Monday, April 30, 2012

Conference Semis Day 3

Tonight as noted in the previous post, the Rangers play host to the Capitals in Game Two- looking to hold serve. They posted a 3-1 win to take Game One of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinal series. Artem Anisimov, Chris Kreider and Brad Richards tallied and Henrik Lundqvist made 17 saves. Jason Chimera posted the lone Washington goal and Braden Holtby finished with 11 saves.

The Caps will be hoping for a bounce back from Holtby and more offense from Alex Ovechkin, who was held to one shot. Dale Hunter demoted Alex Semin to the fourth line during yesterday's practice due to two undisciplined penalties he took. So, Washington's lines might be different while the Rangers could get Brian Boyle back from a concussion. If he returns, he'd replace Steve Eminger, who played four and a half minutes as a forward.

The Rangers and Caps get going after 7:30 on NBC Network. Also in action are the Blues and Kings with CNBC having the call at 9 ET. Los Angeles defeated St. Louis in Game One 3-1. Following St. Louis' captain David Backes second of the postseason, the Kings scored three unanswered from unlikely sources Slava Voynov, Matt Greene and Dustin Penner.

Greene scored the big goal with his team shorthanded late in the second. With Dwight King off for boarding Alex Pietrangelo, the rugged defenseman followed up a Penner try, going upstairs on a sprawled Brian Elliott. Ex-Flyer Mike Richards set it up. Oddly enough, a banged up Pietrangelo was out for that shift on the power play but the Kings countered for the back breaker. It was Pietrangelo's last shift of the game. His status is uncertain for tonight. One of the game's emerging blueliners, Pietrangelo is strong overall logging big minutes and contributing offensively. He is St. Louis' best defenseman. If they're without him, it could be tough against Vezina hopeful Jon Quick, who continued his impressive play with 28 stops.

Penner also scored the empty netter. A big day for him. It's easy to forget that he was an integral part of Anaheim's Cup five years ago. The big man has been inconsistent since his Duck days with Edmonton basically dumping him to Hollywood for Ryan Smyth last summer. He's been a factor thus far during LA's run. With Jeff Carter not finishing and the Kings playing a similar style in front of Quick that the Rangers do with Lundqvist, Penner has been vital along with first round hero Jarret Stoll.

The Kings also are getting huge play from captain Dustin Brown, who's been a force. Already with a hat trick, the rugged leader paces them with four goals and six points, including a pair on the power play. His ferocious style is similar to Ranger captain Ryan Callahan, who he teamed with on Team USA. No surprise that each always delivers big hits and does whatever it takes in leading their respective clubs. Willie Mitchell has been underrated and Drew Doughty gives LA a threat. St. Louis must also account for Anze Kopitar, who had a good series versus Vancouver.

For the Blues if they're without Pietrangelo (4 assists), they'll need guys like T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen to step up along with Kevin Shattenkirk, who must anchor the attack. Vet Andy McDonald paced them with eight points in their first round triumph over San Jose. The power play is a key along with the big bodies of Backes, Oshie along with experienced vets Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. Pressure will be on Elliott to outperform Quick. But the Blues must get off to a good start or face the daunting prospect of going to Los Angeles down 0-2.

Yesterday, there were two exciting games with the Flyers edging the Devils in overtime 4-3 while the Coyotes bested the Predators 5-3. First, we'll start with a return to a classic rivalry down the Turnpike between Philadelphia and New Jersey.

The Devils were fresh off their thrilling double overtime series clincher over the Panthers with Adam Henrique playing the hero. The Flyers were more rested after taking out the Penguins in six. Rust showed for the hosts as the Devils controlled the first with 15 shots and the opening goal from captain Zach Parise. Pete DeBoer changed his lines, splitting up Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk who must be playing with something. He hasn't looked as explosive and registered no shots Sunday.

DeBoer's new combo paid early dividends with Patrik Elias setting up Parise for his third of the playoffs. However, they couldn't expand on it with Ilya Bryzgalov keeping the Flyers afloat following a dismal period that even saw customary boos from a Philly crowd. The Devils' inability to take advantage haunted them as the Flyers quickly responded with two consecutive goals in a better second. Danny Briere tied it on a breakaway and then James van Riemsdyk notched his first 37 seconds later.

Despite getting largely outplayed, New Jersey cashed in on a phantom hook that put Matt Carle in the box. Sometimes, it goes your way. In this case, they made the most of it with Travis Zajac continuing his impressive play by converting at the doorstep from Parise and Kovalchuk. They were outshot 8-3 in the middle stanza but tied.

The third was seesaw with the Flyers and Devils exchanging goals. Claude Giroux's power play blast from Kimmo Timonen was his seventh. Brodeur had absolutely zero chance. It was a rocket. Scott Hartnell drew the other assist. With little happening, New Jersey got a big contribution from former Cup hero Petr Sykora, who took a perfect David Clarkson pass and broke in down the left wing before faking and then going five-hole on Bryzgalov to knot it 3-3.

The Devils found themselves in overtime for a third straight game even though they only had 11 shots following the first. Brodeur gave them chances to steal it with a few big saves, including a flat out denial on Hartnell during a Flyer power play. Marek Zidlicky took a bad penalty for delay of game and the Flyers nearly ended it twice. First, Brodeur robbed Hartnell. Then, Briere had an apparent winner canceled out when they reversed the call, realizing it was kicked in. Good reversal.

But the Devils barely tested Bryzgalov, who turned aside all four shots from the perimeter before Briere continued his clutch play with a legit OT winner. He took a Jakub Voracek feed and ripped a low shot that went past a screened Brodeur, who had to deal with van Riemsdyk. Briere's second of the game and seventh of the 2012 playoffs ended it.

The Devils lost but had to come away knowing they can play with the Flyers. Parise had a huge game, which is needed moving forward. Brodeur gave his team a chance even though one puck gaffe resulted in van Riemsdyk tallying. They just shouldn't expect the Flyers to be as flat tomorrow in what shapes up to be a good series.

In the nightcap, the Coyotes continued their superlative play- scoring five times on Pekka Rinne in another wild shootout. This after winning a wild Game One in overtime 4-3 with Ray Whitney the hero off a faceoff. If Nashville was stunned by that cruel ending, they sure better get it in gear or my Cup pick will be kaput.

Frankly put, Mike Smith has outplayed Rinne. It's Smith who's coming up with the gems when his team needs it while Rinne has allowed a baffling nine goals in two consecutive games. Equally mystifying has been the Preds' defensive play. We're accustomed to seeing them limit opponents. However, even with our Norris pick Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, Nashville is turning over the puck repeatedly. The uncharacteristic play is leading to Phoenix goals with the quick countering team exposing the Preds.

Everyone is stepping up for the always overlooked Dave Tippett, who again was passed up for the Adams along with Kevin Dineen. What is evident is that it's the Yotes who have the edge on D thanks to young duo Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Both are factors offensively with Yandle registering two assists while combining to go plus-six with his younger teammate. Along with vet Derek Morris, they're pinching at every opportunity and making life difficult on the Preds.

In yesterday's win, most impressive was their resiliency. Every time Nashville looked ready to get back in it, Phoenix responded. Whether it was Taylor Pyatt steering home a leaky rebound following a Patrik Hornqvist power play tally or captain Shane Doan making a great deflection of a Morris shot pass off a faceoff win by offensive leader Antoine Vermette, the Coyotes are doing all the little things right in this series.

They're winning the battles and taking the play to Nashville, who nearly stole Game One with a dominant third before The Wizard ended it. Weber was more aggressive, shooting from everywhere while setting up a goal. Partner Suter also tallied on the power play to cut it to 4-3 before Doan got position on him for the backbreaking goal. Nashville scored three times on Smith, which should be enough to win but lazy play from Alex Radulov and leader David Legwand allowed the Yotes to explode.

Simply put, the Preds need a return to their trademark in net and on the back end. Expect lower scoring games in Music City. If Weber and Suter control the tempo along with Mike Fisher and Martin Erat, Nashville is capable of getting back in the series. They also have a great crowd who will be into it. They've been in this spot before trailing Detroit 0-2 before winning the next two a few years prior. You know the fans are ready. The onus is on the Predators' best players to step up with Rinne needing a return to form that stifled the Red Wings last round. The pressure is on.

Kreider's time has arrived

Ranger rookie Chris Kreider celebrates.
It doesn't get any better than what Chris Kreider's experiencing. A couple of weeks removed from leaving Boston College where he helped lead his school to a second NCAA title in three years, the former Rangers' 2009 first round pick is one of the biggest headliners in the playoffs. From collegiate star to a bright eyed rookie thrown into the fire by John Tortorella last round when another freshman Carl Hagelin served a three-game suspension, the big kid on campus has adjusted to life on the fly in the toughest league.

What makes it so remarkable is that Kreider's doing this in the postseason. Even as a rookie during a challenging 82-game schedule, it's not easy to just fit in. It's a much faster and more physical game. Something all kids learn quickly. If it's true that the Boston native has the size and strength to offset that aspect, it's also true that he's still only entering his seventh game when the Rangers aim to take a 2-0 series lead tonight against the Capitals. Perhaps that explains everyone's amazement over Kreider's contribution to the Blueshirts' 3-1 victory in Game One over the weekend.

Unfazed by the pressure, he's already found a home on the Team USA line with teammates Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. Ironically, I suggested that Tortorella try Kreider with the duo and ever since, they've been our best line, getting the puck deep and cycling as well as chipping in offensively. With Marian Gaborik continuing to struggle, the American trio has picked up the slack. It just so happened that Kreider was the Rangers' most effective forward, notching his second-game winner on a lethal slapper from the left circle that flew past another great story Braden Holtby. For an encore, he forced a turnover and then patiently set up Brad Richards, who buried the insurance marker from in tight to salt Game One away.

