Last night was dubbed "Elimination Thursday" by many, as three teams--Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Dallas--all were teetering on the brink of extinction in the opening round of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was the first real critical night of this postseason, and after another evening of intense, exciting playoff action the Penguins and Wild are booking tee times today, while the Stars survived an overtime thriller to play another day!
Ottawa was very impressive in it's 3-0 Game 5 clincher over Pittsburgh last night at Scotiabank Place. The Sens survived early penalty problems, and then exploded for three second period goals to take control. With much to prove after several past playoff failures, I think Ottawa served notice in this series that it could be a force in the East. The Senators have so much skill and depth offensively, and throughout the series they also displayed the type of strong physical and defensive play necessary for playoff success, something which they lacked all too often in past postseasons. After losing Game 2 of the series on home ice, the Sens showed a lot of character in sweeping Game's 3 & 4 in Pittsburgh, before eliminating the talented but inexperienced Penguins last night. One of the most impressive players in the series for Ottawa was former Coyote Mike Comrie, who not only contributed offensively (2 goals and an assist), but also sparked his team physically, including a spirited Game 2 fight against a much bigger Colby Armstrong. Comrie's skill has always been evident, but the intangibles of his game have often been questioned in the past. As an unrestricted free agent-to-be this summer, Comrie needs a solid postseason. He's certainly off to a good start. Comrie and his Ottawa teammates will now get some much-needed time off to rest various bumps and bruises from a very physical series before beginning round two late next week. As for "Syd The Kid" and his talented band of young Penguins, this brief postseason was a great learning experience, most likely setting the table for much future playoff success.
In Anaheim last night, the favored Ducks closed out Minnesota 4-1, rebounding from Tuesday's 4-1 Game 4 defeat, which turned ugly in the final minutes. Although the Wild worked hard in this series, they just couldn't match up to the Ducks, whose combination of skill, grit and strong work ethic allow them to play any type of game necessary. I think a big thing for Anaheim in this series was the success of their young second line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner, particularly Getzlaf, who finished second in the series in scoring with 5 points. All three got valuable playoff experience last year in Anaheim's run to the Western Conference Finals, and now seem poised to become big contributors this postseason, taking some of the pressure (and opponent's checkers) off the Ducks' big line of Selanne, McDonald and Kunitz. I also thought it was important that J.S. Giguere got his first 2007 postseason start in goal last night for Anaheim, making 26 saves. Giguere has been dealing with a serious health issue concerning his newborn son and didn't start the series' first four games. Ilya Bryzgalov was outstanding in leading Anaheim to a 3-1 edge in the series, but Giguere is the Ducks' #1 goaltender and it was important for him to "get back in the saddle" so to speak, after a difficult last several weeks personally. He relieved Bryzgalov for the final 9:15 of Tuesday's Game 4 loss, and now with Thursday's successful start under his belt, he should be ready to take the reigns in Round Two, while Ducks Head Coach Randy Carlyle knows he also has an experienced #2 man in Bryzgalov who's shown for two seasons now that he can thrive in the pressure cooker of the playoffs. Like Ottawa, Anaheim will now get some valuable time to rest, and in the minds of many, the Ducks remain the favorite in the West.
Vancouver was also hoping to advance on home ice last night, but the stubborn Dallas Stars stayed alive with a 1-0 win on captain Brenden Morrow's power play goal 6:22 into the first overtime period. A lot of people felt that this would be perhaps the most evenly matched series in the first round, and it has turned out to be just that. Beginning with that memorable four-overtime thriller in Game One, the Canucks and Stars have battled into OT three times, while also seeing another contest decided by just one goal in regulation time. The only "blowout", if you will, in the series came in a 2-0 Dallas win in Game 2! What a playoff coming out party it's been for Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo. Highlighted by that record 72-save performance in Game One, Luongo has stopped 181 out of 190 shots in the series, good for a 1.39 GAA and a playoff-leading .953 SV%. His Dallas counterpart, the much maligned Marty Turco, has been equally impressive, stopping 169 out of 178 shots (1.38 GAA/.949 SV%) following Thursday's 21-save shutout. With Vancouver's series lead now trimmed to 3-games-to-2, the series shifts to Dallas for Game 6 on Saturday. After Vancouver's 5-4, four-OT win at GM Place in Game One, the visiting team has won every game in the series. As the Coyotes have unfortunately found out on a few occasions over the last couple of years, Dallas is awful tough to put away. The Stars are kind of like Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th fame...just when you think they're dead they come back to terrorize you some more! That's why I think the visitors dominance in the series ends in Game 6, and the Stars somehow survive to play Game 7 on Monday in Vancouver. Who knows who will win that contest, but I bet it goes to overtime!
The lone non-elimination game last night took place in Calgary, where the host Flames evened their series with Detroit at 2-2, with a 3-2 regulation win. Have you ever seen a team with such drastically different success and personality from home to road than Calgary? It was that way throughout the regular season and the pattern has certainly followed suit thus far in the playoffs. The Flames basically sleepwalked through Game's One & Two in Detroit, as the host Red Wings dominated them in just about every phase of the game in claiming 4-1 and 3-1 wins, while building up a commanding 2-0 series lead. Returning to the raucous Pengrowth Saddledome for Game's Three and Four, the Flames were a much different, more confident team, coming alive for a pair of 3-2 victories to even up the series. The red hot goaltending of Miikka Kiprusoff and strong special teams play were the difference for Calgary, which has now grabbed all of the momentum in the series heading back to Motown for Saturday's Game 5. Detroit must improve on it's 2-25 power play showing throughout the first four games of the series. One big positive for the Red Wings in Game 4 was the emergence of Todd Bertuzzi. In just his second playoff game following a late regular season concussion, Big Bert led the Wings with a goal and an assist. His season has been marred by injuries, but if he can somehow stay in the lineup, Bertuzzi's rare combination of skill and physical dominance could be the difference in this series and beyond for Detroit. Oh by the way...the Red Wings are pretty good at home too. This series might go seven games with the home team winning all seven!
Well, that's my take on "Elimination Thursday". Tonight, Nashville and the New York Islanders will hope to stave off elimination as another great weekend of NHL playoff action kicks off. Enjoy the games! I'll check in once again with more postseason thoughts next week.