As we bid a fond farewell to Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel (bear with me, as a montage of all the good times we've had together plays in my head--let's see, there was the 2006 season up until the very bitter end, and . . . um . . . well . . . that was quick), the Yankees easily brushed aside the Twins, the Devils may be giving Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko a call to try and entice them to come out of retirement after their two defensively challenged losses, the got off to a rollicking start, the Islanders were all heart in their shootout loss to Dallas and the manhandled the Texans. And now on to the Player of the Week.
Derek Stepan: The Yankees just finished an important playoff series and are heading to the ALCS, so how can a hockey player who is one game into the season be the player of the week? Easy, the Yanks had a different star every game, and really, was there any doubt the Bombers would handle the Twins as if they were the Washington Generals? The Rangers' 20-year-old rookie had one of the greatest debuts in NHL history, becoming only the fourth player ever to record a hat trick in his initial game (and the first Ranger). And he did it against a Vezina Trophy winner as well. The other three to pull off the feat were Fabian Brunnstrom of Dallas in 2008, Quebec's Real Cloutier in 1979 (though he had five WHA seasons under his belt by then) and Montreal's Alex Smart in 1943. Stepan's first goal deflected off a Buffalo defenseman's skate. On his second he was hanging around the net and banged home a rebound. And his third came off a beauty of a backhand, behind-the-net Sean Avery pass that Stepan rifled into the net. He had a great opportunity for two more, too, which would have tied Don Murdoch's franchise record, when he couldn't convert on a breakaway chance and missed an empty-netter. Welcome to the NHL. His linemate, Avery, had a strong game, with two assists and a plus-three rating. The only downside to the opener? The team gave Ruslan Fedotenko No. 19, when it should be hanging from the rafters in honor of Jean Ratelle.
Runners Up & Other Notables
Phil Hughes: CC Sabathia was supposed to be the sure thing and Andy Pettitte is the playoff-proven veteran, but it was Hughes who pitched the best game out of the three (though Pettitte was also excellent). The 24-year-old right-hander finally looked like the pitcher who earned an All-Star selection, with his best effort in months. He threw seven shutout innings, only giving up four hits, while striking out six and walking one. Not bad for a guy making his first postseason start. Pettitte also impressed with seven strong innings of his own, working in and out of trouble. "I ask the good Lord to calm my nerves and help me relax and be able to do what I want to do," he said after the game. Everybody has their own relaxation technique to get them through an important game. David Wells' tried-and-true method was, of course, to just go out and get hammered the night before he pitched. Pettitte's old Houston teammate, Lance Berkman, starred in Game 2, doing his best to become a "true Yankee" (after helping Houston in their 2005 postseason run, did that make Pettitte a "true Astro"?). Mark Teixeira blasted a huge home run, Marcus Thames and Nick Swisher also belted dingers, the bullpen was outstanding (with the exception of a Kerry Wood hiccup on Saturday), but the most consistent offensive performer in the series was Curtis Granderson, who went five-for-11, with a double, triple and three RBIs. Austin who?
Hakeem Nicks: The ' defense continued their dominating ways after last week's impressive performance against the Bears, but yesterday it was the offense that had a somewhat surprising explosion. And it was Nicks who was the star. He tied Amani Toomer's franchise record for receptions caught by a wide receiver, with 12 (Tiki Barber holds the all-time Giant record, with 13). Nicks hauled in two more touchdown passes, giving him six for the season. He tallied a career-high 130 yards (10.8 average), with a long of 27. And he could have had two more TDs if he would have stretched out his arms to break the goal-line plane on one his catches and didn't drop another. Steve Smith was no slouch himself (though maybe we should defer to Darrelle Revis to make that assessment), with six catches for 89 yards and a TD. Osi Umenyiora led the defensive attack with two sacks and a forced fumble, while Justin Tuck picked up a sack and recovered a fumble.
Doug Weight: The already depleted Islanders lost John Tavares to a concussion in Saturday's opener, but they kept on fighting back, finally tying the game with two-plus minutes left on a Matt Moulson goal. Veteran leader Weight tallied three points to start his 19th NHL season, scoring a goal and adding two assists. Josh Bailey picked up two assists. And James Wisniewski notched a goal, an assist and a wicked hit in his Islander debut.
Travis Zajac: The Devils came out flying in the opening minutes of Friday's season debut, and the superstar line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Zajac put a thrill into the Rock in Newark. The team's new run-and-gun style of pond hockey is unrecognizable, with the game on Friday at times resembling an old AFL highlight film. Zajac centered the all-world talented wingers, and recorded two assists and scored a goal in the first two games of the year, and came out of the weekend at a plus-two. In his return to New Jersey, Jason Arnott netted a goal in each game. But oh yeah, the defense. And the discipline. And the brawls. And all those goals against. It's still early, though. 80 games to go. And the Devils are too professional and organized to start panicking this early.