Gritty veteran Marc Staal chases Cup with Panthers

Back in 2005, the Rangers selected defenseman Marc Staal out of Thunder Bay, Ontario, with the 12th pick. In a late NHL Draft due to the lockout finally ending, I didn’t even know where the Rangers selected. Jury duty called.

After having my Dad tell me that the Penguins won the lottery to select future Hall Of Famer Sidney Crosby, I was irate. The Rangers dropped out of the top 10 due to the weighted lottery system they had. It figured. After nearly a decade out of the playoffs, even then, they couldn’t catch a break.

Looking back at how that draft played out, getting Staal turned out to be one of the best things to happen for the Rangers. They needed help on the blue line. So, the Senators’ mistake of taking Brian Lee ninth benefited the Rangers. If you take a closer look at who went before Staal, aside from Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Carey Price, and Anze Kopitar, they wound up with a pretty good player. One who would become a staple on the playoff contender Blueshirts, which featured future Hall Of Famer Henrik Lundqvist.

For Staal, he had a good career as a Blueshirt. A gritty player with size and reach who played with edge, he ranks sixth on the all-time franchise games played list with 892. Five more than Lundqvist, who had his number retired. While everyone chanted, “Hen-rik, Hen-rik,” in salute to the King, Staal was right there for most of it. Along with Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman, they comprised a strong top four on defense that made the Rangers tough to beat.

Nicknamed the Black and Blueshirts due to their penchant for sacrificing by blocking shots and delivering big hits, they laid it all on the line. That tenacious style led to three trips to the Conference Finals. That included defeating the Canadiens to win the Wales Trophy in 2014 before a raucous MSG. It was the best game I ever attended. The Rangers’ only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1994.

If it weren’t for the sacrifices Girardi, McDonagh, and Staal made during that run, it wouldn’t have been possible. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the way that team rallied around Marty St. Louis following the untimely death of his Mom France. They made franchise history for the first time by rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to come back and defeat the Crosby/Malkin Pens in an emotional second round. There was the St. Louis goal on Mother’s Day, which was fitting. The Garden shook.

Then, the clutch saves from a locked in Lundqvist in preserving a 2-1 win to stun the Penguins in Game 7. St. Louis set up Brad Richards for the series clincher on the power play. When Lundqvist wasn’t stopping everything, he had gritty efforts from Staal, Girardi, and McDonagh. They blocked shots and did whatever it took to win.

Without that core on the back end, there’s no deep playoff runs in 2012, 2014, and 2015. The latter of which remains mind-numbing for loyal Blueshirt fans. If it’s true that Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, Jesper Fast, St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle, and Dominic Moore were key parts to the team’s success up front. The same can also be echoed for Girardi, McDonagh, Staal, and Stralman on defense. They logged the important minutes.

When Staal was bought out following 2019-20, it was a predictable move. With Ryan Lindgren, Adam Fox, and Jacob Trouba arriving, it was time to move on from one of the true warriors the team has had. If you are one of those naive fans who only cites puck possession stats, ask Crosby about what it was like going up against Staal. Or did you forget the cross-check he delivered to the back of Crosby’s neck in that memorable second round series?

After spending two seasons with the Red Wings helping guide Moritz Seider, Staal joined older brother Eric in Florida. A player who was thought to be done following his final year on Broadway has been a staple for the Panthers.

He’s played in every game, including all 82 during the regular season. Then, all 16 in a postseason that’s seen the Cats stun the Bruins, dominate the Maple Leafs, and then sweep the Hurricanes even though every game was decided by a goal.

There’s Staal still logging key minutes under veteran coach Paul Maurice, who forgot more about hockey than the corsica crowd that doesn’t get it. He’s had Staal team up with Brandon Montour on the top pair. While Montour finds offense due to his speed and skill, Staal plays the same rugged style he always has. That means thumping opponents and even getting in extra shots during scrums while playing his position well. He’s not the fastest, but he makes up for it with intelligence and experience.

With Maurice able to play the 36-year-old Staal over 20 minutes, mostly at five-on-five, that’s allowed him to have Gustav Forsling team up with Aaron Ekblad for a good second pair. They’ve been superb during the Panthers’ Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Even the third pair featuring physical force Radko Gudas with Josh Mahura has been solid. That’s allowed Maurice to trust all six defensemen.

While the dominant Matthew Tkachuk is deservedly getting all the headlines for his unbelievable postseason, the Panthers are also here due to the play of that defense. They aren’t making many mistakes. Instead, they’re doing a good job boxing out in front of Sergei Bobrovsky, who’s been brilliant since taking over for Alex Lyon against Boston. Bobrovsky has rediscovered the form that led to two Vezinas in Columbus. Along with Tkachuk, he’s in the conversation for the Conn Smythe.

The Panthers have a good offense. With Tkachuk leading the way with a remarkable three overtime winners and the unbelievable series clincher with over four seconds left to end the Hurricanes’ season, they boast the most dominant forward left in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 21 points (9-12-21) rank second in the postseason behind Roope Hintz (10-14-24) of the Stars. Nobody’s been more clutch.

Teammate Carter Verhaeghe certainly has delivered in critical moments. None bigger than his overtime winner to beat the Bruins in Game 7 of the first round. He had a couple of big ones against the Leafs. His three game-winners trail both Tkachuk and Joe Pavelski.

Aleksander Barkov has been superb overall. The former Selke winner has only been on for one goal against at five-on-five. The Florida captain’s play sway from the puck has been outstanding. His 14 points have come within the way he plays. His line with Verhaeghe and former Ranger Anthony Duclair has been effective since Duclair returned. He adds that extra speed and plays more responsibly.

The Panthers have gotten key contributions from Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins. Bennett centers Tkachuk. A foreign concept in Calgary when he was behind Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund. Now, Bennett is more than just a gritty center who finishes checks. He assisted on Verhaeghe’s sudden death winner to end Boston’s season. A play made possible by the hard work of Tkachuk.

There’s the solid play from Anton Lundell, Sam Reinhart, and Eetu Luostarinen. Reinhart’s scored some big goals while Lundell plays a two-way brand of hockey. Luostarinen wins battles. They’re a good third line.

Even the elder Eric Staal is effective when the fourth line is sent out. The former Stanley Cup champion has provided energy while playing with Ryan Lomberg and Colin White. Lomberg scored a key goal in Game 4 set up by White and Staal.

It must be an interesting dynamic for both Eric and Marc to be chasing the Cup. They once had a short-lived stay together when the Rangers rented the older Staal in 2016. It didn’t work out. This time, the brother reunion might. They bested Jordan Staal and the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final. The handshake and acknowledgments were great between the three brothers. It was one of those cool moments.

Can the Panthers go all the way? It’s their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1996. They certainly have great chemistry and good balance. They’ll await the winner between the Golden Knights and Stars. Vegas will have a second straight chance to wrap up the Western Conference Final tonight.

If he were to win the Cup, it would be pretty sweet for Marc Staal. Especially after being written off by many pundits. He’s still got that warrior mentality that teams need at this time of year. That is a key ingredient for succeeding in the playoffs. We’ll see if it is a storybook ending for the well respected Staal.

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Kravtsov heads home, Rangers’ drafting and development issue at the forefront

Earlier this week, Vitaly Kravtsov signed with Traktor for two years to return to the KHL. He’ll play back at home over the next two seasons after flaming out with the Rangers and Canucks.

Originally, a first round pick selected ninth overall by the Rangers in the 2018 NHL Draft, Kravtsov signed very early with the club. At age 20, he was anxious to come over and get his feet wet. Perhaps that was a miscalculation by both the team and player.

Most Russian players that get drafted usually stay over in the KHL for a few years to develop. A good example of that is Wild star Kirill Kaprizov. Following Minnesota grabbing him in the fifth round back in 2015, he became a dominant player while starring for CSKA Moscow.

It wasn’t until he was 23 that he debuted in the NHL, winning the Calder in 2020-21. Since that rookie year, he’s posted consecutive 40-goal seasons, including topping 100 points in 2021-22. Kaprizov is an outstanding star player who the Wild count on.

Regarding what happened to Kravtsov, he showed a little promise late in ’20-21. Under former coach David Quinn, he scored two goals and added two assists in 20 games. While the production wasn’t overly impressive, it looked like he had the potential to become a top nine forward. His skating and instincts were noticeable. He didn’t look out of place for a 20-year-old.

What transpired following that season were wholesale changes. Quinn was let go along with John Davidson and Jeff Gorton. Chris Drury took over as both Team President and GM. He hired Gerard Gallant as the new coach. Brought in to change the mindset, Gallant certainly accomplished the team’s goal of returning to the playoffs.

While the Rangers had more success than expected in the playoffs, 2021-22 was a nightmare for Kravtsov. With it expected that he’d make the roster and have a prominent role, instead he was beaten out by Dryden Hunt. Lost in translation was whatever the perception was for Kravtsov.

After being designated for assignment to Hartford, Kravtsov decided not to report. On bad advice from his agent, he exercised his opt-out clause to return to Traktor in the KHL. That was his choice. He could’ve stayed and learned the North American game playing for the Wolf Pack. But he felt more comfortable going home to play professionally in Russia.

Left unsaid was the berating he took from Drury. A public spat that probably didn’t help his confidence likely led to Kravtsov deciding to play for Traktor. After initially struggling when he came home, Kravtsov had a good Gagarin Cup, posting seven goals with three helpers over 15 games.

Following that postseason, there were lingering questions about what his future was with the Rangers. Having asked for a trade through his agent, Kravtsov, instead cleared the air with Drury. Entering 2022-23, he was supposed to have a clean slate. But that’s not what happened.

Following a so-so training camp where he didn’t impress Gallant, Kravtsov would get the treatment from a coach who preferred gritty veterans to skilled types. Even when he played, there were too many instances where Kravtsov didn’t know if he’d see the next shift. It was an untenable situation.

Following a good game where he scored a goal in a win, he was a healthy scratch the next game. That was a puzzling decision by Gallant, who never fully explained it to reporters. If Kravtsov couldn’t get a fair shake following a game in which he performed well, then what was the point of keeping him? Gallant diminished Kravtsov’s value to virtually nothing.

After playing 28 games and tallying three goals and three assists, he was traded to the Canucks for basically nothing. All Drury could get back was William Lockwood and a 2026 seventh round pick. They may as well have just waived Kravtsov. That’s how little interest he received.

A year earlier, the Canucks were rumored to be very interested in acquiring Kravtsov as part of a package for J.T. Miller. A player who could’ve helped the Rangers. However, Drury balked at the price. It definitely would’ve been interesting had they been able to bring back Miller. It wasn’t a realistic option.

When he was dealt to Vancouver, Kravtsov readily admitted that his confidence was lacking. The way he was handled by Gallant made one wonder if he stole his lunch money. It never made sense. Even with improved puck possession metrics, he never received consistent ice time. There wasn’t any patience shown.

It didn’t get any better playing for new Canucks coach Rick Tocchet. A very demanding bench boss who expects a lot from his players, he didn’t like what he saw from Kravtsov. Both he and former Russian linemate Vasily Podkolzin found themselves out of the lineup often down the stretch. That didn’t bode well.

In fact, after finally scoring his first goal as a Canuck, he only dressed in two more games. Afterward, he was a healthy scratch for the remainder of the schedule. Kravtsov totaled only two points in 16 contests for Vancouver.

A recent interview with Tocchet saw him question Kravtsov’s commitment. He definitely felt that the former first round pick needed to spend more time in the gym. Despite being listed at 6-3, he’s only 186 pounds. It isn’t so much a skating issue, as Kravtsov is very elusive. It’s more about getting stronger to win the board battles.

The question for the Canucks is, was 16 games enough for Tocchet to give up on him. If it was, that doesn’t say much for the Rangers when it comes to drafting and development.

In 2018, Oliver Wahlstrom was available when the Rangers picked. However, hockey insiders knew they liked Kravtsov. That was who they selected over Wahlstrom and most notably Joel Farabee. The shift in organizational philosophy didn’t help. They went from the letter to fans indicating a rebuild to suddenly throwing nearly a combined $20 million at Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. That was still under Davidson and Gorton.

They asked Quinn to help develop high first round picks Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. He also did a good job with Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. It was under Quinn that Panarin worked best with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. A player Panarin liked playing with due to the grit he brought. The Rangers passed on re-signing him due to Fast wanting four years at around three million per season. He eventually landed in Carolina for less due to taxes.

