Friday, April 15, 2011

Playoffs Day Two Wrap: Battle Of Cali Classic

Day Two of these 2011 Playoffs had a pair of shutouts, doubling the number to four already. In the other two Eastern Conference Quarterfinals that got underway, goaltending was the story highlighted by Carey Price (31 saves) in the Canadiens' 2-0 win over Boston and Buffalo's Ryan Miller (35 saves) in the Sabres' 1-0 Game One victory. A better night for the road teams with two of three prevailing as opposed to only one of five on Day One (Preds 4-1 over Ducks).

Price had help from captain Brian Gionta, who pumped in his first two goals of this postseason- including an early one in front that set the tone for the upset. Afterwards, Price was brilliant in turning away the Bruins who fired more shots but couldn't find a way to put one past him. It had to be extra sweet with the shutout snapping a personal eight-game losing streak in the playoffs. The B's blew opportunities on the power play with Price and Montreal's penalty killing unit getting the job done. With Boston hosts pressing for the equalizer, a fatal mistake was made when a turnover allowed Scott Gomez to intercept the puck and quickly feed Gionta, whose slapshot from the right circle snuck past Tim Thomas, erasing any suspense. It was a bad goal to give up, preventing his teammates from having any realistic chance of tying it. So, Les Habitants steal home ice, already sending a message to their Original Six bitter rival.

While that was finishing up, the Sabres were keeping the Flyers at bay thanks to Miller, who was sensational. Despite undisciplined penalties throughout, Buffalo remained even with the high flying No.2 seed thanks to last year's Vezina winner. Every time it looked like they had an opening, Miller shut it down with acrobatic goaltending that was reminiscent of his heroic play during Team USA's run to an Olympic silver medal in Vancouver. Time and time again, frustrated Flyers looked skyward wondering what they had to do to score on the top American netminder who had his ups and downs in an injury riddled season. Perhaps the extra time off down the stretch thanks to understudy Jonas Enroth allowed Miller to stay fresh, which could be a bad sign for Philadelphia. While Miller did his job, pest Patrick Kaleta steered home a rebound early in the third that held up as the winner. A sore sight for Flyer fans, who weren't exactly thrilled with Kaleta's antics a period earlier. He's a frustrating player who also can score in key moments. Just ask Garden Faithful. The Flyers tried but simply never drew even, sending their fans home with a bitter taste in their mouths. Now, the Sabres have the home ice in the seventh meeting over the past 16 years in this overlooked rivalry.

If the first two games lacked in terms of scoring and momentum swings, that certainly wasn't a problem at the Shark Tank where the Sharks needed overtime to escape with a hard fought 3-2 win capturing Game One over the California rival Kings at a loud soldout arena. The eighth game of the playoffs was the best by far, featuring five goals, physical play, a fight and some heart stopping end to end action in sudden death before our pick Joe Pavelski sent the Sharkies home happy. Everyone knew this would be fun to watch with two close rivals finally doing battle in the Spring. It didn't disappoint. Right away, Dany Heatley escaped a check to put home a rebound before 30 seconds had elapsed. The Sharks flat out dominated the first period against the Kings outshooting them by a wide margin (14-3). Despite coming in waves and earning power plays, they couldn't extend their lead thanks to splendid goalkeeping from Jon Quick. Quick was sensational, finishing with 42 saves in what was a heroic effort even in defeat. At one point, San Jose led in shots 18-3 before LA mounted a comeback courtesy of a strong second that saw them outshoot the Sharks 16-9. Using a relentless forecheck, they were rewarded with two goals to draw even.

Before we get to the three goals, the first borderline hit took place when Jarrett Stoll hit Ian White from behind into the glass, cutting his chin. Somehow, the refs completely missed it. Even worse, Stoll stared at the injured White. Unbelievable. At present, there's a phone hearing taking place for what should be at least a one-game suspension for an important King that anchors their best line without Anze Kopitar. Actions have consequences and that could hurt LA's chances in Game Two. In response, Ben Eager fought Kyle Clifford, revving the crowd up with plenty of banter exchanged as the first concluded. It was the Kings who elevated their play, finally getting back into it when Justin Williams executed a perfect two-on-one with Dustin Brown, who rifled home his first on a power play past Antti Niemi. Rookie Logan Couture was guilty of missing wide on a shorthanded bid, trapping three Sharks which allowed LA to come 3-on-1. Williams waited before dishing across for Brown's roof job that tied it. Couture is a superb player. He atoned by abusing Drew Doughty to score his first of the playoffs, giving the Sharks their second lead. On the play, Doughty went for a hip check but his positioning stunk and Couture cruised around and surprised Quick with a low shot that trickled in. The Kings didn't allow it to unfaze them, continuing to work the puck deep and pin the Sharks. However, they caught a break on Williams' tying marker when the puck took a funny hop off Doug Murray right to Williams, who snuck a backhand in an open side. Speaking of the former Hurricane, he was excellent for a guy who missed time down the stretch and was expected to miss more. However, he's tough as nails and was the best King aside from Quick. Niemi made some important stops late to keep it tied.

The third was more even with each club searching for the winner but neither goalie budged, forcing sudden death. If the last five minutes of regulation were great, it only foreshadowed one of the most exciting overtimes. Neither team backed off, trading end to end chances in a chaotic fourth period that had plenty of drama on both sides. The goalies were brilliant. Twenty three total shots were taken and nearly every one felt like it had a chance of ending it. Only the exceptional play of Quick and Niemi prevented an earlier conclusion to what was a frenetic pace where both clubs pounced on turnovers to generate quality chances. Simply put, this was what Playoff Hockey is all about! Quick must've made about seven great saves just by being in the right position to deny the Sharks, including Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe. There was also a wild sequence where it looked like they had it won but a puck in mid-air deflected off the side of the net and a player before falling harmlessly to the left of the net back into play. Niemi was equally as good, stoning the Kings with other pick Williams making a bid. Finally, after 14 minutes, the clutchest player on the Sharks came through. Off a turnover, Clowe led a three-on-two rush down the left side. With two Kings back, he waited and waited before finding the trailer Pavelski at the top, who then made no mistake going upstairs on Quick for an exclamation point to a great game. It took a perfect shot to beat Quick, who easily could've been the game's No.1 Star. But Pavelski is the definition of a money player, who delivers in big spots. His goal at 14:44 of the first overtime made a winner of the Sharks, who lead the best-of-seven Western Conference Quarter 1-0.

Fantastic stuff in what looks like a potential classic series between foes who don't like each other. With all three Californian teams in for the first time ever, it sure is great to be a hockey fan in the Cali Valley. Tonight, the Ducks look to tie up the Preds while the Rangers aim for the same versus the Caps. The Canucks look to go two up on the defending champs while the Lightning try to steal home ice away from the Penguins. Hope it's as fun as the late show at HP Pavilion.

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