NHL – Three Stars of the Night

Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com.

Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com.

A simply stunning night in the NHL yesterday, with the eight games throwing up plenty of goals, excitement, a wealth of impressive comebacks and the odd shock. There was even time for an ownership appreciation ceremony, a couple of Stanley Cup hats and one individual drawing a bruin on his face.

Stanley Cup finalists’ and perennial winners Boston, with Louis Eriksson and Jarome Iginla in their line-up, opened their new campaign at TD Garden against a Tampa Bay Lightning side looking to improve on an abject display last year. The Penguins also looked to start their quest for the cup with a victory, against a New Jersey Devils team whose off-season had been devastated by the retirement of star Ilya Kolvachuk.

Meanwhile, a young Florida Panthers, with the exception of newly acquired goaltender Tim Thomas, were looking to ruin the start of the Dallas Stars’ new era and coaches Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella took charge of each-other’s former team for the first time; with the Rangers taking on the Coyotes in an emotional night in Arizona and the Canucks heading to the Shark Tank to face San Jose.

Results:

Tampa Bay Lightning (1 – 3) Boston Bruins

New Jersey Devils (0 – 3) Pittsburgh Penguins

Calgary Flames (4 – 5) Washington Capitals (SO)

Los Angeles Kings (3 – 2) Minnesota Wild (SO)

Nashville Predators (2 – 4) St Louis Blues

Florida Panthers (4 – 2) Dallas Stars

New York Rangers (1 – 4) Phoenix Coyotes

Vancouver Canucks (1 – 4) San Jose Sharks

Image courtesy of gazettenet.com.

Image courtesy of gazettenet.com.

The Bruins have a wonderful ability to win when they’re not playing at their best, something evidenced in yesterday’s season-opener against the Lightning. Boston looked heavy-legged for much of the contest, their offensive fore-check lacking its usual fervour, but a goal from Milan Lucic and two short-handed efforts from Chris Kelly and Patrice Bergeron were enough for the victory.

Former Red Wing and free-agent acquisition Valterri Filppula replied for Tampa, but their power-play was woeful, going 0-for-5 and conceding twice. They will need to get their special teams firing on all cylinders or this season could be another struggle for the team from Florida (especially with the small matter of the Blackhawks up next). Tuukka Rask picked up where he left off during the playoffs, making 32 saves on 33 shots, though the Lightning didn’t really stretch him as much as they would have liked.

A slow start cost the Devils at the Consol Energy Centre, with Chuck Kobasew and Sidney Crosby scoring in the first period for the hosts; the latter effort a laser into the top corner. Despite out-shooting the home-side 22-9 for the next two periods, New Jersey simply couldn’t find the breakthrough and Craig Adams added a third for the Penguins.

This match really was a tale of goaltenders, with Corey Schneider becoming the first goalie in 18 years to start an opener for the Devils who wasn’t the immortal Martin Brodeur. I thought he may have done a little better with Kobasew’s goal but definitely settled as the game progressed. At the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury was outstanding, especially in the wake of the criticism he faced this summer over his postseason performances and following the lengthy injury to Thomas Vokoun, which although justified in my opinion, has now been answered in the ideal fashion; a 27-save shutout, with several point-blank flashes of the pad and the ‘Flower’s’ 250th win.

Image courtesy of cbssports.com.

Image courtesy of cbssports.com.

The 2012 Stanley Cup Champions L.A showed some of that indomitable mettle that seems to flow through everyone in their team, recovering from a 2-1 first period deficit to beat the Minnesota Wild in a shootout; the first loss ever in a season-opener for their franchise. It’s worth noting that ex-Penguin and Canuck Matt Cooke was excellent for the Wild, scoring the first and showing great energy in his play. Stick-side goals from Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter in the shootout gave the Kings the extra point.

A blistering start from the Blues in St Louis earned them a victory against Nashville, who removed Pekka Rinne after he conceded three goals on six shots inside the opening ten minutes. David Backes and Alex Steen were terrific for St Louis, picking up a goal and assist each. The Predators did at least manage to create some offence, which is more than can be said for the entirety of last season, with Mike Fisher and David Legwand putting them on the board. The dominant score-line perhaps doesn’t fully reflect the flow of the game, with the Blues simply being more clinical early on. Nashville will hope for better performances from Rinne moving forward, though the chemistry and nature of the goals left him with little chance.

Image courtesy of newstimes.com.

Image courtesy of newstimes.com.

