The Fischler Report: 11/29/21
The Devils are one of the NHL's top surprises. Canadiens shakeup underway. Panthers run halted. Miro Heiskanen a darkhorse for Norris. Wild showing resiliency.
THE JERSEY BOUNCE IS IN PLAY
A month ago the betting in and out of Vegas was that New Jersey would sink to the Metro Division cellar and that would be that.
The loss-to-injury of coach Lindy Ruff's first overall Draft pick, Jack Hughes, figured to torpedo the Devils to the tough Metro's subterranean depths.
Jumpin' Jack already had demonstrated that he was heading for a breakout season when the "break" turned out to be the wound kind. What's worse, the wunderkind still is recuperating until who-knows-when.
Remarkably, even without Hughes' offense -- not to mention energetic Myles Wood, likely out of the duration -- the Devils have remained above the .500 mark.
After Sunday’s 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Devils sit 9-6-4 with 22 points. What's more, if you believe the hockey maxim that if a team is a playoff contender at (American) Thanksgiving, it can gain a postseason berth in April, then New Jersey has a decent shot at the playoffs.
Minus the peripatetic Hughes, the Garden Staters are managing thanks to the youth movement. Peach-faced types such as captain Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha and Yegor Saragovich have delivered in the clutch.
More good news is that g.m. Tom Fitzgerald re-claimed Nathan Bastian who'd been put on waivers by Seattle. Sunday, Nat-The-Bat scored, after being reunited with his Junior buddy, Michael McLeod.
The arrival of defender Dougie Hamilton has galvanized a defense that previously had Swiss cheese written all over it. Goaltending has remained relatively stable and Ruff knows what he's doing behind the bench.
A year ago, the designated number one goalie, Corey Crawford, pulled the chute on Newark and exited Stage Left leaving Ruff in worse-than-rough shape.
Although the club did its best to compensate for Crawford's desertion, it just couldn't master the challenge. This season the crease condition is much improved.
Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier have patched the cheese holes and have given Ruff confidence in his crease; plus the improved blue line corps has added to the good feeling.
Normally, this would be big news for the Met Area media but the Rangers rip-roarin' ascent has overshadowed The Jersey Bounce; at least for now.
This could change in the months ahead, especially if Hughes soon returns and continues to display on the ice all the virtues that made him a very top Draft pick.
HEADLINE: THE SHAKEUP IS UNDERWAY IN MONTREAL
THE JIVE: In a sense, Marc Bergevin being "relieved" of his job managing the Habs must be a relief to this good man. There's no need to delve into alibis for likeable Marc. Between the Carey Price health crisis, effects of Covid and his club's build-up to a letdown -- from Cup Final to Cellar -- it was too much for Marc to bear.
In bilingual-media-mad Montreal, there was only so long that Bergie chould hold the fort. And only so long for Canadiens owner Geoff Molson to delay the guillotine. Jeff Gorton moves in as the instant make-things-better man until Molson, Gorton and others in the high command pick a successor.
I'd go for Patrick Roy for his smarts and long connection to the team.
HEADLINE: A GOALTENDING ISSUE IN OTTAWA
THE JIVE: If the hockey Senators had the same veto power as members of the Canadian Parliament, they'd delete the destructive NHL events of the past two months and start all over again.
But, as everyone knows, Gary Bettman doesn't think that way and that means the Sens will have to struggle through their whole ugly mess as best they can.
Unquestionably, the worst part is D.J. Smith's grim goaltending which is not the coach's fault.
When g.m. Pierre Dorion gambled last year by gifting goalie Matt Murray with a contract so rich that it would even have pleased Justin Bieber, Smitty had visions of Vezina dancing in his head.
Instead, Murray has given him a migraine, and has since been put on waivers.
Not long ago, Mangled Matt's record was 0-5 with a sieve-like 3.26 goals against average and a .890 save percentage.
One Ottawa hockey writer characterized it as "Murray's shaky season." That has to be the understatement of the half-century if not the past 100 years.
How Dorion solves his crease concerns from here on to Christmas could make -- or break -- his tenure running the team.
HEADLINE: FORMER MATE HALTS PANTHERS ATTEMPT AT RECORD
THE JIVE: Florida was hyped to put an exclamation point on their home winning streak from the start of a season by topping the 58-year-old record of the Chicago Blackhawks with a twelfth consecutive win. With upstart Seattle Kraken as opposition things looked good for a history making evening.
In came former mate Chris Driedger to put a halt to the celebration. Driedger had been struggling in goal in his few appearances this year but the sight of his former team must have inspired his 33-save performance to preserve the Kraken’s 4-1 win. Jordan Eberle contributed two goals.
