The first night of the NHL playoffs on Wednesday saw the two betting line favorites to reach the Finals lose on their home ice. The second night saw three of four games go to overtime, with two underdogs getting wins. As I texted to a friend late last night—the NHL playoffs are what the Almighty put in place to give his creatures heart failure every spring. TheSportsNotebook takes a look back on Thursday night and a look ahead to Friday’s four games…
San Jose 3 St. Louis 2 (2OT): St. Louis’ goalie Brian Elliot must be hurt worse than the injury reports are letting on, because there would have been no other reason to put Jaroslav Halak between the pipes last night. Halak is good, and he played well last night, stopping 31 of 34 shots. But Elliot is great, and gives St. Louis the best chance of winning games like this. Think of it this way—Halak is the hockey equivalent of Cardinal pitcher Jaime Garcia. Elliot is Chris Carpenter. The former might look like he has better stuff, and is a credit to your team, but the latter is who you want when your life is on the line. When St. Louis held a 2-1 lead with under seven minutes left, I figured it was over—or at the very least, if it wasn’t, the Blues had problems, because this is the kind of grinding game they have to win. Patrick Berglung had come up big with a pair of goals early in the final period, the Blues hit San Jose goalie Antti Niemi with 42 shots, and still lost.
Phoenix 3 Chicago 2 (OT): This game went more or less as drawn up on the chalkboard. Chicago, with a vastly superior group of forwards and defenseman pounded Phoenix goalie Mike Smith with pucks, 45 shots in all. They had an early 1-0 lead. But the Coyotes kept the game ugly, picked up a pair of themselves and were set to close it out. Then Jonathan Toews, the center back from a concussion who already scored the first goal, fed Brent Seabrook for the tying goal with 15 seconds left. Phoenix didn’t despair, and got the game-winner in overtime. In spite of the late goal, Smith’s performance was phenomenal again, while counterpart Corey Crawford showed that he’s not quite good enough to win a battle like this.
Boston 1 Washington 0 (OT): This was the game that nearly gave me a stroke, and without NBCSN on the cable package I wasn’t even watching live (I was tuned in to a mix of St. Louis-San Jose, plus a checkdown on a CBS rerun of Person Of Interest, the #1 seed in my TV show bracket). The Bruins had three power play chances in the second period, but did not cash in. This isn’t surprising, as the power play is not a B’s strength. Defense is, and Washington learned that having Alex Ovechkin isn’t of much value if you can’t get him a shot on goal. Or at least more than the one he had last night. Washington mustered only 17 shots, and finally lost in overtime when Boston’s Chris Kelly ripped a shot over the left shoulder of young Braden Holtby. It looked like a save Holtby might have been able to make, but in fairness that shot was a rifle and put in the corner of the goal. And in further fairness Holtby played a great game, with 29 saves and showing why Washignton was better off gambling with a kid than going with the certain mediocrity of Tomas Vokoun.
NY Rangers 4 Ottawa 2: The night’s clunker came from Madison Square Garden and not just because it actually ended after 60 minutes. The score makes the game sound close, as Ottawa scored two meaningless goals in the last ten minutes of the game. Anterm Anisov had assists on the first two for New York, feeding well-known teammates in Ryan Callahan and Marian Gaborik. Later on Brian Boyle scored—I have to jump in here that last night must have been a beleated St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish in the NHL—Callahan and Boyle with big goals here, and Kelly ripping the game-winner in Boston and surely sending Southie into celebration. At MSG, the difference was Henrik Lunqvist. Ottawa got their shots—31 in all, only one fewer than New York, but there was no beating Lundqvist, at least while the game was still in doubt.
FOUR MORE ON FRIDAY
One more series has to get its first game in and that’s New Jersey-Florida, where the puck will drop from South Beach, an area that could use some good sports news with the Heat reeling and the Marlins slow out of the gate and the Dolphins…well, never mind. Philadelphia is at Pittsburgh for Game 2, and the Penguins needing Evgeni Malkin to step it up and join Sidney Crosby as an offensive threat.
The Western Conference games are Detroit-Nasvhille and Los Angeles-Vancouver, and a complete inconsistency in NHL law enforcement is on display here. Nashville’s Shea Weber and Vancouver’s Byron Bitz both put on vicioius cheap hits, slamming players’ heads into the walls in Wednesday’s Game 1s. And if you haven’t watched a lot of hockey, no this is not acceptable. Bitz was suspended for two games. Weber got a $2,500 fine. It’s easy to say Vancouver fans should be riled up, but really it’s the Detroit fans that should be. Both players should have been suspended. The bad blood in this series is officially more interesting now than the Pittsburgh-Philly battle.