In the two early games Friday, things began to settle down and get back to where most pundits figured they’d be: with the favorites winning.
In Pittsburgh, the Penguins triumphed 2-1 over the Ottawa Senators on goals by Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, the ninth one-goal game of these young NHL playoffs.
And in New Jersey, the Devils bested the Flyers 5-3 in a contest much more reminiscent of what most thought the series would be: a hard-hitting, nasty affair.
Pittsburgh did exactly what it didn’t do Wednesday in the series opener. The Pens played a much stronger all-around game, bottling-up the neutral zone much of the night and finishing their checks; some timely saves from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury were also just what the doctor ordered.
Pittsburgh’s best players were its best players again Friday night, but in a manner more evocative of successful playoff hockey. They weren’t trying to do everything themselves – thinking always of offense – opting instead to pick their spots and play responsibly.
The undermanned Senators, meanwhile, looked like they just might not be able to get over the offensive hump without recently injured top-four wingers Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek.
Ottawa managed just 20 shots on the night and, after Peter Regin scored 18 seconds into the game, didn’t look very dangerous at all. Center Jason Spezza dangled some, but he and his linemates couldn’t find any finish during the final 59 minutes of the game.
And just where has Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson gone during the first two games of this series? Ottawa’s heart and soul has been nearly invisible.
Game 2 made it apparent just how much better Pittsburgh’s top players are than Ottawa’s. Crosby had two points, Evgeni Malkin was, again, dangerous after a two-goal Game 1, while Sergei Gonchar played 25 minutes of virtually mistake-free hockey. Crosby and Malkin spent much of the game on the same line. They weren’t overly successful as a duo, but if the practice continues the Sens will have to find an answer to it.
The game also saw the re-birth of head shots as a topic of NHL conversation. At the end of the second period, Ottawa D-man Andy Sutton levelled Pens blueliner Jordan Leopold with a hit to the head that left Leopold out cold on the ice.
Sutton wasn’t penalized on the play – something that will have people again questioning the refs after the number of high-sticks missed Thursday – and the hit wasn’t as vicious as those by Matt Cooke or Mike Richards during the regular season. But you can be sure the powers that be in Toronto will be looking at it from every angle with a suspension in mind. At the least, the check was another example of players’ lack of respect for one another’s well being.
Whether Leopold can return any time soon is yet to be determined, but consider Sutton a marked man for as long as this series continues.
In The Swamp, two things stood out most. Ilya Kovalchuk obviously wants to win and hasn’t backed down from any comers. But he’s played a frenetic, one-man game. He is like an island unto himself out there. He holds the puck too long 5-on-5 and too often looks for his own point shot on the power play.
However, for any criticism heaped upon Kovalchuk, one thing’s for certain: he’s dangerous, as his empty-net goal (his second career playoff goal) and two assists on the night confirm.
But the threat he poses has opened up ice for New Jersey’s other top scoring-forwards – Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus. That foursome combined for two goals and eight points Friday and made the Philly blueline look like it isn’t deep enough to handle everything New Jersey has to throw at it; something this writer, at least, didn’t expect to see so soon, if at all.
Bad blood also bubbled in this game. There was nothing of the magnitude of the Sutton-Leopold hit, but the whistle-to-scrum ratio was way up from Game 1. Expect tempers to flare even more Sunday evening in Philadelphia as the series switches to the City of Brotherly Love.
Whether it’s the Pens-Sens series or the Devils-Flyers, if Pittsburgh’s and New Jersey’s best players continue outplaying their counterparts, neither series will last longer than five games. Ottawa and Philadelphia will have to find ways to slow the pace and scuttle the electricity their opponents are starting to find.
THN.com’s Playoff Blogs, featuring analysis and opinion on the action from the night before, with insight on what happened and what it all means going forward, will appear daily throughout the NHL playoffs. Read more entries HERE.
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