Random Thoughts: Hart race, Ovechkin, Islanders

These are some of observations on the season which is drawing to a close in three weeks. Unless your team is making the playoffs, then this is about what I’ve seen. Some random thoughts:

1.The Hart race remains a hotly debated topic. With leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, Evgeni Malkin battling it out for the Art Ross, Nathan MacKinnon has climbed into the scoring race with a sizzling hot streak. He’s trying to carry the Avalanche into the postseason. Something nobody thought was remotely possible. He has been on such a good run that he now has almost caught up to the elite Russians who have been 1-2 for a while. At this point, it looks like Taylor Hall will be left out despite his impressive run. He is just as valuable to the Devils as MacKinnon is to Colorado. If you define most valuable, then those two are what the award personifies. But my feeling is it’ll come down to Kucherov, Malkin and MacKinnon. MacKinnon has 11 game-winners and has been a beast. I would vote for him. The other two are on much better teams.

2.Recently, Alexander Ovechkin became the fourth fastest player in NHL history to reach 600 career goals. Ovi has been unbelievable since he entered the league with Sidney Crosby in ’05-06. There’s no better finisher than the electrifying Russian with the cannon from the left circle that pulverizes goalies. They know it’s coming and he’s still terrorizing opponents. Tied with super soph Patrik Laine for the league lead with 43 goals, The Great Eight shows no signs of slowing down. In a game where it’s harder to score, he makes it look easy. A few more productive years and he could approach 800 goals. Who would’ve ever believed it? Whether he wins a Cup or not, he doesn’t need it to justify his career.

3.Henrik Lundqvist has taken a back seat to rookie Alexandar Georgiev. The 22-year old Bulgarian has played well winning three of his last four starts. He is very poised in net and hasn’t let the volume of shots bother him. It looks like the Rangers scouting staff did a good job signing the undrafted goalie who seems unflappable. A real positive that can aid the Rangers for ’18-19.

4.You watch the way the Bruins play without Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy and even Zdeno Chara and they still handle the Lightning. They could overtake Tampa for tops in the East and earn home ice advantage which would change the dynamic of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. It looked like a foregone conclusion that Boston would play Toronto in a first round. Not anymore. What if it’s the Bolts and Leafs while the Bruins draw whoever the final wildcard is. Probably the Devils unless the Panthers can recover from a awful home loss to lowly Edmonton. Don’t forget. Third place is up for grabs with the Flyers hanging onto that spot. There’s still enough time for Columbus to move up. They’ve been playing much better since adding Thomas Vanek and Ian Cole. Cam Atkinson is scoring again recently recording a hat trick in a home win. The offense has picked up.

5.It looks like another wasted year for the Islanders. A very disappointing season given the superb rookie season Mathew Barzal has had. The certain Calder winner leads the team in scoring with captain John Tavares a close second. The question is what will Tavares decide this summer. Is he truly loyal to the organization or will another missed postseason result in possibly testing the market. Would the Islanders be open to a sign and trade just in case so they don’t lose their captain for nothing? The thing is Garth Snow did re-sign Tavares favorite Josh Bailey to a good deal worth an average of $5 million. Anders Lee needs five goals for 40. For most of the year, he and Bailey have been perfect linemates for Tavares.

6.What is beleaguered coach Doug Weight thinking shifting Tavares to the wing on a line with Barzal? It’s a organization in dysfunction. Would you keep Snow around along with Weight for another year? How can they improve a weak blueline that’s struggled without Calvin de Haan? At some point, there needs to be a change in philosophy. Especially with Jaro Halak unable to handle the workload due to the league’s worst defense. Even Christopher Gibson can’t. Who can?

7.It would be nice if NHL refs knew what to call. Whether it be on goaltender interference or lengthy reviews along with offside challenges, it remains confusing. The same for fans who are equally frustrated with the process.

8.Top goalie is between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Pekka Rinne. It says here that it’s time for Rinne to win the Vezina. Vasilevskiy should have plenty of more chances.


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Game Preview: Georgiev to get a third straight start on St. Patty’s Day

It is St. Patty’s Day. Happy Irish ☘️ Day to everyone who celebrates. I’ll probably have a brew or two later while enjoying the NCAA Basketball Tournament and Rangers hockey along with the other big games with playoff significance.

It’s already been a unreal 48 hours for my favorite basketball tournament with Buffalo sending Arizona and their lying cheating coach home followed up by UMBC making history in becoming the first 16 seed to upset a 1 seed in the Men’s Division I tourney. An amazing accomplishment that came to fruition Friday night in emphatic fashion with the University of Maryland Baltimore County beating Virginia handily 74-54 in Charlotte. I once played on their campus floor with my Staten Island JCC travel basketball team. Very nice court and place. Congrats to them!

With it being a big sports weekend, you can tell I’m all over the map. The Rangers are playing out the string by continuing to play it straight up. Even if that means winning some games unexpectedly like the feel good comeback home win over the Pens in overtime, so be it. Of course, the more wind and points hurts their lottery chances. They have fallen out of the top 10 with the woeful Islanders continuing to disgrace themselves despite a better roster featuring John Tavares, certain Calder winner Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey. It truly is astonishing to see how bad they are. But without a defense or consistent goaltending, they are truly dysfunctional.

While it may hurt to see the Isles with a better chance to move up in the Dahlin lottery, I like the fact the younger Blueshirts continue to play hard and show improvement for the future. We forget that these are pro athletes who take their job seriously. They want to win. Not tank. So, if any fan is upset by this, then you’re not much of a fan. I can’t root for my teams to lose. It’s not in me. I have pride. So do our players which makes me proud. None more so than Wednesday with the awesome 4-3 overtime stunner over NBC darling Pittsburgh.

A game in which Alexandar Georgiev made 37 saves including a clutch stop on a penalty shot to deny Hart candidate Evgeni Malkin with 10.7 seconds left. He has played well and looks poised in net. So, coach Alain Vigneault is rewarding him with a third straight start to give Henrik Lundqvist another night off. I’ve seen some fans whine over it due to wanting to see Lundqvist get five more wins for 30. That doesn’t matter. Personal achievements aren’t part of team sports when you’re not gonna make the playoffs.

Georgiev has earned the right to play. Let’s continue to see what the 22-year old can do. He has a calm demeanor and challenges players while making good saves. He very well could be the backup next season. I’m not one to celebrate injuries. But Ondrej Pavelec being out is a blessing in disguise because it allowed the organization to see what Gorgy can do. He hasn’t disappointed. He’ll get the start tonight at St. Louis.

There are other positives for Ranger fans with Neal Pionk continuing to improve. He picked up a career high three assists three nights ago and played well. He still must get stronger at boxing out but the skating and ability to find the open man is there. He should very much be a integral part of the back end moving forward.

John Gilmour has explosive skating and offensive instinct. I would like to see him hit the net more. His defense still needs work but his speed is unparalleled.

