The GAME of the night
Hurricanes 2, Canadiens 1
Carolina wins series 4-2
“Saku is our leader, our best player. He gives us our punch, our desire. His loss was absolutely huge for us and we just couldn’t seem to make up for it.”
I suppose that sums it up.
I can't really think of another player in this series whose absence would have had as big an impact on the series' outcome. No single player on the Habs or 'Canes means as much to his team as Montreal's captain.
Granted, Koivu's offensive production wasn't overwhelming this season, as Montreal is a fairly score-by-committee group, but that's not really all that factors into the equation. Sure, he's an excellent faceoff man and a strong defensive player, but what Koivu really brings is heart — a quality that, dare I say it, this Canadiens teams lacks a little without him.
It's a brutal assessment, but there can't really be any other conclusions after a team blows a 2-0 series lead, losing four straight games — three of those at home — and never looking like the team that was red-hot down the stretch.
Still, even with that said, the Hurricanes are lucky they had an ace in the hole like Cam Ward. I've heard more than a few pundits this year say Carolina would be hung out to dry if Martin Gerber couldn't get it done in the playoffs, but having seen Ward dominate the major junior playoffs with the Red Deer Rebels from 2002 to 2004, I'm sure most WHL followers knew better. Ward's numbers during the regular season weren't impressive at all, but he proved the difference in the series when Gerber faltered.
Even goaltending aside, Carolina's depth is impressive and it's part of what sets this team apart from Montreal. Veteran players like Doug Weight and Ray Whitney played just more than 14 minutes last night, while Oleg Tverdovsky warmed the bench as the seventh defenceman and Josef Vasicek didn't even play.
Vasicek, you say? So what? Let's not forget he led this team in scoring in 2003-04.
My how far we've come since then.
James's pre-playoff prediction: Carolina in 7
Sabres 7, Flyers 1
Buffalo wins series 4-2
"[I'm] shocked. It was over so quick. It was bang, bang, bang. Everybody was in shock.
"The air went out completely. The deflation was unbelievable."
This series may have went six games, but the Sabres offered up quite possibly the opening round's most dominating performance. This team is for real, and they're going to be a handful for even the Ottawa Senators.
The real question you face in breaking down a series like this is — Where the Sabres really that fantastic? Or were the Flyers really that awful?
Of course, the answer lies somewhere inbetween, but I don't think it can be overemphasized how poorly Philadelphia played in this series. They looked absolutely terrible, and nothing like the team that dominated many opponents during the regular season. On paper, a top line of Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble should have been able to really create havok against a smallish defence, but Gagne and Knuble were largely ineffective throughout. Forsberg managed to dominate the Flyers first two home games, notching four goals (two game winners) and six points in Games 3 and 4.
One of the main reasons the Flyers failed in this series was the lack of offence from supporting players, namely youngsters like Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger and Fred Meyer — all of whom seemed to improve as the regular season went along. I was especially shocked to see Carter and Richards, playoff heroes for the AHL Phantoms last year, finish without a goal and a combined -9.
Buffalo's score-by-committee approach provided just the opposite. The Sabres had three natural centremen (Dan Briere, Tim Connolly and Chris Drury) finish as the top three point producers in the series, which is any opposing coach's nightmare. One of the most inexperienced teams in the playoffs, Buffalo sure didn't look it and some of their youngest, most unproven players were their best (Ryan Miller, Connolly, J.P. Dumont, Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Brian Campbell).
There are a ton of fantastic players on this team who not a lot of hockey fans know much about, and I'm glad the Sabres advanced purely for that reason. If you get a chance to catch some of these games, be sure to keep your eye on Pominville in particular, who really impressed me when I took a trip to Buffalo in February.
Given his skillset, I think we could be looking at the next Martin St. Louis. He's that good.
One more quick Player to Watch pick: Jay McKee. The only player left from the Sabres unsuccessful run to the finals in 1999, McKee is the consumate playoff performer — even though we haven't seen him in that role since 2001. The Kingston, Ontario, native isn't going to get on the scoresheet often, but he led the NHL in blocked shots this season (241 — 34 more than the second-place player) and is also one of the Sabres leaders in hits. He's also quite the character, as evidenced by this quote after his defence partner (Campbell) rocked Umberger in Game 1:
"Big hits like that don't come around too often," McKee said. "It's not easy or you'd see them every night."Himself included, to be sure.
He almost sounded jealous.
"I think everybody was," McKee said. "I think everybody around the league would like to drop a hit like that one."
Final thought: To be honest, I thought this series would be the best of the first round, and it turned out to be a 'Grade A' dud. I've never seen a Hitchcock-coached team play like that.
James's pre-playoff prediction: Philadelphia in 6