Saturday, April 30, 2011

Stepan, Kreider and McDonagh lead USA to win

In case you weren't paying attention, there's other hockey going on over in the Czech Republic where the World Championships are taking place. Today, Team USA got off on the right foot by posting a 5-1 win over Austria. A better beginning for ex-Isles coach Scott Gordon who also was behind the bench last year when they were upset by Germany in their first game.

Wisconsin was well represented with the Ranger duo of Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh donning the cool home white USA threads along with 21 year-old Craig Smith, who's a Nashville prospect. All had good days with Stepan setting up a pair of goals, including one for future Blueshirt Chris Kreider, who looked poised throughout. The Boston College standout is expected to return for his junior season, which probably is the right decision. No sense rushing the former No.1 pick when our team probably is a couple of years away from contending. It's encouraging to see Kreids looking like he belongs while getting the chance to reunite with WJC hero Stepan and McD.

Other highlights included Thrasher Blake Wheeler finishing off a nice dish from a tough angle and Blue defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk rifling one far side past Austrian netminder Jurgen Penker (27 saves).

Another familiar face represented the red, white and blue in net with Islander Al Montoya turning aside 12 of 13 shots. Seeing Al in net was cool, giving me flashbacks of his heroic effort in '03 that led USA to upsetting Canada when Marc-Andre Fleury's gaffe allowed our country to finally win the World Junior Championships. Of course, Ranger fans still fret over Glen Sather selecting Montoya sixth overall in the '04 Draft. What people forget is that Henrik Lundqvist was unknown and Dan Blackburn was finished due to that freak injury in the weight room. I will always feel Al never got a fair shake here due to Lundqvist's emergence. He was an AHL All-Star his second pro season in '06-07 but was blocked by Steve Valiquette. There were a couple of instances he was an emergency recall but for whatever reason, Ranger brass refused to start him when it could've boosted his value.

Eventually, Al was dealt to Rangers West in the Desert with Marcel Hossa for Freddy Sjostrom, David LeNeveu and Josh Gratton. Ironically, he was similarly blocked by Ilya Bryzgalov and former Ranger Jason LaBarbera. The former Wolverine got his break when the Islanders gave him a shot with the Chicago native producing nice results (9 Wins, 2.39 GAA, .921 Save Pct, SHO). Al was re-signed for next year and will likely split duty with Rick DiPietro.

Kudos to Versus for extending their hockey coverage this morning at 10 ET with familiar face Bill Pidto running things along with special guest analyst Zach Parise, which had to bring a tear to Devil fans. He looked a bit weird in studio but did alright. The next game is Monday at 10. So, if you can't catch it live, set the DVR. Somewhere in California, Brian's smiling. :P

Friday, April 29, 2011

Why we watch hockey (my top ten hockey games in attendance)



This season's come to an odd end for the Battle teams, for even though the Rangers and Sabres made the playoffs, they suffered brutal playoff defeats (particularly the Sabres) while the Devils had a relatively serene second half of the season and finished on a high, having a 28-10-3 second half record to hang their hat on for next season as well as lucking into the #4 pick - although some would say it was a just reward for playing all out when we buried ourselves so far in the abyss we couldn't even see the hole. I know Derek and Brian are probably thinking why do they get caught up in it, and with some of our brutal playoff defeats the last few seasons I admit falling prey to this mindset too although I have far less to complain about than most fanbases on the whole in the last decade and a half.

Still, sometimes you need a reminder of the good side of sports. Invariably if you only measure success by championships, just about any fanbase will be dissapointed more often than not. As I've always said though, sports is the best reality TV out there. You can't script it - except maybe with wrestling, and just when you think you have it figured out, something unpredictable happens and you realize you have no flipping clue what's going to happen next. With that in mind, and in the middle of a quiet time around here I'm writing a piece I wanted to write on Fan Appreciation Day but instead figured on saving it for now - my list of the top ten Devils games I've ever attended.

This list will be tilted toward the modern-day to be sure, since I only went to a handful of games a season before becoming a full season ticket holder in 2005-06 (ironically the first season after the lockout), and I haven't been to fewer than twenty-seven games a year since then. My first hockey game attended in December 1996 was an odd Devils win where Mike Dunham actually started but was relieved after the first period trailing 2-0 against the Ducks, and the team came back to win 5-3. Of course, there'll be a sprinkling of the past throughout this list. What's tough is narrowing this list down to ten since there are so many games I could put. Even games that meant very little, such as normally mundane regular season games in December and January - well less mundane against rivals - are among the games I've had the most fun at.

Among the games left off this list are big playoff wins, numerous regular season triumphs over rivals like the Rangers, Flyers and Pens - as well the Prudential Center's first hockey game (a 4-1 loss to the Senators to be sure, but hey it was the beginning of a new era, being acquainted with the home I expect to be acquainted with until I'm old and gray at the very least). As such there's very little rhyme or reason to my list, with one exception. The top spot was easy, it was filling out the other nine that I got into trouble with. This post may be a little long, but what the hey, I have five hundred hours between Jet picks during the NFL Draft and I'm a bit laid up being ill anyway so what better time to have a piece like this?

Without any further ado, let's begin:

Honorable Mention) 2007-08 Regular Season - Devils 2, Rangers 1 (CAA), Devils 3, Rangers 2 (MSG, SO win)...at some point on this list I have to mention this back-to-back series of games as my Devil-Ranger regular season inclusion on this list. These games were a home-and-home two days apart, both came down to the wire and things were even more intense than usual, for these were the first Devil-Ranger games with Sean Avery wearing the blue and white. He made his presence immediately felt, although he wasn't as effective against us yet as he would be the following season. While I remember little about both games you sort of have to mention it when you see your team beat your biggest rival in both arenas two days apart.

10) Game 1 2005-06 Regular Season - Devils 4, Penguins 1. Even though it's not on my top ten in terms of excitement I have to mention this game just because it was my first hockey game live in eighteen months, after the lockout that wiped out 2004-05. Although I became a full season ticket holder for the first time that season I intentionally avoided going to the preseason games because I wanted my first game back after eighteen months to be one that counted, after all.

That game was also remarkable for the debuts of two super rookies - Zach Parise for us and the much-ballyhooed Sidney Crosby for the Penguins. Parise won round one with a goal and an assist, prompting chants of 'Zach is better!'. Down 4-0, Crosby and the Pens finally got on the scoreboard midway through the third period when he assisted on a power play goal that spoiled what would have been yet another Martin Brodeur shutout to tack onto the eventual all-time record.

9) 2008-09 Regular Season - Devils 4, Avalanche 0 (Brodeur's return). This is one of those normally unremarkable games against a non-rival team that turned into an event, for after fifty games on IR, Brodeur made his triumphant return to the net that February night. While Scott Clemmensen had handled things better than anyone could have asked for in his absence, clearly the crowd was amped to see the return of #30, cheering literally every move he made during the warmups.

Against a bad team and on an emotional high, we predictably rolled but what made this game so special was the shutout itself, under normal circumstances a tough feat but after missing four months particularly extraordinary. Me and a friend broke protocol Chico Resch-style by talking about the shutout after the first period, when he mentioned that he would be amused if this game ended 1-0 (which it was at the time) and I said I'd be amused by anything-0.

8) 2008-09 Regular Season - Devils 4, Penguins 3 (Doc Emrick night). I was debating whether to put this game or our wild 8-5 win over the Rangers here, I chose this game for a few reasons. First, we honored our legendary announcer before the game for making the Hall of Fame, and in his speech during the pre-game ceremony he said somewhat prophetically that he was looking forward to the show the two teams were going to put on. Although we struggled for a time that season after Brodeur's injury, Clemmensen was gaining confidence with every game and it was perhaps this tilt - which gave us our ninth straight win - that illustrated his growth and our increasing confidence in him.

For a time, things looked bad as we fell behind 3-1 midway through the third period, but after a Brendan Shanahan goal pulled us closer, Jamie Langenbrunner tied it with less than forty seconds remaining, scoring with the net vacated. However, we weren't quite into overtime yet and Clemmensen had to make a terrific save on an Evgeni Malkin breakaway with barely a second on the clock. In overtime, Langenbrunner wound up winning the game and it was this contest more than anything else that made me feel most proud of what this team was accomplishing without its Hall of Fame goaltender.

7) Game 4 2006 First Round - Devils 4, Rangers 2 at MSG. While I said I was restricting this to Devil games (despite being at other fun hockey games like a couple of the team's minor league tilts and a Caps-Hawks showdown in Chicago a couple of seasons ago that turned out to be great theater), I never said I was restricting it to HOME games. This was the game that finally ended our playoff curse against the Rangers, although arguably with our performances in the first three it was only a matter of time before we closed out this series.

