Springtime thoughts – playoffs, draft and otherwise

Reliving Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, the Devils' defining moment  – The Athletic

We say this a lot about things as we get older, but I can’t believe it’s been eighteen years since I was at Game 7 of the Devils’ most recent Stanley Cup championship against the Ducks. Besides the actual game and postgame celebration itself, the thrill when I heard the pre-game scratches and realized fan favorite Ken Daneyko was not among them in what would turn out to be his final NHL game, those thundersticks and trying to get pictures with my box camera all throughout (remember those?), what I remember vividly is dragging myself to the game flu/bronchitis-ridden. My parents were hemming and hawing with me on not going but despite my ill state and the Devils’ tradition of success over the previous decade, I said something pretty clear-minded to the effect of – it might be another hundred years before we get a Game 7 at home for the Cup, I can’t miss out on this.

Obviously I haven’t had the chance to experience a championship since then for any of my sports teams (in-person or otherwise), rendering my decision to gut it out that night the correct one. I don’t want to think about how I would look back on that night if we’d somehow lost, or even if I had just taken the path of least resistance and missed out on a potentially once-in-a-lifetime moment because of being in a sickbed. After the events of the last year plus I’m glad that situation happened in 2003 and not 2021, because at this point going anywhere the slightest bit under the weather wouldn’t even be allowed.

Which also leads me to what was actually a bigger surprise, realizing that the anniversary of a Cup win in Game 7 of a normal playoffs was three days ago, while we were still finishing the second round of the playoffs this year. A reminder that while things are speeding back to normal, we aren’t quite there yet. Buildings are more packed but for the most part not sold out. I haven’t even been to a game of any kind – hockey, baseball or football – since a few days before the country stopped last March. It didn’t seem worth it for the Devils this year, all things considered, both because of ambiance and the team’s current position in the standings. I may wind up going to a Met game sooner or later in the next few months but despite being eligible to buy tickets because I’ve been vaccinated, that still has its own issues atm – re: long subway rides and mask-wearing still being necessary on them in the dead of summer.

By the same token, I don’t want to wait until October or whenever next season winds up beginning to go to a game of any kind now that I’m more or less getting back to normal everywhere else. Being able to go inside most places without a mask in New Jersey felt like almost as big a milestone as being vaccinated. It still remains to be seen how much this pandemic will have changed our lives forever. Hopefully it’ll mean eliminating long commutes for people and fewer people going to work and school while sick. There can be some good that comes out of this, if people and businesses allow it.

It will probably take till October for me to really get back into hockey in any case. I didn’t even remember when the draft lottery was until I started seeing Tweets on it the day before. Although I did wind up watching it on my phone while enjoying a nice night at the park, I wasn’t super invested emotionally, although I was kind of happy we stayed at pick #4…partly cause winning another lotto would have been a bit embarrassing at this point, and partly for the realistic chance we wind up getting Jack Hughes’ brother Luke. Unlike previous lottos, this one sprang up no real surprises this year, only flip-flopping Seattle and Anaheim one spot.

As far as the playoffs themselves, I obviously haven’t been emotionally invested in them either, although the Isles’ second straight run to the Conference Finals was a bit annoying in part because the pick we acquired for them plummeted to the bottom of the first round after they beat the Penguins and Bruins in succession to earn a rematch with the Lightning in the Conference Finals. Or just the semifinals, whatever they’re calling it this year since we have non-traditional divisions. Montreal, the worst team in the playoffs and who probably wouldn’t have even made a traditional playoff is also in the last four of this year’s postseason. We see Cinderella runs every year in the spring, but this one was practically baked in with how weak the North division was combined with the Leafs’ propensity for choking. And once again the NHL’s division-laden postseason led to two of the five best teams in the league (arguably the two best in this case) meeting before the third round of the playoffs, although Vegas wound up faux sweeping the Avs after dropping the first two of their showdown series. For all the Avs’ hype they haven’t taken that next step or even won a tough postseason series yet.

I look all over the postseason and I see prominent ex-Devils everywhere, which makes this postseason more annoying. Particularly on Long Island, which is Devils south with ex-president and GM Lou Lamoriello bringing in former Devils Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac and Andy Greene to supplement their playoff runs the last two years. I’m not even gonna count Cory Schneider who was once a big acquisition here, but is now just a bit passenger there. I want to root for Zajac and Greene to do well since this might be their last, best chance for a title but it’s just too freaking painful to even see them in those uniforms.

Greene Reunited with Palmieri and Zajac

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth reiterating – I now know exactly what Derek was going through when the Lightning became Rangers south a few years ago. It’s quite similar, seeing a bunch of fan favorites lead a quasi-rival to success. If anything the Isles are more of a daily rival to us than the Lightning to the Rangers, on the other hand the Lightning actually beat the Rangers in the Conference Finals with some of the ex-Ranger contingent. Now that the position of the first round pick is no longer a major factor, I’m still quite conflicted whether I want to see the Isles win or not. Apart from selfish reasons, having the Isles win a championship would only complicate things for us fanwise even more in the next generation. We already have a handicap going against the Rangers in the same market but were helped in the last generation by the Isles running in place while we won consistently. Now having the Isles win on their way into a new building while we still run in place makes it harder to keep building the fanbase for the next generation.

Still, Greene and Zajac were loyal soldiers for a long time, and both are really at the end of their careers. I would be happy on some level if they won, no matter the uniform. Palmieri has some time left in his career, so I’m not as invested in him winning. Especially after he turned full heel in a late-season matchup with us and started going after our players for no apparent reason. There’s also the matter of ex-Devils on other teams in the postseason. Although Blake Coleman got his Cup last year with Tampa, he’s always worth rooting for.

And then there’s ex-coach Pete DeBoer with Vegas. Might we get the Finals matchup of DeBoer versus former key players Greene/Zajac and his former boss, who once fired him over Christmas break? For the issues I had with DeBoer after 2012, he was definitely just in the wrong place at the wrong time toward the end here, and clearly there were more issues with the organization than any coach was going to solve. He was always a solid coach for a vet team, and a good man who deserved more chances to win, which he’s gotten in San Jose and now Vegas. Amazingly, this year will be the fifth time in nine seasons DeBoer’s reached the last four of the Stanley Cup playoffs…with three different teams. Twice he’s been to the Stanley Cup Final and both times came within two games of the Cup, and his team is favored to beat the Habs (the only team without a big ex-Devil connection although one-time prospect Jon Merrill is on the roster as a depth d-man). Maybe third time can be the charm for ol’ Pete? I wouldn’t be against that.

It just occurred to me without the traditional conferences will they have the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conference trophy presentations this year? Perhaps not, although it would be momentarily hilarious to see Montreal get the Campbell Conference bowl. Also, having no Doc Emrick for the playoffs this year makes it even harder to listen to. The closest I’m gonna get to listening to one of my current or former announcers is Steve Cangialosi doing EURO2021 games, which coincidentally is happening now since he’s doing the Wales-Switzerland game on ESPN. There’s always PK Subban doing ESPN studio work during the playoffs if you wish, though I almost look at him at this point as more of a media personality than a Devil. It would probably help if he or the team could get something accomplished during his tenure here. Still, he’s a good guy who deserves the King Clancy for his charitable work, and we could do far worse than have him as a representative for the franchise at this point.

Hopefully things will get better soon and I can be more invested in the playoffs (and less invested in the draft) when we’re a part of them again.

