It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

One of many great things about the Stanley Cup playoffs is that you don’t know when you’ll be going to sleep on any given night.

Like Wednesday night, for example.

On opening night of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs, we hockey lovers were treated to a double overtime game and a quadruple overtime contest. You could have settled in at 7 p.m. for puck drop in the Pens-Sens game, and stayed glued to the action until the Sedin twins finally combined to conclude the evening’s theater at 3:30. Eight and a half hours of drama.

And we’ve got four more games on Thursday night.

I didn’t see every minute of every game (didn’t even get home until after nine p.m.), but I saw more than a few minutes of all four. Naturally, the two overtime tilts drew my attention and thus, most of my viewing time.

Baseball was all over the radio dial as I drove home last night, but there was no hockey to be found for the XM-less vehicle. Only by placing a phone call to a co-worker did I learn that the Pens had dug themselves an early 0-2 hole in their game at Ottawa.

The Sens went on to win handily, but I don’t think Ottawa will have as easy a time with the Pens as it did on Wednesday. The [Marc-Andre] Fleury factor is in full effect and will be interesting to follow. In his first NHL playoff action, Fleury was nicked for six goals on 36 shots.

The Sens probably won’t want to give Pittsburgh 10 power play chances again (including five in the third period).

Interesting that rugged vet Gary Roberts logged 20:16 for the Pens in Game 1. That’s more than any Pittsburgh forward not named Sidney Crosby, and more than Roberts had skated in his 19 regular season games with the Pens. Including the time he spent with the Florida Panthers, Roberts cracked the 20-minute mark on five occasions in his 69 regular season games.

Ottawa cleaned up in the face-off circle, winning 58% of the draws on the night. Crosby took more than a third (37%) of Pittsburgh’s draws on the night, and he went 19-for-29 (65%). But his teammates combined for a dismal 14-for-50 (28%). This is another factor that bears watching as the series progresses. Ottawa is dangerous enough, but give them the puck six out of 10 times in the circle and the danger is magnified.

Game 2 is a Saturday matinee in Ottawa. Then the teams will travel to Pittsburgh where they’ll play for the second time in as many days on Sunday evening at Mellon Arena.

Nashville’s young defensemen are very good and fairly mature for their experience level. Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter all did multiple things to impress. This game turned midway through the second period when Nashville’s Scott Hartnell took a kneeing major and was ejected from the game. The Preds managed to take another minor within the confines of Hartnell’s major, and the Sharks scored to take a 3-2 lead on the resulting 5-on-3. San Jose built its lead to 4-2 going into the third and appeared to be in control two-thirds of the way through the final frame.

In September, I was asked by a hockey photographer for a prominent sports magazine to pick the best rookie in the league besides Evgeni Malkin. I went with Nashville’s Alexander Radulov. He’s done a lot (18 goals, 37 points) with a little ice time (just 11:38 per night) this season as the fourth RW on the Preds. Radulov is the opposite of Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin in that he is a right wing with a left shot.

With less than seven minutes left in regulation and his team down two, Radulov sparked the Preds. He came down the right wing, spun veteran defender Kyle McLaren around and beat Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov with a pretty roof shot goal. It was Radulov’s second goal of the game. Although he didn’t skate his first shift of the game until midway through the first period, he was noticeable virtually every time he was on the ice. Hartnell’s absence and the double overtime session pushed Radulov to 19:39 in Game 1.

The Preds tied the game in the final minute of regulation, but couldn’t get it done in overtime. Ultimately, all they did was force the Sharks (and themselves) to work an extra 28:14. Patrick Rissmiller ended it with a nice goal off the rush.

Sharks winger Jonathan Cheechoo was on the receiving end of Hartnell’s knee, and his status is unknown for Friday’s Game 2 in Nashville.

Because of the drama and allure of overtime playoff hockey, I did not see very much of the Anaheim-Minnesota game. Teemu Selanne scored a big goal to even a tight-checking game at 1-1 in the second, and Dustin Penner won it late in the third for the Ducks, scoring a garbage goal off the rush, more or less.

