The courageous words of deserving Masterton recipient Robin Lehner

If anyone suffers from mental illness, then you know the stigma attached to it. It can really suck. It kicked my ass recently in the form of a panic attack. Then a mini episode yesterday.

Having battled Panic Disorder for 14 years, I am better equipped to deal with it. However, the bouts with anxiety and depression can be such a chore. It makes you want to gouge your eyes out. You literally feel like you’re stuck forever in a dark hole with no end in sight.

You must continue to battle. Don’t ever give up. The brave words of Jimmy Valvano always stay with me. And he battled cancer, eventually succumbing to the horrible disease when I was a teenager.

Mental illness can be just as scary. For Robin Lehner, he struggled with it for a long time without getting help. After leaving the Sabres where he never quite was right, he finally sought out help. Having battled alcohol and substance abuse probably due to trying to cope like miraculous survivor Theo Fleury, the goalie finally came clean during his first season with the Islanders.

It resulted in an amazing turnaround that included him winning 25 games while posting a 2.13 goals-against-average (GAA), a .930 save percentage and career high six shutouts. In sharing time with Thomas Greiss, Lehner was a big reason the Islanders surprised so many by not only making the playoffs, but sweeping the Penguins to advance to the second round.

His performance got plenty of recognition by his peers and the league. He finished third for the Vezina which was awarded to Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy tonight.

Most importantly, Lehner was nominated for the Bill Masterton Trophy for the tremendous comeback season he had. He deservedly won the award and got plenty of cheers from a supportive crowd in Vegas. Here are the courageous words he said regarding mental illness:

“I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill. But that does not mean mentally weak.”

Those are fighting words every person who experiences this issue needs to hear. You are not alone. Thank you to Robin Lehner and congratulations to him on being a true champion for mental health.

As expected, the Hart and Pearson went to Nikita Kucherov. Mark Giordano finally took home his first Norris beating out Brent Burns and Victor Hedman. The Selke was won by Ryan O’Reilly, who edged Mark Stone with Patrice Bergeron finishing third.

Elias Pettersson took home the Calder by getting much more first place votes than runner-up Jordan Binnington, who was honored for the Playoff Moment.

Barry Trotz won the Jack Adams over Jon Cooper and Craig Berube. It was the second time he’s won it. The Lady Byng went to Aleksander Barkov.

In perhaps the most emotional moment, Carey Price came out on stage and surprised Anderson Whitehead with a Canadiens Price jersey and invited him to next year’s All-Star Game. Whitehead is the big Habs fan who lost his Mom to cancer. What a heartwarming story.

Hockey won tonight.

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Flyer insanity signing Hayes might impact Rangers with Kreider

I was gonna post this about three hours sooner. But a unfortunate panic episode had me recovering with a cold shower following a workout. So, I kept myself occupied doing stuff I needed to do here.

What I’m about to say isn’t easy. I like Kevin Hayes. He was a good player for the Rangers. He matured into a quality two-way, second line center under coach Alain Vigneault. It sure explains a lot with the Flyers recently acquiring his negotiating rights from cash strapped Winnipeg, who had no intention of keeping him, or newest Blueshirt Jacob Trouba.

Normally, I’d be like whatever in regards to the new contract Hayes agreed to with the Flyers. Not this time though. So, before I go off on the lunacy that’s become the NHL market, please have a closer look at this signing.

Now, you can imagine my astonishment when I finally logged into Twitter following the shower. To see TSN insider Bob McKenzie report that figure for Hayes really made me do a double take. Holy bleeping bleep!

I figured a good player like Hayes would top out at $6.5 million AAV. Instead, he’s gonna average a whopping $7.14 million over the next seven seasons in Philadelphia. Wow!

Please keep in mind this is a player who’s went over 50 points once in his first five seasons. The 27-year old ex-Ranger accomplished it in ’18-19 by combining to record 19 goals along with a career best 36 assists for a new career high of 55 points between the Rangers and Jets. Interestingly, he fared better on Broadway by going 14-28-42 in 51 contests before tallying five goals and eight helpers for 13 points in 20 games with Winnipeg.

In a tough six-game first round elimination to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blues, he went 2-1-3 in a closely fought series that really didn’t feel like a Western Conference quarterfinal. That’s the sheer genius of this ass backwards league.

It’s also noteworthy that for some inexplicable reason, Hayes had his ice-time dramatically cut by Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice in the middle of the series. Eventually, it went back up in crunch time. Hayes didn’t perform badly considering how Maurice handled him. I really felt that the veteran bench boss did both his team and Hayes a disservice in that first round defeat. They rented him for the sole purpose of going far in the postseason much like last year. It was a puzzling decision.

Anyone with a pulse knew there was no chance Hayes was sticking around. The Jets had too many other key players. So, they took back a fifth round pick from the Flyers for Hayes’ rights. When deals like that go down, the team that acquires the player wants to sign them. So, it’s no surprise Hayes is officially a Flyer and off the market.

Now, is he worth that insane $50 million over seven years?

Excuse my humor. 😁 This really isn’t aimed at Hayes either. I respect what he did in NYC. He was also very honest about how much he struggled in his sophomore year due to thinking he’d arrived. I knew about it through a source. Let’s just say he wasn’t doing the best he could and leave it at that.

He recommitted himself and improved leaps and bounds between his third and fourth year. He’s a three zone player, who can be trusted at five-on-five, power play and penalty kill. It’s not like he won’t help the Flyers playing behind Sean Couturier and between Nolan Patrick.

You want to blame someone for this contract? Look no further than what the Islanders gave Brock Nelson. He also went over 50 points for the first time in his career due to an increased top six role under coach Barry Trotz, mostly because of John Tavares’ departure. Nelson got an AAV of $6 million over the next six years. At least it’s for one less year.

Also 27, the former Isles 30th overall pick in the same 2010 Draft as Hayes, who went number 24 to the Blackhawks, Nelson has scored at least 20 goals in four seasons. However, here’s the rub. In 480 career games, he’s totaled only a dozen more points (124-117-241) than Hayes (92-137-229), who has played in 99 less games.

If you do the math, it helps explain why Hayes got what he did compared with Nelson. Essentially a million more. They’re different centers. Hayes has totaled 67 even strength goals, 14 power play goals and six shorthanded goals over his five-year career. By comparison, Nelson has 100 even strength goals, 23 PPG and just one shorthanded goal in a six-year career.

The assist breakdown for Nelson is 90 even strength, 26 power play and one shorthanded. Hayes comes in at 99 even strength, 23 power play and seven shorthanded.

Based on that, you can conclude that Hayes is the more complete player, which further justifies the money he got. The issue is the Flyers gave him seven years. One more than Nelson, who’ll be 33 when his contract expires in 2025. More reasonable than Hayes’ deal that’ll take him through 2026 when he’ll be 34 by its conclusion.

That’s assuming he doesn’t become a cap casualty by either trade like former Ranger teammates Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan, or bought out. Remember Scott Gomez? Yeah. I went there because it’s basically the same contract. Crazy.

The NHL market dictates what players get paid. Even when it doesn’t make a whole lot of fiscal dollars and cents. That’s why so many teams lock up their young franchise players with ridiculous contracts that actually are worth it in most cases due to their talent. Crosby, anyone? Remember that contract Ovechkin got? Now, it’s a huge bargain and has been for quite some time.

Who would you rather have entering 2019-20? Proven superstars like Crosby and Ovechkin, who have carried their teams to championships while still being at peak level. Or rather Artemi Panarin, who despite dynamic talent, hasn’t accomplished much with his first two teams (Blackhawks, Blue Jackets) despite some excellent statistics in four NHL seasons. He’s gonna break the bank just like former Norris winner Erik Karlsson.

You know. The superb offensive Dynamo who just got a very long max contract to stay in San Jose for a very high AAV of $11.5 million thru 2027. As much as I love and admire Karlsson, he’s already breaking down. What’s he going to look like in a few years? That’s the huge risk the Sharks are taking. They know time is running out on delivering a Cup. So, they went the extra mile. Good luck.

So, what does all this June madness mean for Chris Kreider? I hate to be the harbinger of bad news. But he’s probably played his last game as a Ranger. 😕

What exactly could he command if he hits the market next summer? He is still on a cap friendly deal worth an average of $4.625 million that expires in 2020. That bargain is coming to an end and it could be sooner rather than later.

