How Strong are the North Contenders Now?

The Canadiens and Jets best of seven begins tonight! More Maple Leafs Fallout. Jim Rutherford free to interview.

Before the playoffs began, the North Division boasted two romantic favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

One was the Edmonton Oilers; not because of logic but rather the McDavid-Draisaitl aura that grew with every highlight goal. Fans in Alberta took it seriously. But serious hockey people did not.

The other was the Toronto Maple Leafs for more reasons than there are fish in Lake Ontario.

Even with his moustache, The Matthews Kid was going to fill so many playoff nets, Commissioner Bettman might have to order more bales of twine.

Because the Leafs have a"genius" manager who has analytics for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Duke of Dubas covered every single angle to produce a Cup contender.

However, Dubas missed an item not on any of his Analytics notebooks. Don Cherry alluded to it when he noted a lack of spirit or urgency in his post-game commentary.

Where was the leadership?

Or, if Leafs founder Conn Smythe was running this team he'd have used his favorite word -- guts. Did these Leafs have it or not?

But Toronto's Cup hopes are buried in the city dump and Edmonton's long ago ended up in last month's news. 

So now we have a pair of commendable underdogs battling for the glory of Quebec and Manitoba. I like their players, their goalies, their coaches and their delightful general managers, Kevin Cheveldayoff and Marc Bergevin. 

What puzzles me is which of these worthies can challenge the best of the East?

Say, for example, could the Jets take the defending champ Lightning.?

Could the Habs handle Rod Brind'Amour's Hurricanes?

And, if it came down to a Final which team -- pray tell -- could keep pace with the express train called Avalanche?

Look, we've wondered all along just how good this North hockey domain is in relation to the clubs south of the 49th Parallel? 

And we'll keep wondering. In the meantime, hail to the Jets and Habs for doing what nobody else thought they could do.

Except themselves!


Stan’s Java Jive

HEADLINE: RUNNING CHOKE!

THE JIVE: I kid you not; that was the Toronto Sun's front page headline to both win a prize and cause even more despair in Ontario province. Assorted other commentators were less impolite. TSN was a bit more discreet wondering: "Was this an epic comeback or an epic collapse?" Figure on a week's more Hogtown post mortems and then The City of Toronto will realize there's still hockey being played on both sides of the border.


HEADLINE: BEST SERIES IS IN THE SOUTHLAND

THE JIVE: Yeah, yeah, the defending champion Lightning have a two-zip series lead but forget about that fact of life. Right now it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Carolina takes the next pair of games in Tampa Bay. Right this minute, Rod Brind'Amour's outfit is the better of the pair; even being down by a pair. It's all in the goaltending and -- as my trusty Bolts reporter, Larry Hirsch, points out -- the Lightning is making the most of their shots.

My point is that this still looms as one heck of a series. "They had a full house in Raleigh last night," Hirsch notes, "and the fans got their full value. The checking was fierce yet the pace was fast and, as we can see, the score again was close."

What's significant here is that -- despite being outshot by a ton -- the Bolts have two big assets going for them. One is the obvious; goaltending.

"Andre Vasilevskly is the best goaltender in the world," said a frustrated Brind'Amour in his post-game dissertation on losing. But there's more to Tampa Bay's success and it points to the foot soldiers.

Coach Jon Cooper's marquee names didn't win the game. The very-very underrated Alex Kilorn opened the scoring with his fifth playoff goal while the winner went to Anthony Cerelli. "It's the quality of the Bolts' shots," adds Hirsch, "not the quantity that's making the difference so far.'

Game Three tomorrow night in Tampa Bay will feature a crowd of 10,000 at Amalie Arena -- normal capacity 19,092 -- and I fully expect a Canes victory and a series that could go seven. 

That is, unless Tampa's answer to the China Wall, Andrei Vasilevskly, continues to be "The best goaltender in the world."


HEADLINE: PENGUINS PERMIT TEAMS TO TALK TO RUTHERFORD

THE JIVE: Well, isn't that nice of The Losers! What did anyone expect from Brian Burke-Ron Hextall? Were they going to tell Gentleman Jim, "No, a thousand times, no, you can't talk to anyone about a new job?" Of course not, silly. Rutherford is as free as a robin to find a new gig and the only question is which team will hire this very wise man of hockey. The club that needs him the most -- Toronto, of course -- is stuck with a stiff of a general staff -- yes, you, Specs Dubas; and you, too, Can't Even Beat The Habs Shelly Keefe. No Toronto wont get Rutherford. No matter, Jim will get a good gig and thank you very much Penguins for being so kind and releasing Rutherford's chains!


HEADLINE: LEBRUN'S GENIUS REVEALED

THE JIVE: In case you haven't yet figured out why Montreal upset Toronto in the first playoff round, TSN's resident sage has the answer: "The Canadiens were built for the playoffs." Hmmm! Looks good in print but -- guess what? -- the Habs mid-season shuffle was made for one and only one thing, to get the Canadiens into the playoffs; that's all. And had the North Division not been so cockeyed -- see Calgary, Vancouver -- the Habs would be outside looking in; wistfully. (But, thanks, Pierre for the insight.)


HEADLINE: THOUSANDS OF QUESTIONS ABOUT LOSING LEAFS

THE JIVE: You wish you had a dollar for every query being raised about the pathetic losers from Hogtown. You'd be almost as rich as Smiling Jack Campbell.  Try these two on for size, courtesy of TSN: 1. What are the take-offs from Mitch Marner's playoff struggles? My reply: Comes the postseason, he's a stiff! 2. Do the Maple Leafs have an identity crisis? My reply: No, they don't have an identity crisis -- they don't have an identity!


HEADLINE: PREVIEWING THE HABS-JETS SERIES.

THE JIVE: The Canadiens haven't had much time for cartwheels of joy and now the Winnipeg Jets await them for the Northern NHL title. My Editor In Chief, Coby Maeir, provides a preview for the North Final:

"The headliners for both squads have to be the goaltenders. The 2020 Vezina winner, Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck, and the 2015 Vezina winner, Montreal's Carey Price, both were instrumental in their team's first round series win. In four games against Edmonton, Hellebuyck posted a .950 SV%, which is best among playoff goalies, and Price was in top form vs. Toronto, propelling Montreal's comeback from down three games to one. While the netminders will garner the majority of the attention, forward and defense depth for both teams cannot be overlooked. From top to bottom, Montreal and Winnipeg had better skaters than their first round opponents. Winnipeg has a stronger forward group and defensive core than Montreal, but it will be interesting to see how the Jets adjust from playing against a top heavy Oilers team to playing against a more balanced Habs team. The same goes for the Habs against Toronto. Taking out the goalies, Winnipeg has the better team on paper, but if Carey Price replicates his performance from the first round, Montreal has a great chance to advance to the semi-finals."

Maven picks the Jets in six, just because it seems like the right thing to do. (Crazy, but I’m rooting for both of them!)


TRIVIA QUESTION: Who was the Maple Leafs back-up goalie when they won the 1951 Stanley Cup? (Answer below.)


CLEVER COMMENTS FROM YESTERYEAR:

"Smaller pucks!" Comment made by Red Wings goalie Tim Cheveldae on what changes during the playoffs.


TRIVIA ANSWER:

Hall of Fame goalie Turk Broda actually backed up Cup-winner Al Rollins in 1951 although they shared the regular season assignments.