The San Jose Sharks made it yet another miserable trip to California for the Canucks, their 4-1 rout ruining coach John Tortorella’s debut for Vancouver. The usual suspects were all involved, Logan Couture picking up two clever assists and Patrick Marleau’s snap-shot getting him up and running for the season. Brent Burns also scored the equaliser for San Jose, who trailed to Jason Garrison’s power-play goal heading into the second period.

Neither special teams unit really covered themselves in glory however, with the Canucks going 1-for-6 on the man-advantage and the Sharks an astonishing 0-for-8. Both will look to improve on those stats and for Vancouver, who have now lost to the Sharks 10-straight times (including a playoff sweep), it will be a case of forgetting yesterday swiftly.

Third Star – Aleksander Barkov (1G, 4S, 1P, +-1)

Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com.

Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com.

A new General Manager in Jim Nill, a new coach in Lindy Ruff and dazzling green uniforms, everyone associated with the Dallas Stars was ready to start celebrating the birth of a new era, but the Florida Panthers went and ruined it all. It was a youngster who stole the show.

Despite a free-flowing start featuring Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Scott Gomez became the first party-pooper, poking a back-hand past Kari Lehtonen to dampen the home crowd. Dallas had changed the tide by the third period however, first Alex Chiasson making use of the shallow net to score a wrap-around on Tim Thomas, before Brenden Dillon scored short-handed.

Then came the moment Aleksander Barkov, who had already thoroughly impressed with his size, strength and confidence, showed everyone why he was picked 2nd overall in the 2013 draft and sealed his place as my third star. Spinning in a crowded crease, he held off defenders to score a vital goal which tied-up the game. There was just time for Marcel Goc to stab home the game-winner and later add an empty-netter. Tim Thomas was great on his return to the NHL with 24 stops, but Barkov looks very much like the real deal.

Second Star – Alex Ovechkin (2G, 1A, 3P, +-1)

Image courtesy of usatoday.com.

Image courtesy of usatoday.com.

Trailing 4-1 at home to the Calgary Flames, the Capitals badly needed inspiration, they desperately needed one of their stars to deliver. In the end, it was the biggest star, Alex Ovechkin.

After a high-scoring loss to the Blackhawks on Tuesday, Washington started slow and by the end of the first, were trailing 3-0 to goals from David Jones, Lee Stempniak and Jirri Hudler, who had chased Braden Holtby from net. Though rookie defencemen Connor Carrick had got one back, through a superb deke after being released from the penalty box, Lance Bouma soon restored Calgary’s advantage.

It was during the second period that the Russian stepped into action, first a bullet of a one-timer from his favourite spot by the left face-off dot courtesy of Mike Green’s pass, then a snap-shot rifled past Karri Ramo straight from a face-off win to make it 4-3. After important penalty-kills in the final period, Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski worked hard to get the puck to Niklas Backstrom, who made no mistake with completing the comeback.

To round off his wonderful display, Ovechkin also scored in the shootout, along with Mikhail Grabovski (who couldn’t have had a better start to life in D.C) to give the Capitals the win and cement his place as my second star.

First Star – Radim Vrbata (3G, 4S, 3P, +-2)

Image courtesy of cbssports.com.

Image courtesy of cbssports.com.

At the Jobing.com arena in Arizona, another team conspired to sour a coach’s debut with a new team, this time it was the Coyotes against Alain Vigneault’s New York Rangers.

It was a special night for Phoenix too, with the crowd showing rapturous appreciation to the nine-man ownership group whose efforts had kept the franchise in the desert. This bubbling energy seemed to transfer to the home players and Kyle Chipchura gave the Coyotes an early lead. The Rangers had quelled the onslaught by the second period however and Marc Staal levelled the game on a power-play.

It was towards the end of the period that the game became the ‘Radim Vrbata’ show, a player who scored 35 goals two years ago but struggled last year. The forward first pounced on a loose puck in the crease to give Phoenix a 2-1 lead. Then, on a power-play at the start of the third, he sent a rocket of a slap-shot past Henrik Lundqvist from the point to double his tally. A few minutes later, he sent hats cascading onto the ice, chasing his own dump-in before having the puck deflected back into his path and coolly beating Lundqvist clean for his third of the night.

A performance full of endeavour, skill and clinical finishing, ultimately worthy of being first star. Not to mention, having the distinction of scoring a hatrick on the final day of the 2012-13 regular season against Anaheim, and opening with the exact same feat this year.

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