When Gallant replaced Quinn behind the bench, he emphasized more grit and toughness. That led to Drury bringing in Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves. The Rangers were certainly harder to play against in Gallant’s first year. For whatever reason, Drury went away from what worked. That meant losing Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, and Tyler Motte. He added Jimmy Vesey, whose work ethic was a good fit under Gallant.

However, keeping Hunt was a mistake. He’d eventually be waived. The same player Gallant loved wound up on three more teams, including the Avalanche, Maple Leafs, and Flames. Drury signed former Golden Knight Ryan Carpenter. A fourth line player who had success under Gallant. He didn’t last long. Eventually, he cleared waivers and went down to Hartford.

There also was Reaves, who fell out of favor quickly. From being a high character guy who played on the fourth line while pumping up the locker room before games, he eventually got his request out of the Big Apple to Minnesota. You have to wonder why the philosophy dramatically changed.

The Rangers went from a unique combination of skill and grit to almost all skill. How else to explain Drury adding less than 100 percent Patrick Kane when he previously traded for Vladimir Tarasenko, who fit in better. At least Niko Mikkola came in that trade to help solidify a shaky blue line. Drury also brought back Motte, who again was a fixture on the checking line and penalty killing unit.

The trouble was that the Rangers relied heavily on their top six. That hurt Kakko, Lafreniere, and Filip Chytil, who was re-signed by Drury. They always played second fiddle behind Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Tarasenko, Kane, and Vincent Trocheck, who never found consistency with the Bread Man.

It eventually led to a first round disappointment where the Rangers lost to the Devils in seven games. They were uncompetitive in Games 5 and 7. They blew a two games to none lead. There was a disconnect between both the GM, players, and the coach. That’s why Gallant is gone.

It doesn’t change the drafting and development issues that exist within the organization. How else would you explain them not sending down Kakko in a rookie year where he wasn’t ready? It was all PR. He would’ve benefitted from going down to Hartford. He finally cracked the 40-point mark. But one goal and one assist wasn’t enough production in the first round for a player who’s yet to hit 20 goals.

Lafreniere was mishandled by Gallant until mid-January when he was finally moved back to the left wing to play with Kakko and Chytil. He finished with 39 points, including a career high 23 assists. However, he went without a point against the Devils. Although his work ethic was there, he didn’t make a difference. It still would be a big mistake to give up on him. He’s 21 and is willing to drive the net and win board battles. The instincts tell me he’ll become a good overall player.

Would both Kakko and Lafreniere be producing so little on another team? In NYC, they’re blocked. Neither has been given the keys to unlock their full potential. Kakko deserves to be given an extended look with Zibanejad and Kreider on the top line. Lafreniere needs to be in the top six even if it means Panarin shifts to the right side. It makes no sense to continue undermining him. He should be on the penalty kill. More power play time for both Lafreniere and Kakko is a necessity.

Of their recent first round picks, defensemen K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider have developed the best. Miller went over 40 points for the first time. The problem is that his defense still wasn’t consistent. He didn’t have a good series against the Devils, tallying only an assist. With Drury being hindered by the cap, he could try to bridge Miller and Lafreniere, who doesn’t have as much leverage.

Schneider showed signs of becoming that stabilizing force on the right side behind Trouba. He had some big hits during the season. He also got better at jumping into the play, finishing with five goals and 13 assists. More of a rugged defenseman than Miller, who relies on his reach, Schneider plays with more physicality. He has another year on his entry-level contract.

While they’ve had more success with developing defensemen, including the otherworldly Fox with partner Lindgren, there was a big swing and miss with the Lightning first round pick that became Nils Lundkvist. A player who fared well on the wider ice surface in Sweden.

Even with Drury taking over for Gorton with Gallant behind the bench, they were excited for what Lundkvist could bring. But after a good showing during camp, Lundkvist struggled to adjust once the regular season began. An undersized right defenseman who had offensive instincts, he found himself behind Fox and Trouba. That meant little power play time due to the over-reliance on the top unit. A Gallant special.

Eventually, Lundkvist fell out of favor due to the emergence of 2020 first round pick Schneider. He was a better fit. That left Lundkvist floundering at Hartford after being guaranteed a job. Similar to the way the Rangers did things with Kravtsov. It’s no wonder Lundkvist asked out. The operation is run like a carnival. Nobody knows what to expect. That’s what happens when Sather is still pulling the strings with Dolan.

Eventually, Drury dealt Lundkvist to the Stars for a conditional first and fourth round pick. The Stars’ first round pick was top 10 lottery protected this year. With them making the Conference Finals, that means the pick will be around where Lundkvist was taken. The fourth round pick in 2025 would become a third if Lundkvist can total 55 points by next season. That doesn’t look promising. He totaled 16 (6-10-16) in 60 games this season before losing his job. He hasn’t played during the postseason.

The issue here is whether Lundkvist was worth being taken at number 28 as part of the failed Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller deal. Astonishingly, Brett Howden scored a key overtime winner to beat the Stars in Game 1 for Vegas. He’s having a good postseason and could join McDonagh as a former Ranger to win a Stanley Cup. Somehow, Libor Hajek still remains along with Karl Henriksson. AHL players.

Right after the Rangers took Lundkvist, the Maple Leafs selected Swedish teammate Rasmus Sandin. Toronto could rue the day they gave away Sandin to the Capitals to rent Erik Gustafsson. Rugged left defenseman Mattias Samuelsson was also available when the Rangers grabbed Lundkvist. Instead, he’s part of a promising young D cote with the Sabres that features Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power.

The Caps took Martin Fehervary at number 46 in the same draft. A similar style player to Samuelsson. Both have established themselves while Lundkvist hasn’t.

There have been other first round misses. Lias Andersson tops the list. The old regime reached for him with the seventh pick in 2017. Despite winning a silver medal, which is best remembered for him chucking it into the stands, he never distinguished himself as a Ranger.

In fact, Andersson admitted to suffering from depression when he was living in Hartford. It was another epic fail. He was moved to the Kings for a second round pick in 2020 that became Will Cuylle. A high-energy forward who could be on the roster next season. He had a goal and two assists under Kris Knoblauch in the Wolf Pack’s run to the third round of the AHL Playoffs. Cuylle got into four games with the Rangers.

Andersson went before Casey Mittlestadt, Owen Tippett, Martin Necas, and Nick Suzuki. Robert Thomas went later in the first round right before Chytil. Jason Robertson wasn’t taken until number 39 by Dallas. Those are some well established players that the Rangers passed on.

At least Chytil has panned out. Hopefully, he can build on his career high 22-goal, 45-point season. With his new cap hit of $4.4 million kicking in next season, the Rangers need him to become more consistent. Hopefully, he makes a full recovery from the fractured cheekbone he suffered during the World Championships.

The Rangers should be encouraged by recent first round pick Brennan Othmann. After helping Canada repeat at the U20 World Junior Championships, he’s helped lead the Peterborough Petes to the Memorial Cup. After winning the OHL Championship, they’ll participate in the prestigious Memorial Cup. It begins this Saturday when the Petes face the Seattle Thunderbirds. They’ll also play the Kamloops Blazers on Sunday, followed by the Quebec Remparts next Tuesday. The semifinal is June 2, with the final June 4.

During the OHL Playoffs, Othmann had eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points over 23 games. The 20-year-old must be better handled by the Rangers when he turns pro this fall. If that means spending time in Hartford to fine-tune his game, so be it. Unless he blows everyone away in camp, Othmann shouldn’t be rushed. Look at the recent history.

As for the narrative about Kravtsov, who failed to meet expectations, there was too much confusion on Broadway. Whether he ever has the desire to return to the NHL remains to be seen. No matter how you view it, the Rangers look bad here. Another failed prospect. At some point, that must change.

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Rangers and Devils will participate in 2024 Stadium Series

Confirming the rumor that had been discussed, both the Rangers and Devils will participate in the 2024 NHL Stadium Series next year. It’ll be held at Met Life Stadium in February 2024.

As reported by David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period, the Stadium Series will feature four classic division rivals. One match-up will have the Devils taking on the Flyers in the old I95 rivalry down the Turnpike. The second game will have the Rangers taking on the Islanders. A rivalry that’s over hald a century.

For the Battle of Hudson, it’s a chance to be back on the national stage in a classic setting. Outdoor games have become a hockey tradition since the Oilers and Flames held the inaugural Heritage Classic in 2003. Since then, the NHL brought the Winter Classic to the hockey in 2008 when the Sabres hosted the Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It’s become a fixture ever since.

The NHL recently added the Stadium Series. The first one was held in 2014. It featured four different games and seven teams, including the Rangers. They played in two games at Yankee Stadium. It drew over 50,000 for each day. The Rangers defeated the Devils 7-3 and then were victorious over the Islanders 2-1 in late January 2014.

There have been games every season except 2021. One of the unique things about these outdoor games is the classic venues. Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Soldier Field, Michigan Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium, Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, and Carter-Finley Stadium have all hosted the big event.

For the Devils, it’s only their first outdoor game since the Stadium Series in 2014. They have never been put in the spotlight for the Winter Classic. Featuring stars Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Timo Meier, the time is coming when they should be featured in that traditional game following the New Year. They’re much more marketable now.

This will be the fourth time the Rangers get to take part in a marquee NHL outdoor event. Having also defeated the Flyers in a memorable Winter Classic in 2012, that’s best remembered for Henrik Lundqvist stoning Daniel Briere on a penalty shot at Citizens Bank Park to preserve a 3-2 win, they’re a perfect 4-0 in such games. They swept the Devils and Islanders two years later at Yankee Stadium. Then, they defeated the Sabres 3-2 in overtime at Citi Field in 2018.

It’ll be interesting to see how well the NHL markets these games. In recent years, they haven’t promoted it as much. Marketing its brightest stars still leaves something to be desired.

Whenever they talk about growing the game, you wouldn’t know it. The Stanley Cup Finals is about to feature the Panthers, who shut out the Hurricanes 1-0 on the remarkable goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky. They lead the Eastern Conference Final three games to none. Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk are about to get the big stage unless the Canes can make history.

You also have the Golden Knights leading the Stars two games to none. Game 3 is tonight in Dallas. These aren’t traditional markets. But they feature some of the game’s best players. Vegas is getting a Conn Smythe performance from Jack Eichel. The Stars are here thanks to the emergence of top center Roope Hintz. Both teams have other quality players. It’ll be interesting to see how well the Stanley Cup draws.

The Rangers remain in search of a new coach following the breakup with Gerard Gallant. It’s become a long process with no end in sight. They’ve interviewed Peter Laviolette and Mike Babcock. The latter of who I want no part of. I don’t think Laviolette is the right fit. I’d much prefer a younger candidate like Kris Knoblauch or Jay Leach.

Such is life for an organization in chaos. How else would you explain the Garden not commenting on former longtime trainer Jim Ramsay after he was unceremoniously let go? It’s hard to have faith in the Rangers when you know Dumb and Dumber are still pulling the strings. Why else did Patrick Kane come when he was hurting and didn’t fit in?

As far as star players, they boast a few highlighted by Igor Shesterkin, Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox, Artemi Panarin, and Chris Kreider. The question is, can Chris Drury figure out a way to find the right balance. The cap isn’t favorable. Are they going to do the right thing by keeping both Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller?

At this point, anything is possible. At least they get an outdoor game for fans to attend in the freezing cold.

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Rangers let go of longtime trainer Jim Ramsay

In startling news that left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths, the Rangers let go of longtime trainer Jim Ramsay. The Athletic’s Arthur Staple broke the news.

Nobody knows why. Ramsay joined the Rangers in 1994. He’s been a staple as an athletic trainer for 29 years. It’s hard to believe that he’ll no longer be part of the organization. This is a good man who is outstanding at his job.

Of course, there was silence from the Rangers on social media. What else would you expect from an organization that’s become dysfunctional? I guess it’s too much for the team to recognize Ramsay’s hard work and dedication over three decades. He helped many players who suffered injuries during games.

Nobody has any idea if this was a mutual decision. That explains how this team does things. It’s hard to take them seriously. That’s why more loyal fans who have had season tickets are not going to many games. The whole operation doesn’t give anyone a good reason to trust them.

While they continue to search for a new coach by interviewing candidates, including Hartford bench boss Kris Knoblauch, who’s probably the best candidate left after Mike Sullivan announced that he’s committed to the Penguins, you really wonder what the heck is going on. Some will say it’s business as usual for Dolan and Sather.