Fortunately I wound up sitting next to a Devils fan for this game, not to mention I had friends elsewhere in the arena. For all the talk about Ranger fans filling up our arenas (and justified) this was the one game where you could actually feel a Devil fan presence at MSG. Not nearly 50-50 to be sure, but clearly noticeable.

Even when the Devils fell behind after the first period - the only time we trailed all series - I was more annoyed than worried and sure enough, the Devils concluded their incredible roll of fifteen straight wins by scoring the next four goals in the final two periods before a consolation goal late gave Ranger fans something to stand and cheer for. Admittedly, I got goosebumps by the home crowd's reaction to being swept but clearly I was in a magnanimous mood after humiliating our biggest rivals by a tune of seventeen goals to three in a four-game sweep.

6) Game 6 2000 Second Round - Devils 3, Leafs 0. In the days where I was only going to a handful - or less - games a season, this was the first playoff win I ever saw live at the Meadowlands, and it was a memorable one. For this was the game where the Devils put on a virtuoso defensive performance seldom ever matched in a playoff game, permitting a meager six shots by the Maple Leafs. Sitting in my dad's boss's seats, we arrived barely on time and before we literally had time to get to our seat with food, the Devils scored a mere seventeen seconds in while we were still in the hall. As it turned out, that would be all the Devils needed although they added another quick goal in the second period, then an empty-netter late in the third to seal the game and the series, putting the Devils in the Conference Finals. I've only seen the Devils win two playoff series live and this was one of them.

5) 2005-06 Regular Season - Devils 3, Hurricanes 0 (Stevens night). Fittingly after nearly 25 years of hockey in New Jersey, Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens became the first former Devil to have his number retired, and that alone makes this game special. Not to mention his speech before the game, where Stevens moved the crowd by saying this was the only time he ever felt intimidated on the East Rutherford ice, for intimidation was the one word you would use if you described Stevens as a player. Finally, the game itself was a fitting tribute as the Devils conjured up the ghosts of the recent past and put together a dominant defensive performance against the team who would later win the Stanley Cup that season.

4) Game 5 2009 First Round - Devils 1, Hurricanes 0. Geez, a lot of these games seem to be shutouts. This one gets bumped up on the list partly for personal reasons and partly cause it was a unique game. For most of my life as a season ticket holder, I've wound up going to games solo but for this all-important playoff game I wound up being with two of my best friends that night in what turned out to be the best goaltending classic I've ever seen in fifteen years of watching hockey.

With the series tied at two after three stright nail-biters followed a convincing Game 1 win at home, this game was critical and goalies Brodeur and Cam Ward were both determined to be a forcefield in net. At first, the Devils dominated, outshooting the Canes 29-10 at one point but couldn't break through on Ward until finally midway through the second an Andy Greene shot was deflected home by David Clarkson on a power play, giving the Devils what turned out to be the game's only goal.

Now behind, the Canes threw at least five kitchen sinks and everything else at Brodeur, eventually pumping some 40+ shots at him, but after losing Game 4 with less than half a second remaining Marty was as angry and hungry as I've ever seen him. Not only was this this best two-man goaltending show I've ever seen, it was the best singular performance of Brodeur's career in my mind.

My emotional exhaustion after the Devils finally held on for a 1-0 win (despite both teams getting 40+ shots) has rarely, if ever been surpassed in my sports-viewing career. Even the ghastly events of Game 7 later on can't eliminate how I felt after this game. Especially since it was the biggest playoff win in the short history of the Rock.

3) Game 5 2003 Stanley Cup Finals - Devils 6, Ducks 3. Amazingly enough, I was more nervous during this game than I was during Game 7 (more on that later). Why? Well, the Devils had come into the game losing two straight in Anaheim, both crushing games in overtime. Momentum looked like it was squarely with the team of Disney, and Ducks CEO Michael Eisner went around before the match guaranteeing victory. If there was one moment in the Finals where things looked the bleakest, it was after ex-Devil Petr Sykora's goal right off a faceoff barely a minute into the game. However, this contest broke the mold of the first four games and became a regular shootout as playoff sensation Jean-Sebastian Giguere continued to have problems with the arena in East Rutherford.

With the score tied at three midway through the second, Jay Pandolfo's foot scored the deciding goal, when a puck deflected in off his skate and after the officials first ruled it a no-goal they wound up changing the call moments later, giving the Devils the last goal they'd need. Just to make things a little easier, they scored two more in the third for a 6-3 final and at that point I felt deep down we were winning the Cup, no matter what happened in Game 6 - which turned out to be a no-contest loss to the Ducks in Anaheim.

2) 2008-09 Regular Season - Devils 3, Blackhawks 2 (Brodeur's record-breaking win and Patrik Elias's team record in points). Why does this game get to second on my list? Because not only was it one of the most electric crowds I've ever seen from start to finish, but the entire game felt like a celebration for one of the two times in my life - the second one is below. Especially after Brodeur got the record-tying win in his hometown of Montreal, it felt like it was destined to happen that night and everyone knew it.

Facing a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup, the Devils jumped out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period, and the third goal would see yet another record...Elias passing John MacLean's team record of 702 points in his career with an assist on a Brian Gionta tally. Even having to hang on late after giving up a late third-period goal to cut the lead to 3-2 didn't dull the enthusiasm, indeed it only made the crowd more amped for the finish, when Brodeur made one final save seconds before the buzzer to seal his triumph and Elias punctuated his night - St. Patty's night (you really couldn't make this up) - by coming out for the second star in a green hat with a four-leaf clover on top.

Somewhat fortuitously, I wasn't in my regular section 208 for this game, for I'd decided weeks before to get discount tickets in 120, right behind Brodeur's net. That turned out to be a terrific decision, both in terms of having the desired view of Brodeur during the end of the game (and after it when he cut the net out, a la college basketball), not to mention making a huge profit off the extra tickets when this game became what it did.

And finally...

1) Game 7 2003 Stanley Cup Finals - Devils 3, Ducks 0. There are three things you have to realize about this game before you fully get its meaning for me, even away from the obvious which is the only championship I've ever seen one of my teams win live. Number one, the 2002-03 team (led by the late Pat Burns) was by far my favorite sports team of all time. Even more than the other two Cup winners, this team showed by far more heart and character than any I've ever been fortunate enough to root for and this game was the culmination of a season-long belief in this team where few others had it, since we didn't have the talent of Devils teams in the past.

Secondly, realizing this game might be a once-in-a lifetime event I bit the bullet after Game 5 and paid scalper price at two and a half times face, for a lower-bowl seat no less. Hey, if I was gonna see the team win the Cup I might as well have the best view possible and I did, looking right at Marty Brodeur for the first and third period from around the goal line several rows back.

And finally, as it turned out I was sick as a dog going into this game worse than I am right now - getting the early symptoms of a flu I struggled with for a couple weeks after that. My mother took one look at me and said you're not going, and for one of the few times in my life I put my foot down and said this was a once-in-a lifetime game, of course I'm going. So I took an antibiotic and gutted it out.

Whatever nervousness I felt in my flu-like stupor, it dissipated just after the pregame warmups when the scratches were announced and long-time Devil Ken Daneyko wasn't among them. Showing a personal touch some didn't think he had, Burns understood the moment, that the big fella even if he wasn't the player he once was would give the crowd inspiration and in my heart I personally felt that everything was going to be okay after that. Although the game remained scoreless during the first period, I wasn't particularly concerned and of all people, little-used Mike Rupp scored early in the second period to give the Devils the lead and send the house rocking. Rupp would come up with three points on the night, a heady total for a guy who didn't even play for most of the playoffs, assisting on both of playoff hero Jeff Friesen's Game 7 goals, late in the second and third periods.

Finally with the game in hand came one more thrilling moment, having Daneyko out on the ice for the last shift to ice the 3-0 shutout, giving the Devils and the gritty defenseman both storybook endings to a magical season and a terrific career. I whooped it up as much as I possibly could, during the game and in the post-game ceremony afterward, my mood being helped by the hot redhead from Boston - but a Devils fan - next to me who arguably had fun enough for the both of us. My only regret about that night is that I've never seen footage of me and her after the game that was taken by an NHL video camera, or had a picture of us taken (these were the days when I still used store box cameras). I'm sure it's likely I got her sick at some point afterward but oh well lol. Like one of my other friends said before the game, don't be afraid to have fun.

As with all the games on this list, but even more so that night I did.

Quick postscript: A few weeks after that 2003 win, almost by accident (through a Devils fan friend that worked with me) I found out about an appearance Daneyko was making with the Cup at a local radio station around fifteen minutes away. So not only was I there for the championship but through luck I wound up getting my picture taken with Daneyko and the Holy Grail - see above.

