Sunday, February 28, 2010

Crosby ultimate Canadian hero

It's been over for a while. But it's just so hard to type. When you come that close to winning gold against Canada in Vancouver, it hurts. I'm honestly still numb as I write this. But it's to be expected.  

Sidney Crosby was the ultimate Canadian hero. It was his clutch goal at 7:40 of four-on-four sudden death that broke a 2-2 tie sending teammates and Hockey Canada Place into bedlum- scoring probably the biggest goal in his country's history since Paul Henderson to clinch a thrilling 3-2 gold medal win over a valiant Team USA. I've never been a big fan of Sid The Kid mostly due to the gripes to the stripes and how much he's shoved in our faces by the league, NBC and Reebok (cool ads). It would be easy to hate him even more but as I stated both on Facebook and Twitter, I just can't anymore. As was echoed:

I can't believe it. But I'm no longer going to complain about Sid The Kid. He is class and very unselfish. Good for sport. Ser---ious--ly..

Something like this is pretty hard for me to admit. I've always gotten razzed by friends about my insane Sid disdain. But what's said here about him being class, unselfish and great not good for the sport are all true. There's no ego whatsoever. He conducts himself like a true gentleman win or lose. And you know he'd have still been there if his team had lost after blowing a two-goal lead unlike another superstar who I'm a huge fan of. Crosby is very similar to The Great One and realizes the enormous responsibility he has to the sport of hockey. That kind of immense pressure is something Alexander Ovechkin will never face. As much as I enjoy the Great Eight, he took a hit this tournament. Even if there's no crime for not wanting to discuss the quarterfinal egg his Russian team laid.

In the end, Crosby comes out the true winner. As he accurately noted to annoying Joe Micheletti on NBC, his line had gone two games without finishing until the crafty No.87 snuck behind all-tournament selection Brian Rafalski, taking a quick feed from Jarome Iginla and firing before Miller was set to win gold for his country in dramatic fashion. He knew he wasn't his team's best player but when push came to shove in the four-on-four 20 minute overtime, there was Sid The Kid delivering the goods. Just a smart read by him keeping the play alive to Iginla, who hadn't done much this tournament. But more often than not, the best power forward usually comes through and he did because Crosby immediately drove to the net expecting the pass, even firing without looking to stun Miller and a gutsy Team USA that just wouldn't die.

Eight years later, the gritty Americans pushed Canada to the limit. Even if they caught a huge break when Dustin Brown was offside on Ryan Kesler's deflection goal that got them back in it. It looked like the Canadians would hold on despite a shaky Roberto Luongo letting out juicy rebound after rebound because his D was rock solid, limiting the pesky USA's second and third chances.

But in a remarkable period that early on saw the hosts ring two posts and watch Miller stone Patrick Marleau, there was no quit in Ron Wilson's relentless club who found a way to force sudden death. Who better than Zach Parise to get it tied with only 24.4 seconds remaining by digging out a Patrick Kane shot that deflected off Devil teammate Jamie Langenbrunner, slipping it past Luongo stunning the building. It was absolutely remarkable stuff that made the dramatic conclusion necessary.

Ultimately, Team USA fell short in its bid to upset Canada in hostile territory. Afterwards, a team that nobody gave a shot were presented with silver medals around their necks. As heartbreaking as it was, they did themselves and their country proud. They were second best to Canada who got the golds with fans chanting for their newest hero. The game's brightest star. There were no losers this afternoon. Today, hockey won.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Zach Parise, USA (tying goal with 24.4 seconds left forced overtime)
2nd Star-Ryan Miller, USA (36 saves in defeat-named tournament MVP)
1st Star-Sidney Crosby, CAN (gold medal clinching goal 7:40 into sudden death)


G-Ryan Miller, Team USA

D-Brian Rafalski, Team USA

D-Shea Weber, Canada

F-Zach Parise, Team USA

F-Jonathan Toews, Canada

F-Pavol Demitra, Slovakia

Tournament MVP-RYAN MILLER, Team USA

I Love Zach Attack

Woohoooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!! Zach Attack comes through tying this unreal gold medal game with 24.4 ticks left!!!!! We're headed to sudden death. What guts by Team USA coming back from two down against Canada, who controlled the first half on goals by Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry. Hometown Canuck beat opposing teammate Roberto Luongo redirecting a Patrick Kane shot through to get the Americans on the board late in the second.

Canada had two goalposts early in the third which could've sealed it. One bounced off Ryan Suter past Ryan Miller but off the lucky left post. The Buffalo goalie who's been the best man in net all tournament then robbed Patrick Marleau on the doorstep extending his right pad. Ron Wilson pulled him with over a minute. The miracle took place after Luongo muffed a Joe Pavelski shot leading to sustained Team USA pressure. Off a Kane shot in the slot with both captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise in front, it deflected off Captain America and Luongo to Parise, who swept the puck in leading to an amazing tying goal celebration.

Fifty years ago today, Team USA won gold. Twenty years later, the Miracle On Ice team went all the way. Now, it's 30 years later with another zero in the year. Is it meant to be? We'll find out in what should be a riveting conclusion to an amazing tourney.

Almost time for hockey chaos...and more chaos!

Clearly most of the hockey world's attention today will be centered on the US-Canada Gold Medal showdown at 3 PM on NBC, a rematch of a first-round game where the US beat the favored Canadians 5-3. However, this time around Canada will be starting local boy Roberto Luongo in net and not Martin Brodeur. Luongo has won all four games he's started in the Olympics while Brodeur was subpar in the earlier loss to the USA after Canada needed a four-round shootout to beat Switzerland. Of course Team USA has plenty of local representation with captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise (who's heated up in the medal round) of the Devils and the dynamic PK tandem of Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan from the Rangers but for one more afternoon at least, team lines can be blurred.

With Finland's come from behind win against Slovakia to take the Bronze last night, the third US-Canada showdown (including the Canadien women beating the US women's team) of these Olympics is all that's left of what's been a great fortnight hockey-wise. I'll leave the preview and recap of the showdown and the whole tournament to Derek...what I want to talk about is not the chaos that will descend on Vancouver this afternoon just before the closing ceremonies but rather about the chaos that will accompany the return of the last quarter of the NHL's regular season.

For those of us that won't stop watching hockey once the final whistle blows in the Gold Medal match, there'll be a new meaning to the word 'whirlwind'. Between the lifting of the trade freeze at midnight tonight and the actual end of the NHL trade deadline Wednesday at 3 PM there should be a flurry of activity. Especially considering GM's have had two weeks to talk and negotiate deals while the majority of NHL'ers were getting some deserved rest from the hectic schedule. I wouldn't be surprised if more deals took place in the twelve hours after the freeze gets lifted than in the twelve hours before the trade deadline. After all, what's maybe one game between now and Wednesday really going to change for anyone? Everyone's already had ample opportunity to take stock of whether they'll be buyers or sellers.

Much to my surprise I found out the trade freeze wasn't a total roster freeze and the wheels have already started in motion locally, with the Rangers claiming Alex Auld off re-entry waivers from the Stars after the Stars' acquisition of Kari Lehtonen before the deadline to back up (and eventually challenge) Marty Turco. Both the Rangers and the Devils made huge preemptive strikes just before the roster freeze, with the Rangers getting Olli Jokinen and the Devils' blockbuster trade for Ilya Kovalchuk.

Will any of the local teams do more? I'd imagine the Rangers will do something, within cap constraints given they're in their annual spring chase for the playoffs. While the Sabres were struggling just before the break, having Ryan Miller play as well as he has for Team USA during the Olympics bodes well for them down the stretch, though it can be a double-edged sword having him play six games during the Olympics to go along with his normal heavy schedule. That's one of the reasons I'm glad Brodeur lost the Team Canada job, though I don't really expect the three or four games he doesn't play now to make a difference in the end since he'll probably play 77 games for us anyway. Still, losing his job and maybe seeing Luongo win the gold in much the same way he won the gold after Curtis Joseph got roasted in '02 will provide him with a chip on his shoulder for the rest of the season.

All's not well with the Devils in any case, not only has the team nosedived since New Year's but the injury bug remains a factor since Paul Martin is still recovering from his broken arm in late October. Apparently the Devils had to re-break the arm in late December when it didn't heal correctly and he still doesn't have enough strength in it to shoot pucks. Tentatively he's targeting March 10 against the Rangers (the Devils' home return) as a comeback date but who knows anymore?

So defense remains an issue and having a centerman that can win faceoffs and play some two-way hockey is also a concern. I wouldn't put it past Lou Lamoriello to do another deal or two now that he tipped his hand with the Kovalchuk acquisition. If he does decide to trade for a defenseman though, please Lou - just deal with Minnesota (or nobody at all) assuming any of their better d-men are even on the market. At least the Wild d-men know the system, it seems as if anyone else we acquire has trouble acclimating to the team in time to really contribute during the season. There is at least some good news on the horizon with the return of gritty winger David Clarkson on Tuesday in San Jose after his own long absence from the lineup.

Will the Islanders trade? Probably, though they don't have a lot of vets on their team with any value. Maybe they convince someone to take Martin Biron but being a third-stringer on a team that's not making the playoffs again doesn't lead teams to beat down your door. Around the rest of the league, the biggest name I hear involved in rumors is the Panthers' Tomas Vokoun and teams like the Blackhawks (who could use an upgrade from Cristobal Huet and a more veteran presence to complement Antti Niemi) may well be agressive in trying to acquire the top-shelf Czech goalie.

One thing's for sure...there won't be any time to be sad over the end of the Olympics, no matter the result of this afternoon's game. Though most teams don't get back into action until Tuesday, Detroit and Colorado do resume the NHL schedule tomorrow night at 9 PM. That, coupled with the flurry of trades still to come should make for a quick transition back into the NHL season before the stretch drive.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Canada hangs on for dear life, USA-Canada dream match-up set

If you caught the frantic finish, that was something else. Who ever would've believed that Canada up three against Slovakia with 20 minutes left wasn't a lock for the gold medal game Sunday versus Team USA? Sure. They held on by the skin of their teeth, eeking out a 3-2 win over the feisty Slovaks who just wouldn't quit despite no Marian Gaborik the final period. Insert Ranger fire alarms in 5...4...3...2...1.

