Monday, April 27, 2009

Babchuk comes up huge for Carolina; 'Canes force Game 7

The Carolina Hurricanes rolled over the New Jersey Devils 4-0 last night, forcing a do-or-die Game 7 in Newark tomorrow night. Carolina Head Coach Paul Maurice made several changes to the lineup from Game 5, including replacing Frantisek Kaberle with Anton Babchuk on the third defense pairing with Niclas Wallin. This move paid immediate dividends as Babchuk made a smart defensive play, which led to Carolina's first goal; they never looked back from there. Ray Whitney was the first star of the game, with a goal and three assists.

Big play from Babchuk

Anton Babchuk was back in the lineup Sunday after being scratched for Game 5, and it was a move with a pretty solid foundation.

Babchuk wasn’t happy at being left out, so you figure you’ll get a pretty good game from him. And it’s at home, so you get to control who he’s out against and should get more power plays to use him.

As these things often happen, Babchuk made a key play in the first period that led to Carolina’s first goal. After a long Carolina shift in the Devils’ zone, the Devils were on their way in the other direction when Babchuk held the puck in the zone at the blue line.

Babchuk’s deflection went straight to Eric Staal at the right circle. Martin Brodeur saved his shot, but Chad LaRose grabbed the rebound and fed Staal behind the net. Staal found an open Ray Whitney in front for Carolina’s first goal since Jussi Jokinen’s late game-winner in Game 4.

Babchuk didn’t get an assist on the play, but that goal doesn’t happen without his gutsy decision to stay put at the blue line — and the team that has scored first has won five of the six games in this series.

On the night, Babchuk was plus-1 in 19 minutes of ice time, with two shots on goal and one blocked shot.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Alexander Radulov scores two goals to lead Russia past France in day 3 of the World Championships

Alexander Radulov scored two goals today as Russia cruised past France 7-2. Radulov got Russia on the board only 1:23 into the first period and logged 20:27 of ice time for the day while skating on the third line with former Ottawa Senator Oleg Saprykin and Konstantin Gorovikov. Russia will face Switzerland on Tuesday, having outscored its opponents 12-2 thus far in two games.

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Anton Babchuk to be reinserted into lineup tonight for Game 6 vs. New Jersey Devils

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Anton Babchuk will be back in the lineup tonight as the 'Canes try to even up the series at 3 against the New Jersey Devils.  Babchuk, who led Carolina defensemen in goals (16), had been a healthy scratch for Game 5, when Carolina was consequently shutout by New Jersey.  Babchuk had 9 powerplay goals this season and came on strong at the end of the season, after receiving increased ice-time.  Babchuk scored 2 goals in Carolina's regular-season finale against New Jersey.  If Carolina can win tonight, Game 7 would be Tuesday night in Newark.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

For one night, Flames have advantage over Khabibulin

Well, Monday night, after looking all but done, the Flames got themselves back into their series against the Blackhawks with a 4-2 victory at the Saddledome. Calgary forward Eric Nystrom said this about Nikolai Khabibulin, "He's a world-class goalie. He’s a great goalie. The way you beat him is just to put pucks there. It’s eventually going to go in. You’ve got to put bodies there, too, and I think we did a great job of that tonight."

Game 4 is Wednesday night at 10 PM ET.

Flames burn down 'Bulin Wall

Solid effort all-around gives Calgary new life in series against Chicago

Last Updated: 21st April 2009, 1:07 am

The Wall has cracks after all.

And the Calgary Flames have life in the series.

One more goal in each of their first two games was all that kept the Flames from coming away from Chicago with a 2-0 lead instead of an intimidating deficit in the first-round matchup.

One goal changed their fortune last night at the Saddledome in a 4-2 Flames victory that helped them climb back into the fight.

It wasn't a pretty one, but neither the Flames nor their fans will complain when Nikolai (The 'Bulin Wall) Khabibulin gives up a soft one.

Rene Bourque's wraparound bank-shot that hit Khabibulin's pad and slid through the five-hole gave the Flames their first lead of the game with less than three minutes to play in the second period.

They didn't give up the lead this time.

"We learned from our mistakes and we knew how we had to play to keep the lead," said Eric Nystrom, who tied things at 1-1 early in the first period. "We got the next goal, which was huge, and we got the next one to seal the deal. You've got to stay on the hunt.

