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Cullen: Habs, Sabres steal home ice; Sharks escape in OT

Scott Cullen
4/15/2011 8:49:17 AM
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Goals were scarce in Boston and Philadelphia, while the Kings rallied to give the Sharks a test in the opening game of their playoff series.

Some observations from Thursday's playoff action:

BOSTON-MONTREAL
Coming into the series, the Canadiens knew they needed Carey Price to win the goaltending matchup with Tim Thomas and Price started flawlessly, registering a 31-save shutout, which was decidedly better than Thomas' stopping 18 of 20 Canadiens shots. 

At the offensive end, it's not a great surprise that Montreal got a pair of goals from Brian Gionta, who now has seven goals in seven games against Boston this season; rather, in a stunning development, maligned centre Scott Gomez turned in a stellar performance, setting up both of Gionta's goals.

After a miserable 37-point regular season, Gomez's two assists in the first game of the playoffs marked his first multi-point effort since January 21.  To give credit where it's due, Gomez has traditionally been a productive playoff performer, picking up 95 points in 133 career postseason games -- six times finishing with at least 10 points -- prior to Thursday night.

For the underdog Habs to upend the Bruins, they'll need continued effort from their unsung types, like veteran defenceman Brent Sopel, who was credited with four blocked shots, though it seemed like more and hustling winger Ryan White who added a physical dimension with seven hits in just 7:51 of ice time.

On the Boston side of things, it was a forgettable night.  Tomas Kaberle and Milan Lucic, respectively, coughed up the puck to Gomez on Montreal's goals and the Bruins simply didn't generate enough quality chances against Price. 

Credit goes to Montreal's line of Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri and Travis Moen, along with the defence pairing of P.K. Subban and Hal Gill, as they were the ones most frequently charged with defending against Boston's top line and Lucic, Nathan Horton and David Krejci combined for just four shots on goal.

Unless the Bruins start making life more difficult for Price, goals are going to come at an absolute premium in this series.

PHILADELPHIA-BUFFALO
Buffalo knew they had a goaltending advantage coming into the matchup with Philadelphia, sending Vezina winner Ryan Miller up against rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and Game One brought a goaltender's duel, which Miller won with a 35-save shutout.  Bobrovsky turned away 24 of the 25 shots he faced, but a rebound early in the third period was deposited home by Patrick Kaleta.

Looking at who was involved in the Sabres' goal shows the kind of depth Buffalo is sending at the Flyers.  Once the puck was in the Flyers zone, tiny Nathan Gerbe battled for it along the boards.  Gerbe finished the season strong and appears to be capable of playing a top-six role, though on this night, he was with big third-line centre Paul Gaustad, who fed the puck to defenceman Marc-Andre Gragnani and Gragnani's slapper from the point provided a juicy rebound for agitating winger Patrick Kaleta to fire into the open net. 

Kaleta had four goals in 51 games this season, the last one coming on December 27.  Gragnani spent most of the year in the AHL, where he was named the league's best defenceman after scoring 60 points and adding a plus-22 rating in 63 games, but he logged 19:28 of ice time against the Flyers, not looking out of place at all in the NHL.

Buffalo's leading scorer, Thomas Vanek only played 13:28, a total he came in under just once all season.  At the other end of the spectrum for the Sabres, defenceman
Chris Butler led Buffalo with 26:04 of ice time, his most ice time in a game since October, 2009.

Grinding out a road win in Game One, gives the Sabres an opportunity to put real pressure on the Flyers in Game Two.  Going back to Buffalo with a split would be nice, but up 2-0 would have the Flyers in a hole (one they've shown they can get out of, but still).

SAN JOSE-LOS ANGELES
Even in a losing effort, Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick was the star of the show, stopping 42 of 45 shots to give the Kings a chance at the upset.

It didn't start well for Los Angeles, with Dany Heatley scoring 28 seconds into the game and the Sharks dominating the first period, outshooting the Kings 14-3.  However, the Kings turned the tables after that, outshooting the Sharks 16-9 in the second period and limiting their offensive chances for significant stretches of the game. 

Kings right winger Justin Williams made a heroic return to the lineup, wearing a harness to stabilize his dislocated shoulder, as he was the most dangerous Kings forward, scoring one goal, setting up another and leading Los Angeles with six shots on net.  For his first game in more than three weeks, it was even more impressive.

Sharks winger Ryane Clowe played a vital role in the win, assisting on all three San Jose goals; his first three-assist game since February, 2009.

Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle led all players in ice time, playing 35:00.  With Ian White injured on a hit from Jarret Stoll, which could bring supplementary discipline for Stoll, the Sharks went with five defencemen for most of the night.  If White is going to miss time, Justin Braun may be the one to join the Sharks' lineup.

Part of the reason that the Sharks present such a tough matchup is their forward depth.  To wit, the Kings tried to get Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell out against the Joe Thornton line as much as possible, which is all well and good, but then that leaves a line of Joe Pavelski -- who scored the OT winner -- Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell to take advantage of a Matt Greene-Alec Martinez pairing. 

And this doesn't even factor in the line of Logan Couture, Dany Heatley and Ryane Clowe, a line that scored the Sharks' first two goals of the night.  Tough to have enough defensive depth to match up.

Early on, it looked like the Sharks were going to destroy the Kings, so the fact that the Kings came back has to give them some hope, yet at the same time, it's extra difficult to pull off the upset when the first overtime decision goes to the favourite.

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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