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The NHL Semifinals: Islanders face Lightning in rematch, Canadiens heavy underdogs versus Golden Knights, Thoughts on Avalanche and Bruins, Fox up for Norris

Twenty-four hours apart, the final two teams of the NHL Semifinals finished off their second round series by closing out Game Six at home. With both the Islanders and Golden Knights taking care of business to prevent Game Seven in enemy territory, the Final 4 is all set.

It’ll feature the Islanders again challenging the defending champion Lightning on one side. Even better, home ice will matter. The Bolts are the higher seed and have the luxury of a deciding seventh game in Tampa. However, the Islanders host Games 3-4 and 6 (if necessary) at Nassau Coliseum. The Barn has rocked this postseason by hosting closeout games against the Pens and Bruins. The atmosphere was raucous. You better believe the Islanders want to go out with a bang in its final season in Uniondale. It should be interesting.

On the flip side, it’ll be a David versus Goliath match-up featuring the heavy underdog Canadiens looking to continue their magical run against the very formidable Golden Knights. While the Habs made quick work of the Jets following the four-game suspension of Mark Scheifele for his foolish hit that injured Jake Evans, Vegas showed how tough they truly are by digging out of a 2-0 hole by winning four consecutive games to eliminate the Avalanche in six. It was a heck of a series. The difference was the superior depth and grit of Vegas. Both the Knights and Lightning are back in the Final 4 for a second straight year. Will we get a potential heavyweight match-up between Vegas and Tampa for the Stanley Cup? Who knows.

It’s very hard to predict what will happen. Conventional wisdom says the Lightning and Golden Knights will advance and play for Lord Stanley. However, you can’t underestimate how well the Islanders are playing. Especially being a four line team who boast three scoring lines along with shutdown center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who paces them in scoring while getting it done against Patrice Bergeron. Ditto for the Cinderella Canadiens, who have been carried by Carey Price. He’s having a Patrick Roy like playoffs. Think ’93. The offense has mostly come from the top line and the veteran laden fourth line. They’ll need more from key cogs Brendan Gallagher and Josh Anderson to pull it off.

Keys to beating the Lightning. It’s simple. Stay out of the box. The Lightning 🌩 boast the best power play. They’re lethal. With leading scorer Nikita Kucherov not missing a beat with 18 points, Steven Stamkos in his office, Victor Hedman running the point, Brayden Point in the slot and Alex Killorn again raising his level, they are scary. As Carolina found out in the momentum turning Game Four that saw them blow a 4-2 lead due to penalties, you cannot put Tampa on the man-advantage. Enter at your own risk.

If they can play them at five-on-five, the Islanders have a chance. Barry Trotz is a mastermind when it comes to game planning and making key adjustments. He realized against the Bruins that Pageau was the better center to match up versus the Perfection Line. That took pressure off Brock Nelson, who was huge in getting the key insurance marker that wound up as the game-winner in Game Five, and scoring another huge goal in the series clincher. He steps it up along with Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey. It was also crucial that Mat Barzal got it going. His huge goals and big assists helped turn the series around. Game Four was his coming out party. He was the best player scoring a goal and adding an assist while drawing a penalty on David Krejci due to mixing it up.

What makes them so hard to play against is Trotz’ commitment to the details. In shutdown tandem Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, he has a strong top pair that he trusts to neutralize opponents’ best scoring lines. You can bet they’ll see a lot of Kucherov and Point. Expect Scott Mayfield to draw the assignment against Stamkos. He did a splendid job shadowing Taylor Hall.

For Trotz, he never gives much away. When asked about who his goalie will be for Game One on Sunday, he only indicated that it’ll be a left catching Russian. The dry humor of the Czar again on full display. Bank on Semyon Varlamov being in net versus Russian counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy. Varlamov won four of five starts after replacing first round hero Ilya Sorokin. He was splendid in the last two games. Trotz can always make a change if his team needs it. He’s never afraid to roll the dice.

After Team President and GM Lou Lamoriello acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils, neither really distinguished themselves in the remainder of the regular season. However, here is Palmieri scoring big goals in the playoffs. He has seven. His hit to Charlie McAvoy post scrum should be reviewed. It was a head shot. Palmieri isn’t dirty. But neither was Scheifele. Zajac has fit in with Palmieri and Pageau on that checking line. He got his first goal the other night and continued to be a reliable checker and penalty killer. One question is what if Oliver Wahlstrom is ready. Knowing Trotz, he’ll stick with what’s worked. If they lose, you’ll see Wahlstrom back in.

Don’t forget the Identity Line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Cizikas is winning over 60 percent of his face-offs. He’s a key penalty killer and trusted defensive center, who Trotz knows he can put out to protect a lead. Martin and Clutterbuck are the Mighty Ducks’ NHL version of the Bash Brothers. They hit and hit hard. Every check is finished. Clutterbuck leads all players with 66 hits while Martin ranks third with 59. Their physicality has made a difference. Leo Komarov also is up there along with Pulock. That grinding style can wear down opponents.

Aside from the explosiveness of Kucherov, Point, Hedman and Stamkos, the Lightning boast great depth that can make an impact in these big series. Ondrej Palat has been relatively quiet. He is a good player who complements Point and Kucherov well. Both Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde are solid checking players who like to get dirty in front of the net. Look for both to make life for Varlamov tough. Anthony Cirelli anchors the second line with Stamkos and Killorn. Cirelli is a strong two-way player with good speed. On the blue line, it isn’t only Hedman that must be accounted for. Ryan McDonagh has quietly had a good postseason. He’s played superb in his end stifling opponents with the overlooked Erik Cernak. McDonagh has stepped up his physical game playing with the edge he once did in the Big Apple. Mikhail Sergachev is a strong skating D who can contribute offensively. His defense has improved, but expect the Isles to go after him and Hedman.

The Golden Knights are a handful. As the Avalanche found out the hard way, there’s no quit in Peter DeBoer’s relentless club. They could’ve melted following a tacky call that led to Mikko Rantanen scoring on the power play to beat Vegas in Game Two. They couldn’t crack Philipp Grubauer until the third period of Game Three. The turning point was Jonathan Marchessault banking one off Grubauer to tie the score. The winner came 45 seconds later. That swung the momentum. After taking care of business to even the series, the the Knights again used a third period rally to stun Colorado in Game Five. Goals from Marchessault and Alex Tuch off bad Avalanche turnovers tied the score. In overtime, a Max Pacioretty block on Ryan Graves allowed him to pass for captain Mark Stone, who got into the clear and went high bar on Grubauer to win the game at 50 seconds of sudden death. It was the brilliant play from Stone, whose line shutdown Nathan MacKinnon, that turned the tables. The Avalanche didn’t get enough run support from the secondary players. Aside from Brandon Saad, they didn’t have enough without Nazem Kadri. While MacKinnon picked up two helpers in the 6-3 loss last night, he didn’t score a goal after the Game One blowout. He was held to three assists over the last five.

While Marc-Andre Fleury shined in net with timely saves including his huge stop on Valeri Nichushkin to preserve a 4-3 lead, Grubauer couldn’t prevent Vegas from finishing it off. A goal from William Carrier off a face-off win made it 5-3. Max Pacioretty added the empty netter to seal it. He’s made a big difference. Since returning and scoring in Game Seven to oust the Wild, Pacioretty has eight points in seven games. Along with Stone, Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith, the deeper Knights are very tough. Especially when you factor in the fourth line and a balanced defe se that features Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez. Even Nick Holden has contributed a couple of big goals and a few helpers. The depth they possess should make them very difficult for the Habs to beat.