It’s a shame Tony DeAngelo got hurt. He was starting to improve by showing off his strong skating and playmaking. Now, he won’t be back till next training camp. Hopefully, he can make a full recovery from his injury and prove he belongs to further silence that clown Boomer Esiason. Some advice for Tony D. Don’t take the bait. Stay off social media.

Rob O’Gara is doing alright. He isn’t the best skater but has size and strength. He got a nice primary assist on a goal at Tampa for his first NHL point. It will be a uphill climb for the 24-year old left defenseman who came over from Boston with a third round pick for Nick Holden.

Ryan Sproul is back up in DeAngelo’s place. He will play third pair the rest of the way.

Pavel Buchnevich has 40 points. The 22-year old second-year Russian forward has four assists in the last two games. Both wins. He is a very good skater with a pass first mentality. He nearly set up Jimmy Vesey for another goal. They have chemistry thus far with Vladislav Namestnikov on a good skating, forechecking like. I wanted to see what Buchnevich can do with Namestnikov. It’s been good so far. If he can shoot the puck more in Year 3, there’s no reason to believe the talented right wing can’t put up at least 20 goals and 35 assists.

Buchnevich deserves huge accolades for what he did before Wednesday’s Rivalry Night game. He tossed over a signed stick to a Rangers season ticket member 12-year old Benjamin who got the thrill of his life. Amanda Borges interviewed him. What a positive outlook Benjamin has. He sounds like a coach.

That feel good moment was so cool. It’s one he’ll never forget. It also shows what makes hockey players such great athletes. Buchnevich made the kid’s night. It was very cool that Benjamin was wearing a Buchnevich KHL Cherepovets Severstal jersey that his grandfather bought him. I really enjoyed his story on how he became a Buch fan.

Mika Zibanejad enters playing some of his best hockey. He tallied twice including the game-tying and game-winning goals in the nice win over Pittsburgh. He’s really been flying with Chris Kreider (career high 4 points) and Jesper Fast (11th goal-a point in the last 4 games). They work well off each other. Kreider’s electric speed at a lighter weight since returning from a rib resection has made a huge difference. He looks great. It’s a lot of fun to watch that line.

Ryan Spooner has 13 points (2-11-13) in nine games while playing almost exclusively with Kevin Hayes (5-1-6). Mats Zuccarello now is on that line and back to his normal self with four goals in the last four to hike his team-leading point total to 48 (14-34-48). While it hasn’t been a consistent year for him, Zuccarello is only 11 points off last season’s pace. He has a outside shot at matching that total with 11 games remaining.

If you want to get excited for the team’s future, here’s a couple of highlights of Filip Chytil and Ty Ronning scoring goals.


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California dreamin’

For the Devils, phase one of their six-game potential nightmare swing was an unqualified success sweeping Nashville and Vegas in a flurry of goals, with new starting goaltender Keith Kinkaid continuing his astonishing run of success.  However, there’s still a long way to go in the next four days with the three California stops looming, all against teams who are also fighting for their playoff bubble lives.  I hadn’t originally planned on being home to watch today’s odd 4 PM start time but an annoying cold is pretty much keeping me indoors for the weekend so I’ll likely be tuned into that game, assuming I don’t nap then or some other big news doesn’t happen to take my attention away like the latest political dumpster fire last night or the football Jets’ big trade this morning.’

With twelve games left and everyone around the Devils playing, today’s another giant day in the playoff chase.  Thanks to the Flyers’ recent slump it’s now a four teams for three spots gauntlet:

  1. Metro (3): Flyers 81 points, 11 GR
  2. Wild Card: Blue Jackets 81 points, 11 GR
  3. Wild Card: Devils 80 points, 12 GR
  4. Outside looking in: Panthers 77 points, 14 GR

Florida’s two games in hand remaining and recent white-hot stretch still loom large but so does their upcoming gauntlet of eight games in thirteen days in eight different cities (seven on the road) after what’s likely to be another home layup against the Oilers today.  If any team is hotter than the Panthers, it’s the Blue Jackets who’ve won six in a row themselves and have a home game today against a struggling but pesky Senators team who did more than play out the string finally tripping up the Panthers on Tuesday.  Columbus also goes on the road for five out of seven games after today.  Lately the only good news from the OOT scoreboard has come from Philly who after finishing February 10-0-1 in an eleven game stretch have fallen to earth with a thud in March (1-6-1) putting them back on the bubble, and they have a tough back-to-back this weekend in Carolina and home against the Caps tomorrow before a five games out of seven stretch on the road.

Of course the OOT results will only serve to mark our demise if the Devils don’t keep up their resurgence on the first two games of this life-and-death trip.  Playing against teams like Vegas and Nashville who have pretty much locked up everything but seeding in March is one thing, but playing against teams also needing wins just to make the playoffs as badly as you do is another story.  New Jersey starts the California portion of this trip in LA, against a Kings team they smoked 5-1 at the Rock earlier this season, ending an eight-game winning streak for LA in the process.  I wouldn’t neccesarily say this is a must win but it’s a pretty vital two points to get before playing a back-to-back in Anaheim tomorrow night against a healthier team than the one we beat at the Rock in December, and then going to San Jose on Tuesday, a team we’ve rarely had success against in recent years.  Although October was a long time ago they smoked us pretty good in NJ when we were still playing consistently well.

You would like to be going into these games with a reasonably healthy lineup but that seems like a fantasy for the Devils these days with Marcus Johansson still out but starting to skate again at least after his second long-term concussion of the year, Pavel Zacha still missing with an upper-body injury of his own and even new acquisition Patrick Maroon who’s provided a spark being a game-time decision due to an undisclosed ailment.  In goal it’s obvious both guys will split these next two games (and the back-to-back next weekend) but after coach John Hynes started Keith Kinkaid in the first two games of the trip it’s also obvious that the net is Kinkaid’s to lose at this point.  Call it hot goalie syndrome or whatever, but the Devils tacitly have acknowledged that with the playoffs on the line the best guy’s gonna play whether it’s up front, on D or in net and there’s no mistaking the fact that – shockingly – right now Keith’s the best guy in net.

Perhaps having a rare three-day break in between the Nashville and Vegas stops was enough to jump-start a struggling offense who hit the jackpot with eight (!) goals against one of the best teams in the NHL on Wednesday.  Despite a 4-0 start to the game I was nervous when the Devils gave up two late second-period goals that it was going to be an unneccesarily hairy finish which had the potential to derail our playoff run.  Maybe a bit overdramatic, but after seeing a bunch of two-goal leads evaporate like it was nothing already this season I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to bed after the second period when I saw the score the next morning.  Seeing it was 8-3 I did a double-take.  Literally the last thing I was expecting was the Devils to score four straight goals and have a rare laugher in the end.  With another two days off before this afternoon’s game in LA, rest and getting enough practice time shouldn’t be an issue right now.