Round 2 Predictions: Final 8 survivors in Stanley Cup Quest

With one of the most electrifying first rounds in recent memory complete, there's no time to breathe for the remaining eight survivors. They leave behind an NHL record nine straight days with at least one game needing overtime to decide. In total, 14 went to sudden death. Breathless is one way to describe it. More than ever, home ice means little as does seedings. The parity we've seen since the lockout has taken effect. Anyone can beat anyone. Even if the No.1 overall Canucks escaped their nemesis Chicago thanks to Alex Burrows, the lower seeds proved themselves worthy opponents with the exception of Phoenix-Detroit, which was never close.

Now, onto Round Two. The match ups are a little more enticing with one Conference Semifinal rematch in the works that both the Bruins and Flyers remember well. One a much happier moment while the other bitter, seeking revenge. Let the fun begin!

EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIS

(1) Washington Capitals versus (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

Analysis: The Caps are a different team than the one the Bolts saw in the regular season. Bruce Boudreau's decision to alter his club's style to a more playoff oriented defensive oriented posture has made them much tougher to play. Figure Nicklas Backstrom to be better and Mike Green even more dangerous. With John Carlson the shutdown D, it's taken pressure off. Alex Ovechkin is a man on a mission. Alex Semin looks motivated. The Lightning boast the weapons to get to Michal Neuvirth in Hart candidate Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier. Keep an eye on Nate Thompson, Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim, who hurt the Pens. Dwayne Roloson has the edge due to experience versus the Czech kid. The Bolts D collapses in front of Rollie. It might not work as well against a more dangerous opponent who activate their D. Roloson vs Neuvirth has to be one of the largest age gaps between netminders. Tampa can win if Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell have strong series. But Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Jason Arnott and Marcus Johansson should tilt it the Caps' way.

Prediction: CAPS IN 6


(2) Philadelphia Flyers versus (3) Boston Bruins

Analysis: The focus is on Boston, who comes off an emotional win over Montreal thanks to Nathan Horton, who must be glad not to be in Florida. How will the B's handle the anticipated rematch against the team that made HISTORY last year? Vengeance is a strong word. It'll be interesting to see how Claude Julien's club approaches the Flyers, who used another comeback in victimizing Buffalo. The defensive edge belongs to the Bruins led by Norris winner Zdeno Chara, who rebounded from missing Game 2 due to dehydration. He'll be asked to check Claude Giroux or Danny Briere. Pick your poison. That's the dilemma Julien has against Peter Laviolette's deep cast that includes James van Riemsdyk, Ville Leino, Kris Versteeg and hopefully Jeff Carter (knee sprain). Chris Pronger saw power play duty the final two games of Round One. That means plenty of Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn against David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Horton, who need better series. The B's got large contributions from Chris Kelly and Rich Pevereley, who along with Patrice Bergeron and rook Brad Marchand led the way before Horton's heroics. Andrew Ference played nasty, getting away with one last night. Johnny Boychuk is solid. Tomas Kaberle a disaster. Keep and eye on Michael Ryder for the Bruins and Scott Hartnell for the Flyers. Tim Thomas was strong, looking the part of another Vezina. Brian Boucher did it in spurts with relief from Michael Leighton after replacing Sergei Bobrovsky. Can this goalie controversy work? Bouch needs to be large. If Carter's back and Pronger sees increased minutes, the Flyers should prevail. The B's may not be able to exploit the Philly weakness enough.

Prediction: FLYERS IN 7


WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIS

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs (5) Nashville Predators

Analysis: The Canucks come off an exhilirating triumph over the Hawks thanks to Burrows and Ryan Kesler, who were tremendous in Game 7. It won't be any easier for The Sedins against Norris challenger Shea Weber and capable partner Ryan Suter. The Preds play a tight checking style that can fluster opponents. We're guessing Mike Fisher will see a lot of Daniel and Henrik. Whoever prevails should determine the winner. Fisher's coming off a big series in finally getting Barry Trotz' club past the first round. His three goals and three assists along with key faceoff wins like the one that set up Weber's equalizer before Jered Smithson's Game 5 heroics, can't be underestimated. The Preds score by committee with Steve Sullivan, Jordin Tootoo, Joel Ward and Weber all involved along with long-time Pred David Legwand, Patric Hornqvist and Martin Erat back for this round. They'll rely heavily on Pekka Rinne, who needs a stronger series versus Vezina foe Roberto Luongo, who still has plenty to answer. He's never been past the second round. So, the pressure's on. Louie should get plenty of help from a tough D led by Christian Ehrhoff that also features rugged Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa, plus Keith Ballard. Alain Vigneault likes to mix up who the Sedins play with. It could be interchangeable Swede Mikael Samuelsson who sees the bulk while Burrows and Kesler run rampant. Mason Raymond is capable and energizers Raffi Torres along with Max Lapierre are a nuisance. Our Chris Higgins wildcard rang true as he again opened the series last night with the only goal in a routine shutout for Luongo. Nashville better pick it up or they could be short work for the 'Nucks.

Prediction: CANUCKS in 6


(2) San Jose Sharks vs (3) Detroit Red Wings

Analysis: Whenever these two powerful teams meet, it's highly entertaining puck at its finest. Usually, the Wings' championship experience shines through against one of the elite franchises still searching for its first Cup appearance. However, last year in the same round, the Sharks prevailed in five, which should give them more confidence. Detroit's more rested this time but will have to contend with Todd McLellan's deeper Sharks who possess the best overall rookie in Logan Couture to go with gritty Ryane Clowe, clutch Joe Pavelski and dynamic '97 Draft 1-2 duo Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Did we mention there was a Dany Heatley sighting with the highly skilled sniper scoring a couple of money goals? You won't find a deeper forward corps than the cool teal who must ditch those ugly black uniforms before we go Sean Avery and call the fashion police. A supporting cast of Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell are proof. Perhaps the back end is where they could struggle with Dan Boyle and Jason Demers offensive D who can be victimized in their end as can vet Niclas Wallin. It'll hing on rough customer Doug Murray and their best defensive blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who makes solid reads defensively. The Red Wings probably boast an edge with Norris legend Nick Lidstrom, great passer Brian Rafalski, violent Nik Kronwall and sturdy ex-Shark Brad Stuart. It's as good a top four as there is. Mike Babcock can also trot out Jonathan Ericsson and reliable vet Ruslan Salei. The key to the series is who dictates. The Wings' superb puck possession is led by wunderkind Pavel Datsyuk, sniper Johan Franzen, crease crasher Tomas Holmstrom, gritty Dan Cleary and hopefully one of the game's premier players Henrik Zetterberg. Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler can't be overlooked and neither can Todd Bertuzzi, who had a good year in Motown. Justin Abdelkader does a lot of the board work and Darren Helm is so underrated. Does Mike Modano pop one in what looks to be it for one of the greatest Americans to ever lace 'em up? What about Patrick Eaves or Drew Miller? You never know where the offense will come from. It could come down to which goalie is better between Cup winner Antti Niemi and sophomore Jimmy Howard. There should be a lot of goals. So, it will be up to each netminder to come up with timely stops. Whoever does will prevail.

Prediction: SHARKS IN 7

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Memorable Round 1 Complete: Horton ultimate hero for B's, Roloson stands tall in Bolts comeback

The playoffs are where heroes are made. In what was a remarkable first round that included 17 overtime games, two series needed sudden death to decide in Game 7.

Yesterday, Alex Burrows rescued his Canucks from ultimate embarrassment- preventing the defending champion Hawks from completing another 0-3 comeback a la the Flyers last year. Storybook ending to a great series with Vancouver finally overcoming its kryptonite the hard way thanks to Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews' late shorthanded goal that forced extras. Even in defeat, the Blackhawks did themselves proud with standout rookie Corey Crawford having the kind of game goalies dream about. At least half his 36 stops before Burrows cashed a Chris Campoli turnover were money. The penalty shot save that thwarted Burrows along with a three save sequence that included a sprawling right glove robbery of Ryan Kesler allowed his team a chance to tie it. Even in defeat, he was Crawesome! One to watch for next year.

While the Canucks and their legions of fans breathed easier now that they advanced to a Conference Semi meeting versus the pesky Predators, the final two teams survived on Round One's final night. An hour separated the start times for the East's last pair of virtuosos. It comes as no surprise that the much heated rivalry between the Canadiens and Bruins came down to a climatic deciding game which required OT. A game with more twists and turns much like the 34th installment of hockey's greatest rivalry. Simply put, the Bruins never do it the easy way. So blowing a two-goal first period lead before the Habs tied it only to surge ahead again on a Chris Kelly tally before loathsome P.K. Subban blasted them into sudden death was about as startling as Mike D'Antoni's defensive philosophy versus another Boston outfit. So, we got our wish with Carey Price's money stops forcing do or die for the Original 6's. Only this time, the B's had the right formula with Tim Thomas early and Nathan Horton late to pull out a hard fought 4-3 Game 7 thriller. Wonder if circus clown Subban did any pointing at the crowd after being victimized by Milan Lucic for the series clincher? Enjoy your vacation dumbass!

