The Fischler Report: 1/19/21

Kudos to Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, Donald Fehr and Matt Schneider for a Fantastic Start to the 2021 Season; Wayne Simmonds Sparks the Leafs; Rookies Light the Lamp; Weekend Wrap and More...

OBSERVATION:

GARY BETTMAN did what he promised; he got the NHL's 2020-21 season underway. Granted it's a late start but the fact that the stickhandlers are skating is a testimony to the diligent, painstaking work being delivered by the Commissioner, his deputy, Bill Daly, and the Union's duet, Donald Fehr and Matt Schneider.

Of course this is uncharted territory but the league is forging ahead, aware of problems and prepared for surprises. The fact that both the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes both have played before live -- but necessarily small -- crowds is a sign that the light just might be visible at the end of the Pandemic Tunnel.


GOSSIP:

  • What with a spate of injuries and dubious goaltending, the Blackhawks struggle is testing the wits of Stan Bowman. Chi's newly-titled boss must find a way to stop the bleeding until his captain, Jonathan Toews and the other sidelined worthies like Kirby Dach and Brent Seabrook return. One issue: what does Stan do about the goaltending? He lost a winner in Robin Lehner.

  • We asked one of our Canadian pals to pick his favorite TV hockey announcers. He came up with Chris Cuthbert, Gord Miller, Dennis Beyak, Jeff Marek and Cassie Campbell Pascall.

  • One of the best-written captivating websites is authored by Gillian Kemmerer and focuses on Russian hockey. It's called "The Caviar Diplomat.” The latest gem is all about Soviet hero Valery Kharlamov. Grab a look if you can.

  • This from our man in Tennessee,  Mike Levine: "When the Bruins' Kevan Miller's contract expired after 2019-20, the odds were against Boston offering the defenseman a new deal. Zdeno Chara still was the favorite to stay in Beantown. But when Big Z left for Washington, Miller got his break and returned. Brad (The Mouth) Marchand then offered this pithy bit of prose: "It's awesome to see Millsy back. A lot of other guys in his situation would have quit."

  • This upcoming week has a ton of meaningful matchups. Two of our games to watch: Devils vs. Rangers on Tuesday night and Lightning vs. Blue Jackets on Thursday evening. The Hudson River Rivals will take the ice with each squad sporting a first-overall pick: Jack Hughes for New Jersey and Alexis Lafreniere for the Blueshirts. Lafreniere, the NHL’s most recent draft leader, has yet to crack the scoresheet. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are coming off of the first team win backstopped by Joonas Korpisalo. The defending Cup champs have met the Columbus skaters in each of the past two playoffs, giving 2021’s first meeting an additional layer of excitement.

  • Yesterday’s Martin Luther King Day marks the 63rd anniversary of Willie O’Ree’s debut as the first Black NHL skater with the Boston Bruins. On this doubly-significant day, we recognize Willie’s courage as he broke the color barrier and carved a path for many more athletes to follow.


WAYNE SIMMONDS PROVIDES SPARK IN LEAFS DEBUT

It’s still early, but Wayne Simmonds was a sparkplug in his first game donning the Maple Leafs crest. TFR’s Rob Del Mundo has more:

The early return on Kyle Dubas’ transformation of the Leafs into a team with more sandpaper looks promising. And while a sample size is hardly adequate to forecast the probability of Toronto’s fortunes for this season, the acquisition of Wayne Simmonds solidifies his squad’s presence in the dirty areas of the ice.

Simmonds was a key catalyst in the Leafs’ come from behind win over the rival Montreal Canadiens in the season opener at Scotiabank Arena.  Although held off the scoresheet in 10:25 of ice time playing on the fourth line, Simmonds used his greatest asset – his physical prowess – to contribute.

With the Habs holding the momentum and a 3-1 second period lead, Simmonds dropped the gloves with defenseman Ben Chiarot.  The spirit bout seemed to ignite the Leafs who had been lackluster to that point.  The usual snipers: Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander, rallied the team en route to an eventual overtime win, but it was Simmonds who provided the spark.

“That was a turning point in the game, for sure,” Nylander said to reporters after finishing the night with two goals and an assist.  “He got the boys going. We were a little soft and slow in the beginning, and after that, we got fired up and got going, which was huge.”

Morgan Rielly had the overtime tally in the thrilling seesaw affair in which Toronto prevailed 5-4.  While the defenseman moved into second place in franchise history for career overtime goals among blueliners – five, which trails Tomas Kaberle by a pair  – Rielly gleefully gave props to Simmonds’s eagerness to engage in fisticuffs. 

“I think it was awesome. I think that's what Wayne brings to this group,” Rielly said.  “The way that he's able to play and that part of his game, and then his off-ice leadership. I think tonight was the perfect example of him taking it upon himself to get the team going and that's exactly what happened.”