It’s almost easy to forget today’s St. Patrick’s Day, especially considering I went to the parade last Saturday in Morristown.  However there’ve been some good St. Patty’s Day memories for the Devils in the past, specifically in 2009 with Martin Brodeur setting the all-time wins record and Patrik Elias the all-time Devil points record in the same exciting 3-2 win over the Blackhawks.  Whereas once we had Patty with the hat, now we have Kinkaid with…whatever this outfit is

Whatever’s workin’ for ya buddy, just keep stopping those pucks the way you have in the last month and hopefully the offense didn’t completely use up its weekly quota of goals in Vegas.  I’m not in the mood for much in the way of analysis or discussing individual players at this point…just get the two points.

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A electrifying overtime win for these young Rangers over one of league’s best

I’ll be honest. When I made the drive with Justin and Michael to The Garden, we weren’t expecting much. The Pens are one of the league’s best teams. The first repeat winners since the Red Wings (’97 and ’98) are all world. Crosby. Malkin. Kessel. Letang. Add in old Ranger playoff hero Derick Brassard and they are scary.

So you had to figure it would be a tough night for these bunch of young Blueshirts. But this wasn’t the nightmare at Tampa. It was something different than expected. That’s why they play the games. To witness the kind of heart exhibited by the new Rangers in a invigorating third period that made MSG rock like it hasn’t all season was something else.

They rallied twice in the third from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to force overtime. In a wild three-on-three, the good guys prevailed thanks to Mika Zibanejad, who was able to beat Pittsburgh backup Casey DeSmith to the glove short side for a hard fought come from behind 4-3 OT win over the Pens in a emotionally charged atmosphere.

It felt like old times. Though it took a while for things to heat up following a quiet first period thanks to rookie Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev, the game really moved the rest of the way. Two Penguin goals from Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan 55 seconds apart early in the second got the Pens contingent going. I missed both but knew they scored while I was catching up with friends. You can always tell by the fan reaction. I later saw both goals. Neither of which Gorgy was to blame. Brassard set up Rust for a nice wrist shot and Kris Letang’s one-timer was neatly redirected in by Sheahan.

Following those quick tallies, the Rangers picked it up. They used their speed and skating to get in and attack the Pens defense. They did a lot of good work on the forecheck pinning them in to create glorious opportunities. But they had no puck luck around DeSmith’s cage. Zibanejad and Jimmy Vesey had some near misses along with a few other Ranger skaters. It was almost as if they were teasing us.

For the fans who are all in on tanking, it’s understandable why. Getting as high a pick as possible in this June’s NHL Draft is important for the rebuild. However, there’s something to be said for seeing our boys compete against the highest level of competition. It’s the Penguins. A old Patrick Division rival who diehards hate. We may respect them but to beat them in the fashion they did was remarkable. It shows how much the 18 skaters and goalies care.

Make no mistake. Georgiev gave his team a chance to come back. Without the poised 22-year old gem who finished with 37 saves including some huge ones with none bigger than the odd penalty shot Evgeni Malkin had with 10.7 seconds left in regulation, there is no comeback. He was terrific in winning his third straight game. Georgiev also had a little luck with Phil Kessel hitting the near goalpost to keep it a two-goal deficit headed to the third.

For so long, the Rangers got great chance after great chance taking over in the third. But they were unable to capitalize after killing the remainder of a Pittsburgh power play. The real positive was how cohesive the lines continued to look, applying pressure until they got a penalty called that turned the tide.

Momentum is a strange thing in hockey. The Pens had opportunity to increase their lead. But Georgiev wouldn’t allow it. He plays a very relaxed game in net oozing confidence. He was really sharp on a couple of tough deflections which the Pens are known for. That was what impressed me. Those aren’t easy. He saw the plays and aggressively challenged gloving them out of harm’s way.

On a power play, the Blueshirts finally got a break. Off a good pass from Neal Pionk, Pavel Buchnevich had his good low one-timer kick out off DeSmith right to Chris Kreider. Parked directly in front, he was able to push the puck just by DeSmith for number 13 at 8:42. That goal really lifted the team and the building.

It may not have been a full house. But you wouldn’t know it by the noise the fans made. It was the first time in a long time the new Garden sounded like the old place before the renovation. “Let’s Go Rangers” chants echoed throughout the arena and weren’t distant. The fans including us got into it.

It was not long following Kreider’s power play goal that Jesper Fast had a unreal chance in front. Zibanejad made a brilliant move going around a Pen and making a perfect backhand feed across for a wide open Fast in front. He had what looked like the tying goal only to be robbed blind by a lightning quick glove of DeSmith.

Not long after, Fast got just due on a sustained attack. Off a Marc Staal shot, he deflected one home off his backhand for the tying goal at 14:28. It was his 11th from Staal and Kreider. A splendid shift of hard work that was rewarded. Fast is the kind of player who just goes out and does his job no matter who he plays with. His energy and work ethic has rubbed off on Zibanejad, who’s playing his best hockey.

But with the crowd still buzzing, old friend Carl Hagelin was able to sneak a wraparound off Georgiev’s goal stick and in for his ninth at 15:41. It looked like that would be the crusher in another loss.

Instead, a determined bunch of scrappy Blueshirts had other ideas. Jimmy Vesey drew a tripping penalty in the offensive zone. What transpired was probably the prettiest goal of the year for the Rangers. Off a Pionk break out, Kreider took a feed and blew by Pens defenders and then turned Kris Letang into a traffic cone before centering for a cutting Zibanejad, who buried his 21st home on the power play (11th PPG) with 3:17 left in regulation. Kreider leaped over Zibanejad behind the net in celebration.

The crowd went crazy. It may have been a meaningless game compared to other bigger ones versus the Pens in past Springs. None of that mattered. It was the hated rival who seems to be favored at times by the stripes and NBC.

So when Georgiev was called for “intentionally” forcing the net off its moorings with less than 11 seconds left, the refs rewarded Pittsburgh with a penalty shot. A perplexing call given the circumstances. The rule states that if a goalie is thought to knock the net off intentionally in the final two minutes, the refs can give a penalty shot. It’s their discretion. Something Georgiev alluded to after the win.

Not surprisingly, the Pens chose Malkin to take it. A Hart candidate who’s second in the league in scoring trailing only fellow Russian Nikita Kucherov, the lanky and dangerous center made his move on Georgiev. But he stayed patient forcing Malkin to go wide and run out of real estate. That save was awesome.

In the three-on-three, Georgiev stoned Sidney Crosby on a backhand and then for good measure made another point blank save. A great game for such a unproven young netminder who is getting better.

Pionk made a great defensive play in his own end to help start the transition that lead to the game-winner. Eventually, he got the puck to Kreider, who was flying all night. He was able to find Zibanejad open in the slot. His shot eluded DeSmith sending a pumped up crowd into a frenzy and Pens fans to the exits.

It truly was special. Sure. They’re not making the playoffs. But any time you can go toe to toe with the Pens and fight hard for a emotional comeback win, it’s great. This is the kind of win these young kids can build off of.

The most enjoyable game of the year.

