It’s a night off in the NBA playoffs tonight, as Memphis-San Antonio resume their Western Conference Finals matchup on Tuesday, and Miami-Indiana don’t start in the East until Wednesday. That allows the NHL to be the focal point of the daily sports menu on Monday.
The Chicago-Detroit series goes to Motown with the series tied 1-1 and the folks in the Windy City undoubtedly feeling a bit nervous—they are the heavy favorite, but Detroit’s a got a history and it’s not one that makes Chicago fans comfortable. Game time is 7:30 PM ET on the NBC Sports Network.
ESPN has Monday Night baseball and a key series starts in the AL East, with the New York Yankees in Baltimore to play the Orioles. The Birds are slumping, having lost three straight to Tampa at home over the weekend and need to plant their feet and win this series at home. Baltimore has even picked up veteran Freddy Garcia to help their rotation and he’ll pitch tonight against C.C. Sabathia. The game starts at 7 PM ET.
Two other series openers to keep an eye on would be Oakland-Texas and Washington-San Francisco. The A’s have to prevent the Rangers from running away and hiding from the rest of the AL West, and the Nats-Giants series is a possible NLCS preview between two teams with great pitching. On a completely off-the-wall note is it possible that these two cities could have their teams meet in both the NLCS and the NFC Championship Game?
Which provides a segueway into football and a fun historical feature tonight on the NFL Network. The epic 1981 NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys—where Joe Montana started to write the NFL version of his legend—will be shown at 8 PM ET. And on ESPN2, a 30-for-30 feature will look at the 2004 ALCS and the Boston Red Sox historic comeback against the New York Yankees.
TheSportsNotebook will have NHL analysis later this morning, as we overview all four second-round series. Also be sure and check the conference finals previewsthat were the NBA commentary here yesterday, and take a look at MLB coverage, something that we’ll give a double dose to this week, with All-Star ballots being added to the normal team features run here.
If the NHL’s Western Conference got its playoff semi-finals set in short order, the East is going to the max. Three of the four series will go to a Game 7 over the next two nights, the last of which was ensured when New Jersey beat Florida 3-2 in overtime to ensure this series takes its talent to South Beach one last time.
The Devils did everything they needed to do to win a hockey game. Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise each got involved in the offense, and the duo combined for nine shots. Kovalchuk scored off a power play early in the second period to give New Jersey a 2-0 lead. The team defense was in lockdown mode, limiting Florida to 16 shots. The importance of this can’t be overestimated. Goalie Martin Brodeur can’t put a team on his back at this late stage of his career, and in fact demonstrated that yesterday in allowing a pair of second-period goals, including one by Kris Versteeg that tied the game. New Jersey not only limited Brodeur’s exposure in terms of volume, but they played clean defense and Florida only got one power play chance.
It was all too much for a great effort by Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen, in for the injured Jose Theodore, to overcome. Nearly six minutes into the overtime session, Travis Zajac scored the game-winner on the Devils’ 39th shot of the night.
DO-OR-DIE STARTS TONIGHT
We’ve now got Washington-Boston, Ottawa-NY Rangers, and New Jersey-Florida set for Game 7 action. Tonight it’s the Capitals-Bruins in the Garden. The play of the goalies is still the overriding theme of this series, but in Game 5 the Caps were able to solve Boston veteran Tim Thomas, while the B’s finally got to young Braden Holtby in Game 6. Keys to watch tonight are the involvement of Alex Ovechkin in the Washington offense. Even when Ovechkin doesn’t score, his getting shots mean good things follow for Washington. The Bruins need to stay out of the power play—of course I mean allowing the Caps to play with a man advantage, but as lousy as their own 5-on-4 attack has been, it might as well go both ways. Boston is at its best in straight 5-on-5 play.
The Detroit Red Wings had the history, the heritage and the record home-ice winning streak this season behind them as they came into the playoffs. But they also had TheSportsNotebook’s endorsement to win the Stanley Cup, and that’s too much to overcome. Oh, and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, and the defense in front of him led by Shea Weber had a little something to do with the Predators ouster of Detroit last night in a 2-1 final that ended the series four games to open.
