Thursday April 23rd, 2009

My three stars from Wednesday night:

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers: The Blueshirts' goalie put on a clinic while stopping a career-high 38 shots, as New York defeated Washington, 2-1 to take a 3-1 series lead. Lundqvist was at his best in the second period when the Caps outshot the Rangers, 19-5. His dramatic glove save on a sizzling blast in the slot by Alexander Semin was one of several snares that brought the crowd to its feet.

Olli Jokinen, Flames: He scored twice and added an assist in Calgary's 6-4 victory over Chicago that squared the series at two games apiece. The two markers broke a 16-game string of goalless games for the 12-year veteran who is in the playoffs for the first time after amassing 518 points in 799 career regular-season games.

Michael Ryder, Bruins: The Boston forward scored twice and added an assist to lead a four-game sweep of his forrner team. Ryder converted a pair of one-timers in the first and second periods of Boston's 4-1 road victory after notching the gamer in Monday's 4-2 win in Montreal.

1. The Blackhawks have apparently decided that the way to neutralize Flames captain Jarome Iginla is to berate and taunt him. Kris Versteeg, a man who spent four years of junior hockey in Alberta, has been in Iginla's ear. Adam Burish has exhibited boorish behavior to the all-star. Dustin Byfuglien has become a serial chirper. Ben Eager has been eager to disrupt in tongues known only to remote corners of Western Canada.

"I've never seen a player take the kind of abuse Jarome Iginla is taking," SI contributor Pierre McGuire mentioned during his broadcast Wednesday night.

On the surface, it's a befuddling strategy to use against a grizzled veteran, who has shown little fear of sticks, stones or epithets during his career. And it may have backfired in the short run. Iginla scored two goals and added an assist on Wednesday as Calgary beat Chicago on home ice, 6-4, to even its series at two games apiece. But this isn't about Iginla. It's about the Blackhawks, a once-proud franchise that had dwelled among the league's doormats before a recent revamp. This is an Original Six trying to shake the shame of malaise, stir the fans' passion and convince itself that it belongs on the ice with the establishment.

Given Chicago's opening-round foe, nobody represents that establishment better than Iginla. The Hawks are not so much standing up to somebody -- who, after all plays, the game with great integrity -- but standing up for themselves. They are finding the biggest tree in the forest to chop down rather than picking on a twig that won't steel them for the Cup run they hope to make someday soon.

2. There were two sides to the goalie performance in the Rangers' 2-1 victory against the Capitals on Wednesday. Yes, Henrik Lundqvist was out of his mind, playing perhaps the finest game of his career, but if you watched Monday's 4-0 Caps' victory you saw two teams with such a disparity in talent and speed that it seemed New York needed a great game in goal to maximize the one clear advantage it had going into the series.

On the surface, Simeon Varlamov, Washington's 20-year-old rookie who took over for Jose Theodore after a dismal Game 1, had neutralized that edge by stopping 75 of 78 shots in three games. But Varlamov looked very shaky Wednesday night during a game in which he had very little to do. He misplayed a couple of pucks behind his net and gave up the kind of weak rebounds that a stronger offensive team than the Rangers could exploit more often.

On New York's second goal, Varlamov fielded a soft off-wing wrister from Ranger captain Chris Drury, but scooped it right back into the slot where Drury collected the rebound and beat him for what turned out to be the decisive goal.

The Capitals have every reason to think that they are the better team. They have outshot the Rangers by at least seven shots in each game and have a 149-99 edge for the series. Alex Ovechkin is not only out of his playoff scoring funk; he is making spectacular defensive plays -- witness his diving backcheck on Lauri Korpikoski on Monday night. But the Caps' serious concern about their goaltending disadvantage has been revived after Varlamov's outing on Wednesday.

3. Should the Rangers advance to face the Bruins in the next round, New York's uberpest Sean Avery may meet his match in second-year Bruin Milan Lucic. The bruising winger sat out Game 3 of Boston's opening-round series after delivering a headshot to Montreal's Maxim Lapierre. When he returned for Game 4, he settled a year-long score by belting Mike Komisarek during the second period. Komisarek later drew blood with a crosscheck to Lucic's face, but that cost the Habs a manpower disadvantage at a time when they were desperate for goals.

Bruins' coach Claude Julien needs Lucic to play with an edge. In January, Julien demoted him from the team's top line where he had been skating with finesse forwards Marc Savard and Phil Kessel. Lucic regained his mean streak almost immediately.

Now, picture Avery, the prankster who casually bonked Bruins goalie Tim Thomas on the head with his stick during a play stoppage on April 4. Then picture Lucic, one of the league's best hitters and garbage cleaners mixing it up with Avery. This sounds like a match made in purgatory.

4. Excuse the Ducks if they seem a little tired these days, but two of their players are balancing postseason hockey with expanding families. Forward Todd Marchant and defenseman Francois Beauchemin welcomed new fans into the fold on Monday. Marchant's wife, Caroline, gave birth to a son, Bradley David, the couple's fourth child. Beauchemin's wife, Marie-Claude, gave birth to a daughter, Emily, their second child. The broadcast reported that Caroline was present at the Ducks' Game 3 loss to the Sharks less than 24 hours after the birth. She's tough. Then again, she's a hockey wife.

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