December 31, 2011 Leave a comment
It’s December 31st and another year of sports is in the books. I chronicled the best games of the year and the breakout stars of the year…I saved the best for last – the best athletes in sports in 2011:
Tim Thomas, Goalie, Boston Bruins – Thomas had an M.V.P. performance in goal for the Bruins during the regular season. His postseason was even better. Thomas gave one of the most brilliant performances for a goalie in postseason history as the Bruins romped to their first Stanley Cup Championship since 1972. He was coming off of an injury riddled 2009-2010 season and young goalie Tuuka Rask had emerged as a goalie with a bright future that year. The roles were reversed in the 2010-2011 season when Rask couldn’t stay on the ice and Thomas was back healthy. He started 57 games in goal for the B’s and had a record of 35-11-9. His 35 wins were one off of his career high of 36 set back in the 2008-2009 season. He had 9 shutouts, which shattered his previous career high of 5. His .938 save percentage was also a career high. In all he saved 1,811 shots on goal. He was the best goalie in the regular season and won the Vezina Trophy for being the most outstanding goalie in the regular season. When the postseason rolled around Thomas took his game to a whole nother level. He started all 25 games that the Bruins played on their way to the cup posting a 16-9 record. Thomas had 4 shutouts during the Stanley Cup finals including two in Game 7s. He broke the record for most saves in a postseason (798) as well as most saves in the Stanley Cup finals (238). After shutting out the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exciting 1-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals he brought out his best for the Stanley Cup finals. Thomas only let in 8 shots compared to the 238 that he turned back against Vancouver. His .967 save percentage in the finals broke a 66-year old record. After he shut out the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 in Game 7 in Vancouver Thomas was named the Conn Smythe trophy winner for being the M.V.P. of the Stanley Cup playoffs. At 37 years old he became the oldest player to ever win the Conn Smythe trophy. If you could believe it, Thomas’ numbers at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season are even better. He is 16-5-2 through 23 games with 4 shutouts. His .940 save percentage thus far this season is even better than last year. It’s a long road to a Stanley Cup repeat and it’s a tall order to repeat the historic performance of last year’s Stanley Cup finals. If the beginning part of this year is any indication however it looks like Thomas may be up for the challenge.
Kevin Durant, Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder – Durant had high hopes coming into the league after a year at the University of Texas. He was drafted 2nd overall by the Seattle Supersonics in the 2007 NBA draft. After a season in Seattle the Supersonics were sold and moved to Oklahoma City where they become the Thunder. Durant was to be the centerpiece of the relocated franchise. Durant was the rookie of the year for the 2007-2008 season and finished second behind Lebron James in the M.V.P. voting after the 2009-2010 season. It was the 2010-2011 season, however, that Durant brought the Oklahoma City Thunder to new heights. The Thunder won 50 games and earned the #8 seed in the playoffs a year prior. In ’10-’11 the Thunder won 55 games and earned the #4 seed in the playoffs. Durant was the centerpiece, as he was expected to be when they drafted him. He lead the NBA in scoring for a second year in a row with a 27.7 points per game average. He also had 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in the 78 games that he played for the Thunder. He saved his best work for the playoffs. After sneaking into the playoffs and losing in the first round to the Lakers in 6 games the season prior, Durant and the Thunder were primed for a deeper playoff run. The Thunder beat the Denver Nuggets in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs. The upstart #8 seed, the Memphis Grizzlies, took the Thunder to 7 games in the second round, including a triple overtime Thunder win in which Durant had 35 points and 13 rebounds. The Thunder won that series but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals in 5 games. Durant bettered his numbers from the regular season during the playoffs, scoring 28.6 points per game with 8.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Despite falling three wins short of the NBA finals Durant had established himself as not only a regular season star but a postseason one as well. He looks to have grown into the role of franchise player for a young team that looks to be on top of the Western Conference this year as well as years to come with a roster that features young players such as Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder are off to a quick start in 2011-2012 with a 4-0 record. Durant has averaged 31.3 points in 7.3 rebounds in 4 games. Kevin Durant is positioned as one of the few players ready to take the title of best player in the NBA from the aging Kobe Bryant. A title in 2012 would go a long way in preserving that role.