The final series to go the distance was the Lightning and Penguins, who as predicted ran out of steam against a more skilled opponent minus Sid and Geno. Sure. They blew a 3-1 series lead in folding to the Bolts, who really turned it around with an 8-2 pasting in Game 5 before taking care of business at St. Pete to force Game 7. Credit goes out to vets Martin St. Louis and Dwayne Roloson who never let their team down. Having experienced winners like the dynamic former Hart winner and the Cup runner-up allowed them to relax. It really was the blowout that got the ship righted with the Bolts also getting a huge insurance marker from ex-Pen Ryan Malone following a big save from Rollie in capturing Game 6. Anything can happen in Game 7 and with the Pitt offense struggling to penetrate a stingy Tampa D that limited most of their chances to the perimeter, all it took was one play from underrated Dominic Moore, who made a sweet dish to former Islander Sean Bergenheim for an easy finish into an open side past a brilliant Marc-Andre Fleury, who did as much as he could to give his team a shot late. Ultimately, the Pens' grinding style wore down along with the Bolts' willingness to get in passing lanes and block shots like big pickup Eric Brewer. That along with Pitt's inability to connect on the power play (1-for-34) including pulling Fleury for a 6-on-4 the final 90 was the difference. Two worthy Adams candidates but Guy Boucher outcoached Dan Bylsma, who mysteriously didn't use clutch vet Alex Kovalev late when his team could've used more skill. Probably for the best that the Pens are out allowing Sidney Crosby a long offseason to get ready. Just might be best for the league too.

Before wrapping this up, big props to the Preds on winning their first series with perhaps them learning from last year's heartache with a huge faceoff win from Mike Fisher allowing Norris candidate Shea Weber to force overtime in Game 5 where Jered Smithson played ultimate hero from unsung Jordin Tootoo. Great comeback story from substance abuse program to offensive surprise. Fisher was also instrumental putting up a series high three goals and three helpers while Weber and Ryan Suter blanketed Hart hopeful Corey Perry. Major kudos to Barry Trotz whose teams always fly under the radar and never miss a beat despite losing talent annually. They'll get the Canucks in Round Two. ... The Flyers also showed heart in having long memories, rallying from two down to pull out Game Six in OT thanks to Ville Leino and then blew out the Sabres 5-2 in Game 7. A bitter pill to swallow for a Buffalo club that fought valiantly before caving in the deciding game. ... Joe Thornton also played OT hero to put away the Kings in a classic six-game series between Cali rivals with the deeper Sharks prevailing. ... With the lone exception of the Wings' surprising sweep of the Coyotes who we hope stay in Phoenix, every series was closely fought. Now, it's onto the second round!

I went 5-for-8 in Round One going 3-for-4 in the East with Cup preseason pick Philly the only blemish. Out West, I split nailing San Jose in six and Vancity while misreading the special talent of Pavel "Datsyukian" Datsyuk and Hasan's sleeper pick Nashville, who he has going to the Conference Finals. Not a bad call there if Vezina hopeful Pekka Rinne bounces back with a stronger Conference Semi versus the gifted Canucks. Here are your Round Two matchups:

EAST

(1) Capitals vs (5) Lightning

(2) Flyers vs (3) Bruins


WEST

(1) Canucks vs (5) Predators

(2) Sharks vs (3) Red Wings


We'll make our selections tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Part I: With season over, plenty on plate for Rangers

There will be no HISTORY for the Rangers. No Game 7. Heck. There wasn't even a Game 6 that would've generated the greediest owner in sports another playoff gate after the Knicks did their best impersonation of us post-lockout against a bitter enemy. By virtue of their most complete effort ousting the Rangers with a 3-1 win in Game 5 that was never close, the top seeded Capitals avoided more questions, advancing to the second round. With the other three series still going in the East, Alex Ovechkin and Co. await their opponent. A Sabre win over the Flyers would pit Buffalo against Washington. Otherwise, it'll be the winner of Boston/Montreal.

While the Caps prepare for that, a long offseason is on the horizon for the Rangers. Truth be told, they battled till the final buzzer as Wojtek Wolski's shutout breaking goal displayed with some rough stuff against an old Patrick rival that's becoming a thorn in their side. I don't think it's over between these teams. But as newly extended John Tortorella duly noted in Saturday's postgame of another first round failure which didn't sit well with Henrik Lundqvist, the Caps are a better team who's further along. In the end, talent won out with Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Mike Green doing us in. As predicted, wildcard Marcus Johansson scored and set up big goals. Bruce Boudreau's new defensive approach allowed his more skilled team to match our work ethic. All you have to do is point to Game 1 when Ovechkin stuffed in their first goal before Jason Arnott fed Semin for the OT winner. That was one turning point with the other another heartbreaker with the Rangers blowing a three-goal lead and losing in excruciating fashion due to ghost Marian Gaborik's gaffe that allowed Jason Chimera the easiest goal of his career.

Sometimes, it's just not meant to be. If either doesn't happen, we could be talking instead of a deciding game tomorrow night. For as good as the high powered Caps were, they only outscored us by five (13-8). However, if you took away Wolski's goal in garbage time, the Blueshirts totaled only seven, putting too much pressure on Lundqvist, who aside from a couple of weird goals to Ovi and Semin was outstanding. The lack of finish along with a putrid 1-for-20 on the powerless play doomed this gritty club with the heart to make it back to the playoffs sans Tampa's gift to Tortorella. The way they competed made all of us except possibly one blogger proud. This was the most rootable team we've had in decades. The classic underdog that surprises you when you least expect it. So, they couldn't back up my guarantee. It doesn't matter. The Caps earned it and that bodes well for the franchise moving forward.

Even without future captain Ryan Callahan, who could get Chris Drury's 'C' if he's bought out this summer, there was no quit in Tortorella's club. Regarding Drury, credit must be given to him for how hard he played after coming back from a bad knee. Even in limited minutes, the captain busted his ass diving in front of point shots and winning plenty of faceoffs. If only that high labeler had hit the net on Michal Hasek Neuvirth in the first overtime of Game 4. If it's truly it for Dru, don't forget the two good seasons he gave us, leading this team to two postseasons, including a second round loss to the Pens when No.68 was still around. Coincidence that our scoring has become Devil-esque since? :P

Of course, the Rangers missed Callahan, who would've done so much of the grinding in front that would've aided the power play and drove Neuvirth nuts. Probably a different series. But as the coach said, it's no use complaining. The playoffs have injuries. It's about guys stepping up. Derek Stepan didn't score but got better in each game. Artem Anisimov struggled despite his first career playoff tally. Gaborik was brutal even if his play picked up. The goat of the series who prior thought the Caps wanted no part of our team. Next time, back it up instead of the silly alibi about not having anyone to play with (line consistency). You're paid a lot ($7.5 million) to score goals. Something you did fine in Year 1. If the shoulder wasn't bothering him, then he needs a therapist pronto. Especially if Tortorella is sticking with him. He says he cares. We'll have wait to wait and see about that after too many lazy shifts where he didn't bother.
With the season done, now comes decision time for the organization. Here are several players who need to be re-signed:

1.Ryan Callahan-the glue of the team
2.Brandon Dubinsky-he wants it done ASAP
3.Artem Anisimov-made strides in second year with room for improvement
4.Mike Sauer-from injury prone forgotten part of Leetch deal to top 4 caliber
5.Brian Boyle-from question mark to a warrior who notched career bests
6.Ruslan Fedotenko-must be re-signed for how well he fit in
7.Matt Gilroy-gained coach's trust and obviously won't be picked up at pricey $2.1 M tag but try bringing back on cheap

With all that to get done, Glen Sather has his work cut out for him. He'll also need to make decisions on the aforementioned Drury, Vinny ProspalBryan McCabe, Wolski, Steve EmingerErik Christensen and even Sean Avery, who did enough to retain for his final year. We're probably saying bye to almost all except Avery. Then with whatever cap space they have left, they'll turn their attention to July 1. I'll have my thoughts on that in Part II tomorrow.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Will History Be Made?





Unless you have been watching the NHL Playoffs exclusively on the DVR and breezing through every single commercial (even I do not do that) or living under the rock, you have watched some of the 'History Will Be Made' commercials that the NHL is running to promote the NHL Playoffs.

Of course my personal favorite is the legendary Rick Jeanneret calling the Pat LaFontaine pass to Brad May for the OT winner to give the Buffalo Sabres an improbable sweep over the Adams Division Champion Boston Bruins in 1993, and forever cement Jenneret into Buffalo Sabres' lore with his now famous 'May-Day' call, which still gives me goose-bumps even to this day.

