Saturday, February 3, 2007

Saturday Afternoon Games

As I construct this post, the 11th place Islanders (54 points) and 4th place Canadiens (62 points) were tied at two until the rejuvenated Trent Hunter lasered one by a shocked Cristobal Huet to put the Isles up with 8:00 approaching. Hunter has been the best Islander lately and now suddenly has 14 goals including the last two in this crucial Eastern tilt. If the Isles win, they'll be just two out of the last spot depending on tonight's games. It would also be another game they got points in since the All Star Break.

Well, it looks like it will be a huge comeback win for them as Miroslav Satan got his second off another careless Habs' turnover. Kind of similar to Hunter's go-ahead minutes earlier. This is why you can't take the Canadiens seriously as a playoff contender. They are too jittery in their end. This was a game they led 2-1 entering this period and since I flipped it on, it's been all Fishsticks. Btw...for those wondering why the Islanders would be a dangerous first round opponent if they got in, they now have outscored opponents in the third period 61-47. We're just wondering about top defender Radek Martinek, who left this contest on a stretcher. He makes a huge difference. Hopefully, it's not too serious.

And while we're checking matinee scores, the Pens won for the sixth consecutive time, this time shutting out Washington 2-0. That btw is impressive when you consider the firepower of super sophomore Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. The Penguins made a second period Ronald Petrovicky goal stand up until Calder hopeful Jordan Staal potted the empty net with 38 seconds remaining to ensure Marc-Andre Fleury of the shutout. Fleury btw stopped all 30 shots. And yes, Sidney Crosby didn't record a point. But it didn't matter. So does anyone still think this Pittsburgh team can't make the playoffs and give someone a huge scare? They're coming together at the right time. And with the kind of young crop of talent and gamebreakers they have, that's not a team I'd want any part of.

There are two other afternoon games taking place out West. Colorado leads Edmonton 1-0 and Chicago and San Jose are knotted at one.

As the Isles wrap another impressive road win, there's a big game tonight between conference leader Buffalo and Atlantic Division Groundhogs New Jersey. I figured it would be appropriate and all referring to that damn team as a Groundhog since they always see their shadow and remain atop the division and are a royal pain in the ass. Can you tell I am bitter much? I freaking hate that team. I guess you can't blame me being a Ranger fan and all. It's part of an intense rivalry. The Devils are like the CCCP. They are a cult. And after giving up tons of goals the last three games, you know tonight's contest which separates them by six points with Buffalo is going to be like a game of chess.

So, I figured I'd give a little preview of what's at stake:

The Sabres (35-14-4, 74 pts) have led the East since the beginning of the season when they set a league record for best start. For the past month though, they have been very up and down which is why a once huge double digit lead has dwindled to six making the top seed a race again with about 30 games remaining before the real season begins. Too bad my pathetic team won't be participating.

So what's the key for Buffalo? With back-to-back wins over the hapless Bruins in a rare home and home, they're now 16-1-1 when top defenseman Henrik Tallinder plays. That means that when he hasn't played, they're only six games over .500 (19-13-3) if you go by new NHL rules. The 28 year-old Tallinder is the Sabres' tower of strength on the blueline. Going 6-4, 213 pounds, he is rock solid in front of his own net and keeps pests such as Devils leading goalscorer Brian Gionta (24 goals) honest. If Tallinder is in again, look for that to be a key match-up.

The Devils (31-15-6, 68 pts) take an eight point lead over the red hot Pens into this pivotal home tilt against one of the four teams they actually have lost to at Continental Airlines Arena. As Steve and many of you know, they're one of the best home teams in the league, bringing a 17-4-4 record into tonight's contest with faceoff set for about 7:38 PM. They just concluded a four-game road trip with a wild come from behind 6-5 OT victory over NHL Siberia Philadelphia. Just like a couple of other games played at Wachovia Center, the Devs rallied to tie it late. In two other wins, it was Brad Lukowich shorthanded (remember this name) and the clutch Rochester native Gionta who forced extras before they wound up winning. The other night, this time it was splendid soph Zach Parise notching his 19th with about 41 ticks left before the immortal Lukowich morphed into a superstar and redirected a Brian Rafalski shot in front with about 49 seconds to go giving them another improbable triumph. And you want to know what Coach Claude Julien's reaction was: That the defenseman was out of position for the winner. Hahaha...god. You won! I swear the very quiet coach looks like a librarian.