Notes: Kreider finished with a goal and three assists for a career high four points. He is flying at the lower weight. He should stay at it. Looks totally different. … Neal Pionk recorded a career high three assists. … With two goals and a helper, Zibanejad reached 100 NHL goals. When asked if he remembered his first, he smiled and said it was at home in Ottawa against Montreal. Here, he spoke a little more about the win:

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Vesey’s first career hat trick leads Blueshirts to victory over Canes

It started out not so good. By night’s finish, Jimmy Vesey more than made up for a bad power play shift. His first career NHL hat trick led the Blueshirts to a nice 6-3 home victory over the Hurricanes at MSG.

The win was one that wouldn’t have been possible without the sparkling play of backup Alexandar Georgiev. The Bulgarian faced 44 Carolina shots and stopped 41 to pickup his first home win and second of his career. He easily outplayed curious Canes starter Scott Darling. A odd choice considering how poorly he’s played. He was not good allowing four goals on 21 shots including a stoppable one from Vesey that proved to be the winner.

The Rangers were opportunistic. They may have had less than half the shots but buried their chances. In particular, it was the play of the newly formed line of Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich and Vladislav Namestnikov that did most of the damage. The cohesive trio combined for seven points (4-3-7) and a plus-five rating.

It was also a big game for Mats Zuccarello. He scored for the third consecutive game also adding a empty netter giving him four goals in the last three games after going through one of the worst stretches of his career. The last one which made it 5-3 gags him 100 for his career. It’s always nice to see him contribute. In what may very well be the swan song for Zucc, he’s finishing strong.

Mika Zibanejad also had another strong game. He recorded a season high three assists. He played well centering Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast again. It seems like his overall play has improved since the line adjustment by coach Alain Vigneault. He scored his 20th in a shootout loss to the Panthers. A game the team deserved to win.

Despite the shot discrepancy, there was a lot to like. The top three lines continue to show chemistry and be cohesive. Even though Kevin Hayes didn’t register a point, his line with Ryan Spooner and Zuccarello looked good. Zuccarello’s first goal came on a rebound of a wide carom of a Neal Pionk shot. His second came from Spooner with Darling pulled for a extra man.

Buchnevich played one of his better games. He was very involved throughout tallying three assists. He seems to be fitting in with his Russian comrade Vladdy Daddy and Vesey. They definitely make things happen five-on-five. Namestnikov is a strong even strength player. His most impressive play was in the defensive zone when he spun off a Cane and drew a hooking penalty. A very good play by a 200 foot player who’s a superb skater. His goal was a redirect of a Buchnevich shot on the power play.

Also having good nights were Pionk and Tony DeAngelo. It was a good win that fans could get excited about. Sure. Every win hurts their overall chances at the Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes. But it wasn’t gonna be that high to begin with.

Let’s enjoy it.

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It’s not easy to watch former core players on another team

So this is what it’s like to feel conflicted. To be perfectly honest, it was very strange to see former Ranger captain Ryan McDonagh make his Lightning debut in that ugly dark navy blue jersey earlier today.

There he was wearing the trademark number 27 he donned for eight years on Broadway. It was different than what I’m used to. It’s one thing to see Rick Nash in a Bruins jersey with Nick Holden. But quite another to see five former core members all in Bolts uniforms.

Maybe that is too much for even me. Tampa Bay has become the destination for former Blueshirts. Another former captain Ryan Callahan stayed after being part of the first ever captain for captain trade at the deadline in 2014 which brought Martin St. Louis to New York. He was a huge part of a amazing run that included a emotional goal on Mother’s Day with Mom France gone in a epic 3-1 comeback over the Pens. He also scored that awesome overtime winner from Carl Hagelin to beat the Canadiens in Game 4 as part of a Conference Final the team won over the Canadiens to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Ironically, it ended for St. Louis against his former team in 2015 in a gut wrenching home Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Captain Cally as he was well known in these parts has been gone long enough by now. He recruited Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman to Tampa and they were part of that 2015 Lightning roster that reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Like the Rangers, they didn’t win the Cup but came close.

Fast forward three years later and Dan Girardi is on the Lightning with Stralman and Callahan. Girardi was the scapegoat for recent Ranger failures but he’s landed on his feet with the Bolts, earning praise from coach Jon Cooper. He probably has the same respect as former bench boss Alain Vigneault.

At the recent trade deadline, the Rangers made it in time sending McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning for Vladislav Namestnikov, prospects Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, a 2018 first round pick and conditional second in 2019. It was like the thunder snow storm we had, ending a era at MSG.

These days, it’s not easy watching the new Rangers. The rebuild has begun as promised. A couple of parts acquired by GM Jeff Gorton have shown promise. Ryan Spooner continues to fit in seamlessly with Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award candidate Kevin Hayes on a very effective checking line. Following a three point effort (1-2-3) in a 5-3 loss to the Lightning, Spoon Man is now up to 10 points (2-8-10). He’s proving why Gorton coveted him for a while finally getting Boston to bite in a very good deal for Nash that also netted a first round pick and prospect Ryan Lindgren with the Rangers taking Matt Beleskey off Boston’s hands.

Namestnikov has shown flashes of brilliance with his game breaking speed and aggressiveness which is a stark contrast from how most of the leftovers play. Though only with a goal and helper thus far, it’s not from lack of chances. Tonight, he’ll get a look with Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey. Something I’ve kinda suggested. I want to see how Namestnikov and Buchnevich do together. I don’t view it as a demotion for Buchnevich, who’s played mostly with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. They’ll get Jesper Fast in tonight’s game at Florida. That leaves Hayes and Spooner with Mats Zuccarello.

While the current roster plays out the string, I still can’t get over seeing all five ex-Rangers in Lightning gear. At one point with Miller off for boarding, Cooper had McDonagh, Girardi out with Callahan killing the penalty. Later, Miller was used on a successful penalty kill. An area he wasn’t utilized this year by Vigneault for unknown reasons after he and former Ranger Michael Grabner were a lethal combo in ’16-17.

Not much makes sense anymore. So seeing five players many Garden Faithful loved for what they brought was overwhelming. There was this empty sinking feeling. It’s one that will be even worse on March 30 when those former Blueshirts visit The Garden for the final home game. The building that’s mostly become a ghost town will be emotional on the first night of Passover which coincides with Spring break. You know McDonagh will get a nice video tribute on Gardenvision. Miller will also get a acknowledgement during a stoppage.

It’s really strange seeing all these former players we cheered for trying to help other teams. The Lightning won their home game over the Canadiens in a shootout. McDonagh was back with familiar partner Girardi on the third pair. Both looked like they didn’t miss a beat. Miller played mostly with breakout star Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde. But Cooper moved Miller up for a key shift with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Sure enough, a aggressive Miller got in behind the net and finished a check to take a Hab off the puck causing the tying goal with Stamkos finding Kucherov in front for his 34th.

That’s the kind of play Miller’s capable of. He is better off. He’ll be given more freedom in Tampa. The chemistry with Point and Gourde is undeniable from the game’s I’ve watched.

Meanwhile, Callahan has come back healthy playing his familiar meat and potatoes style with Chris Kunitz and Craig Paquette on a cohesive checking line. Stralman was on the second pair with gifted rookie Mikhail Sergachev, who GM Steve Yzerman stole from the Habs for Jonathan Drouin. It’s funny the way everything seems to work out for Yzerman.