''I'm kind of at a loss for words,'' the low key Kreider acknowledged after being named the game's first star. ''I'm just trying to keep my head down and work hard. Whether or not the puck goes in, I'm just trying to play the same role I play every night and be consistent and be defensively reliable.''

When your own crowd chants your name as a raucous MSG did the other day following just Kreider's second goal as a Ranger, it has to feel awfully good for a player many diehard Blueshirts couldn't wait to see don the jersey. Admittedly, he stated that he was out of gas when he opted for the slapper, hinting that he would've skated in more if he wasn't tired. Kreider then summed it up the end of a classic shift by pointing out how the chants reenergized him on the bench. That's what a loud atmosphere at The Garden which hasn't been seen in nearly two decades can do.

''It's a surreal experience,'' he added. 'I got goose bumps, obviously. I was really tired after the goal, but I didn't feel so tired when they started chanting.''

Today, Kreider celebrates his 21st birthday. The Rangers have an important game to win, which could make life easier against a grittier Washington team that plays a similar style. Blocking shots. Hitting. Keeping shots to the outside. A team that possesses more skill with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green all dangerous as four goal posts attest. Not that Hart hopeful Henrik Lundqvist minded while finishing with 17 saves in a tightly contested game that saw a combined 32 shots. The Blueshirts prevailed despite only getting 14 through on Holtby, who didn't look like the netminder we saw in Round One against Boston. It would be advisable if the Broadway hosts fire at least double on the wiz kid who's been an even bigger surprise than Kreider. Holtby is the No.1 reason the Caps are here. With Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth sidelined, he has been brilliant. Figure him to be stronger.

The Rangers bring a lead into tonight due to strong performances from Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov. All were instrumental in Saturday's win with McDonagh in particular, continuing to excel alongside Girardi against the Caps' top gun- limiting Ovechkin to one shot and a minus-one. Even if he's not being used as much under Dale Hunter, Ovi is always a threat. It's no easy task which takes diligent checking from everyone, including the forwards who always help out. Only once did they get burned late in the second on Jason Chimera's goal with 3.5 seconds left in the second that tied it off a great feed from Brooks Laich. A quick counter following a blown opportunity that demonstrated Washington's speed and skill.

While most of the attention centered around Kreider's heroics, Lundqvist and the top three D, without Fedotenko's yeoman effort during a Washington 5-on-3, there's no telling what happens. His hustle and willingness to get dirty prevented the Caps from mustering anything, including two huge clears. It's that kinda of rugged play from the grizzled vet who's been part of two Cup winners that gets lost in the shuffle. However, he made sure people noticed with another strong play along the boards that allowed Anisimov to stuff a wraparound past Holtby for his first of the postseason. The play was eerily similar to '94 hero Stephane Matteau, who just happened to be in the building and was shown prior to Artie's goal. Go figure.

Without Brandon Dubinsky (ankle) and Brian Boyle who could return later in place of Steve Eminger, that's what the Rangers need. Others to step up. It's how they've done it all year. As I've said repeatedly, they're a T-E-A-M. From top to bottom, everyone contributes. It's why maybe Kreider's two goals and helper all over the past three games shouldn't be that surprising. Tortorella has gotten everyone to buy in. Even if his media handling has become a tired act, there's a reason he was selected along with Ken Hitchcock and Paul MacLean for the Adams. Our players love him. He has their backs.

It's why it works. The vets have made it easier for Kreider to fit in and why I can't find one player who doesn't play hard. I might critique a select few out of frustration but everyone gives an honest effort. That approach is the one necessary for these Blueshirts to march on. The fun continues for the birthday boy and his teammates tonight.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Devils find their way into the second round after classic double-OT ending in Florida

I guess it just had to be this way...after six games of wild momentum shifts, blown leads and inept penalty killing - the entire Devils-Panthers series got encapsulated into one wild, long Game 7. A series that was even in goals with seventeen per team after six full games and regulation last night just had to have a dramatic finish to end the first round. Despite blowing a two-goal lead - again - it was the Devils who rebounded to break Panther hearts with an OT win...again, when Adam Henrique's wrister went just under a diving defenseman and goalender Jose Theodore at 3:47 of the second overtime to give the Devils one of their most memorable first-round wins in their proud history.

If the Devils were relieved to win, I'm sure the Panthers and their fans were heartbroken at the loss. Especially since they haven't won a playoff series since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals all the way back in 1996. At least Panther fans can be proud of their team though, they never quit in any game and made the Devils earn everything they got. Not to mention they're only on the upswing with rookie coach Kevin Dineen and GM Dale Tallon. Hey, we've been there all too many times in recent years, we know about demoralizing first-round defeats. In some ways it feels even worse to make the playoffs with a strong season and get bounced in the first round, psychologically the 82-game season seems like it means nothing when you have a 100-point year and don't even win a series in the playoffs.

For that reason and many others, winning this series was vital to the Devils. If they had lost a fourth straight first-round series, all after having more points than their opponent during the season, it surely would have led to sweeping changes. Not to mention losing in the fashion the Devils nearly lost last night's game would have caused more psychological baggage. Everyone knows about the last eighty seconds of the Carolina series in 2009, but blowing a two-goal lead in the third period of Game 7 would have been just as demoralizing - especially with the fact that last night was the third time in the series the Devils blew a multi-goal lead, and they nearly blew a three-goal lead in Game 1 as well. Normally teams that blow so many leads in the playoffs don't last very long.

This is where I have to give the Devils credit though, normally losses like Game 3 would be soul-crushing defeats that decide a series. Or losing two-goal leads in Games 6 and 7. As coach Pete DeBoer said half-kiddingly, 'They’re (the Devils) a resilient group. We’ve blown enough leads we’re used to that. It’s unfortunate, but we regrouped'. I'm sure he wouldn't have laughed about his own remark if the team had lost last night. Particuarly after a near-perfect first forty minutes of the game that saw the Devils go up 2-0 and stifle the Panther attack entirely.

Long before ending the night as the hero, Henrique began it just as nicely with a deflection goal just eighty-nine seconds into the game off a shot from Anton Volchenkov. Henrique hadn't scored yet in the series after a successful rookie season that led to him being a finalist for the Calder trophy. In fact, his whole line with David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky had been lacking in effectiveness during the first six games, but Henrique's first goal (with an assist by Clarkson on the play as well) got that line and the team off to an ideal start. Although the Panthers would wind up with more shots in the period, the Devils dominated the majority of the play and their control of the game showed even more in the second period, when they outshot Florida 11-2 and doubled their lead at 9:15 of the middle frame.

This time, it was Stephen Gionta who came through, putting home a rebound off a Peter Harrold shot, giving junior Gio his second goal of the series and third in just under two weeks after being an AHL afterthought for most of his career, previously known only as Brian's little brother who hadn't quite hit it big like big bro - the captain of the Canadiens after a successful Devils tenure. Stories like Gionta's are what make the playoffs so compelling though, since he only got his chance after Jacob Josefson got hurt and others like Matthais Tedenby, Nick Palmeri and Brad Mills failed earlier in the season. Our whole fourth line is something of a miraculous reclmation project with Ryan Carter (who also got an assist on the goal) a waiver pickup from the Panthers, ironically enough and Steve Bernier, a FA signing who last played in Florida after flaming out as an early pick earlier in his career with the Sharks. Without those three guys and the five-six big goals they produced, the Devils wouldn't have even been in the realm of winning this series.

I guess I should have known better than to assume a 2-0 lead would be safe with twenty minutes to go, but admittedly with the way the Devils were playing through forty minutes it looked like a lock. However, nothing else in this series has been a lock though when a goal by Tomas Fleischmann was contreversially disallowed due to goaltender interference, it looked as if that would be the break we needed to stay on top. Yet, the Panthers kept coming and soon, the Devils began to melt down - taking costly penalty after costly penalty. As has been the case the whole series, Florida made us pay for every little lapse in discipline, with Stephen Weiss scoring the Panthers' eighth power play goal of the series at 5:02 to tighten the collar. In every facet of the game, the Devils kept deteriorating, allowing nineteen shots in the third period after giving up only two in the second.

Eventually, our third and final minor penalty of the period proved decisive when Marek Zidlicky threw the puck over the glass, and Marcel Goc scored at 16:32 to tie the game, send Panther fans in a frenzy and get Devil fans like myself crazy. I literally lost it at this point, kicking pillows, ranting about how this team has no guts and can't hold a lead or kill off a penalty. Throughout the entire series, the Panthers were eight for thirteen on the power play with pointman Jason Garrison in the lineup and one for twelve without him in Games 4-6 with an unspecified injury. New Jersey barely survived more hair-raising chances at the end of regulation and now I was convinced it was just a matter of when, not if we would bite the dust.

Recent history was not with us, Game 6 aside this team's record in playoff OT has been poor in the Martin Brodeur era, and the Devils hadn't won two straight playoff games - or two straight OT games - since 2007. After looking shell-shocked toward the end of regulation, the Devils tried to refocus in the first OT but choked away a rare sudden death power play when Kris Versteeg nearly took out Bryce Salvador with a slashing penalty in the corner. Worse than losing a golden opportunity, the Devils nearly lost Salvador as he missed a few shifts in OT with what looked like a bad arm injury but in an act of grittiness that makes the NHL playoffs special, Salvador came back. Just as ex-Devil and current Panther John Madden came back after a terrible collision with teammate Tomas Kopecky early in the first period that drew a lot of blood.