"That was the difference tonight."

Bourque's didn't hold up as the winner, but boosting the confidence of a snakebitten Flames squad that hasn't had an easy time against the Blackhawks backstop over his career, they charged out of the room in the final frame and added to the lead just 1:18 in.

It was David Moss — earning his first of two over the final 20 minutes — pushing the puck into a gaping cage to give the Flames a two-goal cushion.

He made it 4-1 minutes later courtesy of a lucky bounce off his skate as he charged the net.

It was more than luck, however, that gave the Flames their first win this spring.

It was good, old-fashioned, green hard-hat-type workmanship.

Todd Bertuzzi became the power forward many might remember from earlier in the Millennium.

Bourque overcame obvious pain to put in a full night's effort.

Moss continues to bloom as a clutch sniper unafraid of the punishment he takes for going to the net.

Oh, and the other goaltender, Miikka Kiprusoff, was in fine form as he rejected 36 of the 38 shots sent his way.

“All year, we struggled against them. We haven’t played up to our potential," said defenceman Adrain Aucoin, relieved to finally beat the Hawks and Khabibulin. "We’d seen a couple of flashes the last two games, but tonight was our wire-to-wire best effort."

The goal-scorers were Moss, Bourque and Nystrom, but you have to give credit to the supporting roleplayers on each of those tallies.

Rookie defenceman Adam Pardy forced Khabibulin to give up a juicy rebound right back up the gut with his individual rush to the blue paint and Moss was Johnny-on-the-spot to make it 3-1.

Owing his game-turning goal to the legwork of Olli Jokinen — until now barely mentioned in the series unless it was for his lack of an offensive presence — Bourque wouldn't have been in prime position for an attempt without Jokinen out-hustling Hawks captain Jonathan Toews to push the puck deep and set up the attack.

Anyone looking for bad omens might have considered the Sea of Red's inability to sync up both sides of the building for its first 'Go Flames Go' chant an early one.

The Flames weren't in sync in the opening minutes, either.

Taking advantage with a scoring chance on the first shift, the Blackhawks showed no signs of intimidation.

Even less after they opened the scoring on the powerplay 2:03 into the game.

Patrick Sharp had an easy tap-in set up by Toews with Jokinen in the box for goaltender interference.

Nystrom gave the sold-out Saddledome new life with his first career playoff goal less than five minutes later, roofing the puck past Khabibulin to tie things at 1-1.

Again, partial credit has to go to the other Flames on the ice.

Screening Khabibulin was Warren Peters, who suited up for his first NHL playoff game instead of Jamie Lundmark. Feeding Nystrom was Curtis Glencross, who took a pass from defenceman Adrian Aucoin and raced up the wing before spotting the open man across the ice.

Contributions came from all around, and the flames will need more of that tomorrow night as they try to even the series in Game 4 at the Dome.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Anssi Salmela added to Finnish roster for World Championships

The Atlanta Thrashers season ended on April 11, but will continue for Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Anssi Salmela, who was just added to the Finnish roster for the IIHF World Championships.  The World Championships will take place in Switzerland, beginning April 24.  Salmela will be a restricted free agent this summer.  Other Thrashers playing in the World Championships are Ilya Kovalchuk (Russia), Ron Hainsey, Zack Bogosian and Colin Stuart (USA), Colby Armstrong (Canada), Tobias Enstrom (Sweden) and Boris Valabik (Slovakia).   

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Khabibulin and Blackhawks get best of Flames once more; series shifts to Calgary Monday night

Nikolai Khabibulin was spectacular once again on Saturday night against Calgary in Game 2 of the series between the Blackhawks and the Flames. Khabibulin has a .922 save percentage to go along with a 2.26 GAA in 59 career playoff games; you can say that the 'Bulin Wall rises to the occasion. Much has been written recently in the local newspapers as well as on a national level about Khabibulin's mastery of the Calgary Flames. Game 3 is tomorrow night in Calgary.

Familiar Wall once again too tough to crack

Last Updated: 19th April 2009, 4:52am

CHICAGO -- The Flames finally managed to knock a couple of bricks out of the Bulin Wall.