The refrain should sound familiar.  Before Wednesday, Toronto’s most recent victory had come in the same rink, against Columbus during the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  With the Leafs facing elimination in Game 4 and looking downtrodden facing a 2-0 second period deficit, Jason Spezza took it upon himself to bolster the squad, and Blue Jackets defender Dean Kukan was the target of Spezza’s truculence.  Following the dust-up, the Leafs went on to score a barrage of goals late in regulation time, plus an overtime marker, to prolong their season by a day.

Unfortunately for Toronto fans, the team had nothing left in the tank for the decisive fifth game, and general manager Dubas was faced with yet another Herculean off-season during which to upgrade the roster; replete with high octane offensive power but lacking in grit and toughness.

Enter Joe Thornton, followed by Simmonds, the latter of whom will never win a Hart Trophy but is arguably already the Leafs’ fiercest agitator since Nazem Kadri was traded to Colorado.

“I know my role on this team,” Simmonds said. “(Chiarot) dropped the gloves before me so it was green light, go. I'm happy he gave me that one and helped turn the tide for our team.”


HAS TRISTAN JARRY BLOWN TOP SPOT AS PITT GOALIE?

The Penguins had hoped that Tristan Jarry could be the able successor to ex-Cup-winner Matt Murray. So far, Tristan's goaltending has been trite. He's already been yanked and replaced by Casey DeSmith, who was super beating Washington -- and Alex Ovechkin -- in a shootout. Our  Gus Vic further analyzes the perplexing Pitt goaltending situation.

Let’s not get too far beyond ourselves here, but some problems in Pittsburgh aren’t going away any time soon.

While Tristan Jarry put up top-end numbers last season, he also did so in the comfortable number two role behind Matt Murray.   The long-time danger of assuming a team will get the same result when the understudy is anointed and the safety net doesn’t exist is beginning to show signs in the Steel City.  

How soon until Mike Sullivan begins giving Casey DeSmith a longer look or how soon will it be before Jim Rutherford finally jettisons 34-year-old Evgeni Malkin in order to stabilize his net?

In some instances, it works. Cory Schneider played second-fiddle to Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and turned in a handful of solid seasons in New Jersey.  The same could be said – at least initially – for Cam Talbot upon his departure from the Rangers for Edmonton.  After two solid seasons, however, the shine came off that tire with subsequent landing spots in Calgary and now Minnesota.

And then there’s Exhibit A: Jonathan Bernier. During the glory days of the Kings at the front end of last decade, the word was that Bernier only needed to get out from behind Jonathan Quick to prove he was a bonafide number one.   For one season in Toronto, it worked.  Since then, spotty at best.

While his numbers in Toronto, Anaheim and Colorado were not bad, Bernier’s been a number two since 2015-2016 and rarely gives one the sense he’s going to come up with a big save when you need it.  That doesn’t bode well for his current Detroit team which still appears to be 2-3 seasons away from being taken seriously.


WEEKEND WRAP: OVERTIME THRILLERS & BLOWOUT WINS

In this mixed bag of news from around the league, TFR’s Rob Taub re-caps the first few days of regular-season action.

When they say three-on-three overtime is one of the most entertaining parts of hockey, that would probably mean the extra session had to have lasted more than seven seconds. The Vegas Golden Knights didn't get the memo.

In their tilt with the Anaheim Ducks late Saturday night, the Golden Knights got a walk-off victory thanks to Max Pacioretty, and all it took was a mere seven seconds. A faceoff win developed into an ensuing 2-on-1, where Mark Stone fed Pacioretty who buried a one-timer past a sprawling Ducks' netminder John Gibson.

Speaking of dramatic OT winners, how about the Minnesota Wild pulling double duty! On Thursday night, it was rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov who dazzled to give Minnesota their first win of the season against the Kings. Then last night, after Ryan Suter miraculously tied the game with 1.4 seconds left in regulation, it was newcomer Marcus Johansson who played the hero. His OT winner with 10.4 seconds left resulted in the Wild's second straight win to start the season.

Rookies Tim Stutzle and Yegor Sarangovich's first NHL goals both came on Saturday and had the hockey world buzzing. Stutzle's tally was a beauty -- a rocket from inside the right dot -- leaving his teammates jaw-dropped. His teammate Nick Paul quipped: "We looked at each other on the bench a little bit in awe." 

Sharangovich's marker came as the Devils and Bruins were seconds away from heading to a shootout for a second consecutive game. His reaction to the goal, "Thank you. Bye-bye", was truly a wholesome moment.

Colorado Avalanche's 8-0 shellacking of the Blues Friday night showed the Avs playing with a no-mercy approach. After the Blues drew first blood Wednesday, Colorado responded with goals from seven different players and by going 5-for-7 on the man-advantage.

Jacob Markstrom got a bit of revenge on his old squad, pitching a 32-save shutout in a 3-0 win against the Canucks on Saturday evening. The win also marked his first victory as a member of the Flames.

 "It was huge,” said Markstrom. “Great team win. It was weirder than I thought it would be. It's just weird seeing the team you played for a long time on the other side."

Goalie Jimmy Howard and D-man Adam McQuaid are calling it a career. Sportnet's Elliotte Friedman revealed Saturday night the 36-year-old Howard will announce his retirement sometime this week after remaining an unrestricted free agent. McQuaid told CBC that he made his decision not to continue his career after having dealt with a serious neck and knee injury which have lingered the past two years.

