Sunday, May 07, 2006

One Wild Weekend In The NHL

Everyone predicted that the series between the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators would be a high-scoring affair, and Game 1 in that series certainly delivered. The Sabres won a 7-6 overtime thriller that literally left everyone on the edge of their seats and Ottawa fans stunned. The Senators were up 6-5 with 10.7 seconds left before Buffalo’s Tim Connolly roofed a puck past goaltender Ray Emery’s paddle to send the game into overtime, where Chris Drury scored to end the game 18 seconds in. Ottawa only had one deficit the entire game beforehand- 1-0 after Mike Grier opened the scoring for Buffalo 35 seconds in- and was expectedly shell-shocked.

However, there was a lot about the game that hasn’t been reported, especially for those watching on The Sports Network (TSN) whose recaps have been slanted heavily in Ottawa’s favour (the Toronto Star’s reports have been more bipartisan). The biggest aspect about the game was really an inability by either team to really go for the jugular- except maybe on Drury’s winner- with Ottawa sitting on their one-goal leads and Buffalo sitting on their tying goals. A lot has been made about how Ottawa blew five leads in the game- 2-1, 3-2, 4-3, 5-4 and 6-5- but no one seems to be mentioning that Buffalo’s 2-2 tying goal from Teppo Numminem came shortly after the four-minute mark of the first period- a tie that Ottawa carried into the first minute of the second period- and it was 5-4 for Ottawa until around the 18:30 mark of the third period, this after getting the lead 16 seconds into the third period from Mike Fisher. It wasn’t from a lack of trying- there were plenty of chances for both sides in between goals- but it seemed every time one of them scored a goal they tried to sit for a bit and wait for their next chance. Perhaps such moves were understandable- one blink and the other side would have been down two or more goals in a hurry- but it’s apparent to me that whomever does decide to try to push will be the team who wins the game. Both have proven they’re capable of answering the other’s goals- now it’s a matter who’ll flinch next. Ottawa did so in Game 1, which may not have ended so quickly had Anton Volchenkov not given Grier a gift by fanning on a pass because both teams were moving pretty slowly to start. For their part, Buffalo’s defence did an outstanding job of ensuring Ottawa didn’t run away with it even though it was far from their best game, as Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller wound up with 27 saves to Emery’s paltry 16, while Ottawa showed their offensive prowess wasn’t a fluke against the Tampa Bay Lightning. What will be the clincher in this series will be who has better wits, something which, if you’re a Senators fan makes you very scary. Buffalo has shown they can overcome adversity and win a big game, coming back from two gut-wrenching losses to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, but Ottawa- who keep fielding superb regular season sides that can never go far in the playoffs- had a relatively easy time of it against the Lightning and are now facing their first real test. Don Cherry said it best- “now we’ll what kind of heart Ottawa has”. They better show it, otherwise, it’s yet another early trip to the golf course.

Speaking of teams facing their first test of the post-season, we now come to the New Jersey Devils. To paraphrase TSN’s James Duthie (who was speaking of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ surprising 2003 first-round sweep of the Detroit Red Wings), everyone thought that Game 1 might have ended 6-0, but nobody would have thought it would have gone to Cam Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes. The way the Hurricanes just dominated New Jersey was astounding, as they poured on shot after shot on New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur that left the Devils’ defence gasping for air. For his part, Brodeur played solidly- four of the Hurricanes’ goals came off either a bad bounce off his pads or a defenceman’s stick, and the other two- Eric Staal’s blast from the point and Cory Stillman’s tap-in off a rebound to Brodeur’s glove side- were the result of Carolina’s relentless pressure. Brodeur couldn’t really be faulted for any of the goals, as he ended with 29 saves. Instead, the real blame can be placed on the Devils’ lackadaisical defence, which did nothing as Carolina came in with rush after rush, as well as an offence that bordered on the pathetic. Ward did have to make a few highlight-reel stops, but he was rarely tested by the Devils, who now trail a series for the first time this season and lost for the first time since March 26 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps the Devils got ahead of themselves and will bounce back, but equally possible is that New Jersey could flame out right here against Carolina. New Jersey showed their mettle in sweeping the New York Rangers, but the Rangers were cream puffs in comparison to the Hurricanes. I said that this series would be New Jersey’s first real test and I was right. Now they need to show if they can bounce back or else, like the Senators, it’ll be another early exit to the golf course.

The Colorado Avalanche looked headed to the golf course after posting 5-0 and 3-0 losses to the Ducks in Games 1 and 2 of their second round series. Anaheim is manhandling a Colorado team that is simply outmatched, turning the series into a laugher that no one might have seen after Colorado showed their heart in defeating the Dallas Stars. Then again, Colorado won three of their games against Dallas in overtime and were not as dominant as it seemed, and they’re being exposed against an Anaheim team whose passing game is deadly. This may be a team that has what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, because they’re that dominant, but I still have doubts. The Sabres, Sens, and ’Canes have the offensive weapons no one in the West has and will be a true test of Anaheim’s defence, and the Devils are just as good defensively as the Ducks are. I won’t be believing until I see Anaheim hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Last, but not least, is the Edmonton Oilers and the San Jose Sharks Game 1. The Sharks won 2-1 on a defensive stare-down that was a traditionalist’s dream but a fan’s nightmare. Neither team really did press, except for the Oilers in the final minutes, making a game that was arguably the worst so far in the second round. San Jose came out hitting against Edmonton and simply wore them down, but their inability to put away Edmonton may come back to haunt them. On the plus side for the Sharks is that they were able to overcome an early 1-0 Edmonton lead, but on the negative side, the Oilers were impressive in keeping the game at 2-1 and for being able to finally break the Sharks’ shell, even if it was too little too late. This could be a sleeper, but it could also be a short series- the first three games come in four nights and thus we may see a 3-0 Sharks lead by the end of it, because the Sharks are better rested. Edmonton can use this game to their advantage and bounce right back- since it keeps them focused- but if San Jose’s hitting wore them down too much, the Oilers could be in for a long series.

That’s the weekend. Hopefully the rest of the week will be just as exciting.


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