Why? In his sixth season, he eclipsed 50 points for the second time. While the very physically gifted Kreider hasn’t been consistent, he’s had at least 21 or more goals in four of the past five seasons. That includes matching his career mark of 28 set in ’16-17 when he also established a career best 53 points. Had he not needed blood clot surgery during ’17-18, he would have at least 20 goals in five straight years. Over 58 games, he went 16-21-37.

What could a player of Kreider’s caliber get in a player’s market? Due to escalating salaries, I don’t think he will settle for the proposed $6.5 million AAV I envisioned. Why should he? He’s more than a numbers guy. Anyone that’s followed him knows better.

Not only does Kreider bring strong five-on-five play due to possession. He also is a force in front of the net on the power play where his size and net presence can create havoc for opposing goalies. The ironic part is he’s never scored more than seven power play goals in any year. But he does such a good job screening that it takes away a goalie’s vision. He might not always get credit for scoring on the man-advantage. But you better believe he has a lot to do with some of the goals scored.

At 28, the former Rangers ’09 first round pick has developed into a leader on a young, rebuilding roster. Personally, I’d love nothing better than to keep him. That’s up to both Jeff Gorton and John Davidson to decide.

If Hayes can get seven million over seven years, why shouldn’t Kreider ask for similar? It’s up to him. How much does he value playing here for possibly his entire career? He’s built strong relationships with Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal and a variety of other teammates.

I guess what it comes down to is does Kreider believe in what the Blueshirts are doing. He’s got maybe four peak years left. That’s if he avoids the injury bug. We know he’s tough. He played through it the final two months only missing three games. His production suffered. But the leadership he showed is something the newer faces can learn from. Ditto for his postgame interviews, which were always on the money.

The first time I saw Kreider was during the memorable 2010 USA run at the Under 20 World Junior Championship where they won gold. He and future Rangers linemate Stepan were terrific. I believed the former Boston College standout could reach 30 goals and 70 points. As it turned out, the 30 goals was realistic. But the seventy points wasn’t due to the style he plays.

To be honest, he’s never had a legit number one center who makes it easier for teammates to score. No disrespect to Stepan or Zibanejad. I’m merely talking elite centers.

When I reflect back on the three long playoff runs that began in 2012 when a young Kreider scored big goals before he even played an NHL regular season game, the Big Man has always been important to each postseason. Who could forget his impact against Montreal in the Eastern Conference Final that’ll always be remembered fondly by the Garden Faithful? Or bitterly by some nonsensical Canadiens fans, who still blame Kreider for what happened to Carey Price, and not Alexei Emelin.

I appreciate what Kreider has done here. If it’s indeed over, he totaled 133 goals with 138 assists for 271 points over 460 games. In the playoffs, he wound up with 23 goals and 14 assists for 37 points in 77 games. Of the 23 postseason goals, nine came on the power play and six were game-winners. The other 14 coming at even strength, proving that he was an effective player, who produced a good percentage during crucial moments. Here is my favorite!

We were in the house for that emotional tying goal in a do or die Game Five against the Capitals. I’ll never forget telling my brother they needed a miracle right before Stepan pulled up and fed Kreider for that one-timer past Braden Holtby. Kreider delivered!

We all know what followed. The Stepan drop to Ryan McDonagh in overtime and a wild celebration at The Garden. Then, hanging on for dear life after building a lead that dwindled in a crazy third period in DC. Lundqvist was unbelievable that night. He was still at his peak in besting Holtby in an amazing Conference Semifinal that felt like a different round.

Maybe it hurt them against Tampa. Given how many defensemen played hurt in the mind numbing third round, it definitely had an affect. That was the year to win too.

If the organization decides it’s in their best interest to move on from Kreider due to the increasing price on an extension, I can’t blame them. Unless he’s willing to take a little less to stay, I have a sinking feeling he’s gone.

It could come quick. Maybe as soon as the vaunted first round in two days at Vancouver. This is a deep draft. The Rangers traded away two of their draft picks to improve their blueline with the additions of Adam Fox and now Trouba. Would it really shock anyone if they dangled Kreider to trade back into the first round and get a center?

Maybe they wait until after this weekend. It probably makes more sense. The two sides have to be holding discussions. It’s critical. If they decide to move on from Kreider, that could free up enough room to go after Panarin. Even if I believe they can use a center instead.

Unless Jack Hughes falls into their lap, they’re a center short. As good as Kaapo Kakko is, I would prefer him play on the right wing where he can use his size, skill and strength to score goals. His tools are similar to Jaromir Jagr. It’s that impressive watching him control play. I’m not saying he’s in the same league as the legendary No. 68. Just that Kakko has a lot to offer if he’s a Blueshirt.

What Hughes would offer is a legit franchise center who can become a superstar. The likes of which we haven’t seen since Mark Messier came over from Edmonton. Only this would be an 18-year old first round pick at the very beginning. That doesn’t happen here. Neither does Kakko. This is unchartered territory for this fan base.

But before anyone goes overboard, they’re not ready to compete for the playoffs. It will depend on the maturation of young players including Hughes or Kakko, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Brett Howden, Vitali Kravtsov, Fox, Libor Hajek, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin.

That doesn’t include K’Andre Miller, who’s at least a year away from the NHL. Nils Lundkvist is also another young defenseman the team grabbed in last year’s first round. There’s a lot to like, but quite a few faces and name plates will change by the time this team is finally ready to return to the postseason.

I don’t know what’ll happen the next few days. I do know Gorton will be busy working the phones. It’s gonna be hectic. Look at what’s happened already in other places. Here’s hoping they don’t deviate from the long-term game plan.

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How Trouba fell into Gorton’s lap

It never made any sense from the beginning. When the Rangers announced the trade last night for Jacob Trouba, the return the Winnipeg Jets got was for a better description, severely lacking.

So, how did they only wind up with Neal Pionk and the original number 20 pick in the first round that they sent to the Blueshirts with Brendan Lemieux to rent Kevin Hayes? Let’s take a closer look as to why.

Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff knew it was time to move Trouba. After completing a one-year contract in which the 25-year old defenseman made $5.5 million, he was a year away from unrestricted free agency in 2020. Considering that the Jets must sign young scoring forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to big extensions, they were backed into a corner.

With other key decisions coming on Andrew Copp (RFA), who ironically enough is one of Trouba’s closest friends due to playing together since they were kids, they couldn’t afford the expected $7.5 million average the Group II American defenseman will command. For Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, who has more cap space available, it was a no-brainer.

What about the other side? How did the Jets go from having so many interested suitors to them suddenly dropping out due to a complex situation that helped Gorton land the top pair right defenseman? None of the teams were permitted to talk to Trouba about signing him. So, instead of getting a much better return, Winnipeg basically got stuck due to other interested teams backing out.

Basically, the Rangers got lucky here. That’s why Pionk and the original Winnipeg first round pick were enough for Gorton to steal Trouba. He still must be signed. It’s just a matter of time before it happens. As for Trouba, this wasn’t a case of him disliking playing for the Jets. On the contrary, he enjoyed his time spent there which included helping them beat the Predators in a sexy Western Conference second round match-up last year to advance to the first ever Conference Final in team history.

There was just no way for Winnipeg to keep a good player, who should definitely help improve the Rangers back end. Something Cheveldayoff alluded to in a piece that appeared on NHL.com.

“This was a necessary first step for us to take and we’ll move on to the next,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “With the opportunity not to get a long-term deal (with Trouba) in Winnipeg here, we just felt it was best to open up the door to the possibility of trading him and today’s the day we finalized it.”

We’d love to keep everybody, and we’d love to have enough cap space to sign everybody to the extensions that they deserve. We’d love to take another swing with the group we have here, but there’s realities in a hard-cap world, and we’re fortunate to have some great young players in our organization.”

And so, Trouba moves from Winnipeg to the Big Apple. Once he signs on the dotted line, he’ll become a key veteran who is a big part of the Rangers rebuild moving forward. Projected new partner Brady Skjei is familiar with him from their days representing Team USA.

How it all shakes out depends on the rest of the summer. Get ready for Friday night. The main attraction comes early on in the highly anticipated first round of the 2019 NHL Draft. The Hudson rival Devils are expected to select top American center Jack Hughes, which would leave highly rated Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko for the Rangers to grab at number two.