All the ex-Blueshirts fit. The Bolts became the first team to hit the century mark with 100 points. They will be a big favorite this Spring to win the Cup. Even more so than Pittsburgh or Boston.

What I felt was a mix of emotions watching our former players. There was anxiety, excitement and sadness. The final part being that they’re no longer here. That run is over. I guess it’s gonna take time to get used to this.

Left behind is Henrik Lundqvist with Marc Staal, Zuccarello, Kreider, Hayes and Jesper Fast. All part of the run in ’15 that included the miracle Game 5 with former top center Derek Stepan setting up Kreider for the tying goal followed by Fast forcing a turnover that led to Stepan dropping for McDonagh’s emotional OT winner to stay alive versus the Caps in Round 2. A series they came all the way back in rallying from another 3-1 series deficit with Stepan leaping so high into the air after following up a Girardi shot that rebounded off Braden Holtby right to him in Game 7.

It’s amazing how many players are gone. Zuccarello is next. He doesn’t fit in anymore. The popular Ranger with the giant sized heart despite being five-nothing. He’ll likely be traded in June during the NHL Draft.

Who will be the next core? The organization has some tough decisions ahead with Hayes, Spooner, Vesey, Namestnikov and Brady Skjei all restricted free agents this summer. I can’t wait for the warmer weather to get here. I wish we could just skip the playoffs. It doesn’t matter anyway.

There’s probably a lot of Ranger fans who feel similarly. It truly is a weird time.

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Backs to the wall

After a predictable homestand where they lost two out of three despite outshooting both Vegas and the Jets while beating up on an AHL outfit in the Habs for forty minutes, the Devils have officially wasted all their margin for error in the span of just eight days.  Just one point ahead of the Blue Jackets for the first wild card and three points ahead of the Panthers for the second with Florida having three games in hand, things look a lot different now than they did at the beginning of the month.  At this point I’m just sick and tired of ranting on this team and sick and tired of fearing the worst (despite my well-founded cynicism as a fan of teams who’ve often found ways to snatch a choke from the jaws of victory).

For a team with a lead – however slim – things could not look worse right now for the Devils traveling to Nashville for the first game of a monster six-game trip without two of its top three centers in Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha.  Which leaves our top three centers as Nico Hischier, Blake Coleman and Brian Boyle with the fourth center role nonexistent – although currently we have two fourth-liners on the second and third line.  While Nashville brings in Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino as its top three centers.  The only word to describe that difference is mismatch.  Really the entire game tomorrow looks like a mismatch – from our defense to our goaltending to coaching, there isn’t really one area you can look at right now and say we’re anywhere close to the Preds except for wing play.  And that’s mostly because of transcendent Taylor Hall.

Of course it seems like this team has played its best with its backs to the wall this year.  From early in the season when they had something to prove to other situations where they looked like they were about to fall down an elevator shaft before coming back from the ledge (exhibit A: our last-ditch comeback in Philly a few weeks back).  That had better prove true again for a trip many feared could be make or break for our season, which now officially it is.  Especially when you compare our schedule to that of our main competitors, the scorching-hot Panthers and suddenly streaking Blue Jackets.  Granted too much can be made of schedules down the stretch (ask the 2007 Mets), but the difference is so stark it’s mind-boggling.

Sure we usually play up to our competition, and that’s really my last hope left for this team.  That they somehow rise up with the odds now against them and come through again with backs to the wall.  This trip is going to show once and for all whether this organization’s turned the corner or if they’re still losers and chokers with too many talent deficiencies to play with the big boys when it matters.  While it may be a harsh assessment of a team that’s given us sixty games of excitement before this last 1-4 stretch that’s blown away our cushion, other than Hall and perhaps defenseman Sami Vatanen I can’t really say a lot of these guys have earned the benefit of the doubt.  Of course a few exceptions being our rookies who have for the most part responded admirably in their first pro season but at different times in the second half Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher have bumped up against the rookie wall.

Certainly our goaltending hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.  I say goaltending a bit loosely because let’s be honest, even in this team’s slump Keith Kinkaid has actually managed to keep the team afloat, and not our overrated starter.  I’m tired of bagging on Cory too, nice man and he knows he has to do better but let’s be honest – ten straight games of three goals or more just isn’t cutting it from anyone let alone a guy who was supposed to be a top starter a couple years ago but now might be washed up at 31.  While Kinkaid’s allowed two goals or less in six of his last seven starts, the only exception being the most recent game against the Habs where he and everyone lost focus at 6-1 late in the second period, turning the final score into a faux close finish getting to 6-4 with thirty seconds remaining.  If coach John Hynes is going to give Cory the puck again tomorrow it’s now time once and for all for this overrated goalie to prove he can actually stop pucks when it matters and not just when the team’s fifty games out or behind in games.

We need better from our D too, I know the captain is getting up there in age and probably shouldn’t be playing as much as he has but we need better from Andy Greene, there’s no two ways about it.  Not to mention Damon Severson, who continues to be a roller-coaster ride, earning a benching for his ‘defense’ or lack thereof on the Jets’ clinching goal last night.  Throw in Ben Lovejoy too, after the staff finally seemed inclined to not treat him as a #1 defenseman and actually spotting him in in and out of the lineup here we are again with Lovejoy getting key minutes and a fixture in the lineup once again.  If he’s going to be put out there then he as a vet (by the way one of the few on the team that’s actually experienced playoff success) needs to step up too.

Up front we need better from anyone that’s not Hall pretty much.  We need Kyle Palmieri as a vet leader to step up and be more consistent than he’s been.  It would also be nice to throw out an APB on Michael Grabner.  Maybe he’ll get one point before the end of the season in a Devils uniform, just one.  So far he’s given us zippo in seven games.  It would be nice if Pavel Zacha could ever find consistency – and consistency that results in actual offensive production.  Of course he and fellow center Zajac need to get healthy first, this team really can’t afford too many more mangames lost at this juncture.  At least one body came back into the lineup Thursday, in the form of Brian Gibbons who missed 22 straight games after a broken thumb.  A little of his early-season magic could go a long way now.  Although Patrick Maroon has been fine since he arrived unlike Grabner we also need better than to take stupid penalties like the one late in the third period against the Jets that shut off one of our last comeback attempts.

We also need more from the coaching too, although I can’t really blame Hynes for the goaltending failure, there have been suspect personnel decisions at times outside of the goaltending too (the continued insistence on sticking Boyle on the PP for one).  However, it’s now time to hold Cory accountable (really both guys) and just merry-go-round the goalies.  With no cushion left, you can’t afford to wait and pray Cory magically returns to his 2015-16 form.   It’s also time to reinforce accountability for the other sixteen or seventeen skaters that aren’t doing the job.  One of the byproducts of the trade deadline was we were at least supposed to have depth both up front and on D.  However that depth is useless if we’re just gonna run out the same bodies to the same results over and over again.

