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May 2, 2012

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The Phoenix Coyotes have defended their home ice with two great performances in Arizona in the first two games of their Western Conference semifinal series, and perhaps just as importantly, they have figured out Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. The Coyotes offense was able to score and create shots in bunches for the second straight game, and they take a 2-0 lead to Nashville after pulling off a 5-3 victory in Game 2.

Phoenix was in control from start to finish, but they let Nashville keep the game close with one breakaway goals and two goals on the power play. Antoine Vermette scored the first goal of the game early in the first period, capitalizing on a great pass by Keith Yandle, but Nashville would tie the game before the intermission. On their only great scoring chance of the first period, Kevin Klein set up Andrei Kostitsyn on a two-on-one break, and he finished off the move to make it 1-1.

The Coyotes took the lead back with two goals in just over seven minutes to start the third period, with Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata scoring the goals. Phoenix appeared to be fully in control of the game until Ray Whitney was whistled for a penalty halfway through the second period, which led to a power play goal by Patric Hornqvist to cut the Coyotes' lead to 3-2. They retook a two-goal lead just 30 seconds later, thanks to Taylor Pyatt, who batted a rebound out of the air and into the back of the net for a goal.

Two penalties at the end of the second period set up a four-on-four, and that quickly became a four-on-three for Nashville when Vrbata was whistled for interference 22 seconds into the third period. Nashville capitalized and cut Phoenix's lead to one goal again through Ryan Suter, assisted by Shea Weber and Martin Erat.

Once again, Phoenix answered quickly. Shane Doan scored 3:36 into the third period, doing a great job to deflect a shot by Derek Morris to give Rinne very little chance to react and make a save.

With a two-goal lead in the third period, the Coyotes began to play a slightly more conservative style of hockey. They locked things up and went totally defensive with around six minutes remaining, and Nashville had no answer. They pulled Rinne and brought on a sixth skater with well over two minutes remaining, but couldn't find a goal to get back into the game.


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Posted: May 2, 2012 12:58am
May 2, 2012

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Predators-Coyotes Preview

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Phoenix goalie Mike Smith stretched out to block a shot from a charging Nashville player and watched as his stick sailed to the backboards.

No way to reach his waffleboard, Smith slid back and forth across the crease, trying to stay low, throwing up his gloves whenever the puck came his direction. His teammates cleared the puck after about 30 seconds and Smith let off a sigh of relief.

" We practice that ... but I'm not real comfortable with it," Smith said.

His team should be feeling a little uneasy, too.

Despite pulling out a 4-3 win over the Predators in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Friday night, the Coyotes know they have a lot of work to do to have a shot at winning the series.

That's right. The winning team may have more adjustments to make than the losers.

The Coyotes have been playing this tightrope game to near perfection throughout the playoffs, leaning heavily on Smith and coming through with the big shot, usually in overtime.

It's worked so far; Phoenix won its first-round series over Chicago and the opener against Nashville, becoming the first team in NHL history to go to overtime in six of its first seven playoff games.

The Coyotes know it can't continue against the Predators, a team that plays the same kind of close-to-the-vest style and has a superb goalie of their own in Pekka Rinne.

" We've got to be better because sooner or later it's going to cost us,'' Coyotes forward Daymond Langkow said Saturday after practice at Jobing.com Arena. " We sit back in the third, we've had leads, we just need to be more aggressive. We just sat back and you can't do that against a good team like that."

A series that was expected to be low scoring got off to a surprising start with seven goals in the first game.

After the Predators shook off a sluggish start - they had a week off after beating Detroit in the first round - both teams played crisply in the first two periods, snapping passes, trading goals, each goalie throwing in some big saves.

Once the third period starts, Nashville picked up the pressure and dominated, spending what felt like 19 of the 20 minutes in Phoenix's zone.

The Predators had the Coyotes chasing the entire period, outshooting them 16-1 while forcing three power plays. Martin Erat scored on the third one, with 4:42 left in regulation, and Nashville appeared to be in control headed into overtime.

But the Predators, who've been known to steal a game or two when they were outplayed, ended up on the short end this time, losing in overtime when Ray Whitney took a pass from Martin Hanzal and flipped it past Rinne for the game-winner and a 1-0 series lead.

" They're opportunistic, they've got a great goaltender - they're a lot like us,'' Predators center Mike Fisher. " We got some of those wins against Detroit, so we've seen it and know what to expect, but it was just a matter of coming up a bit short."

In a series that was billed as a showdown between two of the NHL's best goaltenders, Smith won round 1.

Coming off a superb regular season in his first run as a no-doubt No. 1 goalie, Smith has been spectacular during the playoffs, practically willing the Coyotes over the Blackhawks in the first round.