It’s embarrassing that Sather is still involved in the process. It doesn’t say much for Chris Drury, who had a lousy season. Following a feel-good story in 2021-22, the Rangers never were consistent despite their record. The force-fed Patrick Kane trade hurt team chemistry. They were then ousted by the Hudson rival Devils in the first round.

That led to the dismissal of Gerard Gallant, who wasn’t on good terms with Drury. After reading about how bad things were during a poor stretch where they even lost badly to the tanking Blackhawks at home, it sounds like they should’ve pulled the plug last December. Instead, they let things play out. The unhappiness of several players on breakup day doomed Gallant, who lasted two seasons.

It’s hard to fathom why Ramsay is gone. It doesn’t say much about the organization. They clearly have lost the trust of many, including me. I have no idea what to expect this off-season.

They have a month to decide on a new coach. Then comes the hard decisions on key players, including Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller. Does anyone feel confident moving forward?

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Conference Finals are all set: Stars punch their ticket

Last night, the only Game 7 was played to conclude the second round. In what proved to be the best series, the Stars withstood the Kraken by hanging on for a 2-1 win at American Airlines Center.

It wrapped up a second round that saw two of three teams finish off their opponents in five games. Both the Hurricanes and Panthers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final that begins this Thursday. Carolina defeated the Devils in five on Jesper Fast’s goal in overtime. Florida ousted the Maple Leafs in five on a goal from Nick Cousins in sudden death.

A night prior to the Stars’ one-goal win over the pesky Kraken, the Golden Knights finished off the Oilers with a convincing 5-2 victory in Game 6 at Rogers Place. Original Knights Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson accounted for all five goals, highlighted by a natural hat trick for Marchessault. He recorded the first natural hat trick in Vegas history.

Following goals from Connor McDavid and Warren Foegle that put the Oilers ahead by one, the Golden Knights responded by getting the last four goals of the game to silence the Edmonton crowd. Marchessault scored all three goals in a dominant second period. Two came on rebounds, and the final one was a wrist shot during a four-on-four.

Adin Hill made a dozen of his 38 saves in the third period to improve to 3-1 with a 2.19 GAA and .934 save percentage since replacing the injured Laurent Brossoit. The Knights defended well in front of him by limiting the Oilers to mostly the perimeter. That frustrated both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who went a minus-four without a point in the Oilers’ final game.

After the Knights advanced to their fourth Stanley Cup Semifinal in six years as a franchise, the Stars had the pressure of a deciding seventh game against the Kraken on home ice. In an exciting series where each team took turns playing well, Dallas overcame Seattle, who chased starter Jake Oettinger in a 6-3 win at Climate Pledge Arena on Saturday. The Kraken gave their fans plenty of reasons to be excited during their first postseason. Their future is bright.

Faced with a do or die scenario, the Stars saved their best for last. Playing a complete game that saw them the aggressors throughout, they eventually were able to strike first on a sharp Philipp Grubauer thanks to a great individual effort from leading scorer Roope Hintz.

With the game scoreless, Hintz seized the moment. On a misplay by Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, he stole the puck to break in on Grubauer and beat him high for an unassisted goal with 4:01 left in the second period. That gave him seven points in the series. They all came in wins. Hintz is up to 19 points for the playoffs. That trails only McDavid by a point. If he keeps this up, the gifted top center will be a candidate for the Conn Smythe.

After holding the Kraken to six shots in the second period to make life easier on Oettinger, who looked calmer than Game 6, the Stars continued to play well defensively. They made it hard for Seattle to get clean looks. Most of their eight shots in the third were from the outside. Oettinger handled those with ease.

On some good hustle to negate an icing, rookie Wyatt Johnston retrieved a long Evgenii Dadonov pass to cut in and sneak a backhand just off of Grubauer and in for a crucial second goal that gave the Stars a two-goal lead with 7:12 remaining.

With the Kraken having trouble getting through the stingy Stars defense, Grubauer was eventually lifted by Dave Hakstol with less than four minutes left. They played six-on-five for a while. However, the Stars continued to do a good job protecting the two-goal lead.

As it turned out, the Kraken were finally able to score with just under 19 seconds remaining to make it a one-goal game. On a good face-off win by Yanni Gourde, the puck came to Oliver Bjorkstrand in front. He went to the backhand to beat Oettinger to make things interesting.

A quick shot in on Oettinger got the Kraken one last face-off with over nine seconds to go. He made one final save before the puck was cleared to the corner as the buzzer sounded. The Stars finally celebrated after holding on for a hard fought 2-1 win to take Game 7 before a pumped up home crowd.

Next up are the Golden Knights. The West’s top seed proved they were a better team than trendy pick Edmonton. Getting strong play from leading scorer Jack Eichel, captain Mark Stone, and solid defense from a core that includes Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, they’re a good overall team capable of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. They made it during their inaugural season under Gerard Gallant. A few players remain, including Marchessault, Karlsson, Smith, Theodore, William Carrier, and BraydenMcNabb. Zach Whitecloud played in one game that season.

It was in 2020 during the bubble that both the Stars and Knights made the Final Four. Dallas advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals by defeating the Golden Knights in five games. They lost to the Lightning in six. Many players remain from that roster, including Jamie Benn, Miro Heiskanen, Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz, Tyler Seguin, Radek Faksa, Joel Kiviranta, Esa Lindell, and then rookies Thomas Harley and Jake Oettinger. Now, both play key roles. Harley has provided offense from the back end. Oettinger went from being the third stringer to the number one goalie.

If there is a difference, it’s that the Stars are now coached by Peter DeBoer. He improved to a perfect 7-0 in Game 7’s. Vegas is now coached by Bruce Cassidy. Both are proven bench bosses. DeBoer guided the 2011-12 Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals. They lost to the Kings. He also took the 2015-16 Sharks to the Finals. But they fell to the Penguins. Cassidy coached the 2018-19 Bruins to the Cup Finals before they lost in seven to the Blues. One coach will get another chance at winning the Cup.

Vegas is led by Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Chandler Stephenson, along with aforementioned originals Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith. They are deep on the back end due to Shea Theodore, Alex Pietrangelo, Nicolas Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Brayden McNabb, and Alec Martinez. Ivan Barbashev has been a good addition. They will have home ice. The Western Conference Final starts on Friday.

When the Hurricanes host the Panthers, it’ll be on Thursday night. A battle of old Southeastern rivals is an intriguing match-up. It’s never happened before. This is the Panthers’ first appearance in the Conference Finals since 1996 when they made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Hurricanes are back for the first time since 2019. They’ll look to make their first Finals since winning it all in 2006.

The series pits two of the game’s best coaches against each other. Rod Brind’Amour has gone from a successful career that probably merits Hockey Hall Of Fame status to a very good bench boss in Raleigh. He has gotten his team to buy into the strong skating, puck possession style that includes diligent checking in the neutral zone.

Even without Andrei Svechnikov, Max Pacioretty, and Teuvo Teravainen, who’s hoping to return from a broken hand, suffered in the first round against the Islanders, the Canes have been excellent in eliminating the Isles and Devils the first two rounds. Their five-on-five play and strong penalty kill are the backbones of the team. They love to create turnovers to fuel their transition.

Carolina has strong center depth thanks to Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, emerging star Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and the veteran duo of Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan. They score by committee with second round standout Jordan Martinook delivering along with Jesper Fast. Martin Necas and Seth Jarvis are key forwards. The blue line contributes due to Jaccob Slavin, Brent Burns, Brady Skjei, and Brett Pesce.

It’ll be Frederik Andersen in goal. If he’s feeling better, Antti Raanta will back up. If not, future starter Pyotr Kochetkov will.

The Panthers are coached by the very experienced Paul Maurice. After barely squeaking into the playoffs, he didn’t panic in the first round when his team fell behind three games to one against the heavily favored Bruins. Instead, they survived by taking a very close Game 5 in overtime. Then came back to win Games 6 and 7.

Carter Verhaeghe won the series in dramatic fashion to upset the Bruins in overtime. He’s been one of the best performers all season. Always underrated, he posted a career high 42 goals and 73 points. He’s followed that up with 5-7-12 in two rounds. Matthew Tkachuk took apart Boston with a dominant five goal, 11-point performance. The Hart Trophy finalist had five assists against Toronto in the second round. A player who makes his living in front, he should be a handful for the Hurricanes.

Florida boasts strong centers led by captain Aleksander Barkov. Although he only has two goals with seven helpers, the tremendous two-way pivot can match up against anyone. Sam Bennett sticks his nose in and makes things happen with physicality. Anton Lundell centers a strong third line that features Sam Reinhart and Eetu Luostarinen. Anthony Duclair plays with Barkov and Verhaeghe, while second round hero Nick Cousins works with Bennett and Tkachuk. Eric Staal has provided energy on the fourth line. Ryan Lomberg will be available for this round.

Brandon Montour has been a star this postseason. His six goals pace all defensemen. Most have been clutch. While he’s been a key offensive star due to his heavy shot, Montour doesn’t get enough credit for how hard he comes back. He’s been the anchor of a blue line featuring Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling, Marc Staal, and Radko Gudas. They log most of the key minutes with Staal still proving to be dependable at five-on-five. Gudas made the key defensive play that led to Cousins’ winner.

After falling behind Alex Lyon, whose brilliant play down the stretch got the Cats in the playoffs, Sergei Bobrovsky has reclaimed the net by standing tall. He was especially good against Toronto, not allowing more than two goals in each game. The proud 34-year-old veteran has been at his best, making crucial saves. Now, he’ll be asked to backstop the Panthers past the Hurricanes in a battle of vets.

When assessing the Conference Finals, both match-ups are intriguing. Out West, you have a rematch of 2020. Of course, both rosters have changed. There are still plenty of holdovers. The Stars boast ageless wonder Joe Pavelski, captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell, Joel Kiviranta, along with key scorer Jason Robertson. He’ll need to be better after going without a goal last round.

You have star power on each side. Roope Hintz against Jack Eichel. Miro Heiskanen against Alex Pietrangelo. The uniqueness of Pavelski against Mark Stone. Even the coaching match-up is fascinating. DeBoer goes up against his old team. He did that once before when he led the Devils past the Panthers in the first round back in 2012. That team made the Finals.

Both the Panthers and Hurricanes play with speed and tenacity. Carolina is a bit more defensive minded while Florida plys an aggressive forecheck. Whoever can dictate the terms should have the edge. Neither are great on the power play. Perhaps whichever team can win the special teams battle will prevail. It has the makings of a long series.

I’ve seen plenty of complaints from former players such as Andrew Raycroft and even a few media members over the remaining four participants. That’s hogwash. When it comes to growing the game, it’s good to have a few new teams competing for the Cup. Maybe it won’t be a ratings bonanza due to not having major markets. However, the diehards will watch.

In case they didn’t already realize, it isn’t the 60’s, 70s, or 80’s anymore. Maybe they should be more critical of those big markets, including Toronto, for still being unable to find the right mix to reach this round. Stop crying.

I can’t speak for anyone else. But I’ll enjoy the Conference Finals. Perhaps the teams that went home earlier than expected, like the Rangers, can open their eyes. Well-balanced teams are vying for the hardest trophy in sports. They earned it.

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HARD HITS: Leafs’ latest playoff failure leaves more questions for Toronto

After finally exercising the demons by beating the Lightning in the first round, the Maple Leafs couldn’t follow up their first playoff series win in 19 years with a successful second round.

Instead, they were hardly competitive in the first two games against the Panthers. That poor start led to their five-game ouster against what proved to be a better team that’s ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. In defeating the Leafs on an overtime goal from noted finisher Nick Cousins, the Panthers advanced to their first Eastern Conference Final since 1996.

They earned it. When they rallied from a three games to one deficit to stun the record-setting Bruins on the clutch heroics of Carter Verhaeghe, the Panthers proved this postseason would be different than last year’s. This time, they are more playoff ready due to the past experience and one key acquisition, who’s changed how they play.

GM Bill Zito changed the dynamic last summer by packaging Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, along with a lottery protected 2025 first round pick in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk, and a 2025 fourth round pick. Although it nearly didn’t result in a playoff berth until the second to last day of the regular season, Tkachuk dominated by posting an MVP caliber season in the Sunshine state. His 40 goals, 69 assists, and 109 points were recognized by hockey writers who nominated him for the Hart Trophy.