For 50 minutes, Slovakia still trailed by the same three-goal margin that made the Canadians look like a shoe in for NBC's dream match-up. Then things got interesting when Roberto Luongo allowed a clunker to pinching Lubomir Visnovsky, whose close backhand slipped past the Vancouver netminder with under nine minutes left. Suddenly with more jump than they had the first 40 in which they only tested Louie nine times, the more confident Slovaks won all the battles. Not shockingly, they took more shots (12 or 13) in the unpredictable third no one saw coming.

Especially a bunch of confident Canadians who chanted, "We Want USA, We Want USA," with under 10 minutes to play. Even when their country still tried to attack, Jaroslav Halak made the stops and his D led by Zdeno Chara transitioned the puck through the neutral zone without a problem. Suddenly, Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra, Ziggy Palffy, Michal Handzus, Jozef Stumpel and Tomas Kopecky became dangerous. A couple of nights removed from one of the most heartless performances ever against the same loaded roster, here was a persistent team who exemplified what these Winter Games are about.

The stronger commitment continued to pay dividends when Handzus batted a loose Richard Zednik backhand wraparound out of mid-air past Luongo, stunning everyone wearing Canadian colors. Two goals in less than three and a half minutes had cut it to one with still four and change left. No longer were there any chants other than "Go Canada Go, Go Canada Go," by some antsy red and white fans who had to be dying at the thought of possibly being taken to sudden death.

Slovakia did everything in their power to get it tied, even forcing Luongo to come up with a couple of tough stops from in tight on Hossa. It all came down to the final 60 seconds which were just as wild and crazy as one would expect. Maybe too much so for Canada, who couldn't get out of their zone.

With Halak on the bench for an extra attacker, a couple of excellent keeps including one by Visnovsky gave them their big chance to force four-on-four overtime. A give-and-go was worked to Hossa, whose low shot from the right circle caromed off Luongo to Demitra with three ticks remaining. Earlier, Louie's teammate was stoned twice on a loose scramble. This time, with Roberto dead to rights, his shot didn't go. Somehow, the sprawling hometown favorite kept it out along with maybe an assist from the crossbar as time ran out, leaving Demitra heartbroken.

The veteran who's been banged up a lot this year had nothing to be ashamed of as did any of his 'mates with many on their final tour as he referred to it. They'd given Canada everything they could've wanted. When the two countries shook hands in still the finest tradition, Demitra and Luongo shared a laugh before the accomplished center and his proud team saluted their sticks to a relieved crowd. Canada did likewise to grant them their wish.

USA vs Canada for all the marbles. The greatest scenario NBC could've ever dreamed of. Who ever would've believed our country would be the only one left unbeaten looking to run the table and beat their North American rival twice for gold? Eight years ago, they took it on our home soil in Salt Lake. Now, the Americans have a chance to turn the tables in hostile territory much the way another Ron Wilson-led squad shocked Canada in 1996. Only this is much bigger.

Can the sizzling top line of Zach Parise, Paul Stastny and captain America Jamie Langenbrunner continue to dominate as they did earlier today combining for half the club's six tallies? Will two-goal scorer Patrick Kane get the better of Chicago 'mates Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook? Can muckers Ryan Malone, Dustin Brown, David Backes, Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan continue winning the battles in the trenches like they have all tournament long? Will Bobby Ryan burn his Duck teammates Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Scott Niedermayer? Can Ryan Kesler get the better of Louie? Will Brian Rafalski's magical Winter Games continue alongside Ryan Suter? And can Ryan Miller continue to prove that just maybe he's the best goalie in the game by outperforming both Martin Brodeur and Luongo?

All these questions and more won't get answered until 3 ET/12 PT Sunday at Hockey Canada Place. And like the rest, we can hardly wait. Drop the puck already!

Friday, February 26, 2010

USA/Canada a period away

Thus far, it looks like the much anticipated USA/Canada rematch for Olympic gold is in line. After the Americans dominated Finland with a six goal first period barrage including five in 5:54, the host Canadians lead Slovakia 3-zip after two periods. They've outshot the Cinderella 21-9, getting goals off the sticks of Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow and Ryan Getzlaf.

All three have come via simple North American style plays. Three point shots from D with the opening deuce in the first both via redirects by Marleau (video review confirmed) and hit machine Morrow, who's suddenly his country's most visible player. The third came with under five to go in the second when Getzlaf whipped a backhand rebound past Jaroslav Halak for a power play goal, cashing in an undisciplined Richard Zednik hold of the stick 200 feet away.

When called upon Roberto Luongo has stopped everything one by one as Canada's D has limited the skilled Slovaks, who have overpassed. Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik have had chances but were unable to get them on net. Down three, former Islander Ziggy Palffy had the best opportunity off a turnover but his five-hold try on a mini-break was shutdown by Louie.

Unless Slovakia can produce a miracle of their own, it looks like USA/Canada will vie for gold eight years later. But this time in Vancouver and not Salt Lake. If it comes off, can the Americans return the favor? Still one more period left before it becomes official.

Canada vs Slovakia Preview

One more game to decide who will meet Team USA for Olympic gold. Will it be the expected Canadian/American rematch from Salt Lake '02 or can the true underdog Slovakia continue their great run? Few gave them a shot against defending champ Sweden. Hey. That was one we actually had. Go figure.

Obviously, Jaroslav Halak has to be huge for his country to stand a chance tonight. He'll need plenty of help from one of the Games' best Marian Gaborik, who looks all the way back from his bad hip.The Great Gabby has finished all tournament while Marian Hossa along with savvy vets Pavol Demitra, Richard Zednik, Jozef Stumpel and Ziggy Palffy have all played superbly as has two-way pivot Michal Handzus and Miro Satan. As expected, Zdeno Chara has been a tower of strength anchoring an overlooked blueline that includes Lubomir Visnovsky, Andrej Sekera and Milan Jurcina. Hell. Even Andrej Meszaros has been okay. Can they pull another shocker?

It's coming up next.

Greatest First Period Ever

Team USA scores SIX on flat Finland chasing Miikka Kiprusoff (4 GA on 7 shots) while getting next pair in 15 seconds on poor Niklas Backstrom. The six goals are the most in a period since 1964 versus Germany.

Total Domination! Never seen anything like it? This was even more stunning than Canada's blitz of Russia. Parise, Langenbrunner, Rafalski, Kane, Malone and Stastny all with at least two points. Unbelievable!

Stay away from angry Ovie

A lot was made out of Alex Ovechkin not discussing Wednesday's Russian humiliation to the mainstream media. What really could he have said other than, 'We sucked?' After a performance like that in the national spotlight, I probably wouldn't care to talk either. Word to the wise. Too many journalists out there think they're entitled to everything. Bottom line: The Great Eight had a miserable night and one he'd rather forget. Just watch his snarky reaction to a Russian camerawoman who screams, "No. No. No. Please! Please," exiting Canada Hockey Place courtesy of PetePRose:

Judging from the looks of his female entourage, it seems Ovechkin had something entirely else on his mind. Sometimes, it's hard to remember that these athletes are human (insert cheesy Human League 80's music here). In other words, even Ovechkin can have a bad day. You don't think he was embarrassed along with his mismatched KHL Russian teammates? That look on Ilya Kovalchuk in an entry yesterday spoke volumes. Still can't believe the audacity of Joe Micheletti asking Ovie how he felt. How was he supposed to feel?!?!?!?!?! His team didn't even show. Between Mich's homeristic Ranger work on MSG and this, what a major league buffoon!

As for Mad Mike who foolishly referred to the Ryccku's effort as "Eurotrash," it is what it is. In this space 24 hours ago, we advocated firing him. But as Battle originator Steve Lepore noted in a well thought out PuckTheMedia entry, that would be overreaction. In retrospect, Mike Milbury should face fine/suspension from NBC. At least they sent him home early after his harsh words even left Jeremy Roenick speechless. I'll just echo what's been said about his controversial persona which emulates Don Cherry. FanHouse's Adam Gretz and Puck Daddy's Seah Leahy had even more on Mad Mike, who even had a run in with a Caps' Blog Box blogger who crossed the line following a Milbury dig at Ovechkin in a game he came back to score a hat trick in defeating Sidney Crosby's Pens in overtime.

 PensHead's Allison has a different outlook entirely on the Russian defeat to host Canada.Who can blame her? She's a Pengwhine's fan. ;-)

Although i was cheering for Russia last night i really hoped they wouldn’t win gold. A few days back i shared my point of view with MouthFullOfTang and today i will share it with you. So why if i was cheering for Russia i wished them no gold? Well, as a wise man once said … “I did it for the Pens!”

With today's semifinals starting at 3 ET with Team USA taking on Finland while Canada battles Slovakia in the night cap, can we put the other night's chaos behind us already? It's time.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Congrats Canada

Congratulations to the Canadian women's hockey team on taking Olympic gold in Vancouver, defeating Team USA 2-0 at Hockey Canada Place earlier tonight. They dominated from start to finish that included a record 18-0 rout of Slovakia in prelims.

Unlike the semis where both countries won big to reach the highly anticipated final, at least this one was competitive. The difference was two first period goals from Marie-Philip Poulin. The 18 year-old scoring hero beat American netminder Jessie Vetter twice in a 2:55 span on identical shots both to the glove side. That was plenty for surprise starter Shannon Szabados, who stopped all 28 to record the shutout in front of rabid Canadian fans. A great atmosphere which also included supportive Americans rooting on Team USA, who settled for silver against their nemesis.