He had his first career playoff shutout in the clincher over Chicago in Game 6 and again was stellar against the Predators while facing nearly twice as many shots at Rinne.

Smith was at his best after Erat's goal, flipping and flopping, stretching and splitting to reach every shot Nashville sent at him.

No stick? No problem. Smith survived the dicey stick-losing seconds in overtime and finished with 39 saves while Rinne had 20.

" He's a good goalie, you can't deny that,'' Predators captain Shea Weber said. " He had a good series against Chicago and he was good yesterday."

The worry for the Coyotes is that they're relying on Smith a little too much.

Good as Smith has been, Phoenix can't keep falling back into protection mode whenever they have a lead. Four times in the playoffs the Coyotes have allowed tying goals in the third period, in part because they've sat back and stopped attacking, spending far too much time in their own zone and giving up way too many good chances.

Smith has been good after giving up the late goals, leading Phoenix to four overtime victories, but the Coyotes know they're playing with fire, particularly against an equally-opportunistic team like the Predators.

" It's not the prettiest hockey, and people can say what they want about it, but we've just got to find a way to win,'' Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. " We pride ourselves as a group in doing that. Obviously, we're pretty thankful that Smith has been as good as he's been. At the same time, we have to be better as a group, as a whole."

So do the Predators, who did just about everything right except the most important thing: win.

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Posted: May 2, 2012 12:49am
May 2, 2012

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Capitals-Rangers Preview

NEW YORK (AP) -- On the first off day of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals , it was easy to see which club jumped out on top in the opener.

The top-seeded Rangers held an optional practice Sunday, a day after their 3-1 victory at home over seventh-seeded Washington. The Capitals had everyone on the ice at Madison Square Garden, and lined them up in quite a curious manner.

Alexander Semin, who had three goals for Washington in its first-round upset of defending Stanley Cup champion Boston, skated as a fourth-liner Sunday after he took two penalties in the series-opening loss to the Rangers. Semin was on a line with Mike Knuble and Keith Aucoin, but it might have just been a practice ploy by Capitals coach Dale Hunter and not a predictor of what might occur Monday night in Game 2.

" Just mixing the lines up," Hunter said after practice.

Semin was called for slashing in the first period to negate the rest of the Capitals' first power play. Hunter seemed to absolve that penalty on Sunday because Semin was trying to play the puck when he committed the foul. The other - retaliation tripping after he was slashed by Rangers captain Ryan Callahan - was understandable in Hunter's mind, but one Semin just can't afford to take.

" Both of them should have went,'' Hunter said. " It was a cross-check (by Callahan) originally. You just can't retaliate. He called one, he could have easily called two." It's up to the referees, it's his call. It's one of those things, he did get cross-checked but that's the way hockey is. You have to be smart on the ice."

That was one of the messages the Capitals were focusing on heading into Game 2. They also lost the opening game to the Bruins in the first round - a 1-0 overtime heartbreaker - but rebounded quickly and went home all even in the best-of-seven series.

A good performance Monday against the Rangers would put the Capitals in the same spot and wrest home-ice advantage away from New York.

" We've got to go out right away and play our best game,'' forward Marcus Johansson said. " We can't wait for anything to happen. We have to go out and make something happen - get a good start, get a good feeling and take it from there."

Washington held the Rangers to only 14 shots in Game 1, but goals by rookie Chris Kreider and Brad Richards 90 seconds apart in the third period turned a 1-1 game into a 3-1 hole.

The Capitals were also frustrated on the offensive side, mustering only 18 shots against the Rangers and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Washington is already trying to deal with getting pucks past the Rangers, who thrive on blocking shots. When they do penetrate the defense, the Capitals still need to find a way to get shots to elude Lundqvist.

" We have to be a lot more desperate,'' forward Joel Ward said. " They didn't get a whole lot of chances, either, so that is a positive we take out of it." (Lundqvist) is a good goalie, but he is human. They block a lot of shots and obviously he's a great goalie, a Vezina candidate, but if we apply enough pressure at least you give yourself a chance. The only way to score is to get pucks on net."

The Capitals also are adept at limited scoring chances and keeping pucks away from young goalie Braden Holtby.

Both teams blocked 15 shot attempts in the opener, and only the Rangers had more blocks in the first round than the Capitals.

" It's a new series now and the stakes go up again,'' Knuble said. " We've got to make sure we're working that much harder to get shots to the net. You get used to a seven-game series, working at a certain pace and a certain way of doing things to generate shots. Well, maybe it's going to be a little bit different now with a different set of defense." This defense takes a ton of pride in blocking shots and they know they've got a world-class goalie behind them. We're going to have to upgrade our offensive work ethic and work that much harder to score goals."