What solidified that deserved candidacy was his epic first round against the top seeded Bruins. By scoring five goals while adding six assists for 11 points, he broke Boston hearts. It was Tkachuk’s sheer determination and grit that led to Verhaeghe scoring in overtime to end the Bruins’ special season. He dug out a loose puck, allowing Sam Bennett to set up Verhaeghe for his second career series clincher in sudden death.

As it turned out, the Panthers were a more complete team than the Leafs, who partied like their first round win was the Stanley Cup. Something that’s eluded the franchise since 1967. It was a strong supporting cast that included captain Aleksander Barkov, Reinhart, Anton Lundell, Bennett, Cousins, Anthony Duclair, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling, and ageless warrior Marc Staal that proved to be the difference in the series. Even Eric Staal won battles on the fourth line for Paul Maurice.

They also got strong goaltending from a rejuvenated Sergei Bobrovsky, who replaced Alex Lyon to reclaim the net in the first round. Facing the explosive Toronto offense that features Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly, the two-time Vezina winner was splendid. Bobrovsky turned back the clock by posting a 1.89 GAA and .943 save percentage. He never allowed more than two goals in any game, giving up 10 on 174 shots. A magnificent performance by the 34-year-old veteran.

While the Panthers got key contributions from their core, the Maple Leafs didn’t. Somehow, Matthews went without a goal with only two assists in the series. A far cry from what the former league MVP is capable of. After posting five goals with three helpers for nine points in a satisfying first round win over the Lightning in a much closer series than the five games it went, the 25-year-old Matthews was nowhere to be found against the very detail oriented Panthers. He totaled 26 shots, but none went in.

Even more mystifying was the play of their captain Tavares. After tallying seven points in Round One, he could only muster an assist on William Nylander’s game-tying goal that forced overtime in Game Five. One point from the former Islanders top center won’t help his reputation. He came up small.

So, too did Mitch Marner. After scoring a goal and adding a helper in their only win in the series, he couldn’t get it going. Marner had three points in the series. Of the four top forwards, only Nylander created some good opportunities with his speed. He had points in the last three games, including goals over the final two.

Of all the talented Leafs, it was defenseman Morgan Rielly who was their best player. After a down season, he turned it up in the playoffs. Rielly was clutch against the Lightning scoring big goals, including an overtime winner. He tallied a goal and three assists against Florida. It was his disallowed goal in the third period that created some ugliness from the Toronto home crowd.

He thought he had a tying goal on a play in front. However, Bobrovsky made a save. The whistle had blown after the puck crossed the goal line. A lengthy review concluded that it wasn’t a goal. A tough rule. However, if the refs lose sight of the puck, they can blow the play dead. Even some replays made it hard to tell where the puck was. Bobrovsky had it underneath his pads. Only afterward did the puck cross the line.

Angry fans tossed debris. GM Kyle Dubas threw a tantrum in the press box over the ruling. How many times did the camera catch him acting like a spoiled brat? Don’t answer that. Although he made some good moves by adding Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Schenn, Sam Lafferty, and Noel Acciari to upgrade the roster, it still didn’t result in a Cup. One round win isn’t what they had in mind.

With coach Sheldon Keefe admitting that he believed they could’ve gone all the way, you have to wonder what Leafs brass are thinking. Even promising netminder Joseph Woll couldn’t prevent another gut-wrenching playoff exit. He performed admirably after taking over for an injured Ilya Samsonov. That’s something for the franchise to take a look at moving forward.

They also have to like what they saw from Matthew Knies. After appearing in just three games, he was impressive in seven postseason contests. The 2021 second round pick had a goal and three assists before a tough Bennett hit against the boards ended his playoffs. He suffered a concussion.

The question for the Leafs is, what’s next for a core that still has yet to make a deep run? They’ve qualified for the postseason every year since 2016-17. With over nine million remaining on the salary cap, Dubas has important decisions this summer. O’Reilly is among the key unrestricted free agents. He would cost the most to bring back. Pest Michael Bunting is also available. So are Alex Kerfoot, Acciari, David Kampf, and Zach-Aston Reese.

On the blue line, Schenn can leave. He was a plus-eight during the playoffs. The former Stanley Cup champion has turned himself into a valuable commodity. Several teams should have interest. Dubas rented Erik Gustafsson for Rasmus Sandin. A shortsighted move that could come back to haunt the Leafs.

Samsonov is a restricted free agent. Matt Murray is owed $4.7 million for next season. Maybe they move on and give the keys to Woll. He’s 24 and has played well when called upon. They can’t keep both Samsonov and Murray. It makes no sense.

Even more daunting for Toronto is that both Matthews and Nylander will enter the final years of their contracts. The pressure to win will be immense. It could be the last time they have this group together.

After eliminating the Devils in five games, the Hurricanes are chasing another Cup. They haven’t won since 2005-06. Coach Rod Brind’Amour captained that team to the franchise’s only Cup. He scored a big game-winner to help beat the Sabres on a delay of game minor penalty. Similarly, Jesper Fast notched the overtime winner on another delay of game minor that ended the Devils’ season. The difference is now Brind’Amour coaches them. Ironically, Tim Gleason is an assistant.

Brind’Amour said that sometimes you have to lose before you can win. Of course, he was referring to some of the Canes’ recent past in the postseason. After playing in the Conference Finals his first year behind the bench, they never could get past the second round. There was last year’s agonizing seven-game series loss to the Rangers. A series that favored the home team until Game Seven when it went to the Rangers by a wide margin.

Even without key scorers, Andrei Svechnikov, Max Pacioretty, and Teuvo Teravainen, here are the Hurricanes taking on the upstart Panthers for a chance to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. They have done it by getting contributions from a good supporting cast. Fast has chipped in with five goals. Jordan Martinook tied a team record by posting 10 points in the second round. He was the same gritty player who was on waivers before the season. That is a great story.

Having strength at center has helped. Brind’Amour knows he can count on top scorer Sebastian Aho. A good two-way player who’s sacrificed some scoring to play the game the right way. If Aho and Martin Necas aren’t scoring, there’s the dependable Jordan Staal, who matched up mostly against Jack Hughes. He certainly did a good job.

One move Brind’Amour made was having Jesperi Kotkaniemi play between Martinook and Fast. They easily were the Canes’ best line last round. Kotkaniemi is beginning to show why the Canes were willing to give him an offer sheet. Perhaps the Canadiens miss him. He’s become a strong two-way player who is very noticeable at even strength while winning key draws. That’s the Brind’Amour philosophy.

Having vets Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan on the fourth line is a nice bonus. Both have been a factor during their run. Stepan stealing a puck that led to Stastny eliminating the Islanders in the first round. Stastny scored on a power play early against the Devils to help set the tone. Both are proven vets whose experience has helped.

Brind’Amour went back to Frederik Andersen after Antti Raanta in goal. He gets plenty of help from a defense that’s led by Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns. But, he’s been there to make the timely saves. Slavin was outstanding against the Devils, finishing with a plus-12 rating. He remains one of the game’s best defensive defensemen who can match up against opponents.

Even Brady Skjei played better in the second round after a tough first round. He finished checks and contributed offensively. Partner Brett Pesce is the more defensive player who makes good reads. He scored a goal by jumping in.

When you look at Carolina, they’re not an overwhelming team talent wise. However, they’re a team in every sense. That’s why they’ll take on the Panthers in an old Southeastern Division battle.

For the Devils, they learned something from their breakthrough season. Although they relied heavily on Hughes, whose 43 goals and single season record 99 points were followed up by 11 in 12 postseason games, they wouldn’t have come back to beat the Rangers without key vets Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula, who indicated that he wants to stay in New Jersey. He’s going to be a hot commodity this summer.

Bringing in experienced players who have been through the playoff grind helped the Devils reach the second round. Kudos to Team President and GM Tom Fitzgerald, who was also willing to acquire Timo Meier. Both he and Jesper Bratt will command a lot as restricted free agents. But Fitzgerald has plenty of room to bring back both.

The Devils will get key checking center Mike McLeod re-signed. He was arguably their most effective player against the Canes. Only 25, the former 2016 first round pick, does all the little things that help you win. How about that shorthanded goal he scored against the Rangers. He plays with an edge, which is why at least McLeod and restricted free agent Nathan Bastian will be back. BMW member Miles Wood might not. He is unrestricted.

Don’t expect Tomas Tatar to return. He had a good regular season putting up 48 points with a plus-41 rating. Aside from a big goal against the Rangers in the deciding seventh game, he was quiet. He wasn’t available on breakup day.

Fitzgerald has an interesting decision on Ryan Graves. The defenseman had a good season finishing a plus-34 with 26 points. He was good in the first round, making some key defensive plays, including saving a goal. He worked well with John Marino. Perhaps Fitzgerald’s best pickup. But Graves struggled with the Canes’ speed. If he leaves, Luke Hughes could play with Marino next season. He had his best game of his young career in the elimination game, logging 25:02 with four shots.

It’s possible the Devils could go with a younger back end. They could have both Hughes and recent 2022 first round pick Simon Nemec in the top six. Jonas Siegenthaler, Dougie Hamilton, Marino, and Kevin Bahl could be the mainstays. Damon Severson will likely leave. Brendan Smith is the extra.

The best series of the second round has been between the Kraken and Stars. Once again, Seattle has proven to be a tough four line team that can play with tempo. They’re very resilient. Dave Hakstol deserves a lot of credit for that. The former Flyers bench boss has proven he can turn an expansion team into a playoff contender in only their second year.

It helps to have battle-tested leaders such as former Lightning Stanley Cup winner Yanni Gourde. He’s been superb. In their 6-3 win last night to force a Game 7, he scored a goal and assisted on another. Jordan Eberle had a pair of goals with an assist. He’s playing hungrier playoff style hockey. The kind he rarely did with the Islanders.

They’ve gotten big contributions from Adam Larsson, who looks like the player the Devils once selected fourth overall. He finishes checks, blocks shots, and chips in offensively. All while playing strong defensively. It took until his third team to become the defenseman they thought he’d be. No Kraken plays more than Larsson.

Along with proven vets, Jaden Schwartz, Justin Schultz, Vince Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brandon Tanev, and Alex Wennberg, the Kraken are a team that does it by committee. Boasting former Nashville first round pick Eeli Tolvanen, and 2021 second pick Matty Beniers, they also have young talent who are getting it done. Tolvanen recorded his first three-point game of his young postseason career. After a quiet first round, Beniers has picked it up with five points over the last four games. The Calder candidate is a complete player who can play in any situation. Only 20, the former Michigan standout is a future captain in waiting.

Even Tye Kartye has become a factor this round. The undrafted player has three goals and two assists in the playoffs. He fired a pea by Jake Oettinger last night to give Seattle a 3-1 lead. He definitely can fire it. Kartye looks like a good find.

It’ll fall on Philipp Grubauer to again perform like he did when he beat his former team in Round One. He’s capable of making the big stops. We’ll see if he can backstop the Kraken to another upset.

The question is, can the Kraken again win a road Game 7 like they did against the Avalanche? All the pressure is on the Stars. It’s the biggest game of the young career of Oettinger. He was chased from Saturday’s game after giving up four goals on 18 shots. However, Peter DeBoer indicated that the team didn’t give him any help. That was true. However, Oettinger must deliver tomorrow night to get the Stars back to the Western Conference Final.

They’ve gotten a terrific playoffs from Roope Hintz. His 18 points are tied with Leon Draisaitl for second in scoring behind Connor McDavid. Hintz centers Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski, who’s scored eight goals in the series since returning from a concussion. He has magic hands in front. What he can do is incredible. He had a four-goal game in a 5-4 overtime loss to Seattle back in Game 1. Gourde won it.

Robertson doesn’t have a goal in the second round. Obviously, the Stars need him to deliver on Monday. He is second in scoring with 12 points. But they’re not going in.

Max Domi has been a great addition. The gritty forward has 11 points in the postseason. He’s fit in well under DeBoer. Domi is one of those types who will go to the dirty areas and can make plays with the puck. His performance will earn him a nice payday this summer.

Jamie Benn still produces. He and Tyler Seguin remain two of the leaders in Dallas. We’ll see if their experience can help the Stars advance. The Stars also boast rookie Wyatt Johnston and Mason Marchment. Johnston has a knack for the net. Marchment plays bigger than his size.