Having already signed Russian imports Vitali Kravtsov, Igor Shesterkin and Yegor Rykov, the Ranger organization are taking the necessary steps to becoming a real player in the future. Gorton has a tough decision regarding power forward Chris Kreider. The 28-year old veteran will enter the final year of a contract that pays him a cap average of $4.625 million through 2020. Both Gorton and new Team President John Davidson must decide whether it’s best to keep Kreider by extending him to a new deal that’ll range in the neighborhood of between $6.5 to $7 million AAV.

If they decide not to keep him, it’s possible Kreider could get moved as soon as this weekend. Who knows? They could decide to shop him for another first round pick and a prospect. Especially if it means filling another team need at center behind Mika Zibanejad. Youngsters Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Brett Howden aren’t ready for a top six role at the center position.

Much also depends on what else they decide to do. If you view the new Rangers blueline, the projected top three right D are Trouba, Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox. If that’s indeed the case, it could be Adios Kevin Shattenkirk. Ditto for serviceable vet Brendan Smith.

Freeing up more cap space could still mean a run at Artemi Panarin. We’ll have to wait and see what their plans are.

Stay tuned.

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Rangers steal Trouba away from Winnipeg

In an absolute stunner, the Rangers have acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets. It’s what they gave up that is so shocking.

Apparently due to a cap crunch, the Jets were so desperate to get rid of the top pair right defenseman, who is a restricted free agent, that they only got back RFA defenseman Neal Pionk and recouped the first round pick (#20 overall) they gave up in the Kevin Hayes deal.

This is an unbelievable night for GM Jeff Gorton and new Team President John Davidson. Knowing they needed an experienced shutdown defenseman that could play the right side, they landed the 25-year old Trouba.

A good player they targeted along with the Hudson rival Devils and Red Wings, Trouba just completed his sixth season in Winnipeg. Originally a 2012 ninth overall pick by the Jets, the 6-3, 202 pound American established career highs in assists (42) and points (50) while playing in all 82 games for the first time.

He is the kind of solid skating and tough right defenseman the Rangers haven’t had since dare I say Dan Girardi. Only with much more talent than what the classic overachiever accomplished on Broadway before winding up where most former Rangers go, which is Tampa.

A complete player who can play power play and penalty kill while logging big minutes at even strength, Trouba averaged 22:53 of ice-time this past season. He blocked 171 shots and had 112 hits. The third time in his six-year career that he was over 100 in both categories.

It’s ironic that they just made the trade for him because I was casually on a salary cap website when I noticed Pionk listed under Winnipeg. I quickly checked the Rangers and sure enough, Trouba was already listed. I couldn’t believe it. Winnipeg didn’t get any other players. Not key Group II free agent right wing Pavel Buchnevich as I first tweeted earlier today.

I didn’t believe Pionk and the original 2019 Winnipeg first would be enough to get Trouba. I thought it would take a third piece. Instead, the Rangers took full advantage of the Jets’ complicated cap situation.

Winnipeg is in a tough spot due to both Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine being due significant raises as key restricted’s. Plus vet defenseman Tyler Myers is unrestricted and they want to re-sign him. Brandon Tanev and Ben Chiarot are also UFA’s. Pionk is a RFA. But will be much cheaper than what Trouba would’ve cost.

The Rangers will have to pay Trouba the much rumored $7.5 million AAV he wants. Or somewhere in that neighborhood. Considering his young age, he’s in his prime.

That makes this acquisition a home run for the organization. Now, they finally have the top pair right defenseman they so desperately needed to anchor the back end.

Brady Skjei will remain on the top pair and finally get a legit player to work with. That’s as long as they jell. It also means Tony DeAngelo could be staying. He’s a restricted free agent this summer. As a second pair D with Hobey Baker finalist Adam Fox competing for a roster spot this Fall, it could signal the end for veterans Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith. Smith is expected to be bought out while rumors were rampant that Gorton couldn’t find any takers for Shattenkirk on the trade market.

With young blueliners such as Fox, Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren all possibilities in September along with Yegor Rykov, the Rangers blueline could have a very different look. Wait until 2018 first round pick K’Andre Miller arrives.

Things are looking up in Manhattan and we are still a few days away from the NHL Draft.

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Devils offseason preview

While next weekend will certainly be one of the most exciting non-game related weekends in local hockey history with both the Devils and Rangers getting potential franchise players in the first two picks of Friday’s NHL Draft, drafting Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko is just the beginning of pivotal offseasons for both neighboring teams.  For the Rangers it’s about continuing the rebulid while for the Devils, things are getting much more gray.  This will be a pivotal offseason determining whether the organization is committed to taking the next step or if the progress that’s been made over the last few years gets shelved yet again in favor of an even longer rebuild.  Why is this such a pivotal offseason?

Two words: Taylor Hall.

With the Devils’ MVP up for a new contract after 2019-20, this offseason should determine which direction the Devils are going.  If Hall re-signs and the Devils sign/trade for improvements to the roster then clearly they’re ready to take the next step toward competing while Hughes and 2017 #1 overall pick Nico Hischier are still on ELC’s, and Hall is still in his prime.  If Hall does not re-sign and gets traded then it’s a clear signal we’re stepping back and waiting even longer, an approach that won’t exactly give the fans or players like Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac warm fuzzies.  Patience is one thing, but at what point do we take the next step towards trying to win?  Our excuse that Lou Lamoriello left us in such a bad state evaporates with each offseason, we’re now going into year five with Ray Shero and all we have to show for it is one playoff appearance, a supposedly better farm system and oodles of unused cap space.  Plus from a business perspective, this isn’t Montreal where you breathe hockey 24/7.  There’s too many other alternatives for the entertainment dollar in this market to go through a decade-long period of near irrelevance.

Left unsaid – till now – is door number three, Hall not resigning but not being traded before the season either.  I call it the ‘if you have time, use it’ solution in a sardonic manner after one of Lou’s famous quotes here.  Although it wouldn’t exactly be ideal to go into camp with Hall’s contract status providing the dreaded d-word…distraction, it’s not the most inconcievable scenario either.  Could you really blame Hall if he wants to take a wait-and-see approach to see what direction the team is willing to go before he commits long-term?  While Devil fans have waited since 2012 to see another playoff series win, Hall hasn’t even won a playoff series since his career began in 2010.  If Shero thinks he can improve the team during the season and will get contributions from younger players already in the organization, I could see him waiting it out a bit to try to convince Hall to go along with the team’s current direction.

At some point the team will have to fish or cut bait if it comes to it though, not trading Hall at the deadline and risking getting zero back for him next July would be damaging to a franchise that’s already seen star wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise walk away for nothing.  Their double-barrelled departure arguably set the Devils back five years.  While the Isles were at least able to survive losing John Tavares in the short-term with an overachieving season, you can’t really say it’ll help them long-term either.  Waiting through free agency and the start of next season probably wouldn’t damage his value much, especially if a sign-and-trade could be worked out a la Mark Stone.

What happens with Hall could set a tone or establish one if he re-signs after Shero makes one or two big moves to bolster the talent on the roster.  On the one hand ,contending seems far away after one of the franchise’s worst-ever seasons, but on the other hand with a healthy Hall, Hughes coming aboard and a couple other substantial improvements this organization has major bounceback potential.  If a rebuild 2.0 is the result of this offseason though, then you have to also trade pending UFA’s Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene.  Greene, especially deserves to be on a contender if he wants to waive his NTC (though he could also decide being a lifetime Devil is worth sticking around for) while if Vat – coming off a poor 2018-19 – isn’t in the team’s future plans, it’s best to get something for him if you’re not going to go all in on taking the next step forward by the 2020 trade deadline.

Chief on the team’s shopping list are another top six winger, and a top four (if not top two) left defenseman.  Secondarily, the team could use another back six forward or two and another back six RD.  If Shero can pull those moves out of wherever using our extra picks and/or our approximately $25-30 million in cap space, then this team will be dramatically better off.  Especially if the goaltending holds up the way it did in the second half of last year after Keith Kinkaid was exiled to Columbus, with a healthy Cory Schneider and rookie Mackenzie Blackwood splitting the workload and being most of the reason for what little success we did have in 2019.  Of course, if we have another offseason of ifs and buts leading to nothing substantial for a second straight offseason, then things get dicey.

It’s your move, Mr. Shero.

