Monday, April 26, 2010

Round One Randomness: Lots To Cheer About


It's really been a tremendous start to the 2010 playoffs. When you get seven of eight Round One series going at least six games, that says plenty about how ultra competitive it's been thus far. The hockey's been some of the best we've seen in quite a while.

A lot of quality games which has lifted the NHL to higher ratings not seen since 2002 back when we were situated at Bristol researching games for ESPN. Speaking of which, they are interested in bringing hockey back. With the league committed to partners Versus/NBC another year, it'll be interesting to see what transpires. Kudos to both networks for delivering the best coverage we've seen in quite a while. Even when Versus screws up a graphic/playoff fact, it doesn't have the same sting due to improved telecasts featuring fan friendly coach/player interviews. Intermission/postgames include the lovely yet talented Charissa Thompson and sometimes more eye candy in Lindsay Soto, which never hurts.

As for segs between periods, they're okay. However, NBC wins hands down with the fun duo of Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury, who's always good for a chuckle. Love or hate them, they provide solid analysis while entertaining and playing off each other well. Still, nothing compares to Hockey Night In Canada's in depth coverage. From dynamic duo Ron MacLean and Don Cherry during Coach's Corner to Hotstove featuring Mad Mike, Glenn Healy and Pierre LeBrun to After 40 Minutes that includes former antagonist P.J. Stock, nobody does it better. Having good banter back and forth is something us puckers appreciate. It keeps us locked in.

Most notably, the games haven't disappointed. Outside of the Devils who shockingly mailed it in, the other 15 teams have competed at a very high level- giving fans like myself whose team didn't make the cut, incentive to watch. The added drama along with DirecTV subscribers finally back in play have been beneficial to the networks. Loose Translation: Hockey wins. Even if Colin Campbell gets it wrong on Marian Hossa's hit from behind on Dan Hamhuis, the action has been fast and furious. As much disdain as there is for inconsistent officiating thus far, these playoffs have been fantabulous. Those who don't watch/pay attention like Mike Francesa are missing a great Spring that potentially could get better. Haters are going to hate. Don't let them spoil the parade.

On what's been an outstanding opening round, some randomness:

-Unless you're a Pens fan, Sidney Crosby is the villain. Many observers can't stand the sight of him, which isn't all his fault. He's the Golden Boy. So, Sid The Kid is front and center 24/7. Even when he's a non-factor in his team's inspiring comeback elimination of Ottawa, there's Thompson interviewing him while another elimination game (Sharks-Avs) is in progress. Unfortunately, this is what we deal with. However, even if I dislike Crosby for some of his on-ice antics, the man is super. He's followed up 51 goals with 14 points (5-9-14), simply dominating the Sens. Not even Chris Phillips/Anton Volchenkov could deny him. At 22, the way he competes must be respected. The hard work is paying off.

-The goalie match-up between Tuukka Rask and Ryan Miller hasn't disappointed with each shining during an intense series between old Adams rivals. In a Game Four sudden death defeat, Miller was sensational robbing Bruins several times before ex-Sabre Miro Satan ended it. Rask was equally brilliant, showing incredible poise for a rookie. Just how close are they? Both enter tonight's Game Six with identical 2.03 GAA's and similar save percentages (Rask-.933, Miller-.936). Tremendous stuff. Can Buffalo get one in Boston for a do-or-die Game Seven? That would be fitting. Thomas Vanek would help but high ankle sprains are tricky.

-Huge kudos to Dan Boyle for handling his monumental Game 3 gaffe so well. It had to be extremely difficult for one of the most underrated defensemen in the game, who won Lord Stanley in Tampa. He didn't run answering every question while keeping perspective, opting to focus on Game 4. The big one that swung the series in San Jose's favor. All he did was score early setting the tone before series MVP Joe Pavelski won it in overtime. It was also Boyle's tying goal along with two helpers that sparked the Sharks to a 5-2 come from behind elimination over the pesky Avs, who had nothing to be ashamed of. They gave the Sharks all they wanted despite losing Milan Hejduk and no Peter Mueller. Craig Anderson backed up a breakout season with remarkable netminding, including the 51-save virtuoso performance stealing Game 3. If only Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart were more of a factor.

-If you didn't feel good for Brian Boucher, shame on you. Excusing Devil fans who probably still can't believe Bouch's Revenge came exactly a decade later following one of the historic comebacks en route to Cup No.2. The 33 year-old was cool throughout, realizing the moment. To get such a second chance following the Flyers' goalie injuries had to feel extra special for the journeyman. Full marks for riding a strong finish that saw him best Henrik Lundqvist in a shootout just to get his team in. Though the Devs didn't push Boucher enough, his focus was tremendous, making big stops whenever called upon. You can bet he'll be more challenged in Round Two.

-It's convenient to make Ilya Kovalchuk the culprit but last we checked, the electrifying Russian tried hard pacing the Devils with six points (2-4-6). No question he did too much, holding onto the puck instead of using teammates. However, there are many reasons New Jersey crapped out. Mainly disappointing showings from Zach Parise (1 goal), Travis Zajac (2 Pts), Patrik Elias (0 goals) and invisible captain Jamie Langenbrunner (assist) doomed them. Paul Martin also had a rough series. Is it the end? That along with Jacques Lemaire's baffling decisions plus dreadful special teams killed them. They also couldn't deal with the Flyers' speed and physicality, leaving a disappointed Lemaire to conclude that his team 'didn't play playoff hockey.' Even Martin Brodeur indicated that the urgency wasn't completely where it needed to be in another elimination game on home ice. Speaking of MB30, despite poor numbers (3.01 GAA, .880 Save Pct), he gave them a chance. Were there a few goals he'd like back? Absolutely. Two to Daniel Carcillo including the Game 3 OT winner in which poor coverage also played a role come to mind. However, he showed up. You could name the players on one hand. Sad.