Because of that, Holtby knows he has to be better than he was in Game 1.

After the Capitals forged a 1-1 tie on Jason Chimera's goal in the closing seconds of the middle period, Holtby was done in by the two quick goals that won it for the Rangers.

Kreider's winner was a long drive from above the circles, a shot that fooled Holtby because he was expecting Kreider to skate in closer before letting the puck go. Facing so few shots during the game seemed to take the edge and focus away from Holtby.

" Bad games happen,'' he said Sunday. " You learn way more from losing than you do from winning. There is a lot to learn from that game, not only mentally but technically on some of the goals. It's just a matter of inches how I played them. It would've been a different game. Small things like that but they mean big things in terms of getting better." I think I'll be more prepared for (low shot totals). It will be in the back of my mind to be more prepared for any type of game that comes. Those are the harder games to play when you don't get much action."

This was little news or information coming out of the Rangers on Sunday. Big forward Brian Boyle was back on the ice skating for the third straight game, but coach John Tortorella provided no update as to when he might be ready to rejoin the lineup following a concussion sustained in the first round.

After first riding the stationary bike as part of the concussion protocol, Boyle returned to practice on Friday and then skated on his own on Saturday. He was back on the ice Sunday, making it seem more likely that he might play in this series.

" You can't really predict what's going to happen, so I'm trying to be honest with myself every day and it's been getting better every day,'' Boyle said. " I know it's boring, but we'll see how it feels (Monday)." I want to get back out there. It's just tough. What's smart and the right thing to do, and what you want to do don't always match up. I'm optimistic to hopefully get back soon."

Boyle has missed three games since a hit by Ottawa's Chris Neil knocked the 6-foot-7 center out of action, but the Rangers have won each game Boyle has sat out.

New York was also without forward Brandon Dubinsky in Game 1, and he was seen on crutches Sunday at the team's training facility, leaving his status for Game 2 in doubt. Defenseman Steve Eminger played as a forward for the first time, logging four shifts for a total of 4:25 of ice time in the opener.

" I wouldn't put him out there if I didn't think he could,'' Tortorella said. " He didn't play much, but he played fine."


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Posted: May 2, 2012 12:40am
May 1, 2012

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The top-seeded Bulls realize they need their superstar point guard to rediscover his MVP form if they’re going to make a run at the championship, starting with their playoff opener against Philadelphia on Saturday. Rose has now missed 27 games because of injuries and sat out the regular-season finale. The Bulls have stated that he should be good to go for the opener Saturday.

This would be a big boost for a team that tied San Antonio for the league’s best record at 50-16 and clinched the top overall seed for the second straight year despite a long list of injuries after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season.

Chicago has battled injuries all season, namely to defending League MVP  Derrick Rose. Rose missed 27 of the 66 games this season due to various injuries. Chicago went 18-9 in those games, a large part of the reason they tied with San Antonio for the best record in the league. It is a testament to the leadership of Tom Thibodeau, a candidate for coach of the year. Chicago’s supporting cast took on a “Bench Mob” mentality in Rose’s absence and wanted to prove that Rose wasn’t a one man team. However, in the games Rose played sometimes the other Bulls deferred to him too much and waited on Rose to create the offense. They need a balance between how they played without Rose and still letting Rose get his points. Chicago went 8-5 down the stretch but will have home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Chicago went 2-1 this season against Philadelphia. Philadelphia won the first meeting February 1 at home 98-82. Chicago won at Philadelphia March 4 96-91 and March 17 89-80 in Chicago.

Chicago posted the fourth-best winning percentage in franchise history at .758, but even so, there’s a sense that this team might be vulnerable, that another go-around with LeBron James and the Miami Heat for the right to play for the championship is not quite a sure thing.

The Bulls were very shaky down the stretch, going just 8-5 in April, and even when Rose played toward the end, he clearly wasn’t his usual dominant self. Now, they’re about to face a 76ers team that stumbled in a very big way and finished 35-31 after a 20-9 start.

So let’s start with the obvious shall we. Okay, so the Sixers can’t score worth a lick, and these Bulls are impossible to score on. So any questions about who will win this series?

But in all seriousness, Philadelphia could make this series somewhat interesting if they play like they did at the beginning of the season. The 76ers hammered the Bulls earlier this year and its fast-break game is the perfect antidote for Chicago’s penchant for crashing the offensive boards. Additionally, the Sixers appear to have finally figured out that Evan Turner can only play with Lou Williams; he has a negative point differential in two-man combinations with Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Jodie Meeks but is plus-6.9 points per 48 minutes with Williams, according to the NBA.com’s advanced stats to

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Posted: May 1, 2012 6:14am
May 1, 2012

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The fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks come into the 2012 NBA Playoffs looking to advance to the second round for the fourth straight year. The Hawks last lost an opening-round series back in 2008 when they fell to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics 4-3.