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Stanley Cup playoff thoughts from the outside

By all accounts and logic, this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs was one of the most unpredictable in NHL history.  From the beginning – which saw a shocking sweep of President’s Cup winner Tampa Bay and other first-round upsets of last year’s two Cup Finalists Washington and Vegas, as well as perennial contender Pittsburgh and West favorites Nashville and Winnipeg going down – to the very end of the playoffs which saw the unheralded St. Louis Blues go from worst to first in 2019…literally.  An annual first or second-round playoff team that usually goes no further, the Blues weren’t on anyone’s radar as a real contender before the season, even less so in January after coaching and goaltending changes for a team that was still in last place in the NHL.  To go from the lowest of lows to beating the favored Bruins in Game 7 at Boston for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup is a truly remarkable turnaround, spearheaded by a retread coach in Craig Berube and a journeyman rookie goalie in Jordan Binngton.

It’s stories like the Blues’ and Binnington’s that can seemingly only happen in the NHL.  You certainly don’t get that in the NBA where the best teams or the best players (usually both) tend to finish on top.  Even this year with the Raptors being a feel-good story, it’s not like they came out of nowhere and their acquisition of one of the best three players in the NBA led to their own improbable run. Baseball is a sport of the haves and have-nots more and more as teams favor the go big or go home approach, widening the parity gulf and creating more long summer days for a sport already struggling to attract the younger viewers.  Football?  Well you did have the Eagles and Nick Foles two years ago, in a story with some similarities to the Blues this year.  Of course every NFL season in the end still comes down to whether you can beat the Patriots in late January or early February, and you’re certainly not coming from the worst record in the middle of the season to win a Super Bowl there.

I can’t say as I watched most of the playoffs, although I certainly did have the SCF Game 7 turned on from start to finish.  Given I grew up on deep Devils’ playoff runs, maybe it’s inevitable it’d be hard for me to emotionally get into an increasing number of postseasons without them in it (and the one that they were in, was a quick cup of coffee appearance).  At least there’s still Doc Emrick around to do the games, a touch of nostalgia in that sense.  His call on one of Binngton’s great saves in the third period just before the Blues’ dagger of a third goal was typically classic.  Doesn’t mean I don’t care who wins – certainly the Blues this year and the Caps last year with their stories of redemption and getting over the hump at long last appealed to most neutral fans like myself.  I was also happy with the Blackhawks breaking their long drought in 2010, with the added benefit of them beating the rival Flyers to do it.  It’s just hard to follow day in, day out when you have no real emotional attachment other than seeing the scores and who won.

I certainly did know about the spate of bizarre officiating decisions throughout the postseason, including the missed call in Game 5 that proved decisive in the Blues’ win there.  It’s probably a good thing for the sake of potential contreversy that the Bruins won Game 6, despite the fact it spoiled the party for a few days in St. Louis.  After all, bad call or not you can’t really blame anyone but yourself in the end when you lose three home games in the same Final.  It also gave a chance for us to see one of the best fan watch scenes ever when Blues fans both filled up their own arena, and filed into Busch Stadium to the tune of 20,000 plus fans sitting out in the rain to watch their team win the city’s first Stanley Cup on the road after over fifty years of existence.  Organized watch parties can be fun, I experienced a few of them during the 2012 postseason.  Certainly more fun for this blogger than just going to a random bar.

Of course it’s more satisfying to see the team win in person.  I got that ultimate thrill in 2003, because I’d bought a ticket for Game 7 in the middle of the series with the Ducks just in case and when the day came nothing was going to keep me away, and as it turned out I was quite ill with what turned out to be bronchitis.  While my parents were worried about me going to the game I shot back this could be once in a lifetime (which indeed it has been to this point), I’m going – so I took medicine, some antibiotics and gutted it out, getting rewarded for it when the Devils prevailed for their third and currently final Stanley Cup.  Thankfully my health was better in 2012 when I was at the Rock and ‘Henrique, it’s over!’ happened.  Ironic that our seminal win against the Rangers to capture the Eastern Conference is known as much by Doc’s call as anything else, not to mention the fact we got deep enough in the playoffs so it was Doc making the call again.

Thankfully I was spared the ignominy later in that postseason of watching a Kings’ celebration in Game 5 when the Devils staved off elimination for a second straight game.  Me and my friend certainly would have stayed though, even for an opposition ceremony.  Of championship ceremonies, there’s nothing quite like the Cup presentation and skate-around.  I didn’t really get the Boston fans who left before the presentation the other night, you’d think fans in an Original Six city would have more appreciation than most for a Cup ceremony.  And heck, how many fans wouldn’t like the opportunity to boo Gary Bettman yet again?  Of course since Boston became the city of champions in the 2000’s the spoiled moniker comes to mind.  With the Mets and Jets (not to mention the Devils since 2012) there’s really little danger of me becoming spoiled as a sports fan.

That said it would be nice to start to get back on the road toward having some success in April and May.  I’ll soon post a Devils-centric blog before free agency begins but don’t feel like previewing the draft itself.  Ignoring the Internet-created drama during the World Championships, our pick still seems like it’s destined to be Jack Hughes, with Kappo Kakko heading to the Rangers for an insta-rivalry.  The real suspense in our draft will be day two.  With three second-round picks and two-third round selections the Devils have plenty of ammo to either move up, or use the picks as trade ammunition.  Although there’s an argument to be made for keeping all the picks in a deep draft and letting scouting director Paul Castron add young prospects, I’d honestly be dissapointed if we made all our selections given said opportunities for trading up or using picks to add talent a la the Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson trades.  Especially with the cap space we’re still banking.

Thankfully there isn’t much layover between the end of the Finals and the beginning of the offseason with the draft beginning next Friday and free agency in about two weeks, and my semi-hibernation from hockey can end.  At least before the real hibernation from mid-July till early September when camps open.

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Twenty-five Years Later: June 14, 1994

The 1993-94 New York Rangers still give us goosebumps 25 years later. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy ESPN.

Twenty-five years later, the real Anniversary is here for the Rangers. They commemorated the emotional Stanley Cup victory in February by bringing almost every member of that special championship team back to Madison Square Garden.

That included architect Neil Smith and coach Mike Keenan along with the rest of the staff that we fondly remember. That included Sam Rosen and former broadcast partner John Davidson, who fittingly has returned as the new Team President now.

They remembered defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev, who was taken from us too soon. They saved the best for last by playing the late John Amirante’s Canadian and American national anthem before the loudest crowd to ever be in an arena for a marquee event. As Rosen noted following Amirante’s anthem which could still be heard even if the noise drowned it out, he’d never heard this building louder since 1968 when it first opened. It never will be.

So, what was that do or die Game Seven like for a 17-year old high school senior watching at home with a very nervous Dad, who never thought he’d see them win? Or a younger brother who was only 10 getting ready to graduate fifth grade? A lot of anxiety, excitement and plenty of nervousness rolled into one.

You know that uncomfortable pit in your stomach when you have to do something important like take a test, go for a job interview or ask someone out? Well, it’s the same feeling when it comes to rooting for your favorite sports team try to do something they haven’t done in 54 long years.

I would listen to Dad’s stories of being a season ticket holder in the early 70’s and having to watch Bobby Orr and the hated Bruins skate the Cup in 1972 at the Garden. A series that saw leading scorer Jean Ratelle return from a broken ankle, but not be the same player. Had he been, they could’ve won it that year.

Instead, older generation diehard fans like our father had to wait much longer to see the Rangers make history. Sure. They had a great run in ’79 on the back of Davidson by upsetting the Islanders before losing in five to the Canadiens. Montreal eliminated the ’86 team who made it to the Wales Conference Final due to another goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck. They were no match for rookie Patrick Roy, who backstopped the Habs to the Cup.

It could’ve happened in ’92. The Rangers had a great team that won the President’s Trophy in Mark Messier’s first year as a Blueshirt. He won the Hart and Brian Leetch won the Norris. Both topping 100 points. Mike Gartner scored 40 goals. A core of James Patrick, Tony Amonte, Adam Graves, Jeff Beukeboom, Sergei Nemchinov, Darren Turcotte with Mike Richter and Beezer sharing the goalie duties seemed on the verge of dethroning the Penguins in the Patrick Division Final. But a controversial suspension to Graves due to a slash on Mario Lemieux along with a Ron Francis goal that beat Richter from center ice did them in. Jaromir Jagr beat Vanbiesbrouck on a penalty shot and the Pens took the series in six, en route to a second straight Cup.