The Buffalo Sabres were founded in 1970 by Seymour Knox III and have been what I would call an 'slightly above average' franchise since its inception. The Sabres have made 2 Stanley Cup Finals, 6 Division titles, 3 Conference championships, and are a team that generally is in the playoffs or very close to it. Alas, there are three things that have eluded this franchise over the years: The first being Lord's Stanley Cup.

The other two things that directly apply to this series against the Philadelphia Flyers?

1, The Buffalo Sabres have never come back from a 2-1 deficit to win a playoff series

2. The Buffalo Sabres have never won a Game 7 on the road.

Now the typical Buffalo pessimistic fan in me will point to these two facts and say 'Well good season guys, how can we overcome this history?" Well from my memory, the Buffalo Sabres have only been involved in three Game 7's on the road:

1. 1991-1992 Adams Division Semifinals vs The Boston Bruins:

My three memories of this series was the outstanding play of Pat LaFontaine (who had 8 G 3 A in the 7 game series) and goalie Tom Draper played all 7 games, and Alexander Mogilny only played 2 games in the series . The Sabres pulled a 2011 Flyers that year and basically played 3 different goalies that season (Clint Malarchuk 30 games, Darren Puppa 26 games, and Draper 25 games). I believe that was the year Malarchuk had the gruesome injury and was unavailable, and Draper was a gamer, but the Sabres ultimately fell at the Boston Garden in a tough 7 game series.

2. 1993-1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs The New Jersey Devils:

You can say 'Dave Hannan' to any Buffalo Sabres fan and they will instantly know: 2am in the morning, Game 6 winner, 1-0 Final, back to where Jimmy Hoffa lives, and Dominik Hasek 70 saves. I recall staying up for that entire game watching on my 19' color TV and having an exam at 8am the next morning, dead to the world, but yet having the biggest grin on my face. But the Devils proved to be too much, as the Devils won Game 7 at home 2-1, and Hasek's brilliance was not enough to overcome what might be the best New Jersey Devils team never to win the Stanley Cup.

3. 2005-2006 Eastern Conference Finals vs The Carolina Hurricanes:

This one clearly stings the most. This series was the genesis of what is now an interesting rivarly between the fan bases of Buffalo and Carolina. A series that see-sawed back and forth, the resilient Buffalo Sabres, who were down 4 starting defensemen for this game (including Jay McKee, who had a staff infection flare up before Game 7 and was out for the year), took a lead into the 3rd period, only to watch Carolina come back and escape with a 4-2 win and go on to win a Stanley Cup.

So here we are. On April 26th 2011, the Buffalo Sabres travel to Philadelphia for yet another Game 7 on the road. This is the 7th matchup between the Flyers and the Sabres over the past 16 seasons. Those previous 6 series have been split 3-3, and this series stands at 3-3. Something has to give.

Both teams have been resilient. Credit the Flyers for not caving in yesterday when down 2-0 in the 1st, as they peppered Ryan Miller with 49 SOG including the overtime and eventually broke through against the Sabres net minder. Plus, the Flyers are playing without Jeff Carter. Chris Pronger has played 4 minutes, and they have used 3 different goalies. But yet here they are, going home for a game 7, with a chance to close out the pesky Sabres.

The Sabres are also dealing with injuries. Tim Connolly is out for Game 7 tomorrow in what I would describe as a vicious hit by Mike Richards. Sources have indicated that Colin Campbell will not suspend Richards for the Game 7 showdown, indicating that head shots are only a 'suspendable' offense when the NHL sees fit. Great job Colin! (NOT)

Despite this, if you ask Sabres fans privately, in an honest moment they will admit this might be a good thing, based on Connolly's woes in the NHL Playoffs as a Sabre. But we wish Tim all the best and hope he can return to the ice and get back to form.

Jason Pominville is out for the series, and now the Sabres will get back Derek Roy tomorrow, a player this team missed for 47 regular season games and 6 playoff games and had 35 points on 35 games during the regular season. But how effective can Roy be with such a long layoff?

Throw everything out the window tomorrow for Game 7. Throw away the injury excuses for both teams. Tomorrow is about guts. It is about execution. And for Buffalo, it is probably about Ryan Miller, who is 7-3 in his last 10 playoff elimination games.

Will the Sabres make it four Game 7 losses on the road in the team's 40+ year history? Will tomorrow night be just another moment in time for Buffalo Sports fans to forget? Will the Sabres blow a 3-2 lead in this series and send Buffalo fans towards more negative rants, and conjure up thoughts of Bret Hull 1999, Joe Juneau 1998 and Darius Kasparaitis from 2001?

Or can the Sabres take the next step from just being an 'above average' franchise and advance and have a chance to perhaps reach greater glory in these 2011 NHL Playoffs? And will tomorrow bring back memories of Derek Plante in 1997 vs Ottawa, a OT winner that yours truly saw live?

Will History Be Made? We can only hope.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ennis the OT hero in Sabres Game 5 win over Flyers

Just call him the most unheralded rookie of a deep crop. Tyler Ennis saved the Sabres' bacon in a pivotal Game Five, scoring the overtime winner at 5:31 to rescue his club after blowing a 3-0 lead for a gutsy 4-3 win over the Flyers at a stunned Wachovia Center. In an unpredictable series where nobody's been able to handle to win two in a row, Buffalo now leads the best-of-seven First Round 3-2 with a chance to close it out tomorrow afternoon at 3 ET at HSBC Arena.

This is definitely a great place to play,” an excited 21 year-old Ennis said. “Any time you can silence the crowd like that, it’s an awesome feeling.
It was his second goal of the game, which also happened to be the second of the series after being shutout the first four. For the seventh seeded Sabres, it couldn't have come at a better time, allowing them not to become another victim of the dreaded three goal lead in what's amounted to a wild opening round. If you've paid attention to these 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, no lead is safe. The Kings, Bruins, Canadiens and Rangers have all been victimized at home. If you include Nashville's late comeback over Anaheim, that's five teams that couldn't hold off determined opponents with each pulling it out in sudden death. At least the Ducks were only up one.

I liked the fact that we were able to regroup,” noted a pleased Lindy Ruff. “I told the team that we just needed to relax. We needed to make more plays, and we did a tremendous job.
Perhaps that's the reason so many leads have evaporated. As the veteran coach further explained in last night's postgame, teams tend to take their foot off the gas pedal and play safe. That allows teams the opportunity to come back. The Sabres took advantage of an off Brian Boucher, scoring nearly identical goals from tough angles to build a quick 2-0 lead in the first four minutes. Coincidentally, Ennis started it when he threw a harmless puck that went right through Boucher's feet at 2:24. Taking a cue from the '08 first round pick who finished the season with 49 points, leading scorer Thomas Vanek took a pass from Patrick Kaleta and intentionally shot one from behind the net off Boucher for 2-zip 87 seconds later. When rookie defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani scored a more conventional power play goal with a perfect laser off the far post, that ended  Boucher's night.

I’d very much like to redeem myself,” Boucher lamented. “Like I said, it was my responsibility tonight. I take ownership in that. To put your team in a hole like that, they didn’t deserve that.”
The popular Flyer netminder predictably slammed his stick when he got to the bench as 2010 hero Michael Leighton replaced him between the pipes. In doing so, the vet who got into just one game this season due to a slew of injuries, became the third different goalie in the series for Peter Laviolette. Considering that his club's also been without top defender Chris Pronger the entire first round and now lost Jeff Carter for the rest as well, it speaks to the difficulty the second seeded Atlantic champs are having.

The goalie change sparked Philadelphia. Suddenly reinvigorated, they began peppering Ryan Miller until he finally cracked. Following a controversial hand pass by leading scorer Claude Giroux that neither ref saw, the Flyers took full advantage when Andrej Mezsaros set up James van Riemsdyk for the hosts' first tally. The Old Bridge kid from New Jersey has been effective all series and got his team going. It didn't take long for Philly to slice the deficit to one when Giroux and vet Sean O'Donnell combined to feed Mezsaros for a wicked one-timer past Miller 105 seconds later. Suddenly alive, the Flyers pressed for the equalizer but Miller held them off for the time being with Buffalo nursing a one-goal lead after two.

Undeterred, the Flyers came out and got it tied thanks to a former Sabre. Danny Briere roasted his ex-team thanks to a nifty pass behind the net from Mike Richards, sneaking in front and flipping a backhand top shelf tying it 3-3 at 3:36. Ever since he departed Buffalo, Briere has killed them. It was his third of the series. Kris Versteeg also notched a helper.

