NHL 1st Round Tightens Up Wednesday Night

If you wanted even more excitement in the first round of the NHL playoffs, then Wednesday night gave it to you. Pittsburgh and Vancouver staved off elimination, and Ottawa has put the heat on the New York Rangers. TheSportsNotebook recaps last night’s three games and looks ahead to the quartet on tap for Thursday…

Pittsburgh 10 Philadelphia 3: I’ll eschew the easy joke of saying this game was tied 3-3 until Ben Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace for a late touchdown pass to win it. Wait, I really did go there. The do-or-die Game 4 didn’t start well for the Penguins. Steve Sullivan drew a high-sticking penalty literally seconds into the game and the Flyers got a power play goal. Call me crazy, but shouldn’t you be disciplined enough to avoid a cheap penalty just moments into an elimination game on the road? Fortunately, momentum didn’t matter this time. Evgeni Malkin awakened from his playoff slumber to tie the game on backhand, and then Sullivan helped redeem himself with an assists. Lest you think this win means the Pens defensive problems are gone, Philly promptly scored two more power play goals and with a 3-2 lead this one was well under way to be another Flyers’ offensive show. But this time Malkin fed Sidney Crosby for one, and Jordan Staal added another to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 lead at the first intermission.

In the second period, the Penguins finally became the team to pull away, destroying Philadelphia for five goals. Ilya Bryzgalov, the Flyer goaltender whose lousy performance this series has been obscured by the fact Pittsburgh counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury has been worse, was pulled after the game went to 5-3 on another goal by Staal. It didn’t matter. By the time the second intermission came, Staal had a hat trick, the Pens were up 9-3 and if Philadelphia fans were smart, they were ditching Wells-Fargo Arena to find a sports bar and catch the Phillies-Giants from the West Coast.

Ottawa 3 NY Rangers 2 (OT): Ottawa gave New York two power play opportunities in the game’s early minutes and the Rangers cashed in both, with center Brad Richards and forward Marian Gaborik combining for assists on both. But as in the Eastern Conference’s other game, the Senators bounced back from early mistakes. Milan Michalek scored on a backhand  in the second period and the game was tied by second intermission, with Ottawa winning it less than three minutes into overtime. It will be easy to cast aspersion on the Ranger defense and goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the loss, and while neither distinguished themselves with brilliance, Lundqvist did save a tolerable 28/31 shots. The overall shot total was a little high, but it’s more appropriate to praise Ottawa’s Chris Anderson for going above and beyond, with 31 saves of his own. A possible area of concern for New York is not getting shots for Gaborik. He’s the team’s best scorer, yet it was center Richards—more suitably cast as a passer, who attempted eight shots, while Gaborik got only two. If New York gets their best scorer the puck in position to do damage, maybe they get that third goal in regulation. Now the series is tied 2-2 and New York is a nervous city.

Vancouver 3 Los Angeles 1: The Canucks complete the sweep of all three teams in must-win spots getting off to slow starts, although in Vancouver’s case there was no dumb penalty early on. LA’s Anze Kopitar just scored six minutes in, but then Canuck goalie Cory Schneider took over ,the offense got a pair of power play goals in the second and then a clincher in the third when forward Daniel Sedin, back from his concussion, fed his brother Henrik for a 3-1 lead. Normally the passer-to-scorer combo amongst the Sedin twins works the other way, but Vancouver will take goals any way they can get them. If I’m a King fan—which I’m not, although I am a Canuck-loather—I’m worried about this result. Los Angeles got an early lead for goalie Jonathan Quick, they outshot Vancouver 44-30, the first time in this series they’ve won the battle that takes place between the goalies and they still lost. Vancouver’s one win away from really turning up the heat on the 8th-seeded Kings.

All four series tonight are in Game 4, though none are in elimination spots yet…

*Boston hopes they finally solved young Washington goalie Braden Holtby as the Bruins look to take command of the series against Washington. For their part, the Caps scored three times against Tim Thomas on Monday night and got Alex Ovechkin six shots on goal. They need to get their star involved again to even the series.

*New Jersey has to shake off the cobwebs of blowing Game 3 at home to Florida and bounce back. The Devils’ defense is leaving Martin Brodeur exposed and they need to get back to the kind of lockdown team defense that marked their success throughout the year.

*St. Louis is quietly playing some very good hockey right now these last couple games, the best of anyone in the playoffs, but San Jose can still tie the series tonight. I want to see a big game from Blues’ goalie Brian Elliot in the face of a hostile crowd, the kind that sucks the life out of an opposing team.

*And the battle of Chicago vs. Mike Smith (I can no longer give Smith’s teammates full credit by calling this group “Phoenix”) rolls on in the Windy City. Smith is going to pass Mariano Rivera’s career saves record in a single series alone at this rate, and Phoenix has got to find some way to “hold” Chicago to 35-40 shots—which, for the record, is still quite a few, but Smith can win the series for the Coyotes at that level.