Miro Heiskanen is a tower of strength anchoring the blue line. How good is he? The Norris snub logs huge minutes while matching up against opposing scoring lines. He also has nine assists. There isn’t much he can’t do. He really got robbed by blind writers on the league’s best defenseman. He’s elite.

The Stars rely on Jani Hakanpaa, Esa Lindell, and savvy vet Ryan Suter for big minutes. They play a good defensive system under DeBoer. They’ll obviously try to slow down the Kraken, who are at their best when the pace is frenetic. Whoever can impose their will should prevail.

The Oilers find themselves facing elimination later tonight against the Golden Knights. They’ve gotten the production from McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. However, most of the damage has come on their almost automatic power play. All three goals in a frustrating 4-3 loss the other night came via the man-advantage. However, they gave up two power play goals to Vegas on a major. The Knights were better when they had to be at even strength.

While McDavid continues to wow fans with, did you see that moments like his one-handed shorthanded goal along with a blow by past three Vegas players for a ridiculous goal in Game Five, they need more from the supporting cast. Evander Kane hasn’t been the same player since returning. Outside of his clutch tying goal in Game 4 last round against LA, he hasn’t done enough. Kane probably is still banged up.

Edmonton knows they can count on McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and power play specialist Evan Bouchard for most of the offense. They’ll need more from role players Klim Kostin, Kailer Yamamoto, Nick Bjugstad, Ryan McLeod, and Warren Foegle.

Mattias Ekholm has been a good addition on the back end. He always flew under the radar in Nashville. He provides a steady defensive presence to a defense that has roavers Bouchard and Darnell Nurse, who will return following a bogus one-game suspension for fighting at the conclusion of Game Four. It was utterly ridiculous. He didn’t instigate the fight.

How Nurse received the same one game as Alex Pietrangelo, who deliberately whacked Draisaitl with a slash that led to the fracas, makes no sense. It’s another epic fail by the Department of Player Safety. Pietrangelo should’ve received multiple games for that. Instead, he’ll also be back for Vegas when they try to wrap up the series. Save the complaints, Pietrangelo. The constant whining doesn’t justify attempting to injure a star player at the end of a lopsided game.

For better or worse, it’s Stuart Skinner in goal for the Oilers. They must play like they did in Games 2 and 4. A complete effort without losing their discipline.

The Golden Knights have gotten an inspired series from Jack Eichel. The former Sabre is playing his best hockey. He has lit it up in the three wins by posting three goals and five assists for eight points. Most of it has come at five-on-five. It’s exactly the kind of hockey he’s capable of. He leads Vegas with 13 points in the postseason.

Mark Stone has come back to score and set up big goals. He knows how to play in these pressure packed games. Chandler Stephenson remains a good playmaker. Old guard William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault remain key players. Ivan Barbashev has solidified the scoring since coming over from St. Louis.

The blue line boasts Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, Zach Whitecloud, Brayden McNabb, and Nicolas Hague. The balance allows the Knights to have an advantage defensively.

They’re also a better forechecking team. Even former Ranger Brett Howden knows how to play playoff hockey. What’s Artemi Panarin’s problem?

It still falls on Adin Hill to get Vegas back to the Conference Finals. After Laurent Brossoit went down early in the series, it’s Hill, who’s the goalie trying to beat cyborgs McDavid and Draisaitl. Hill has been good so far.

Body Checks

Would it have killed ESPN to schedule tonight’s Game 6 in Edmonton at an earlier time than 10 ET? On a Sunday night, that’s ridiculous. Guess that Cardinals/Red Sox classic MLB match-up on Mother’s Day really matters. Priorities.

Assuming both Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe lose their jobs in Toronto, who do they select to replace them? I’m still not buying the rumor that both could wind up as a package deal in Pittsburgh. Not when Mike Sullivan is a better coach with two Cups. It isn’t his fault the Pens missed the playoffs. They finally got rid of Ron Hextall, who probably was working as a double secret agent for the Flyers.

If Sullivan stays in Pittsburgh, that eliminates the best option for the Rangers. Assuming they want to go that route, Sullivan is better than retreads Darryl Sutter and Peter Laviolette. The idea of either is scary. They’d be better off considering promoting Hartford coach Kris Knoblauch. Andrew Brunette could be available. He merits consideration.

Earlier this week, the Blackhawks won the NHL Draft Lottery. I already voiced my displeasure due to the NHL going light on the organization for the Kyle Beach scandal. It’s unbelievable that they didn’t lose a first round pick. Instead, they’ll get rewarded with a franchise player in Connor Bedard. Best of luck to him on a mess of a roster that needs major overhauling.

It’s kind of ironic that the Eastern Conference Final will feature former Rangers. You have Marc Staal on one side while Jesper Fast, Derek Stepan, Brady Skjei, and backup Antti Raanta are on the other side. One way or another, the Rangers will be represented in the Stanley Cup Finals. What if Vegas makes it with Howden? Everyone was so quick to toss him aside. He plays exactly like an energy guy should. His former team lacked energy. They looked D deficient.

How soon will ESPN play up the battle of Staal Brothers? Hopefully, it won’t be as maddening as listening to Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti. Every time they played each other, the broadcast became insufferable. MSG went from having the best in the business featuring a prime Rosen with John Davidson to having one of the worst. Don’t tell them.

Is Paul Bissonnette still crying over his Leafs? He’s entertaining on TNT. But the open rooting for the Leafs was too much. His Panthers imitation is funny. The NHL On TNT crew is excellent. Especially when Henrik Lundqvist joins them. He is superb at breaking down the goalie play. Even in retirement, he’s still a King.

Regarding the stick hold by Radko Gudas leading up to the overtime winner scored by Nick Cousins. It was hard to tell at real speed. Imagine being a ref on that play. Gudas made a superb defensive play to break up a Toronto rush. Then, wisely drove the net to give Cousins enough time to toe drag and make a great shot to end the Leafs’ season.

9-17. That’s the Maple Leafs record on home ice with Matthews and Marner in the postseason. They went 2-5 this Spring, including 0-3 versus the Panthers. Florida is 6-1 on the road.

An idea for the Rangers to help address the lack of grit. Sign Domi and Vladislav Namestnikov. Re-sign Tyler Motte. Bridge Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller. If they can’t get Domi, adding Namestnikov and Noel Acciari would work. Jimmy Vesey shouldn’t be a regular. His extension made no sense. There was no rush for a role player that could be easily replaced by someone in Hartford.

Here’s hoping Brennan Othmann isn’t ruined.

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2022-23 Devils season recap: A franchise reborn

In seasons past, I’ve wanted to get through the year in review as fast was as humanly possible, sometimes even with a game or two left in the season. What was the point of waiting any longer when nothing significant was going to happen in those games, after all (or in many of the games before that)? After the first two games of this season, it looked like more of the same was in store for 2022-23. How could it not, after the Devils got drilled by two straight non-playoff teams by a combined score of 9-3? Both goalies Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek were blown up on opening weekend, with lame-duck head coach Lindy Ruff hearing loud ‘Fire Lindy!’ chants both before and during the Devils’ home opener. Facing another lottery team at home in the season’s third game of the year, the Devils hit rock bottom for 2022-23, falling behind the Ducks 2-0 after the first period.

Who could have guessed on the road back to irrelevance, the Devils would find a detour to the promised land?

Our come-from-behind 4-2 win that night didn’t seem like a big deal at the time – yippee, finally came back to win one of our winnable games at home, big whoop. Even after one win in a row turned to three after surprisingly dominating the Islanders and then holding off the Sharks the next two games, it seemed as if our 6-3 loss to the Caps two nights later was a bit of a reality check. With four of our next six on the road and one of the two home games against the defending Stanley Cup champs, I still wasn’t all that confident in this group. After all, we’d had even better starts the previous two seasons melt away once the second month of the season began.

As it turned out, that loss to the Caps was the last this year’s Devils would suffer in nearly a month.

Maybe the first real sign something special could be happening this year was when the Devils shut out the Avs 1-0, two nights after avenging the home opener loss in Detroit, housing the Wings 6-2. While we had beaten the Avs as a cellar-dweller the previous year, doing it while being able to keep their high-powered attack in check in a game with more meaning was the first hint of the maturity this team would develop throughout the year. Still, who really expected two wins in a row to turn into…thirteen?!

I don’t know if there was one single aha moment where I felt, ‘oh boy, we’re for real now’, it just became gradual over time. We won everywhere and every way during our thirteen-game heater (the term franchise star Jack Hughes used for our winning streak once it got to nine games) – we won with three goalies, high-scoring games and low-scoring games. We won at home and in Canada, some more at home and some more in Canada. Six of the thirteen wins were in six different Canadian cities. We won three games in OT and five by three goals or more. Fans even apologized by chanting ‘Sorry, Lindy!’ at a game in the midst of the streak.

When the wave finally crested, the Devils tied a franchise record for consecutive victories in the regular season at 13, with the team who had the best record in franchise history (the 2000-01 Devils) having previously set that mark. Of course, the 2005-06 Devils did manage to win fifteen straight, but the last four were in the playoffs so thirteen in a row wasn’t a true record in one sense. Not that anyone really cared about technicalities.

Regardless, there was a lot of excitement in the air by the time the streak reached double digits, and when the Devils returned to the Rock to beat the Oilers 5-2 on November 21, they got a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd after tying the regular-season record winning streak. Normally we’d be lucky to get 12 or 13,000 for a mid-week Oiler game before Thanksgiving (Connor McDavid or no Connor McDavid), but both that game and the Leafs game two nights later were sellouts and the atmosphere was buzzing in each game. Even the streak buster wasn’t so much a downer as it was annoying, due to the three disallowed goals in a 4-2 loss that prompted this fan reaction:

Irony of ironies, the shoe was on the other foot last night in the playoffs as Leaf fans took to throwing debris…after one disallowed goal, I might add. But I digress, the end of the streak only gave us another opportunity to see the Devils’ maturity as they ripped off another three in a row and five of six, juicing their record to an astonishing 21-4-1. Almost overnight we rocketed from wondering ‘is this team for real?’ to the realization that they pretty much can’t blow a playoff berth at this point.

Although December did test that belief a bit, as the Devils had their only prolonged bad stretch of the season going 1-7-1 in their next nine games and winning just three of thirteen from early December to early January. You have a lot of cushion to blow when you start out with 21 wins in your first 26 games, but it’s not like this team had any reservoir of previous success to fall back on. Even at this so-called low point, the Devils were still twelve games above NHL .500 at least. Our comeback against the Rangers at home in early January turned the tide back in our favor though, not only because we came from two goals back in the third period to win a rivalry game with Damon Severson’s memorable OT goal, but we also ended a five-game home losing streak before a long road trip.

That win got the Devils going again, and they won the first four games of a five-game road trip – going down to Raleigh and beating Carolina with another two-goal comeback, then sweeping the California portion of the trip before finally suffering an OT loss to a Seattle team in the midst of their own surprising ascension. Nothing was going to derail the Devil express at this point though, their next two-game losing streak would come in mid-March, long after a playoff berth was all but assured.

Not that the team didn’t keep things exciting, when the Devils returned from their West Coast swing they won four of the next five games, all in OT. We owned that particular skills competition, going 11-3 in three-on-three action. Thankfully, not as many games went to the shootout which we were only 2-4 in, but all those extra three-on-three points helped keep us in the division hunt up until the final day of the regular season. Also helping to keep things exciting was GM Tom Fitzgerald, who swung the big Timo Meier deal in late February, certainly our biggest in-season trade since dealing for Ilya Kovalchuk in 2009.

Despite ultimately coming up one point short of the division, the Devils’ team results went way beyond any best-case scenarios before the season…112 points and 52 wins were both team records. It is kind of telling how good the Canes were that the Devils couldn’t win their tenth division title in franchise history, given that they set both all-time records. Still, even a regular season like that would have felt slightly tainted if they’d lost to the rival Rangers in the first round – especially after the way they lost the first two games of the playoffs, matching 5-1 defeats at home.

In series, you usually have time to make adjustments though…in this case, a goalie change from Vanecek to Schmid along with some other lineup and strategy adjustments helped turn the tide, and the outlook improved at MSG after a tight Game 3 when Dougie Hamilton’s OT winner got the Devils back in the series.

