Thursday night showcased some exciting Western Conference playoff hockey. Both the Blues/Blackhawks and Wild/Avalanche games went into overtime, with St. Louis and Colorado each finding a way to win. St. Louis ended the season on a losing streak and has been decimated by injuries but persevered in the first game against defending champion Chicago. The Blues seemed noticeably sluggish compared with the speedier Hawks. It’s hard not to pick Chicago but St. Louis could surprise. Goaltending might be the difference-maker in that series, especially if Ryan Miller regains his playoff form. Toews also seemed shaken in Game 1 and, if he’s injured, that could tilt the series in St. Louis’ favor. Jumping from worst to 2nd in the conference, the Avalanche are the Cinderella story of the NHL this season. With a promising, young forward corps, they are definitely a team on the rise. But are they gritty enough to be a sleeper? It’s likely they could defeat the Wild, who I don’t think are built for a long run. Minnesota’s goaltending is also questionable and squandered a 4-2 lead last night.
Of interest to Bay Area sports fans will be the first-round match-up between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. Sharks PR has adopted “Beat LA” as mantra for the best of seven series, with the fans at the SAP Center chanting it throughout Game 1. The Kings are division rivals and frequent playoff foes, with the Kings last defeating San Jose in a second-round Game 7 last year. Rookie phenom Tomas Hertl -- whose hazy command of English has been playfully commented on by fans and media -- quickly made a difference, scoring in his third game back from knee surgery. Hertl has admitted he has a personal stake in the series, as an illegal hit by Kings captain Dustin Brown caused him to miss most of what could have been a Calder-worthy rookie season. In only 35 games, he tallied 15 goals and 10 assists. The Sharks will benefit from the return of sniper Hertl and the physical Rafi Torres (who also scored in his return). It remains to be seen if talented but injury-prone Marty Havlat will play in the series.
The Sharks immediately started the game with a lot of physicality and speed. While the Kings are known for a bruising defense, the Sharks were able to make great outlet passes and had a lot of odd-man rushes in the first period. They quickly jumped to a 3-0 lead, adding two more goals in the second. San Jose played a complete game for forty minutes, though slipped in the third, allowing three goals. Overall, it was a great effort, with contributions from many players. Letting the momentum swing to LA’s favor in the third wasn’t ideal and you have to expect the Kings to come out strong next game. San Jose needs to keep up with the hitting. Quick seemed rattled early on and was eventually chased from the crease. The Sharks need to continue to go hard to the net. I’ve seen many players fear Quick’s athleticism and hesitate, trying to get the perfect shot out. Quick often intimidates shooters, coming way out of the net to challenge players (especially on odd-man rushes). The Sharks didn’t falter mentally nor did they let the Kings dictate the flow (even if the Kings did control possession from time to time) and need to ride that confidence into Game 2.