-Already, the Canadiens are exposing the Caps. In taking them to Game Six back in Montreal later today, their team speed has wreaked havoc on Washington's shaky D with Mike Green and Jeff Schultz victimized often. Players such as Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Andrei Kostitsyn and Brian Gionta are having success. The smaller, quicker guys in red, white and blue are winning battles in the offensive end. When Washington hasn't dictated, they've looked beatable. If not for Semyon Varlamov and Alex Ovechkin, they could easily be facing elimination. Coming off a flat performance, it'll be interesting to see which Cap team shows up. That also means you Alexander Semin. At least Ovie, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble along with emerging John Carlson and Tom Poti have done their part.

-Can't say enough about the tremendous fight the Sens put up despite Daniel Alfredsson banged up along with no Alex KovalevFilip Kuba and Milan Michalek. Promising rooks Peter Regin and Erik Karlsson stepped up and Matt Cullen again proved how valuable he can be on a playoff roster. Think his performance (3-5-8 incl. 5 PP Pts) opened some eyes? The Devils could use a versatile character guy like that. Tremendous stuff from Pascal Leclaire who after a dismal regular season relieved Brian Elliott, supplying superb goaltending to boost the Sens' chances. As long as the kids develop, Cory Clouston's club probably won't be going away. Figure Kovalev to come back with something to prove. Just wonder if Jason Spezza needs a change of scenery? Something's missing.

-The Kings gave the Canucks a run as expected. They really pushed Vancouver and were close to going up 3-1 but when push came to shove, the Sedins along with Mikael Samuelsson wouldn't allow it. Their brilliant play along with Ryan Kesler and surprise contributor Steve Bernier (4 goals) were enough to push past a feisty opponent who matched up well. A balanced D was active and Roberto Luongo overcame a shaky first four backstopping Vancouver to the next round. Now comes the true test. Are they finally ready for primetime? As for LA, nothing to be ashamed of. In their first postseason since 2002, they made for entertaining hockey that featured plenty of battles. From the ferocious hitting to end-to-end action, what a great series. He may have ran out of gas but Jonathan Quick made some strong saves early on making you believe they could string the upset. With Jonathan Bernier in waiting, the Kings will only get stronger in net. Drew Doughty, who deservingly is up for the Norris with Green and Duncan Keith- was good as was Jack Johnson. There's an awful lot to like about Doughty, who should win multiple Norrises. Dustin Brown, Michal Handzus and Freddy Modin were awesome. To do what they did against arguably the most dangerous line in the game is a credit to Terry Murray, who has disproved many. Wayne Simmonds was effective as was Matt Greene. Had they gotten more from Ryan Smyth and Jarrett Stoll, who knows? Anze Kopitar also could've been better. One thing's clear. A la Terminator, they'll be back.
-Preds and Hawks has been as advertised. Two very close Central rivals have taken turns controlling the series. Even minus Patric Hornqvist, Barry Trotz had his team in position to win their first series before the wheels came off in a wild Game Five that saw Hossa come out of the box and win it. If only Nashville had made him pay. Too bad Martin Erat (2 goals) made such a fatal mistake leading to Patrick Kane's clutch shorty that forced OT with only 13.6 ticks left. David Legwand (2-5-7, +5) has been brilliant. The solid two-way pivot who's the face of the franchise since they entered, is a smart player who gets the job done. Sure. He pales in comparison to Vincent Lecavalier but Legwand always leaves it out there and might have a better shelf life. Joel Ward has impressed and J.P. Dumont's a gamer. In order to push it seven, they'll need yeoman efforts from Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Colin Wilson and Steve Sullivan. Meanwhile, Chicago can thank their lucky stars that Erat tried to center the puck when all he had to do was sit on it. They're showing the same leaks we saw down the stretch. Peaks and valleys for arguably the most talented team is no way to compete for a Cup. If they're serious, then they'll clamp down tonight in Music City. Antti Niemi (1.98 GAA, .930, 2 SHO) has done his part. Duncan Keith, Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer must step up.

-And finally, what a series between the Yotes and Wings. It's had a bit of everything. Surges from both clubs. Dominance from Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who still make you feel they're the favorites despite an impressive Game Six stunner by Dave Tippett's club. The Coyotes have never reached the second round. Tomorrow, they get their shot at history with the first home playoff Game Seven since the Winnipeg days. All made possible thanks to an unreal effort from everyone in maroon red stunning The Joe. Lauri Korpikoski (pronounced Low---er--y by Doc Emrick) set the tone with a great shorthanded goal, providing a lift despite three consecutive times on the PK. Phoenix' power play sprung to life netting three goals including one by ageless Matt Schneider. While they won special teams, Ilya Bryzgalov demonstrated why he's up for the Vezina with an inspirational first stopping 13/14 including many early when the Yotes were under siege. Petr Prucha was all over the ice, setting up Wojtek Wolski's PPG while earning raves from Emrick. Why did we trade him again? Radim Vrbata finished off a great Robert Lang feed and one of our faves Taylor Pyatt got just reward when he deflected home a Keith Yandle shot. All leading up to a win or go home scenario at what will be a rocking Desert. Enough cannot be said about the job Tippett's done. Minus captain Shane Doan who remains a question mark plus Scottie Upshall, this team has been amazing. If they get it done, wow.

Fasten your seatbelts.

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