This is the first Final 4 for Les Habitants since 2014 when they lost in six to the Rangers. This time, Pacioretty is an opponent. The subplot of him facing his former team while former Vegas first round pick Nick Suzuki goes up against the team that drafted him is intriguing. Suzuki anchors the top Canadiens’ line that also includes brilliant newcomer Cole Caufield. The former Badger has four assists including a beauty across for leading scorer Tyler Toffoli that won Game Four in overtime at Bell Centre to sweep Winnipeg. That’s quite a top line. Along with the cohesive checking line of veterans Eric Staal, Corey Perry and Joel Armia, they’ve done the bulk of the scoring. That must change this round. Phil Danault has centered a superb checking line that includes Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher only has four points so far. The Montreal captain must be a factor along with Josh Anderson to have a chance.

In net, we know how well Price has played. Once again, he’s reaffirmed why many consider him one of the best netminders in the NHL. While his regular season numbers have suffered, it’s astonishing how well Price has played since returning after a concussion kept him out. The fact he can deliver the clutch stops gives the Habs a psychological edge. It might explain why they haven’t trailed once during their seven-game win streak. The second longest such streak without trailing in playoff history. Price has always been able to elevate his game come postseason. He’ll have to stand on his head and steal multiple games against Vegas.

The defense hasn’t really done a whole lot offensively. Jeff Petry and Shea Weber aren’t scoring much this Spring. We know Weber logs big minutes and gets the tough assignments along with underrated former Stanley Cup champ Joel Edmundson. Ben Chiarot is asked to play a ton. He’s turnover prone. You better believe the aggressive Knights will look to pounce on any mistakes. Can the Habs hang with the Knights? Only if key players step it up. That includes Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The thinking is Golden Knights in five. The Islanders force the Lightning to go seven. I haven’t decided who will prevail. You know who I’m pulling for. The prospect of the Isles playing for the Cup is daunting. Go Bolts.

In terms of disappointment, is there anyone that sounded more down than MacKinnon? Following the Game Six second round elimination to the tougher Golden Knights, the Avalanche captain remarked how he’s been in the league eight years and “hadn’t won shit.” It was a very candid observation from a superstar who expects more from himself along with his team. Somehow that led to this ridiculous question from troll Adrian Dater. 🙄

How is this clown allowed to have a press credential? He’s been around a long time. Could he at least try to be professional? The reaction from MacKinnon says it all. I don’t blame him. The truth is Colorado blew it. Costly mistakes in Game Three turned it around. Ditto for Game Five when the Avs fell asleep after leading 2-0. You have to continue to execute in the neutral zone and get pucks deep. Gabriel Landeskog made a bad turnover inside the Vegas zone when his pass was behind Ryan Graves. That allowed the Knights to counter and tie the game on a gorgeous set up from Karlsson to Marchessault. Stone then worked some overtime magic. In a back and forth game Thursday night, the Avalanche couldn’t put the Golden Knights away. Eventually, the deeper and harder forechecking team finished them off.

For Colorado, it comes down to improving the back end and adding more grit. Not having the suspended Kadri hurt. Will they keep him? Too bad Erik Johnson can’t stay healthy as he’s the exact kind of defenseman they could’ve used. What about Jared Bednar? Is his job safe? Or does this team need a change. Would John Tortorella fit? Who knows. Bednar got outcoached by DeBoer.

This key bit of information from Rask, who may have played his last game for the Bruins. The 34-year old wants to stay. Hopefully, he does. Here’s what he played through.

Hockey player. 🏒 It sure explains why Tuukka struggled in the Islanders’ series. Particularly in the last game where two uncharacteristic miscues resulted in costly goals against. Rask has been a great goalie in Boston for a decade. He’s won a Vezina and reached two Stanley Cup Finals as the starter. He’s been a model of consistency and strong in the playoffs over his career. And yet you still have a few knuckleheads who don’t fully appreciate his body of work. I’m glad someone does.

Where was the Boston secondary scoring? Why did Hall turn into a ghost? Of the second line that fared so well in the first round triumph over the Caps, only David Krejci had a decent series. Krejci remains a solid two-way pivot who wins draws and a very good passer. Aside from deciding on Rask and Hall, who both have indicated they want to stay, the Bruins face a tough decision on Krejci.

While Bergeron didn’t quite have the series he wanted, Marchand was superb. He scored big goals including the OT winner in Game 3 from a tough angle. He also scored in Game Five and Six when he was the one Bruin who factored in. The Rat 🐀 remains a top five player among forwards. It’s due to his unique combination of skating, twists and turns, grit, goal scoring and playmaking. He really is the straw that stirs the drink. Along with Pastrnak, who also was very good in the playoffs, they’re the top two Bruins with the older Bergeron third. It’s kind of ridiculous that Trotz’ gripes resulted in Bergeron getting tossed from a few face-offs. Bruce Cassidy was right to stick up for him. He’s one of the best two-way players and very easy to respect.

For the B’s, not having Brandon Carlo really hurt. Once he went down on a clean Clutterbuck hit, it effected the Boston defense. Particularly the penalty kill where they got burned for three power play goals in the disappointing Game Five loss. One which Cassidy went off on the officiating for by referring to the Islanders as the New York Saints. They have a good reputation as one of the league’s least penalized teams. But you have to wonder if part of it is due to who the GM is. The Isles defend well. But you can’t tell me they don’t get away with stuff. It’s again a matter of consistency with the stripes. Something that never happens. Like Groundhog Day.

Finally, Adam Fox was named as a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman. The candidates he’s up against are Hedman and Cale Makar. In my opinion, he should win. As he was the best of the trio nominated. My top five:

1. Adam Fox

2. Victor Hedman

3. Shea Theodore

4. Cale Makar

5. Charlie McAvoy

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Podcast: On Islanders/Bruins, Trotz’ Effect, Cassidy fined, Vegas and Colorado

The second round has continued to be very good. Heading the top of the list is the Islanders and Bruins. In a wild Game Five, the Islanders held on for a 5-4 win at TD Garden to take a 3-2 series lead. Can they close it out at Nassau Coliseum tomorrow?

I take a closer look at the hard fought series that’s seen the emergence of Mat Barzal. Listen on Spotify.

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Trotz nails what defines playoff hockey, Barzal leads Islanders to Game Four win over Bruins to even compelling series

On Saturday, the Islanders tied their second round series at two apiece against the Bruins by defeating them 4-1 before 12,000 loud fans at the old barn off the Meadowbrook Parkway. Mat Barzal scored the game-winner with over seven minutes left in regulation.

The first line center was their best player, leading them to the big Game Four victory on home ice. He also assisted on Kyle Palmieri’s game-tying goal during a delayed penalty. It was the center’s best game given the circumstances. He played a straight line game with the kind of grit he hasn’t shown. Barzal has goals in the last two games. He’s come alive at the right time for the Islanders. They’ll need that to continue when the series shifts to Boston for a pivotal Game Five.

Looking at how well Barzal played which included working over David Krejci with crosschecks until he snapped and speared the Isles’ most talented forward for a two-minute slashing minor (originally a major until reviewed), it’s clear that the play-making pivot listened to coach Barry Trotz. He shot the puck and got the end results the Isles needed. Prior to Game Three which saw him beat Tuukka Rask on a wraparound to force overtime, Barzal was quiet with only four assists this postseason. However, Trotz never wavered regarding his star pupil’s struggles. That confidence was rewarded.

