Sports Hockey

Zajac's OT winner saves Ponikarovsky 0

KEN WIEBE, QMI AGENCY

Alexei Ponikarovsky probably had a hard time sleeping Tuesday night.

Such is life when the game - and the New Jersey Devils' season - was right there on the blade of his stick.

With the game tied 2-2 in the third period, Ponikarovsky had a glorious opportunity to help the Devils force a Game 7 at BankAtlantic Center against the Florida Panthers.

But instead of hitting the mostly open net, Ponikarovsky's redirection was stopped by the right pad of Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen.

Not to discount the save (as it was impressive) but if Ponikarovsky got the puck into the air, there would have been little Clemmensen would have been able to do to prevent the go-ahead goal.

When cameras caught up to him on the bench, Ponikarovsky was in sheer disbelief and was seen yelling at himself holding his glove over his mouth.

Fortunately for Ponikarovsky, there will be a Game 7 on Thursday thanks to Travis Zajac's overtime winner.

That could leave Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen with a difficult decision regarding who to start in goal in the deciding game of the series.

Does he go back to Jose Theodore, who pitched a shutout in Game 5 but was unable to start Game 6 because of injury, or does he go right back with Clemmensen, who finished Tuesday's game with 39 saves?

WHO'S IN NET?: With a light night in terms of viewing, it got us thinking about talk of Canada's potential goalie conundrum for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

While we're quick to accept the notion the U.S. team is in great position in terms of depth with the likes of Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas, Cory Schneider, Craig Anderson and even Jimmy Howard to choose from, Canada shouldn't be discounted either.

Not after the dominant season Phoenix Coyotes netminder Mike Smith is having.

We understand it's a small sample size and he's only a year removed from failing to grasp the No. 1 job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but after watching Smith's dominant performance in eliminating the Chicago Blackhawks, who wouldn't be comfortable with him between the pipes for Canada?

Smith posted a .950 save percentage and made plenty of highlight-reel saves, like the one on Brendan Morrison on a point-blank chance that saw him kick out his left leg to prevent a sure goal.

Smith is also a smart puck-handling goalie, a skill that can help a defence in up-tempo, international tournaments.

Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens will also be pushing for the No. 1 job for Team Canada, while Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues might be working himself into the picture as well.

Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks could be in the discussion too, provided Fleury restores his confidence and Luongo shines in his new home - which looks like a certainty after Luongo told reporters on garbage-bag day that he understands the situation and would be willing to waive his no-trade clause.

It's the smart play by Luongo, saying all the right things when he must be burning inside.

Luongo yearns to be a starting goalie somewhere else, he's a proud guy and will be determined to show the rest of the league he can still be considered among the elite.

Luongo's reaction should also help the Canucks' bargaining position somewhat, though the 10 years left on the contract is sure to impact what the team is able to get back in any trade.

LATE BLOOMERS: A pair of first round picks who now occupy a spot on the fourth line had a big impact in the clinching game as the Coyotes bounced the Blackhawks.

Gilbert Brule, claimed off re-entry waivers by the Coyotes on Jan. 10, scored his second goal of the series and finished with three points in five games, while Chipchura, signed to a two-way contract in the off-season after the Anaheim Ducks failed to tender a qualifying offer, picked up a goal and an assist for the first two playoff points of his career.

Brule was chosen sixth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005, while Chipchura was chosen 18th overall by the Montreal Canadiens back in 2004.

Neither guy has lived up to their potential, but the look of pure joy on their faces after connecting for a couple of third-period goals in Game 6 was priceless.

NO THANKS: We understand there will be some folks who are up in arms over the decision by Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby not to accept an invitation from Team Canada to play in the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championship.

Our advice to them, wake up.

We understand that Crosby wasn't overworked in terms of games played this season, but have people already forgotten that he's just back from another serious injury that looked like it could threaten his career if things didn't come around?

This isn't a situation where a guy is saying he's too good for the worlds but will be more than happy to play in the Olympics when the time comes.

It's far more important for Crosby to take some time off and then have a full summer of training before he comes back in the fall.

Based on his history with Hockey Canada and gold medal hauls he's been a part of, Crosby should be given the benefit of the doubt.

ken.wiebe@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/WiebeSunSports


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