Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What A Finish

Two Game 6’s, two series over, one game that was down to the wire and one that wasn’t even close. The National Hockey League Playoffs have delivered on the hype surrounding the first round of the playoffs, with eight truly magnificent series that produced some of the greatest hockey we’ve seen in years.

To recap: in Montreal, the Carolina Hurricanes received great goaltending from Cam Ward to finish off the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in overtime off Cory Stillman’s shot from the blueline at 1:19 of the extra frame; while in Philadelphia the Buffalo Sabres skated around the Philadelphia Flyers as if they were pylons en route to a 7-1 shellacking that few thought could happen to such a talented Flyers team. The results mean that Buffalo and Carolina advance to the second round of the playoffs to face off against the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils respectively.

Personally, I don’t know what to make of tonight’s action. I thought the Sabres- my favourite team- were in tough on the road against Philadelphia, since they’d failed to bring their dominant style of play on the road with them in Games 3 and 4, but, considering Buffalo scored first in every game of the series and looked so good in the dominant 3-0 win in Game 5, I knew this series would probably go to Buffalo- it would be just a matter of when. I didn’t expect a 7-1 win in Game 6. How the Flyers utterly collapsed in what was supposed to be their most important game of the season is beyond comprehension, especially considering that they might be extra motivated to not be blown out tonight after the Sabres blew them out 8-0 in Game 6 of their first round series back in 2001. Still, there was little question in my mind that Philadelphia was outclassed here- in Game 2, Buffalo hammered Philadelphia 8-2 after eking out a 3-2 win in double overtime in Game 1, while in Games 3 and 4, despite the fact the Sabres lost, the Flyers really won because of circumstance. As stated before, Buffalo opened the scoring in both games there (including a 2-0 lead in Game 4), and kept both games close, with the Flyers barely beating them. The TSN analysts were surprised that the series went to six because it really was ugly for the Flyers, and I agree- the Sabres’ speedy attack, led by the likes of Jean-Pierre Dumont and Daniel Briere, as well as the stellar play of goaltender Ryan Miller and the underrated Buffalo defence led by Brian Campbell, was simply too much for the Flyers. Perhaps the only reason why Philadelphia even had a chance was Peter Forsberg, arguably the best player in the NHL. Of course, there’s only so much one guy can do, and without backup help from the likes of Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble- who are both supposed to step up- the Flyers were done. I just didn’t think they’d give up this easily.

As for Montreal-Carolina, everyone knew it would be a goaltending duel, but nobody could have guessed how it would end. 1:19 into the extra session, Cory Stillman takes what looks to be a harmless- but hard- slapshot from the point that somehow beats Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet. On its own, the soft goal would send shockwaves, but in a series known for stellar goaltending, Huet’s gaffe stood out even more. Now, while Huet should have had that puck, I’m not going to fault Huet for Montreal’s failure to win this series after leading it 2-0- the real reason for Montreal’s failure was a failure to execute up front. Part of the reason was stellar goaltending from Cam Ward, but part of this was how Michael Ryder, Alexei Kovalev, Mike Ribeiro et all couldn’t find the back of the net. Many will point out that Ward allowed only five goals in the last four games of the series, but few will remember that Ward also allowed three goals in the last four periods of Game 2, including the overtime winner. Sure, you can say that Saku Koivu’s absence changed the series, but the Canadiens are not a one-man team- the rest of the team should have stepped up. They didn’t and now they’re out.

Am I disappointed? Maybe- I would have liked to see a Montreal-Ottawa second round so that my beloved Sabres would avoid the Senators, but then again the other option was the New Jersey Devils, so it’s pick your poison. Instead, it’ll be the Senators with a chance to exorcise old demons, as it was the Sabres who famously handed Ottawa a first round sweep in 1999 en route to a visit to the Stanley Cup Final, while the heavily favoured Sens had to stew a long off-season wondering what could have been. It’ll be a fun series nonetheless.

Out West, there’s only one game left- Calgary and Anaheim. How the Anaheim Mighty Ducks managed to force Game 7 is beyond me- the Calgary Flames are simply better in every way. Okay, okay- the Ducks are a better puck possession team, but that’s all I’ll give them. The Flames are better defensively, they’re better offensively, they’re better in goal, and they’re better on the special teams- heck, they’re even better in the concession stands. Really, anything short of a Calgary win is unacceptable. I know, it’s harsh, but the Flames seem to be taking it too easily. Now’s the time for Jarome Iginla and company to show that 2004 wasn’t a fluke.

Regardless, it’ll be a wild night in Calgary. You live for Game 7- and now we’ll see it. Hopefully, Calgary will win and set up a Calgary-Edmonton second round, but even if the Ducks win it’ll mean the top four seeds in the West all fell. The NHL wanted parity? It got it- and how.



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