You all know how that story ended…another tight 2-1 win at MSG in Game 4 which evened the series, a dominant 4-0 win at home in Game 5, a dud back at the Garden in Game 6 – then the epic Game 7 shutout, which gave us both joy and relief. We were now able to celebrate our great season properly, and with the ovations this team deserved. I don’t even feel compelled to recap the playoffs in any more depth, I’ve already written blogs on almost every game. Plus, this season was never truly about the end result of what they did in the playoffs. Yes, the season story ended quickly in the next round, but the overall journey is just beginning.

This season had something for everyone…all the team success is well-documented, but there were also plenty of individual storylines to follow. Pretty much every player had at least a few important goals, assists or other non-scoring plays throughout the season – it would take too long to even attempt to shout out everyone, so I’ll just stick to the main storylines for the most part. Although Blackwood started five of the first six games of the season in goal, it was Vanecek who would play his way into being the #1 goalie for much of the season, going 33-11-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .911 save percentage and giving the Devils stability they hadn’t had in net since the days of Cory Schneider propping up bad teams to finish just under the mediocrity line.

Much like the head coach who went from being jeered to cheered, Vitek went from getting booed and golf clapped on routine saves in the home opener to hearing Vi-tek! chants soon after and for the balance of the season, with the aforementioned shutout of the Avs giving me my first dose of confidence that maybe Vitek could be part of the solution after all, if not the entire solution in net.

Blackwood’s injury issues also provided an opportunity for Akira Schmid to shine over two different stints, which he did with a 2.13 GAA and .922 save percentage in eighteen games played, including his final appearance of the year – a relief appearance after Blackwood was pulled after giving up four early goals in Washington on the last night of the regular season. Schmid steadied the ship, and the Devils came from 4-1 down to win 5-4 in OT, a meaningless game that turned out to have a lot of meaning after all. Not just because it compelled the Devils to replace Blackwood with rookie Schmid on the playoff roster, but because it was a wildly successful second NHL game for Luke Hughes, fresh off arriving from Michigan after the Frozen Four.

More on Luke later though…after all, I should really give his brother first dibs on the bouquet throwing here. Jack had already shown signs of becoming a star last year with 56 points in 49 games, but truthfully who was going to notice when he missed most of the first half of the season and came back to a team firmly entrenched in the bottom part of the division again? This year, he took another step and with the Devils’ team success everyone was ready to notice what the 21-year old former #1 overall pick accomplished this season – becoming the first Devil to score 40+ goals since Zach Parise in 2008-09, and setting a team record for points just coming up one short of an even hundred. Seemingly all great players have the ability to use critics as fuel and Jack was no different, as his post-playoff interview proved:

Slight hyperbole but given what he did this season it’s allowed, hah. All the MVP chants he earned were both true and wish casting. Even with as good a season as he had, he never had a chance to beat out McDavid for the Hart Trophy but he’s certainly the team MVP for 2022-23, leading in all the triple crown categories of scoring (goals, assists and points). Not that we didn’t have other standouts…Nico Hischier’s always been a solid two-way player, but he added elite offense to his resume this year improving from a career-high 21 goals and 60 points last year to 31 and 80, respectively this year. Jesper Bratt also set a personal high with goals, finishing second on the team with 32. And in just his second season, Dawson Mercer had a late-season breakout to something very close to the level of our big three, putting home 27 goals and compiling 56 points while being just one of four Devils to play all 82 games.

Shockingly, none of them led the team in plus-minus – that would be Tomas Tatar, whose 20 goals, 48 points and +41 gave the team nice depth production during the regular season, along with Erik Haula who slotted in as a combination of third-line center and grunt-work winger for Hughes. Though his scoring got off to a frighteningly slow start, he rode a late-season surge to a 41-point season and kept it up through the all-important first-round series with the Rangers.

Defensively, our clear standouts were Hamilton and John Marino, for different reasons. Dougie rebounded from a disappointing and injury-plagued first season as a Devil by setting a team record for goals by a defenseman in 2022-23, contributing 22 goals, 74 points and a +23 to the cause while leading the team in average icetime. Just behind him in the latter stat was Marino, a revelation in his first season arriving after an offseason trade by the Penguins. While he had barely a fraction of Hamilton’s point production (four goals and fourteen assists), he provided a lock-down presence on the back end who also helped the team’s transition game. Marino’s presence was definitely missed during the December malaise when he was on the shelf due to injury.

Hamilton, Marino, Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Graves led a rebuilt defense which cut the Devils’ goals against by almost a full goal per game from last year (307 goals allowed in 2021-22, 226 allowed this season) while the Hughes-led offense also improved significantly from 248 goals scored last year to 291 this year, though Jack himself being healthy for a full season is the main reason for the latter increase. Jack’s younger brother coming in for the last two games of the regular season and final three games of the playoffs gave us a glimpse into the future. Luke added not only obvious skill to our d-core, but specifically more speed and puck moving to a defense that struggled with both at times during the postseason.

Off-ice, you can’t say enough about what Fitzy has done in his three and a half years at the helm. Doesn’t quite seem that long because of the fact his tenure pretty much began right before the COVID pause, but he’s certainly made a major impact in a short period of time. Sure, some of the main pieces like Jack, Nico and Bratt were already here but it was Fitz who brought in guys like Hamilton and vet leader Ondrej Palat in free agency. It was also Fitz who drafted guys like Mercer and Luke along with trading for Timo, Marino, Vitek, Haula and Siegs, among others. He filled in pieces not just looking to collect talent, but ultimately looking to construct a well-rounded team. I’m as confident in him being the man to finish the job as I’ve been of any GM in any sport since the salad days of Lou Lamoriello.

Coaching wise, that story’s already been dissected and re-lived multiple times including earlier in this blog. You’d normally have to write the script yourself to believe it. Lindy deserves a second act, whether he gets one and for how long remains to be seen, but for now he can be content with helping facilitate one of the biggest turnarounds in league history. He’ll be up for the Jack Adams award after the season, and deservedly so. Also up for awards are Nico (a finalist for the Selke as top defensive forward) and Jack as a finalist for…the Lady Byng?

Alrighty then…clearly there’s still more work to do, as our emphatic second-round exit at the hands of Carolina proved, but this organization’s already done a lot in such a short period of time. Given our on and off-ice personnel and the way we’re set up right now, there’s no reason to think bigger and better things aren’t on the horizon. In the meantime, it’s time to relax and blow off steam a little. Lindy joked after the ‘sorry’ chants that he not only was willing to forgive the fans, but also laugh about it over a beer someday. After our Game 7 win over the Rangers, his closing line in the presser harkened back to that moment:

I’d say that’s as fitting a note to begin this offseason with as I could think of myself.

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Devils season breakup day in Newark

Instead of getting ready for Game 6 of the second round at the Rock, I’m listening to exit interviews with the media – or at least I’m about to. So it goes in a league where thirty-one of thirty-two teams will come up short of the ultimate goal. Of all our playoff losses and season endings, this one probably bothers me the least though. I could bother going through some of them, obviously just missing the playoffs is galling – whether it’s on the last day like ’95-96 when they were humiliated the year after their first Cup, or whether it’s been like many recent seasons where it’s more or less been over by January. Losing playoff series as either a higher seed or to a rival are usually next on the annoyance list.

This was one of the rare seasons which didn’t have any of that, and indeed when you look back at 2022-23 it’ll be remembered as a redemption tour rather than any kind of missed opportunity. Even if losing still bugs you in the moment, especially without any clearcut favorite left in the playoffs. Carolina’s paid their dues so to speak, with a number of early playoff exits after good regular seasons. Even winning coach Rod Brind’Amour alluded to the cycle of life as a contender after Game 5:

I think in the Devils’ case, their learning curve in the postseason was twofold this year…not only in trying to figure out how to manage games and learning how to win on the ice, but also how to manage yourselves off the ice when the schedule gets condensed. Clearly the managing games part was an issue, Thursday night’s OT loss was our first under three goals all postseason. Sometimes you have to figure out how to keep games close in order to put your stars in position to make a play at the end. We did that in the regular season and in Games 3-4 against the Rangers, but still let too many other games fly off the handle in the playoffs.

Also, clearly the schedule itself got to certain players by the end…when you’ve generally played only 82 games with many of them meaningless, it’s a little different playing an 82-game schedule where the games are meaningful, plus twelve more playoff games besides. At least you can say Jack Hughes handled it admirably with six goals and eleven points in twelve postseason games, though too many other key players slumped, whether due to workload or injury. Of course, this time of year you never know what injuries guys are playing with – exhibit A Dougie Hamilton, who admitted he suffered a bad wrist injury during the Ranger series. To his credit, we never even had an inkling anything was wrong. Guess I have to back off my criticisms of him during this postseason.

Still, you wonder if going above and beyond games played factored into depressed scoring for guys like Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. Even guys like Vitek Vanecek (who has been a part of a playoff run before) had never quite played anywhere near the amount of games he did this season. Perhaps that was a reason the rails came off in the postseason, though he also didn’t get much help from the rest of the roster in his starts and I’m sure his teammates would acknowledge that.

There’s too much to look forward to for me to even really care about looking back to be honest, at least today. As good as this season was, you also saw glimpses of the future in the postseason, starting with Akira Schmid forever earning a place in Devils folklore…winning a playoff series at 22 years old with just twenty-four games of NHL experience before this postseason. Of course, that’s twenty-two more games than Luke Hughes had before his entrance into the playoffs, with spectacular results in Game 3 (two assists) and Game 5 (25:02 played, second on the team). He’s only nineteen and probably has already taken a lineup spot for good. Although he didn’t get any NHL postseason action, Simon Nemec is another promising youngster who could earn a lineup spot next year, putting up 34 points in 65 AHL games – and four in six playoff games – as an 18-year old rookie.

For everyone that comes in, someone necessarily has to go out too. This was obviously going to be the last game in a Devils uniform for some guys. It remains to be seen how many, but with Vitek having a strong regular season and Schmid proving himself in the playoffs it would seem that Mackenzie Blackwood’s played his last game here. No big loss given how his last three years went, but a shame nonetheless for someone that started his career on such a promising note before injuries derailed him, plus an unfortunate off-ice situation that doesn’t need to be rehashed also caused a deterioration of trust between him and the team. It’s likely best for both sides to move on, though Blackwood’s still on an RFA deal he could be a candidate for a non-tender.

With Hughes and perhaps Nemec being added full-time to the defense (not to mention Kevin Bahl earning more minutes throughout the season), I’m not sure what the future holds for UFA defensemen Damon Severson or Ryan Graves. It’s unlikely that either would stay on a short-term contract, or that we’ll re-sign them long-term given that we have three guys on the blueline already on long-term deals, and money that needs to be allocated to the forwards – more on that soon.

For Graves, he had a solid two regular seasons here for the most part, with 26 points and a +34 (second on the team) this year, but he struggled in the playoffs with the speed of the game, and that was seemingly an issue when he was in Colorado as well. My relationship with Severson can be best described as love-hate. He certainly gives you reason for both, but even I’d admit through little fault of his own he became as associated with the losing as anyone given the length of his tenure here. At least if this is it for him, he got to enjoy some reward for years of being on bad teams, and he gave us arguably our most memorable regular-season win this year, the early January OT winner over the Rangers to end a long home losing streak and our general December malaise.

I might do a separate recap of the season itself and review of the highlights, god knows there’s more than enough to comment on for a separate blog, but I probably will stick more to previewing the offseason with this post. In that vein, assuming we stay as is and promote from within in goal (Schmid) and on defense (Hughes, Bahl, and Nemec), Tom Fitzgerald’s major work this offseason will be up front, especially in working out long-term deals with RFA’s to be Bratt and Timo Meier. Although it’s long been expected Meier would be the easier of the two to sign, Bratt was more definitive than I would have thought when he was asked about his contract status on breakup day:

Hopefully this isn’t just posturing and there’s finally about to be a meeting of the minds here. Although Timo had a slow start after arriving (partially due to getting over a pre-trade injury) and was barren of production against the Rangers, he started to crank it up late in the series with Carolina and brings an element to our forward core we need. I don’t think Fitz would have traded what he did for Timo with the intention not to sign him along with whatever he’s offering Bratt. Don’t buy the nonsense of we won’t be able to fit them both in under the cap, we can. The question is just will they play ball enough for it not to be too prohibitive elsewhere?

Our other RFA’s – forwards Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod and defenseman Bahl probably won’t require much drama in order to get deals done. As good as the latter two were in the postseason, they’re still fourth-liners with limited skills, although you do kind of wonder what McLeod will ask for after a 26-point regular season (albeit with just four goals) and six points in twelve playoff games.

