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May 4, 2006
  

Niedersmyther
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Let's assume the endorphins were overpowering Buffalo Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere's common sense when he was asked about his team's conference quarterfinals victory over Philadelphia. 

"A lot of people looked at this series as the old NHL against the new NHL," he said. "And that fired our will even more..."

Look, the clouded analysis can be excused. The Sabres skated into this series as higher-seeded underdogs, as the Flyers were dethroned as division champions on the final night of the regular season. 

In terms of playoff experience, it was a like a tee-ball team taking on the Atlanta Braves — difference being, of course, that the Braves have actually won a world championship in the last 30 years. 

Yet the Sabres outplayed, outmaneuvered and outscored the Orange and Black to the point where Bobby Clarke was probably searching through his Rolodex for Ron Hextall's cell number by Game 3. 

All of that, and the fact that Flyers fans were reduced to echoing Eagles chants through the half-empty Wachovia Center by the end of Game 6, clearly put Briere's head in the clouds in the post-series debriefing. 

Because it's not about new NHL vs. old NHL — it's about who steps up when it matters most. 

Briere previously had three points in six career playoff games. Against the Flyers, he had nine points in the same span.

Tim Connolly's resurrection as a player has been credited to the rules changes, but it takes more than the elimination of the two-line pass to explain eight points in six games for a guy who'd never seen a minute of Stanley Cup playoff action before this season. 

And I don't care what rules are or aren't being enforced: none of them can explain how the stalwart checking line of Chris Drury, Derek Roy and Mike Grier can score the same amount of points they allowed to Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble (16). 

Look around the league... Does the new NHL explain Patrik Elias scoring 11 points, or Jamie Langenbrunner scoring eight for the Devils? No, because these guys always step up in the postseason for Jersey. Alexei Kovalev had 77 points in 94 playoff games entering the postseason; is it a surprise that his seven-in-six games performance kept Montreal in this thing longer than anyone expected? (Well, save for the "pundits" that predicting a Habs team with systemic goaltending issues would upset the Hurricanes. Whoops!) 

Chris Pronger steps up, the Oilers win. Brendan Shanahan goes from 81 points in the regular season to two in the postseason, and the Red Wings lose. Jose Theodore posts a 2.64 GAA, and the Avalanche win. Sean Burke and John Grahame watch more rubber fly past them than a pit crew at the Daytona 500, and the reigning champions lose. (Speaking of goaltenders, if you're ever searching for gold nuggets or sharks' teeth in a local stream or riverbed, make sure to invite Marty Turco along. Because he's the biggest sieve you're ever going to find.)

I picked the Ducks over the Flames because I couldn't, in good faith, bet against two of the most dominating playoff performers in recent memory: goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who was good for two wins before Ilya Bryzgalov brilliantly carried the baton the rest of the way, and defenseman Scott Niedermayer.

At first glance, Nieder's stats are good, not great: five points in seven games, and a minus-3. But Niedermayer had a goal and three assists on the powerplay, a critical short-handed goal in Anaheim's Game 2 win, and the game-winner in Game 6. The minus-3 is misleading, too, when you consider Niedermayer is logging about 30 minutes a night and anchoring a defense that made Bryzgalov and especially Giguere look a hell of a lot better than they were for most of the series. 

The Ducks spent $27 million to capture Niedermayer in the off-season. Should they advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, there's a chance he could capture the Conn Smythe for the Ducks. 

Playoff heroics are nothing new for Niedermayer. He had 64 points in 146 playoff games during his three Stanley Cups with the Devils, scoring three game-winning goals. His most memorable moment came during the first Cup run in 1995: Game 2 of the Finals, in Detroit. He collected a loose puck in the defensive zone and motored ahead. 

"Here's Niedermayer," said ESPN announcer Gary Thorne, "he can fly." 

He proceeded to take on three Red Wings defenseman -- including his idol, Paul Coffey – and wristed a shot off the end boards that rebounded back to him in front of goalie Mike Vernon. Niedermayer tapped in his own rebound to tie a game the Devils would eventually win. 

On those Devils teams, he played in the shadow of another Scott, Mr. Stevens, and had to share (or at times concede) the credit for the team's stellar defense to Marty Brodeur and whichever coach was orchestrating the system that season. 

The 2006 Ducks are his team. Carry them to the Cup, and it'll be time clear a little room on the mantle. 

Two years ago, he became Norrismayer, and now he's 12 wins away from becoming Niedersmyther. 

RHETORICALLY SPEAKING

The New York Rangers' lovefest with the fans at center ice after losing Game 4 at MSG was all well and good: sticks in the air, the remaining crowd applauding the first postseason berth since the Clinton Administration. But wasn't it, in some ways, a miserable reminder of how far this Original Six franchise has fallen? Who ever thought they'd see the day when the Broadway Blueshirts would be swept out of the playoffs in their own building by the hated Devils, and that fans would respond with a "thanks for the effort" ovation; the kind you hear when a Special Olympics athlete finally crosses the finish line?

Speaking of New Jersey, if the Devils had a game scheduled for May 1, would Scott Gomez have been a healthy scratch in support of his Latino brothers and sisters?

Do all the Vancouver fans trembling at the prospect of Pat Quinn coming to the Canucks realize that, at the very least, he'd ensure the team has a Stanley Cup-caliber goaltender no matter the cost?

From Gary Bettman, via Stan Fischler, on his presence at games affecting the officiating in the postseason: "I don't think they (the referees) care who's here. They're doing their jobs to the best of their ability, and that's what makes them so good. Would it be any different if I were sitting at home with the telephone nearby? In fact, sitting at home, I get the benefit of replay. That talk about my presence influencing the way the game is called is silly." Riiight, and the students never behave differently when a substitute is teaching the class, either...

For all of those self-proclaimed media pundits clamoring for the NHL to get back into that bed of sin with ESPN, consider that there is only one game in the Stanley Cup conference semifinals that is currently not scheduled to be televised by either OLN or NBC: Game 6, San Jose at Edmonton on May 17. American hockey fans that don't have the benefit of pay-per-view can see literally every game. And even if it means having to put up with Neil Smith's empty commentary, they've been blessed this postseason, haven't they? 

Finally, from the "Giving Ovechkin Too Much Credit" Dept., the San Jose Mercury News cites Alex as the reason that ratings for the NHL playoffs for the first weekend were 375 higher in the Washington, DC market than in 2004; with roughly 43,000 households watching instead of 9,000. 

Let's see... an East Coast city with a transient population full of government workers from out of town... the increase couldn't possibly have anything to do with the Rangers, Devils, Flyers and Sabres all being in the postseason, could it?
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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