Home-court advantage proved to be vital in that series. That year, the eighth-seeded Hawks pushed the top-seeded Celtics to a series-deciding seventh game by winning all three of the games played at Philips Arena in Atlanta.

This season's opening-round matchup will be the first postseason meeting between the Celtics and Hawks since that seven-game series. This time the teams come into the playoffs seeded fourth and fifth and are more evenly matched. And if this series goes to a seventh game, this time it will be played in Atlanta.

Although the Celtics won the Atlantic Division and earned the Eastern Conference's fourth seed, they will open the playoffs on the road for the first time since 2004. The Hawks finished the season one-game ahead of the Celtics to earn home-court advantage in this first-round series.

Boston Celtics versus Atlanta Hawks Eastern Conference First-Round Schedule

Game 1: Sunday, April 29, Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks, 7:00 p.m. ET on TNT

Game 2: Tuesday, May 1, Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBA TV

Game 3: Friday, May 4, Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2

Game 4: Sunday, May 6, Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics, 7:00 p.m. ET on TNT

Game 5: Tuesday, May 8, Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks, TBD (if necessary)

Game 6: Thursday, May 10, Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics, TBD (if necessary)

Game 7: Saturday, May 12, Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks, TBD on TNT (if necessary)

Boston and Atlanta met three times during the regular season and all three contests were decided by five points or less. Both teams scored 259 points and the Celtics narrowly won the series two games to one.

Four years after winning an NBA championship in their first season together, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, are about to embark on what will likely be their final playoff run as Boston's core. They hope that this final run will be just as productive as the first.

To have any chance at producing a championship run, the Celtics, who have dealt with injuries all season long, will have to find a way to get healthier as the playoffs progress. Allen, who has a sore right ankle and has not played since April 10, will be a game-time decision for Game 1 against the Hawks. Pierce (sprained toe) and Rondo (lower back) have nagging injuries that they will have to manage as the postseason goes along.

Atlanta, who will likely be without their two top centers Al Horford (torn pectoral muscle) and Zaza Pachulia (sprained left foot), has injury issues of its own. But this is the playoffs, and if the Hawks want to make their fourth consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals, backup big men Jason Collins, Ivan Johnson and Vladimir Radmonivic will have to be prepared to come in and produce if called upon.

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Posted: May 1, 2012 5:51am
May 1, 2012

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In what was a highly entertaining series opener between the Flyers and Devils that saw the 18th overtime session of the 2012 playoffs we hope to get a repeat performance in Game 2 as the Flyers look to take a 2-0 series lead while the Devils will look to send the series back to the Swamp knotted at one. Daniel Briere netted the overtime winner with a shot from the point but the Devils had their opportunities to win Game 1 and need to capitalize here in Game 2.

New Jersey escaped the first round with a double overtime victory against the Panthers in Game 7 but couldn't find the same magic in their series opener against the Flyers as they fell short of the mark in a 4-3 loss. The Devils capitalized on another shady performance in the Flyers crease from Ilya Bryzgalov and have to stay focused and get shots on the target if they're going to find success in this series. Defensively this was one of the worst games of the postseason for the Flyers and that includes their 10-3 loss at the hands of the Penguins in Game 4 of the opening round. The Devils have the offensive talent to stay stride for stride with the Flyers but they need to find a way to get Martin Brodeur clean looks at the puck and have the defensive fortitude to keep the well balanced Flyers attack neutralized.

Philadelphia has been impressive this postseason and even in games where they don;t play up to par they still manage to find ways to win. Philly was abysmal in the opening period of Game 1 but they bounced back in a big way and if not for a soft goal allowed by Bryzgalov they would have taken this game in regulation and built momentum heading into Game 2. The overtime marker from Briere continues his remarkable postseason campaign and the offensive presence of Claude Giroux and the return of James van Riemsdyk makes the Flyers that much more dangerous moving forward. There is no way the Flyers will start a game as slowly as they did in Game 1 and if they come out flying in the first 10 minutes and keep the crowd engaged they should have no trouble sending this one back to New Jersey up 2-0. The Devils should be able to stick around in this series but I think they do so back at home and the Flyers come away with an all around performance in Game 2. However, the goaltending issue needs to be resolved and until then I think we continue to see high scoring affairs with the Flyers involved.

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Posted: May 1, 2012 5:24am

 

 
 
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