We do have some UFA’s to deal with up front including fellow fourth-liner Miles Wood, who had 13 goals and 27 points in 76 games this year. He has his flaws for sure – namely his penchant for bad penalties and dumb decisions – but also his pluses like speed and ability to get double-digit goals with fourth-line minutes. I’m not sure the pluses will outweigh the minuses when it comes to matching the offers he’ll get in free agency though, especially given that a long-term deal for a guy who plays his style and has already had a major injury probably wouldn’t age well.

Also questionable to return is Tomas Tatar, despite a good regular season of 48 points and a team-high +41, he was largely invisibad in the postseason, as he has been for much of his career. You definitely need regular season players to win in the regular season but with more money likely to be spent on the star forwards, Tatar and Wood are probably two spots where you should go cheaper and/or younger going forward. On the other hand, not only should they bring back Erik Haula but if he has anything to say about it there won’t even be a question whether the veteran center returns next year:

Given his intangibles (leadership, faceoff wins, ability to play center and wing) with his restored scoring touch down the stretch and in the postseason plus the need to keep a solid third-line center, I don’t really see any reason not to bring him back on a one or two-year deal in all likelihood. Not to mention it’d be nice to get him a playoff win over Carolina, after pulling the near impossible feat of losing to them three straight postseasons with three different teams.

Assuming the contract negotiations with Bratt and Timo go off without a hitch, there probably aren’t a lot of other big moves for Fitz to make this offseason. That’s okay, he already did a lot of heavy work in previous offseasons helping the team get to this point where they’re insanely well positioned cap/contract-wise and personnel-wise to have a window of contending for the next several years. There is one other pink elephant in the room that’ll have to be addressed in the near future though, perhaps it even already has been addressed…the contract status of Jack Adams finalist Lindy Ruff. I’m sure he’ll be asked about it at some point when he speaks to the media for the final time this offseason.

Guess he was asked about it as I was typing, and pretty much took a pass saying they’ll talk at some point, since they’re still going through evaluations and other stuff. It’s certainly been quite the arc for Lindy this season, going from two consecutive seventh place finishes with 63 points last season (our lowest total in three and a half decades) to a franchise record 112-point campaign. This season was surely enough to earn him another contract, and I assume he will get offered at least a short-term extension at this point. Unless it’s a total lowball offer, I’d have to imagine he wants to stay given this team’s potential to win something in the near future.

Whether that happens or not is likely the GM’s call at this point, but given his previous relationship with Lindy dating back to their Florida days in the mid ’90’s, it’s hard for me to see a scenario where Lindy’s not the coach next year. I don’t really buy the whole coach-in-waiting stuff with Andrew Brunette, at least not now. It could have worked out that way if we had another poor or unsatisfactory year, but I really don’t see us pushing Lindy out or nudging him upstairs in that way.

I can’t imagine any more news will be made in the near future unless Fitz drops some bombshell when he speaks to the media, so I probably will go on hiatus for a while until the offseason other than a possible season recap at some point, or commenting on news when it does happen. At least it’s nice not to care about the draft for once, given the fact we’re not in the lottery and don’t even have a first-round pick anyway.

In Fitz We Trust when it comes to the offseason plan.

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Canes’ overtime hero Fast reminds Rangers what they’re missing in series win over Devils

There was a moment earlier in last night’s game where Jesper Fast had a sure goal on his stick. With the Hurricanes trailing the Devils 1-0 on a Dawson Mercer goal perfectly set up by Timo Meier, they nearly tied it when Paul Stastny passed to a wide open Fast in front, only for him to fan on his shot.

On the close call, Devils rookie Akira Schmid was dead to rights. He had to get over for Stastny, who could’ve shot. That left Fast by himself. However, he was unable to get good wood on the puck, sending it over the net with Schmid scrambling back.

Sometimes, you get a reprieve. When it comes to Fast, the gritty right wing has always worked his tail off. From the time he was drafted by the Rangers in the sixth round in 2010, the Swede has brought a consistent work ethic to the rink. To hear former Rangers’ teammate Henrik Lundqvist tell it, nobody worked harder. It isn’t a surprise.

For over six years, including finishing the 2013-14 season on a team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals, Fast spent the first part of his career on Broadway. Never the most skilled, he was successful due to the combination of speed and determination he played with. An honest player who former coaches Alain Vigneault and David Quinn loved plugging up and down the lineup, his energy rubbed off on teammates.

It was the hustle of Fast that led to Ryan McDonagh scoring in overtime to beat the Capitals in Game Five of the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals. That kept alive the season, allowing the Rangers to rally back from a 3-1 series deficit to win a riveting second round on Derek Stepan’s OT winner. Another play where Fast was involved off a face-off by moving the puck back for Keith Yandle, who got it over for a Dan Girardi shot that Stepan rebounded home.

That’s the kind of player Fast is. He can win puck battles. That’s important during the playoffs. Technically speaking, he’s participated in the postseason eight times. It was an injury early in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Series against the Hurricanes that hurt the Rangers in the 2020 bubble. He was the right wing on a dynamic line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Panarin preferred playing with him because he created space. It’s no wonder the Bread Man was so successful in his first year in Manhattan.

Following the Canes ousting the Rangers in three straight, Fast wanted a third year included when he was an unrestricted free agent. The Rangers weren’t willing to go there. The Hurricanes were. They knew Fast could help them. So, he signed for three years at a very affordable $2 million Cao hit. Sounds pretty reasonable. Not when it came to the old regime. Jeff Gorton and John Davidson miscalculated by letting a high character player like Fast go.

In a salary cap world where teams must proceed with caution when it comes to spending, the Rangers invested a combined $19.6 million on Panarin and Jacob Trouba. At that moment, the rebuild was over. The rest is history. It isn’t worth repeating when you see the cap crunch they face this off-season. One which came sooner than expected due to those Devils, who ousted the Rangers in seven games last round. That cost Gerard Gallant his job.

When you look at what the roster lacked, it certainly didn’t have enough hard-working players who could win those key battles in the corners. They overpaid Barclay Goodrow to play as a checking forward that can kill penalties. Wouldn’t it have made sense to keep Fast? A player who can play anywhere. Similar to how Goodrow was used in his first season as a Ranger.

Instead, Fast has been busy helping the Canes advance past the Islanders and Devils to reach the Eastern Conference Final. It’ll be the third time in his career he’s made it that far. He got rewarded in last night’s 3-2 win in Game Five.

On the second half of a power play due to Jonas Siegenthaler taking a delay of game minor penalty in overtime, Fast parked himself in front of Schmid. Jesperi Kotkaniemi took a shot that Fast deflected in for the series clincher at 7:09 of overtime. He was able to convert his second scoring chance by doing what he does. Going to the net and getting a garbage goal.

In this postseason, Fast has five goals. Two have come in overtime. One against the Islanders. Now, one against the Devils that ended their season. Now 31, he plays a checking role for coach Rod Brind’Amour. In a smart move that worked, Brind’Amour opted to have Kotkaniemi center Fast and series hero Jordan Martinook. A change that allowed Jordan Staal to move up to the second line to match up against Jack Hughes.

It was the play of the third line that had an impact in the second round. Martinook tied a Canes’ playoff record by recording 10 points in the series. Another gritty player who brings speed and tenacity, he could’ve been had by any team. The Canes placed him on waivers at the beginning of the season. Little did they know that Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, and Max Pacioretty would not be available at this stage.

The trio of Kotkaniemi, Martinook, and Fast were instrumental in Carolina’s five-game series win over New Jersey. They were effective and productive. Perhaps the diligent checking was a stark contrast for the Devils, who didn’t have to worry about match-ups against the Rangers.

Hughes had to deal with the battle-tested Staal for most of the second round. He still wound up with six points but finished a minus-four in the series. He played through an injury last night. He still helped set up Meier on the power play to give the Devils their second lead. Had Meier been able to hit an open net on another Hughes feed during a crucial part of the second period, we might be talking about Game Six. That miss will haunt Meier all summer.

Despite the Devils dominating play with 12 of the last 13 shots, they were unable to increase their lead. Ironically, Meier had his best game of the postseason. He made a great pass for a Mercer finish at the doorstep in transition for the game’s first goal. A play started by Mike McLeod, who was arguably the Devils’ best player in the series. The checking center had four points while making several key defensive plays. He’ll certainly get a bump up from the $1 million salary he made. He’s a restricted free agent this summer.

Meier added his second goal of the postseason by scoring a garbage goal on the power play. He was in front of Frederik Andersen when a Dougie Hamilton shot rebounded to him. That allowed Meier to squeak it through to give him a goal and assist. Had he buried the great Hughes pass after McLeod made a good pass himself to create a three-on-one down low, it’s 3-1 Devils. That close to a two-goal lead.

It happens. How many times did Strome miss on wide open chances with the net yawning? He certainly took a beating in the Big Apple. But the Rangers were a better team with him. Some fans are forgetful and unforgiving. Unless you’re on the ice like the players are, you don’t know what they’re feeling in that frustrating moment.

The good news for Meier is that he’ll likely re-sign with the Devils as a Group II free agent. A year away from unrestricted status, the power forward has a $10 million qualifier. Considering what the Devils gave up to get him, my guess is they’ll look to lock him up. If they go that route, it’s possible Jesper Bratt could become available. He is due a significant raise. However, his playoffs weren’t good enough. Not that Meier was much better. But you noticed him due to his big hits. They’re different style players.

If one were to assess the difference in last night’s game, it was the Canes’ ability to score when they needed to. Following a good first period by the Devils that saw them take the lead into the locker room, the Canes quickly struck 50 seconds into the second when Jaccob Slavin had his long point shot go through traffic and beat Schmid.

The Hurricanes then had a storm surge. They would get the first eight shots of the period. Like Hasan said in his excellent piece on what was a breakthrough season for the Devils, it looked like the Canes would blow the doors off them. However, Schmid made some good saves. He also had some help from both McLeod and Luke Hughes. Each had key blocks that prevented goals.

Hockey is a funny game. Momentum can swing at any moment. Curtis Lazar drew a reaction penalty when Kotkaniemi went off for roughing. Eight seconds later, the Devils went back ahead. Hughes passed the puck for a simple Hamilton shot that went off Andersen, allowing Meier to put home the rebound. Outside of Ondrej Palat, converting on a five-on-four during an extended power play in a blowout win during Game Three, that was the second power play goal of the series for the Devils. That was the only penalty of the game on the Canes.

If there was a big difference between the teams, it was the Hurricanes’ ability to apply pressure on the Devils in their end. There were too many times when they coughed up pucks. It happened in the final minute of the second period. A turnover turned into chaos. That allowed Brent Burns to get to a loose puck and beat Schmid through traffic for a backbreaking tying goal with 38 seconds remaining.

Astonishingly, the Canes almost went ahead on the next shift. But Fast’s pass for a Kotkaniemi tip try went wide. That describes what happens when Carolina scores a goal at home. They feed off the crowd’s energy. It’s like a tidal wave. They become a different team.

Of all the Devils last night, Luke Hughes was very noticeable on the back end. After a nightmarish Game Four that saw him and Damon Severson victimized, the 19-year-old defenseman had an impressive game. He took 35 shifts and logged 25:02 of ice time. Unlike the last game, he spent most of his shifts with John Marino. A steady player who doesn’t make many mistakes.

Hughes made some good reads during the game. He was aggressive, firing four shots on goal in five attempts. One play that stood out was an interception of a pass that allowed the speedy Hughes to transition and test Andersen from distance. It was exactly the kind of skilled play the former 2021 first round pick is capable of. He was also better defensively, making two blocks.

In a tie game, the younger Hughes tried to beat Andersen from a tough angle. He fired a high riser that the Carolina netminder made a tough save on. It looked like he was trying to either go high short side or bank the puck in. It was a smart play.

Unlike the end of regulation, when the Hurricanes stormed the Devils net, both teams went for it in sudden death. After Meier missed on a wrap-around, Siegenthaler had a great opportunity to play the hero. Bratt pulled up and found a cutting Siegenthaler in a similar area to where he scored against the Rangers last round. But a diving Sebastian Aho made a crucial block to deny the bid.

Ryan Graves had a good chance to end it. However, his long point shot was stopped by Andersen. On the other side, Schmid made tough saves on Martin Necas and Martinook. In a losing effort, he made 36 saves on 39 shots. The 23-year-old turned in a good performance following being chased earlier in the series.

