While it’s hard to fathom any team lacking intensity for the first game of the second season, two Eastern Conference clubs came out flat in their Game 1s on Wednesday and will need to rectify that Friday night.
One team’s lethargy was more surprising than the other.
“It was pretty obvious we weren’t ready to play,” Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason told reporters.
Coach Paul Maurice thought his players were “jittery” and were never able to shake their yips.
It was an eye-opener because the Canes were so hot in the last quarter of the season, amassing 32 points in their final 20 games – an amount surpassed only by Pittsburgh (we’ll get to them in a moment).
To their credit, the Devils found another gear and never let off the accelerator. Entering the series, many were predicting an upset based on both sides’ performances down the stretch. That prognostication is looking far-fetched right now.
For Carolina to even the series, it needs to match the New Jersey’s compete and hunger level, hope it continues to get stellar goaltending from Cam Ward and try to take a boisterous crowd out of the equation early. The home ice advantage was apparent for the Devils in Game 1, a palpable difference from this time last year when the Rangers invaded – and so did their fans.
For New Jersey, a fiery forecheck on a middling Carolina defense worked wonders and there’s no reason to expect the Devils will change tactics in Game 2. Carolina, meantime, needs to find a way to generate more offense, perhaps by stretching the ice surface. The Devils may boast one of the best goalies ever, but when you limit the opponent to 19 shots, they could have had Martin Short in goal instead of Martin Brodeur and still come out on top.
The other flat-line team on Wednesday, Philadelphia, continued a puzzling sleepwalk that began during the season’s homestretch.
The Flyers aren’t the sum of their parts these days. A deep forward crew and a decent defense is sorely lacking the spirit they displayed this time last year against Washington. Put simply, they look tired.
While management insists captain and inspirational leader Mike Richards isn’t injured, he doesn’t have his ‘A’ game – or didn’t in Game 1. He’s continuing to log huge minutes on both special teams (ditto for Jeff Carter), a situation exacerbated by the Flyers’ penchant for taking penalties.
The eastern Pennsylvania team needs players such as Daniel Briere, Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble and Scott Hartnell to step up and alleviate some of the pressure on Richards and Carter.
In addition, while Martin Biron wasn’t a sieve in Game 1, he didn’t give any indication he’s in “steal-a-game” mode. Rebound control continues to be his bugaboo; combined with frequent penalty-kill situations against a highly-skilled opponent, pucks will find the back of the net with regularity unless adjustments are made.
In tonight’s other Game 2, the storyline differs. St. Louis proved its worth in Game 1 against the favored Canucks, setting up expectations of another nail-biter in the re-match.
The biggest hurdle, of course, is Roberto Luongo. He’s in a zone, anticipating plays with the prescience of Nostradamus and following up with his remarkable athleticism.
The Blues, however, can’t get discouraged; they need to continue the assault and hope to find a few cracks in the armor.
From the Canucks’ perspective, they’ll need to be more disciplined; they can’t march to the penalty box consistently and expect Luongo to continue bailing them out. They’ll also be hoping for repeat, strong performances from the Sedins, but not Sundin. The 37-year-old Mats is still searching for the level of play that made him so lethal in Toronto. As the playoffs progress, the Canucks will need him to ignite their second scoring line or face another early exit.
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Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.
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