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Cullen: Notes from the first night of NHL playoffs

Scott Cullen
4/14/2011 8:50:45 AM
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The first night of the 2011 NHL playoffs provided some confidence, from Washington and Alexander Semin getting off on the right foot after last year's upset, to the Mule leading the Wings, Marc-Andre Fleury backstopping the Penguins and Mike Fisher lifting the Predators to a road victory. 

Vancouver's early dominance against their nemesis from Chicago had to help the top seed's collective confidence, though Chicago hardly rolled over after a slow start, suggesting there's much more to come.

NY RANGERS-WASHINGTON
The Rangers' Brandon Prust was terrific on the forecheck to create New York's first goal.  Better than a typical tough guy, Prust ended up playing 21:21, getting more than 18 minutes in regulation, a total he surpassed three times in the regular season.

In their efforts to shut down Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, the Rangers employed the defensive pair of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, often with the line of Derek Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko, and it was reasonably successful until Ovechkin banged in a loose puck with 6:16 remaining to tie the game.

Staal ended up playing 33:48, more than any skater on either team, and it may have taken its toll on him.  Staal's ineffective clearing attempt in overtime led to Alexander Semin's overtime winner, a brilliant one-timer off a feed from Jason Arnott.

Considering his struggles in the first round last year, which included no goals on 44 shots, Semin ought to be relieved to have found the net in Game One; obviously a positive for the Capitals if they can get production from the talented Russian winger.

The Capitals elected to send Karl Alzner and John Carlson against the Rangers' Marian Gaborik and they were effective.  Alzner blocked eight shots.

It was only an overtime win at home, so it's not like the Capitals can feel like the series is well in hand, but coming back for the OT win is certainly better than the alternative.

PITTSBURGH-TAMPA BAY
The Penguins fired 40 shots on Dwayne Roloson in the Tampa Bay net, a total surpassed only twice this season against the Lightning, the most recent being the final game of the regular season, when Tampa Bay jumped out to an early lead and Carolina desperately tried to get back in the game, sending 44 shots on net, and the other one was January 5th drubbing at Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby's last game played so far this season), in which the Penguins won 8-1 while getting 41 shots on the Lightning goal.

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 32 Lightning shots for the shutout and his night was made easier by the play of hard-rock defenceman Brooks Orpik, who had two assists, was plus-2 and led the Penguins with seven hits, including a bone-rattling hit on Steven Stamkos to set the tone early in the first period.

It was a rought night for Stamkos as he was limited to one shot on goal and played just 16:32.  It was the 11th time in his last 23 games that Stamkos has been held to one shot or fewer and he played less than 16:32 ten times all season, including the last two regular season games.  Is an injury to blame for his late-season swoon?

The Penguins had the defence pairing of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek out as much as possible against Tampa Bay's top line of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell and held them to a total of eight shots on goal.

He's been a dud for the last two regular seasons, but Alex Kovalev does have a knack for putting up points in the playoffs.  I mentioned him in the Fantasy Hockey Report as a playoff sleeper because he had 31 points in his last 33 playoff games and he scored the Penguins' first goal, slowly recovering from an apparent injury, just in time to finish the pass from James Neal.

A strong start to the postseason for the Penguins, one the Lightning would just as soon forget.

PHOENIX-DETROIT
Johan Franzen continued playoff dominance, scoring a goal and an assist, which is rather standard for a player who entered this year's playoffs with 59 points in 51 games over the last three postseasons.

The Coyotes attempted to match up defencemen Ed Jovanovski and Adrian Aucoin and the top line of Shane Doan, Eric Belanger and Ray Whitney against the Red Wings' top line, but it wasn't especially successful.  In addition to Franzen's two points, Pavel Datsyuk socred a goal and recorded a game-high eight shots on goal while Holmstrom added an assist.

Coyotes centre Martin Hanzal recorded an assist, but was minus-2 while playing 21:21.  After missing more than a month due to injury, Hanzal returned to action late last week, so it seemed like a heavy workload -- he played more than 21:21 a dozen times through 61 regular season games.

Detroit appeared to be full value for the win; a good start for a lineup going without Henrik Zetterberg, who is injured, and Mike Modano, who was a healthy scratch.

CHICAGO-VANCOUVER
Early on, the Canucks dominated, outshooting the Blackhawks 13-7 in the first period while taking a 2-0 lead but, after that, Chicago settled down and put on some pressure in their own right, only to be turned back by Roberto Luongo.

Chicago outshot Vancouver 25-20 in the last two periods and, according to the broadcast, hit four posts.  Jonathan Toews had three shots on net (Marian Hossa led the Blackhawks with six), but Toews was the most dangerous Blackhawk, setting up several dangerous chances on the attack.

The official hit count did not reflect well on the Blackhawks, as Vancouver held a decisive 47-21 advantage, so that is something that Chicago will have to rectify if they are going to bounce back in the series.  Winning the hit battle doesn't ensure victory, by any stretch, but getting pounded physically to that degree isn't going to make it difficult on the top-seeded Canucks at all.

Blackhawks forward Tomas Kopecky left the game with a reported upper body injury, which could tax Chicago's depth.  The Blackhawks already had forwards Ben Smith, Bryan Bickell, Ryan Johnson, Viktor Stalberg and Jake Dowell all playing fewer than 13 minutes in Game One, as the bench was shortened to give the big guns an opportunity to get Chicago back in the game. 

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, for example, played 23:17 and 23:58, respectively.  Toews surpassed that ice time total nine times during the regular season, while Kane played more than 24 minutes in a game once this year. 

As the Blackhawks scrambled to find offence, Kane and Toews were re-united, early, which allowed the Canucks to send the defence pair of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa, along with the Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins, Mikael Samuelsson line against them frequently.

The early domination was impressive by Vancouver, but Chicago's improved play in the final two periods indicated that there should still be some pushback from the defending champs in this series.

NASHVILLE-ANAHEIM
Mike Fisher was the story of the game for the Predators, scoring two goals and adding an assist to lead the charge offensively.  Not bad for a guy who had just 36 points on the regular season but, as I mentioned in the Fantasy Hockey Report, he finished the regular season with eight points in the last seven games, so he may be coming on at just the right time.

Returning to Nashville didn't work out well for Ducks G Dan Ellis, who was lifted early in the third period after allowing four goals on 24 shots, quite possibly paving the way for Ray Emery to start Game Two.  Emery played well for the Ducks down the stretch, so as long as he's healthy enough, he'll give Anaheim a chance.

League-leading goal-scorer Corey Perry was held off the scoresheet, though he did have five shots on net, and finished as a minus-3 on the night.  The Ducks tried to avoid having their big line go up against Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but the Predators defence tandem of Kevin Klein and Jonathon Blum handled the challenge just fine.

Coming back from injury, Steve Sullivan played just 6:15, yet still scored a goal, while Predators rookie Blake Geoffrion only saw 6:21 of ice time and contributed an assist.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

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