My Three Stars from opening night of the playoffs:
1. Scott Gomez, Rangers: A goal and two assists. His nifty unassisted score in the second period tied the game at 1-1, and he flaunted his creativity all night.
2. Roberto Luongo, Canucks: The league's best goalie appeared completely in control while making 25 saves. His early work thwarting a Blues' 5-on-3 power play set the tone for the Canucks' 2-1 win.
3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals. Even in a game in which he didn't score a goal he was the most fearsome offensive player on the ice, unleashing 13 shots and being credited with two assists.
1. Chris Osgood begins play in his 13th post-season tonight and we're all supposed to cast a watchful eye and wait to see how he's going to foul things up for the otherwise invulnerable Red Wings. Osgood had a brutal regular season (.887 save percentage), and the memories of his fabulously shaky playoff moments will always be tough to forget. As Detroit prepares to roll over Columbus, the only area of the game where the Blue Jackets have a statistical edge is in net, behind their shutout-crazy rookie Steve Mason.
But something tells me that Osgood, now 36 years old, is going to show some real poise and be a bedrock for the Red Wings -- not just in the opening series but throughout the playoffs. This may be the postseason in which he establishes himself as the most underrated goalie of his time. In the aftermath of Detroit's Stanley Cup win last year, the first thing Osgood talked about, even before saying he was happy to have secured the Cup, was how satisfying it was to stick it to his critics. Even then, Game 6 sweat still on his brow, he seemed a little ticked.
Osgood remade his goaltending style a couple of years ago, went to work and closed some holes. And last year he had the best postseason of his career: 14-4 record, 1.55 goals-against, three shutouts. Sure, he benefited from the fact that the Red Wings control the puck 90% of the time, but he was much more than good enough. He's an emotional player, more so than many goalies, and he plays best when he feels slighted. Despite his 59 career playoff wins, people do slight him -- opponents, scouts, fans. Even with three Stanley Cup rings (two earned as a starter) Osgood gets easily dismissed.
But 16 wins this spring would make it four, and give him 75 career postseason wins. What would we say about him then?
2. Evidence of why the Flyers have a new, improved Evgeni Malkin to contend with this postseason: Game 1, third period, Pens up 2-0. Malkin's forechecking helps create a turnover, then he pounces on the puck and whips it past Marty Biron for the goal that salts away Pittsburgh's victory. Now, we've seen these kind of steeped-in-skill plays from Malkin before, but he's never provided them as regularly as he did this season. He's simply more persistently engaged than he ever has been (hence, the Art Ross Trophy), so don't expect a big hit or two to get him off his game, as it may have in last year's series against the Flyers.
At 22 and with a run to the finals behind him, Malkin has matured tremendously. On many nights this season, he's been the best player in the world. He'll have a tough chore against the Flyers, especially when playing in Philadelphia in Games 3 and 4, but Malkin is not about to wither. Watch him forecheck, watch him score.
3. For an early (very early) revival story in this postseason, look at Ranger defenseman Michal Rozsival. A couple of months into the regular season, the exquisitely profane faithful at Madison Square Garden were literally booing him off his game. The Rangers were struggling, Roszival had made some conspicuous blunders, and the crowd had set mercilessly upon him. Every time he touched the puck, boos thundered down to the ice.
Rozsival did not handle this attention well. You've rarely seen a veteran player look so insecure, so suddenly indecisive about what to do when he got the puck. By mid-November he was a minus-10. It took him a while to work through it, and he might never have if the rowdies at MSG hadn't shifted their ire to high-priced, underachieving defenseman Wade Redden. Bit by bit and quietly, Rozsival became perhaps the team's steadiest defenseman in the second half: a +8 in his last 17 games.
Now here he is in the playoffs against a team that makes defensemen quake. In the Rangers' 4-3 Game 1 win, Rozsival stood up to some guys inside his own zone and played smartly on a couple of crucial third-period penalty kills. He wound up plus-1 and played a Rangers-high 28:15.
Sure, he got undressed by Alex Ovechkin, allowing a first-period scoring chance, but that'll happen to anyone. It's Ovechkin. If Rozsival keeps his confidence, and Rangers fans lay off him after he gets toasted (and the Capitals will surely toast him now and then), he could emerge as the Rangers' best and most important blueliner, something that a few months ago seemed unthinkable.
4. As the playoffs got underway, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking in Pittsburgh, made a point of hailing the Penguins as a model franchise. It's certainly true that on and off the ice they've come a long way from their bankruptcy days. The Pens are thriving, with a new arena in their future and an avid fan base. As Bettman pointed out, they've now sold out 108 straight games.
But let's not forget the single most important factor in the Penguins' revival: Their average of 25 wins and 45 losses (plus the confusing numbers of ties, OTL's and shootout losses that clutter the NHL standings) from 2001-02 through 2005-06. Being really bad, and winning the 2005 draft lottery (i.e. winning the rights to Sidney Crosby) enabled Pittsburgh to assemble the nucleus of their team via the draft, and that explains why this team is in such strong shape today. That's a "model" for success that a lot of clubs might be loathe to emulate.