A huge key to Canada's gold medal victory was their strong penalty kill which blanketed Mark Johnson's women, who took the collar in six chances. That included a pivotal five-on-three early in the second. They moved the puck around nicely but couldn't do what it took to beat a razor sharp Szabados, who didn't find out she was starting until before the game in place of '02 Salt Lake hero Kim St. Pierre. It didn't matter as the first-time Olympian stood up to the challenge and pressure by using a lightning quick glove to stop the Americans in their tracks.

"I looked up in the stands and saw a sign that said, 'Proud to be Canadian,' and that's what I am today," an emotional Szabados said after her pumped up team piled on top when the buzzer sounded making them champs again. "My teammates were unbelievable today. We played a great game, and this is an incredible moment."
Canada's team defense made it tough for the USA to generate the kind of quality chances needed to get back in the game. Despite that, they led in shots by five (23-18) after two periods yet still trailed by a deuce. Johnson's club threw the kitchen sink at their biggest rival in the third, taking risks to try to get back in it. However, Szabados remained unflappable making a nice glove save on Julie Chu's high shot ticketed for top shelf.

The extra pinching by D led to plenty of Canadian opportunities. But Vetter (27 saves) was superb, making quite a few sparklers from in tight to give her country a chance. Her goaltending was exceptional. Unfortunately, her teammates that included long-time representative Angela Ruggiero couldn't slip one past Szabados, who also plays on a men's college hockey team in Alberta.

Getting tournament MVP was top finisher Meghan Agosta, who set an Olympic record with nine goals. The outstanding 23 year-old from Windsor, Ontario earned a primary on Poulin's important insurance marker that came off a faceoff win. In '06, she was also part of Canada's gold medal Torino team- winning gold and two silvers in three world championships as well.

This was also likely the final swan song for legendary Hayley Wickenheiser, who received the loudest ovation during a classy medal presentation that saw bronze handed out to Finland with each player introduced and also given flowers. Not surprisingly, the 31 year-old who's arguably the greatest women's hockey player ever has been a vital part of all three Canadian golds ('02 Salt Lake, '06 Torino, '10 Vancouver). If it's the end, what a tremendous careeer, which would conclude with a bow.

As for the rivalry that reduced quite a few American players to tears before they received their silver medals with great chants of, "USA, USA" from the crowd. Szabados summed it up best.

"This rivalry will never end. It will keep going and going."

Canada's still on top.

Pic of Day

If that doesn't sum it up, I don't know what else would. Ilya Kovalchuk looks ready to cry. It's really a sad sight.

Finland blanks Czechs, Slovakia upsets Sweden

There will be a new Olympic champion in Vancouver. For the fourth consecutive Winter Games, the defending men's gold medalists were ousted in the quarterfinals. This time, Sweden was victimized by a hungry bunch of Slovaks, who never trailed in a 4-3 win, advancing to the medal round for the first time ever. They'll meet Canada, who should be a heavy favorite after dismantling Russia 7-3.

Nobody solved Henrik Lundqvist for seven-plus periods setting an Olympic record. But once Ranger teammate Marian Gaborik did via a nifty Marian Hossa power play set up, Slovakia had little trouble beating him on three consecutive shots, including a sweet Andrej Sekera finish off a two-on-one 37 seconds later for a quick 2-zip lead at Hockey Canada Place. Before Pavol Demitra's left point power play bomb steered them back in front during a wild second that featured five goals, Sweden struck for a pair also eerily 37 ticks apart.

First, a fluky bounce allowed Peter Forsberg to get the puck behind the net and center for Patric Hornqvist, who snuck a backhand one-timer past Jaroslav Halak. The same trio combined for a Henrik Zetterberg tally when the Red Wing star centered for a cutting Forsberg with the puck deflecting off a Slovak defender. Just like that, it was knotted with Sweden pressing for more. However, Halak kept them afloat with timely stops in an odd played game that didn't have many shots. In fact, after the Slovaks beat Lundqvist, they went a long stretch without taking No.12 which saw Demitra blast one thru traffic high glove late in the period, regaining the lead.

The Swedes blew a power play opportunity that carried over into the third. Having already made one glaring mistake earlier on the second goal, this time Nick Lidstrom got caught leading directly to a three-on-one the other way. A streaking Demitra dished across for Hossa whose bid was denied by Lundqvist but he couldn't stop Tomas Kopecky who put home the rebound for 4-2. But before they could get too comfortable, the defending champs came right back when Halak misplayed a puck leading to Nicklas Backstrom setting up Daniel Alfredsson in the slot slicing it to 4-3.

From there, it became a battle to run off the clock. Opting to play smart defensive hockey which burned them earlier in the match, this time the Slovaks did a better job forcing Sweden into turnovers and attacking when they could with diligent checking from Hossa, Gaborik, Demitra and Jozef Stumpel. They nearly iced it with a point blank chance that Lundqvist denied with a quick blocker. The Swedes came close a couple of times with the Sedins nearly working their magic but Halak was strong against the post. Slovakia even made it difficult for them to pull Lundqvist with him finally on the bench with 45 ticks left. One final shot from Lidstrom almost deflected right to a teammate in front but the buzzer sounded giving Slovakia its biggest victory.

In the other late quarter, Finland prevailed over Czech Republic 2-0 backstopped by Miikka Kiprusoff's 31 saves at a much quieter UBC Thunderbird Arena. Early on, the Finns struggled on special teams, failing to capitalize on three consecutive power plays. In total, they misfired on five man-advantages instead allowing an undisciplined Czech team to stay tied after 20 minutes.

The Czechs were sharper in the second testing Kiprusoff, who made a few strong stops including a sprawling one with his legs extended. The classic unorthodox style that's seen him win a Vezina for Calgary. Each country warmed to the task at the halfway point with physicality picking up along with a mixed bag in the stands that makes European games such a fun atmosphere. The teams took turns testing both netminders with Tomas Vokoun also looking sharp as the contest remained scoreless after two.

A turning point came when Jaromir Jagr had two pointblank chances to break the tie but was blocked once and then with Kiprusoff dead to rights, fanned on the shot. No.68, who was competing in his final Winter Games, got stronger as the game went on- being moved up by former '98 Nagano captain Vladimir Ruzicka to the top line with captain Patrik Elias and Tomas Plekanec. They nearly hooked up for the game's first goal when Jagr drew defenders on a three-on-two, passing to Plekanec who dished across for an isolated Elias, who from eight feet hit the side of the net. Afterwards, the Devil looked skyward in disbelief. Unfortunately, those missed opportunitied cameback to bite them.

In a game where the refs were content to let the players decide it, a bizarre Martin Erat clear into no-man's land wound up costing Czech Republic. Finland cashed in in even more bizarre fashion when a diving Pavel Kubina prevented a scoring chance in front. However, the Atlanta defenseman lost his helmet. A no no in IIHF competition. Instead of going to take Niklas Hagman, he had to go pick up his helmet behind the net.

"A player on the ice whose helmet comes off and continues to play without a helmet without going directly to the bench will get a minor penalty," the media guide states.
It allowed Suomi to push ahead with Hagman the beneficiary, neatly deflecting home defenseman Janne Niskala's left point shot. Teemu Selanne, who also is competing in his fifth and final Olympics, discussed at length the bizarre rule which helped his country advance to the medal round for a second straight Winter Games. In Torino, they took silver.

"We play in the NHL, so you don't remember [the IIHF rule] and the team is so focused and so into the game that it's almost impossible to remember that. On the safety issue, I think it's a good rule. Hockey-wise, it's a bad rule, especially in the NHL."

 "It was obvious, in the third period, that who scored first will win the game," added a disappointed Ruzicka who supported Kubina for conforming to the odd rule.
 Trailing by a goal with under seven minutes remaining, the Czechs searched for the equalizer but it never came with Kiprusoff making another awkward stop off a crazy redirect. Ruzicka pulled Vokoun early with still 100 seconds left. It backfired. Due to his team not having clear possession which was needed to get it deep, Mikko Koivu came the other way patiently going around a Czech defender before dishing to an open Valtteri Filppula, who clinched it.

"I got a little chill," Selanne noted of Jagr's glorious chance. Not surprisingly, an emotional beared Jagr buried his head on the bench after Filppula's gimme. "You give him five chances like that; he's going to bury four. You can see that he is hurt."

"It was good for us that he lost his helmet, but it's a stupid rule," Hagman explained of his eerie decider which frustrated Kubina. "I know they want to keep it safe. [But] you lose a helmet; you should let the guy play."

Instead, the Finns march on and will meet Team USA for another possible shot at Olympic gold.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Milbury needs to be fired

Everyone's talking about it over on Twitter. Apparently, Mike Milbury took idiocy to a whole new level. Even Sean Avery was stunned.

seanaverydotcom Did Mike Milbury just say EuroTra$h on CNBC, not good!

Okay. Everyone knows how brutal Russia was in getting owned by Canada in the Olympic quarter 7-3 at Hockey Canada Place. But hell-o McFly! Is anybody home?!?!?!?! What a classless dumbass. I never cared for him when he ran the Islanders and well he did a bang up job hooking up the rest of the league. But wow. This guy is a joke. He's supposed to be 57 years old yet acts worse than a toddler. Grow up already.

If NBC doesn't fire him, they're really going to look bad. Case closed.

Russian Humiliation

Uh. Apparently, the guys wearing those Russian jerseys forgot that there was a game tonight. So did their coach who thought it was a novel idea to keep a shaky Evgeni Nabokov in after he allowed a crushing fourth goal on a simple Brenden Morrow backhand wraparound. Brutal.

Let's see. A team consisting of Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin and Ilya Kovalchuk essentially quit. Malkin's turnover at the blueline that led directly to Rick Nash's breakaway goal following Dan Boyle's unscreened power play tally made it 3-zip before the sloppy Russians knew what hit them. Dmitry Kalinin (really) got one back. Kovalchuk had a quality chance in the slot blocked by Drew Doughty, who also leveled Ovechkin during the Canadian onslaught. Outside of that one shot, Kovalchuk was scary turning over the puck along with many teammates, who just couldn't deal with Canada's size and speed. Still, that Morrow goal was a momentum killer.

