The nation’s two biggest cities had reason to be happy in hockey yesterday, as the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, coming from opposite ends of the playoff bracket, as well as the national topography, each posted 3-1 wins to open their respective conference semi-finals. TheSportsNotebook recaps both games and looks ahead to Sunday’s playoff doubleheader…
NY Rangers 3 Washington 1: The defenses were in lockdown mode on both sides here. Alex Ovechkin might as well have stayed in D.C. and gone to a Robert Griffin III draft party for all the impact he made on this game, and gone to an RG3 draft party. The Caps got only 18 shots on New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist and when you have that little offensive activity, you’re lucky to score once.
What’s frustrating for Washington is that their own defense answered the bell. They allowed only 14 shots, and four of them came from defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who is the type of player the Caps would prefer launching the puck. But Braden Holtby let three in the net, including two in a 90-second timespan in the third period that decided the game. The 22-year-old goalie was so dominant in the first round over Boston, that in a discussion yesterday with a friend who’s a Caps/Redskins fan, I asked where he thought Holtby ranked along with RG3 and Stephen Strasburg in the pantheon of Beltway athletic stars in the early twenties. We reached the conclusion that Holtby was on a temporary high where he could challenge Strasburgh for the two-spot in that pecking order (NFL quarterbacks by definition have to be #1 in today’s sports culture), but that the goalie could lose his status by Friday if he cools off. Game 1 met that cooling-off criteria.
Chris Kreider was the offensive hero for New York, scoring the third period go-ahead goal and then having the lead assist (in hockey, up to two players can be credited with an assist) on the clincher. The Rangers also have to be pleased about the work they got from their centers, with Derek Stepan being involved on the assist to Kreider, and then Brad Richards being the one who scored the third goal.
Los Angeles 3 St. Louis 1: Both goalies were tough yesterday, as St. Louis’ Brian Elliot and LA’s Jonathan Quick went at each other in a pitcher’s duel that would have made Chris Carpenter and Clayton Kershaw proud. The Blues scored early on a goal from David Backes, but it was tied by the end of the first period, and then the Kings got a shorthanded score in the second period. Dustin Brown, whose scoring outburst stunned Vancouver in the opening round, got an assist on this goal.
The game stayed scoreless until the final fifteen seconds when Los Angeles tacked one on in an empty net situation. The defenses for both teams were decent, allowing a manageable 29 shots on goal. Elliot was good, with his 26 saves adding up to a 92.9% save rate, which would be among the league’s best. T Quick did what NHL goalies have to do at this time of year and that’s lift his game to another level, and his 96% save rate did that.
The New Jersey-Philadelphia series will be the last of the conference semifinals to open today, and you can read TheSportsNotebook’s series preview here. We also have Game 2 of Nashville-Phoenix from the desert, with the Coyotes looking to win their second straight. Throughout Phoenix’s series with Chicago in the first round I talked about how the Blackhawks needed to double up on the Coyotes in shots to make up for a goaltending mismatch. In Nashville’s case, they need to bring a defensive performance that makes scoring virtually impossible. Pekka Rinne in goal will play better than he did in Game 1 and Phoenix’s mediocre offensive talent can be locked down by defenseman Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. If the Rangers and Capitals could hold each other under 20 shots, than Nashville can do it to Phoenix. I want to see the Predators make that happen and then somehow sneak out a goal against Coyote goaltender Mike Smith to win it.