Driedger’s outstanding 2020-21 season with Florida earned him a multi-year deal with Seattle as its first player signed. Ironically, it was Driedger who started the Panthers’ overall home winning streak of 15 games which began last season.
Post-game the Panther players seemed less concerned about ending the streak than they were about not earning two points. Joe Thornton said “(The team) feels good. Now we just have to start another streak. It was a good streak at home here. On Tuesday we just have to start another one”
Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said his team was just not sharp. About Driedger, “He played great for us last year so it’s not surprising.”
Driedger admitted that he felt a buzz getting back in the building in which he had so much success. He was more satisfied with earning the win than beating his old team. “I had some family at the game. It was just a great night to go out there, feel good and get a win for our group.”
HEADLINE: LEON THE PESSIMIST
THE JIVE: That dauntless Draisaitl guy up Edmonton way has given a good two dozen goaltenders a temporary case of lockjaw every time he cradles the puck. Or to put it another way, Larrupin' Leon is chug-chug-chuggin' along toward a 82-goal season.
But don't you dare suggest that to captain Connor McDavid's right hand man. As is his wont -- not to mention low-key personality -- Lord Leon wants no part of the inflationary goal talk; none of it.
"It's simply not realistic for me to score 82 goals this season" The Duke Of Draisaitl insists. "It just isn't because the competition is too tough."
Fair enough. Leon can say what he wants. The Maven says, YES, he will do it!
HEADLINE: UPSET WINS BUOY GRUBAUER, KRAKEN
THE JIVE: TFR's Glenn Dreyfuss watched as underdog Seattle took on the Beasts of the East, winning three of four against them.
Whatever rough seas still await in the Kraken's inaugural voyage, they'll have the memory of an eye-opening stretch the week of U.S. Thanksgiving.
Entering the week, the Kraken had little to be thankful for. The last of a six-game losing streak was an ugly home loss to Colorado, in which Seattle surrendered seven consecutive goals and looked every bit an expansion team.
Next on the schedule (Nov. 21) would be the red-hot Capitals, coming off back-to-back road shutout victories. But the Kraken blitzed Washington for three second period goals, and just in time, goalie Philipp Grubauer located his missing game. Grubauer turned aside 20 Capitals shots in the third period and 37 overall in a 5-2 Seattle victory.
No time to relax, though, because Carolina and its gaudy .853 winning percentage were next to invade Climate Pledge Arena (Nov 24). Again Grubauer was masterful, sliding post-to-post to rob Teuvo Teravainen, denying a Jordan Staal breakaway, and stoning Jordan Martinook on back-to-back open looks.
Impressively, netminding heroics weren't necessary in the final two minutes. With Carolina desperate for a tying goal, Grubauer was forced to make just one of his 35 saves, and not a hard one at that. "Good structure, good pressure up ice," coach Dave Hakstol said about the 2-1 win. "When you sit back in your own zone, you're going to be under siege. The biggest thing for me is puck management on that first puck coming in the zone. That's where our players did a good job."
David had slayed back-to-back Goliaths, handing both Carolina (2nd-best NHL record at the time) and Washington (4th-best) just their third regulation losses. "We never really doubted each other," said Marcus Johansson, who scored the game-winner against Carolina with three minutes left. "We're starting to play the right way over 60 minutes. We don't let up too many free chances, and the few we give up, Grubi's there to bail us out."
Seattle temporarily misplaced its slingshot, losing in Tampa, then rebounded (Nov. 27) to hand the previously unbeaten-at-home Panthers (11-0) their first loss in Sunrise. Goalie Chris Driedger had his finest outing in the 4-1 win, stopping 33 shots.
Seattle reduced the pressure by dominating 36-14 on faceoffs, shutting out Florida over the final 53 minutes. Remember, the Panthers were not only 2nd in the overall NHL standings at game time, but also 2nd in goals scored per game.
Driedger admitted special satisfaction beating his former team. "That's the most gratifying win I've had in a while," he told Root Sports, while praising how his teammates played with the lead. "That was a hell of an effort by the guys. It was a winning mentality. That's how you win hockey games."
HEADLINE: THE SHADOWY NORRIS TROPHY CANDIDATE
THE JIVE: Talk to the Dallas hockey people and they'll invariably heap praise on Miro Heiskanen as the "defenseman's defenseman." Such praise, however, is becoming more and more league-wide and could lead to a Norris Trophy.
Granted, the Stars starry backliner is up against stiff competition, especially since current Norris-holder, Adam Fox of the Rangers, is enjoying another superior season. Then there's Charlie McAvoy in Beantown and Cale Makar finally reversing the Avs' fortunes in Denver.