By the time ’93-94 rolled around, things had really changed. Roger Neilson was gone following a disappointing ’92-93 that saw the team miss the playoffs with Leetch breaking his ankle and players underperforming. In came Keenan. A hard line coach with a proven track record. Having guided the Flyers and Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to favorites Edmonton and Pittsburgh, Iron Mike was no nonsense. He proved that early on following a humiliating home loss to the expansion Mighty Ducks.

As the season went on, it became apparent that Keenan’s tough cop treatment of his players worked. They responded well to his brutal honesty. Postgames became a must watch to see what he would say. The only other coach the franchise has had since who was like that is John Tortorella. He didn’t win here, but sure was interesting to follow in his four and a half year tenure that included the East’s top seed with a young team that made it to the Eastern Conference Final before suffering a heartbreaking loss to the rival Devils in 2012.

What made Keenan so interesting was his crazy tactics during games. They ranged from leaving Alexei Kovalev out for a five-minute shift to mysteriously benching stars Leetch and Messier in big spots against the Devils and Canucks. He also had a penchant for pulling goalies. It was his way or the highway. Smith, who didn’t see eye to eye with him- gave Keenan everything he wanted.

That meant swinging a complicated three team deal that sent Patrick and Turcotte to the Whalers for key former Blackhawk Steve Larmer and ex-Whaler Nick Kypreos. It also meant changing the look of a first place roster at the most discussed trade deadline ever. He wanted more grit and got it with former Hawks Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau for future star Amonte. Todd Marchant was exchanged to Edmonton for Craig MacTavish. A solid checking center who could win face-offs with Cup experience.

Every deal worked out including swapping proven finisher Gartner for veteran Glenn Anderson. A trade that was very unpopular with Ranger fans. We loved Gartner and wanted him to be part of it. Instead, due to Keenan and obviously Messier, he was sent to Toronto for Anderson, Scott Malone (who?) and a fourth round pick (Alexander Korobolin) that didn’t amount to anything. Anderson was another proven playoff performer who won Cups with Messier and the Oilers dynasty. That’s also where Graves and Beukeboom came from with both part of the last Edmonton Cup in ’90. Beukeboom won three when Messier and a guy by the name of Gretzky was still around before The Trade. Kevin Lowe also came from Edmonton. So did Esa Tikkanen.

It’s funny looking back. Many critics have referred to the ’94 championship team as the New York Oilers. Considering how many big deals Smith swung with Glen Sather, I get the point. Nobody told Slats that a package of Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk was enough to acquire one of the all-time greats to ever lace them up. Ironically, Beukeboom came over too to complete the franchise altering transaction for David Shaw. Who do you think won that deal?

The ironic part is Nicholls was a very good player who came over from the Kings for popular Rangers Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom in January 1990. He only lasted one full season and was gone after one game into ’90-91. It’s crazy that he wound up with the Devils and played the role of the bad guy in the memorable Conference Final that still holds up all this time later as arguably the best.

When the Rangers advanced on Matteau’s goal in double overtime off rookie Martin Brodeur, they were supposed to easily beat the heavy underdog Canucks. Led by the dangerous Pavel Bure, Trevor Linden and Cliff Ronning, they’d already upset the Flames and Maple Leafs to reach the Cup Final as a seventh seed.

They were no pushover. With Bure the league’s leading goalscorer with 60 goals, a good captain in Linden, a playmaking center in Ronning, and a strong supporting cast that included Kirk McLean, Geoff Courtnall, Greg Adams, Jeff Brown, Jyrki Lumme, Murray Craven, Bret Hedican and Sergio Momesso, they were a good team that got hot at the right time.

Still, following McLean standing on his head with 54 saves in a 3-2 Game One overtime win with Adams finishing off a Ronning set up right after Leetch hit the post, it looked like the Rangers would prevail in five. They took Game Two 3-1, Game Three 5-1 and Game Four 4-2.

It wasn’t that simple. Vancouver jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game Four. Bure got a penalty shot with the score 2-1 Canucks. He exploded like a cannon following a Leetch turnover. Nobody has breakaway speed like that. It wasn’t like Leetch was slow either. Here came a signature moment in the series. Bure vs Richter. Here’s what happened next:

An aggressive Richter came out and challenged Bure to beat him. He waited patiently for Bure to make the first move and then recovered quickly to rob Bure of a penalty shot goal that would’ve sent those screaming fans at Pacific Coliseum into bedlam. It probably would’ve meant a tie series headed back to MSG for Game Five.

Instead, power play goals from Sergei Zubov and Kovalev gave the Rangers the lead. Larmer added an insurance marker to erase any doubt. The Rangers led the series three games to one with the fifth game at MSG. Everyone thought it was over. They’d wrap it up and celebrate a five-game victory.

Nobody told the Canucks. To their credit, they didn’t give up easily. After blowing a 3-0 lead in the third period with Messier tying the game, Bure fed Dave Babych for a crushing go-ahead goal 29 seconds later. Then, Courtnall and Bure scored less than a minute apart for a Vancouver 6-3 win to extend the series.

At that point, I knew the Rangers weren’t winning Game Six in Vancouver. Going three-for-three at their arena was impossible. In fact, before the Blues took Game Seven the other day to win three out of four games at Boston to win their first ever Cup, it happened only once when the 2000 Devils did it to the Stars winning three there.

Sure enough, the Vancouver crowd was wild creating a unbelievable atmosphere for their team. The Canucks responded to the overwhelming support to easily win Game Six 4-1. Both Brown and Courtnall tallied twice while Kovalev got the only Ranger goal. Those fans celebrated as if their team had won the Cup. It was scary.

Thank God there was an extra day off before Game Seven. Of course, there were all these rumors swirling about the coach leaving the Big Apple to take the job with Detroit. They were upset by the Sharks in the first round. There also were questions for Leetch and Messier due to each missing shifts in the last game. Typical mind games from Keenan.

Of course, Leetch smiled and said contrary to all the silly reports, he’d be at MSG and ready to play Game Seven. It was the biggest game of their lives. The most pressure packed game for the Stanley Cup!

They had to win. So much was riding on the line. None of the stuff they accomplished during a season in which they won a then franchise record 52 games and had 112 points mattered. Far more than the scrappy, but skilled Canucks. The funny part is if you put that Vancouver team up against most teams today, they’d win. They were talented and deep. There are no Pavel Bure type players in today’s game. Not even Ovechkin. If the Russian Rocket played today with the ridiculous rules, he’d light it up. He was still scoring close to 60 goals during the dead puck era with teams trapping.

In watching the game on MSG tonight, I’m still amazed at the amount of skill, skating, physicality and to quote JD, “Snarl,” there was. In particular, Momesso was stirring things up. He sure got away with a lot in Game Seven. An uncalled slash to a fallen Anderson that cut his nose. There was also a cross check. That’s the kind of physical player he was. To hear Davidson tell it on the telecast, he was doing his job. Of course, he chuckled next to Rosen because back then, they let a lot of stuff go. To win, you had to be disciplined.

On that special night, the Rangers were. They hit back too. Leetch dished out a clean hip check. They forechecked with vigor. A strategy the coaching staff wanted to see following the recent losses that allowed the pesky Canucks to square the series.

They played a perfect first period to take a 2-0 lead. First, it was Messier who drew defenders after gaining the Vancouver zone. He passed for leading regular season scorer Sergei Zubov, who pinched in. With so much room, I think everyone thought he’d shoot. But the thing about the very skilled Russian defenseman who deserves inclusion into the Hockey Hall of Fame is he was very patient with unbelievable vision. Sure enough, it paid off with this wonderful pass to a wide open Leetch for the game’s first goal into an open net with McLean out of position.

With the crowd going nuts, a strong shift by the checking line resulted in a power play. MacTavish did a great job continuing to skate with the puck behind the net to force Lumme to take an obvious holding penalty. What followed was magic.

I still don’t know how Zubov did what he did on the rush. The Canucks stood up at the blueline like they’re supposed to. They just didn’t anticipate Zubov somehow sneaking a pass through to a cutting Kovalev, who then threaded the needle to a wide open Graves, who buried his first goal of the series past McLean. Even 25 years later, all I can say is, ‘Wow.’

That’s how special Zubov was. While Leetch got all the ink deservedly so for the 34 points (11-23-34) he put up to become the first American player to win the Conn Smythe, it’s unreal how good the Russian born defenseman was. After pacing the team with 89 points including a jaw dropping 77 assists in the regular season, he wound up with 19 points (5-14-19) in the postseason. That included a pair of assists that set up the Rangers’ first two goals. He also was a huge part of the Stars only Cup in ’99. What a terrific player.