With the crowd revved up, the Flyers looked for more but Miller wasn't biting. Despite giving up three straight, last year's Vezina winner was outstanding, making several sparklers en route to a game high 36 saves. That included a flat out denial of one-time Ranger Nikolay Zherdev, who was also dangerous in OT. Playing with Giroux and Van Riemsdyk, the enigmatic Russian made a couple of nice defensive plays and went to the net in search of rebounds. Two things he never did while on Broadway. While the Flyers and in particular Giroux were scary anytime he had the puck, Buffalo settled down and also began forcing Leighton to make some tough saves. For his part, Leighton played well turning aside 20 of 21 forcing overtime.

In it, both rivals went for it, making for compelling action. Miller made three saves in succession, robbing Zherdev on the doorstep and closing up with Giroux poking away. Ironically, Ennis' winner came with Zherdev out. Steve Montador kept the puck in at the right point as Zherdev pressured. However, he lost his check allowing Montador to dish across to an open Mike Weber, whose quick low shot caromed right to a trailing Ennis who buried it for a heroic Game Five win.

“We can’t hang our heads,” Briere said while alluding to the Flyers' historic comeback from 3-0 down against the Bruins. “We were in a worse position last year, so if there’s a group of guys that can do it, I believe in this group here.”

Pominville Out: It wasn't all good news for the Sabres, who lost forward Jason Pominville for the rest of the series with a right leg injury sustained during an incidental collision with a Flyer in the first.

“It doesn’t look too good for him,” Ruff said. “We’ll know more about that tomorrow.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Why the Rangers can comeback

Anyone who's followed this first round series rematch of two years ago knows how close the games have been. The Caps talent has been the difference thus far, delivering an overtime win in Game One courtesy of enigmatic Russian Alex Semin and utilizing talented young guns Marcus Johansson and John Carlson to turn Game Four around in historic fashion. Amazingly, Alex Ovechkin didn't do much in the comeback thanks to splendid netminding from snubbed Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who somehow was left out of the Vezina while the superhyped Roberto Luongo got the nod from dopey GMs today with more deserving Tim Thomas and Pekka Rinne.

The combo of Marc Staal and shot blocking warrior Dan Girardi have limited Ovechkin's time and space. Girardi's play the other day was heroic, making nearly 10 blocks including a pair that defied logic. Sure. Ovi has factored into his team's more favorable 3-1 lead with the Capitals looking to finish the Blueshirts off tomorrow afternoon at 3 ET on NBC at the noisy Verizon Center. Look at both of the Washington captain's goals for proof with him going into the trenches to score a garbage goal that tied Game One and making a great play in Game Three to deflect a Jason Arnott feed past Lundqvist prior to Brandon Dubinsky playing ultimate hero.

Simply put, the Rangers have no one to blame but themselves for what happened Wednesday. They had the Caps on the ropes and let them breathe by backing off in the third. As this postseason's already shown, no lead is safe. Just ask the Kings who blew a 4-0 lead, allowing the Sharks to come all the way back in the best series for a dramatic overtime win that LA hasn't recovered from. As if it wasn't enough, the Bruins turned the tables on the Habs in rallying from a 3-0 hole with ex-Canadien Michael Ryder doing Montreal in. The road team has won every game of that electrifying match up.

So, how did the other night happen? Rookie Ryan McDonagh assumed he had an easy outlet but Semin, who was braindead for two periods- anticipated the pass and turned it into the Caps' first goal. The second time in the series a ref's failure to blow the whistle cost us a goal against. Granted. That's hit or miss. But it looked like Lundqvist had it long enough for Paul Devorski to blow it dead. Instead, he never saw it frozen and that allowed the Caps to flip the switch. Everyone knows how potent they can be despite five fewer goals than our team during the regular season. You can't compare the rosters. Not when they can throw Ovechkin, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Arnott, Johansson, Green and Carlson at us. Even without Mike Knuble, Bruce Boudreau's club found a way to silence MSG, who appropriately chanted, "Can You Hear Us," in response to the comical Caps' coach's comments that his club got better support at home.

The Rangers deviated from the strategy that worked, failing to get the puck deep and allowing the Caps easier access. Before you knew it, Johansson snuck behind Dubinsky for an easy tip that trickled off Lundqvist and in. In less than four minutes, it went from 3-zip to 3-2. A recipe for disaster. Throw out the overrated stat (29-0-0) that our team hadn't lost when leading after two all season. Even as a former ESPN researcher, I know better than to assume such stuff. The playoffs are a different animal. And don't forget, our team blew several leads in the third this year before prevailing in overtime/shootout. In the postseason, there's no five minute four-on-four or a skill competition to save you. When Carlson's harmless shot that was going wide went off Johansson, it set off a fire alarm. The Caps are the more skilled team and it's been on display twice, where again Lundqvist was victimized in our new Achilles heel sudden death. Ever since Michal Rozsival beat Buffalo in the '07 Conference Semis Game Three, it's been nothing but nightmares for Garden Faithful, who've seen our heroes drop five straight in a format we once owned during the Glory Days.

Even though the Caps generated more opportunities, our team didn't play as poorly, making a few bids to win it. There was Sean Avery with Michal Neuvirth down and a gaping net but all too predictably missing it completely. There was even goat Marian Gaborik, who already scored off a beauty of a set up from the Game's No.1 Star Ruslan Fedotenko, getting not one but two quality chances on Neuvirth, who got just enough of both to keep them out. Truth be told, he played his strongest game in months until the incredible gaffe that turned MSG into a morgue. As screwed up as it sounds, I can still see that idiot ref getting in Dubinsky's way for what looked like a three-on-two in the first overtime and Dubi can be seen screaming at him like I was at the TV. Even the refs are against us. You can't make this stuff up.
Matt Gilroy was tremendous, dancing in for chances. Off what we've seen, re-sign the kid. No way they're qualifying him at $2.1 million. But he has gained John Tortorella's trust with our coach rewarding him with power play time next to Old, Older and Oldest Bryan McCabe. Is there a slower player? I'd reinsert Steve Eminger. McCabe brings nothing. Ever since Ryan Callahan went down, our powerless play is like a free pass. Cally led the club with 10 PPG because he did the grunt work in front. Now, it's back to the slow, deliberate snail pace. The 0-for-7 was just as responsible for the stunning loss.

It's still amazing to me that as soon as the newest John Druce, Jason Chimera was coming, I sensed doom. I can't explain why but these are the types of players who victimize us. It would be easier to swallow if it was more conventional like his winner in Game Two off a great feed from Brooks Laich. Maybe it was seeing McCabe out with Gilroy even though Hobey's acquitted himself well outside of being outmuscled by Laich on the aforementioned play. Or perhaps it was seeing Lundqvist going to cover it when suddenly Gaborik was coming right at him, throwing a simple play to get a stoppage into utter chaos that ensued. I will never know what Gabby was thinking. Disaster struck when he unintentionally knocked the puck away from Henrik right off Chimera's chest. Chimera did the rest for the easiest goal in his life. Maddening. It's as painful a loss as you can have. Right up there with the final 80 seconds of Canes-Devils a couple of years prior that's still a sore spot for our resident Devil blogger. When it happened, I just sat in stunned disbelief and said nothing until a bunch of angry tweets with one expletive themed. Could you blame me? It took a long walk to my old public school to recover.

So, why then do I believe this team is still capable of pulling this off? Because the Caps haven't been that impressive. Sure. Neuvirth was excellent the other day and saved his team several times. But he also was leaking a lot of rebounds. Shoot high when you can and get traffic. He can be had. Lundqvist hasn't had one off game despite our predicament. He's capable of stealing Game Five and then a Game Six back in our barn, I wouldn't bet against us. This team has done things the hard way all year long. They also can win on the road. What better time than Saturday? Get an early lead a la Chicago yesterday in a game I guaranteed that turned into a laugher at Luongo's expense. You never know. The Caps have blown a 3-1 series lead four times. Last year's still fresh at the hands of the Habs. Create doubt. We weren't far off from leveling it until the roof caved in.

Ever since Tort put Dubi at center with Fedotenko and Gaborik, they've looked like a better team. Boyle's unit consistently forechecks the Caps to death. Maybe tomorrow, they finally breakthrough. We'll need better out of Derek Stepan to get this done. He's improved every game, which means he could be ready to finally pop one. The kid has a flair for the dramatic. Don't bet against him. Chris Drury had a superb Game Three, nearly winning it. He knows what it takes. Artem Anisimov is also coming off his best game. Vinny Prospal is probably our most clutch player. He will die to extend this series in what could be his final game.

I still have faith. This team has been resilient and there's still a belief they can get it done. I'm guaranteeing Game Five and Six, forcing a Game Seven. Why? Because I believe in this group.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Game 4 Stunner puts Rangers on brink

In what's been a hotly contested first round series against renewed Patrick nemesis Washington, the Rangers couldn't quite even it up despite a loud/chaotic atmosphere at MSG in response to Bruce Boudreau's comments that the "fans weren't loud enough and the bench/locker room not great."

