Skill vs. Sock -- Which Style Wins?

Skill or toughness, which wins out? How is TNT and ESPN's coverage? A peek at the highly touted Michigan Wolverines. Preds sign one of their pillars. Trotz likes the pressure. Lundqvist back in NY.

If you can't beat 'em in the alley, then you can't beat 'em on the ice.

That's one of hockey's all-time memorable quotes.

It was delivered by Toronto boss Conn Smythe when his Maple Leafs won three straight Stanley Cups in 1947-49. (Also, it happens to be the title of Smythe's autobiography.)

Heading into their Wednesday night opener against the Capitals in D.C., the Rangers had adapted the Smythe theme for 2021-22. Or so we were led to believe.

Apparently under orders from owner Jim Dolan, the Blueshirts loaded up on toughies, starting with Ryan Reaves and ending with Sammy Blais and a couple of other alleged ice cops in between.

What a perfect set-up for Wednesday night's opener, Now they'd clash with the Caps and atone for the humiliation Tom Wilson heaped on Antemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejed last spring.

If you believed some of the news stories, this was supposed to be the latest NHL Heavyweight Championship: Reaves vs. Wilson; an old-time hockey grudge game, hyped to the hilt.

Washington fulfilled its share of the hype, treating the D.C. fans to a one-sided victory. With Commissioner Bettman in attending, Wilson played a perfect Good Housekeeping game. 

But what about the hugely-toted Reaves?

The new Ranger cop did lead his team in "hits" and played a cut-rate eleven minutes or so. But when it came to Skill Vs. Sock, it was Caps all the way.

Washington 5, Rangers 1. 

As he has been doing since he entered the league, Alex Ovechkin showed why skill wins. He scored two goals and underlined what a captain is all about.

The Rangers, by the way, don't even have a captain.

So, where were all those new Rangers heavyweights? 

Every single Rangers fan I know wanted Reaves to put a licking on Tom Wilson, but it will have to come another night if it is to happen at all. . 

Granted, we're only talking about one game, but if there's anything this single sample proves it is one salient point: Iff you want to win big with toughness, the skill guys had better come through as well.

That's how Conn Smythe's Leafs won three Cups in a row.

We'll have to wait a little bit and seek about Jim Dolan's Rangers.


THE JIVE: If early returns mean anything -- and they should -- ESPN and TNT should be enthused. Approval ratings in this first round of telecasts have been thumbs-up with little to no disapproval.

ESPN honchos are ecstatic over a 54 percent jump over the 2019 season opener on NBC, plus assorted other gains. The Pitt at Tampa Bay telecast was the most viewed opening night cable on record, peaking at one million.

Both networks have poured a ton of dough -- headliner personalities-plus -- and, so far, the fans have reacted appreciatively. As kinks inevitably are smoothed out the productions will be even better.

(For more pithy comments on the new faces and commentary, see our Sig Demling below.)


THE JIVE: The latest addition to our staff, Sig Demling gives his first impressions of TNT and ESPN’s opening night hockey coverage.

You never get a second chance at a first impression, but overall the prospects of the NHL on-air has never been stronger. Watching the past two night’s worth of pucks on TNT and ESPN showed that the two networks are taking this seriously. Both have built deep rosters and are oozing with talent; hockey talent -- yes, but more importantly, on and off-camera veterans that know what putting an NHL TV production together is all about.

For ESPN, despite some early audio issues (the skates carving up the ice sounded louder than play-by-play man, Sean McDonough for most of the first period), the team of McDonough and Ray Ferraro were fantastic. Professional, smart and to the point; as we’d expect. Throw in the ever-improving reporter, turned in-between-the-bench-reporter, Emily Kaplan and you have a fine first-team.

ESPN’s pregame outdoor set in Tampa hosted an interesting mix, to say the least, as Mark Messier and Chris Chelios sat in with ESPN mainstays, Steve Levy and Barry Melrose. While Levy and Melrose acted as seasoned pros, Chelios also seemed very comfortable delivering his thoughts, however Messier looked a bit more nervous, clearly relying on his notes. In time, my expectation is that Mess will gain comfort, and deliver smart, original, keen insights.

The second ESPN crew in Vegas teamed John Buccigross with Brian Boucher and had A.J. Mleczko between the benches. Buccigross has spunk and personality, but with limited experience, including calling college hockey games, he still has work to do to give off the impression that he is completely comfortable behind the mic. Boucher continues to improve as an analyst, much like he did on NBC -- and seems like he is the right person to compliment Buccigross. Mleczko has drawn well from her national and New York Islanders TV experience, and has become more selective in when she offers her thoughts. And when she does, she makes them count! Really great insights.