The Russian coach might want to beef up security because there's a good chance he'll need it. Poor Nabby just didn't have it. How sad is this performance if you can call it that? Russia's goalscorers are Kalinin, Maxim Afinogenov and Sergei Gonchar. On former captain Alexei Kovalev's 37th birthday, it looks like his country could use him. Oh well.

Goalscorers for Canada: Ryan Getzlaf, Boyle, Nash, Morrow, Corey Perry (2), Shea Weber.

The third is on. I gave up when it was 6-2.

Zach's deuce leads USA into Medal Round

The Zach Attack finally struck. All tournament, Devil sniper Zach Parise had come close. But when it mattered most, he delivered scoring twice in the third period to break a scoreless tie- leading Team USA past Swiss in the first Olympic quarter into the medal round. His nifty power play deflection of a Brian Rafalski shot held up in a wacky third that had some close calls before the Minnesota kid sealed it with an empty netter late.

Despite a 33-8 shot edge that included Ryan Kesler's turnaround which Jonas Hiller bobbled into his own net with the buzzer just beating the puck in, the No.1 seeded Americans were still knotted with pesky Switzerland, who played as expected. Solid skating, tenacious checking and relying on the Anaheim No.1 goalie to give them a chance at the upset. Not surprisingly, Hiller was sharper than yesterday's 3-2 shootout squeaker that ousted Belarus. Facing a US barrage, he stopped almost everything including an early Parise opportunity to keep it scoreless. The hot goalie also got some help from the crossbar on a wicked curl and drag by Phil Kessel that drew iron. He finished with 42 saves including 18 in a busy first.

Hiller's superb goaltending and his teammates' fine attention to detail, blanketing early American power plays that overpassed, allowed a pro-Swiss Hockey Canada Place crowd to think upset. But over on the other end probably bored to death, Ryan Miller was unflappable en route to the 19 save shutout, becoming the first Team USA netminder to record one since the Rangers' Mike Richter in the Olympics eight years ago in Salt Lake. That team went all the way to the gold medal game before falling to Canada. They'll get the winner between tonight's third game between Czech and Finland at 10 ET. Meanwhile, the main event gets going in a little while when gold medal favorites Russia and Canada battle at the bottom of the hour just to qualify for the medal stage. Incredible.

Ron Wilson's new top line of Parise, Paul Stastny and captain Jamie Langenbrunner generated plenty of chances but couldn't get one past Hiller. Bobby Ryan- who also was brilliant- had a couple of tremendous rushes but was stoned. Pesky play from Chris Drury, Dustin Brown and David Backes during one strong shift was snuffed out. Drury along with Ranger 'mate Ryan Callahan again were superb in a checking role, doing their usual diligent work on important penalty kills with the duo registering at least eight of the 23 or 24 blocked shots. Blueliners Tim Gleason and Erik Johnson also were instrumental with the Cane getting in the path of a one-timer while the younger Blue made a saving stickcheck breaking up a three-on-one late in the second which may have prevented the first goal.

Hometown Canuck Kesler was also effective in all facets, nearly tallying at the second's dramatic conclusion. But his turnaround prayer that Hiller bobbled into his own net didn't cross the line in time, which the review confirmed. The Swiss were literally Saved By The Bell. Go figure that a guy named Zach would then do them in in a hectic third that saw another American goal wiped out. After Parise somehow got his stick out to redirect Rafalski's shot for a PPG early in period three, a wild sequence took place with Switzerland coming oh so close to tying it. Off a nice set up, Sandy Jeanin went around a sprawling Miller and hit the right post. Team USA came the other way and appeared to score when Ryan Suter's left point blast beat Hiller. However, an involved Kesler high sticked a Swiss' helmet off negating it.

Despite the bad break, the focused Americans dug in killing off the power play. They would get tested all period but the defense was stellar and the last line of defense wasn't about to allow anything. When he was needed, he did the job stifling Julien Sprunger.

Desperate to tie it, the Swiss pulled Hiller for an extra attacker. A pass for an open Roman Wick missed connection in the slot. Eventually, Team USA worked the puck around to Parise, who then used his guile to sneak past a Swiss defender and deposit the insurance marker with 12 ticks left. He got congrats from who else but Langenbrunner. Switzerland had nothing to be ashamed of putting out another yeoman effort in an attempt at a monumental upset. They just fell a little short.

Canada-Russia faces off at 7:30 on CNBC followed by Czech Republic-Finland at 10 with Henrik Lundqvist and defending gold medalists Sweden taking on Zdeno Chara and Slovakia at midnight.

USA vs Swiss Quarters

Team USA and Swiss are about to drop the puck in the quarterfinals. Can the Americans continue their stellar play against a pesky opponent in a trap game? They must be real physical utilizing their size and skill to their advantage. Make it tough on Jonas Hiller, who's fully capable of stealing this game. Continue to get dirty in the trenches and forecheck with the same vigor they did in their upset of Canada.

It would also help if scoreless duo Zach Parise and Patrick Kane found the back of the net. If Ron Wilson's group wants to medal, both must get untracked. The Americans would be wise to stay out of the box. Don't hand Switzerland power plays. Mark Streit anchors it and forwards Roman Wick, Julien Sprunger, Martin Pluss and Hnat Dominchelli are capable of finishing.

The other quarters feature Canada-Russia, Slovakia-Sweden and Czech-Finland. Kudos to heavy underdogs Belarus, Latvia and Norway for making last night's qualifiers edge of your seat thrillers. Both Czech and Slovakia were fortunate to get through. David Krejci saved his country and Zdeno Chara did just enough to keep his country from being forced to sudden death.

Sit back and enjoy today's puck.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Swiss outshoots Belarus to setup quarter against USA

It wasn't pretty but the Swiss still pulled through. They needed a 10-minute four-on-four and a shootout before sneaking past pesky Belarus 3-2 in the first qualifier at Hockey Canada Place this afternoon. Thomas Deruns and Romano Lemm helped Switzerland set up a quarter versus Team USA tomorrow at 3 on NBC.

Favorite to advance, the Swiss got scored on in the opening minute when Aleksei Kalyuzhny snuck a trickler off defenders past a surprised Jonas Hiller. But Julien Sprunger responded with a power play goal, knotting the contest. For the day, the higher seed notched both their goals via the man-advantage. It would be a Hnat Dominichelli rebound past a sprawled Andrei Mezin which steered the Swiss ahead during a second they largely controlled. Islander defenseman Mark Streit got an assist on the tally. However, Belarus earned a power play and quickly tied it in the late stages of the second thanks to Konstantin Zakharov backhanding home a loose puck into a vacant net with Hiller off to the right.

Sensing an upset, many in the crowd began to root for the underdog who eight years earlier strung a much bigger one over Sweden, Belarus played more confidently, using their skating to generate chances. But most were misdirections which sailed wide. Hiller sharpened up in a seesaw third making a pair of tough stops to keep it tied. One instance saw Konstantin Koltsov with a great chance to shoot from the slot 15 feet away but instead, his pass down low missed connection. Each goalie was strong during sudden death pushing it to the skill competition.

In it, both Deruns and Lemm deked before picking high glove on Mezin sandwiched around a Hiller stop for a commanding 2-zip lead. But Dmitri Meleshenko extended it with a nice forehand deke finish off the bar and in with the Anaheim goalie on all fours. The Belarussian bench was given even more hope when Mezin stopped Swiss' third shooter giving Hab Sergei Kostitsyn a chance to force extras. However, the third-year NHLer made one too many moves allowing a sliding Hiller to get a pad on his forehand deke in tight, sealing it for the Swiss.

Switzerland must play better tomorrow against USA, whose size, speed and strength will test the feisty European nation. However, the Americans can't take it lightly as they only beat them 3-1 in prelims and know just how much of a trap game this is. Keep an eye on Roman Wick and Hiller along with Streit, who all must have strong games for a chance at the upset.

There are three more qualifiers taking place tonight. Canada and Germany are underway with a whole nation holding its collective breath. Also on tap later are Czech and Latvia (10 PM) and Slovakia-Norway at midnight. All three can be seen on CNBC.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Miller Time indeed as USA stuns Canada

Nearly thirty years to the day of the greatest hockey game ever played in our country, another batch of determined, gritty Americans gave a memorable performance of their own. With Miracle On Ice heroes Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig and Mark Johnson looking on in a hostile yet chaotic environment over in Vancouver, Team USA outworked tournament favorite Canada- pulling off a 5-3 upset in the final tuneup before the medal round. The stunning win allowed Ron Wilson's club to finish a perfect 3-0 winning Group A to advance automatically to the quarterfinals.

Though it was a preliminary match that pales in comparison to the remarkable American upset of world power Russia en route to winning Olympic gold over Finland, this was a huge victory for USA Hockey. Especially in a tournament few gave them a chance to medal. Maybe one thing overlooked was the kind of character architect Brian Burke opted for on a North American rink. Unlike wider rinks, the more traditional NHL sized ice is better suited to physical play. Thus far, it's been grinders Ryan Callahan, Chris Drury, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, David Backes and skilled yet imposing Cherry Hill native Bobby Ryan who've made significant contributions. Facing one of the most talented rosters, they were instrumental last night. Especially down the stretch when a desperate Canada pressed for the equalizer, even holding the puck in for seemingly ever as our boys were out on their feet.

Thanks to heroic netminding from Ryan Miller, who was absolutely amazing- along with tremendous will from Callahan who atoned for a giveaway by reaching out with his right glove extended to block a shot before the puck was finally cleared after roughly 100 seconds, the hungrier Americans prevailed. Enough cannot be said about the Buffalo goalie who didn't wear trademark No.30 instead donning No.39 in special tribute to Dominik Hasek??? Something Sabres contributor Brian noted. Whatever the reason, in his third Olympic start, he emulated the Dominator with some def defying saves on his way to 42 saves, including a two-save sequence in the frantic final two minutes that featured a Hasek-esque twisting stick save followed by a glove committing highway robbery which shocked Canadian Hockey Place.

