That unheralded netminder Johan Holmqvist and the seventh-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning lead superstar goalie Martin Brodeur and the second-seeded New Jersey Devils 2-1 in their Eastern Conference best-of-seven series is stunning to say the least.
“It’s been a very tight series,” Lightning star Brad Richards told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. “Homer’s (Holmqvist) been playing really well, probably surprising people, and I think our guys are getting timely goals, being opportunistic.
“We came up with big plays at the right times in these two wins. But we’ve got our work cut out for us here.”
So do the Buffalo Sabres. They’re also up 2-1 in their series with the New York Islanders but the top seeds from the Eastern Conference are having a hard time with the No. 8 seeds. The President’s Trophy winners haven’t found their extra gear yet.
“No, that’s right,” Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said Tuesday from Long Island. “I thought we started playing really well in the third period last night (3-2 win). But overall we feel like we have a lot left and that hasn’t shown up yet. And the Islanders are making it really tough on us right now, trying to prevent us from using our speed.
“But at the same time, we have to do a better job of creating opportunities, creating chances and I thought we were starting to see that last night in the second half of the game.”
The San Jose Sharks? They’re trying to survive the NHL’s most physical series, up 2-1 against the Nashville Predators in a battle of No. 4 and No. 5 Western Conference seeds both built for Cup runs.
“This a series that we knew would probably go the distance,” Sharks defenceman Craig Rivet said on the phone from San Jose. “And we’re prepared for that.”
Huge hits (some dirty), a mini-brawl, and a one-game suspension to Nashville’s Alex Radulov has so far headlined a series leaving players on both sides black and blue.
“That’s the nice thing about going into the playoffs with a bunch of big bodies,” said Rivet. “We’ve got guys at forward that are anywhere from 220 pounds to 235. And this is the style of the game the Sharks have played all year. So this is nothing new to this hockey team, this is the style of play that we want to play in the playoffs.
“We’re healthy and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Rivet, a deadline acquisition from Montreal, played some intense playoff games against Boston in 2002 and 2004, the most controversial hit seeing Bruins defenceman Kyle McLaren absolutely level Canadiens winger Richard Zednik in an ’02 playoff game.
“Definitely those two years that we played against Boston, it was very similar to this. It was war,” said Rivet.
The Canadiens upset the Bruins both seasons, once as a No. 8 seed and the next time as a No. 7. The pre-playoff upset many fancied, including yours truly, was No. 7 Minnesota over No. 2 Anaheim in the West. It has not materialized.
Instead, it’s the seventh seeds from the East that are making noise. The Bolts have scored nine goals in three games on Brodeur – mind-boggling to say the least.
“Everything is gravy when you can score on him,” said Richards. “Knock on wood, we want to keep putting them by him. And we have to keep playing really well, we can’t afford a night off. It’s a very important game for us tomorrow night (Game 4), they’re going to come out with their best game of the series and Marty is probably going to have his best game of the series.
“We know it’s going to be a big challenge.”
Richards is already atoning for a subpar regular season with a hot start to the post-season, posting five points (1-4) in three games while killing penalties, taking key faceoffs and taking his usual spot on the power play.
Fellow stars Martin St. Louis (2-4, six points) and Vincent Lecavalier (4-1, five points) have led the charge along with Richards. But the Big Three is playing big minutes, averaging 24-25 minutes a game as head coach John Tortorella treats each game right now as the last game of the season.
Is there a concern they could burn out?
“No, not yet,” said Richards. “It’s pretty short-term right now, it’s three games in and we’re fine. It’s well documented that Torts gives our team a lot of rest in the second half of the season. And I also think the minutes sometimes get misconstrued with the amount of power plays we have.
“It’s not like it used to be. I don’t think the year we won it (in 2004) it would have been as easy to play those minutes with the style of play and type of game we played. I’m sure it’ll be monitored as we go along but we all feel fine.”
The Sabres also resume their series Wednesday night and expect no favours from Ted Nolan’s lunch-bucket crew.
“Well we expect them to come out even harder at us now that they’re down,” said Briere. “I’m sure they won’t want to go down 3-1 in the series. We’ll have to be ready right off the bat. Their crowd was very loud last night but we were really good at weathering the storm in the first period.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to do that in the first period again then take the game to them.”
The Islanders have been playing playoff-type hockey, at least mentally, since February, having to win on the very last day of the season to get in. The Sabres, on the other hand, have gone wire-to-wire in first place and it could be argued their mental focus wasn’t quite as sharp as the playoffs began.
“I think you saw that in the second game a little bit, where after winning the first game 4-1 we maybe thought that it was going to be a little easier than it really is,” said Briere. “And we started cheating a little bit more and not playing that way we had all season. In a sense it was a good way for us to lose (Game 2) because it was a wake-up call.
“We played much harder last night in our first game on the road.”
Rivet, tied for the Sharks scoring lead with four points (2-2), gets set for his second playoff game in his new home Wednesday night.
“Montreal is one of the best atmospheres in the National Hockey League when you get into the playoffs,” said Rivet. “But I’ve been pretty surprised with the fan base here in San Jose. Last night at the game, this building was rocking. It was like having that extra player.”