The National Hockey League playoffs are a time when unexpected heroes emerge from unlikely places. Just look at Philadelphia winger Nikolay Zherdev.
Zherdev dangled unclaimed on the waiver wire in February. He was a healthy scratch for the first two games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. The Flyers reinserted him in the lineup for Game Three Monday night and were rewarded with a goal, the game-winner nonetheless, while playing him just 16 shifts covering a tad more than eight minutes.
Zherdev's contribution to Philly's 2-1 lead in the series amounted to a quick strike, a case of being in the right place at the right time. The pinpoint pass from Mike Richards that found Zherdev alone to the left of goaltender Ryan Miller was the integral part of the scoring play. To find a peripheral player who has made perhaps even a more significant impact on the series look to Sabres defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, the late-season callup who has been the rock on Buffalo's backline after appearing in just nine regular-season games.
Gragnani topped the Sabres by playing a career-high 23 minutes, 51 seconds in Monday's 4-2 loss at HSBC Arena. He tied for the team lead with two blocked shots. He assisted on both Buffalo goals, giving him four assists for the postseason, which tied him for the league postseason lead through Monday's games. Who could have envisioned Gragnani hoarding time as he has with a career base of just 15 NHL games heading into the playoffs?
"He's one guy that didn't struggle," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of the 24-year-old Gragnani in assessing the defensive corps. "I thought Marc really, really played well. I'm delighted. I guess you could say I'm surprised but he's really shown a lot of composure and done a lot of nice things on the ice, and shown no lack of composure."
Gragnani's friends and family have taken notice. They've communicated with texts and voicemails noting his increased ice time, his place among the league's assist leaders. And maybe sometime over the summer he'll reflect on personal accomplishment and appreciate the huge and rapid strides he's made in a matter of weeks since his late March recall from Portland. But the minutes logged and assists gathered mean little to him at the moment.
"Most of them don't really get it," Gragnani said of the stat-watching well-wishers. "They're happy for me, that I'm playing well and everything. But at the end of the day it's not about me. It's about the team and about winning."
It'll take improved play on the backline if the Sabres are going to turn the series around and buck historical trends. Buffalo is 0-5 all-time after losing Game Three at home in a 1-1 series. The Flyers are 18-3 all-time after winning Game Three of a 1-1 series. More relevant to this series has been Philadelphia's ability to gain an edge with its transition game and its forechecking.
"I thought our defense struggled last night," Ruff said. "We turned the puck over too many times. We didn't take care of the puck real well. I got to give them some credit but we didn't take care of the puck real well, and we had some defensemen that struggled out there. When you struggle against good players, against Carter and Briere you're putting yourself in a tough spot."
The Flyers entered the series with their own concerns, notably the continued absence of standout defenseman Chris Pronger. His recovery from a hand injury adds to the burden on a blue line without a rock-solid No. 1 goaltender to atone for its mistakes. Philly opened the series with Sergei Bobrovsky in goal but switched to Brian Boucher during Game Two. Boucher produced 35 saves in Game Three and Philly's defense exceled in killing a 5-on-3 disadvantage nearing the midway mark of the third period.
"Unfortunately we've had to play a lot this year without Chris," Boucher said. "Obviously he's a big hole in our defense, we'd love to have him back there. But I think we've done a pretty good job without him, so I think we have full confidence in one another. They've done a great job and I'm not overly surprised by that."
The Sabres head into Game Four in the familiar position of having to make up ground. Their regular-season was a six-month struggle with adversity. Must-wins abounded over the final 20 games. Current circumstances demand they respond again after losing consecutive games for the first time in two months.
"It's playoff hockey, shake it off and move forward," Miller said. "There's going to be ups and downs, and the downs sometimes they feel kind of low, and you just have to regroup and understand maybe where the game got away from you and address it and see if altering the game plan a little bit or a little bit more attention is going to help fix that."
"We've played them five times now in the last couple months," Ruff said. "They've all been one-goal games [minus the empty-netter in Game Three]. Every game has been tight."