As stingy a team as they are (125 GA and Martin Brodeur's league best 9 shutouts, 31 wins), the Devils are probably the best comeback team in the league. No lead is safe against Julien's bunch. Probably because of the team chemistry they have with a core mostly intact, it makes it easier for them to get a late goal. That's the baffling aspect of this defensive juggernaut. They certainly possess enough skilled players to open it up and get goals. But that's never the mantra. It's to bore the opposition and fans alike from other teams. Just kidding Steve. Truthfully, they're a very disciplined team who pays attention to every detail. That's what makes them such a tough opponent and is why no matter what any Devil fan will tell you, Brodeur's life is much easier than most other netminders. Because they aren't going to allow many odd-man rushes or clear scoring chances in front. Most are contested. And when they do breakdown, the future Hall of Famer comes up with the big saves which turn Chico Resch into a 7 year-old kid.

If you want to see a contrast in styles, watch this game tonight. I'll probably watch it over Rangers-Lightning since I already know the result. It's a battle between the two best Eastern teams. The Sabres btw are the opposite of the Devils in that they like to open it up and take chances utilizing their supreme team speed and skill. When they breakdown, it's usually All Star goalie Ryan Miller who has to deal with 2-on-1's, 3-on-2's, etc and make the huge stops. The Sabres aren't a lockdown D. Don't believe me? If you missed their 3-2 win in New Jersey back in the second week of December, Miller stoned the Devils several times in the first and was the best player on the ice. The question is will he be back in goal? Reliable backup Martin Biron started the last two and played well. Will Lindy Ruff ride the hot hand? We'll see. But I'm expecting Miller to return to his starting role.

If you like offense, the Sabres already boast five 20+ goal scorers in Chris Drury (29), Thomas Vanek (25), Jason Pominville (23), Maxim Afinogenov (21) and Daniel Briere (21). That kind of talent will be on display. But it is point leader Briere (65 points) and Drury (51 points) who set the tone. The problem for opponents is that Afinogenov plays with one of these pivots. He is probably the most explosive skater on the ice. Last time, it was his gamebreaking speed which killed the Devils. He scored twice.

What makes Buffalo so tough is that underrated performers such as Jochen Hecht, Derek Roy, Ales Kotalik and Paul Gaustad can all contribute. From the backline, All Star Brian Campbell can be lethal jumping in.

So the Devils will have their hands full trying to keep Buffalo at bay. They'll hope that team captain Patrik Elias can make it three games in a row with a goal after a lengthy drought. They'll also look for the North Dakota connection of Parise and promising rookie Travis Zajac (10 goals) to continue their sound play after breaking out of slumps. Ditto linemate Jamie Langenbrunner (17 goals). All Star defenseman Brian Rafalski (19 PP points) is particularly dangerous when he jumps into the play. They'll also need an inspired game from top playmaker Scott Gomez (32 assists). The question is who will Julien match the Pandolfo-Madden-Brylin unit with probably Colin White and Rafalski against? Briere or Drury? That's what makes this such an intriguing match-up.

With it being a potential four-point swing game, look for it to be hotly contested and tight. A Sabre victory gives them some separation. But a Devil win closes the gap to four with two huge games left to take place up in Buffalo at HSBC Arena.

I'm thinking this one is decided by a goal. I'll say the score is 3-2. But I am not picking a winner. It should be a fun game and possible Eastern Conference Final preview.

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