Roberto Luongo waited seven seasons to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Vancouver Canucks goalie probably could have done without packing two-plus nights worth of work into his postseason debut.
On a night that began with Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the spotlight, Luongo and the Canucks stole the show with a 5-4, four-overtime win over the Dallas Stars on Wednesday. Luongo made 72 saves for Vancouver.
Though everyone expected a tight-checking, low-scoring series – remember, these teams played four 2-1 games in the regular season – this game was surprisingly wide-open for several stretches. Both teams tallied in the first six minutes and both the second and third periods included flurries of three goals in seven minutes, the last two in regulation tying it for the Stars.
But in the end, as is the destiny for this series, the game came down to goaltending. Luongo, who needs a solid postseason run to validate his status as the game's next superstar goalie, made 40 stops in regulation and 32 in overtime. Luongo was at his best early in the second overtime when Dallas controlled play and generated several scoring chances.
Stars goaltender Marty Turco deserved better. He made 51 saves, but he was victimized by a horrendous bounce that led to a goal in the third period and would eventually lose his fifth straight playoff overtime game.
Thankfully for Turco's psyche, Vancouver's game-winner was a clean goal. So often in these marathon playoff games it comes down to a soft goal or a sloppy turnover, but in this case it was just a pointblank shot from Henrik Sedin off a nifty setup from – who else? – his brother Daniel Sedin.
Luongo gets about 40 hours of rest before his playoff encore.
THIRD STAR OF THE DAY
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz was tough on 20-year-old rookie Alexander Radulov this season. The dynamic winger was lucky to get 10 minutes of ice time early in the season and was free to schedule pedicures during Nashville power plays. With apologizes to those who think Trotz was just slow to recognize Radulov's offensive genius, the coach deserves credit for bringing the phenom along slowly. The Russian was the Predators’ best player for most of the nearly 20 minutes he spent on the ice Wednesday. Radulov scored twice – once after a complete disrobing of Sharks rearguard Kyle McLaren – and was constantly a force in the offensive end.
SECOND STAR OF THE DAY
This was one game San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov would have loved to discuss with the old goalie coach. Nabokov stopped all 17 shots he faced in overtime, a Jordin Tootoo breakaway included, to help San Jose capture home-ice advantage against Nashville. Before the game Nabokov said the Sharks would dedicate their Stanley Cup quest to longtime goalie coach Warren Strelow, who passed away at the age of 73 earlier in the day. If you're not familiar with Strelow, his impact on the game or the struggles he faced in recent years, follow the link for an outstanding Boston Globe profile on the godfather of goaltending coaches, published in November.
FIRST STAR OF THE DAY
Who else but Luongo? Early in the fourth overtime, the Vancouver goalie looked like a prize fighter at the end of a 15-rounder. On a few occasions, he went down and needed a few seconds to get his legs back. But by the middle of the final period, he was again venturing out of his crease to play the puck. In the end, Luongo would fall one save shy of Kelly Hrudy's playoff record. Honorable mention here goes to the Sedin twins, who started and closed the scoring for the Canucks.
Next time, Patrick Rissmiller will probably just clear the puck. The San Jose winger had Game 1 on his stick with just over a minute left. The Sharks had just killed a penalty, and Nashville's net was empty. Perhaps that's what lured Rissmiller into a critical mistake. Rather than just chipping the puck out of his zone and into the vast expanse of open ice in front of him, he tried to feather a pass to a teammate. The Predators stole the puck, kept the zone and sent the game to overtime with J.P. Dumont's goal a few seconds later. Rissmiller did redeem himself with the game-winner in the second overtime, but he owes his San Jose teammates a few hours rest and countless anxious moments.
Defensemen can help out in the crease sometimes. Just ask Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who looked sure to go down 3-0 in the first period before teammate Mark Eaton intervened with a spectacular stick save of a Dany Heatley attempt. If that wasn't enough, Eaton kicked away Heatley's rebound attempt. From the how-not-to-do-it files, however, we find Minnesota Wild defenseman Kim Johnsson, who, while engaged with the Anaheim Ducks' Dustin Penner, slammed into goalie Niklas Backstrom. In the ensuing scrum – Backstrom never recovered, but it appeared he may have earned a whistle – Penner poked in the game-winner. Shame, too, because Backstrom had a huge game behind an uncharacteristically sloppy defense.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR THURSDAY
Game 1: Calgary Flames at Detroit Red Wings – There are no sure things in the Western Conference. Detroit enters this series as the No. 1 seed, but Yahoo! Sports' NHL analyst Jim Fox sees this series going the full seven games. The Red Wings expect to have forward Henrik Zetterberg back for the series opener.
Game 1: New York Rangers at Atlanta Thrashers – New York's acquisition of Sean Avery at the trade deadline didn't garner many headlines. A few raised eyebrows maybe, but no headlines. Well, since Avery joined the Blueshirts, the Rangers are 17-6-6 and the agitator has registered 20 points in 29 games. Avery's ability to maintain that edge without crossing the line into undisciplined play will be a key for the Rangers.
Game 1: Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils – This series will be decided in goal, where the difference between these teams couldn't be more startling. New Jersey has Martin Brodeur, a playoff-tested goalie who set a regular-season record with 48 wins. Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella, on the other hand, has spent the entire post-Nikolai Khabibulin era just searching for a guy he can turn to every night. If Johan Holmqvist can get hot in this series as he did in stretches back in November and January, the Lightning can make some noise.
Game 1: New York Islanders at Buffalo Sabres – Plenty of storylines here. You have the Islanders, who snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, against the Sabres, who look to build on last year's run to the conference finals. You had better believe that former Buffalo coach Ted Nolan, now behind the Isles' bench, will pour everything he has into this series.