Ironically it was Madden who had a couple of the Panthers' best chances of the OT on his stick, but he was turned away by old friend and teammate Brodeur - in the midst of a statement game. While I could no longer watch the TV once the Panthers gained the zone at any point during the OT, Marty remained calm, cool and collected despite the Devils being outshot by a combined 31-15 during the third period and first OT. Even Chico Resch acknowledged after the game that Marty had been part of the problem in the first six games of the series, but not last night. For the first time since Game 5 in 2009 against the Canes, Marty stepped up and took the team on his back in a big playoff game.

After the oldest Devil kept them in the game, it was the youngest one on the ice that won it just after midnight, when Henrique circled around after good puck work from Ponikarovsky and Clarkson on the boards, beating Theodore with a wrister that stunned everyone including me. Although I jumped up and pumped both fists, after a second I still had to pause and think 'okay, this series is really over now, right?'. Finally there would be no more Panthers bogeyman spoiling a lead in one of the most brutal first-round series imaginable. Among first-rounders we've won, only the '88 six-game upset of the Isles and the '94 classic against the Sabres could compare to this series. Certainly, the '09 series with the Canes was a classic as well, but with the wrong ending.

Along with the Rangers' win hours earlier against a similarly resilient Ottawa team, the Devils' win ensured three Atlantic Division teams would be among the final four in what's already been a compelling East playoffs following three seven-game series (including the Bruins-Caps series where every single game got decided by one goal) and the Flyers-Penguins video-game type six-game slugfest. Really the final four should be called the Patrick Division semis, since the Caps used to be division rivals before the NHL went to its current three-division format and put the Caps in the Southeast. With all of the games the Caps and Rangers have played in recent years (after a seven-game series in '09 and five-gamer last year, both won by Washington), that might as well still be a division rivalry.

We've got our hands full with a Flyers team that dismantled a recent Stanley Cup champ in Pittsburgh, led by the sensational Claude Giroux, who made a statement in Game 6 by demanding the first shift of the game - laying out Sidney Crosby and scoring a goal with that shift. Clearly our PK has to be much better, more in line with what we did against the regular season if we're to have any chance in this series, after the Flyers scored twelve power play goals against the Pens in just six games. Not to mention Marty has to be what he was for most of the second half of the season, and in Game 7 instead of the guy who struggled in the first half of the season, or most of the first six games against Florida.

I'm not really in the mood to think about that series though, heck I'm glad the Devils get the extra day off. Our players may or may not need the time off physically, but I sure as shooting need it emotionally! At least the rest of the playoffs we don't have to worry about the 800-pound gorilla on our backs of recent first-round failures. All I'd wanted out of this season is to finally get through the first round and to make a good showing in the second. Now that we're through the first round, I can fully enjoy playoff hockey instead of dreading the bottom falling out. Especially since we're not favored to win this series, but with the resiliency this team has finally showed when it mattered why can't we get some momentum and win this series? Despite our troubles against Ilya Bryzgalov, we did split six games with the Flyers this year. If we even split the first two games in Philly (Game 1 being Sunday afternoon and Game 2 Tuesday night), the Rock would be insane for Game 3.

At least it's nice to get a reminder of the good side of sports again, after the Mets' troubles in recent years, the Jets imploding last year after coming up just short the two previous seasons and the Devils' problems since the lockout. As my mom of all people (not a sports fan) put it last night, 'they got rid of the curse a little bit, didn't they'? That summed it up surprisingly well for me though three years plus one non-playoff season doesn't really qualify as a curse...but it was definitely a psychological hurdle this team needed to face down.

Seventh Heaven: Rangers, Devils one step closer

If you're a Rangers or Devils fan, then last night was all about your teams. No matter which side of the Hudson you root for, it was compelling hockey at its finest. There's nothing better than Game Seven and it definitely lived up to the great theater with the Rangers and Devils each pulling out emotional one-goal victories to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, which begin this weekend.

The Blueshirts used goals from defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi before holding off the Senators 2-1 over at a rocking Madison Square Garden. Much like the series between the East's top seed and the eighth seeded Sens, it was hotly contested. Neither team was able to score in a seesaw first period in which both took turns controlling the tempo. In particular, Craig Anderson was sharp making a couple of early stops on Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards to keep it scoreless. Henrik Lundqvist then responded with a few of his own as Ottawa pushed hard in the second half. However, each goalie combined for 18 saves with it remaining 0-0 after one.

The second was where all the scoring was done. It was the Rangers who got the all important first goal in the deciding game when some great hustle from Chris Kreider led directly to Derek Stepan setting up Staal for his first of the playoffs. Kreider, who was a factor with the winner in Game Six, continued his strong play by forcing Nick Foligno into a turnover. He got the puck to Ryan Callahan who quickly fed Stepan for a three-on-one. The second-year center waited before sending a sweet dish across for a cutting Staal, who buried his third career postseason goal. An all around brilliant play started by Kreider, who played like a force instead of a junior who just left Boston College.

The Sens couldn't get to Lundqvist who was a brick wall on the day he was one of three Vezina finalists, joining Jon Quick and Pekka Rinne. He also got plenty of help from teammates willing to sacrifice their bodies to the tune of 23 blocked shots. Fourteen different Rangers got the jersey dirty. On this night, Brandon Dubinsky finally contributed making a remarkable play to set up Girardi's series clincher. It started in the defensive end. Eventually, Dubinsky skated it out before working a give and go with Brandon Prust. When he got the return, he one-handed a pass to an isolated Girardi in front who slapped one upstairs for a 2-0 lead which sent MSG into bedlum. Exactly the kind of play you expect from Dubinsky who spent much of the rest on the bench after being hobbled.

Before they could breathe, Chris Neil got Mike Del Zotto to take a retaliatory crosscheck penalty after battling in front of Lundqvist. Of course, public enemy No.1 who heard derisive chants all night, got away with one prior. But for whatever reason, he was shown a lot of leeway throughout the series and was arguably his team's most effective player. A far cry from Erik Karlsson or Jason Spezza, who were checked closely. A couple of clears and it looked like the Blueshirts would kill off the penalty. However, you couldn't get too comfortable when Daniel Alfredsson blasted a Chris Phillips pass through traffic just past Lundqvist top shelf. He was screened by both Neil and Anton Stralman. Sergei Gonchar added a helper. With much attention focused on limiting Karlsson, Gonchar put up a few points and had a strong series.

There was still plenty of time left with Ottawa trailing by one for the remaining 8:26 of the second with a full 20 to go. It looked like we were going to have to get one more goal to win- having a similar feeling to that helpless one felt in the last Game Seven played against Vancouver. Only the stakes were much higher. Oh. They had chances, forcing Anderson to come up big. But never could get away from the pesky Sens, who hung around for a frantic finish.

You knew at some point the Sens would pin us in and get dangerously close to tying it. If you'd seen overtime in this series, you wanted no part of it if you were a Ranger fan. Ottawa's best chances in the third came from Milan Michalek, who finally was visible. Predictably, one came shorthanded when our power play took a nap allowing Alfredsson to find Michalek all alone but Lundqvist would have none of it shouldering away the opportunity. Fortunately, our team continued to go forward. Shots were even at 9-9, meaning they didn't just sit back. Had they, I don't think we'd have survived. The Senators had two dominant shifts in which they had the Rangers right where they wanted them for over a minute. It felt like an eternity before Spezza fed Michalek for what looked like the tying marker only for Lundqvist again to come up big. A money save from a guy hungry to silence doubters.

Thankfully, it was the last big chance Ottawa got with our team defense breaking up shots and forcing the Sens to overpass, including a close call with Zach Smith unable to handle a hard pass with three and a half remaining. His frustration showed at the bench. The Rangers again tightened up down the stretch, keeping the Sens away from the net. It was fitting that Kreider, Stepan and Callahan were out in the final minute when Captain Cally forced Gonchar to take a penalty with less than 40 seconds left. From there, the same trio kept the puck in the Ottawa zone and ran out the clock.

At the conclusion, Anderson bolted for the locker room before returning. He had to be devastated. He'd never won a series but was outstanding. Ironically, the total goals were 27 with the Rangers edging the Senators 14-13. And the hits were almost identical along with the shots. The only area Ottawa had an edge in was hits with their guys matching ours. Neil and Zenon Konopka were terrific in the series and nearly helped spring the upset. I'm just glad our team was able to maintain poise throughout the chaos with my brother yelling at the TV. I said a few things but held it together. There was an awful lot of pressure on Lundqvist, who met the challenge finishing with 26 saves.

It was a hard fought series. Our team did it the hard way rallying from 3-2 down showing true character. That's why they're still in while other favorites are long gone. The Rangers are one of eight left vying for Lord Stanley along with the Devils, who had their own unbelievable win which lasted double overtime before Adam Henrique scored his second of the night to push them through.

Watching the first sudden death at Applebee's with Justin and our friend, I was just relieved it wasn't our team who blew a two-goal lead and were playing for their lives. I don't know how Hasan felt or close buddy Rob Davis. But if that were my team, I would've freaked out at the thought of being taken to overtime after leading throughout. However, the Panthers proved a much better opponent than previously thought. A credit to the coaching of Kevin Dineen and fast, determined skaters led by Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Mikael Samuelsson.