One of the front runners for the Vezina left little doubt that he was the better goalie, outplaying Martin Brodeur who was culpable on at least half the output- permitting four goals on 22 shots. His more talented team which featured the all-Shark line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and goalscorer Dany Heatley plus finisher Sid The Kid, Rick Nash, Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and goalscorer Eric Staal helped outshoot Team USA 45-23. Canada's blueline also boasted vet tandem Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, who jumped up in the rush generating chances as did younger tandem Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty late. Despite an edge that included Dan Boyle and Shea Weber, the Canadian D struggled defensively against the Americans' feisty forwards who pounced on their opportunities.

One of the keys to the great win was Brian Rafalski, who had a tremendous night tallying twice and assisting on team captain Jamie Langenbrunner's third period power play decider with less than 13 minutes left. The former Devil defenseman was brilliant scoring 41 seconds into the contest, setting the tone. It was vital for Team USA to get out quickly against such a lethal opponent who still had the majority of the support even if there were plenty of Americans cheering on their heroes. Rafalski one-timed a Ryan Suter pass off Sidney Crosby past Brodeur. It would be a hint of things to come with Crosby finishing minus-three in spite of his late power play goal that made the ending more dramatic. That both Zach Parise and Langenbrunner, who was a beast, would be out celebrating a goal from their ex-teammate was pretty cool.

Canada responded when Staal neatly deflected home a Brent Seabrook point shot tying it 8:12 later. But before the pumped up crowd could get back in their seats, Rafalski did it again scoring his fourth consecutive goal for Team USA. This from a guy who had the same amount in 57 games with Detroit this season. He got a little help from Brodeur, who apparently must've thought Raf was still on his side. MB30 made a careless blunder aggressively paddling a loose puck right to the former Wisconsin standout whose fanned shot snuck through only 22 seconds later.

Afterwards, the Americans couldn't muster much else as the ice tilted with the hosts pushing the pedal to the mettle, outshooting the red, white and blue 19-6. Trouble was they couldn't squeeze another by Miller, who by this point was demonstrating the 2009-10 form that carried Buffalo near the top of the conference before a late slump had them a point behind Ottawa. Nothing seemed to distract him. Still, Canada came back to tie a second time early in the second when Heatley banged home a Jonathan Toews rebound off a mad scramble. Toews- who faced Blackhawk teammate Patrick Kane- was easily one of their best players. His great skating and playmaking was on display.

Every time you waited for Canada to surge ahead, Miller stood in the path as did gritty 'mates who sacrificed by finishing checks, diving to block shots and winning battles in the trenches. The intensity of Team USA was apparent. They desperately wanted this game. In the words of hometown Canuck Ryan Kesler who wisecracked that he hated Canada even guaranteeing victory, their willingness to get dirty was a noticeable difference along with Miller's clutch play in net. With the game still knotted and the crowd enjoying the physical firewagon hockey that always is associated when these rivals play, the hitting picked up. Nash had a ferocious hit. Even if it didn't compare to Alex Ovechkin's highlight reel clean shoulder that took Jaromir Jagr off the puck, leading to the Russian winner in a 4-2 triumph over Czech Republic to win their group. To quote pal John who we were over in Old Bridge:

"He sent him back to the 80's."
That game was an enjoyable appetizer that included Evgeni Malkin's sweet finish on that huge turning point. Even if Jagr came back playing an inspired third, drawing three bodies to him on Petr Cajanek's goal that made it interesting before Pavel Datsyuk sealed it. Ironically, hated one-time Blueshirt Dmitri Kalinin saved Russia's bacon with a great defensive play might've resulted in the tying goal. But hey. It was a good day for Rangers with Henrik Lundqvist pitching another shutout (3-zip) this time over nemesis Finland to win Group C. Plus Drury, who scored a money go-ahead off a wild sequence that saw Brodeur flopping around with Backes and Ryan each getting whacks before the revived Ranger captain finished off his second at 16:46. Did we mention how good the controversial Burke selection was in his usual checking role alongside PK partner Callahan? Both were standouts, making key blocks late to preserve victory.

Remarkably, it was Team USA that took over late in the second and continued to push the action initially in the final stanza. Using a relentless forecheck to finally challenge Canada's D, they drew three consecutive penalties. After Canada killed off the first two including an undisciplined Crosby hi-stick in the offensive zone, they couldn't make it three-for-three. With Perry in the box for a slash, the former Devil combo went to work again with Rafalski sending another one-timer from the left wing towards the net which went off Langenbrunner's skate past Brodeur. While Parise celebrated by jumping up and down, the insurance that Suter also netted his second helper on gave the U.S. just enough margin.

From there, it was Miller Time. On a day where the team in front of him were very disciplined, they handed the Canadians two straight power plays. After killing off the first thanks to timely stops from their meal ticket along with splendid PK work, Erik Johnson was nabbed for a questionable trip. They nearly had it back to even strength when Crosby went to the net and nicely deflected home a Nash feed, sneaking it just through Miller's waffle, slicing to 4-3 with 3:09 left. Keith added a helper.

That's when it got hectic. Chaos ensued on the next shift as Canada threw the kitchen sink at Miller, trying to get it tied. For what felt like an eternity, they had Team USA pinned deep. Eventually, they got tired and Canada moved the puck quickly for pointblank chances. Somehow, Miller made the saves which ranged from a tough glove save with traffic that he turned routine to a one-timer in the slot that he got a toe on. Eventually, the puck came to a wide open Weber, who fired but Miller said no.With his dead team unable to get the puck out following a Callahan clear which was gloved down, the hardest working Ranger made up for it by making a sprawling block of a one-timer. Eventually, they cleared the zone finally getting a change.

The play-by-play from Doc Emrick was as good as it got, describing the furious action as only he can. It still wasn't over with Team Canada pulling Brodeur for an extra attacker with over a minute left. However, the American's fire won out, eventually with Parise wisely pushing the puck out off the boards to avoid icing. Then, the amazing happened as Kesler outraced Perry somehow getting his stick on it for the empty netter that sealed it with 45 ticks remaining. But down two, the Canadians still came forcing Miller to make one more save before it ended.

It's amazing to think that this was a preliminary round game. The way it was so highly contested spoke volumes about how much the players cared. It was exactly the kind of hockey which is why they must commit to 2014 in Moscow. Regardless what Gary Bettman says, this game was a homerun. Even if it wasn't on NBC. MSNBC still did a phenomenal job not screwing anything up and making it a must watch. These games matter. I don't care who you are. That was truly special.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Chris Drury, USA (2nd of Olympics for go-ahead tally)
2nd Star-Brian Rafalski, USA (2 goals and assist-leads all Americans with 5 Pts)
1st Star-Ryan Miller, USA (42 saves incl.13/14 in 3rd)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Olympic Hockey Sunday Preview

If you've been waiting for some big games, then today's terrific trio over in Vancouver should do the trick. Plenty is on the line in each.

First up at 3, Russia and the Czechs do battle with Group B hanging in the balance. A Czech Republic OT win clinches first as they'd be a perfect 3-for-3 in preliminary action. Russia needs it badly due to their shootout loss to Slovakia, who finished with wins in regulation and OT plus a loss to the Czechs for five points. If Russia loses, they finish third in the group and would be in a difficult position. They'll have Malkin reunited with Ovechkin in an attempt to boost offense against sizzling duo Jaromir Jagr and Cze captain Patrik Elias. We'll see if they can slow them down.

At 7:40 tonight, the main event takes place when Team USA takes on host Canada. It's the Americans and not Canada who's in the driver's seat. Ron Wilson's squad looks to make it a perfect 3-for-3 when they step up in competition against Crosby, Iginla, Shark trio Marleau, Jumbo Joe and Heatley, Niedermayer/Pronger and MB30 in net. Thus far, the favorites haven't looked sharp struggling mightily on the power play. Their overpassing almost cost them again against the pesky Swiss, who edged Norway yesterday 5-4 to finish third. If reunited Devil duo Parise and Langenbrunner can spark the offense, USA can win the group outright. However, if they earn only a point, it could come down to goal differential. It should be a thriller with Ryan Miller going face to face against Marty. We'll see if shifting Kane to Ryan Kesler's line gets him going in what will be an unreal atmosphere.

In the finale tonight at 9, a rivalry is renewed when Finland faces nemesis Sweden with Group C up for grabs. Both enter 2-0. So, something has to give. The Finns have been sharper with Teemu Selanne recording an assist for a new Olympic record 37 points (20-17-37). The Finnish Flash has participated in five Winter Games. Congrats to one of the classiest and best finishers the sport's had. Hope you keep playing. It should be great to see him and Saku Koivu team up against The Sedins, Lidstrom, Zetterberg, The Mule and Backstrom. Plus Foppa even if we feel he took Mikael Samuelsson's spot. The Finns will need good performances out of Olli Jokinen, both Ruutus, Joni Pitkanen and Jere Lehtinen. Plus there's the great match-up in net between Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Lundqvist.

Is Henrik playing hurt this year? If you go by this article back home, he might still be nursing a bad groin. How does one play 54 games and only miss a couple of starts? Plus play in the Olympics. He did rest for a shaky second game in which they held off Belarus. One thing we've noticed all year is his tendency to flop to the ice whenever the action is near his crease. Imagine if it's true? Yikes.

Anyway, the games should be great. Just one more thing. NBC. Don't screw this up!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Olympic prelims rolling along

Some random thoughts from my cocoon after almost five days of the men's Winter Olympic tournament:

-Who would have thought the US would be ranked #1 after two games (barring a four-goal Finnish win tonight against Germany)? They've certainly had a couple of workmanlike victories so far, beating Switzerland 3-1 doesn't look so ho-hum after the Swiss almost stunned Canada in two straight Olympics though, this time on home ice! Team USA wasn't quite as good as the 6-1 score against Norway and if anything was trying too hard to roll up the score, giving the Norwegians too many opportunities in the second, but put up a few goals late to pull away from a Norwegian team that's pretty much looked hapless so far.

