Friday April 15th, 2011

Steve Sullivan, the often unsung wnner of the 2009 Masterton Trophy for dedication to hockey, gives the Predators grit and leadership in their tough series against the Ducks. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

The most under-the-radar series in the first round is the Nashville-Anaheim matchup. Well, everything that involves the Predators usually ends up under-the-radar (and had the Ducks not gotten lots of stretch run attention due to the great play of Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne, this series would be submerged even further in hockey fans' collective consciousness). And if it's possible to be an under-the-radar player in an under-the-radar series, that guy would be Steve Sullivan.

It's not that Sullivan is an unknown. Far from it. He's been a fan favorite everywhere he's played, has seven 20-goal seasons (including two 30-goal campaigns) on his 13-year NHL resume and played in some high-profile cities such as Toronto and Chicago. It's more like he was forgotten, having twice been out of the lineup this season for extended periods with a groin injury. Until Game 1 against the Ducks, he hadn't played since Feb. 24. But all that was forgotten by the second period when, with the Preds clinging to a 1-0 lead, Sullivan broke in, showing some pretty good speed for a guy whose skating was labored much of the season...

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...and notched his seventh career Stanley Cup goal, which proved to be the game-winner in the Preds' 4-1 triumph.

For the 36-year-old Sullivan and his team -- which struggles to score under normal circumstances -- four goals in a playoff game is something of a miracle. Two came from another popular Nashville figure, Mike Fisher (known sarcastically by some as Mr. Carrie Underwood). The game's first tally was by Preds captain Shea Weber, who is getting lots of buzz for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman.

In early March, Sullivan had an abductor procedure to avoid more extensive surgery that would have kept him sidelined much longer. The docs said he'd likely be out from four to six weeks, but he was back skating within a month. That's hardly surprising coming from a hockey player whose dedication was recognized when he was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy in 2009 after sitting out for a season-and-a-half after back surgery before making a triumphant comeback.

After Game 1 in Anaheim, Sullivan spoke about his first postseason goal since 2004 and how much his skating improved after the procedure. He also discussed what the Predators have to do to avoid the letdown they suffered last year against the Blackhawks after they won Game 1 in that series as well.

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The Preds have never won a playoff round in their franchise's history and with Anaheim's huge questions in goal, this could be the year that Nashville, as those NHL commercials say, makes history rather than becomes history. Sullivan provides the Preds with added experience, leadership and some scoring punch, and his early return couldn't be more timely.

No-hit Hawks: The defending champion Blackhawks have traced their Game 1 loss in Vancouver in part to being out-hit, which was not the case last season against the Canucks in the second round when they had Dustin Byfuglien, Adam Burish, Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd in their lineup. Burish and Eager dressed after a Game 1 loss that the Hawks don't have the luxury of this year.

“We played a game that was very loose across the board," said coach Joel Quenneville. "Physically, we were way below average. When we get challenged, we’re better with some anger in our game. We can generally respond to change the outcome.”

The official stats read that Vancouver held a 47-21 advantage in hits, and the Canucks played that physical game without drawing a penalty. The finger-pointing in Chicago is focused on both former GM Dale Tallon (for poor cap management that forced those four tough guys to depart last summer) and current GM Stan Bowman (for not getting much toughness in return).

But two things need to be kept in mind here. First, Bowman's ability to get a decent return was hampered by the same cap limitations that forced the trades in the first place. He couldn't bring in quality players because they'd be too expensive. He had to deal for what he got in order to keep the cap manageable (although there is a legitimate point that the Hawks might have been better off had they kept Byfuglien and dealt Niklas Hjalmarsson instead).

Second, it's not just the physical side of the game that's missing in Chicago. It's also the offense. Both Ladd and Byfuglien provide scoring punch and this team also lost Kris Versteeg from last season's Cup roster. In Game 1 on Wednesday, the Hawks were probably the better team in the final 40 minutes when it came to creating chances. A few more finishers in their lineup might have changed the outcome as much as a few bigger bodies.

Every part of this Blackhawks team suffered from last summer's dismantling and while the absence of banging bodies is most obvious, you can't ignore the scoreboard, either.

Redemption in Hockeytown: It may be hard to recall, but Todd Bertuzzi was not always the reviled figure he became in the hockey world after his attack on Steve Moore in March, 2004. He was the best right-winger in the NHL, the league's top power forward playing for the Canucks on a line with Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison. It all turned bad when Bertuzzi avenged Moore's questionable hit on Naslund, less than two months after he was voted by fans as a starting winger in the All-Star Game. A lengthy suspension and criminal proceedings followed, and the civil suit filed by Moore still hangs over him.

Bertuzzi bounced from the Canucks to the Red Wings to the Panthers to the Ducks to the Flames and back to Detroit two years ago, unable to fully recapture his All-Star form while he was booed harshly in many of the league's arenas.

But in Game 1 of the Wings series against the Coyotes on Wednesday, with the score tied 1-1, Bertuzzi -- who has been one of the more physically aggressive Wings in the last month -- got into a rare playoff game fight with Phoenix's Rostislav Klesla...

...and after play resumed, the crowd at the Joe began chanting Bertuzzi's name.

It may not change things in the other 29 NHL cities and it doesn't resolve his outstanding legal issues with Moore, but at least Todd Bertuzzi is loved again somewhere.

"It's great," Bertuzzi told John Niyo in The Detroit News. "Obviously, I love playing here. They're very knowledgeable (fans) and respectful and they love their team here. And I think that's why guys love to come here and play and play hard for them."

It was kind of an amazing moment for a man who had become something of a pariah in the hockey world. No longer the big scorer he was in Vancouver, he's getting his share of second line duty and no longer seems shy about mixing it up.

"The last month or six weeks, he has brought another element to his game that he did when he was younger," observed Wings GM Ken Holland. "He's dropping the gloves all of a sudden."

"I just think that Bert wants to win — it's real simple." added Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "I think these guys that want to win and are getting to the later stages of their career -- I think Dallas Drake did the same thing for us (in '08) -- they give you that focus and that drive. And when you're willing to sacrifice for the team, I think that makes everyone better. … We're fortunate he wants to win as bad as he does."

"It's good to see," said Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski (quoted by John Niyo in The Detroit News), who was Bertuzzi's teammate on the Canucks and a good friend. "I mean, going through a tough time like that, it feels like it has dragged on forever — and from what I understand, it's not over yet. You know, he's got a big heart. He cares for his teammates. We had good times in Vancouver together and you just wish the best for him, because he's been dragged through the mud quite a bit."

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