Call it the Trotz Effect. The veteran NHL coach who guided the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in 2018, has instilled the structure that makes the lesser talented Islanders successful. In three years coaching his third NHL team after good stints in Nashville and Washington DC, the Trotz’ led Islanders have made the playoffs all three seasons and won five series. That included last year’s run to the franchise’s first Conference Final since ’93. They lost to eventual Cup champ Tampa Bay in a hard fought six games. After finishing fourth in the East Division, they were underdogs against the Pens in the first round. But they wore down the division top seed by winning the last three games to advance in six. Sidney Crosby was held to one goal by the Brock Nelson line featuring Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier. Along with Ilya Sorokin, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, they were the story.

“It’s like a boxer. You get hit enough, at some point you’re going to go down. That’s how you win fights. You’ve got to … win your battles to get free from people, and get to the inside. And that’s what playoff hockey is. As much as it is about skill, it’s as much about will,” explained Trotz about what playoff hockey is like. He emphasizes the hard checking style that Long Island fans identify with. With it being a four line team minus a true superstar, everyone plays.

That includes the Identity Line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. A cohesive checking unit that was reformed three years ago when Team President and GM Lou Lamoriello acquired Martin from the Maple Leafs. Considering how hard he plays with the physical brand of hockey he provides, would the hexed Leafs like a do over on that one? It’s that kind of tenacity and grit that the Leafs are lacking. No wonder they haven’t advanced out of the first round since 2004. After blowing a three games to one lead against bitter rival Montreal, they’re up to 0-8 in elimination games. That includes 0 for 5 in Game Sevens. Former Islanders’ star center John Tavares chose to leave and play for his hometown team. Without him due to the scary incidental knee from Corey Perry, Toronto didn’t have enough to win. Both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner had poor series. You wonder if the Leafs will ever get it right.

Lamoriello looks like a genius after leaving. Once he hired Trotz, who the Caps foolishly low balled, it changed how the Islanders are viewed. He’s proven that his defensive system works. Whether it’s the Barzal line that features Jordan Eberle and Leo Komarov, the Nelson line of Killer Bees, the Identity Line anchored by Cizikas, or the third line which has Jean-Gabriel Pageau centering Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, the Islanders are a T-E-A-M. From the goal out with Semyon Varlamov leading the way after replacing Sorokin following an ineffective Game One, these Islanders are a tough team to beat. They win the battles in the trenches and finish every check.

On Saturday, they were the better team five-on-five thanks to their heavy forecheck. Barzal made it pay dividends by setting up Palmieri with a beautiful pass for a six-on-five goal after drawing a penalty to tie the game. A great response to a Krejci power play goal that stood up following an unsuccessful coach’s challenge from Trotz to see if Brad Marchand had interfered with Varlamov. His team got the all important penalty kill on Boston’s second consecutive power play to swing the momentum. With the crowd urging them on, they tied it up thanks to the strong skating and vision of Barzal. Once it was all even, you felt that the Isles would find a way to win the game. Had they not, it could’ve been the final game at Nassau Coliseum. Instead, they know there’ll be a Game Six this week. Will it be as a potential clincher like Round One or looking to force a Game Seven? That’ll depend on Monday night with Game Five in Beantown.

Even though goals have been hard to come by, it’s been compelling hockey. You have two evenly matched teams who play similar styles. Neither side passes up an opportunity to finish a check. The biggest hit was by Clutterbuck, who sounded shaken up after his clean hit injured Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo in Game Three. Carlo had to be helped off the ice. I’d be surprised if we saw him again this round. Especially given his recent history. He suffered a concussion following a vicious hit from Tom Wilson that led to seven-game suspension. In his place skated Jarred Tinordi yesterday. It’ll be interesting to see if the Bruins keep him in the lineup on Monday night.

Aside from the hard fought board battles for loose pucks we’ve seen, you even had a pair of fights in the first period of Game Four. In a surprise, Taylor Hall dropped the gloves with Scott Mayfield. It was only his second ever fight and first since 2011. The other scrap featured Matt Martin getting the better of Tinordi. The cheers during the scoreless period were loud. So was the animosity between the two clubs. It boiled over when Barzal got into it with Krejci. Continuing to work over the Bruins veteran center, he finally got the reaction when Krejci gave him a chop to the lower region. It easily could’ve remained a major. But they opted for a two minute penalty instead. Barzal was okay. He proved it by dominating shifts. It was fitting that he got the winner.

On a Noah Dobson pass, a Mayfield shot took a funny deflection. With nobody else able to find it, a cognizant Barzal spotted it and swung and connected with his best baseball swing to beat a stunned Rask with 7:03 left. It was just a terrific play by a good player. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how skilled Barzal is. Better known for his superb skating and creative passing as evidenced when he found Palmieri for the tying goal in the second period, he also is capable of scoring goals. He did to force overtime on Thursday when he showed determination to stuff in a second attempt past Rask. For the Islanders to win the series, they will continue to need the kind of inspired play Barzal has provided over the last two games. He has two goals and a helper. That he also came back hard defensively and back checked shows maturity. He’s learning how to play winning hockey in the playoffs.

That’s the Trotz Effect. He has changed the way the Islanders play. They used to be a freewheeling, offense only team with little defense. That hung goalies out to dry. Under Trotz, the 18 skaters play hard. They have no choice. Either bring it or sit. In the past, the successful Cup winner hasn’t been shy about benching his best players. That’s included Barzal when he’s taken bad penalties or missed a defensive assignment. That’s how a good coach gets the attention of their team. By making everyone accountable.

Empty net goals from Pageau and Cizikas finished off the Bruins. Pageau was given the tough assignment of shutting down the Bergeron line that features Marchand and David Pastrnak. Pastrnak probably felt horrible after missing on a one-timer with a gaping net earlier in the game. Instead, he hit the far goalpost with Varlamov dead to rights. Sometimes, you need a break like that to prevail or a bounce. That definitely helped the Isles, who now visit TD Garden in the exact same scenario as the first round against Pittsburgh. In that series, they hung around and took Game Five and came back home and finished off the Pens. This time, they’re facing a better goalie in Rask, who has played brilliantly. He couldn’t have been better in Game Four. To put it mildly, he isn’t Tristan Jarry.

It won’t be easy tomorrow. Nor should it for the rest of this intriguing second round match-up. Whoever wins the East Final will earn it. Like Trotz said, it’ll be won in the trenches. A war on ice between two good hockey teams who won’t back down. Tom Petty would be proud.

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Sabres win Lottery, Rangers sign Nils Lundkvist, great hockey in second round, the clutch Marchand

AP Photo via Getty Images

For those who care, they held the NHL Lottery on Thursday night. After dragging it out to the point of exhaustion thanks to all the wasted nonsense, they finally got down to who won.

The winner was again the Sabres. I guess losing has its perks. Even if this upcoming Draft isn’t expected to boast a can’t miss superstar like the past two drafts, the incompetence of Buffalo has been rewarded for the second time. They also won it in 2018 and took Rasmus Dahlin. They’ve also wound up with Sam Reinhart and disillusioned captain Jack Eichel, who sounds like he wants out. Can you blame him?

The expansion Seattle Kraken will pick second behind the Sabres. Is it right that they aren’t picking first over a dysfunctional franchise with bad ownership and virtually no plan? I feel the Kraken should’ve automatically been awarded the top pick. Then the other bottom feeders could pick behind them. Not like the NHL is logical. Oh well.

