There is nothing better than the Stanley Cup playoffs because we always end up having nights like tonight. Is there anything better than a Game 7? Yep, two of them.
Thanks to a 29-save outing by very nice young Christian man from tiny Morweeena, Man., named James Reimer, the Toronto Maple Leafs extended the Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Boston Bruins to a seventh and deciding game.
Say what you will, but Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle has already performed a miracle.
Less than a week ago the Leafs were dead on the vine. Down 3-1 in the series heading back to Boston, Toronto had just lost a game it should have won. They looked like a beaten team and the whole exercise seemed pretty hopeless.
But then a brilliant effort by Reimer — combined with a terrific, disciplined checking performance against Boston’s big line — sent the series back to Toronto for Game 6 and you know what they always say about a Game 6 at home. Yes, indeed anything can happen.
Sunday night, after 40 minutes of scoreless hockey, the Leafs got goals from Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel and despite a late tally by Milan Lucic at 19:34 of the third, the Leafs had evened the series at 3-3 and sent it back to Boston.
I’m still not convinced the Leafs are the better hockey team in this series, but what Carlyle has done to motivate his team defensively, cannot be overlooked or overstated. And, of course, in the last two games, Reimer has allowed two goals on 71 shots and that’s the definition of playing up to one’s competition at the most crucial time of the year.
All bets are off now. The Leafs have proven themselves as equals. Monday night’s game could be one of the most thrilling games of the season.
Speaking of goalies, we called this one: We wrote in our pre-playoff picks that if Henrik Lundqvist was at his best, the New York Rangers had a chance against Washington. Sunday afternoon Lundqvist made 27 saves to get the shutout as the Rangers beat the Caps 1-0 in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden.
Granted, The Rangers are 0-5 all-time in Game 7s on the road, but what happened in past years doesn’t matter now if Lundqvist can be perfect again.
Perahps just as important as getting great goaltending, however, is this: The Rangers have kept Alex Ovechkin off the scoresheet since Game 2. That can’t be overlooked.
Two Eastern Game 7s on Monday night. Can’t wait.
In the meantime, we’ve also seen an entire series change dramatically simply because of a goaltending change.
That certainly appears to have been the difference in the Pens-Isles series. With Marc-Andre Fleury in net, the Penguins simply couldn’t score enough goals to beat the New York Islanders. With Fleury on the bench and Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, the Pens scored four per game for two straight games and suddenly a tight 2-2 series was over.
Saturday night, Brooks Orpik scored the winning goal at 7:49 of the first overtime period as the Penguins beat the feisty, but over-matched New York Islanders 4-3. With the win, Pittsburgh closed out the Islanders in Game 6 at Nassau County Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum despite the fact, New York played a very good game in their own building and probably should have been dealt a better hand.
On Saturday, the Isles led 3-2 until the 14:44 mark of the third period when Paul Martin blasted a slapper past Evgeni Nabokov to make it 3-3 and eventually send the game to OT.
But in the overtime, Vokoun was flawless and Nabokov gave up the winner and in the end the Islanders outshot the Penguins 38-21 and were beaten by a better goalie.
A week ago, it’s hard to imagine we’d be saying that. Watching Fleury fight the puck, it would have been easy to figure that if Pens coach Dan Bylsma didn’t something about his goaltending, he’d join the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Cabucks on the list of upset losers.
However, Byslma had Vokoun and I really doubt we’ll see Fleury again, at least for awhile.
This game was, after all, the Islanders game. Not only did they outshoot the Penguins by a wide margin, they outhit them 31-23, won 60 per cent of the faceoffs and completely controlled the neutral and attacking zones. They won most of the battles in the dirty parts of the rink and they had more scoring chances by a 2-1 margin. This was the Islanders game.
But Tomas Vokoun said, “Not so fast, Josh Bailey,” who had six shots on goal. The Islanders should have scored half a dozen, but in the end, they could manage only three and were eliminated from the playoffs.
The New York Islanders improved dramatically this season. They might have been good enough to take out the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
But in a series full of goals, it was goaltending that won it in the end. Somewhat ironic, no?