And I'll admit I was wrong for questioning why Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan were both selected to the team, Drury despite his rep was just having such a terrible year and I thought someone like Brian Gionta, for example, deserved the nod over Callahan but taking both gives Team USA one of the best penalty-killing units in the tournament, something Brian Burke no doubt took into consideration. Especially since chemistry is an issue for teams that have just come together this week.

-O Canada, they certainly are good for melodrama aren't they? Jarome Iginla being benched provides instant controversy...and you just know the critics who want the hometown boy to start were sharpening the knives there after Roberto Luongo got a yawner of a shutout while Martin Brodeur gave up two goals (oh, the horror!) against the Swiss. Of course, Brodeur did what he usually does when the game goes to a shootout, by stonewalling four straight Swiss shooters and giving Sidney Crosby time to convert on a second penalty shot attempt, which would be just enough for the winner in the most dramatic game of the Olympics so far.

-Nothing against Jamie Langenbrunner, who is doing a fine job for Team America as well as with the Devils...but it is nice to see Patrik Elias run with the C again for the Czech Republic. He's played inspired, with three goals thus far. Despite Team USA's start, it's the Czechs who look the best of all the teams to this point. After a 3-1 win over a tough Slovakia team, the Czechs jumped out on Latvia early 4-0 but had to withstand a late surge by the underdogs after giving up a couple of goals late in the second period and wound up winning 5-2, with Elias sealing the deal on an empty-netter from his own end of the ice.

-For years I've been hearing about how Slovakia was going to be a darkhorse and really they should be with players like Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, etc. However it never seemed to materialize in past Olympics. This year it might be, after a tough loss to the Czechs where two goals in the final couple minutes of the second period was the difference they stunned Russia, who was riding high after an 8-2 win over Latvia. After a 1-1 tie through overtime, Pavol Demitra got the best of Alexander Ovechkin in the sudden-death shootout and showed the Slovaks might have some teeth this year after all, especially with Jaroslav Halak continuing his good play this year.

-The other Scandinavian countries seem headed for the inevitable showdown with the group (and an automatic bye) at stake after Finland's convincing win against Belarus in their opener. For their part Belarus continued to give the Swedes headaches, especially with Henrik Lundqvist taking a seat after his opening shutout against Germany in favor of the shaky Jonas Gustavsson. Sweden nearly blew a 3-0 lead before Daniel Alfredsson finally sealed up a 4-2 win with seconds to go.

As far as the coverage goes, I have a couple of bones to pick with NBC. First of all I get wanting to show team USA in any sport (even if it is curling) over two foreign teams playing, at least in a vacuum but MSNBC, CNBC and USA Network delaying hockey coverage for curling time and again has become a running joke. However, why is curling cutting into the start of a Team USA game?! Maybe I'm wrong, but I think people would rather see some of the world's best hockey players over a sport nobody's ever heard of, prelim games or not. The curling matches seem to take five hours and there's little going on there. And it would be nice if you are going to delay the start of every game in favor of curling to put the start of the game on another of your 9324 networks and flash something at the bottom of the screen of the curling to go to this channel for coverage of the game. God forbid Dick Ebersol misses an opportunity to shoehorn a commercial in though, routinely missing faceoffs in the process.

Speaking of the coverage can we just get Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury in a steel-cage match and get it over with? And I love Doc Emrick, if you don't you're not a hockey fan. That said, there is such a thing as too much...when I heard he was going to be doing in the neighborhood of 28 games in 16 days I rolled my eyes. With that kind of schedule the poor guy's going to be seeing double by the end of the tournament. It's already started as he called #10 in the Czech uniform Gaborik twice (problem being Gaborik plays for the Slovakians). I mean it's bad enough he has to call two men's games per day, did they really have to have him doing a few of the women's prelim games as well before the men got there?

There are some things about the Olympic format itself I like...for instance the point system is kind of what it should be in a post-shootout world. Three for a regulation win, two for an OT/SO win, one for an OT/SO loss and zero for a regulation loss. The only reason the NHL isn't changing to that is (ha!) the sanctity of points records. So the sanctity of goalies' won-loss records or team winning streaks affected by the new rules don't count? Or having some games worth two points and others three?

Of course it's nice to see no trapezoid of doom, but the shootout format is kind of warped. After picking three shooters apiece like they do in the NHL you can basically hit reset and send Zach Parise out ten times in a row. If the game's going to come down to a skills competition at least make it a team activity. Maybe in the prelim rounds I can understand it since you don't want Canada throwing out ten All-Stars against the Swiss' ninth and tenth shooters (not that their first four were anything to write home about) but still, when you use the whole team in a shootout you get moments like Marek Malik nearly embarrassing Olaf Kolzig into retirement.

And speaking of the shootout...can someone send a memo to the Russian coach that Viktor Kozlov's actually better than his stars at the skills competition?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Totally Random: Belarus-Finland/Winter Games Madness

 It's 5-1 Finland over Belarus which is no surprise. Olli Jokinen has scored. Niklas Hagman has two, including a highlight reel backhand deke Brent "Benedict" Sutter will never get to see even if Hags is a solid player. Even hated Jarkko Ruutu had one go in off his back just now. If I temporarily can't recall the other Suomi goal, forgive me. It's just not that interesting. Even if Sergei Kostitsyn scored 21 seconds into period two making it 2-1, allowing Belarus to hang around a while until Hagman finished. Now, I remember. Valtteri Filppula got the other. Ain't that one of the coolest hockey names?!?!?!?!?! I just love the spelling of the two t's and p's along with the pronunciation.

Val----terrrr-yyyy  Fil----pppoooo--llllaaaahhh

As this uncompetitive preliminary round Olympic game comes to a close, I can't help but think why these countries are even allowed to compete. I'm all for giving them a chance and seeing huge upsets like Swiss over Canada four years ago and didn't Belarus beat Sweden (Tommy Salo) in '02 or is my mind playing tricks on me? So, the shots in today's mismatch errr game were like 45 to 7. Well, at least this cool Russian stream is showing the traditional anthem played after with both teams lined up for handshakes. God forbid NBC/CNBC/MSNBC/USA/PBC/UBC stays on for hockey's best tradition. You get the point. Hell. They can't even keep a promise on where to find Russia/Latvia with angry fans scrambling with CNBC airing curling's conclusion. Nothing like watching the cool analysis of intense curlers measuring before rolling that human wrecking ball! Winter Games at its best!

In case you didn't know or didn't want to, Lindsey Vonn won gold today in downhill skiing. Let the butt kissing commence! Granted. She is fine and all (have you ever seen a better athlete in SI). But now we'll hear how heroic it is that she overcame a "bad shin" to beat the field. Can I just ask why NBC couldn't show it live this afternoon instead of waiting for their beloved "Primetime?" I know. They'll get the ratings. But what about college kids or HS kids off who might've wanted to see it live instead of finding our the spoiler? Guess they don't count in Dick Eber$ol's world! Hey. What would ya expect? During women's luge last night, they actually had the audacity to say the main reason for the start being moved way up was only due to "excessive speeds" making the track dangerous. Couldn't have anything to do with the young Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who tragically died during a practice run before the Opening Ceremony. He was only 21 and had dreamed of competing in this high risk event which I'll admit is interesting to watch. But whenever you see these lugers going at such crazy 85-90 MPH speeds, you wonder how much guts are required just to put yourself in that position. I mean it's amazing something so sad never happened before. We've seen crashes/mishaps. But wow. RIP Nodar. :( God bless his family.

The Games are fun and should be enjoyed by all. Even if NBC makes it as hard as possible to sit back and relax. They are a disgrace. Still, if you love great competition for something much bigger than just a paycheck even if plenty come in the mail for the beautiful Vonn, they're still laying it on the line to compete for their countries for gold. That will always be the Olympics' greatest appeal. It's why we watch.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

USA/Swiss thoughts

Well, Game One of three on the first day of Olympic Men's Hockey is in the books. As we noted in our previous entry, Team USA defeated Switzerland 3-1 on goals by Bobby Ryan, David Backes and Ryan Malone. Some quick thoughts on it as host Canada battles Norway in the Crosby love fest...

-As noted a few times already, Backes was USA's best player. He was all over the ice during shifts skating, finishing checks and scoring an awesome end-to-end goal deking Jonas Hiller. He played mostly with Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan, who also had a whale of a game just missing his first goal and coming close to setting up Ryan's second.

-Speaking of Ryan, the 22 year-old Duck was tremendous splitting time on the fourth line while also getting some work with Joe Pavelski and Malone, who both were very effective. I've always been a huge fan of the Jersey kid who was selected second overall in the '05 Draft behind Sid The Kid. In Year Two, the super soph has 28 goals or a couple better than more well known 'mates Zach Parise and Patrick Kane. Not bad company. He uses his size well and possesses a lethal shot like the halitzer he blew past Hiller from the slot. Really liked the physicality he showed along the wall. Think the kid was pumped?

Once I scored, I was able to settle down and come back into my own a little bit. You definitely don’t want to come from behind early. To get the lead, I think it settled the game down quite a bit for us."
-The aforementioned Pavelski and Malone were strong in front with the Sharks' much overlooked second line pivot helping screen Hiller, allowing Malone to get to the loose change. Each were rock solid on the forecheck doing good things. Nice to see Malone get an early one as he'll be a key player if Ron Wilson's underdog squad is to medal.

-The checking line of Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler and Captain America Jamie Langenbrunner were decent, putting together a few strong shifts early. They can be a good cycle line that can match-up against top scoring lines. Kesler's one of the most underrated two-way centers in the league and Langenbrunner has always been a solid overall player who complements linemates well. Brown was the only shaky one guilty of a couple of turnovers. He did get better in the third, playing a more straight line game.