The Devils will pick fourth. If he’s available, I imagine Luke Hughes would be someone they’d have interest in. The younger brother of Jack Hughes, Luke Hughes is a highly rated defense prospect. Given the state of the New Jersey blue line, it would make sense to select him. It’ll depend on what the three teams decide ahead of them. Expect Matty Beniers to go in the top three. The American center played a key role on Team USA at the World Junior Championship where they won gold. He also had 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points in 24 games in his freshman year at Michigan. Owen Power ranks as the top North American skater. He’s a defenseman who put up 16 points (3-13-16) at Michigan his freshman year. He’s expected to go first to the Sabres. Other notable prospects to keep an eye on are Dylan Guenther, William Eklund, Kent Johnson, Simon Edvinsson and Mason McTavish.

The Rangers will pick 15th. No miracle this year. Good. I could care less about more prospects. They need to improve the roster and deliver on Garden CEO James Dolan’s playoffs or bust mantra. That means new Team President and GM Chris Drury must be aggressive this summer. If that means using the first round pick along with players to swing a deal for the edgy two-way forward they need, I’m all for it. There’s plenty of young players in the system. Not everyone will be Rangers. Especially on a back end that now should include former first round pick Nils Lundkvist, who finally signed his entry level contract the other day. If he makes the roster, he’ll join Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, Zac Jones and Jacob Trouba. I’m curious to see if Libor Hajek will still have a role following a solid first full season.

One thing about the state of the Rangers on the back end is all the depth they possess. With most of it coming cheap for now, they’ll likely move on from lightning rod Tony DeAngelo. Even though I think his intensity was missed along with the offense he provides, there are more affordable alternatives. Especially if Lundkvist proves himself to be the good offensive D he’s been in Sweden. Plus with DeAngelo passing through irrevocable waivers, the buyout won’t cost much. He’ll be free to sign with another team if there’s interest. Hopefully, he gets another chance after what happened in the Big Apple. As far as the defensive depth, there’s also Tarmo Reunanen, Matthew Robertson and the hard nosed Braden Schneider, who looks to have a bright future. I’m most excited for his arrival. Lindgren and Trouba need help. The D got beat up. You can’t have that.

Moving on, there’s been some compelling hockey in the second round of the playoffs. You had a desperate Golden Knights pull out Game Three last night 3-2 in a crazy third period over the Avalanche to pull within two games to one in that West Final. After Mikko Rantanen scored on the power play to give Colorado the lead despite being largely outplayed, it looked like Philipp Grubauer would steal Game Three. But Jonathan Marchessault banked one in from behind the net to tie it and 45 seconds later, Max Pacioretty redirected a Nick Holden shot for the game-winner before a raucous environment at a capacity T-Mobile Arena. Following the predictable Game One Avalanche rout, that’s been a fun series. We’ll see if Vegas can draw even by holding serve tomorrow.

You also have what’s been a superb East Final between the Islanders and Bruins. Two evenly matched teams who boast four lines, good goalies and hit hard, the hockey has been intense. After Boston took Game One on the strength of a David Pastrnak hat trick, the Islanders responded by taking Game Two in overtime on a Casey Cizikas breakaway goal to gain home ice. However, the Bruins turned the tables in another back and forth Game Three before 12,000 screaming Islanders’ fans at Nassau Coliseum. For most of the game, Boston led on a first period goal from Craig Smith. They outplayed the Islanders and had a huge edge in shots and territorial play. But Semyon Varlamov’s goaltending kept his team in it. Following the second Bruins’ power play that didn’t produce, Mat Barzal finally scored his first goal of this postseason when he stuck with a wrap around by beating Tuukka Rask on the second try. Afterwards, it was all Isles. Anthony Beauvillier had a breakaway try, but Rask denied his backhand bid to help force a second consecutive overtime. Early on, it looked like the Islanders would end it. They got some good chances on Rask, who made two huge stops. On just an innocent looking play, Charlie McAvoy handed off for a changing Brad Marchand. The Rat skated with little room thanks to the checking of Jean-Gabriel Pageau. However, he still was able to get off a seeing eye shot from a tough angle that somehow beat Varlamov far side to give the Bruins a 2-1 win in sudden death. It was stunning. Boston leads the series 2-1 with a pivotal Game Four tonight on Long Island. That should be interesting.

In the other series that’s been closely fought, the Lightning bring a two games to one series lead into this afternoon’s Game Four at home. The strange part is the road team has won all three games of the Central Final. The Bolts took Game One thanks to a go-ahead goal from key depth center Barclay Goodrow to win 2-1. They doubled up their lead in Raleigh by edging a frustrated Hurricanes 2-1. As it turned out following an Alex Killorn turnaround goal from distance through traffic, Anthony Cirelli’s insurance marker proved large. Andrei Svechnikov cut it to one late. In Game Three, the Canes knew they had to win. Switching goalies with Petr Mrazek replacing rookie Alex Nedeljkovic, they got the game’s first two goals courtesy of Brett Pesce and Sebastian Aho. However, penalties allowed the lethal Tampa power play to tie it on goals from Brayden Point and Killorn. The game would require sudden death. In it, the Canes were able to set up a good Aho one-timer from the high slot after he moved into position. It beat Andrei Vasilevskiy at 5:57. Jordan Staal was in front. Replays later confirmed that the Carolina captain got a piece of the shot for the OT winner. It was his third overtime goal of his career. All coming with Carolina. He is now tied for the franchise lead. With Game Four looming large, we’ll see if Vincent Trocheck and Warren Foegle can go. If not, the Canes are running short on bodies. The Bolts are healthier. It should be interesting.

The only series that’s been disappointing is the North Final between the Canadiens and Jets. An ill advised hit from leader Mark Scheifele on Jake Evans that concussed him after he scored a rare wraparound empty netter, has badly hurt Winnipeg. Scheifele was suspended four games for what was ruled a charge and game misconduct by the officials. With the Habs hot following the unnecessary hit even though the principle point of contact wasn’t the head, the league made an example of Scheifele. A clean player who never had been suspended. So, he got four games while Vegas tough guy Ryan Reaves only served two games for intent to injure Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves during a 7-1 blowout loss. Reaves has gotten away with other cringe worthy behavior prior without paying the price. There’s no consistency from George Parros. That’s my issue. I don’t feel Scheifele deserved four games. I felt two would’ve been appropriate. Instead, he can only watch as his team looked punch less in a 1-0 shutout loss in Game Two before 500 Emergency Medical Workers in Winnipeg. The only goal was scored by Tyler Toffoli, who made a great move and beat Connor Hellebuyck for a nice shorthanded goal. Hellebuyck made some big stops to give the Jets a chance. But they could not beat Carey Price, who saved all 30 shots for his eighth career playoff shutout. His biggest coming with time to spare when he headed away a desperation Kyle Connor high riser off his mask to give Montreal the win. They now take a 2-0 series lead back to Bell Centre, which should be rocking. Even if it’s only limited to 2,500 fans, you saw what that crowd did for them in their overtime victory over the Maple Leafs in Game Six. With the Jets playing Pierre-Luc Dubois on their top line and having only scored three times on Price, does Paul Maurice have an answer? We’ll see.

Even though it’s tough without the Rangers, these playoffs have been very good so far. A lot of overtimes. Momentum swings. Heavy hits. Gigantic saves. Huge blocks. Clutch goals like the one Marchand scored to bail out his team when they looked on the ropes before that chaotic atmosphere the other day. Marchand has now scored three OT winners. He’s the definition of clutch. For all the gripes people have about his antics, The Rat 🐀 is a top five player. While he isn’t on the level of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl or Nathan MacKinnon, Marchand has the uncanny ability to make his teammates better. While Pastrnak and the ever clutch Patrice Bergeron receive all the accolades, it’s the play of Marchand that keeps opponents off balance. Not the biggest player, he’s a superb skater who has a knack for making the right play. Whether it be a key pass or shot, it’s Marchand that stirs the drink for the Bruins. It’s about time he gets proper credit for how good he is.