Even harder to fathom it was John Madden who Martin Brodeur stoned twice in the first OT to keep his team alive. The same Mad Dog who contributed to two Devils' championships and was battered in an accidental collision by teammate Tomas Kopecky in the first yesterday before returning. What a warrior. As usual, the Cats caught the Devils with two power play goals to take it to sudden death. There were close calls in the first extra session with Zach Parise narrowly missing a wrap around while Scottie Upshall nearly sent everyone home but didn't get all of a rebound. Eventually in the second overtime, a bounce came to Henrique thanks to hard work from David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky, allowing him to beat Jose Theodore five-hole. It was that quick.

While the Rangers play host to the Capitals starting tomorrow at 3 ET, the Devils will renew acquaintances with the rival Flyers. It should be fun. An old rivalry heats up again with a spot in the Conference Finals up for grabs. The Blueshirts are also familiar with the Caps, who are playing tougher under Dale Hunter and shouldn't be easy by any stretch. Both series should are intriguing with the Rangers looking to avenge two series losses to Washington while the Devils are hoping to turn around recent history with the Flyers prevailing the last two meetings.

Both Hudson rivals are one giant step away from a Conference Final. Something we haven't seen in 18 years. It would be a dream scenario for everyone involved. The only way to root if you bleed Rangers or Devils. Now that both have completed stirring comebacks, we can at least envision it. The fun starts this weekend.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Win Or Go Home

Do or die. It really is that simple for the Rangers and Devils tonight. Both showed heart in forcing Game Seven against the Senators and Panthers. In a few hours, each will get an opportunity to complete a comeback and advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

First up will be the Blueshirts, who'll play host to Ottawa in the first seventh game since Messier, Leetch, Graves and Richter were Stanley Cup heroes. It's a chance for new ones led by Callahan, Richards, Gaborik, Stepan, McDonagh, Staal, Girardi and Lundqvist. Who will step up? Is this the day Brandon Dubinsky scores a big goal and plays the kind of gritty game that earned him over four million? Or is it a pair of bright rookies in Carl Hagelin and Game Six hero Chris Kreider who could be the difference? Does Artem Anisimov have one of those highlight reel goals on his stick or is this the game Michael Del Zotto erupts? Or could it be one of our unsung soldiers such as Brandon Prust or Cup proven Ruslan Fedotenko?

That's what Game Sevens are. Where an unlikely hero emerges like last night for the Capitals when Joel Ward finished off a Mike Knuble rebound to stun the Bruins, ending their reign. That it was the always well respected Knuble and Ward, who've been in and out of Dale Hunter's doghouse, is what makes the theater of the deciding game so exciting. You never know who might step up. The seventh seeded Caps pulled off the upset without Hunter relying on Alex Ovechkin. And I thought the only chance they had was for Ovechkin to score nine or ten. Big kudos to Hunter for getting his team to buy in. That first round series made NHL history by becoming the first one where all seven games were decided by a goal. Unbelievable stuff. A case where the road team was undeterred in Game Seven.

That should be a warning for the Rangers, who've already dropped two of three at Madison Square Garden to the Senators. This evenly played match-up hasn't played favorites with the road team prevailing in four of six. Ottawa knows it can win at The Garden. So, it'll be up to the Blueshirts to get off to a good start and use what should be a raucous atmosphere to their advantage. All bets are off if the Sens score early. It's a closely fought series that hasn't seen much from each top line with Jason Spezza's unit largely shutdown along with Norris hopeful Erik Karlsson. Meanwhile, Marian Gaborik hasn't scored since Game One. He is playing hurt but possesses the most dangerous pair of hands on our roster. Brad Richards was instrumental in the win the other night, scoring and setting up another in the club's come from behind 3-2 win.

While all eyes will be on Broadway at 7 ET, there'll be another deciding game getting played between the Devils and Panthers. A series that's been much closer despite New Jersey's shot edge. They still needed overtime to escape Game Six thanks to Travis Zajac, who got behind the Florida defense and beat Scott Clemmensen on a great feed from Ilya Kovalchuk. The play was started by captain Zach Parise, who worked the puck out to Kovalchuk who turned a seemingly innocent two-on-three into OT heroics by drawing three Panthers, allowing Zajac to beat Devil killer Kris Versteeg for the winner.

Now, the Devils aim to complete the comeback when they visit Sunrise for a TV rated 8:30 start, allowing NBC Network to try to cash in on both deciding games. A wise play by them. Can the Devils finally break the playoff hex and win two consecutive playoff games to advance? It's been five years since they advanced past Round One. The Hurricane stunner still in a few memory banks. Even with Jose Theodore returning to net for Florida, the Devils have the edge with championship proven Martin Brodeur. You know Marty doesn't want this to be it and should be at his best with a chance at significant playoff time with possibly the Flyers awaiting.

The Devils are in this spot against Florida because the Panthers' speed has made a difference. The younger skating legs of Versteeg, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell have been noticeable. The Cats also get back Game Three hero Jason Garrison. Special teams could play a role as the Panthers power play has had the edge on New Jersey's penalty kill. Devil worshippers are hoping for statements from Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac, Brodeur, all-time leading scorer Patrik Elias and David Clarkson. Or is it a Calder candidate like Adam Henrique who makes a difference? Is this the game they got Marek Zidlicky for? The Devils will take it from anyone including comeback story Petr Sykora, who's contributed a lot. Perhaps it's a gritty guy like Dainius Zubrus or even little Stephen Gionta.

You never know who it will be. For both sides of the intense Hudson rivalry, they already know an anticipated second round dream match-up doesn't await thanks to Washington's victory. However, each is hoping for more hockey following tonight. There's more pressure on the Rangers to win. But the Devils certainly are expected to advance. So, anything less than a 'W' for both would be depressing.

All we can do is sit back and try not to let our anxiety go overboard. Root as hard as we can for our teams. I'll wish Hasan good luck along with close buddy Rob "Kraze" Davis. And to all my Blueshirts who are fun follows on Twitter, Let's Go Rangers!


Zajac gives Devils one last chance for redemption

As much as this series shouldn’t have come down to Game 7, perhaps it’s fitting it did in a way, since both teams have split ten hockey games with each other this year, starting with the four in the regular season and continuing with the first six playoff games. What’s more, each team has an identical total of fifteen goals in this playoff series. While it hasn’t been a classic seven-gamer like the Boston-Washington epic for example, it’s certainly been an unpredictable series with wild swings of momentum from game to game and within games. Not to mention some unexpected off-ice drama - most of it in the last seventy-two hours, mainly due to rats and Twitter…but I’ll get to that later.

Even Tuesday’s game provided a prism for the entire series, with the Devils dominating early and getting out to a lead, Florida clawing back into the game thanks to still-sketchy play from Martin Brodeur, and a dramatic OT winner from Travis Zajac, who now has the Devils’ last two playoff OT winners. For a guy who had a trying season (missing all but fifteen games due to injury) and even survived a scary moment in the second period when his rehabbed leg got landed on and he had to leave the ice, it was certainly a feel-good moment. Not to mention it provided relief for most of the 17,625 in attendance – especially me - who have seen the Devils get eliminated on home ice in their last four playoff series.

In truth, it was a game the Devils should have won long before that given their shot and territorial advantage over Florida. And for once, we got the benefit of the doubt on the whistle as the Panthers weren’t given gift penalties for their Hurricane-like diving the way they have been in recent games. True, Ilya Kovalchuk was tripped moments before the Panthers got a 4-on-2 break that led to their second goal but the Devils still had the majority of the power plays – which reflected the level of play. And unlike other playoff games, the officials weren’t looking to call every little thing which was in itself refreshing.

Even before the game, the Devils got a break when Panthers starting goalie Jose Theodore missed Game 6 due to an unspecified injury, after pitching a shutout in Game 5. True, Scott Clemmensen had his share of great games against the Devils before we finally got to him in the third period of Game 4, but it looked like this wasn’t going to be one of his better days when he allowed a turnaround shot by Steve Bernier to glance off his stick and through the five-hole to give the Devils a lead late in the first. Kovalchuk – despite fighting his own unspecified leg injury – made a brilliant play to pinch down low on an early second period power play, leaving his usual point or halfboards position. Zajac found a wide-open Kovalchuk for a tap-in goal just as the power play was set to expire.

However, no lead has been safe for the Devils this whole series and Game 6 proved to be no different. A pivotal moment occurred when David Clarkson took a seemingly harmless shot that Clemmensen couldn’t control, but made a diving glove save of the puck just before it was about to pop over the line. After getting off the hook, Clemmensen started to look more confident and wound up making 40+ saves on the night. Eventually Kris Versteeg gave the Panthers their opening goal with a shot that glanced off Alexei Ponikarovsky’s skate, and then Florida caught two breaks on their next goal. One being the aforementioned penalty that wasn’t called, and the second was Brodeur’s horrid play of a soft Michael Samuelsson shot, somehow losing the rebound and looking to his right when the puck was sitting to his left. Sean Bergenheim took advantage of Brodeur’s lapse and bad defense by Andy Greene to get a tap-in goal that stunned the crowd.

Despite outshooting the Panthers 16-4 in the second, New Jersey ended the period in worse shape than they began it.on the scoreboard, and that fact seemed to make the Devils anxious in the third, particularly offensively – even squandering a five-on-three for thirty seconds and almost two full power plays at the beginning of the period. Aside from a horrendous giveaway by Peter Harrold in front, at least the Devils managed to avoid defensive breakdowns, and with the way Brodeur was fighting the puck even on routine saves that was critical. Finally, in the OT they caught a break when Zach Parise’s backchecking on a two-on-one not only forced Stephen Weiss to shoot wide, but also started a breakout the other way that led to Kovalchuk drawing in Dmitri Kulikov before finding a wide open Zajac – who beat Clemmsensen with a backhander (again through the legs) that set off quite possibly the most emotional celebration in the young history of the Prudential Center.

