As we continue to wind down the sports year of 2016 it is time to take a look back. It was a year that saw Cleveland of all places take center stage twice. We saw the city of Denver throw a retirement party for a football icon. We witnessed a team owned by an iconic figure, led by a future Hall of Famer buzz-saw its way to hoisting the Stanley Cup. We also witnessed baseball history that was over a century in the making.
Eleven days into the year Alabama defeated Clemson to win a national championship game for the ages. It was a thrilling 45-40 offensive show in which the schools traded touchdowns in the final 1:07 of the game. The University of Alabama has now won 16 National Championships. 2016 was the fourth under head coach Nick Saban.
The Carolina Panthers were the story throughout most of the 2015-16 NFL season. Their 15-1 record made them the favorite to win Super Bowl 50. The Denver Broncos endured six weeks without future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning who was sidelined with a foot injury. The Broncos finished the regular season with a 12-4 mark, good for first place in the AFC Western Division by one game over the 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs. Manning would return from his injury in time for the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs.
Peyton Manning’s return and the Broncos relentless defense would develop into the story of the 2016 NFL Postseason. Following a bye during the Wild Card Round the Broncos would knock off the Steelers (23-16) and win a nail biter for the ages in the AFC Championship Game. Denver defeated the New England Patriots 20-18 to advance to the 50th Anniversary Super Bowl. The Broncos defense would sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady 4 times, knock him down 20 times and intercept him twice.
The 15-1 Panthers would win the NFC Championship by defeating the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round (31-24), and dominating the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 in the NFC Championship Game.
The Broncos defense lead by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller would be the story of the Super Bowl. League MVP Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was sacked seven times. The Denver defense would also force three turnovers. Peyton Manning would finish his storied career on top. Despite his injury ridden final season Manning would walk away wearing his second championship ring.
The Carolina Panthers weren’t the only Panthers team making headlines in January. The NHL Florida Panthers began 2016 riding a winning streak that began on December 15, 2015 with a 5-1 victory over the New York Islanders at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They entered 2016 winning ten straight. Victories in Ottawa on January 7, and in Edmonton on January 10th capped off the longest win streak in the NHL in 2015-16, and 2016-17 to date. Florida would finish the season with a team record 103 points on their way to an Atlantic Division Championship. More importantly the long floundering franchise from South Florida has become relevant again.
Just days before the Florida Panthers became the talk of the NHL, an event happened in Pittsburgh that would have an impact on the rest of the season.
On December 12 the Penguins were out of the Metropolitan Division (and Eastern Conference Wild Card ) picture with a record of 15-10-3. Owner Mario Lemieux felt their was a need for a leadership change. Head coach Mike Johnston was let go and replaced by Mike Sullivan. Sullivan was head coach of the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. Under Sullivan’s leadership Pittsburgh would go 33-16-5 the rest of the way. They finished 2nd in the Metropolitan Division behind the President’s Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals. The Pens would enter the postseason with the second best record in the Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh was dominant during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Victories over the New York Rangers (5 games), Washington (6 games) and Tampa Bay Lightning (7 games) would send them to the Stanley Cup Finals where they would defeat the San Jose Sharks in a 6 game series to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was Sidney Crosby’s second championship, he also skated away with the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The San Francisco Bay area was buzzing with playoff excitement this past spring. While the San Jose Sharks were battling the aforementioned Penguins, there was an even bigger story grabbing local and national headlines. The Golden State Warriors dominated the NBA regular season with a record-breaking 73 wins. Golden State would follow the regular season with dominant 5 game victories over the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers.
The Western Conference Championship Series turned out to be one for the ages. The Warriors would hold on to win in seven games over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder was led by Kevin Durant, who would by the way, sign with Golden State as an unrestricted during the summer.
Like the Carolina Panthers and the Washington Capitals, the Golden State Warriors dominance would be challenged. Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were leading a dominant charge of their own in the Eastern Conference. Four game sweeps of the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, followed by a six game victory over the Toronto Raptors sent the Cavs to the NBA Finals to take on Golden State.
A seven game epic would end with the Cavaliers winning their first ever NBA Championship. While Sidney Crosby was hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup, Lebron James was hoisting the Finals MVP Trophy and the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
There is so much to cover in what has been an eventful year, too much for one blog. This is the first of a two parter. Next week we cover the Olympics, baseball and who was the best of the best. Stay tuned and see you next week to wrap up a loaded sports year.