One thing about the Canucks is they never caved. Despite the crazy atmosphere and all the noise after one period, they never gave up. During a key penalty kill, Linden got behind Leetch and carried the puck with the Rangers top defenseman draped all over him. Already having drawn a hooking minor penalty, somehow Linden had the strength to get off a great backhand that beat Richter for a shorthanded goal. Here’s how it looked:

As scary as Bure was throughout the whole series and in particular one flat out dominant shift in the first where he basically skated around all five Rangers without scoring due to diligent defense, Linden was his team’s best player that hot summer night. He would really tighten the screws with a power play goal early in the third later that gave everyone anxiety.

Still leading 2-1, the Rangers continued to press the attack. In search of the third goal in response to Linden’s brilliant shorthanded goal, they drew two penalties. After the Canucks killed the first one off, a forechecking Kovalev drew a tripping minor to give them another chance.

In what can best be described as the goal that really wasn’t Messier’s, he got credit for the eventual Cup winner on a scramble in front of McLean’s net. Zubov fed Graves in the slot. He took a low shot that caromed off McLean for a rebound. Noonan then got a stick on the puck sending it towards the net. With Messier in the vicinity, The Captain went to bat it in. But after all these years, it’s fairly obvious the puck deflected off Lumme before going in for a 3-1 Rangers lead. Boy, would they need it.

Even though Messier got credit for his 12th of the playoffs from Graves and Noonan at 13:29 of the second, at that point I knew they wouldn’t score again. In my history class that day at Staten Island Tech, Mr. Bennett had some fun with a final score pool. I didn’t participate because I couldn’t. I was too superstitious. The only thing I thought is the Rangers would win by a score of 3-2. I was still confident despite what had happened.

https://www.hockey-reference.com/boxscores/199406140NYR.html

And so, as the Canucks continued to apply the pressure by forcing the acrobatic Richter into some tough saves, the third period would be the longest of our lives. As Davidson put it at one critical point in the third following Linden’s second of the game on a wonderful Courtnall set up, “Time isn’t moving fast enough for the Rangers.”

It wasn’t either for the fans who were lucky enough to be in the building or for us at home. You were literally sweating bullets as it went on.

It wasn’t so much that the Rangers sat back. They didn’t. They had their opportunities to increase the lead back to two. But McLean was good just as he was in Game One. He also had some luck with Lowe hitting the goalpost.

The goalpost would play an enormous role the rest of the way. So too would the crossbar. Richter’s best friend. First came a close call with six and a half minutes left when Martin Gelinas had Richter down and hit the post. The puck was cleared away.

Then came this insane moment where Rosen screamed, “Save by Richter!!!!!” If he did get a piece of the Nathan LaFayette shot, wow. He might’ve. Here’s how it looked and sounded with five and a half minutes remaining:

Even the legendary CBC play by play announcer Bob Cole thought Richter saved it. But as JD later analyzed when they returned from commercial break, it hit the outside of the goalpost. It was that close.

I think after those two close calls, it settled down the Rangers. They played much better defensively. Even the great Bure couldn’t create another scary moment. Neither could Linden. Each was double shifted by the late Pat Quinn. A great coach who never won the big one despite having some excellent teams in Vancouver and Toronto.

The Rangers locked in and played superb defense in the final few minutes. Even when the Canucks got a chance in the Ranger zone, the players did whatever it took to prevent them from forcing Richter into a tough save. Zubov slickly tripped Bure up behind the net with over 90 seconds left. I wonder if they ever discussed that moment over coffee or in Russia, preferably vodka. 😁

One is in the Hall of Fame while the other is still waiting. Hopefully, it’s later this November in Toronto for Zubov and also Jeremy Roenick and Alexander Mogilny.

In watching the final frantic moments, the refs literally let everything go. At least three different times, the Canucks had awful line changes that could’ve resulted in bench minors. If it were today, that wouldn’t be missed. But they miss everything else these days. So yeah. It evens out.

When Larmer cleared the zone, it was over. Or so we thought. Instead, with Bure hardly skating because he thought it was over, they called icing with 1.6 seconds left. It sorta ruined Rosen’s dramatic call. But he still had it finally when MacTavish boxed out Bure with Messier giving him a love tap. In fact, they blew two calls in he last minute by calling icings that weren’t.

Back then, we were mad. It could’ve meant the difference between the Rangers making history or umm… It’s better left unsaid. Nobody wanted a repeat of Valeri Zelepukin in the other memorable Game Seven. The one that gave us, “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!”

Anyway, here it is. The special moment that will last a Lifetime!

It sure has. A quarter of a century has gone by and although we are all older, not much has changed. I’m not referring to technology or social media. I’m talking about how special that Magic Moment still is. It still gives me chills. It remains the most special championship I’ve ever seen. That includes the ’96 Yankees along with ’98-00, ’09 and all four Giants Super Bowls.

The New York Rangers winning the Stanley Cup supersedes everything. Magnificent. The Cup celebration was incredible and the Parade down the Canyon of Heroes was even better. What a hot day that was. The “Let’s Go Rangers,” chants on the Ferry were unbelievable. So too was somehow finding my best friend Ivan in the maze that was a wild crowd in the city.

It’s all still so amazing. I can only hope they find a way to win one more for all the younger generation that didn’t get the chance to experience 1994. God willing.

Thank you for June 14, 1994. Happy Anniversary 🎉!!!!!

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Binnington’s astonishing Game Seven and O’Reilly’s dominance lead Blues to first ever Stanley Cup

The St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup champions for the first time in their 52-year history. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NY Times.

On Wednesday night in Boston, the St. Louis Blues made history. For the first time in their 52-year history, they won the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are Stanley Cup champions thanks to the amazing play of unflappable rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, and the dominance of Ryan O’Reilly. It was that tandem that led a team that once was last overall in January to their first ever championship.

In winning Game Seven over the host Bruins 4-1 at a stunned TD Garden, the Blues became the first ever Stanley Cup champion to have a losing home record and win the most prestigious trophy. They did it the hard way by taking three of four road games in Boston to make history.

The hockey version of the Road Warriors finished their Cup run 10-3 away from St. Louis. By comparison, they went 6-7 at home. It doesn’t matter how you get it done. As other great former champions can testify like the ’95 Devils, ’00 Devils and more recently the ’18 Capitals, it’s indeed possible to be successful in the NHL Playoffs by winning 10 games on the road.

Every path to a championship is different. In every round, St. Louis found itself with a unique challenge. From edging the higher seeded Winnipeg Jets in six to having to go two overtimes before hometown hero Pat Maroon delivered the second round series clincher, they worked their tails off every round. They wore down the Sharks in the Western Conference Final to prevail in six. Then, after being unable to wrap it up on home ice during a strong Game Six from the Bruins, they summoned up the energy and resiliency to become the third successive road team to win the Cup in a Game Seven.

Ironically, it was the 2011 Bruins who ended a 39-year drought by winning a road Game Seven over the Canucks by a similar 4-0 score. Unfortunately for them, the Blues flipped the script by getting a super performance from Binnington, who made 32 saves to backstop his team to a 4-1 victory in Beantown.

Conn Smythe winner O’Reilly scored the game’s first goal with 3:13 left in an otherwise lopsided first period on a wonderful deflection of a Jay Bouwmeester shot past Tuukka Rask. It was only the Blues’ third shot. Their fourth also went in when a very bad change by Brad Marchand with less than 10 seconds remaining allowed Jaden Schwartz to find a pinching Alex Pietrangelo for a wicked backhand top shelf with 7.5 seconds left in the period. A back breaking goal the Bruins never recovered from.

Somehow, Boston trailed 2-0 after flat out dominating the action. They carried the play by such a wide margin, it was insane. However, a laser focused Binnington wouldn’t allow his team to fall behind. He stoned the Bruins at every turn by denying glorious scoring chances to keep the game scoreless. There was a very tough snag of a dangerous Marchand shot through traffic on a Boston power play. There was a strong denial of a Patrice Bergeron one-timer from the slot on the same power play.

Binnington was in such a zone that he absolutely robbed both David Krejci and Marcus Johansson point blank on great moves that included dekes where you felt for sure they would result in Bruins goals. Not last night. Johansson also was stopped on a dangerous backhand rebound. He was left shaking his head. That’s how well the unheralded 25-year old rookie netminder played.