It’s time for this group to decide once and for all what they want the legacy of this team to be – a gritty team that finally broke through to end years of playoff futility and started this franchise back on the road to relevance, or a choking team that couldn’t get the job done when it mattered most in the end.  Your move, boys.

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Outclassed by the Bolts

It’s one thing to beat mediocre competition but quite another to be on the same level as legit contenders. That’s a lesson these new Rangers are learning the hard way.

After falling to Winnipeg at home 3-1, they were completely outclassed by the league’s best team. Indeed, it was every bit as lopsided despite the Lightning easing up in the third period to coast to a 5-3 win at home. They’re up to a league beat 47 wins and 98 points.

Meanwhile, the Rangers dropped to 30-32-6 with their 66 points ranking them dead last in the Metro Division. That ties them with the Blackhawks for the ninth fewest points. Detroit (63), Edmonton (62), Montreal (61), Vancouver (59), Ottawa (57), Buffalo (55) and Arizona (53) are all worse in the tank for Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes. Obviously, the worse you are, the better your chances are at winning the weighted NHL Draft Lottery.

So, what is the takeaway from last night? Just that the rebuilding Blueshirts have a long, long way to go. They’re in the early stages which means there will be more bumps in the road ahead. With 14 games left and the red hot Panthers next playing for a wildcard, it potentially could get uglier. Especially the way Florida is scoring led by Aleksander Barkov and 38 years young Roberto Luongo, who is in beast mode.

As far as who played okay, Kevin Hayes again did some good things adding to his career high with his 19th goal on a deflection in front of a Rob O’Gara shot. Hayes also added a primary assist when he made a great move around a Tampa player and got off a good low shot that resulted in a rebound from Tampa starter Andrei Vasilevskiy which caromed right to Ryan Spooner for the Rangers’ first goal. A terrific play by a more confident player who I am gonna vote for in the Steven McDonald Award. There aren’t many good candidates. Hayes, Jesper Fast and Marc Staal are my top three with Henrik Lundqvist sure to get plenty of votes. But remember. Lundqvist gets Team MVP every year.

Spooner continued his impressive play scoring a goal and assisting on the other two in the third. He continues to pile up the points. Since coming over from Boston as part of the Rick Nash deal, the versatile playmaker is proving why he has the ability to be a top six forward. In six games, he’s up to 10 points (2-8-10). It will be worth watching what the organization decides to do with Spoon Man in the off-season. He’s restricted for one year and can hit the open market in 2019.

Vladislav Namestnikov skated well and created the only two chances in a nightmarish first that saw the Lightning flex their muscles by outshooting the Rangers 17-1 at one point. It could’ve been much worse than the two goals they scored on 21 shots. Cedric Paquette was left alone to put in a rebound of a Chris Kunitz shot that Henrik Lundqvist couldn’t handle. Adam Erne took advantage of a poor Rangers breakout with three players flying the zone to wrist one past a faultless Lundqvist.

It worsened in the second with Lightning prospect Anthony Cirelli able to tip a Mikhail Sergachev home even with Hayes draped all over him for a 3-0 score. Following Spooner’s goal that made it 3-1, Kunitz took full advantage of a Lundqvist giveaway behind the net for a easy goal into a vacated net. That was enough for Alain Vigneault to give Hank a mercy pull. He faced a onslaught of 31 shots a little over halfway through the game.

It got worse when Tyler Johnson beat the defense to a rebound for his 19th past reliever Alexandar Georgiev to make it 5-1. A play in which Neal Pionk was beaten by Nikita Kucherov and Marc Staal fell down. It was that bad.

If the Bolts really wanted to, they could’ve reached 60 shots and run it up. There were still many good saves by Lundqvist (27) and Georgiev (13) on the 45 they faced. It was nuts.

It’s hard to watch. At one point, I switched to the more competitive games with the Devils falling to Winnipeg who ended Taylor Hall’s streak at 26. Plus the Bruins and Flyers with Brad Marchand scoring another clutch game-winner with less than 25 seconds left in regulation.

I missed Mats Zuccarello’s 11th goal from Spooner. It figures. He’s played so poorly that I think they have to trade him at the Draft. He had a mindless giveaway on a back pass to nobody that fueled a dangerous Bolts counterattack. He isn’t the same player. Even with Namestnikov doing good work with his speed and aggressiveness. Jimmy Vesey continues to struggle finishing despite mixing it up in scrums. He can be saved under a new coach who won’t screw him. I would re-up him on a show me one-year deal.

Chris Kreider left the game for precautionary reasons due to absorbing a high hit. He was okay. I don’t know if he should even play. But if he’s fine, he will. He’s definitely adjusting to a new leadership role and has certainly had a positive impact on Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad. Without him, they were lost. I’d still like to see Namestnikov get a crack with Buchnevich. His speed and forecheck is ideal. He also isn’t afraid to go inside. Sometimes, the KZB line is too much on the perimeter despite their positive possession statistics. They don’t take enough shots.

Kevin Shattenkirk wants to return. He’s skating and took warmups. I don’t see the point. If I were management, I would tell him it’s better off resting and not risking reinjury. The most important thing is for him to come into next year’s camp fully healthy.

That’s going to do it for this post. Until next time.

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Hard Hits: A Hall of a Hart race


By Derek Felix

As March rolls in with thunder snow courtesy of the latest, craziest bomb cyclone that dumped between 10 inches to over a foot of the white stuff Wednesday, there’s a similar storm brewing for the NHL’s Hart Trophy.

With just a month left, the MVP race is wide open. Chalk full of contenders, it’s anyone’s guess who will wind up taking home the hardware in Vegas this June. It largely could depend on how the NHWA defines what a most valuable player stands for.

If it’s based on team success and likely winning the scoring title, then Lightning sniper Nikita Kucherov would win. The electrifying Russian leads the league with 86 points (33-53-86) on first overall Tampa Bay. A terrific scorer who can do damage finishing and setting up with his 53 helpers tops in the NHL, he’s been part of a dynamic duo with Steven Stamkos. After nearly carrying the Bolts to the playoffs a year ago with 85 points, his 86 is already a career high in 65 games.

Only 24, Kucherov continues to excel. Of his 33 markers, just six have come on the power play. That means he’s done most of his damage at even strength sniping another 27 past goalies. The breakdown is 55 points at even strength and 31 on the power play. He has six game-winners and remains lethal on breakaways. Just ask Braden Holtby. There’s a reason he was our preseason Hart pick. All signs pointed to a breakout with a Art Ross possible. He leads comrade Evgeni Malkin by two points. It should be a exciting race down the stretch.

Malkin has stayed healthy this season for the Penguins. What that means is dominant play by the lanky Russian who’s been in beast mode for a while. Ever since the two-time defending champs found themselves in trouble on the outside of the playoffs in January, Geno has taken off like a speeding rocket. He’s back to dominating shifts and games with his dynamic skills.