They just can't seem to take it down.

Chicago Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has dominated the Flames his whole career.

His all-time record between the playoffs and regular season is an ungodly 28-8-2.

Should it really be a surprise nothing seems to be changing in their best-of-seven series.

When Calgary had the chance to extend the two-goal lead in the first period of last night's 3-2 loss -- a third goal would have been akin to a knockdown punch -- Khabibulin held strong.

When Calgary was pushing frantically to draw even -- there were three scoring chances in the first minute -- the Bulin Wall didn't have a hole.

You can't help but think the Flames are starting to think they won't beat him.

"I'm sure Habby's in their heads as much as Kiprusoff's in ours," said Hawks forward Patrick Sharp. "We know we have to outwork him if we want to score. Anything those two guys see, they're probably going to stop. We've got to drive the net hard and score dirty goals.

"Whether it's the Flames or anybody else, we know he's going to give us a good effort, been doing it all year long. I think he's really stepped up his game for us.

"I think they've got some gifted goal scorers going to put it in, hopefully they don't, but Habby has been playing well."


How about amazing.

Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff has been excellent through the first two games of the series that now shifts to Calgary.

Khabibulin has been better.

"Spectacular," assessed Hawks head coach Joel Quenneville. "He was the key factor in us winning tonight. He was big, made several quality saves you're saying, 'How did that stay out of the net?' "

The Flames must have been saying that, too.

Like when Todd Bertuzzi sent a sharp-angled offering that Khabibulin stopped with his outstretched leg while he was on his stomach.

Like when Khabibulin took another hard shot off the mask in the second period, when Calgary could have restored a blown lead.

Or in the early and late portions of the final period when Calgary was frantically trying to find an equalizer.

"We expect him to play well. We expect him to battle for them," said Flames forward Michael Cammalleri.

"I think we know that going in and therefore it's our job to make things more difficult for him.

"We need to put more pucks, more tips, more screens and get it by him."

But is he in their heads, creating all kinds of self-doubt?

"No one's talked about it and I, personally, haven't been here," Cammalleri said.

"You guys have mentioned it to me once or twice, and that's all I've heard of it."

Adrian Aucoin also disagreed.

"Not that I can see. We're driving the net and we're digging hard," he said.

"Those are going to go in. Our goals were like that, a rebound on a point shot and my goal was guys hanging around the net, and that's what we need to do.

"When good goalies see the puck, they're going to make the saves. We're dug a few, and had some more that almost went in."

Almost isn't good enough.

Not when you're trying to smash down the Wall for good.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nikolai Khabibulin looks to continue nearly 15-year dominance of the Calgary Flames

Tonight marks the beginning of the first round of the NHL Playoffs with 4 games on tap, but meanwhile the Calgary Flames will have one more day to figure out a way to stop the "Bulin Wall"-Chicago goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. There is no denying Khabibulin's playoff experience (remember the Tampa Bay Lightning's improbable 2004 Stanley Cup run) and his numbers against Calgary don't lie. Every player says the right things, that the playoffs are a new season. Khabibulin came on strong at the end of the season when Chicago needed him most, taking over as number one goaltender; Khabby shutout the Detroit Red Wings this past Sundat to end the regular season. This is why they play the games.

Plan to crack Khabby in place

If the enemy netminder is struggling, fire a lot of pucks.

If the enemy netminder is stellar, fire a lot of pucks.

"It's almost comical. . . or hypocritical, right?" says Michael Cammalleri. "Every day we get reports on these goalies and it's the same things. 'Get a lot of traffic. They hate traffic.'Although I've yet to meet a goaltender who loves getting screened. 'And when he's down, shoot high. And when he's up, shoot low.'

"I mean, it's really common sense stuff."

The issue at hand, not surprisingly, is how the Calgary Flames plan to beat archrival Nikolai Khabibulin, star goal-keeper of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Cammalleri insists it's important that the Flames aren't intimidated by his presence, starting Thursday in Game 1 of their National Hockey League first-round clash.

In other words, continue to play to your strengths.

Avoid being too fine.

"You don't want change your shot --ever--because of a goaltender," Cammalleri says. "The best goalies have that ability, to make players change their shot, and that's when you get into trouble.You can't change where you're going to put it . . . based on the goaltender's play, based on the distraction, 'Oh, he's too good to beat.'