If only I had more time. Unfortunately, this New Dorp Library is closing early due to some sorta maintenance issue. Just my luck. Anyway, onto the last three games that now has us in an unfriendly 3-1 hole our franchise has never climbed out of. The Caps did what they had to in Game Two shutting the Rangers out despite a strong first and third. Unfortunately, they couldn't beat Michal Hasek Neuvirth. So, they trailed 0-2 back to The Garden where our team responded with an emotional 3-2 win in Game Three. After blowing two leads, Brandon Dubinsky willed his way to the winner with under two minutes left with the puck going off two Caps including Alex Ovechkin. From there, they held on to get back in the series.

Then came last night. As excruciating a loss as I've ever seen. As usual, nobody scored in the first. Then, our team broke through thanks to a smart play by Artem Anisimov, who banked the puck in off a Cap for the lead. Chris Drury helped set it up. Our captain played a heck of a game. He's been money on faceoffs all series and also just missed ending it in the first overtime. Honestly, it never should've came to that point. Not when the best player on the ice, vet Ruslan Fedotenko set up two consecutive goals seven seconds apart to suddenly allow the Rangers to surge in front 3-zip to chants of, "Can You Hear Us," from a great MSG crowd. I can't say enough about Fedotenko who first set up ghost Marian Gaborik and then found Dubinsky for his second in two games.

It's hard to describe what happened next. We just backed off in the third and against a dangerous team like the Caps, you simply cannot do that. One mistake by Ryan McDonagh and Alex Semin pounced, steering a loose puck that looked frozen by Henrik Lundqvist. It easily could've been a whistle by Paul Devorski but I won't complain. We still had a two goal lead. Unfortunately, Marcus Johansson redirected a feed with Dubinsky failing to pick up the man. All it took was a John Carlson wide blast off Johansson to knot it.

Once in sudden death, I had zero confidence. We just don't have the skill to compete against them. How they lost will be replayed all summer by Gaborik if he's not gone. Jason Chimera steals what should've been an easy cover for Lundqvist in the second OT due to Gabby's folly. Incredible.

I have a feeling this series ain't over. I just feel we won't die without a fight. I'll explain why later.

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.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Christensen and Gaborik reunited for Game 2

It didn't take long for John Tortorella to change up his lines. Following last night's crushing Game One loss to the Caps, the fiery Ranger coach sought to spark his team's offense which made life too easy on winning rookie netminder Michal Neuvirth.

Not surprisingly, Tortorella's decided to split up Marian Gaborik and Artem Anisimov, shifting the struggling finisher to cohesive/mystifying Erik Christensen, who took 17 shifts in Wednesday's defeat (10:54). During the ex-Pen's two years on Broadway, he's had chemistry with Gaborik and key complement Vinny Prospal. After being invisible down the stretch, the Slovak showed a pulse yesterday registering four shots while getting a couple of more blocked. He had two glorious chances to be the hero but Neuvirth stoned him twice, including off a nice set up from Brian Boyle in front.

Prior to the first round series, Gaborik indicated that the Caps didn't want to see the Rangers this early, instead mentioning the Hurricanes, who fell short in their bid to make the postseason. Though he was better last night, he must contribute offensively for the Blueshirts to have any hopes of stringing the upset. With Gaborik and Prospal reunited with Christensen, figure Tortorella to reinsert Sean Avery after Norwegian rookie Mats Zuccarello got only a dozen shifts (7:34) with just 1:24 in the third and zero in overtime. Our guess is Avery will start on the fourth line alongside Chris Drury and possibly Ruslan Fedotenko, who didn't have much cohesion with Brandon Dubinsky.

Perhaps we'll see Dubinsky teamed up with Draft Line 'mate Anisimov and possible Stepan shifted to the wing, giving the Rangers a better scoring line to aid Gaborik. That would leave the unit of Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust and Wojtek Wolski intact. Fedotenko also has excellent chemistry with Boyle/Prust but is interchangeable. Our suggested lines for Game Two:

Prospal-Christensen-Gaborik
Dubinsky-Anisimov-Stepan
Prust-Boyle-Wolski
Avery-Drury-Fedotenko

Staal-Girardi
McDonagh-Sauer
McCabe-Gilroy

Lundqvist
Ocho Cinco

Ovechkin and Semin lift Caps past Rangers in overtime

For nearly 54 minutes, the Rangers had it going their way. With Henrik Lundqvist having stoned the top seeded Capitals keeping a tactical Game One scoreless until Matt Gilroy scored in his first postseason game early in the third, it looked like a recipe for success. However, a fluky tying goal from Alex Ovechkin that needed video review and an Alexander Semin appearance doomed the Blueshirts to a cruel 2-1 overtime defeat at Verizon Center last night in D.C.

Obviously anytime you lose in overtime you feel like it got away because all you have to do is get one goal and you win the game,” main culprit Marc Staal said after his turnover allowed former Devil Cup hero Jason Arnott to set up Semin's OT winner at 18:24 to give the No.1 seed a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. “It’s disappointing. It’s the playoffs, so we’ll come back and try to win the next one.”

That'll be the mantra the Rangers will adhere to. One they've been familiar with all season, finding ways to bounce back from tough losses. Albeit this one a bit more magnified due to the pressure attached to the first round rematch of two years ago. Staal, who for the most part did a sound job along with partner Dan Girardi stifling Ovechkin- wound up minus-two despite logging nearly 34 minutes while Girardi almost 33. They know what to expect from Ovechkin, dangerous centerman Nicklas Backstrom and gritty ex-Blueshirt Mike Knuble, who was one of three Caps to hit the post in the first two scoreless periods. Outside of one blown coverage that allowed Backstrom to sneak in on Lundqvist, who foiled his backhand five-hole try, they had the upperhand until the oddest of plays allowed Washington to tie it.

In his first game back from a concussion which he missed 20 games prior ironically due to a Derek Stepan collision, offensive defenseman Mike Green factored in on the tying goal. Behind his own net, Green sent a long outlet for Semin, who Cap coach Bruce Boudreau had out in place of Knuble searching for offense. The slippery Russian got away from Staal and Girardi, who collided at the Ranger blueline, allowing Semin to move in. With Rangers scrambling back including Girardi, Semin took a shot that Lundqvist tried to cover. The whistle never came with Ovechkin bulling over Girardi before slipping a stuff-in through Lundqvist. Thinking he scored, the Washington captain celebrated along with teammates while the confused officials never indicated a goal, calling up Toronto. Conclusive replays showed that the puck crossed the goal line. However, you have to wonder if when the ref blew his whistle, he intended to blow it dead. Instead, Ovechkin and the Caps celebrated the tying goal with 6:16 left in regulation.

I think it’s underneath me and the whistle never comes, so then I move,” Lundqvist noted to no avail. “I think that’s the case. It just crossed the line. Sometimes they’re real fast blowing the whistle, but it is what it is. Me personally, I’m kind of stuck in that position so I have to hope for a whistle or for someone to clear the puck. That didn’t happen.


Bad break or not, the game was suddenly tied. Four Rangers watched instead of taking Ovechkin, who made a smart play to spark his team. Lundqvist probably should've had it regardless. Regardless, they still had a chance to steal this one against a stingier Capital defense that allowed 11 shots through two periods and finished with 32 blocked shots to the Rangers' 28.

The Blueshirts never established a consistent forecheck with only the line of Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust and Wojtek Wolski effective enough to help get a puck past rookie Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 24 saves in capturing his first playoff win in his debut. That included four stops on Marian Gaborik, who had a great chance to be the early OT hero when Boyle found him in front but Cap rookie who won 27 games during the regular season calmly slid across for the big save. Neuvirth was good, also denying Artem Anisimov's bid and a Gaborik rebound before his teammates seized control to finally pull out the win in sudden death.

"We had to stay the course. We couldn’t get frustrated, Backstrom said of his team that's trying to avoid a second consecutive first round upset as the conference's top seed. “I think we did a great job with that. Hopefully this can give us a little confidence.

It didn't come easy for the Caps despite a few chinks in the armor for their Broadway opponent that allowed glorious opportunities only to see pucks from Knuble, Arnott and Semin go off the post. They also had to contend with Lundqvist, who was outstanding in making 31 saves, featuring highway robbery on a Green high labeler along with a pair of sparklers to deny Jeff Schultz and rookie Marcus Johansson in the extra session.

Despite being unable to sustain a consistent attack, the Rangers remained in good position to take Game One. Finally coming on in the final minutes of the second, they carried momentum forward by striking first in the series thanks to some diligent work from Boyle, Prust and Wolski. After Boyle took a hit to work the puck deep, Prust won a board battle and sent it to Wolski who then turned and found a pinching Gilroy for his first playoff goal at 1:56. Consider that it was his first goal since Jan.5 and only in his second straight game including the fateful Game 82 when he replaced Steve Eminger and it speaks volumes about Gilroy's maturity. The former Hobey Baker winner also had a chance late but fired wide.