When the seemingly invincible Connor McDavid invaded Dallas last week, Heiskanen was assigned the primary shutdown role. Miro did the job so well that King Connor emerged from his club's 4-1 loss without a single point to show for it.
Fox, et. al. are in for a keen Norris challenge from this Lone Star Stater.
HEADLINE: WILD SHOW THE RESILIENCY OF A CUP CONTENDER
THE JIVE: Our Man in Florida, Alan Greenberg, tracked the Wild on their recent journey across the Sunshine State and beyond.
The Wild’s blowout 7-1 home defeat of division rival Winnipeg was perhaps a reward for the team’s grit to date this season. The recent three game road trip was a premier example of how the team has been able to remain on top of the Central Division despite adversity. The Wild followed the Winnipeg win with a hard fought 4-2 home defeat of the Lightning.
There were a couple of dramatic come from behind efforts in the state of Florida followed by a significant win in New Jersey on a day when the team’s pre-game routine was totally disrupted.
In Florida the team gained firsthand knowledge that, unlike in some past seasons, a trip through the Sunshine State is anything but a vacation. When a team has back-to-back road games against both the defending Stanley Cup Champions and the team with the most lethal offense in the NHL, very few thoughts turn to pristine beaches.
Minnesota started the season strong with four straight wins. Workhorse goalie Cam Talbot has started 17 of 21 games and has been solid. Last year’s outstanding rookie, Kirill Kaprizov, continues to soar. His 22 points through the first twenty games are a Minnesota record. Veterans Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman may be headed to career years offensively.
Wild g.m. Bill Guerin’s rebuild moves have been taking shape. He took heat for jettisoning mainstays Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. He previously cut ties with the likes of Jason Zucker, Devan Dubnyk and Mikko Koivu. Steady defender Ian Cole was lost to free agency and Carson Soucy was drafted by Seattle. To make up for these blueline losses veterans Alex Goligoski and Dmitry Kulikov were brought in and have added new spark to their careers.
The Wild escaped with only one point for their efforts in the two Florida games, but considering the opposition, they proved to themselves that they are never out of it, literally to the last second. They amazingly managed a combined three goals with the goaltender pulled. In Tampa they forced overtime with two late goals with their net empty. In Florida they managed one six-on-five goal and were it not for a last second desperation save of a Kevin Fiala shot by Sergei Bobrovsky, would have forced OT there too.
In New Jersey, a major pre-holiday traffic tie-up delayed their arrival at the rink, forcing a delayed start and a complete disruption of pre-game routines. As anyone who has followed the game knows, hockey players are products of routine and messing around with warmups and pre-game preparation can be disruptive. Still, after relinquishing a two-goal lead they hung on for a shootout win.
In all, they’ve outscored their opposition 7-4 this season with the net unattended. Twice they scored two goals with the extra attacker. In both games in Florida coach Dean Evason pulled his goalie with more than five minutes remaining, a very risky move but one which has been successful.
In discussing the 5-4 loss to the Panthers and the 5-4 shootout loss to the Lightning, both of which featured comebacks from two goals down, Evason said, “We hate doing what we keep doing (falling behind), but we love doing what we’re doing (catching up). We don’t want to do it but we love the resilience. We don’t quit…Clearly we want to play with a lead and we want to play right but we have to learn how to do that and we will. In the meantime, we’re pretty excited about how hard we push to come back.”
A very frustrated Nico Sturm gave credit to the surprising Panthers. “I think in my two and a half years (in the NHL) that was the fastest pace I’ve seen. This is as good as it gets and they’ve (Florida) got Barkov missing. That’s a good hockey team but we were right there with them. We made some costly turnovers, gave them odd man rushes and they’ve got a forward group that will punish you.”
When they finally returned to Xcel Energy Center for a matinee encounter with the Jets they were still on a disrupted schedule. They were collectively working off their Thanksgiving meals and went right to the game without the benefit of the customary morning skate. It was one of the few games this year in which they held a comfortable lead and there was no necessity of a comeback effort or to hang on for dear life at the end.
Interesting that in the Winnipeg blowout only Zuccarello had multiple points. Post-game, a relieved coach Evason discussed the team’s depth. “We continually talk about our depth, and it’s not one or two guys scoring. A lot has been made of some guys that don’t score on our team but not a lot is made of our depth scoring so that’s a very good thing.”
The Wild face a challenge with the loss of captain and top defender Jared Spurgeon, hurt in the Florida game. The five-game home stand which started Friday with the Winnipeg win may indicate that there will be less need for the dramatic from here on in this season.