That’ll do it for this updated blog. It’s about time I posted some thoughts. P.S. NBC really sucks. Not having a few postgames after overtimes and shifting games to CNBC. The over promotion of the Olympics when not one hockey fan cares. The force-fed horse racing that’s so gambling driven. It’s nonsense. That Bruins/Islanders game won’t begin until 7:40 PM. False advertising. NBC pulled the same thing with those 12 noon games that usually didn’t drop until 12:25 PM. I’m glad they’re done. I won’t miss that network.

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Podcast: Derek on Monday’s great first round games, an observation plus a cool story

In my latest podcast over on Spotify, I review a busy first round slate from Monday night that included the Isles edging the Pens in two overtimes along with the Jets finishing off the McDavid/Draisaitl Oilers in an epic triple overtime to sweep Edmonton.

What went wrong for the Oilers and Pens? Can Sidney Crosby rally Pittsburgh at what will be an electric Nassau Coliseum for Game Six? The brilliant play of rookie goalies Ilya Sorokin and Spencer Knight, who at 20 made a memorable playoff debut by stopping the last 36 shots he faced to force Game Six against the Lightning.

The laser focused Cam Talbot who stole Game Five for the Wild in Vegas. Plus some Leafs and Habs. A cool story from my Devils production truck days in ’00-01. How great Marc-Andre Fleury could become with another Cup.

Please take a listen by clicking the Anchor link. Or follow me on Spotify at DFlex’s Pushing Buttons.

DFlex’s Pushing Buttons

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Theo Fleury: A tale in courage and strength

In the Fall 2009, we met the great Theo Fleury at the old Borders bookstore at Madison Square Garden for a book signing of his memorable book, Playing With Fire. A true story about Fleury's struggles with substance abuse stemming from a sad personal experience in Junior Hockey that affected his mental health causing anxiety and depression. Fleury remains a courageous tale in overcoming his demons to rebuild his life when it almost ended. Someone I consider a strong person who could certainly be a Hall of Famer for his NHL career spent mostly with Calgary before a brief stint in Colorado, then New York and Chicago, he is a great example of perseverance. The book remains one of my personal favorites. Highly recommended to anyone who hasn't read it. Derek
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Islanders put Penguins on the brink, Connor’s goal in triple overtime eliminates Oilers, goalies shine including a memorable playoff debut for Cats’ Spencer Knight

These playoffs have been electric. It is only the first round yet there are so many cool storylines. From the magnificent playoff debut of 20-year old Spencer Knight to backstop the Cats to a 4-1 win in Game Five to stave off elimination against the defending champion Lightning. To the brilliance of Ilya Sorokin in turning away the Penguins in a stirring Islanders’ 3-2 win in sudden death on Josh Bailey’s goal in double overtime. To the astonishing concentration of Cam Talbot in turning away the relentless Golden Knights in ridiculous fashion to keep the Wild alive in an unlikely 4-2 win.

It’s all there in this somewhat unpredictable first round. You also have Kyle Connor scoring off the rush to finally end the longest game of these playoffs in triple overtime, eliminating the McDavid/Draisaitl Oilers in a stirring Jets’ sweep. One that Draisaitl in particular will be thinking about for a while given all the pointblank chances he had in sudden death to extend the series. Edmonton lost three games in overtime including the third period collapse in Game Three which really finished them. It’s back to the drawing board for the Oilers with the dynamic duo of Draisaitl and McDavid to ponder what went so wrong. Not even some clutch stops from veteran Mike Smith could prevent another bitter disappointment for the game’s rating best players. At least McDavid will have the hardware, but what’s the point if you don’t have postseason success. The Oilers will look drastically different the next time they play. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be gone along with mismatched offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie. Will James Neal join them via buyout or some trade to Seattle involving draft picks? Leave that to Ken Holland.

Then there are the Islanders, who somehow pulled out a come from behind win to put the Pens on the brink for the second time in three years. A game they owe Sorokin a steak dinner with the best wine and dessert. Sensational is what the calm Russian was. Jordan Eberle evened the score in the third period. When he did, you just knew. It was that sickening feeling. Cue up Whitesnake, “Here We Go Again”, channeling David Coverdale. Hard to believe Tawny Kitaen recently passed. A horrible Tristan Jarry misplay allowed Bailey the early Father’s Day Gift. A gimme that he accepted to set up a chance at the second round. Game Six is tomorrow night at Nassau Coliseum. Win and the Isles advance. Lose and it could be the final game ever played at the barn off the Meadowbrook. We’ll see if Crosby and Malkin have something to say about it. What was that Pen thinking with that awful back pass that was nowhere close to Malkin at the Isles’ blue line? That set up the Jarry gaffe.

Maybe under the radar was Jack Campbell turning aside 15 Habs’ shots in a busy third to backstop the Maple Leafs to a well earned 2-1 road win over arch rival Montreal at Bell Centre. He’s quietly gotten it done for Toronto while captain John Tavares recovers from the concussion he suffered on the accidental Corey Perry knee in just a scary collision. The encouraging news is he is home and not as bad as previously thought. Perry was contrite over it. He still was asked to fight by Nick Foligno in Game One. They got it over with. For anyone who doesn’t understand why, go watch another sport. For the time being, the Leafs have responded well with two consecutive wins. The goal scorers last night were William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. The Canadiens got one from Nick Suzuki, who evened it before the Rielly winner during the three goal second. Cole Caufield made his Habs’ playoff debut. He had three shots on goal and also a good opportunity with under six seconds left in regulation. But his shot was blocked harmlessly away. Game Four is a quick turnaround tonight. We’ll see if Carey Price and Les Habitants can draw even.

How about Spencer Knight making 36 straight saves after allowing a goal in the first minute of the Panthers’ 4-1 home win to force Game Six at Tampa. The WJC gold medal American hero was unbelievable. He made 21 of 22 stops in a busy first. Ross Colton scored on the first shot. That was it. Poised beyond his youth. He denied Nikita Kucherov with a lightning quick pad across that invoked memories of his stupendous performance in stoning Canada in January. The Cats clawed their way back with Aleksander Barkov setting up Mason Marchment, who’s become something of a folk hero. Patric Hornqvist also scored on the power play. Jonathan Huberdeau tallied two assists giving him 10 points in the series. What a player. Florida is still alive due to Knight. Do they have nine lives?

What of Talbot and his 38 saves in a lopsided game that defied logic. He faced a Vegas onslaught in the second period. The Knights outshot the Wild 22-1. But someone forgot to tell Talbot. He was a miracle worker for Minnesota, who thanks to goals from Kirill Kaprizov and Zach Parise, are headed home with a chance to force Game Seven. They only had 13 shots, but put three past Marc-Andre Fleury. Madness. Mark Stone scored for a third straight game for Vegas. You know he wants to close it out. It gives us something to watch.

If Monday provided hockey fans with a bit of everything including a rare raucous atmosphere in Florida where over 11,000 loud fans cheered on their Panthers, what to expect Tuesday from the Hurricanes who now have the pressure on them to hold serve in a huge Game Five following two Predators’ double overtime wins. They can thank Matt Duchene, Luke Kunin and Juuse Saros. Can Carolina ramp it up with some home cooking? They’ll need to.

You will have the Leafs and Habs doing battle again in a back-to-back. There hasn’t been a lot of edge to this series. At some point, it has to pick up. Maybe Game Four is where it intensifies. Look at the chaos Pat Maroon caused by going after Noel Acciari with over 10 seconds left? Was that necessary. No. It made the Bolts look bad. Will there be carryover? These interstate rivals don’t like one another. The hate is real. It should make for a compelling Game Six.

