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So much to love about the NHL playoffs

tom jones' two cents

We're coming up on the halfway point of the NHL playoffs, but already there has been plenty to love about this year's race to the Stanley Cup. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens? More like blood drops on noses and whiskers on Coyotes … and Flyers and Rangers. These are a few of our favorite things about this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.

Overtime

Find yourself having trouble getting out of bed in the morning? Nodding off at work in the afternoon? Perhaps you're staying up to watch overtime in the playoffs. See, there's a mantra among hockey fans: You simply cannot go to bed during overtime no matter how tired you are, how late it is and how early you have to get up in the morning. And it seems like every other night we're all abiding by that.

Seriously, is there a more thrilling thing in sports than sudden death overtime in the hockey playoffs?

Of the first 62 games in this year's playoffs, 20 have gone to overtime. Of the eight series in the first round, seven had at least one game go to overtime. The first five games of the Coyotes-Blackhawks series went to overtime.

The winner-take-all seventh game of the Devils-Panthers series in the first round went to double overtime. That right there is an example of what is so awesome about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Two teams whose season hangs on the next goal. Score it and you stay alive. Allow it and your season is finished.

Wednesday, the Rangers and Capitals started at 7:40 p.m. and were still going at it at a quarter after midnight Thursday in the third overtime before the Rangers' Marian Gaborik scored the goal that gave the Blueshirts a 2-1 series lead.

Watching former Lightning stars

For bay area hockey fans, if you can't root for the Lightning in the playoffs, cheering on former Lightning stars is the next best thing. In that regard, most likely are pulling for the Rangers, which features former Lightning coach John Tortorella, left, and forwards Brad Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko. All three hold a special place in Lightning history. Tortorella led the Lightning to its only Stanley Cup in 2004, Richards was the playoff MVP that year, and Fedotenko scored both goals in the 2-1 victory over the Flames in Game 7 of the Cup final.

A few other former Lightning players scattered about, but the interesting name out there is goalie Mike Smith, below, now in Phoenix. Smith was acquired in a trade that sent Richards to Dallas in 2008 and was supposed to become the Lightning's No. 1 goalie, but it never worked out that way. He left for Phoenix last offseason.

As it turned out, the Lightning desperately needed a No. 1 goalie this season, and Smith is the franchise goalie with the Coyotes.

Smith's name is brought up here for a purpose. To suggest he would have had this type of season with the Lightning is misguided. Smith, who left as a free agent, appears to be more the benefactor of Phoenix's defensive system than a goalie who has suddenly found the secret formula for stopping pucks. Think of it this way: Ilya Bryzgalov looked like a way better goalie with the Coyotes from 2007-11 than he has with the Flyers this season.

Seeing every game

For the first time, every game of the playoffs is being televised. NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC have picked up the bulk of the games nationally, with the NHL Network carrying a few strays in the first round. It's hard to believe, but in years past, not every playoff game could be seen on television. That had to be frustrating for those in the Tampa Bay area who were, say, a Devils fan or a Kings fan but were forced to find a sports bar to watch their favorite team instead of being able to watch at home. It's always better to order off the menu than to eat what the chef picks for you.

Mike Emrick

A perfect scenario: overtime and NBC's Mike Emrick on the play-by-play. No one makes playoff hockey more exciting than the Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster. Emrick never makes himself bigger than the game he is calling. But his uncanny sense of timing and right balance of emotion make a dramatic game more dramatic. When it comes to hockey, there's Emrick and then there's everyone else. But while we're talking about "everyone else,'' Lightning play-by-play announcer Rick Peckham has been picked up by NBC for a few games this postseason. In less than 24 hours, Peckham called games in New York and Vancouver, and sounded crisp on each game.

Seeing new stars

Every playoff season seems to bring an unexpected star. This year our favorite is a 22-year-old kid from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, named Braden Holtby. Unless you're a Capitals fan, you probably had never heard of this goalie before a few weeks ago. Coming into this postseason, Holtby had played 21 NHL games. But that didn't stop him from outplaying last year's playoff MVP, Boston goalie Tim Thomas, in the first round. Meantime, the Rangers' Chris Kreider, who turned 21 on Monday, already has two winning goals in these playoffs. Just last month, Kreider was at the Tampa Bay Times Forum leading Boston College to the national championship in the Frozen Four. Think about it: Kreider could continue scoring goals, lift the Stanley Cup, get his name on the Stanley Cup, then make his NHL regular-season debut in October. Crazy, eh?

Unexpected stars

Every season a few third- and fourth-line players suddenly sport a red cape and become Superman. They go from being muckers, grinders and pluggers to scoring key goals. Remember last season when then-Lightning Sean Bergenheim went crazy collecting big goals? This season it's players such as New Jersey's Travis Zajac and Phoenix's Antoine Vermette and Mikkel Boedker.

Zajac scored two goals in 15 games during an injury-plagued regular season but had five in his first 10 playoff games. Vermette has five goals in 10 playoff games after scoring 11 in 82 regular-season games. And Boedker scored overtime winners in back-to-back games in the first round after having two winning goals all regular season.

Martin Brodeur

The legendary Devils goalie turns 40 today, and he will be in net for New Jersey as it tries to take a 3-1 series lead against the Flyers. Brodeur won his first postseason game in 1994. Flyers defenseman Sean Couturier, who is facing Brodeur in this semifinal round, was 1 at the time. Brodeur has won 105 playoff games, more than every other starting goalie left in these playoffs combined. Do yourself a favor and watch Brodeur before his postseason ends. This could be his last season. It could be his last run at a Cup. Watch him closely right now so you can always remember the greatest goalie who has ever lived.

So much to love about the NHL playoffs 05/05/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 5, 2012 8:12pm]

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