Unfortunately, Tomas Tatar made one of those back passes back into his zone. Then Siegenthaler tried to clear the puck but sent it directly out for the irksome delay of game minor. It’s one of those penalties you hate to see decide a game. It happened to the Sabres once when Brind’Amour was a player in 2006. Brian Campbell airmailed a puck out. Brind’Amour scored the overtime winner. The Hurricanes went all the way to the Stanley Cup.

Now, he coaches them. They’ve had some good teams. When Shayne Gostisbehere got the puck over for a Kotkaniemi shot, it went in off Fast, who did the dirty work. His goal at 7:09 of the first overtime allowed the Hurricanes to celebrate.

They’re back in the Conference Finals for the first time since 2019. That was the first season Brind’Amour took over behind the bench. They’ve never missed the playoffs since. They’re there due to the system they play under the coach. A guy who emphasizes strong puck possession at five-on-five and tight defense in the neutral zone.

It helps to have a Jaccob Slavin anchoring the blue line. He was a plus-12 in the series, putting up a goal and three assists. The defensive defenseman doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is. Just ask Hamilton. He was ineffective against his former team, only putting up an assist in last night’s elimination game. He struggled mightily in the series, winding up a minus-10. That can’t happen again for a player who has a hefty $9 million cap hit.

For the Devils, they have an interesting off-season ahead. Team President and GM Tom Fitzgerald must make tough decisions on both Bratt and Meier. They have plenty of cap space. However, the cost for those two players alone could be a combined $17 million. With both Graves and first round hero Erik Haula unrestricted, Fitzgerald has his work cut out. Haula sounded like he wanted to return.

It was likely the final games for Miles Wood and Severson. Both will probably leave via free agency.

Tomas Tatar certainly had a good season. He is also a free agent this summer. Mackenzie Blackwood is likely to find a new team. He’s restricted. The Devils can either trade him or not offer him a contract. He’s a year from unrestricted status. Clearly, the odd man out behind Schmid and Vitek Vanecek, who might need a sports therapist after the postseason, Blackwood needs a fresh start.

The Devils also have Nathan Bastian, Yegor Sharangovich, and Jesper Boqvist as RFA’s. They’re sure to have a different roster. But the pieces are in place. They have a bright future. With the likely arrival of Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes, the defense could have a very different look.

Lindy Ruff deserves an extension. He did a great job with this team. From hearing the boos and “Fire Lindy” chants after a blowout loss in the second game of the season, he turned it around. Ruff wasn’t shy about changing it up. If that meant benching a player to spark the team, he did it. His key adjustments allowed the Devils to come back and defeat the Rangers in the first round.

Ruff doesn’t have a contract. He deserves to stay. It’s funny how things work out. When he was a top assistant with the Rangers on Quinn’s staff, fans couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Now, the Rangers are again searching for a new coach after dismissing Gerard Gallant. Go figure.

One question is whether top assistant Andrew Brunette will become available. There should be interest around the league. He coached the Panthers to the President’s Trophy. One would imagine he’ll get another shot.

It’s hard to believe the season is over for both the Rangers and Devils. The Battle of Hudson didn’t disappoint. Both teams made the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Rangers couldn’t meet unrealistic expectations. They were outplayed by the Devils in the first round. Sometimes, it’s harder to be successful in Year Two. Especially off a surprising run. Team President and GM Chris Drury will have a lot of pressure on him.

It’ll be different on the Jersey side. They’ll make some tough choices. However, with a young nucleus featuring Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dawson Mercer, and possibly Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier, there’s a lot to like. They might’ve found their goalie of the future in Akira Schmid. They had to love what they saw from Luke Hughes on Thursday night.

What you have are two good rivals who should be challenging the Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. Whether Carolina wins or not, we’ll see. I might pull for Fast and former favorite Derek Stepan. It’s ironic that both play checking roles. I never understood letting Quickie go. I suggested Stepan for our team. He certainly knows how to play.

It’s Rangers South awaiting the winner between the Maple Leafs and Panthers in the Conference Finals. Fast has reminded the Rangers what they’re missing.

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Devils’ promising season ends with heartbreak in Raleigh

It’s hard for me to know where to begin at the end…a game recap at this point seems pointless, the series is over and there are no more chances to rebound or adjust. To a large degree, I’d really rather look ahead with this team. Seemingly, the future is bright though sports is littered with teams that oozed promise and never delivered in the end – the mid 2010’s Mets with their pitching that was going to dominate baseball comes immediately to mind given my fandom. Of course today isn’t about dreading the worst-case scenario which is years away, but rather about celebrating a season well played. Like a real-life funeral or a wake, today and the next few days should be about remembering all the good things in the season just past.

Of course, before we can look ahead and leave this season in the past there has to be an autopsy. Let’s face it, the better team won this series. Maybe not necessarily the better talent but clearly the better team – more organized coaching and system-wise, more experienced in the ups and downs of the postseason and more aware of…shall we say the dark arts in knowing what obstruction and physical liberties refs will let you get away with.

Certainly, in a tight Game 5 third period and OT you knew there wasn’t going to be a penalty called (and thankfully for once, the officiating was equal-opportunity passive) – until the one penalty that is too obvious to ignore was committed, with Jonas Siegenthaler’s fatal delay of game penalty in overtime. It’s unfortunate the season ended this way, especially minutes after it briefly looked like he could be the OT hero with a similar shot than the one which beat Igor Shesterkin late in Game 4 for the winner there. Similar, and he had even more room to shoot this time…except this one from the left circle missed the net. Instead of the hero he turned into the goat, with an assist from Tomas Tatar whose stupid back-pass put Siegs in a bad position.

What was unfortunate is despite goals going in from left, right and center the Canes’ power play hadn’t really been a huge factor in the series – until they needed one to end it, and Jesper Fast’s body delivered.

That goal also illustrates another difference between the two teams, we had few goals like that in the entire postseason where guys went to the right spot, screening the goalie and looking for deflections. When our passing game shut down or short-circuited, we had few ways to get goals – especially in this series against a solid defensive team and a goalie (Frederik Andersen) who played well enough to win in four of the five games in this round. Not that goaltending was really any kind of decisive factor, we saw that last night when the Devils finally tightened up defensively and Akira Schmid looked better than he did earlier in the series. Perhaps he just needed the extended break of sitting out most of the last two games, after playing seven high-pressure games in two weeks.

Perhaps the schedule itself was another issue with this team – starting the postseason on the second day of it, going seven games in the first round and only getting more than one day off once in the entire postseason led to a ridiculously condensed schedule (even by postseason standards) with eleven games in twenty-three days. That’s one of the hidden factors teams and players have to navigate, both how to play a number of games without an extended break and practice-time and also how to play better early in a series where you aren’t expending extra energy. Maybe the Devils don’t need to go seven games against the Rangers if they didn’t no-show the first two at home.

It’s an overplayed line but they did learn a lot of lessons in the playoffs. Last night highlighted yet another in the form of momentum-killing goals and missed opportunities. While we were dominated early in Game 5 and it looked like another Raleigh blowout, this time we managed to settle ourselves and even get the first goal when Dawson Mercer finished off a nice breakout play and took advantage of a good feed from Timo Meier to score his third of the playoffs.

Even keeping that 1-0 lead through the first assured nothing. After all, the Canes would outscore us 14-4 in the second period of the five games of the postseason. Sure enough, Jaccob Slavin scored just fifty seconds into the middle frame on a double deflection tying the game. Again, a goal the Devils got too few of in the postseason and why our offense shut down for long stretches. It looked like this would be the third straight second period where they’d run us out of the rink as they got the first nine shots of the period.

However, against the run of play the Devils managed to actually reclaim the lead where even more shockingly, the Devils actually scored on a power play! It was our only five-on-four power play goal all season against the Canes (well technically the one in Game 3 was five-on-four but really a five-on-three where the guy coming out of the box wasn’t in the play yet), and came with our only shots on the man advantage all night. Stunningly, it was off a rebound when a heating up Meier went in front and showed the rest of the team how to get a garbage goal.

Suddenly, that goal turned the momentum – the Devils went from being the nail to the hammer and started peppering Andersen with shots. In a cruel twist of fate however, it was one miss that Andersen had no chance on which proved to be decisive in determining the game’s outcome. Even more cruelly, it was a suddenly heating-up Timo who missed the sitter that everyone, even coach Lindy Ruff after the game admitted he knew could be costly.

Stuff like that happens in hockey. You just can’t miss too many golden chances like that against an excellent defense and a well-structured team. Sure enough, minutes later it was the big-bearded Brent Burns who tied the game again, firing a wrister through a screen for a devastating last-minute goal to bookend Slavin’s first minute goal of the period. You can’t really blame Schmid on any of the goals last night, and overall you can’t blame any of the goalies for losing this series, as poor as they played in the first four games.

As the game grinded through the third period without much happening, it was obvious we were already basically in sudden death OT. When we finally reached that point it was just a matter of who was going to get the bounce and the break. Would we have had a different outcome if Tatar didn’t unnecessarily play the puck back towards Siegenthaler and put him under pressure? Perhaps, I doubt it would have made any big difference even if we’d somehow won last night though. Not with how Carolina played us this series, and especially with the news afterward that Jack Hughes was dealing with a serious enough injury that it was thought he wasn’t going to play.

People thought it was actually elaborate subterfuge when Jack didn’t take line rushes before Game 5, thinking we were just going the extra mile to hide our lines from Rod Brind’Amour after he line matched us to death in the first two games. Instead, it was indicative of a real problem. One that probably wasn’t helped when he got corkscrewed on the Timo miss late in the second. He played, and even got a secondary assist on the Meier goal, but if it wasn’t obvious beforehand something was an issue you knew it when you saw the 14:16 of icetime after the game.

If people thought Jack was just some skinny pretty boy that had flash but couldn’t play big-boy hockey, they got proven wrong this postseason. He was our one big-name player who consistently showed up, and also went above and beyond the call throwing his weight around physically. I’m not sure every last player did so, but I’ll leave that for the official post-mortem inquest after the team meets the media for the final time in New Jersey before dispersing for the summer. Ironically, among the players who stepped up for Jack tonight was kid brother Luke, who rebounded from his meh Game 4 to step up in a bigger way than imaginable by playing twenty-five minutes of first-pairing hockey alongside John Marino in just his fifth pro game. At nineteen years old. Both Hughes stepped up this postseason and will be all the better for learning what it takes going forward.

For now, I’ll leave on a similar note I struck before Game 7 against the Rangers, in the event we lost and I didn’t feel like doing a recap after – it would have been nice to advance further, and it would really be nice to beat this franchise one day. While none of the other players were around for our three playoff losses to them between 2002-2009, they’re certainly still fresh in my mind. And if it wasn’t obvious before this postseason, it seemingly is now – Carolina isn’t just the team we have to get past in the division now but likely will be for the next several years.

Worrying about winning and changing our playoff history against them (especially our 1-11 record in Carolina during those four playoff series) is for another day though. In a way, I actually kind of wish last night’s game was at home so the Devils could have gotten a sendoff for an overall good season, rather than the booing and catcalls Game 4 deserved. Then again, it was nice to go out of the arena for the final time in a season at least feeling hopeful about the future rather than annoyed about the never-ending cycle of rebuilding it seemed we were stuck in for several years, or even without being annoyed over a playoff exit.

In a way, I think of one of the final scenes in the first season of the surprisingly gripping Welcome to Wrexham documentary about two Hollywood a-listers buying a fifth-tier soccer club in Wales and ostensibly doing their best to not only turn the team around on the pitch, but also to better the community as well. After a brutal playoff loss which prevented the team from being promoted into a higher tier of the English league, it was the owners themselves who reminded the distraught players they already accomplished a more important goal by bringing hope and belief back into the town and fanbase.

That scene gets me more each time I think about it or see it, in part because it’s so applicable to this year’s Devils team. In less than one year, we went from disillusioned half-filled arenas, jeering the coach and booing players to selling out half the regular season and every playoff game with wild, passionate crowds who were having fun again. Beyond even winning, this team accomplished being relevant after a decade almost entirely in the wilderness sans the Taylor Hall-led run in 2018, which saw a quick postseason exit. For the first time in the post-Lou era, there’s genuine hope of bigger and better things ahead and perhaps a not-too-distant return to the glory days.

As your general manager said after the last round, take a bow boys.

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