The Ducks and Wild will tee it up for Game 2 in Anaheim on Friday night.

The best battle of the evening turned out to be the Stars-Canucks contest. The two defensive-minded teams fought to four 2-1 contests during the regular season, splitting the four games. So naturally, there were nine goals scored in the series opener. But eight of those came in the first 54 minutes. We would endure another 84 minutes of scoreless hockey before the game-winner, with just 1:54 remaining in the fourth overtime.

Like San Jose, Vancouver frittered away a two-goal third period lead. Like the Sharks, the Canucks eventually prevailed. But it took a lot of extra time and work. These two teams were utterly spent when Henrik Sedin scored late in the fourth overtime, mercifully ending the sixth longest game in NHL history (just 1:09 shorter than Game 4 of the Caps-Pens opening round series in 1996).

There was a lot to chew on in this one.

Dallas is now 1-8 in its last nine playoff overtime games. Stars goaltender Marty Turco is now 0-5 all time in Game 1 of the playoffs.

Vancouver lost pluggers Matt Cooke and Alex Burrows to injury, leaving it with a shorter bench and a decided disadvantage with very passing minute.

The Canucks were hanging on for dear life for the last several minutes of regulation, and again on a few occasions in overtime. Dallas launched a modern-day NHL record 76 shots on goal. In the three-period span from the beginning of the third period to the end of the second overtime. Dallas outshot the Canucks 34-13. The Canucks managed to kill off a rare two-man disadvantage in the second overtime. The 5-on-3 lasted for 39 seconds.

Making his first-ever playoff appearance, Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo got a baptism by fire. He made 72 saves on 76 shots. It must have felt like Florida to him.

Luongo joins John Garrett (both are 1-0) as the only Canucks goaltenders to have winning records in the playoffs. Seven of Vancouver’s 18 playoff netminders never won a game.

Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa (a guy I really like) took three minor penalties in the first period and another in the second overtime.

Dallas defenseman Sergei Zubov led all skaters with 55:08 in ice time. The Canucks’ Daniel Sedin had 10 shots on goal. Vancouver’s Jeff Cowan had nine hits, and he got his money’s worth on each and every one.

Hockey fans and executives have been making a lot of noise this season about changing the schedule so teams would play every team every season and fans would get a chance to see players visit every city. The names of players such as Ovechkin and Crosby are invariably invoked to support these scheduling pleas, but the Sedins need to be seen up close to be truly appreciated as well.

During the Capitals’ western trip last October, the one thing I saw in the four games that struck me the most was the utter size, strength and dominance of the Sedin twins down low in the offensive zone. It’s stunning to watch, and it was frequently on display during the 78 minutes of overtime in Wednesday night’s Game 1. Anyone who had been watching that game for any length of time would have predicted that the Sedins would eventually be involved in the game-winner.

I found myself in eager anticipation of the Sedins’ next shift, and Taylor Pyatt had a strong game as the third member of that line. Cowan and Ryan Kesler were continually energetic and involved all night, and their time on the ice was always something to savor, too.

Stu Barnes and Ladislav Nagy of the Stars were also impressive, and they seemed the likeliest heroes if Dallas were to win it. The Stars get a chance to draw even on Friday in Vancouver when Game 2 takes place.

The television coverage on Versus was solid all night, in the booth and in the studio. It’s always good to hear consummate pro Joe Beninati, and Dave Strader is much better on Versus than he is as the Florida play-by-play guy. Andy Brickley is a terrific analyst, and John Vanbiesbrouck grows on you. Vanbiesbrouck deserves kudos for “keeping things fresh” over what amounted to two-plus games.

We’ve got four early games tonight, so it’s going to be much tougher to keep tabs. I plan on starting with Calgary-Detroit and playing it by ear.

Have fun, drink plenty of fluids and be sure to get those naps in during the middle of the day. You never know how late it will be when you finally get off the couch.

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