The combination of size, speed and edge have always made the former MVP and Conn Smythe winner a scary player for opponents to deal with. It’s always been about health. He won’t play in 82 games. However, the 64 he already has show that he will come close. Here we are with quite possibly the most overlooked superstar of our time due to Sidney Crosby and oblivious writers ignoring his greatness by excluding him from the Top 100 Players List All-Time. How in a world where Jonathan Toews is somehow in that list is Malkin not? Could it be due to Canadian bias? No disrespect meant to Toews, who’s been a fine two-way player and leader of three Blackhawks Stanley Cups.

Malkin has climbed up to second in scoring with 84 points with his 38 goals tied for second with Winnipeg’s sophomore sensation Patrik Laine, trailing NHL leader Alexander Ovechkin by two. On a talented team that includes Crosby and overlooked American scorer Phil Kessel, Malkin has shined most with a huge second half that’s put him in the MVP conversation. With 38 goals and 46 assists, he leads the Pens in scoring. His 13 power play goals rank third in the league behind Stamkos (15) and Laine (17).

The 31-year old has a chance for his fourth 100-point season of his career and first since taking the Hart in ’11-12 with a career best 50 goals to go with 59 assists for a league-leading 109 points. Ironically, he hasn’t appeared in at least 70 games since that year. He has seven game-winners and also 65 penalty minutes. That’s who he is. A tenacious player who won’t back down. His production breakdown is 52 points at even strength and 32 on the power play.

If it came down to only the scoring title on contenders, Kucherov and Malkin would be 1-2 with everyone else behind. But the award shouldn’t just reward the game’s best scorers on great teams. Let’s face it. The Lightning and Pens have a leg up on most of the competition which benefits its stars.

What about the overlooked player who doesn’t get the same offensive support trying to will their team to the playoffs when most pundits including this blogger had them missing?

The emerging candidate packing a lot of punch is Devils leading man Taylor Hall. Following a disappointing first year in New Jersey on a bad team after being acquired by GM Ray Shero from the Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson, all Hall has done is lift his team on his shoulders into the first wildcard. On a rebuilding team that wasn’t expected to be in this position due to 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier along with youngsters Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha, Hall has been head and shoulders the best player on his team.

Currently on a unofficial streak of 26 straight games he’s played in with at least a point, the 26-year old Hall has finally figured it out with his new team. Having never been part of a postseason before, he’s done it all for Jersey’s team. It’s truly been a Hall of a effort by the 2010 first overall pick of Edmonton.

How important is he to the Devils success? Try this. He not only leads them in scoring with 74 points which include a career high 30 goals and 27 power play points (10-17-27). But those 74 are 33 more than rookie Hischier’s 41 which rank second in team scoring. The 30 goals are 14 better than Kyle Palmieri’s 17 which is second. He’s done this with injuries limiting Palmieri to 48 games. Finally rounding into form, he’s come on lately climbing up to third on the team with 33 points.

There’s a significant difference separating Hall from most of his teammates. It’s not just his skill level but his will. His compete has been much better in Year Two in Newark which explains his success. It’s why Devils fans serenade number 9 with “MVP! MVP! MVP,” chants at The Rock. He deserves it.

More than any other player in hockey, Hall has done more with less. Don’t forget starting goalie Cory Schneider has also missed significant time and not performed up to expectations. The Devs have had to rely on backup Keith Kinkaid for some big wins. They’re not always pretty. But due in large part to Hall, they get the job done.

When scoring dried up until the other night in a wild 6-4 home win over the Canadiens in which vets Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle scored big goals, it’s basically been the Taylor Hall Show for the Devils. When they need a big play, he makes it. When they need a clutch goal, he scores or sets it up. He has been unbelievable since the start of 2018. How special has he been? Try 18 goals and 20 assists for 38 points with a plus-11 rating and three game-winners including two in overtime for huge extra points factoring into the first tiebreaker of ROW (regulation and overtime wins).

More impressive is Hall’s home/road splits. He has two more points away from home with 38 (17-21-38) in 31 road games compared with 36 (13-23-36) in 31 home games. A commendable output that shows even when coach John Hynes doesn’t have the match-up, Hall fares well against the best quality competition.

With another important game tonight against the very tough Winnipeg Jets at home, Hall will be counted on to lead the way down a tough stretch that includes a visit to Stanley Cup contender Nashville on Saturday followed by a stiff challenge in Vegas next Wednesday. With 76 points, 30 ROW and 15 games left, it’ll still be a uphill climb for Hall and the Devils to make the postseason for the first time since 2012. They are currently in the first wildcard three up on second wildcard Columbus and five clear of the surging Panthers, who have three games in hand. If they do make it, Hall has to be at the top of the MVP list.

Perhaps his chief competition is Colorado’s 22-year old young gun Nathan MacKinnon. He’s really taken off since Matt Duchene departed in a three team blockbuster trade with Nashville and Ottawa that sent Duchene to the Senators with Kyle Turris winding up on the Predators. The Avalanche did well getting defenseman Samuel Girard along with good prospects and high draft picks.

Sometimes, less is more. For the surprising Avalanche who are tied with the Kings with 77 points competing for the second wildcard, they have to be pleased with the progress after a forgettable season a year ago that made them a laughingstock. No one had them being this competitive. You can make the case that if MacKinnon gets this team in, he should win the Hart over Hall. But he does have more help. So let’s get to it.

In only 58 games, MacKinnon has 78 points which leads the Avs. The 32 goals, 46 assists, 78 points, 12 power play goals and jaw dropping 10 game-winners (tied for second with Brayden Point trailing Sean Monahan-11) are all career highs. He is a special talent. The fifth-year center has put it together. If the past three seasons were underwhelming following a 63-point rookie campaign in ’13-14 after being taken first overall over Panthers emerging superstar Aleksander Barkov, he’s more than made up for it this season.

The first line of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen have been front and center in Colorado’s emergence from the butt end of jokes to a potential headache if they make the playoffs. It’s rare that that happens. But in the curious cases of both the Avalanche and Devils, they each could be tough outs. Both are led by great players who are finally discovering how good they can be.

MacKinnon has a flair for the dramatic scoring three OT winners including one on a ridiculous solo effort that had me in awe. In a year where he missed time which hurt his team’s chances, he’s come back with a vengeance. After missing most of last month, he’s put up 17 points (8-9-17) in only nine games. In fact, a heroic five-point effort (2-3-5) in a blowout home win over the Wild on March 2 even left Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau speechless. He gave MacKinnon high marks.

The big question is this. If Colorado doesn’t make it which is a distinct possibility given the competition, would that hurt his candidacy? Most writers like to cast their votes for players who got their team in. Look how many voted for Sergei Bobrovsky last year. He finished a distant third behind Crosby and McDavid.

The Avalanche are in this thing without top defensemen Erik Johnson with Semyon Varlamov having another injury riddled inconsistent campaign on a team who missed Johnson’s leadership. If they do qualify for the postseason, it might be enough to give the edge to MacKinnon, who has the best points-per-game average. It all depends on how it plays out.