You would think a dramatic OT winner and impending Game 7 would be leading the headlines going into tonight. Or even the health status of Theodore and power play quarterback Jason Garrison who missed the last three games but, like Theodore is expected to play tonight. With Garrison in the lineup, the Panthers’ power play is 6-10 against us. Without him, they’ve been 1-14, so that return to the lineup is a key for them. Not to mention this could be the last game in a Devils jersey for Parise and Brodeur, both of them UFA’s after this season – though Brodeur’s expected to return.

However, the on-ice drama has been eclipsed by off-ice goofiness. After the Devils’ Game 5 loss in Florida, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen accused Devil fans of throwing rats onto the ice to draw a penalty. I guess he failed basic math - when you have 18,000 people in the arena, most are Panther fans and almost as many rats are thrown from the stands, it ain’t Devil fans doing it. Especially late in the game, where there was no real advantage to doing so, down 3-0. Florida president Michael Yormark (ironically brother of New Jersey Nets president Brett Yormark) ran with it and announced the Panthers would no longer be selling rats, based on visiting Devil fans throwing them…gee, can’t be because you just don’t want your own undisciplined fans causing a delay of game and need a convenient scapegoat, can it?

Predictably, Yormark’s twitter was bombarded by irate Devil fans, including one Lauren Ashley, who tweeted that he was acting like an ***. Yormark responded that she obviously wasn’t popular because her twitter only had seventy followers. Predictably, that and curt responses to other Devil fans got everyone even angrier. Eventually, the media picked up on it when this fan (who, much to my amazement turned out to be long-time NJDevs poster LA03) got interviewed by PuckDaddy, and a Devils employee offered to let her sit in a suite for Game 6. Hundreds of Devil fans started following Ms. Ashley on twitter until she had more followers than Yormark. Finally, public pressure led Yormark to apologize to her, and offer her a flight and suite tickets for Game 7 in Florida as well. I guess the moral of the story is sometimes it pays to be passionate about your team.

While the sideshow is amusing, this Game 7 means as much as any game to the Devils franchise since Game 7 in 2003 for the Stanley Cup, with all that’s on the line – ownership issues, Brodeur nearing the end, Parise’s impending free agency – and the fact this team hasn’t won in the first round since moving to Newark with one crushing playoff defeat after another. Not to mention a first-round win would likely mean the Devils will give up their first-round pick this year and finally shed themselves of the albatross of the Kovalchuk cap penalty. Without a first-round win, we probably won’t give up the pick this year and with an uncertain future and time running out on us to decide when to take the penalty, eventually we’ll risk giving up a higher pick than this.

At times, the Devils haven’t given a playoff-worthy effort…but one win tonight, and all is forgiven. One more loss won’t be forgotten that easily, however.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Responding The Right Way

Trailing by a goal in a hostile environment, they could've packed their bags and gotten ready for the summer. Instead, the Rangers had other plans. Showing the mettle that's bound them to so many #twitterblueshirts the Rangers battled back to take Game Six 3-2 over the Senators, forcing a seventh and deciding game that'll be played Thursday at MSG.

Brad Richards scored and set up two power play goals. Derek Stepan stepped up with his first goal of the series and two helpers, including a great feed to Chris Kreider for his first goal as a Blueshirt with under a minute left in the pivotal second. One which proved to be the winner following Jason Spezza's controversial goal with 38.6 seconds to go in regulation. We'll get to that later. Most importantly, the East's No.1 seed stayed alive due to resilient play. They refused to go away quietly, sending the closely fought opening round series back to Manhattan for Game Seven. It'll be the first one played at The Garden by our team since they won the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup in '94.

For a while, it seemed that they would again tease us. Unable to generate enough offense in a seesaw first, the Rangers fell behind thanks to one of many dubious calls made by Tim Peel, who sent Mike Rupp to the box for "roughing." His incompetence during such a crucial game was felt by both sides even if Ottawa fans would have you believe it was the only reason their team lost. After Rupp shoved Zenon Konopka and was sent off, the Sens worked the puck around until vet Sergei Gonchar's blast deflected off agitator Chris Neil for a 1-0 lead. Neil beat Marc Staal in front while Henrik Lundqvist had to contest with a double screen due to Mike Del Zotto forgetting to take Zach Smith, making it impossible for our goalie to pick up the shot. Gonchar and Nick Foligno drew the assists.

Despite taking their second lead of the series, the Sens did little else in a period that saw them take only six shots. The Rangers got the next two power plays but it was like a recurring theme from Groundhog Day with Richards unable to beat Konopka on draws and Ottawa repeatedly clearing the puck. I was already in a sore mood due to being sick for over a week. One highlight if you could call it that was Neil finally accepting Brandon Prust's second challenge of the first after he went after Gaborik and Richards. Full credit to Neil who pummeled Prust, who took his lumps to make a point. Sometimes, you have to lose a fight to win a battle. That's exactly what happened.

Prust really hadn't done much in the series but the scrap provided a lift. Not surprisingly, the Rangers took control by the middle point of the game and never let go. Oddly enough, Prust was off for a crosscheck when momentum swung. With our team continuing not to challenge Craig Anderson, I had finally seen enough and went to run an errand. Outside of my suggested USA line of Stepan, Kreider and Ryan Callahan, they weren't looking good. Carl Hagelin's return helped on the forecheck while idol Daniel Alfredsson was unable to spark his team. As I listened to the game, Milan Michalek negated a power play by holding one of our guys. Some Sen fans complained later about Filip Kuba's hook but it was legit unlike the goalie interference on Foligno that led directly to our 5-on-3.

By the time I returned to the car, Stepan had tied the game. Apparently, he drove the net hard and Richards found him for a redirect past Anderson. By no means was it pretty. But a lot more effective than the perimeter crap we'd been seeing. D-Step looked good in Game Five. So, he was one of the guys I was hoping would come through. The other night, Dad was ready to trade everyone. I told him Stepan was a keeper. Nice to see him prove me right.

The beginning of the controversial calls started with a Kreider goalie interference that drew the ire of MSG radio's Dave Maloney. Maloney is a no-nonsense guy who tells it like it is. When he referred to the call as 'bogus,' the broadcast became doubly entertaining. Our radio guys are much better than Sam and Joe. Kenny Albert has superb chemistry with Maloney. Moments later, Foligno was called for an even worse goalie interference, which Maloney quickly chastised again with 'bogus.' Albert then engaged him in a conversation about how our team had more power plays. Fascinating stuff.

While the radio was heating up as I parked, I decided that I wasn't returning to watch the game. Once Richards scored on Mike Del Zotto's first big play of the series, I knew I couldn't go back in. The comeback started when I left. I missed Stepan's goal but could tell the team was playing better before Richards beat Anderson with a big shot. On the play, Del Zotto made an unbelievable keep and then worked a give and go with Stepan before taking a hit to get the puck to a wide open Richie, who did the rest. He delivered the kind of clutch goal which is why we signed him.

With Scotiabank Place still booing Peel, the Sens forgot to play the final shift of the second. It proved fatal when the Spezza line got caught puck watching. Stepan had all day to find Kreider in front who this time didn't miss. It was a rocket that Anderson had no chance on. Just huge. Kreider's first came with over 40 seconds remaining from Stepan and Staal, who like Del Zotto steadied throughout. Big kudos to MDZ for paying back Neil for what he did to Brian Boyle. To see him cry about it was priceless. That goal at even strength was pivotal because it gave the Blueshirts a two-goal lead into the locker room. It was also the first time either team scored three in a period.

The intermission came and went. I had time to check the baseball games with the Yanks winning and the Mets losing. Then, it was game on. As I sat in the car, hoping our team would continue to stay aggressive, I had also missed Lundqvist's biggest save which came with the game tied when he robbed Alfredsson on the doorstep. If he doesn't stop him, we could be writing an obituary instead of talking about Game Seven. I'm glad.

Ottawa had an early power play in the third with Prust off for tripping. Another call Maloney didn't agree on. In any event, Lundqvist had some help from his best friend the goalpost on another Gonchar shot. A few big stops and our team killed it off. Game Four hero Kyle Turris picked up a slash but our team wasn't able to capitalize. The Sens got 13 shots in the period but our Vezina candidate held it together long enough for Tortorella to send Kreider out in the final minute. That's how well he played.

With Anderson off for an extra attacker, the Sens made it interesting when Spezza was credited with his third in two games. However, it was controversial with Lundqvist immediately protesting the ruling, which went to Toronto. A lengthy review didn't overturn it. Instead, the original call stood despite Henrik's insistence afterwards that Neil kicked it in. It sure looked like it. The puck seemed to slow down but then suddenly regained steam and went over. Neil was the only one in the vicinity and also got away with shoving Lundqvist, who ripped the league by charging, "Someone wanted them back in it."

