THE MORNING SKATE
Everyone knows the allure of the playoffs is not just the potential of the impossible happening but the certainty that it will take place.
But did anyone really expect the Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes, all legitimate Stanley Cup hopefuls and the owners of a combined 348 regular season points, would be a combined 2-7 when dawn broke Thursday?
What has been especially interesting has been the path followed by the two No. 2 seeds, Carolina and Dallas.
Through the first two games they followed a strangely parallel track before diverging dramatically in Game 3. Both teams, prohibitive favorites over flawed Montreal and Colorado teams respectively, came out surprisingly flat in Game 1 and were beaten soundly. Then both were defeated in overtime in Game 2 after erasing significant deficits but then coughing up a lead of their own en route to extra time.
In their third games, games that truly qualified as must-wins, both went to overtime again but this time it was Carolina that asserted itself as a quality team still very much alive while the Stars reinforced the notion they are very much the playoff gaggers.
In Montreal, Carolina trailed by a 1-0 count from midway through the second until midway through the third until Rod Brind'Amour scored a semi-fluky goal against Cristobal Huet. Eric Staal then scored on the power play early in the first overtime period to re-establish equilibrium to a series the Hurricanes now trail 2-1. For the first time, the Hurricanes were able to neutralize the skilled Alex Kovalev, who had three goals and two assists in the first two games and their defensive posture went from porous to engaged.
The Stars, likewise, were down 1-0 and 2-1 Wednesday in Colorado but continued to outskate the Avalanche and were rewarded with a power-play marker from Zubov with 15 seconds left in the second period that gave them a 3-2 lead.
But the Stars, who have yet to score in the third period of this series, fell back into a defensive posture and with less than two minutes to go Brenden Morrow was assessed a tripping penalty in the offensive zone. It was the last in a long line of mindless penalties taken by the Stars on the night and especially crucial given that with 56.4 seconds left the Avalanche tied it.
In overtime, where the Hurricanes pressured the Canadiens on the forecheck to draw the crucial penalty that led to the game-winning goal, the Stars seemed bewildered. The Avalanche, led by the incomparable Joe Sakic, took the play to Colorado from the opening faceoff in overtime and 1:09 in Alex Tanguay sealed the Stars' fate.
While Colorado got steady, sometimes spectacular goaltending from rookie Cam Ward, who turned aside 27 of 28 shots in his first playoff start in relief of Martin Gerber, Dallas netminder Marty Turco reinforced his reputation as a player who cannot win the big game. He is now 7-13 in the postseason.
The strange thing is that the Stars and Hurricanes are built much the same way. They both have innovative, no-nonsense coaches in Dave Tippett and Peter Laviolette. They both play an up-tempo game and are led by solid, skilled veterans such as Brind'Amour, Doug Weight, Glen Wesley, Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov.
The pressure still remains squarely on the shoulders of the Hurricanes heading into Game 4 on Friday. But that's better than can be said for the Stars, who are done like dinner.
This and that
It is certainly a measure of Steve Yzerman's greatness that he has been the catalyst to three Cup championships since 1997. But if there is a team in the NHL that should be able to overcome the loss of one player, even one who will get the red carpet treatment en route to the Hall of Fame, it should be the Red Wings. Well, shouldn't it? Strangely, if history is any indication, the presence of guys such as Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Robert Lang, Kris Draper, et al., might not be enough if Yzerman is unable to go in Game 4 Thursday in Edmonton or beyond. In 2004, Yzerman went down with an eye injury in Game 5 against Calgary and the Wings lost that game and the deciding sixth game. In 2001, the Wings were dispatched by Los Angeles in the first round and Yzerman played in only one of the four games with a foot injury. If he doesn't go Thursday night because of a suspected back injury, the game represents an interesting dynamic. Are the Wings really the class of the league they appeared to be throughout the regular season? Or are they headed down the road to becoming the Western Conference version of the Ottawa Senators -- light it up in the regular season but fade fast when the big dance begins? Stay tuned.
The eye injury sustained by Montreal captain Saku Koivu early in the second period of Game 3 in Montreal proves two referees aren't quite enough. No penalty was called on Carolina's Justin Williams after his stick inadvertently got under Koivu's visor, causing an eye injury, the seriousness of which is not yet known. Clearly there should have been a double minor called, a call that might well have determined the outcome of the game given that it was scoreless at the time. The Hurricanes went on to win 2-1 in overtime. Still, for those calling for Williams to be suspended, the NHL has once again backed itself into a corner by not suspending players for more egregious behavior. If repeat offender Denis Gauthier of Philadelphia isn't suspended for drilling Buffalo's Thomas Vanek from behind in Game 2, how does an incidental high stick warrant a suspension? Short answer, it doesn't.
So Marc Crawford took the high dive in Vancouver after the talented Canucks stumbled their way out of the playoffs. Like the firing of Pat Quinn in Toronto, the decision is merely a preamble to more crucial issues that will define the future of the team's GM, in this case Vancouver GM Dave Nonis. If his logic for firing Crawford was that Crawford had lost the dressing room, Nonis must follow up the firing with significant roster moves. If you have a dressing room of stars who don't listen to their coach, how do you expect a new coach to succeed without changing that dynamic as well? And let's be specific. If Todd Bertuzzi can do no more than shamble through an entire season complaining about being treated unfairly in the media, he has to go. It won't be easy, not with Bertuzzi's $5.3 million price tag for next year. But this is a deal that is beyond getting value for a player. This is a trade Nonis has to make to give the new Canucks coach a chance to succeed. With Bertuzzi in the room, the same script will be reprised with a new coach's name. If he's gone, even if it means taking on some other team's baggage, at least the door will be fully open for the Canucks to move forward.
-- Scott Burnside