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by Bob Heethuis / Arizona Coyotes
There’s nothing in sports quite like the excitement and intensity of overtime NHL playoff hockey, especially in New York!  If you had a chance to watch Sunday afternoon’s NBC telecast of Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, at a sold out Madison Square Garden, you certainly saw this first hand.  With the raucous Garden crowd whipped into a frenzy all afternoon long, Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and his Rangers’ counterpart Henrik Lundqvist matched each other big save for big save until New York defenseman Michal Rozsival, who’s battled a knee injury throughout the series, finally ended things with a goal 16:43 into the second overtime, lifting the Rangers to a thrilling 2-1 win.  The intense action throughout the day was riveting, and even if you didn’t have a rooting interest in the game, the sight of 18,200 screaming fans standing and waving white pom-pons as the Ranger players gathered at center ice with sticks raised, in their customary post-win tribute to the MSG faithful, certainly had to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention!

The New York victory cut Buffalo’s series lead to two-games-to-one, while it also marked the Blueshirts’ first triumph over the Sabres in seven overall meetings this season.  Rangers’ captain Jaromir Jagr awakened for the first time in the series, producing a game-high 10 shots throughout the afternoon, while scoring New York’s first goal and screening Miller in front of the Buffalo net on Rozsival’s game-winner.  The enigmatic Jagr still has the skill to dominate a game, and he must be New York’s best player if the Rangers hope to pull off the series upset over the top-seeded Sabres.  Meanwhile, we also saw Ranger super pest Sean Avery become a factor for the first time in the series.  Avery was New York’s most effective player in the Rangers’ shocking four-game demolition of the Atlanta Thrashers in the first round, contributing a goal and four assists, while getting under the skin of virtually every Thrasher on the ice.  Prior to round two against Buffalo, his bold “I’m going to hurt them, I’m going to hit them, I’m going to be in their face as much as I can” quote had us all salivating for more of the same, but he was strangely almost non existent as the Sabres jumped out to a 2-0 advantage in the series first two games.  That all changed in Game Three on Sunday, as Avery ratcheted up his physical game, creating scoring chances and drawing penalties with his high energy play in the offensive zone.  He once again gave the Rangers an emotional lift, something that must continue as this series moves forward.

Buffalo still enjoys a 2-1 edge in this series, but the Rangers have really had the better of the play for most of the last two games, which has led to the slight aroma of an upset brewing in The Big Apple.  The Rangers are now the talk of the town, and traditionally when the Blueshirts do well in the postseason they are uniquely embraced by New Yorkers like no other team.  Likewise, with New York being the center of the sports and media universe in this country, a long Rangers playoff run would be hugely beneficial to the NHL as a whole.  That being said, the Buffalo Sabres still possess perhaps the league’s most impressive array of speed, skill and depth, and they’ve battled too hard this season to exit in the second round.  I think the Sabres will eventually prevail in this series and move on to their second straight Eastern Conference Final.  However, for the sake of the league, and also for pure entertainment value, I sure hope that the “battle of the empire state” goes the distance!

I’ll certainly forgive the Sabres, (or any of the other three teams enjoying 2-1 series’ leads at the end of Monday’s action) for not sharing my wish for a long series, as history tells us that getting out of the second round quickly is virtually a necessity if you have designs on winning the Stanley Cup.  Consider this rather interesting postseason nugget I happened upon while reading Ken Campbell’s playoff preview article in the April 17th, issue of The Hockey News…

‘Since the NHL went to its current format of four seven-game series in 1987, only one eventual champion (the 2001 Colorado Avalanche) has gone the distance in the second round.  The average number of games for a Stanley Cup winner in the second round is five and the average for the first two rounds in 10.5.  Not since the Red Wings went six games in each of the first two rounds in 1998 has a Stanley Cup winner required more than 11 games to get out of the first two rounds.’

Wow!  I find this fascinating, but I guess it only makes sense.  With a Stanley Cup run being such a marathon and the fatigue, injury and emotional factors only increasing with each playoff round, teams that reach the mid-way point of the postseason the quickest certainly have an edge.  At the conclusion of Monday night’s action each of this year’s four conference semifinal series will be sitting at two-games-to-one, or, obviously, as close as a series can be after the first three games.  It will be very interesting to see who gets hot and finishes things quickly.  If you believe in past trends, then that team (or teams) will become the Stanley Cup favorite entering the conference final round.  Enjoy the action!

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