This was uncharacteristic for our goalie. He obviously saw what happened and the fact Neil pushed him before the play must've made him snap. Though I was informed by a legit source that even with all their replays they couldn't see it, I do get why he was so upset. What if the Sens tied it? These games are so tight that one call could change things. The Rangers still did what they had to, coming away with the 'W.' Now it's onto Game Seven.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Chris Kreider, NYR (game-winner at 19:19 of 2nd-1st goal as a Ranger in 10:46)
2nd Star-Brad Richards, NYR (PPG-3rd of series, assist, 2 hits in 21:47)
1st Star-Derek Stepan, NYR (1st of series, 2 assists in 19:00)

Notes: The start time for Thursday still isn't known, probably depending on what the Devils do tonight versus the Panthers. ... With Phoenix blanking 4-0 to advance to the second round for the first time since relocating, the West is all set with the Coyotes hosting the Predators while the Blues battle the Kings, guaranteeing a new Conference champ for the first time since Los Angeles last made the Final with the Great One.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Message To Our Blueshirts

There is a lot to be said for our team's effort in this series. Entering it, they knew Ottawa presented a challenge. In terms of speed and skill, they're superior. Sadly, what's transpired is that they're outworking us. Yes, the Senators are beating the Rangers at their own game by getting better netminding and playing well defensively.

At this time of year, there are no shortcuts. So, when an injured star on our side is throwing the weight around more than a few bumps on the log who can't be bothered to show up, it's no wonder this team is facing elimination tonight. Rather than bore you with the ridiculousness of Joe Micheletti who probably still thinks the 41 shots our team sent at Craig Anderson were hard, I'll cut right to the point.

It's still up to the Blueshirts, whose identity all year is do whatever it takes to win. If they can do that starting in three hours, there'll be a Game Seven Thursday. That means everybody does their job and chips in. Everyone is hard on the puck and crashes the net getting to rebounds. Every Ranger sacrifices by taking the body and becoming human shields in front of any shots. Every Blueshirt gets black and blue.

That's how they became the conference's best team in the regular season. There are quite a few players on our roster that have been through recent disappointments. So, there are zero excuses. It's time for them to show that this team has a pulse. A first round loss is UNACCEPTABLE. It would make everything they did a complete waste. From a coach unwilling to make the necessary adjustments that could help change the outcome while grasping at straws to a team that's been a shell of itself the first five games. Time to suck it up and give our fans something instead of teasing us to death.

The leaders on the club have to lead. I'm not going to rattle off the names. We all know who they are. The supporting cast that includes a few core guys the organization's stuck with better make themselves known later. How about this for a concept. Responding to our best player's injury on what still was a cheap shot from the blindside even if the powers that be ignored it. The best way to respond is by kicking the tail out of the bad guys starting tonight. Enough pussyfooting around. Go out there and meet the challenge. Hit them where it hurts most. On the scoreboard.

I could care less who scores the goals, who delivers the hits, etc. Every Ranger who puts on the red, white and blue knows what's at stake. As Yoda once said, there is no try. Do or do not. It's up to them.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Devils' inconsistency continues in Game 5

I honestly don't know what to say about this team anymore, certainly nothing new that I didn't already say after Game 3. Last night's 'effort' in the last two periods of a swing Game 5 was an absolute disgrace. Other teams must look at our half-hearted play in the playoffs and sneer. You have teams like the Penguins (recent Cup winners) busting their rear end to come back from 3-0 down, Vancouver switching their goalie to try to change the momentum...and we just run in place. No lineup changes, no line changes, mistakes worthy of the District 5 hockey team - the kid Mighty Ducks from the movie that inspired the Anaheim name - and intermittent passion.

Yes, the first period was even in terms of play and fine in terms of effort but typically when the Devils took a penalty early in the second, they gave up a power play goal on a virtial 5-on-3 1/2 after the ill-fated Anton Volchenov broke his stick, and Kris Versteeg beat Martin Brodeur with an unscreened one-timer from the faceoff circle to again put the Devils behind the eight-ball. While once again the refs seemed to favor the guys in Panther shirts (as evidenced by the 'penalties' called on Parise and Ryan Carter), the Devils didn't do themselves any favors by remaining undisciplined. Even Adam Henrique took a penalty - the same guy who'd taken one minor penalty the entire season, minutes after a stupid double-minor infraction by Danius Zubrus.

For once the PK didn't completely crumble, killing off the last five chances. But that's also time you lose trying to establish offensive rhythm, especially after falling behind. With the Panthers losing two defensemen (including pointman Jason Garrison) and changing their goalie for the second time this series, the Devils still managed to produce nothing in terms of offense. Nada, zip, zero. Yeah they were credited with thirty shots, I demand to see video evidence of at least ten of them. Certainly there weren't a lot of quality scoring chances in the final two periods during the Devils' latest el foldo.

The difference between the two teams right now in a nutshell is this: We choke with the lead, they remain poised when behind. Our effort is on and off like a faulty light switch, their effort has been consistent. Even during the 4-0 Game 4 they were still busting their rear end trying to get a goal on the last shift. While we can't even be bothered to compete during a swing Game 5! Even Parise admitted as much during the postgame, that the team didn't work hard enough. Well, you guys don't have anything else left to wait for. We've been outcoached as well, with Kevin Dineen making changes that needed to be made (specifically in goal) and calling proactive timeouts, while Pete DeBoer has been...Deboring in terms of his inaction this series.

I'm not asking for Adam Larsson to be in the lineup over Volchenkov or one of the goon squad to replace any of our fourth liners (especially considering they've been our best line) but how about some line changes at the very least? Especially when you have a clearly gimping Ilya Kovalchuk being an anchor with Parise and Travis Zajac still getting his normal icetime despite clearly being limited physically. Even in the best of times, Kovy and Parise haven't shown the ability to coexist consistently on the same line. During one of their better periods they had Adam Henrique center them, but DeBoer hasn't even gone back to that line once - other than during our late Game 2 rally - and he hasn't even considered changing since then.

This isn't a coaching thing though, this group of players has to take ownership and say enough is enough. Before someone on high says it for them and shows them the door out of town. Whether that someone is Lou Lamoriello, owner Jeff Vanderbeek or someone else once the dust settles, there's a lot riding on the remainder of this series. Being on the brink of losing a series at home for the fourth straight time (every single one of them where they had more points than their opponent in the regular season) shows that something about this team is fundamentally flawed.

If what I expect to happen in Game 6 does, this team needs to be gutted. If that means Lou, Parise, Marty all go - so be it. Yes, things could get worse. I acknowledge the possibility exists we'll have five playoffless seasons in a row if we blow it up. There's also a possibility change will be for the better (look at the Flyers, after they blew up their team last offseason). But this team just cannot waste any more time running in place. You risk becoming like the Sharks, or the late '90's Blues, teams that are satisfied with just making the playoffs and are content hoping for things to be different with the same group even when too much evidence exists that they won't be.

When you have guys like Marty acknowledging that we 'didn't expect to be tested this early' or Parise admitting their effort in a swing Game 5 wasn't there, that should be enough of an indicator that this group is not and will never win anything of significance. If they're too stupid to give effort after three straight first-round defeats on home ice, following the shame that was their first half last year, there really isn't much left to say for them. They have one last chance to make things right, but to do that they have to win two consecutive playoff games, something that this team hasn't done since 2007. I don't expect it to happen now either.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Brodeur, Devils rebound in convincing Game 4 win

Down 2-1 against the Panthers after a potentially soul-crushing Game 3 defeat, the Devils knew they needed a few things to happen to turn the series around. Martin Brodeur had to be better than he was for the first three games, particularly Tuesday night when he got pulled in a tie game with a series of bad goals. Our vaunted PK had to pick it up and start killing penalties at closer to 80 or 90% efficiency as opposed to the 40% of the first three games. And our offensive stars like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk needed to start getting on the board more frequently.

All of those factors came together in Game 4, as the Devils finally played a complete sixty-minute game in a 4-0 win that wasn't quite as convincing as the score would suggest, but was still satisfying in every way. Brodeur responded to adversity the way he has so many times before, with a twenty-six save shutout. Parise and Kovalchuk each contributed goals (as did linemate Travis Zajac), with the captain even leading the team in hits as well. And our struggling PK finally looked more like it did in the regular season - giving the Panthers an 0-fer on five power play chances...though admittedly the loss of Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison and his 100 MPH slapshot due to an unspecified lower body injury helped that last stat.

Early on, it was hard to tell which way this game was going as both teams played a bit more open than they wanted to with goalies Brodeur and Scott Clemmensen making a couple of good saves each. At least the Devils' early hitting (including a freight train hit by Stephen Gionta on the much bigger Jerrod Smithson) set a tone that last night was going to be different effort-wise at least. Parise had several early hits too, yet joked his dad who was in attendance must have been keeping score when told he led the team in that category.

Still, the game was scoreless after one and we hadn't yet come close to solving Clemmensen after his spotless nineteen-save relief appearance against the Devils in Game 3 and unbeaten record against us during the regular season. Ironically, after all the worrying about the Panthers' power play in this series, it was our own man advantage that finally broke the ice in the second period with a perfect Parise deflection off a Zajac shot. Parise's second goal in the series (both at home) came at 6:08 with the assists going to Zajac and Marek Zidlicky. Getting an early lead was ideal but hardly satisfying after the Devils nearly blew a three-goal lead in Game 1 and took less than fifteen minutes to waste a similar cushion in Game 3. However, the Devils played much better defensively in a second period where each team only got seven shots, and that 1-0 scoreline remained until the third.

After being even in shots through two periods with the slimmest of leads, the Devils finally broke the game open in the third period with yet another goal from the fourth line. Junior Gio made a great play to get the puck in the zone and feed it to Steve Bernier, who roofed a glove-side beauty past Clemmensen at 2:02 to provide some breathing room. Bernier's goal was the third scored by that line in this series - one each by Gionta, Bernier and Ryan Carter. This, after a season where the fourth line was among our biggest issues and junior Gio was an afterthought down in Albany until Jacob Josefson's 94th injury prompted a callup. Brodeur also contributed to the offense with his second assist of the series on Bernier's goal.