Justin Verlander, Pitcher, Detroit Tigers – At just 28 years old Justin Verlander has become the most dominant pitcher in Major League Baseball. Verlander threw his first career no-hitter when he was 25 years old back in 2007. He was coming off of seasons in which he posted records of 19-9 and 18-9. The Tigers ace saved his best performance for the 2011 season. The numbers weer astounding. He posted a 24-5 record in 34 games started. He had a 2.40 career ERA, almost a full run less than his previous career low of 3.37 in 2010. His 250 strikeouts led the American League and was better than all but his 269 strikeouts in the 2009 season. He threw the 2nd no-hitter of his career on May 7 against the Toronto Blue Jays. At 28 he became only the 13th pitcher in major league history to throw multiple no-hitters. Verlander led the American League in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, earning him the pitcher’s triple crown. Verlander was the unanimous winner of the American League Cy Young award after the season. He was also voted as the American League M.V.P., the first pitcher to win it since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the first starting pitcher to win it since Roger Clemens in 1986. The M.V.P. award was well deserved, as the Tigers were only 70-58 in games that Verlander didn’t start. The 25 wins in his starts brought the Tigers win total to 95. He was by far the most important player on the Detroit Tigers AL Central winning team. Verlander was not able to show his dominance in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees as he only pitched one inning before the game was suspended due to rain. He came back and won Game 3 of the Series, going 8 innings and giving up 4 runs in a 5-4 Tigers victory. The Tigers won the series in 5 and Verlander was to start Game 1 of the ALCS. He only lasted 4 innings in the start, giving up three runs in the 3-2 Game 1 loss. Verlander bounced back in a must-win Game 5 of the ALCS with a win over the Rangers. He went 7 1/3 innings, giving up 4 runs on 8 hits in a 7-5 victory. It was all for naught however as the Rangers won Game 6 and eliminated the Tigers. Verlander’s dream season came up short but at 28 the tall right-hander looks to have many more opportunities at the World Series.
Drew Brees, Quarterback, New Orleans Saints – Coming into this year Peyton Manning and Tom Brady had dominated the NFL as quarterbacks “1A and 1B”. Brees and Aaron Rodgers broke the glass ceiling with memorable 2011 seasons. Manning was lost for the year before pre-season and Brady, well he was Brady but somehow Brees and Rodgers were even better. Brees and the Saints were coming off of a disappointing Super Bowl championship defense in which they lost the division to the Falcons and then lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. The 32-year old Brees came into 2011, the last of his current contract with the Saints, looking to get the Saints back into the title hunt. The year started off with a 419 yard, 3 TD performance against Rodgers and the Packers in a loss against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Brees and the Saints responded to the adversity, winning 12 of their next 14 games and leaving them one win away from the #2 seed in the NFC behind the Packers. Brees has been nothing short of amazing. His 5,087 yards through 15 games has already bested Dan Marino’s single season record set in 1984. He’ll likely have to reclaim the record from Tom Brady tomorrow when the Saints face the Carolina Panthers. On top of the 5,087 yards Brees has thrown for 41 TDs with only 13 INTs. Brees also broke a record by throwing a TD pass in 37 consecutive games with his two TD performance in Week 10 against the Falcons. That record now stands at 42 as Brees has thrown a TD pass in each of the remaining games. Brees has always been right at the top of the next tier quarterbacks behind Brady and Manning but I think it’s fair to say that Brees joined those two guys in one certain classification this season – bonafide future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Brees will go down with one of the most prolific seasons for a quarterback ever and the days of 1A and 1 B have become 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D. #1C Brees would love to start 2012 off with another championship ring but he will first have to get through 1D,
Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers – Rodgers started 2011 off with a bang with a playoff run that included an NFC Championship victory against the Packers’ most bitter rivals, the Chicago Bears, and a Super Bowl victory over the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. After the NFL lockout ended Rodgers and the Packers prepared to defend their Super Bowl championship. They started off with a bang, defeating the New Orleans Saints in a game that featured a 312 yard, 3 touchdown performance by Rodgers. The Packers didn’t look back from the game 1 victory, winning their next 12 games before being upset by the Kansas City Chiefs. They bounced back the next week on Christmas night against the Bears and hold a 14-1 record and the #1 seed in the NFC going into the final week of the regular season. Rodgers has been as equally magnificent as Brees, throwing for 4,643 yards and 45 TDs against only 6 INTs in the first 15 games of the 2011 season. The 28 year old Rodgers was a controversial figure in Green Bay in 2008 when the Packers traded away Brett Favre in favor of the young Cal product. Rodgers has made it a distant memory for Packers fans by doing things that not even the great Favre accomplished playing quarterback for the Packers. The Packers have assembled a great offense around Rodgers and Rodgers makes defenses pay by using all of the weapons at his disposal. Rodgers started off the year by being the Super Bowl M.V.P. and his 2011 will likely culminate an a League M.V.P. award. He’ll look to add even more to his resume at the outset of 2012 and do something that Brett Favre never did as a Packer, bring a 2nd Super Bowl Championship to Green Bay