Friday April 17th, 2009

My Three Stars from Night 2 of the playoffs:

1. Martin Havlat, Blackhawks: With an assist to Calgary's Mike Cammalleri. It wasn't long after the Flames' forward inexplicably assaulted him on a face-off that a pumped-up Havlat tied the game at two. Then, 12 seconds into extra time, he scored the second OT winner of his career, blasting a long-distance wrister through the legs of Miikka Kiprusoff.

2. Jonas Hiller, Ducks: For a first-ever playoff start, that went pretty well. Anaheim's new No. 1 made 35 stops on the way to a 2-0 blanking of the top-ranked Sharks. It was the first time San Jose had been shut out at home this season.

3. Milan Lucic, Bruins: He set a physical tone early, hitting Patrice Brisebois hard enough to rearrange his DNA, and chipped in with a pair of assists that highlighted his hustle and his soft hands.

1. It was midway through the third period of the Ducks vs. Sharks contest that the observation was made.

Joe Thornton. No shots.

Patrick Marleau. No shots.

Milan Michalek...well, you get the point.

Is anyone still wondering why the Ducks walked out of the Shark Tank with a win in Game 1?

To be fair, all three top liners got on the shot sheet before the game was over. But where they came from gives a good indication of why Jonas Hiller skated off the ice with a shutout in his playoff debut.

Michalek got off a bad angle bid from along the boards that had no real chance of going in. Marleau launched an unobstructed snapper from the top of the circle a few minutes later. Then Thornton completed the hat trick by launching a slap shot from the blue line with 48.4 seconds left and the result of the game no longer in doubt.

Full marks to the Ducks defense, especially Chris Pronger. They did a magnificent job steering all the Sharks, especially those three, clear of the dangerous areas. But the knock on San Jose, and on Thornton and Marleau in particular, is that they aren't willing to pay the higher toll that the playoffs demand. Sure, it was just one game, but did they do anything to suggest they've learned from past failings?

It's one thing not to get shots. It's another thing entirely to not fight for the ground where the shots are supposed to be taken. And last night, the Sharks were far too content to swim safely behind the ropes, well clear of the murky water.

"There's free ice and ice you have to work for," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after the game. "We've got to work for that important ice."

Odds are you'll see a grittier performance from his troops in Game 2, especially good foot soldiers like Travis Moen and Ryane Clowe. But if the Sharks are going to make any noise in these playoffs, Thornton and Marleau have to be willing to put their heads down and fight for position around the net.

That's where those shots will really start to count.

2. The NHL was bold and decisive in handing a one-game suspension to Philadelphia forward Daniel Carcillo for his last-minute blow to the head of Pittsburgh's Max Talbot. Eliminating violence dished out under the heading of "message sending" is said to be a priority this spring, so it was nice to see the league react quickly and appropriately.

Now let's see if they'll be consistent. If they are, the Canadiens should be down a pair of far more valuable players for Game 2 against the Bruins .

While it wasn't exactly a Dale Hunter-esque blindsider, the late hit that Maxim Lapierre delivered to Phil Kessel after the Boston winger salted away Game 1 with an empty-netter seems to fall within the spirit of the league's warning. Sure, emotions are running high. But frustration is no excuse for a taking a freebie on a player who is skating away in celebration.

The league also needs to take a look at the video of the scrum that followed to see the spear that Mathieu Schneider delivered to the midsection of Marc Savard. It was more a reaction than a message, but that's immaterial -- there's no defense for making that kind of decision.

3. So this is what it comes down to for Bruce Boudreau. Send his Capitals into Saturday afternoon's must-win Game 2 against the Rangers backed either by a rookie with five games of NHL experience or the veteran stopper who led the team to the Southeast Division title and the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Shouldn't be a tough call. But that's exactly what it is after Jose Theodore offered up his best Dave Reece impression and handed Game 1, and home ice advantage, to New York.

Boudreau realizes the Caps played well enough to take the opener. The power play was clicking, they established their physical dominance early and the defense -- outside of Jeff Schultz's 10,000 marbles tumble, anyway -- offered up solid support, limiting the Rangers to just 21 shots.

And yet they still came out on the short end of a 4-3 score.

While Caps fans are ready to ship Theo back to the Rocky Mountains on a rail car, Boudreau has to be more circumspect. It's not the first time a goalie has booted one away in the playoffs. And it's certainly happened at worse times than Game 1 of the first round.

Honestly, that Theodore had a bad game in him couldn't have come as a surprise. Sure, the first and fourth New York goals were the kind that would earn a beer league keeper a harsh razzing. They were inexcusable. They were the kind of saves that a team has to get at this time of year. But Theodore's season has been defined by inconsistent performances. The kind the Caps covered up for with that high-octane offense. That's pretty much the way the formula worked.

So why panic now?

The Red Wings gave Dominik Hasek two games last spring before replacing him with Chris Osgood. That worked out pretty well. Of course, Osgood was an established veteran with a pair of Cup rings in his jewelry box. Boudreau's option is Simeon Varlamov, a 21-year-old Russian whose resume is pretty much babysitting and lawn mowing at this point.

Not that experience is the only key to success. Ken Dryden and Cam Ward have rings of their own to prove that. And the argument for using him makes some sense. Experienced or not, he's covers more of the net than Theodore and is stronger up high. And he'd be hard pressed not to come up with a better save percentage than the dismal .810 that Theo offered up in Game 1.

If you have to go to the kid, better now,at the friendly Verizon Center than at Madison Square Garden with the Caps down two games to none. Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. Look, Boudreau has to assess his most important decision of the season as a matter of faith. He has to believe that the guys playing in front of Theodore believe in him.

Chances are they do. It all goes back to that division title. No one's expecting Theodore to be the guy that won the Hart Trophy back in 2002. But he deserves more than one chance. That's why, when Boudreau's driving to the rink tonight, he'll make the decision to give Theodore another chance. You gotta dance with them what brung ya.

But he might want to stop by PetSmart on the way and pick up the shortest leash he can find. Just in case...

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