Game 5 was like every other game this series. It seemed as though it could go either way, but Detroit head coach Mike Babcock was having none of that talk afterward—“”When you lose 4-1 in a series, you can talk about all of the games being a one-goal game,” Babcock said. “To me that’s not close, 4-1 is not close.”
It’s a harsh reality, but Babcock is right. Individually, the games seemed to be decided by the flip of a coin. But when the same team gets the coin flip each time, you have to assume there are steady, consistent edges that the winner is exploiting. The most obvious in this series was Rinne was better than Detroit counterpart Jimmy Howard and while both were good on Friday night, Rinne was again a bit better. A more subtle edge can be in the quality of shots each team gets. Nashville had a 25-22 margin in shots on goal. But if we dig a little deeper, we see that the Red Wings had more shots coming from their defensemen. If you focus just on shots from the frontline, the Preds edge widens to 19-14. This is not something that’s enormous, but is an edge and enough to squeak out a tight win a low-scoring playoff game. Nashville center David Legwand got an early assist to set the tone and a third-period goal to break the 1-1 tie.
Pittsburgh 3 Philadelphia 2: Friday’s other game saw Pittsburgh do what Detroit could not, and that’s survive to a Game 6. The Pens and Flyers finally discovered something resembling defense, at least in the third period when no goals were scored. They traded power play goals midway through the first period and the Flyers then took the lead when Danny Briere—dominant in this series, and Claude Giroux fed Scott Hartnell for a 2-1 lead at the first intermission.
Then it was Jordan Staal’s time. On a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal it’s tough to get noticed, but Staal is delivering in this series. After a hat trick in Game 4, he came back with the tying goal in the second period here on a feed from Tyler Kennedy. The Staal-Kennedy ticket then reversed itself, as the former fed the latter for the goal that proved to be the game-winner. Philly played good team defense, limiting Pittsburgh to 23 shots, but Flyer goalie Ilya Bryzgalov played his fifth straight poor game in still allowing three goals against such a minimal attack. Get Bryzgalov out of there. I don’t know who can replace him—heck, call up Ryan Howard and tell the big Phillie first baseman, recuperating from an Achillies injury to just stand in the net. His frame alone would block more shots than what Bryzgalov has done in this series.
THE MAGIC NUMBER 5: FIVE GAME 5’s ON SAUTRDAY
Three series in the Eastern Conference are knotted 2-2 and face their pivotal fifth games today.
*Ottawa-NY Rangers—It’s hard to believe this series is getting so little attention nationally, given that New York has a #1 seed, a goalie who has a bit of an A-Rod reputation for coming up short in the postseason, and now the Senators, unquestionably the worst team in the entire postseason are just a 2-of-3 away from pulling an upset.
*New Jersey-Florida—The Devils played the best overall game of this series in their 4-0 win in Game 4. If they give the kind of team defensive effort again, they’ll win here and close out the series up north for Game 6. But those defensive lapses early on, especially in a Game 3 loss, have reduced this to a two-of-three where the Panthers have two home games. If New Jersey doesn’t advance, it’s because they lost the series early rather than late.
*Boston-Washington–Boston returns home hoping to solve Washington goalie Braden Holtby. The Bruins are getting the raw shot volume, they are getting good play defensively as a team, and solid work from veteran goalie Tim Thomas. But the 22-year-old Holtby is in another world right now. The plus side for the B’s? If they can squeak out two goals, play good defense and keep Alex Ovechkin off the puck, they likely win.
Two Game 5s in the West, but here each one has a team looking to join Nashville in the second round…
*San Jose-St. Louis—I don’t see a lot of reason to think San Jose will win on the road. Since a solid Game 1 showing, the Blues have been quietly in control for three straight games. About all you can say is that because St. Louis is not dominant offensively, the Sharks could sneak in a lucky goal and send the series back west. Yeah, it’s possible, but would you really bet on it?
*Chicago-Phoenix—The Coyotes played their best team game of the series in a Game 4 win, the second of two OT victories in the Windy City that have put them on the brink of advancement. The rule for going against ‘Yotes goalie Mike Smith is clear—if you don’t win shots by about 45-30, you’re going to lose. The Blackhawks have the talent to do it, and they need a complete blitzkrieg of the goal out in the desert.