-Kane, Parise and top center Paul Stastny were fairly quiet with the Avs' playmaker trying to do too much. What we mean by that is too much skating and passing. Sometimes, simple is better. He had a great opportunity to shoot the puck on a three-on-two but didn't, possibly costing his team a fourth goal. Of the super fast trio, Zach Attack was the best generating a couple of chances with his speed and shot, forcing Hiller to make two tough stops.

-The blueline was okay but must tighten up. The Johnson & Johnson pair consisting of LA's Jack Johnson and the Blues' Erik Johnson were the best doing some stellar work in their end while jumping in when the chance presented itself. In particular, Jack's ability to rove and then recover reminded us of Brian Leetch or Canada's Scott Niedermayer while partner Erik's physical presence meshed well. Ryan Suter assisted on Malone's power play tally but also struggled in his end with one dangerous turnover that nearly resulted in a goal if not for Ryan Miller. Oddly enough, the player traded for Jack Johnson Tim Gleason, worked with Brian Rafalski, who was too quiet and must get more involved as the tournament unfolds. Paired up with former Pen 'mate and Paul Martin replacement Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik made his presence felt with a few crunchers in a hard fought third.

-Only facing 15 shots, Miller was good with the exception of admittedly being a little too aggressive on Roman Wick's centering feed which resulted in SUI's lone goal. But when called upon, the Buffalo netminder was there to bail out sloppy teammates.

-Phil Kessel didn't do much in 11-plus. He saw time both with Pavelski and Stastny. The Toronto sniper must shoot the puck. The idea of subbing him with Stastny and Parise while shifting Kane to Pavelski's line might make sense because it would give the top unit a dangerous right-handed shot opposite Parise on the left side. Just a thought.

-On the Swiss side, Hiller finished with 18 saves in defeat. He could hardly be faulted but was beat high by Ryan and wasn't aggressive enough on Backes' breakaway where a pokecheck might've worked. He was a little too far back in his crease. The Malone rebound was tough because of traffic.

-Hnat Domenichelli was the Swiss' most effective player, assisting on Wick's tally while also being in front to distract Miller. The former NHLer who played for the Whalers, Flames, Thrashers and Wild who stars for HC Lugano was visible, creating his country's best chances. He always had good speed and certainly displayed it.

-Julien Sprunger and Vito Wuthemann also had opportunities but couldn't finish with Sprunger blowing a three-on-one point blank chance while Wuthemann was denied by Miller.

-Swiss captain and Isles' defenseman Mark Streit helped set up Wick's PPG, logging the most minutes (22:33) of any skater with no USA player going over 20:00.

-Former Ranger products Philippe Furrer and Andres Ambuhl were decent with Furrer showing off his puckhandling skills that never even got a look here while Ambuhl played with edge.

-D prospects Luca Sbisa (Ana) and Yannick Weber (Mtl) also played with Sbisa not really noticeable while Weber was for the wrong reason, getting victimized on Backes' highlight reel goal.

-Swiss world vet Romano Lemm saw plenty of ice but didn't register a shot.

-Switzerland played their usual pesky tight checking style, finishing every check and taking away the neutral zone, which caused problems for the Americans. Trailing by three, they opened it up in the third and easily could've had more than one goal. But the necessary skill required wasn't there. I also would've pulled Hiller to get that second goal.

Both teams are off tomorrow before returning to the ice Thursday. Team USA faces Norway while the Swiss have to deal with Canada in primetime. Yikes.

USA holds off Swiss for first Olympic win

It was far from perfect. But Team USA did what they had to, holding off a feisty Switzerland team for a hard fought 3-1 win on Day One of Olympic Hockey in Vancouver. Bobby Ryan, David Backes and Ryan Malone scored the goals for the Preliminary Round win, allowing the Americans to earn three points. Somewhat predictably, Ryan Miller didn't have a ton of work but turned aside 14 of 15 Swiss shots earning the victory.

After a sluggish start probably due to all the travel, Ron Wilson's group got on the board first when Cherry Hill, Jersey native Ryan whistled one home from the slot past Anaheim teammate Jonas Hiller with 1:01 left in the first. On with Ranger duo Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury, the 22 year-old kept a play alive with a hit along the boards, eventually getting to a loose puck and rifling home his first Olympic goal. He sure was pumped, raising his arms emphatically as teammates congratulated him.

Even though they didn't get a ton of shots, the Swiss had opportunities to tie it in the second with former NHLer Hnat Domenichelli and Julien Sprunger combining for a stuff try which Miller snuffed out. Another close call from Thierry Paterlini saw Miller kick out the puck, leading to a brilliant goal by Backes who went coast to coast for his first of the tournament. On the play, the St. Louis Blue blew past Yannick Weber in the neutral zone going around the Hab product before deking Hiller and finishing off with a brilliant forehand at 5:52. As both Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk noted on USA Network, Miller should've been credited with an assist.

Less than three minutes later, Malone increased to 3-zip when he tallied on the power play. Following a quiet shift from the top line of Patrick Kane, Paul Stastny and Zach Parise, the Tampa power forward who entered without a goal in his last 11 had no trouble getting to a Ryan Suter rebound with Joe Pavelski in front, steering the puck home for his first. A nice read by Suter, who wisely took the shot with plenty of traffic distracting Hiller enough to let out a rebound that Malone finished.

Despite being up three, Team USA wasn't sharp turning over the puck numerous times leading to a few odd-man rushes the Swiss failed to capitalize on, including a gaping net for Sprunger set up perfectly on a three-on-one, that he fired over the top. A couple were the result of bad pinches while a few others were just careless mishandles like a Suter turnover that Miller had to be ready for. That kind of carelessness can't continue when they face powers Canada and Russia after Norway Thursday.

Credit Switzerland for hanging in there, changing their physical trapping style to more attacking late in the second and third with good results. In fact, they controlled a large majority of the final stanza staying on USA and generating chances. As clashing analysts Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury alluded to, some were missed wide while others Miller got or a US defender blocked. Pretty evident on a couple of penalty kills where Ryan Kesler sacrificed his body on a point shot. The Americans didn't get much in terms of chances with Kesler ringing the post and a Callahan/Drury shorthanded rush forcing Hiller to make a save, allowing his teammates to come the other way and finally score their first of the Olympics when a Roman Wick backhand centering feed went in off a pokechecking Miller. The PPG cut it to 3-1 with under nine minutes to go.

Swiss continued to be aggressive coming dangerously close a couple of more times but ultimately couldn't draw closer. Finally, Team USA strung together a couple of good shifts with their best player Backes doing solid work along with Pavelski and Dustin Brown, who otherwise had an ineffective day. With a couple of minutes left, veteran Switzerland coach Ralph Krueger opted not to pull Hiller due to Pierre McGuire referencing goal differential as a key tiebreaker. Still, we felt he should've as his team deserved a better opportunity to make it closer. What if they'd scored to make it 3-2? Isn't two goals and a potential one-goal defeat better in the long run? Oh well.

Time finally ticked down as the Americans emerged victorious in their first Olympic game of the tourney, with 1980 Miracle On Ice hero and former captain Mike Eruzione lending support from the stands.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Hnat Dominichelli, SUI (assist, SOG in 10:23)
2nd Star-Bobby Ryan, USA (scored first goal of Olympics)
1st Star-David Backes, USA (1st of tournament)

USA-Swiss 2nd Period Thoughts

At the end of two periods of play, Team USA leads Switzerland 3-zip. Second period goalscorers for the Americans were David Backes with a great end-to-end rush culminating in a forehand deke, and Ryan Malone banging home a rebound for a power play goal. USA's first of the tournament. Some second period thoughts:

-Backes has been USA's best player, noticeable every shift and on for two of three markers. He's really throwing his weight around and utilizing his size and speed. Can he develop into a power forward in St. Louis? The Blues hope so.

-Disappointed in Paul Stastny, who's overskated and passed up a great opportunity from 16 feet away in the slot, messing up a 3-on-2 by passing to Patrick Kane on a bad angle. Stastny's the No.1 center on this team but he's slowed down both 20 cent and Zach Attack.

-USA has been guilty of two poor pinches leading to odd-man rushes against, including a dangerous 3-on-1 that should've been converted. However, Julien Sprunger couldn't cash it shooting over the top with Miller down and out. He also had a quality chance in first but his wraparound was stuffed by the Buffalo netminder.

-Like what I see from Joe Pavelski, who's wearing No.16. He was doing some excellent work in front distracting Hiller enough so Malone could get to the rebound and steer it home. However, as much as I like him, he's not a "poor man's Joe Sakic" yet Pierre McGuire. But certainly a guy the Sharks must lock up this summer. If they don't, I'd love the Rangers to go after him.

-Nice work also by Phil Kessel on one shift, creating a chance for linemates. He's seen some top line duty and time with Pavelski.

-Drury and Callahan continue to impress along with Ryan. All three have been real noticeable.

-Nice read by Ryan Suter on the PPG seeing the traffic and getting the shot through for a helper. Erik Johnson's also looked strong on the blueline.

-Third period's on. We'll be back to wrap up hopefully a Team USA victory.

USA vs Swiss 1st Period Observations

They finally dropped the puck in British Columbia. With the 30-Year anniversary of the greatest Olympic hockey game less than a week away, another bunch of gritty Americans not expected to medal have begun their journey against a pesky Swiss team that was a huge story four years ago in Torino upsetting mighty Canada thanks to Martin Gerber. The first period was pretty competitive with the pesky Swiss playing a physical, tight checking game which gave our boys trouble. Especially in neutral zone. Ryan Miller even had to make a couple of big saves before a sweet finish with 61 ticks left by our breakout player Bobby Ryan for the period's only goal. Other observations:

-great work by David Backes on Ryan's goal hustling in the corners as did the Duck, who as Doc Emrick duly noted, beat a Duck in Jonas Hiller.

-Ryan Callahan was one of USA's best players playing his usual physical game, finishing checks. He and Ranger 'mate Chris Drury nearly hooked up for a goal thanks to a strong Ryan takeout of a Swiss along the boards. Dru made a nice dish across for Cally, who patiently waited but fired off the side of the net.