Linda Cohn and Kevin Weekes were most likely the best set of talent to be on-camera on opening night for either network, as the duo conveyed TV experience, hockey smarts and fun all at the same time. And neither looked a bit camera-shy.

TNT’s studio coverage included Liam McHugh (former NBC host), Wayne Gretzky Anson Carter, Rick Tocchet and Paul Bissonette.

The only complaint here, is that when all five are shown on-camera at the same time, the wide-shot becomes so wide that its hard to see the talent - and understand who’s talking. Otherwise, this crew seems ready to provide incredible insight, while having fun - including a Charles Barkley vs. Gretzky shootout.

Gretzky was eloquent in providing his hockey brilliance, while Tocchet and Carter both delivered free-flowing hockey missives without hesitation. Bissonette is clearly there to provide fun, and when he gains more comfort, he will deliver, much like on his podcast Spittin’ Chicklets.

For game coverage, a very familiar crew of Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk and Keith Jones called the Rangers-Caps game as professional as you would expect, while the Avs-Hawks nightcap was handled by Brendan Burke, with Darren Pang and Jamal Mayers. Again, aces!

The one thing that intrigued me about the TNT broadcast was the graphic connecting three defensive players while shorthanded on a 4-on-3.

Graphics like this have strong usage possibilities -- and I am wondering if NHL special teams coaches should have more looks at this.


THE JIVE: After the No. 3 ranked Wolverines (3-0) easily picked up wins in their first two contests, last Saturday night they found themselves down 4-2 in the second period vs. Lake Superior St. at Yost Arena.

Our Michigan man, Henri Kolb gives us his account of what happened next, and his flash-analysis of the team’s prospects.

Entering the season, the buzz surrounding the Wolverines centered around Owen Power, Matt Beniers, Luke Hughes and Kent Johnson -- four of the five top picks in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. But the Blue and Maze have more, including a wealth of experience.

Senior, Michael Pastujov, buried his own rebound, 4:10 left in the second period for his second goal of the night, rallying Michigan back to within one -- and there was no looking back from there.

Senior Jimmy Lambert lit the lamp next to tie the game at four, and with three third period goals, the Wolverines won, 7-4.

The Devils should be thrilled with Hughes smart play on the back-line, and his ability to fit in so quickly as a freshman, while Owen Power (1-4-5) continues to show why he was selected No. 1 overall by the Buffalo Sabres.

Despite a talent-rich roster, the question mark may come in net, as sophomore, Erik Portillo (Buffalo Sabres), has become the main man between the pipes, after two-year starter, Strauss Mann, left school to go pro. The 6’6” backstop appeared to struggle slightly with his angles and rebounds at times, but with experience the hope is that Portillo will play to his potential and help Michigan to lengthy postseason run.

This weekend the Wolverines will be tested, as they head to Duluth to skate in the Ice Breaker Tournament, facing-off against host, No. 5 Minnesota Duluth tonight, and will face either No. 10 Providence, or No. 1 Minnesota State Saturday.


THE JIVE: Over the years Nashville's solid defense corps tended to focus on names other than Mattias Ekholm. A number of teams nudged g.m. David Poile to include the native of the Borlange, Sweden in a deal. Wisely, Poile sidestepped any such trade.  Now we know why:

The Preds have signed Ekholm to a four-year deal at $25 million. That puts him right below the Swiss ace, Roman Josi, for Nashville's defensive pecking order. "Mattias is part of our foundation," says Poile. "He brings us stability and size." With Ryan Ellis gone, it means big minutes for Ekholm and a chance to step up to a higher level of stardom.


THE JIVE: Check the forecasts on tv and in print and chances are you'll find the Islanders at or near the top of the heap. That's because architect Lou Lamoriello has the best overall lineup in Nassau since taking over the helm from Garth Snow. From goaltending to the fourth line, the Isles  boast balance, defensive acumen and the ability to win clutch games.

Coach Barry Trotz is acutely aware of the challenge ahead. "There's more pressure from people who expect us to do well," says Trotz. "There's internal pressure and external pressure. But we're mature enough to handle it."

Interestingly, Trotz views the 82-game schedule as more of a challenge than the postseason. "We're built for the playoffs," he insists. The Nassaumen began their 13-game road trip last night in Carolina. That's what Trotz means about a "challenge."


THE JIVE: As I predicted last month when Henrik Lundqvist declared his retirement, his move into tv work would be a natural. That's been confirmed by MSG Networks boss Andrea Greenberg. The King will be analyst for about 20 select games and a good thing too. Hank sees things clearly and sees them whole. Greenberg artfully selected two words that says it all about Henrik's hire. Engaging personality!"