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Cullen: Epic night of playoff hockey

Scott Cullen
4/18/2014 2:11:13 AM
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Scott Cullen looks at an epic night of playoff hockey, with Brad Richards, Ryan Miller, Alexander Steen, Nathan MacKinnon, Paul Stastny and Raffi Torres among those to make a difference in the first games of their respective playoff series.

OPENING NIGHT ON BROADWAY

Though the score was tied at one into the third period, the first game of the Philadelphia Flyers-New York Rangers series was a dominant performance by the Rangers, who outshot the Flyers 35-16 (53-37 in 5-on-5 shot attempts).

The game was broken open when the Rangers scored a pair of power play goals, 47 second apart, on double-minor to Jason Akeson for high-sticking Rangers LW Carl Hagelin. Akeson, 23, was undrafted out of Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League and has been toiling in the AHL for three seasons, tallying 172 points in 208 games over three seasons, putting up two points in two regular season games against the Flyers. Akeson happened to be only Flyers player with better than 50% Corsi for the game.

One of the stories of this series is that it pits three legendary members of the Tampa Bay Lightning against one another. Rangers C Brad Richards was the big scorer on the night with a goal and two assists, while RW Martin St. Louis contributed a pair of assists. By contrast, Flyers C Vincent Lecavalier played 7:42, the lowest total for any skater in the game. The only other game this season in which Lecavalier played under 10 minutes was an early March contest against Washington in which he was ejected as part of a line brawl after playing just 3:22.

The territorial domination by the Rangers told the tale of this game, as Flyers first liners Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek didn't register a shot on goal; credit for that ought to go to the Rangers' defence pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, who got that matchup assignment.

By contrast, Rick Nash led the Rangers with seven shots on goal and was one of four Rangers with better than 70% Corsi during the game. The others were fourth-liners Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett, as well as defenceman Anton Stralman. Stralman doesn't get a lot of pub, but he's ranked among Top 10 defencemen (minimum 500 minutes) in Corsi percentage in each of the past two seasons.

Nash, along with linemates Richards and St. Louis, were matched up most often against Philadelphia's top line of Giroux, Voracek and Scott Hartnell, along with the defence pairing of Mark Streit and Niklas Grossman.

Ray Emery was in net for Flyers, and didn't play poorly, stopping 32 of 36 shots, but could be replaced by Steve Mason in Game Two.

The goaltending may change, but that's not the issue that should be most pressing to the Flyers. They need to play with more discipline and control the puck more if they're going to put some pressure on the Rangers.

BLACK AND BLUE

In a Triple-OT epic, the Blues and Blackhawks waged war in a brutal, physical game that could have lasting effects in the series. Blackhawks C Jonathan Toews, coming back from a shoulder injury, and Blues D Jay Bouwmeester, who reportedly was suffering from dehydration, both missed time during the game.

Alexander Steen scored the winner, 26 seconds into the third overtime period, finishing a nifty short drop pass from Steve Ott, after David Backes beat a confused Blackhawks defence (Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson) to a puck behind the Chicago net.

Blackhawks LW Patrick Sharp launced 11 shots, with six on goal, including a breakaway in double overtime that was stopped by Blues G Ryan Miller. Miller got off to a rough start, allowing three goals on seven shots in the first period, but Miller shut the door after that, turning aside 35 shots over the next five-plus periods.

Looking for an unsung hero for the Blues in this one? How about C Maxim Lapierre, who had the best possession numbers on the team despite starting the Blues' highest percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone.

The Blackhawks have tended to use their fourth line -- Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith -- for defensive zone face-offs, but their usage was really tilted in this game, taking one of their 18 faceoffs in the offensive zone.

This was a serious hockey game, hard-hitting and whichever team ended up losing in triple overtime would have every right to be disappointed. Considering the Blues were such a banged-up team late in the season, and didn't have RW T.J. Oshie and C Patrik Berglund for Game One, that Game One win has to bring some measure of relief, for now, because it starts up again Saturday afternoon.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN WAY

Trailing 4-2 into the third period, the Colorado Avalanche mounted a rally, as Paul Stastny scored with 14 seconds left in regulation to tie, before Stastny scored again 7:27 into overtime to give Colorado a 1-0 lead in the series.

Both the tying and winning goals were set up by Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon, who had three assists for the game. Since December 29, MacKinnon finished the regular season with 42 points in his last 45 games and he's been a crucial part of Colorado's offence. While he spent more time with PA Parenteau and Ryan O'Reilly in Game One, but joined Stastny later in the third period as the Avs were pressing to tie the game. MacKinon also paced the Avalanche forwards in puck possession stats.

With Colorado having little faith in their fourth line of Patrick Bordeleau, Paul Carey and Brad Malone -- the trio combined for just over nine minutes of ice time (three minutes per) -- so Colorado's top forwards played a lot. Stastny (2 G, 1 A), O'Reilly (1 G, 1 A) and captain Gabriel Landeskog each played more than 25 minutes. If Colorado doesn't trust their fourth line, the workload could get heavy on those top forwards if the series goes long.

Avalanche LW Jamie McGinn, with a goal and an assist, and D Tyson Barrie, with two assists, were other Avs with multi-point efforts.

Though he didn't get on the scoresheet, Wild RW Jason Pominville sent 10 shots towards the Colorado net, with six making it through to Avalanche G Semyon Varlamov, who stopped 29 of 33 shots he faced; not great, but better than Ilya Bryzgalov, who stopped 26 of 31.

Game One did nothing to disprove the notion that the Avalanche are vulnerable, but the Avalanche have defied statistical odds this season and did it once again in Game One of the series. Their goaltender pulled with three minutes remaining, with the win probability for the Wild nearing 98%, the Avalanche needed D Erik Johnson to sweep away a long Wild shot that was trickling towards the empty cage with a minute and a half left, and that allowed the Avalanche to mount their last charge for the tying goal.

SHARK NIGHT

The San Jose Sharks raced out to a 5-0 lead in the first two periods, allowed the Kings to make it remotely interesting in the third, before walking away with a 6-3 win in Game One.

While the Sharks had the better of play in the first period, it wasn't until they scored a pair of goals in the final minute of the period to take a 3-0 lead, that they really pushed the Kings on their heels.

Four Sharks had multi-point games. RW Brent Burns scored in the empty net to finish with a goal and an assist; LW Tomas Hertl, in his third game since December 19, had a goal and an assist; C James Sheppard, despite having a rough night in the possession game, added a couple of assists; D Marc-Edouard Vlasic had a goal and an assist as well, the first time since November, 2011 that he had at least a goal and an assist in the same game.

LW Raffi Torres, who played only five games during the regular season, played 8:42 for the Sharks, the lowest for all San Jose skaters, yet he scored a goal and led the Sharks with seven hits.

Torres wasn't the game's big hitter, though. That was Kings C Anze Kopitar, who had nine hits, all while registering six shots on goal and owning the best possession stats for the Kings, with a 66.7% Corsi%.

Keep an eye on the Sharks' usage. They enlisted the line of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns to do the heavy lifting, taking one of 16 face-offs in the offensive zone. They spent most of their night matched against Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Dwight King, while the Sharks put Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Matt Nieto up against Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams.

Though the Kings mounted something of a rally in the third period, after pulling starting goaltender Jonathan Quick in favour of backup Martin Jones, scoring three times in the first 14 minutes of the period, they couldn't complete the miracle comeback and the Sharks ended up with what was a relatively easy win. Given the quality of these two teams, there shouldn't be too many easy wins in the series.

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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