A couple of other emerging candidates are Bruins’ pest Brad Marchand and the Wild’s Eric Staal. Marchand remains a head scratcher due to his penchant for dirty plays like the elbow that concussed key top six Devils forward Marcus Johansson following a whistle. He was suspended five games. Johansson meanwhile hasn’t returned with not much in terms of updates.

If he were a clean player, he’d be a lot more respected by peers and press. A recent hat trick and five point performance in a overtime win over the Red Wings highlighted by a Marchand backhand OT winner in a Boston victory is definitive proof of how dominant he can be. The same player who’s hated by most is very skilled. He’s followed a career high 85 points which included personal bests in goals (39), assists (46), even strength points (56), power play points (24) and game-winners (8) with 66 points in just 51 contests. The five-game ban along with a injury explains why he hasn’t taken part in more action.

The 29-year old from Nova Scotia who was a integral part of the Bruins Stanley Cup in 2011 is one of the league’s biggest bargains with a AAV of $6.125 million thru 2022. Imagine a super pest who is over a point-per-game that can both score and set up clutch goals who plays in any situation and can flat out dominate shifts in the offensive zone with his speed and tenaciousness along with elusiveness. He also is money on breakaways possessing great hands. He can beat goalies with the deke to the backhand or wrist shot top shelf.

This is a very dangerous and polarizing hockey player who finished seventh for the Hart a year ago with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid winning the award. Truthfully, Marchand is a top 10 player who’s proving he can still be a big factor minus the game’s best overall center Patrice Bergeron, who himself was having a MVP season.

Think of him as a more skilled Claude Lemieux. The comparison might draw criticism. But Lemieux was a winner helping Montreal win as a rookie and New Jersey win twice and Colorado once. He was every bit as dirty but when it came down to money situations, he was clutch. So, what are his chances? Well, given his track record and another deep field…

Maybe a dark horse is Staal. A well liked and respected veteran who once led the Hurricanes to Lord Stanley over a decade ago after the lockout, the 33-year old number one center on the Wild is having his best year since he was in his prime with Carolina. If you consider what he’s done in St. Paul when many including myself thought wrong about where he was in his career following the Rangers mishap due to Alain Vigneault, Staal’s been nothing but brilliant.

He’s followed up a 65-point ’16-17 with a even better ’17-18. His 36 goals, 67 points, 11 power play goals and two shorthanded goals all pace the Wild. The 36 markers are his most since getting 40 in ’08-09 as a 24-year old. Amazing. It’s his first 30-goal season since ’10-11 when he notched 33 with the Canes.

How hot has he been? Centering a very overlooked top line that includes Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker, Staal has the Wild third in a loaded Central Division with 83 points. It’s the most competitive division in the league with Nashville and Winnipeg battling for first. The Preds lead the division with 95 points which is six ahead of the Jets. Minnesota is three up on first wildcard Dallas and six clear of Colorado and Los Angeles.

Staal is at a point-per-game with 67 points in 67 games so far. He has six goals and eight points in the team’s last three wins. In a victory over the Blues, he recorded his first hat trick as a member of the Wild while adding two helpers. He also torched the Rangers for four points (2-2-4) on Feb. 23 to go over 900 points for his NHL career. An empty net goal in a road win at New Jersey gave him 900. In February, he was on a tear going 13-8-21 with a plus-11 rating to earn the NHL’s First Star of the month.

With Zach Parise a shell of himself due to wear and tear, it’s up to Staal and his line along with Ryan Suter to get Minnesota to another postseason. Assuming they qualify, they won’t be a easy out.

You could mention other players for the Hart as well. Bergeron was in my list before he got hurt. In 55 games, the certain Selke winner was 27-27-54 with a plus-26 rating, nine power play goals, two shorthanded goals and five GWG’s. Blake Wheeler has had a great season with Winnipeg posting 75 points (18-57-75) to lead the Jets into one of the West’s best.

Some have mentioned Claude Giroux from the Flyers with his bounce back season of 23-56-79 and a plus-17 rating in 67 games a big part of the Flyers surprising season that currently has them third in the Metro Division with 79 points. Two behind the Caps and three off first place Pittsburgh. However, he’s shifted to wing with Sean Couturier picking up added responsibility on a unique top line that features emerging second-year forward Travis Konecny. It hasn’t been only one player with plenty of contributions from Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov on the blueline.

So who will win? My guess is they’ll vote for Kucherov because he’s on the best team. I could see the vote being close but also wonder if Malkin will take away votes from Hall and MacKinnon. This has been a fun season despite where the Rangers are in the standings. The Hart race remains hard to predict. It should be one hell of a conclusion.

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Patrik Laine’s hat trick humbles Rangers

If you ever lose enough to get into the top three via the lottery, there’s a greater chance of landing a franchise defining superstar. That’s pretty evident with Winnipeg after picking second overall behind Toronto in the 2016 NHL Draft. One that will be remembered for top two picks Auston Matthews and current Jets finisher Patrik “Teemu” Laine.

Greatness was on display at the Mecca between 33rd street and seventh avenue near Broadway. The second-year Finn who reminds me of Teemu Selanne put on a great show for hockey fans. While the Rangers had their three-game win streak snapped by a much better team, it was mostly due to Laine. He recorded his first hat trick of the season and fourth of his brief two-year career. That moved him into the Rocket Richard race with numbers 36, 37 and 38 putting the sizzling sniper two within NHL leader Alexander Ovechkin.

Laine’s talent was too much for the Blueshirts on this night. He had two brilliant finishes on ridiculous shots the first two periods which Henrik Lundqvist had no chance on.

Here is a look at all three goals including the 120 footer into a empty net as a exclamation point.

On goal one, he got a nice pass from Paul Stastny and used the defenseman as a screen with a perfect laser.

The second goal, he caught the Rangers in a bad change. Notice that Ryan Spooner lost his check allowing Laine to walk into the high slot. Kevin Hayes was late to the party. Marc Staal was occupied with a player in front who he left getting caught in between which allowed Laine easy access. Neal Pionk wasn’t in the picture wandering behind the net.

When it comes to the system under Alain Vigneault, it depends on the forwards to rotate in coverage. A part many pundits have left out. Whoever they bring in assuming the obvious with the coach, there must be a better defensive system with excellent communication.

As far as the game, the Rangers didn’t play badly by any stretch. They only hadt three less shots with 31 to Winnipeg’s 34. Mats Zuccarello had the best chances. He found a way not to score twice. Let’s just leave it at that. The less said about it, the better.

The Hayes unit with Spoon Man and Jesper Fast again created shots and chances with Hayes recording seven shots. That line is terrific together.

Vladislav Namestnikov continues to look good. He stayed with Jimmy Vesey and Zucc. They forechecked and generated opportunities. I would’ve liked to see Namestnikov moved up between Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider with Mika Zibanejad out. I feel he deserves a shot with the top line anyway.

David Desharnais cannot play top line. I understand this is what most coaches do. But in the current situation, it’s not what Vigneault should be doing.

The next game is tomorrow in Tampa. Ryan McDonagh isn’t expected back. But J.T. Miller is playing very well with two goals and three assists. Take note.

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