Part of the problem for the Rangers was the power play, which went 0-for-2 looking all too predictable against one of the league's best penalty killing units. The Caps were aggressive, easily moving the puck out when they had the chance. Meanwhile, our PK blanked the Washington hosts in two opportunities despite some decent chances. But Lundqvist was there to save their bacon.

Nursing a one-goal lead, it looked like they would protect it for the win. Our shifts were stronger following Gilroy's goal with players paying close attention to assignments, working the puck out efficiently and getting it deep to take time off. Particularly effective was the dynamic rookie tandem of Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer, who looked unfazed by the circumstances. Each were trusted by John Tortorella, getting 36 shifts apiece averaging a shade under 27 minutes. One shift was impressive with the Caps pressing for the equalizer. They were pinned in for a while but McDonagh made two strong plays to free the puck up behind the goal, which was finally cleared.

Also looking poised was Derek Stepan, who made some nice reads chipping the puck in and using his speed to outhustle Caps behind the net. He was good as was Ruslan Fedotenko but outside of two strong shifts, leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky had a miserable night, losing 13 of 20 faceoffs while registering only a shot with a minus-two rating. He must be better tomorrow if we're going to gain a split.

"We've gotta get the next game from them," Dubinsky said. "I'm sure we'll talk about this one, the positives and the negatives, and just continue to try to get better. With the way we play, we feel like we're going to make it tough on them."
Despite each team going for it with especially ours coming close near the end of regulation, the closely fought contest needed overtime to decide. Both teams nearly ended it with Semin denied by Lundqvist and Backstrom stoned while Neuvirth saved his best for Gaborik, Anisimov and Vinny Prospal. As play continued, it became more apparent the more talented Caps were taking it to us. Eventually, their persistence paid off when Chris Drury failed to clear the zone. After it was pushed back down to Staal, he saw three Caps in his way but instead of reversing to an open Girardi, he tried to lift it past Arnott, who knocked it down. The savvy vet settled the puck before dishing across to Semin for a rocket that finally ended his playoff scoring drought.

"Henrik Lundqvist is a great goalie, and it's very difficult to score an easy one on him," the jubilant Semin told a translator after scoring his first playoff goal in 15 games. "We couldn't get a nice goal on him, so we scored a junk goal - just pushed it in, whatever worked."

We’re not getting anywhere without Alex Semin scoring,” explained Boudreau. “We need him to go and create that other offensive threat.”

"I tried to move across, and I was probably covering the middle of the net, but I just didn't have time to react on it," lamented Lundqvist, who dropped his fourth consecutive decision in sudden death. "It was a hard one. It was going up and down a little bit - he just fired it real hard. It's tough. Obviously, you want to try to be the difference, and try to help the team to get a win here but you just move on."


Instead, it's onto Game Two. Another chance to take home ice away from the Caps and give themselves a realistic shot at the upset.


BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (31 saves, falls to 1-4 career in playoff OT)
2nd Star-Alex Ovechkin, Caps (1st of playoffs-21st career, 6 hits, block, 6 SOG, +1 in 26:46)
1st Star-Alex Semin, Caps (OT winner at 18:24, assist, 4 SOG, +2 in 22:15)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Playoffs Day One

Today, the NHL Playoffs kickoff with five games to keep track of. Two will take part in the East featuring the fourth seeded Penguins against No.5 Lightning at 7 ET while the top seeded Capitals and No.8 Rangers drop the puck at the bottom of the hour in D.C. The West has three games to choose from with anticipated rematch between the third seeded Red Wings and No.6 Coyotes also at 7 ET. The other two series will start later with the most intriguing rematch taking place in British Columbia between the No.1 overall seeded Canucks and No.8 defending champion Blackhawks at 10 ET. Even if you're not a diehard, that series is worth watching just for the storylines. Finally at 10:30 ET, the Battle Of California gets going as the No.2 Sharks lock horns with the No.7 Kings at the Shark Tank. Another intriguing series that shouldn't lack passion.

When it comes down to it, almost every series has intense rivalries. The Caps and Rangers go back to the Patrick Division days of John Druce and Mike Ridley while tomorrow's 2/7 match-up pits bitter enemies as the Flyers and Sabres have no love for each other, having met six prior times with each splitting. The days of The Dominator, Garth Snow (yes, that guy), Eric Lindros and Mike Peca can still be seen through our tunnel vision. The names have changed. But figure it to live up to the billing with two great hockey towns ready for battle. There's also the bitter series that waits another 24 hours when bitter Original Six rivals, the Bruins and Canadiens line up for the 3/6 match-up. If it's anything like the regular season (Chara on Pacioretty, line brawl, Recchi), watch out. These teams hate each other with a passion. Boston will try to bully Montreal. It won't just be about the players but the fans, who bring intensity to this classic rivalry. Our favorite. For the Lightning and Pens, it'd be different if all the star power were playing. Instead, Sidney Crosby remains a question mark and Evgeni Malkin has a long road to recovery. There's also no Matt Cooke to spice it up. Steve Downie is still around and Max Talbot can get underneath anyone's skin. It'll be interesting to see how Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik (if healthy) deal with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier. Will newcomers Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek pay off?

We've already sampled the West with the Canucks and Hawks meeting a third consecutive time. This time, all the pressure's on Vancouver, who achieved a record high 117 points while scoring a league best 262 goals while permitting 185 led by dynamic duo Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Roberto Luongo. Though talk that he could be in the Vezina race is preposterous. Not when backup Cory Schneider was just as good on one of the league's best team defenses anchored by Norris candidagte Christian Ehrhoff. Ryan Kesler scored 40 goals and is the best American born player in our opinion. He should take home his first Selke and be counted on to score clutch goals this postseason. Even without Dustin Byfuglien, Antti NiemiAndrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and Brent Sopel, the Hawks are still the defending champs who boast dynamic duo Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who Luongo's seen in his sleep the past two Springs. In other words, this ain't your normal eighth seed. Not when they have Sharpshooter Patrick Sharp, two-way threat Marian Hossa along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell as well. Keep an eye on gritty Tomas Kopecky who will battle Luongo in front along with Troy Brouwer, who looks ready to go. If Chicago had Dave Bolland healthy, they'd be more of a threat. How will first-year players Corey Crawford, Bryan Bickell and Nick Leddy perform? Special teams could loom large. Last year, the Canucks lost discipline. A repeat could prove costly for the Cup favorites.

The Sharks and Kings are no strangers even if it's a rare playoff showdown. Two years ago, the Ducks stunned top seeded San Jose. Is it about to happen again? Depends on money performers Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley along with a strong cast that features Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle, Devin Setoguchi and Calder candidate Logan Couture. If Niemi holds up in net, the Kings have their work cut out for them. Especially minus MVP Anze Kopitar, who they hope to get back late second round. Captain Dustin Brown's the emotional leader of a feisty club that will battle you even without Kopitar and Justin Williams. Any club that boasts Ryan Smyth can't be underestimated. It will take a real team effort to pull it off. They have the goaltending in overlooked ace Jon Quick with understudy Jonathan Bernier in supply. Big series from Jarett Stoll, Michal Handzus, Dustin Penner and our fave Wayne Simmonds make it worth watching. Plus Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson on the back end. It should be fun. ... Last year, the Coyotes were back in it and took powerhouse Detroit to seven before falling in the Desert. That these two meet again is great. You have a contrast in net between more polished Russian Ilya Bryzgalov and young American Jimmy Howard. We'll favor the Vezina runner-up over the Ivy League kid from Cornell. Before you get overwhelmed by the Wings' talent/experience of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg (questionable), Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Nik Kronwall, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary and Valtteri Filppula, the 'Yotes boast Norris caliber Keith Yandle, ultimate warrior Shane Doan, Wizard Ray Whitney and finally a 100 percent JovoCop, who anchors a deep blueline that includes underrated Adrian Aucoin along with vets Michal Rozsival and Rotislav Klesla. The key will be interchangeable forwards Lauri Korpikoski, Radim Vrbata, Eric Belanger and key finisher Lee Stempniak. Boasting grit in Martin Hanzal, Taylor Pyatt and Vernon Fiddler, Phoenix has enough to win this series. It should be a long one.

As for the Ducks and Preds, it all depends on the key match-up of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter versus the potent line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan. Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu could tilt it Anaheim's way along with Lubomir Visnovsky. Though Nashville has a shot with Pekka Rinne, Patrick Hornqvist, Steve Sullivan, David Legwand and Sergei Kostitsyn.

Stay tuned.

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