With the schedule not as hectic, there won’t be as much channel flipping. That actually is good. What isn’t is Edmonton becoming the third team to bow out and second to be swept. The Blues were too banged around to match the Avalanche firepower. I was dead wrong on that one and underestimated the coaching of Paul Maurice along with key secondary players such as Andrew Copp, Mason Appleton and Adam Lowry. That grind and grit gave the Jets the edge. Josh Morrissey was superb too as well as dead exhausted in that third overtime. He’s an underrated defenseman who deserves more credit. How about former Blueshirt Neal Pionk forcing McDavid into a turnover that led directly to Connor beating Smith upstairs. It caught Edmonton in a change. Those small details are essential in these pressure packed games. McDavid messed up. His team was eliminated.

It’s still strange to see former Rangers like Ryan McDonagh playing for the Lightning while Anthony Duclair skates for the Panthers. He sure has been well traveled. What’s that? His sixth team. I’ll give it a shot without checking. Rangers. Coyotes. Blackhawks. Blue Jackets. Senators. Panthers. I’ll know later on if I got the order correct.

Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle also play for Florida. Joel Quenneville has used both in and out of the lineup. Yandle might see his Iron Man streak come to an end next season. It looks like Florida will dump his contract. He’s still a good offensive D, but struggles in his end. Stralman is still around. A credit to his work ethic. I kind of miss seeing Brian Boyle play. I hope the Rangers consider hiring him as a face-off coach. They need help. Wouldn’t that be a good hire? That’s for Chris Drury to decide along with who is the next coach. The off-season will be interesting. Sandpaper is needed. You notice what most of these teams have. They work very hard. Tenacity is something that’s needed.

And you got Talbot trying to carry the Wild back against heavy favorite Vegas. He’s played for both Edmonton and Calgary. Now Minnesota where he’s the guy with Kaapo Kahkonen waiting in the wings. Mats Zuccarello also is playing there with Kaprizov. The ex-Rangers. You could probably put a team together consisting of former players taking part. Even Nick Holden is playing for the Golden Knights. He even picked up two helpers in a win. Go figure. Jesper Fast and Brady Skjei trying to help the Hurricanes advance. Both key parts of that team. Carl Hagelin is hitting the links.

Rangers Trivia: Who was the compensation for the Rangers signing Adam Graves?

It’s like taking a time machine Back To The Future. You arrive in 1991 and things are so different. The Rangers were before Neil Smith pulled the trigger on Mark Messier while also acquiring Jeff Beukeboom. Suddenly, you had three former Oilers including heart and soul Graves an integral part of the Blueshirts. The rest is history.

Trivia Answer: Troy Mallette

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Stanley Cup Playoffs: Game Five for Islanders/Penguins, Bruins finish off Capitals, Oilers’ meltdown in The Peg, Plus Rick Middleton ranks as worst Rangers’ trade ever

It was a week ago that there was a lot of excitement for fans of 16 NHL teams. Now, we’re down to 14 with two more teams facing elimination tonight.

The Avalanche are already waiting for the Golden Knights, who host the Wild for Game Five later. If they win, it’ll be four in a row after losing Game One. Mark Stone’s big goal in Game Three and celebration pumped up Vegas, who have took over even without Max Pacioretty. With Marc-Andre Fleury playing brilliantly in net, there hasn’t been much Kirill Kaprizov can do. Cam Talbot hasn’t had a bad series either. His team has been severely outplayed by a serious Stanley Cup contender intent on providing an appetizing second round match up that’s highly anticipated. We’ll see if they end it.

There’s a pretty big Game Five between the Islanders and Penguins. The series is all even at two apiece with the pivotal game at Pittsburgh. The question is after unravelling in a lopsided Game Four loss before a raucous atmosphere at Nassau Coliseum, can the Pens answer the bell tonight? Sidney Crosby has no points in three straight and Jake Guentzel has been very quiet. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang showed frustration against the gritty Barry Trotz coached Islanders, who have done this before to these Pens. It can’t only be Jeff Carter and Brandon Tanev providing the offense for Pittsburgh. For the Isles, rookie Ilya Sorokin is now the man in net. Having won both starts while Semyon Varlamov has struggled, he’s been cool like Fonz. Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier are leading the way while Mat Barzal sets up teammates and rookie Oliver Wahlstrom is proving he belongs. Is it again advantage Long Island or can the Penguins answer back?

The other team now patiently waiting for the second round to begin are the much improved Bruins. A week ago, they were beaten in overtime by the Caps and nearly fell behind two games to none. However, a huge tying goal from Taylor Hall changed things. Brad Marchand provided his usual overtime heroics followed by a game tying power play goal in Game Three before Craig Smith took full advantage of Justin Schultz’ laziness after Ilya Samsonov dropped the puck for him behind the net. It was all too stunning. Washington never recovered. Boston dominated Game Four and led by David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask, ousted the beat up Caps yesterday to advance in five. Honestly, it looked like several Washington players were not themselves including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and the ghost of John Carlson. Despite a lot of nastiness in the first three games, even Tom Wilson, Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd couldn’t save the defeated Capitals from a third straight first round exit. Ovechkin is a free agent. I think he’s loyal and will stay. But expect changes in DC including Evgeny Kuznetsov likely shopped for his carelessness.

As far as the Oilers go, the less said, the better. How do you lead a must win Game Three 4-1 with under nine minutes left and then totally meltdown in a shocking 5-4 overtime loss at Winnipeg? Take nothing away from the Jets, who never gave up. Helped by an awful interference penalty on Josh Archibald, they quickly scored on a power play. But then got goals 16 seconds apart to tie it up. They did it without the great support of their fans. That should’ve been advantage Edmonton. Instead, they imploded. This was the Miracle On Manchester. It was the same Kings stunning the Red Wings. Insanity. You’d figure with both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl coming to life, it would be enough. Not so fast. And in sudden death, a crucial face-off loss led directly to a bullet from Nik Ehlers stunning Mike Smith for the fourth unanswered goal to give the Jets a 3-0 stranglehold. They also can wrap it up later due to the ridiculous NHL schedule that has both North Division series playing back to backs. That includes an intriguing Game Three between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, who will finally dress Cole Caufield.

There’s a lot to dissect in the first round. While Boston has moved on, the Pens are in a life and death struggle with the Isles. You have the Hurricanes knowing they must hold serve tomorrow in Game Five against the resilient Predators,who beat them twice in Nashville thanks to double overtime heroics. Do they miss Jaccob Slavin? Injuries are always part of the best Playoffs. That one should be intriguing to follow.

That’s what makes the Stanley Cup the hardest trophy to win in sports. It takes so much sacrifice and commitment to get to 16 wins. Better known as 16W if you rooted for the Devils in the glory days when they played at The Meadowlands. There are so many more stories and subplots coming. That includes Nazem Kadri seeing his playoff shadow. Will he ever learn? It could cost Colorado if that second round happens against Vegas.

There’s nothing going on in Rangers Town. Unless you’re following a weakened Worlds that features Colin Blackwell and Kevin Rooney on Team USA along with Zac Jones. Exactly. Take a look at the Canadian roster that’s 0-2. It’s pointless. Usually, I have a mild interest in the tournament. Not this time.

