Darren Eliot
Sunday May 3rd, 2009

Not surprisingly, the two teams with the most experience and owners of the past two Stanley Cups, the Anaheim Ducks and the defending champion Detroit Red Wings, opened closest to peak performance than any of the eight remaining teams. Both clubs knew how to throw the pace-of-play switch for the second round and that they are playing one another, makes that series the most intriguing. Apologies to Mr. Crosby and Ovechkin, et al.

Not that the marketing dream series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals isn't compelling. Game 1, after all, featured a goal each by Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Yet, the star of the game was 21-year-old Caps goaltender Simeon Varlamov. With 34 saves in all and a desperation diving save on Crosby, Varlamov is quickly becoming the story of this playoff year. He now has appeared in seven postseason games compared to just six appearances during the regular season, turning veteran Jose Theodore into hockey's version of Wally Pipp. The Varlamov era has officially begun in D.C.

The other Eastern Conference semifinal has the Bruins up 1-0 over the Carolina Hurricanes. The B's are still unbeaten during the playoffs and the 'Canes have yet to secure a win over the Bruins yet this season. They made the necessary adjustments in Round 1 against the Devils and those modifications took shape beginning in Game 2. That has to happen again in this series beginning Sunday night in Boston. The difference is that any adjustments the Hurricanes come up with won't free up Eric Staal from his matchup with Zdeno Chara -- the only defenseman in the East big enough and skilled enough to neutralize Staal's excellence down low in the offensive zone.

Finally, The Blackhawks head home tied 1-1 with the Vancouver Canucks. Goaltender Nik Khabibulin beat the Canucks for the first time since 1998 when he was a member of the Phoenix Coyotes. He won head-to-head against counterpart Roberto Luongo after six successive defeats. But, it is Luongo who needs to find his peak performance level. He has looked ordinary in the first two games and against the Blackhawks precocious offensive producers, that won't get it done. That's especially true now that captain Jonathan Toews looked more himself after reportedly battling the flu and Patrick Kane has rediscovered his quickness and creativity after a sub par second half. Luongo needs to be a difference maker as the series shifts to Chicago.

1. Patrick Sharp, Blackhawks. Trailing 2-0, the Blackhawks needed instant offense. Enter Patrick Sharp with his back-to-back goal to begin the second period. His first set the tone, with Sharp battling for a loose puck in the slot, something the Blackhawks didn't do that well in the first period despite having the puck more than the Canucks. Sharp's second goal was a point blast on a 5-on-3 powerplay -- one of his series leading 26 shots on goal. After that, the 'hawks never looked back.

2. Nick Backstrom, Capitals. The smooth-skating sophomore center was at his play-making best in Game One against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sure, Alex Ovechkin scored on the powerplay and Alex Semin had two helpers as well, but it was Backstrom who was the quiet catalyst. His deft 12' aerial dish to Tomas Fleischman was pure perfection. The off-post lay-up Backstrom created turned out to be the game-winner in the third period.

3. David Boland, Blackhawks. Like Sharp, Boland also potted two goals in Game Two versus the Canucks. His short-handed breakaway goal that put the Blackhawks up 3-2 stunned the home team, quieted the crowd and energized an already confident offensive bunch. He also scored into an empty net by looking left as he came through the neutral zone. The Canucks read the play, committed to the sure pass, and without changing his gaze or his gait, Boland flipped a long backhand home to seal the win. His all around heady game proved invaluable to the Blackhawks as they tied the series at 1-1.

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