Howard's career was a solid one that included a Stanley Cup and two All-Star Game appearances. McQuaid played 11 seasons and won a Cup with the Boston Bruins.


MIKE AND PIE’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE -- SELLING SHOES IN SOUTH BOSTON WITH JOHNNY MCKENZIE

In this memorable first-person recollection, Mike Rubin recalls his adventures with Johnny McKenzie, NHL and WHA veteran.

On January 10, 1966, the chronically disappointing Boston Bruins traded tough guy Reggie Fleming to the equally inept New York Rangers for journeyman right-wing Johnny “Pie” McKenzie. The fan reaction in Beantown to the acquisition of a 5-9 forward nicknamed after a cartoon character was somewhere between ho-hum and Go Celts!

Who could blame 13,909 serial ticket-holders for being underwhelmed? The Bruins were on their way to passing on the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Calling the diminutive McKenzie a step in the right direction would have been a spin worthy of P.T. Barnum.

Fast forward to December 29, 1971: The moribund B’s of six years before had been re-imagined and rebuilt as the Big, Bad Bruins by Milt Schmidt, Harry Sinden, Weston Adams and Tom Johnson. Boston’s much-improved hockey club was on its way to a second Stanley Cup in three seasons, led not only by future Hall-of-Famers Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Johnny Bucyk and Gerry Cheevers, but also by a feisty, two-time All-Star named -- wait for it -- Johnny McKenzie. To suggest the Fleming trade had worked out as well for the Rangers would be like calling the Brink’s Robbery a fair exchange.

Running Shoes

During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, being a Bruin meant rock-star status. I’d seen it as a follower of hockey, growing up just west of the inner-city madness, but I couldn’t have imagined the intensity of hero worship until the 34-year-old McKenzie and I shared an adventure that was as mercenary as it was audacious: We spent a day selling street-hockey shoes in South Boston.

We’d been hired by a New England shoe manufacturer to promote their products – as colorful as today’s athletic footwear, but essentially sneakers with small Achilles-tendon guards. I was invited mostly because of my coverage of regional street-hockey leagues and tournaments.

The plan was to visit half-a-dozen retail outlets that had been advertising Pie’s appearance. We’d meet and greet the public, then get John to a Chicago flight in time for that evening’s game against the Blackhawks.

After fetching McKenzie from the Bruins’ Wednesday-morning practice, Bill, our sales rep, drove us to a strip mall in South Boston for the opening event. We could see the churning crowd from two blocks away. Getting past them through the store’s front doors would have been difficult. We decided to park behind the mall and sneak in the back.

We swapped our ordinary shoes for street-hockey gear – setting good examples and all that – and walked toward an unlocked fire door. Then we were spotted. Hundreds of kids and their parents came running, chasing one idol and two mystery men who might have been minor-league call-ups, for all anyone knew. The three of us ran to the rear entrance as fast as those sneakers would carry us.

Once inside, the store manager led us to a table near the front for photos and autographs. The mob was waiting – some so eager to see John, they were weeping. It was a Beatles-like reception for a reluctant hero who motioned me to his side.

“Mike, do you think you could get my shoes out of the car? These don’t fit so well.”

“Sure,” I said, confident street hockey would survive Pie’s departure from protocol. With the crowd focused on the one of us who was worth seeing, I figured I could sneak back to the car and retrieve John’s footwear.

I found the car alright. The shoes were another matter. There were none – not mine, McKenzie’s or Bill’s, nor any of the athletic models for our remaining gigs. Had we locked the doors? I didn’t remember. At least the tires and antenna were intact.

I headed back to our table, wondering how to tell McKenzie he’d be wearing ill-fitting company merchandise the rest of the day. What if his feet got so sore, he couldn’t get into his skates that night and finished the year with one less goal than his bonus clause specified? That would be more shame than I could endure.

Happy Feet

I was about to break the news to him when I saw shoes and more shoes being passed above the crowd, hand over hand toward us. Bill’s loafers were there; so were mine, and even John’s – the only ones with street value. Even the samples were returned. No one knew how or why.

Having played hockey in Southie with people I trust to this day, I figure some out-of-town thief got corralled by the crowd and was fervently encouraged to seek redemption. Praise the Lord and pass the size-nines.

Even better than reclaiming our property was seeing all those people enjoy themselves. They craved face time with Pie, whose pleasant manner and impish grin made his admirers feel they were part of something bigger than any of us. Even McKenzie couldn’t believe the turnout at some stores. He’d say, “Mike, stay close” as we’d try to sneak in the back of the next Zayre’s or Lechmere’s on the list. And yes, we wore our own shoes for the rest of the day.

We dropped John off at Logan Airport for a late-afternoon flight to Chicago, where he scored a goal in the Bruins’ 5-1 win over the Blackhawks. I can’t say he predicted that, but I do think traveling in comfy shoes helped his feet feel a little faster that night.