"You still want to make your shot. If he makes a save, he makes a save."

Which, of course, is precisely what Khabibulin has been doing forever against the Flames. Hence, the career log of 22-5-2 (2.06 GAA).

"Yeah, I saw that record the other night," says Rene Bourque.

"Obviously, he's a great goalie. When he's on his game, he's hard to beat. I played with him for three years and he's one of the best goalies in the league. It's not going to be easy to get 'em by him, but we'll have to find a way."

That lopsided work includes the 2004 Stanley Cup final, when, as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he edged the Flames in a seven-game set (4-3, 1.85 GAA).

This winter, Khabibulin, 36, prevailed in all three of regular-season starts against Calgary (1.99 GAA).

Coach Mike Keenan was asked about lifetime one-sidedness, one goalie versus one team.

Has he ever seen that before? Of course, he has.

"I think Ken Dryden dominated the Boston Bruins, for example," says Keenan. "Well, obviously (Khabibulin) is a confident goalie -- he's playing well right now . . . two shutouts in his last four games (of the regular season). We know that. It's one thing that's going to be intriguing about this series -- two excellent goalies."

While the masked men in question are comparable in post-season experience--Miikka Kiprusoff's 50 playoff appearances (23-24) versus Khabibulin's 57 (31-25) -- Flames goaltending guru David Marcoux downplays the showdown aspect.

"They don't compete, one against the other," says Marcoux. "Miikka competes against the shooters of the Chicago Blackhawks. And Nikolai Khabibulin competes against our guys in here. He has no control over the other guy at the other end. And vice versa."

"But you can't take away the Stanley Cup from Khabibulin. And what one guy has, the other wants."

"From an entertainment standpoint, it's great. But it's not about Miikka, it's not about Khabibulin. It's about the Calgary Flames going into Chicago and winning Game 1."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ak Bars Kazan's Alexei Morozov scores only goal in deciding game of KHL Finals

Ak Bars Kazan forward Alexei Morozov scored just over halfway through the 3rd period of Game 7 of the KHL Finals against Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.  After Wednesday's loss to Yaroslavl, Kazan was trailing the series 3-2.  However, a win on Friday evened the series at 3, setting up an intensity-filled final game on Ak Bars' home ice.  This is Kazan's 2nd title in the last four years.  

Morozov led the KHL (in its inaugural season) in scoring, nothing new for Alexei, a former Pittsburgh Penguin first-round draft choice; Morozov led the Russian Super League in scoring in 2006-07.  Today's game capped a tumultuous year for the Kontinental Hockey League, whose teams are believed to be cutting payroll (and hence salaries) next season due to the struggling economy.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Defenseman Anton Babchuk continues his strong play; Hurricanes go for their 10th straight

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Anton Babchuk has been stellar recently. On Tuesday night, Babchuk had a career-high four assists in a 9-0 win over the New York Islanders, which was the worst loss in Islanders' franchise history. Babchuk, who will be a restricted free agent after this season, now has 32 points (14 G, 18 A) and is a +15; he is tied for second in points among the team's defenseman (Joni Pitkanen) and is tied for the highest plus-minus rating on the team (Eric Staal). His play has been a huge reason why Carolina is arguably the NHL's hottest team. The 'Canes go for their 10th consecutive victory tonight when they face the Buffalo Sabres at the RBC Center.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anssi Salmela leaves game with a concussion, won't travel with Atlanta this weekend

Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Anssi Salmela left last night's game vs. Buffalo with a concussion after a collision with teammate Nathan Oystrick and Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek. This is the second concussion that Salmela has suffered this year. His first one occurred while he was a member of the Lowell Devils. Anssi has scored a goal and added 3 assists in 9 games with Atlanta, after being acquired in exchange for defenseman Niclas Havelid. There is no word yet on whether or not he will travel with the team to Florida.

Boris back, Anssi out

The Thrashers sure timed this one right. Anssi Salmela, who took a blow to the chin in Wednesday night’s victory over Buffalo, won’t be making the trip to Florida and Washington this weekend and will be evaluated again next week. Salmela didn’t practice with the team on Thursday, but he told me he’s feeling better.