Friday, April 16, 2010

The Slimmest of Margins

In any sport, you can't win by less than one. It's impossible. And one-goal, one-point, one-run games are the most exciting, most intense, most magnified games on every level, especially in the playoffs. It's every fan's dream to watch the tension of a game decided by one with everything on the line. Every play matters, every move, every mistake, everything gets magnified. The difference between a win and loss can be something as little as a bad bounce or misfired pass. You can't beat the excitement of a game decided by a single score.

By that logic, you simply cannot beat the first two days of the NHL playoffs. It's impossible. Every single game thus far, all seven of them, has been decided by a single goal. That's right, every single game has come down to the final seconds or gone into overtime, upping the ante of excitement.

On Wednesday, it was the night of the upset. Not only did the 7th-seeded Flyers defeat the 2nd-seeded Devils 2-1, but the (5) Senators beat the (4) Penguins 5-4 and the (8) Avalanche defeated the (1) Sharks 2-1. Only the 4th-seeded Coyotes were able to take care of business on home ice, defeating the 5th-seeded Red Wings 3-2. You can't beat excitement like that.

The Senators simply outplayed the defending Stanley Cup champs, outshooting them 26-21, as Brian Elliott made the stomps he needed to make while Marc-Andre Fleury looked shaky at best. Detroit severely outplayed Phoenix in the first two periods, outshooting the Coyotes 30-15, but still found themselves tied 2-2 after two. That's when the Coyotes struck, dominating the third to the tune of a 20-10 advantage in shots, with Derek Morris netting the game-winner early on and the defense taking care of the rest. And the Avalanche had the most exciting finish of the night, with Chris Stewart unlocking a 1-1 tie with just 50 seconds remaining to put the perennial playoff underachievers, the Sharks, on the ropes yet again.

Of course, the game I was most interested in was the Flyers-Devils match-up. For all the struggles the Flyers went through this season — the slow start, the injuries, the coaching change, the late-season slump — it was clear they ended up with the best possible match-up in the first round. As odd that sounds, it's true. The Flyers had no hopes of taking on Ottawa, Pittsburgh owns them, the Caps can score at will and the Sabres have an absolutely ridiculous goaltender playing at the top of his game. Meanwhile, the Flyers defeated the Devils five out of six times this season, and Martin Brodeur hasn't looked like himself against the Orange and Black. The Flyers really couldn't have asked for anything more given how things played out.

And wouldn't you know it, the Flyers come out and take game one behind goals by their Canadian Olympians, Mike Richards and Chris Pronger, Brodeur's teammates in Vancouver, and some stellar play from Brian Boucher.

Being stuck at my softball game, we listened on the radio on the opposition's bench as the teams played to a 0-0 tie in the first. Then when the game was over, we turned up my car radio full blast, drank some beers and listened as Richards scored on what Tim Saunders described as a beautiful play by Ian Laperriere, putting the Flyers up 2-0 after Pronger had scored earlier on the power play.

I got back to my house and watched the third period, and immediately the Devils were all over the Flyers. The entire game was being played in Philadelphia's zone, and Jersey started to fire pucks at Boosh. But the guy wouldn't budge. Sure, when he gave up one to Travis Zajac that somehow got between his glove and his pad thanks to a tremendous screen by Zach Parise, it was cause for concern. There were still over 2 and a half minutes remaining, the Devils had gotten all of the pressure and the Flyers were struggling to do anything in the offensive zone. But it just didn't matter. Boucher was tremendous, stopping 23 of the 24 shots he faced, outdueling Brodeur big time, who let two slip by him despite just 14 pucks fired his way.

The biggest question mark for the Flyers heading into the playoffs turned out to be the biggest answer and biggest reason that they won. It was widely believed that Brian Boucher wasn't going to steal any games for his team, while Brodeur has made a history of doing just that. But on Wednesday, it was Boosh that stole the show, won the game for the Flyers. Don't look now, but in his last six starts, Brian Boucher has a 1.67 goals against average and .935 save percentage. It's beginning to look a lot like 2000. Hopefully Boucher plays the same as he did 10 years ago, but the outcome is different.

On a night where the Devils looked like the better team, outshooting Philadelphia 24-14 and controlling the play late (the Flyers only mustered a measly two shots in the third period), it was the Flyers who won, thanks in large part to their special teams. Pronger capitalized on the power play for the series' first goal, and the penalty kill unit took it from there. The Devils went 0-for-4 on the man advantage, including two huge kills in the third period by the determined Flyers. It wasn't pretty, but it sure as shit was effective. And if the Flyers can manage another victory tonight, they come back home to a raucous crowd with a 2-0 series lead. At worst, they'll still be coming home to a raucous crowd having stolen home ice advantage.

As well and good as Wednesday was, you'd think it would be impossible to top last night. But the games on Thursday's slate were arguably even better. Again, all three games were decided by just one goal, but this time, two of them went to overtime.

Buffalo opened the night by defeating Boston 2-1, taking care of their division rival. Then, the Canadiens went into the nation's capital and did this:

When Tomas Plekanec ripped that shot in overtime, I watched in amazement. Amazed by his ludicrous shot. Amazed by the upset. Amazed by Jaroslav Halak's 45 saves. Amazed by the fact that Alexander Ovechkin didn't register a single shot on net. Sure Halak was great, Cammalleri and Gomez scored, Gionta and Kostitsyn looked good, but the biggest reason the Canadiens won was because of the defense on Ovechkin. We're talking about a guy who has led the NHL in shots each and every year since he's entered the league, and doing so by a wide margin before this season. And the only reason he led second-place Zach Parise by just 21 shots this year is because he missed significant time due to injury.

This guy scores so many damn goals in part because of his insane frequency of shots. No one gets off a more accurate, more potent shot as quickly or as often as Alexander Ovechkin. Yet he couldn't register a single one last night. Incredible. If the Canadiens can somehow manage to keep him from hitting the net like that the next few games (highly unlikely), they just may be able to pull off this upset. However, I'd bet my house — you know, if I actually owned a house — that Ovie bombards Halak with rubber tomorrow night. Just a guess.

As if that wasn't enough, LA and Vancouver followed up with another overtime contest, this one ending with the Canucks on top 3-2 on Mikael Samuelsson's game-winning goal.

It was a game Vancouver certainly deserved to win, outshooting the young Kings 17-6 in the first period and 44-27 in the game, but it was a loss Jonathan Quick didn't deserve. The Los Angeles netminder was superb, stopping 41 Canucks shots, but it wasn't enough.

I watched a little more than a period of this one before my old age caught up to me and I fell asleep, but it was awesome while my eyes were open. And from the looks of things, it was awesome the whole way through. Just like the other six games thus far. I can't wait to see what else is in store.

If you don't like hockey and aren't watching the NHL playoffs, you deserve every bad thing that happens to you in life.

BallHype: hype it up!

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