For the past several years, Samuel Pahlsson toiled as an underrated player in the NHL outpost of Anaheim.
Have things ever changed.
Considered the likely candidate to win the Selke Trophy for top defensive forward during the regular season, Pahlsson might win another piece of hardware if the Anaheim Ducks go on to win the Stanley Cup.
It sounds strange to say a checking line center is the leader for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but Pahlsson is making a good case. And calling his line, which includes Rob Nidermayer and Travis Moen, a checking line, is truly a misnomer.
Through the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, the line has done far more than shut down Ottawa's big line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson. Pahlsson's unit has outplayed the Sens' big guns, forcing the trio to spend much of the game in their own end. In game two, the Ottawa trio combined for 11 of the team's 21 turnovers, including a rather significant one shortly before the game's lone goal.
It is hard to get much offense going when you are pinned in your own end, and it hard to click as a line when you are not playing as a line. At times, Alfredsson was moved to a line with Mike Fisher and Peter Schaefer, and that trio often looked better than the normal top line looked. Those three were teamed for the game's opening shift, and while the normal first line was back together later in the period, the line shuffle resumed as the game went along.
Yet late in the game, the Sens found the Spezza-Heatley-Alfredsson line intact and matched up against the Pahlsson-Niedermayer-Moen line. What happened next was strangely predictable and indicitive of the first two games.
Ottawa turned the puck over at the offensive blueline as Heatley could not handle a pass. Naturally, Pahlsson was there to pick up the loose puck and raced down the right wing.
Using a confused-looking Joe Corvo as a screen -- Corvo was facing goaltender Ray Emery when the shot was taken -- Pahlsson went between the legs of Corvo, shot the puck about 18 inches off the ice low to Emery's blocker side, and fired it inside the far post and into the back of the net.
The goal was Pahlsson’s third of the playoffs, and his 11 playoff points rank fourth on the Ducks. If anyone did not know about the quiet Swede before the playoffs, they are well aware at this point.
As far as that outpost thing goes, things are changing in that department as well. After the goal, the Honda Center, not typically known as one of the NHL's loudest buildings, reached a deafening level for the rest of the game.
The crowd had barely sat down after the goal before the next television timeout occurred. The energized crowd gave the team a standing ovation throughout the commercial break, and many sections did not sit for the rest of the game.
Fans watching at home likely had a hard time sitting down as well, considering the chances Ottawa had to tie the game with a little less than three minutes to play. Schaefer had the best look at what appeared to be an open net, but the shot went wide. At first glance, he seemed to miss the net, but replays showed Sean O'Donnell actually got his stick in the way just enough to deflect the shot wide. If O'Donnell was a millisecond later, overtime would have ensued.
The Sens also had glorious chances on a 5-on-3 in the opening stanza. The best opportunities came when Jean-Sebastien Giguere robbed Heatley on a point blank shot later in the same flurry that saw Mike Comrie hit the post on a tip from the edge of the crease.
Both goaltenders were spectacular on the night, but Emery was called upon more frequently. His play prompted Don Cherry to comment on Coach's Corner "I don't think you will get to see better goaltending if you live to be 100 years." Time after time, Emery made spectacular saves -- too many to mention in detail.
It did not take long to recognize this game would be a classic. Both teams came out full speed ahead on a physical opening shift, and by the time the game was two minutes old, fans were treated to a full night's worth of entertainment.
Helping the cause was solid veteran officiating from Brad Watson and Bill McCreary. Although the duo called three penalties on each side in the opening stanza, the rest of the game featured just one power play for each team.
Some may argue the standards of the so-called new NHL were not being enforced, but the entertainment value Wednesday was second to none. The battles in front of the net and along the boards that have been missing for so much of the last two years returned to the game, while there were still plenty of scoring chances. On another night with different goalies, it would be easy to envision this as a 5-3 game.
One thing is for sure -- nobody left the Honda Center thinking they did not get their money's worth, no matter how much they paid for tickets. A 1-0 classic in the Stanley Cup Finals, 54 credited hits in an arena that does not easily award hits, great saves at both ends, and a thrilling final few minutes -- it simply does not get better than this.
NEIL, FISHER STEP UP THEIR GAME: After a relatively quiet opening game, Chris Neil was far more of a factor in game two. He started the game with Spezza and Heatley, and he responded with three big hits and a solid 11:07.
Meanwhile, Fisher was arguably the best Ottawa skater on the night. He threw four hits and provided energy, but Sens' coach Bryan Murray would love to see him improve on his 6-for-17 effort in the faceoff circle.
Grimm's Tales Three Stars:
1. Samuel Pahlsson, Anaheim. In addition to being the only player to tally a point on the night by virtue of his unassisted game winner, Pahlsson threw four hits and won 10 of 12 faceoffs. The latter stat is a huge reason why the Sens' big line found themselves in their own end much of the night, as the Pahlsson line played a strong puck possession game after winning the draws.
2. Ray Emery, Ottawa. Emery turned in one of the best goaltending performances of the season, stopping shots in every possible manner. His energetic and battling demeanor, as well as his ability to make the big save when called upon, recalls past playoff greats like Billy Smith and Grant Fuhr.
3. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Anaheim. His play during the 5-on-3 and late in the third period was a big reason why the Ducks were able to win with just one goal on the evening.