As usually happens in such games, all it takes is one good scoring chance and shot to put some doubt into the favorite’s heads. Sure enough, it was a big hit by Blues rookie Sammy Blais that kept a forecheck alive. Eventually, Pietrangelo got the puck over to Bouwmeester, who aimed for O’Reilly’s stick in the high slot. What a redirection it was. It went by Rask so quickly that it was in and out of the net in stunning fashion.

That made it four consecutive games that O’Reilly had scored to become the first player to accomplish that feat since Wayne Gretzky in 1985. He would add an assist later on a Zach Sanford tally with 4:38 left in regulation to erase any doubt. For the series, the former Sabre center finished with nine points (5-4-9). More than anyone else as he dominated to earn Playoff MVP and help the Blues finally win Lord Stanley. It was heroic.

So badly outplayed and out-attempted were the Blues in the opening 20 minutes that it had to send shock waves through the entire building. They were up two despite everything. They capitalized on half their shots by finishing on the only two chances they created. The bad Marchand sequence following sustained pressure by the Bergeron line really came back to haunt the Bruins. You never go to the bench to change when the opposition has the puck on a counter attack. That’s what left Pietrangelo so open.

As poorly as they played early, the Blues were stingier in a full second that saw them keep most of the Bruins’ 11 shots to the outside. They did a stellar job slowing down play in the neutral zone. Despite barely any whistles and continuous action, Boston wasn’t able to generate the kind of quality chances they had in the first. That allowed a cool Binnington to make the saves with his teammates taking care of the rebounds.

Astonishingly, they had only 10 shots through two periods while Boston had 23 with double the amount of attempts. In Game Seven, it was a determined and scrappy bunch of Blues who sacrificed for the cause. They blocked 21 shots led by defensive beast Colton Parayko, who had five. Pietrangelo followed up with four and Bouwmeester had three. The trio combined for a dozen blocks. On the contrary, the Bruins only totaled seven due to all the puck possession they had.

It was that kinda game and that kinda series. If you out-attempted your opponent, it didn’t matter. The winner was usually the team that didn’t have as many total attempts. A very strange Stanley Cup. For the game, the Bruins outshot the Blues 33-20 and out-attempted them by an ungodly 62-32. Yet they could only solve Binnington once with Matt Grzelcyk finally beating him with only 2:10 left in the third period to erase the shutout bid. One the first-year goalie deserved.

One advantage St. Louis had was the choppy ice. Once they grabbed the two-goal lead before the conclusion of the first, it was gonna be an uphill climb for the Bruins. Plays were hard to make with the puck bouncing around. Such ice makes it harder on a team trying to come back. Combined with the Blues sitting back by standing up at their blueline, it made life very difficult for the home team.

Boston didn’t help itself either. On a night only one penalty was called by a good officiating crew of Chris Rooney, Kelly Sutherland and Gord Dwyer, the Bruins pressed in the middle stanza. Rather than go for the simple play by taking shots on Binnington like they had in the first, they tried to make too many East/West plays with passes that got easily intercepted by a disciplined St. Louis defense.

By the time the desperate third rolled around, time was running out. They sure came out with great urgency. There were so many rushes and sustained pressure in the St. Louis zone. Shots were fired from everywhere. It took an unbelievable Binnington save on Joakim Nordstrom with over 11 minutes left to basically send a message. On a glorious rebound, it looked like Nordstrom had a sure goal that would’ve made it 2-1, changing the whole game. Instead, a sprawling Binnington stoned him point blank to stun the Boston crowd.

Not long after, the Blues top line came on a three-on-two rush with Schwartz passing for Vladimir Tarasenko, who threaded the needle for a bullet from Brayden Schenn past a helpless Rask for the coup de grace that made it 3-0 with 8:35 left. A perfect passing play due to the Bruins getting caught.

Sanford added the finishing touches from David Perron and O’Reilly with 4:38 to go. Perron came so close last year with Vegas. In his third tour of duty with the team that drafted him, he was finally a Stanley Cup Champion. A good player no matter where he played.

Sure. Boston coach Bruce Cassidy pulled Rask for an extra attacker. While Grzelcyk ended the shutout at 17:50, it was far too late. It wasn’t to be for the Bruins as they dropped the first ever Stanley Cup home Game Seven in their building. It also marked the first home Game Seven in Boston since the 1984 NBA Finals when the Larry Bird led Celtics held off the Magic Johnson led Lakers to win the NBA Title.

It’s funny how sports work. You can play a very good game and lose like Boston did. You can struggle which the Blues clearly did, but get bailed out by your netminder as Binnington provided in both Games Five and Seven on the road. That’s how I would explain this series and the astonishing St. Louis run to its first Stanley Cup. They were resilient from the net out.

When it was over, the traditional handshake took place. It was a bit odd to see Binnington at the front shaking hands quickly with courageous Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and a dejected Rask, who was the main reason his team got to this point. Sometimes, that’s hockey. Where even when your best player does everything he can, all it takes is the opposing hot goalie and an opportunistic opponent to put four past him on only 20 shots. Had the Bruins won, it was Rask who would’ve won Conn Smythe.

The Blues perseverance and heavy forecheck won out. But it was the brilliant play of the goalie Binnington, who won the series by stealing the deciding seventh game. They did it for inspirational 11-year old superfan Laila Anderson.

When the loudly booed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Conn Smythe to O’Reilly and the Cup to Pietrangelo, who had himself a night with a goal, assist and stellar defense, the overjoyed Blues let out plenty of F bombs on NBC, which had to cringe. At least they did an interview with Pierre McGuire and Pietrangelo and showed the handshake and half of the Cup being passed around before cutting away for the local 11 o’clock news.

It still ceases to amaze me how they could go to commercial in the middle of a historic St. Louis Blues celebration. Network TV folks. This is the NHL partner. They eventually moved over to NBCSN where the rest of the Cup celebration continued with more bleeps and more cool fun by a team who deserved the win by earning it against a worthy opponent.

It marked the third successive time the road team prevailed in a winner take all Game Seven for the Cup. Prior to the 2009 Penguins and 2011 Bruins, the home team had won six in a row. The last road team to win a Game Seven for Lord Stanley was the ’71 Canadiens, who rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Blackhawks 3-2 at the old Chicago Stadium. Here’s how things look since:

STANLEY CUP GAME SEVEN

May 31, 1987 Philadelphia Flyers 1 Edmonton Oilers 3

June 14, 1994 Vancouver Canucks 2 New York Rangers 3

June 9, 2001 New Jersey Devils 1 Colorado Avalanche 3

June 9, 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks 0 New Jersey Devils 3

June 7, 2004 Calgary Flames 1 Tampa Bay Lightning 2

June 19, 2006 Edmonton Oilers 1 Carolina Hurricanes 3

June 12, 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins 2 Detroit Red Wings 1

June 16, 2011 Boston Bruins 4 Vancouver Canucks 0

June 12, 2019 St. Louis Blues 4 Boston Bruins 1

Here’s the question. Is home ice no longer the same? It sure seems like it. Having seen the 2015 Rangers go into Tampa and dominate them to win Game Six and then turn into pumpkins in a mind numbing 2-0 shutout in Game Seven at MSG to lose the Eastern Conference Final, the lasting image is of them getting shutout twice in Games Five and Seven on their home ice under former coach Alain Vigneault. Hard to fathom.

It’s not what it once was. The play is more even and unpredictable. That’s why I didn’t pick a winner last night. Because I actually didn’t know what would happen. Just ask the President’s Trophy winning Lightning what home ice meant after getting swept by the Blue Jackets.

We’ve seen road teams go far before. Lower seeds like the Kings winning their first Cup in 2012. Two years later, they came back from a 3-0 deficit to stun the Sharks in the first round. The Flyers did it in 2010 to the Bruins en route to a Stanley Cup Final before getting beaten by the Blackhawks in six games.

Things are much different now. Upsets are more common. The parity is real. Anything can happen in the postseason. If it weren’t true, you wouldn’t have had the Hurricanes going into DC and stunning the Caps in sudden death. Eventually, making it to the Conference Final before Rask stoned them in a four-game sweep.

So, what will happen a year from now? Nobody can predict. I think my predicting days are coming to an end. What’s the point? I never get anything right. Most don’t.