And finally, has there ever been a worse trade made by the Rangers than the one that sent future power forward Rick Middleton to the Bruins for a washed up Ken Hodge? Who do you think wanted that one? Maybe Phil Esposito, who for as great a player as he was, was a total disaster as Coach and GM after retirement. Sure. He gets credit for leading the underdog ’79 Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Final before they lost to the Canadiens’ dynasty. Even Carol Vadnais was instrumental during that run built around John Davidson, Ron Greschner, Dave and Don Maloney, Anders Hedberg, Don Murdoch, Ron Duguay and Walt Tkaczuk. Why did they trade Mike McEwen in a package for Barry Beck? I know Beck was All-Star caliber. Ultimately, injuries finished his career. “Shoot The Puck, Barry!”

Regarding Middleton, he totaled 46 goals and 90 points his first two seasons on Broadway. Hodge didn’t even reach that total in his two years before hanging up the skates. Middleton with the Bruins scored 40 or more goals five consecutive years including a career high 51 (19 PPG) in ’81-82 for Boston. He topped the 100 point mark twice including a career best 105 in ’83-84. Middleton spent 12 years in Beantown producing at over a point-per-game clip. Over 881 games as a Boston Bruin, he finished with 402 goals, 496 assists and 898 points. He also was a plus-220.

For his 14-year NHL career, Middleton wound up with 448 goals, 540 assists and 988 points in 1,005 games. Why isn’t he in the Hockey Hall Of Fame? Those numbers are certainly good enough. Is it due to him not reaching 500 goals and 1,000 points? That didn’t stop them from inducting popular Bruins power forward Cam Neely. Middleton had a postseason where he put up 11 goals and 33 points in ’83. He went 45-55-100 in 114 playoff games. They lost to the great Islanders Dynasty. In his final season back in ’87-88, Boston reached the Stanley Cup Final before falling to another dynasty in the Oilers. He shared the captaincy with Ray Bourque. In 19 games, Middleton had five goals with five assists. Boston played 23 during that run. They were swept. Game Four was the infamous Blackout at Boston Garden. They stopped play and instead replayed the game at Northlands Coliseum where Edmonton completed the unconventional sweep.

I’m old enough to remember Neely. He came over from Vancouver in another great trade and evolved into a dominant power forward who hit 50 goals three different times. That included the memorable 50 in 49 during ’93-94 before injuries derailed his 13-year career. Neely finished with 395 goals and 299 assists for a total of 694 points in only 726 games. He went 344-246-590 with 921 penalty minutes and a plus-137 in 525 games as a Bruin. Was he better than Middleton? I know what my father’s answer would be. He liked Neely as did my brother and I. It stands to reason that if Neely is in, so should Middleton.

I had wanted to do something about Rick Middleton for a while. That’s a regrettable trade in Rangers’ history. They’ve had many. Name one worse.

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John Davidson returns to Blue Jackets, Playoff observations on Bruins/Caps, MacKinnon and latest Kadri cheap shot

Everyone knows how good a person John Davidson is. That didn’t change after he and former Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton were fired by Garden CEO James Dolan. As expected, Davidson kept it classy in thanking the Rangers for the opportunity to return and be Team President for two seasons. Even though it ended badly, he gets it.

It goes without any surprise that Davidson landed on his feet by accepting the same role he had previously in Columbus. After two years away when he decided to return to the Blueshirts in an identical front office role, JD predictably wound up back with the Blue Jackets. The story broke last night by the Columbus Dispatch. It was confirmed today in an announcement.

Emphasizing that he enjoyed his time spent in Columbus, Davidson said that it’s a nice city to live in. Obviously, he wants to draw attention away from the narrative that players don’t want to play there. As evidenced with the recent departures of Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Blue Jackets still fielded a competitive team in a very good Central Division. However, injuries and a schedule that included facing top three Carolina, Florida and Tampa didn’t bode well. With the prospect of former coach John Tortorella leaving following an active trade deadline, it was obvious that change was needed. Rehiring Davidson is a good move to help rebuild the franchise.

Good luck to the classy Davidson. It’ll be interesting to see what he does this off-season. When asked about former Rangers coach David Quinn, he indicated that Quinn is a good man and should be considered for the Columbus coaching vacancy. We’ll see what they decide. As long as JD is there, it’ll continue to be Blueshirts Ohio. Much like the Lightning are Rangers South.

There were four games on a busy Wednesday night of the 2021 NHL Playoffs. The best one was Game Three between the evenly matched Bruins and Caps. In another nail-biting game that was decided in overtime again, Boston came back to defeat Washington 3-2 in double overtime. Trailing 2-1 following a David Pastrnak turnover that led directly to Nic Dowd tipping in a Garnet Hathaway shot, the Bruins rallied thanks to a clutch Brad Marchand power play goal in which he connected on a baseball bat swing to cash in. Despite only three shots in the third period, Boston forced sudden death. In it, they dominated the Caps for long stretches. Only Ilya Samsonov prevented the game from ending. Unfortunately, his drop pass behind the net for Justin Schultz backfired. With Schultz unable to retrieve it, Craig Smith intercepted the puck and beat a stunned Samsonov on a wraparound.

Afterwards, captain Alex Ovechkin was incensed. He screamed at both players. Figure it was in Russian. I don’t blame Ovechkin for being upset. His team had a great chance to regain home ice. Instead, a botched play between Samsonov and Schultz proved costly. The miscommunication allowed Smith to get a gimme. Something that shouldn’t happen in such a well played game. It really has been a great series so far due to the physicality, tenacity and the fact all three games have required overtime. Taylor Hall has been good for Boston scoring a pair of key goals. He’s fit in well with David Krejci and Smith. As for the Caps, they got Evgeny Kuznetsov back. However, we’re without Lars Eller. Their bottom six have played well with Hathaway and Dowd leading the way. They haven’t gotten enough out of Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin. Game Four is tomorrow.

In the second game of their first round series, the Avalanche doubled up the Blues 6-3 to take a commanding 2-0 series lead back to St. Louis. Nathan MacKinnon put on another show. After notching three points in Game One, he went for a hat trick and four points to give him seven in two games. Just astonishing stuff from the Colorado all world center. He’s been up for the Hart Trophy the last couple of seasons. One of the game’s premier players, he centers the dynamic top line that features Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They’ve been clicking on all cylinders. If they’re on, look out.

In a disappointing development, Nazem Kadri had another foolish cheap shot that will result in a suspension. The gritty second center plays physical. However, his past has seen him push the boundaries. He got two costly suspensions for the Maple Leafs in crushing first round losses to the rival Bruins. His latest bad hit saw him again come from the blindside and earn a match and game misconduct for an Illegal Check To The Head. A no no. The Blues made it interesting cutting a 3-0 deficit to one before the Avalanche erased any doubt with two empty netters including MacKinnon getting the hat trick. As for Kadri, it’s brutal. How many times can he keep doing the same thing over and over again? Given his track record, this could result in a significant suspension of around seven to eight games. If it is, he might not be available for the second round. At what point will he learn? He’s too good a player.

The only surprise last night was the Jets defeating the Oilers 5-2 behind the goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck. They shutdown Connor McDavid, who had only two shots and was in for two goals against. Leon Draisaitl was no better. Winnipeg skated without Nik Ehlers and Dubois. They lead Edmonton 1-0. Game Two is Friday. Tonight is Game One between classic Original Six rivals Montreal and Toronto. The first playoff match-up between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs since 1979. It is highly anticipated. Can Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher provide the underdog Habs a spark against the heavily favored Leafs? When will Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield and Alexei Romanov play? Or is coach Dominique Ducharme the latest Montreal coach in over his head? Habs versus Leafs is as good as it gets.

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