With heroic play from the fourth line amping up the sellout crowd again, the first line kept up the momentum just ninety-three seconds later, with a little help from David Clarkson. Clarkson made an unbelievable play - especially for him, skating into the zone solo from center ice, circling the net, then finding a wide open Zajac just outside the shot for a high one-timer past Clemmensen to give us the worst lead in hockey. I've always mocked that expression from Stan Fischler, but it's been frighteningly true in this series. Clearly the only solution was to get a fourth goal, which Kovalchuk did as the Devils converted on another power play at 8:32 to finally put the game on ice. Fill-in Peter Harrold got an assist on Kovy's second of the series and unbelievably, stay-at-home defenseman Bryce Salvador got his second assist of the game and third of the series on Kovy's goal.

At this point in the game, the physical play got dialed up a notch with the teams combining for twenty-six penalty minutes, including a ten-minute misconduct by Clarkson in the last minute of the game. Granted, you get those kinds of totals when someone breathes the wrong way in Pennsylvania, but in what's been a tame series thus far compared to almost everything else around the league this represented a step up. Florida proved they weren't backing down, and neither did we, finally showing a little killer instinct and not letting them get any life. Our crowd was similarly ruthless, chanting 'You're a backup!' towards former friend Clemmensen late in the game. For his part, before the game Clemmensen said he still loved Devils fans, no matter how loud we booed him. Hey, all's fair in love and playoff hockey right?

As happy as I was about last night and finally solving Clemmensen, all this game did was give us a stay of execution and prove we have no business losing this series if we play sixty minutes and Marty/our penalty kill play up to form. Another bone of contention going into this game was defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who'd been on the ice for nine of the Panthers' ten goals in the first three games and directly responsible for at least a couple of them. Not only did he look slow and still bothered by the late-season 'flu', but he was also playing fewer minutes (around twelve per game). He still didn't look like the old Anton last night, but at least he played over sixteen minutes and finished with a +2.

Perhaps the best thing out of Games 3 and 4 was the crowd. I had a headache after Game 3 but figured it was because of my own screaming, after I lost it the way I never lost it at a game before. However, I had a headache in Game 4 too and didn't have nearly as much stress over this one. Whether it was because of the amped up PR system or the actual crowd itself I still can't tell, but either way having a sellout crowd of 17,625 for two mid-week first-round games with the Panthers was a good sign. Especially with the late college night promos selling out the remaining tickets and getting louder fans into the building.

Granted, some of the stuff at games during this series has been kind of hokey, like PR announcer Kevin Clark telling us to stand up and shout - there's one minute remaining on the penalty kill and things like that (particularly in Game 3, which became kind of amusing given the circumstance...last night the PR guy wasn't nearly as omnipresent). Yet as much as we might think it sounds college-like, it works for this crowd, which has a lot of younger fans to begin with. And the Devils gave a nod to the old-timers by using the CAA goalhorn for Game 3. Evidently, superstition kicked in after we lost that game coupled with the Retro Night loss with the old goalhorn, and we went back to the current one in Game 4 but it was still a nice touch, as was the intro video - which also had a little of everything in it.

Although last night was a good start, this team needs to finish the job now. Starting Saturday in Florida would be a good thing, since a win there would prevent a possible home elimination Tuesday. This team should know what it needs to do, it just needs to do it now.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Devils shame themselves in Game 3 humiliation

I sit here now, knowing I'm in for a night of little sleep unsure how to start this post after the disgraceful horror show I just witnessed at the Rock. I never thought I could ever feel worse than after Game 7 against Carolina in 2009, but this abomination of a game topped that one - at least for sheer anger and frustration. Quite possibly the only time I've ever been as upset at any sporting event (and I wasn't in the stands for this one, unlike tonight) was when the Mets spit it up in the final two and a half weeks of the 2007 season, culminating with future HOF'er Tom Glavine giving up seven runs in the first inning.

In a way, Martin Brodeur suffered a similar fate to Glavine tonight, turning in a performance that will forever (barring a Lazarus-like rise from the dead the rest of the series) mar his great career. With the Devils holding a 3-0 lead after a remarkable first 6:16 of the game, all Brodeur had to do was be average and he could have taken this game home. Not only wasn't he average, he gave by far the worst performance I've ever seen from him in a big game - yes even worse than the aformentioned Game 7 against Carolina.

After failing to control a long dump-in by Scottie Upshall, Brodeur gave up a bad shortside goal to Sean Bergenheim at 16:11. Yes, it was another power play goal given up by the 'greatest PK of all time' but that one was all on Brodeur from start to finish. And Brodeur gave up yet another questionable power play goal with just eight seconds remaining in the period on a long slapshot by Jason Garrison (granted, he has a hard slapshot but still). That second goal deflated me and at least half the building, including the players in the locker room according to our wonderful leader, Zach Parise.

If it were any other goalie in net, I suspect Brodeur would have been pulled - the way Jose Theodore was after giving up those three early goals in favor of Devil-killer Scott Clemmensen. He wasn't however, and the team paid for it when Brodeur gave up yet another horrendous goal shortside to the immortal Mike Weaver at 2:18 of the second period, officially making what looked like an insurmountable lead after a dominant start dissapear. Finally, Brodeur was pulled to nobody's surprise but Brodeur himself. Even that couldn't stop the sudden Panther onslaught however, as they got their third power play goal of the game and sixth of the series when Brian Campbell beat Johan Hedberg off a rebound, after Hedberg had made some good saves to temporarily stop the bleeding.

Brodeur's performance certainly doesn't take the rest of these gutless, pathetic losers off the hook though. There's absolutely no excuse for - as Captain America put it - the team to be going into the locker room feeling like they were losing when it was 3-2 at the end of the first. I felt like that as a fan, but it's these guys' jobs NOT to give into that. From the time Clemmensen came in till about the final two minutes of the game, the Devils got maybe twelve-fifteen shots on net with only a couple of real quality scoring chances. There's no excuse for guys like Ilya Kovalchuk to keep being lazy or tired (the latter is possible with how much he's been overplayed this season and in the series), and no excuse for guys like Peter Harrold to think he's Wayne Gretzky and make five moves when he had a wide-open chance in the slot, but held the puck for too long and the chance died.

Yes, the refs didn't help out and were awful too, disallowing an apparent tying goal by Marek Zidlicky late in the second period after it was ruled Steve Bernier made incidental contact with Clemmensen - which he did, after a Florida defenseman pushed him into the goalie. That was just the worst, and last in a series of whistles which didn't go the Devils way, either via missed penalties on the Panthers or bad penalties called on them. Normally I only hear the kind of booing the refs got tonight from other teams' crowds. Honestly, the refs were in the wrong place at the wrong time to a degree...but I still don't want to see Tim Peel and his crew for the rest of the playoffs either.

I'm certainly not letting the coaching staff slide on this one. How does a penalty kill that broke records in the regular season all of a sudden become staggeringly inept in the postseason? Florida's now an unreal 6 for 8 on the power play in the three games. Even with Brodeur's bad goaltending in this series, the Panthers haven't done much at even strength, but the same penalty killers who got the job time and again in the regular season haven't been able to kill a single penalty when it matters. Not to mention Pete DeBoer refused to go back to the line combinations that worked well late in Game 3, even when the team struggled to create anything for more than fifty minutes after their unreal start. If the players were feeling defeated, as Parise said - then the coaching staff didn't do their job of getting the players back into the game mentally.

DeBoer's most questionable move so far may be his decision to go back to Brodeur for Game 4 with Brodeur having a terrible series and Hedberg being about the only one who looked like he wanted to compete in the latter half of the game, until the final two minutes where they finally stirred to life with a couple of chances, but it was too little and too late. If this series is about winning then Hedberg should play, he's earned it with both his stature and his recent results even while playing second fiddle to Brodeur. Clearly however, starting Game 4 is as much about restoring Marty's legacy as anything else.

Well here it is Marty, if you want one last chance to prove you're not just a creature of a HOF-laden defense prior to the lockout, it starts Thursday. If Zach wants to prove he's a great leader and deserves the millions he's going to get this offseason he'll find a way to get to the guys in the room. If DeBoer really is a long-term coach for this team, he'll get his message across and that won't come by giving them a day off this time. If this team wants to prove they aren't a bunch of gutless, pathetic losers, well time is running out on that one.

Henrik stands tall to steal Game Three

The King stands tall as Ryan McDonagh digs in against Zenon Konopka during Game 3.
The Rangers needed something. After how they lost Game Two with a more determined Senator club earning the 3-2 overtime win at a stunned Garden (well not our section), the top seed had to respond. Given that Ottawa is just not a great match up due to their superior speed and attack, I thought that our goalie was going to have to steal last night's game. That's exactly what we got with Henrik Lundqvist delivering a virtuoso performance by stopping the Sens in their tracks, making 39 saves in a 1-0 shutout to steal Game Three and recapture home ice in the best-of-seven first round series.

Without rookie Carl Hagelin, who was serving the first of a three-game suspension for his high elbow on Swedish idol Daniel Alfredsson who didn't play last night, John Tortorella played a cat and mouse game before inserting 20-year old Boston College product Chris Kreider. Astonishingly, twitter was in chaos due to conflicting reports on enforcer John Scott dressing in Kreider's place with the players trading places like Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd in one of my favorite 80's movies. Eventually, Tortorella settled on Kreider, who not only made his NHL debut but took the place of Hagelin on the top line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Quite a pressure packed situation, throwing him into the fire. 