Now, it’s onto the offseason with the huge first round of the NHL Draft next Friday on June 21. Decision time for the Devils on Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko with the Rangers patiently waiting for their consolation prize. Then, a buyout period and negotiating between teams and Group II free agents like Brayden Point. Trade discussions centering around rumored players Jacob Trouba, Phil Kessel and Jason Zucker.

Then finally, July 1. A national holiday for puckers.

Well, it’s been a fun season. Way too long in my opinion. But the offseason will make up for it. Cya soon. 🙂

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It’s do or die for Blues and Bruins in Game Seven

There’s a Game Seven for the Stanley Cup tonight in Boston. It’s do or die for the Blues and Bruins at TD Garden on NBC. The fun begins at 8 PM on the network that just might have a postgame interview or two along with the traditional handshake before cutting away to the morbid 11 o’clock news.

Here’s hoping it goes three overtimes. That’s what they deserve for not showing any player interview following these big games before the news. Even if most of us can channel flip to NBCSN for the full postgame, it doesn’t make it right.

After all, it is the Stanley Cup! Someone will win and someone will lose. There’s no greater theatre than a deciding Game Seven for the most prestigious trophy in all of sports. It hasn’t happened since the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 to become the second road team in three years to win a seventh game in 2011. They took the final two games to win Lord Stanley for the first time since 1972.

Now, it’s eight years later. This time, the Bruins are trying to become the first team to rally from a 3-2 series deficit to win the Cup twice. Only they are the home team tonight. The last two Game Seven’s haven’t been kind to the host. In 2009, the Penguins held on to beat the Red Wings 2-1 to dethrone the defending champs at Joe Louis Arena. Nicklas Lidstrom was stoned by Marc-Andre Fleury right before the buzzer.

Prior to the ’08-09 Pens and ’10-11 Bruins winning Game Seven on the road, here’s how it went:

May 31, 1987 Philadelphia Flyers 1 Edmonton Oilers 3

June 14, 1994 Vancouver Canucks 2 New York Rangers 3

June 9, 2001 New Jersey Devils 1 Colorado Avalanche 3

June 9, 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks 0 New Jersey Devils 3

June 7, 2004 Calgary Flames 1 Tampa Bay Lightning 2

June 19, 2006 Edmonton Oilers 1 Carolina Hurricanes 3

So basically, the home team had the big edge. The last two have gone to the road team.

Can the Blues make it three for the last three? It’s possible. They’ll have to play a perfect game. That means get off quickly and withstand the Bruins pressure that will only intensity due to the tribute to Boston Red Sox hero David Ortiz. He’s recovering from successful surgery due to a gunshot wound after senseless violence in his home country, the Dominican Republic.

St. Louis needs to stay out of the penalty box. They have taken some very undisciplined penalties in the three losses. That included the dopey Brayden Schenn boarding minor followed by Ryan O’Reilly’s delay of game that allowed Brad Marchand to convert on a two-man advantage. They’ll also need the big saves from rookie Jordan Binnington. After a brilliant Game Five where he stopped all 17 Boston shots in a busy first period en route to 38 saves, he wasn’t as good in Game Six.

The Bruins will want to use the energy of their crowd to get off to a good start. The key match-up remains the same. The vaunted top line centered by Patrice Bergeron against Schenn. Though it’s been O’Reilly who’s done the heavy lifting for the Blues with seven points (4-3-7) in the Stanley Cup. Both Marchand and David Pastrnak came to life last game with a goal and assist each to help stave off elimination. Jake Debrusk played a pivotal role picking up two assists. Tuukka Rask stood tall to thwart the Blues on the power play.

So, who wins? I don’t know. It’s been a strange series full of momentum shifts. It could depend on who can dictate better. St. Louis uses its size and strength to create a heavy forecheck. If they can exert their physicality, they have a chance. Boston uses its defense and quick transition game to counter attack. If they win the puck battles and match the Blues like last game, they’ll win.

It’s worth noting that there are five holdovers from that 2011 Stanley Cup team. They are Bergeron, Marchand, Rask, David Krejci and captain Zdeno Chara. We’ll see if that championship experience is a factor.

Both the Devils and Rangers will be represented either way. If it’s Boston, then John Moore and Marcus Johansson get their names on the Cup. If it’s St. Louis, you’d have Pat Maroon and likely Michael Del Zotto. So yeah. There is a Hudson Rivalry feel.

Enjoy the game. May the best team win.

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The best thing about Game Six

Tuukka Rask makes an unbelievable save to deny Alex Pietrangelo with help from Charlie McAvoy. AP Photo via Getty Images.

The Bruins took Game Six from the Blues by a count of 5-1 to force a winner take all Game Seven. That means it’ll be two teams fighting tooth and nail for the Stanley Cup in Boston on Wednesday night.

On a disappointing night for the Blues, here was the best thing about Game Six. With it being in championship starved St. Louis, the Blues rolled out Bob Plager, Brett Hull and Bernie Federko to pump up the crowd. As usual, Hull was in a wild and crazy mood. Take a look.

Taking the mic from Plager, he yelled “Let’s Go Blues,” before he had it. Then went over to all-time Blues great Federko and screamed, “Bernie Federko. The greatest of all time! Let’s Go Blues!!!”

It really was hilarious. Hull must be a lot of fun to be around. I can’t imagine what he must’ve been like during road trips as a player.

As for the game, it didn’t go as planned. There was no Stanley Cup celebration. Boston guaranteed that by outplaying St. Louis in net and on the scoreboard.

Tuukka Rask was outstanding making 28 saves including a few critical ones in the first period following Brad Marchand converting a five-on-three power play. Rask stood tall in the second when the Blues applied pressure on the power play. But they couldn’t beat Rask, who got a bit of help from the post and Charlie McAvoy to prevent Alex Pietrangelo from tying it.

The backbreaker was scored by defensive defenseman Brandon Carlo, whose point shot took a weird deflection and dipped under Jordan Binnington for a 2-0 Bruins lead. Inserted by coach Bruce Cassidy, little known speedy forward Karson Kuhlman delivered a knockout blow with a nice snipe off a David Krejci pass. It was Krejci’s first point of the series.

The only St. Louis shot that beat Rask almost didn’t. He nearly made an unbelievable save on Ryan O’Reilly. But video review confirmed that the entire puck crossed the line despite Rask getting his pad on it. It was O’Reilly’s third straight game with a goal. He has seven points in the series and is the Blues favorite for the Conn Smythe if they can win on the road.

Some great hustle from Jake Debrusk allowed Marchand to set up David Pastrnak for the put away. Zdeno Chara scored an empty netter with his full cage mask protecting his broken jaw. He played over 22 minutes. It’s amazing.

The bottom line is the Bruins were better where it mattered. They got clutch goaltending from leading Conn Smythe candidate Rask. Their best players showed up. Patrice Bergeron freed up a loose puck to allow Pastrnak to set up Marchand for the game’s first goal.

Debrusk made a good play along the boards to allow for Carlo to score. He was instrumental in the win recording two assists and delivering two critical blocks without a stick on a penalty kill. Both Marchand and Pastrnak had their best games of the series with each scoring a goal and assist. Krejci was much more effective throughout, intercepting a Pietrangelo pass in the neutral zone to feed Kuhlman for his goal.

St. Louis wasn’t as sharp throughout. Their forecheck was good at moments, but they couldn’t beat Rask. Boston did a better job defending and used their back check to break up plays and counter. They played with more urgency which you’d expect in an elimination game.

Now, it’s do or die. Someone will win the Cup. The other will leave the ice in tears. It’ll be emotional.

The Blues have proven they are more than capable of winning on the road. They’re 2-1 at TD Garden in the series. They’ll have to make it 3-1 to celebrate and play, “Gloria.”

Road teams have won the Cup in Game Seven twice over the decade. The ’08-09 Penguins did it against the Red Wings thanks to a last second Marc-Andre Fleury save on Nicklas Lidstrom.

Ironically, the ’10-11 Bruins also did it by shutting out the Canucks 4-0 to win their first Cup since 1972. That championship team went a perfect 4-0 when facing elimination. The current ’18-19 Bruins improved to 3-0 when facing elimination last night. They avoided elimination in the first round by defeating the Maple Leafs in Game Six and Game Seven.

Either they’ll do it again and repeat history or the Blues will finally deliver a Stanley Cup to St. Louis. We’ll see what happens.

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