-Not much heard from the top line but Zach Parise did get a quality chance from the right circle, rifling a high riser off Hiller's mask.

-former NHLer Hnat Domenicelli impressed for SUI generating a couple of chances including one dangerous one. Former Ranger property Phillippe Fuhrer was also good.

-no commercials speeds up the game so much. My Dad's right.

Game is already back on. Here are lines from what we gather:


Olympic Puck Later Today

Later today, Olympic Hockey drops the puck with six countries in action on Day One in Vancouver. Team USA faces off against Switzerland at 3 ET on USA Network. It'll be our first chance to see how the Jamie Langenbrunner captained American bunch featuring Devil teammate Zach Parise, Buffalo's Ryan Miller, Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan, Joe Pavelski and Ranger PK duo Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury look. Islander defenseman Mark Streit leads the Swiss along with Jonas Hiller in Ralph Krueger's final swan song as national team coach. Something he's done for 13 years.

Strong host favorite Canada also gets underway against Norway in primetime on CNBC at 7:30 ET. A star studded roster features Devil netminder Martin Brodeur, who'll get the day off due to "playing a lot." Haha...Roberto Luongo gets the first start with MB30 in for Game 2 against the Swiss. While much of the attention will be on the two goalies, it'll be hard not to keep our eyes glued to All-Star talents Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards and Shark trio Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Did we mention a D that includes Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer along with Norris hopefuls Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty? Scary to say we didn't list everyone which is why Canada has to be the favorite. Especially playing on home soil. Look for them to get strong competition from defending champion Sweden, Russia and Finland. USA, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could fly under the radar.

In the late game, the mighty Russians take on Latvia. Sometimes, the super skilled Rycckuc take lesser opponents lightly. But does anyone seriously see that happening against a roster loaded with high end skill. A look at Russia's five-man units per Bob McKenzie is enough to make you drool in envy:



Fedorov-V. Kozlov-Radulov



Does Latvia have any shot? About as much chane as we do with Brooklyn Decker. If anyone wants to see the onslaught, 11:55 ET on CNBC.

Here's a look at the rest of the schedule. We'll take our shot at predictions later.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Big second rallies Rangers past Bolts

No Gaborik. No Del Zotto. No problem. In what amounted to a pivotal game before the Olympic Break, the Rangers made their Valentine's Day extra sweet by rallying back to defeat the Bolts 5-2 at The Garden this afternoon. A big second period proved to be the difference in their second consecutive win that moved them into 10th with 63 points, tying Tampa Bay who by virtue of one less game played, is ninth a point behind Montreal.

Following up a great character win in which they lost both Gaborik and Del Zotto with a rare victory on home ice was exactly the recipe. With their next game not till March 2 at Ottawa, the Rangers showed more fight in rebounding from a tough first by exploding for four goals in the second en route to their 28th win of the season. Erik Christensen scored twice and set up another to break out of a slump that saw him enter with only three points (all assists) over the past 14 contests.  The three points matched a career best that came against Boston on Mar.29, 2007, which coincidentally was his last multi-goal game. Nice to see the versatile waiver bargain get rewarded.

"I think it's been a steady climb since I got here," he said after also just missing his first career hat trick when a shot rang off the right post. "I was unsure of myself when I first got here, trying to keep my head down. I didn't know what to expect. Management had been working with me to become a more confident person, and a more confident player."

Christensen atoned for an undisciplined minor that negated a power play midway through the opening 20, stemming the tide. Both clubs came out playing tight defensive hockey with few shots. Following a Zenon Konopka-Aaron Voros scrap, the Rangers blew consecutive man-advantages with Christensen negating the second with a trip. Eventually, the Lightning capitalized on an abbreviated five-on-four when dangerous finisher Steven Stamkos sent a left point shot that changed direction off a sliding Ryan Callahan, fooling Henrik Lundqvist for the game's first goal. After a brief encounter between Matt Walker and Brandon Prust, Tampa kept it going with sustained pressure that led to Steve Downie deflecting home another Stamkos shot for a 2-0 margin 1:40 apart. Alex Tanguay added a secondary assist.

In a two-goal hole minus two top players, the Blueshirts came out flying during a huge middle stanza that saw them connect four times on 10 shots. It started early thanks to an unlikely player doing an unlikely thing. Sean Avery converted a penalty shot just 100 seconds in injecting life on the bench and the building. The oddity took place when off a Downie turnover inside his blueline, Artem Anisimov slipped a pass for Avery, who was hauled down from behind. Thinking penalty shot, he pointed to center ice and then was properly awarded the opportunity. What came next was more shocking with Avery coming in with the puck and going way wide to the left before snapping one past Smith from a tough angle for his seventh of the season. For a guy who hasn't scored much, it was a revelation. The goal was sweet, eerily reminding us of a No.11 that hangs from the rafters. Ser---iou---sly.

"Avery's shot was a great move and a big goal for us," Lundqvist expressed. "I challenged him a couple of times in practice and told him he would never do that move in a game. It was awesome."

Many instances this season, the Rangers have gotten scored on before a goal was announced, sucking the air out of MSG. It nearly reared its ugly head again. Out of all people, Nate Thompson who scored yesterday in a loss to his former team the Islanders, had a glorious chance to make it 3-1. Instead, a sliding Lundqvist stretched over to rob Thompson's point blank backhand, getting the glove out in the nick of time. Before they drew even, the rating Swedish gold medalist who'll hop on a plane with Team USA duo Callahan and Chris Drury stoned Martin St. Louis during a four-on-four. A Dan Girardi turnover led to a two-on-one with Victor Hedman backhanding one across for St. Louis, who was denied by Lundqvist. He kicked it out. With the crowd serenading the popular netminder with familiar "Hen---rik, Hen---rik," chants, the Blueshirts came the other way three-on-two with Christensen and Marc Staal setting up Vinny Prospal in the slot for the equalizer. It was his fifth goal in five games. With an assist later, he went into the break with eight points over that stretch.

Carrying momentum, the Rangers didn't let up. Using a relentless forecheck, they tilted the ice spending extended time in the Bolts' end. One sequence eventually led to Christensen's first of the day. Off some strong defensive work, they worked the puck to an open Michal Rozsival, whose point blast went just wide. But they recovered it and cycled back to Rozsival, who dished to Prospal. Feeling like a power play, he quickly moved it to an isolated Christensen who came out of the right corner and fired thru Smith's five-hole for the lead at 12:06. He wasn't done. On the next shift, an excellent read led to a breakaway. After stealing the puck from Martin St. Louis, he broke away and netted his fourth as a Ranger 1:46 later. Evolving into a three-on-one, the quick skating Christensen felt backcheck pressure and fired upstairs from the right circle for an unassisted tally, suddenly making it 4-2.

Despite being outshot 13-10, the Rangers had superior skill and goaltending. They also played sound two-way hockey, paying attention to every little detail transitioning for offense. As Dave Malonely noted, a page out of the Tom Renney book. Not a bad thing against an offensive-minded Tampa team that was victimized in its end.

A couple of days after standing up to the whiny Crosby Pens, the Rangers didn't back off at any point against a Lightning club that also has quite a few grinders. We already referenced the two fights with Konopka and Walker dropping the gloves against Voros and Prust. Their roster also features Colton Orr victim Todd Fedoruk, who exchanged pleasantries with Avery between benches. Thompson is no stranger to fighting and even slumping Ryan Malone (assist) can scrap. With our lineup more bulked up featuring newest Ranger Jody Shelley (8 shifts-2:51), who debuted donning his trademark No.45, the rough stuff shouldn't be an issue anymore. Not surprisingly, Shelley and Konopka had words following a shift but nothing materialized. A frustrated Downie tried to stir it up at the end of the second with he and Avery each getting matching roughs.

Perhaps that rubbed off on our D with Rozsival finishing every check and pushing guys away from the net while partner Staal had a strong game finishing plus-three. Even Wade Redden played with more edge. Emergency recall Corey Potter (21 shifts-15:37, 2 hits) was fine and Matt Gilroy sufficient.

Echoing Prospal's words about the well earned triumph Thursday, the Rangers finished the job with a workman like third. Out of Tampa's nine offerings, only a couple were dangerous with Lundqvist making a couple of tricky saves off redirects, including one from Downie. Other than two weird goals, he was superb turning aside the last 22 to shut the door. Exactly what they needed and must continue when the season resumes with 20 games left. The guys in blue, red and white also were disciplined, handing the Bolts only three power plays. In the win over Pitt, they permitted two.

Avery came close to scoring his second with Smith just getting a piece of a right circle shot against the grain. It didn't matter. When Drury sealed it with an empty netter for his 10th, it was the vet's 250th goal and 600th career point, getting congrats from an excited bench. Fitting for a guy who's played better with more important games coming for our country in Vancouver. Hopefully, he can help Team USA surprise many and continue the upswing down the stretch.

Notes: Enver Lisin was a healthy scratch again. ... Prospal-Christensen-Callahan were a combined plus-nine. ... Smith permitted four goals on 22 shots. ... Vincent Lecavalier was held off the scoresheet with just one shot and a minus-two rating. ...Only five Rangers didn't register hits (Callahan-5). Callahan also had four takeaways. ... Rangers blocked 15 shots to Tampa's eight with five players all getting in the path of two, including Anisimov, who made a key block during Bolts' power play in third.

... Having played 62 games, the Rangers are 28-27-7 with 63 points sitting in 10th a point behind the Habs. They visit Ottawa 3/2 and return home to host Pittsburgh 3/4 during a tough four in six day stretch that includes a visit to Washington and a second of back-to-back versus Buffalo at MSG.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Sean Avery, NYR (PS goal-7th of season, 4 SOG, 3 hits in 17 shifts-13:38)
2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (27 saves incl. final 22 for 25th win of season-3rd in 4)
1st Star-Erik Christensen, NYR (2 goals incl. GW, assist, 2 takeaways, hit, +3 in 20:42)

The Puck Stops Here


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