While the Kreider storyline made for one headline, the Rangers had a game to win. They can thank Lundqvist, who was brilliant in one of his best ever starts. Considering how well the Senators played in outshooting us 39-23, you could argue that this was the best game for Henrik outside of backstopping his country to a gold medal, stoning Olli Jokinen the way he flat out robbed Kyle Turris with under a minute left to earn his fourth career playoff shutout. There have been other moments but none quite like this due to heavy scrutiny our 30-year old franchise netminder is under. They're not an underdog this time. So, for him to be a human brick wall when the Sens were the aggressors throughout, that was a statement.

If not for Brian Boyle, the Blueshirts are probably in huge trouble. The underdog story continued with the big man responding the right way after getting pummeled by Matt Carkner and Chris Neil. For a third consecutive game, Boyle scored a goal and was the team's best forward. Sure. He's been our most impressive player considering his role. You can't leave out the performances of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who again were outstanding. There's a reason they've become a shutdown tandem and it was on display with Ottawa pressing for the equalizer. No matter how many rebounds Lundqvist kicked out, Danny G and McD were there to clean the garbage along with our forwards, who were better defensively despite the Sens' constant buzzing. As a team, the Rangers blocked 21 shots including a combined eight from our two best defensemen.

Without that effort, there's no way they win. Of course, the same goes for Lundqvist who did what his other Vezina counterparts did a day prior. Stand on his head. The Sens are good because they're faster than us and always pinch led by Game Two standout Erik Karlsson, who wasn't as dangerous. Karlsson is a handful. After leading his team with 10 shots and over 20 attempts in their win, he was limited to five with three misses and a handful that never made it. Just a dynamic player who must have space taken away. Overall, the Rangers still gave the Sens too much respect, allowing them to gain access and recover intentional wide shots behind the net to sustain their attack. But they tidied up enough the final five minutes to hold on with Lundqvist only required to make one game saving stop on Turris one-on-one.

Sometimes, a hot goalie and one timely goal is all it takes. Luckily, we had the better goalie even if Craig Anderson was superb, making 22 saves with a few sparklers like the great glove save to deny Ryan Callahan on a breakaway set up by who else. Boyle. In Game Two, the veteran didn't have to make too many big ones despite 29 stops. The Rangers improved as the game went on following a dismal first period. Forget the 12-8 margin for Ottawa. They dominated. Our guys panicked just as they did Saturday. They settled down, especially in a nerve racking second that saw each side have glorious opportunities. It was the best period of the series with Lundqvist and Anderson trading big saves. There were close calls like a Boyle feed to Brandon Prust, who a sprawling Anderson denied twice with video review confirming no goal following five minutes of wide open action. In between Lundqvist robbed a Sen on a deflection and Stu Bickel saved one. Jaw dropping stuff.

If you love hockey, this was it. No fuss. Zero cheapshots following Saturday's ugliness or Sunday's disgrace that will result in more suspensions. Credit must be given to refs Brad Watson and Mike Leggo for establishing how it was called even if a couple of penalties on both sides were tacky. The players adjusted and it made for entertaining puck. While I don't mind the occasional scrap, I could do without some of the nastiness we've seen this first round. It's not good for the game. I'm glad our team and the Senators decided to play a clean, hard checking game. When the Rangers were shorthanded, the penalty killing unit came through with some outstanding work from Callahan and McDonagh. It was a team effort.

There was also four-on-four after Nick Foligno took a selfish penalty to even up a Girardi interference in the middle stanza. All I can say is wow. Those two minutes were crazy. Especially when Jason Spezza wisely out waited McDonagh, who went down before passing up a chance to shoot for Milan Michalek, who was back checked. Spezza is one of the most dangerous players. I'll never know why he didn't take the shot. Same thing for Ruslan Fedotenko, who had a great chance on a two-on-one and tried a foolish pass when he was 10 feet away. At least he's not expected to score. Spezza also took three penalties and has only one assist in the series.

The line centered by Turris with Foligno was the Sens' best. Whether it was Zach Smith or Bobby Butler, they were dominant every shift. Just as effective was unsung Game Two hero Zenon Konopka, who won six of eight draws on a night our team couldn't win one to save their life. Ottawa's 29-15 edge in the faceoff circle gave them puck possession. There can't be a repeat. For us, Boyle's unit stood out and the reformed Callahan, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky line factored in on the lone goal. On a counter, Dubinsky got it started by taking a huge hit to get the puck deep. Callahan then stole the puck from Sergei Gonchar and worked it back to Girardi, who intentionally fired it wide for a favorable carom right to Boyle who cashed his third with 12:25 left. A smart play by Girardi, who leads our team with three assists.

That's all it took. Lundqvist never allowed a desperate Sens' team to find the equalizer. They came hard but time and time again, were sent away in disbelief. Exactly what you want to see from your bread and butter. The kind of goaltending Henrik's given us all season long. I can't say enough about him. He deserves every accolade. The key is playing better in Game Four to take a strangle hold.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Craig Anderson, Ott (22 saves including a few big ones)
2nd Star-Brian Boyle, NYR (scored 3rd of series at 7:35 for GW, team best 5 SOG, 3 hits, 2 blocks in 18:55)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (stopped all 39 shots-4th career playoff shutout)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Devils' stupidity costs them Game 2 in Florida

After a road Game 1 win, the Devils' momentum from being ahead in the series lasted precisely twenty-three seconds last night. That's how long it took for Andy Greene to take a dumb penalty and the Devils' GREAT PENALTY KILL to give up their second power-play goal in the series and go behind when long-time Panther Stephen Weiss scored off a rebound. Ironically, the second period started in a similar fashion after late first-period penalties by Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson on the same shift gave the Panthers a full two-minute five-on-three. And again, they took advantage when Weiss scored off a rebound at 1:12 of the second period.

While the Panthers' power play was cashing in goal after goal, the Devils power play was so clueless in its two chances, you wondered if the improvement they'd shown the last fifty games was all a dream. I'm more used to a bad power play though, the fact that a penalty kill that set a modern regular season record - killing almost 90% of penalties with a ton of shorthanded goals, to now 2-5 (that's a 40% rate) at killing off penalties for the series is mind-boggling. Special teams and a lack of passion in the first forty minutes doomed us to an almost insurmountable 3-0 hole after two, and eventual defeat.

Yes, I figured the Panthers would come out better in this game and probably win. And my pre-series prediction was Devils in six, so I didn't expect it to be a walkover. But I expected us to win in part, because I didn't see us making the mistakes of the past and giving away games, taking teams lightly. The Devils' effort (or lack thereof) in the first forty minutes was mind-boggling. It was so bad, even coach Pete DeBoer - usually known for his patience and understatedness in the postgame - could barely hide his disdain over the first forty minutes. Look no further than mercurial Ilya Kovalchuk for an indication of the lack of effort, as he got beaten to the puck by a 900-year old John Madden and nearly gave up one shorthanded chance, then gave up another shorthanded chance when Marcel Goc juked him out of his skates.

I thought this team was beyond games like this in the playoffs, I really did. After three straight first-round losses followed by the disaster that was last year, the fact that you would even come out lacksadaical in one playoff game is mind-boggling. Last night's game reminded me of Games 4 and 6 in Carolina in 2009, where each time the Devils had a chance to take control of, or win the series and pulled a complete no-show in the first two periods. Clearly the Panthers have proved that the four close regular season games aren't a fluke and that you can't go half-speed to beat them - in a playoff game, much less.

In the first twenty minutes, the two teams combined for just seven shots. Clearly Florida wanted to avoid another first-period meltdown the way they did Friday night. To go from allowing twenty-six shots in the first period to allowing four, well that isn't all just the other team improving. I don't quite know what we were doing or where our head was at with some of these stupid penalties. Not to mention dumb decisions, like in the second period when Anton Volchenkov let Goc dipsy-doo at the side of the net and use him as a screen for a bad goal that somehow trickled through Martin Brodeur at 14:39 of the second, bulging the Panthers' lead to three.

Volchenkov himself is a concern too, he was sat the last game of the season due to the 'flu' but after an eight-day rest, he's only played south of twelve minutes a night in the first two playoff games. This, after some strong late-season play. So clearly something's still not right there, and Volchenkov's injury issue is definitely affecting the PK, among other things. Not to mention the guy who's usually doing the hitting has been getting hit on more than one occasion this series. Don't believe the hit numbers from the Florida rink, the Devils as a team really weren't hitting the first two periods last night.

As a whole, the defense has been a dissapointment so far other than the third period of Game 1...they have let the Panthers' top line keep running riot just like in the regular season, and if you can't stop a one-line team's one line, you're in a world of trouble. With Kris Versteeg scoring in the first game, followed by Weiss's two goals last night, the top line has put up three of the Panthers' five goals in the first two games - granted, all have been on the power play but hey, we're supposed to have a great PK, right?

There's a reason I've waited this long before even mentioning the third only served to annoy me more about the first two. Amazingly, Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac wiped out almost all of the three-goal deficit inside of two minutes, with Zajac scoring after 48 seconds and Kovy scoring 2:01 into the third period. And Panther coach Kevin Dineen had already used his timeout, arrogantly calling one at 2-0 after the Panthers had a couple of subpar shifts in the second. Despite constant pressure with twelve shots in the third period though, the tying goal remained just out of reach the rest of the night. Whether it was Kovy putting a rebound just wide of an open-net or Zach Parise missing in close time and again, the final twenty minutes just added more frustration on an already annoying night.

The Puck Stops Here


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