletes say.

6. Who do you like for NBA MVP? How about best beard?

The choice for the NBA's most valuable player seems pretty clear cut: The Chicago Bulls have the league's second-best record despite battling significant injuries to two of their best players. Their best player, Derrick Rose, is an absolutely spectacular talentr who leads the team in scoring, assists and scares the bejesus out of the opposition because they can't guard him. Best player having great season on suprisingly excellent team: sounds like a pretty obvious MVP. But the problem is the stats-minded can make a case that two-time MVP LeBron James has had a better, more impactful season for the Miami Heat. And then there's Dwight Howard, who has helped Hedo Turkoglu become a good defender. I would have to cast my vote for Rose because the Bulls have so exceeded expectations and Rose has unquestionably been the player that has won games down the stretch for them. But I understand the arguments for and against. If you want to vote for a bunch of other NBA award categories -- including best beard, for which James Harden looks like a lock -- I direct you to Truehoop.com, where they're having some fun with it.

7. Maybe if Becks had a can of pop in his hand he'd have scored on that free kick:

As has been written about in this space before; there is nothing like a good trick shot video. My problem is that when advertisers use athletes doing trick shots as a way to sell stuff -- and then have them doing stuff they might actually be able to do, but act all coy about whether they did it or not, it kind of bugs me. Just show me the trick shots; these guys are good, they don't need fake help. Anyway, here is video of Beckham playing beach soccer. I think it's fake.

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