Five things we learned from Thursday

April, 30, 2010

1. The team that most needed a Game 1 victory got it Thursday night, as San Jose beat Detroit 4-3 to officially open the NHL's second round. The Sharks snapped a streak that had seen them lose the opening game in four consecutive playoff series. While that may not be the end of the world for most contenders, San Jose's demons of playoffs past would bring questions had the Sharks lost this opener.

Thanks to the Eagles' invading HP Pavilion for back-to-back nights, there are two off days before Game 2 on Sunday. Imagine the Sharks dropping the opener to the Wings and spending two full days answering questions about their past playoff failures. Instead, they're off to a solid start, and the focus is on the continued strong play of Joe Pavelski and his linemates Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe. The veteran Wings can handle being behind the eight ball, and this still has the look of a long series. Besides, it's not hard to believe the Red Wings lost in Game 1; they played less than 48 hours after their Game 7 win in Phoenix. The two Eagles concerts Friday and Saturday did the Wings no favors in terms of scheduling.

2. The Big Pavelski (love that new nickname) was at it again Thursday night, scoring twice and adding an assist to give him a team-leading 11 points (7-4) in seven playoff games. He's the team's playoff MVP right now, with Dan Boyle (three assists Thursday night) a close second. There were some raised eyebrows by some fans when Pavelski was named by GM Brian Burke to the U.S. Olympic team on Jan. 1. Turns out Burke knew what he was doing. Sharks GM Doug Wilson and his scouting staff also deserve kudos for finding Pavelski at 205th overall in the 2003 NHL draft.

3. Fresh off shocking the Washington Capitals and the rest of the hockey world with Dryden/Roy-like netminding, Jaroslav Halak now takes on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins with Game 1 tonight. Given Halak's bigger-than-ever profile, it might be worth remembering he was a ninth-round draft pick (271st overall) in the 2003 NHL draft. They don't even have nine rounds any more, just seven. Credit Trevor Timmins, Montreal's director of player recruitment and development, for the late-draft gem.

Timmins was working his first draft at the time for the Canadiens after coming over from the Ottawa Senators. Not a bad first draft for Timmins, who also nabbed Andrei Kostitsyn (10th), Maxim Lapierre (61st) and Ryan O'Byrne (79th) that same weekend. Seven years later, these players played important roles in the first round. Still, no one stands out more than Halak. With every miracle performance, Halak has his agent, Allan Walsh of Octagon, doing cartwheels. (The Slovak netminder is a restricted free agent July 1.)

4. It may be piling on at this point, but one can't allow Washington's stunning first-round collapse to go untouched on the Alex Ovechkin-Crosby front. Whether they like it or not, and same goes for their dueling fan clubs, the two NHL superstars will be compared for the rest of their careers. And, right now, the score is overwhelmingly in favor of the Penguins captain. A recap of the past 11 months: Stanley Cup ring, Olympic gold medal (and OT game-winner) for Crosby, and a blowout quarterfinal loss to Crosby's Team Canada in Vancouver and first-round NHL upset loss to the 16th-ranked playoff team for Ovechkin. The Capitals captain is too talented and cares too much about the game to let this trend continue. But at this point, it's rather tilted on the No. 87-No. 8 scoreboard.

5. A tournament that will always hold a special place in my heart will start next week in Germany, the IIHF men's World Championships. The United States and Canada both added to their respective rosters after the first round of the NHL playoffs.

Jack Johnson of the Los Angeles Kings, Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes and Andy Greene of the New Jersey Devils highlight the U.S. blue line, while Brandon Dubinsky of the New York Rangers, T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues and Kyle Okposo of the Islanders lead the attack.

Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, John Tavares of the New York Islanders and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks headline Team Canada's offense, but the big addition Thursday, at least in my biased opinion, was veteran winger Ryan Smyth of the Kings. Eight years ago (I'm getting old), I sat down with him at a hotel in Karlstad, Sweden, for a feature piece on Smyth, who was at his fourth consecutive worlds, and gave him a nickname that stuck: "Captain Canada." This will be his eighth appearance at the worlds.

For the North American players who have to make the long trek overseas, playing in this tournament is about giving back to USA Hockey or Hockey Canada, the organizations that support minor hockey, the very people that helped these NHLers achieve their dreams. I commend NHLers like Smyth who never say no to their countries.





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