The Fischler Report 5/10/21
Each contender is facing challenges entering the postseason. Connor McDavid reaches 100 points. Kelly Hrudey discusses mental health issues. Bruins hitting their stride.
That about fits an analysis of what lies ahead in the playoffs.
Virtually every contending team has a confounding element as The Second Season is just around the calendar.
Sure Tampa Bay is a favorite because they're the Champs. Then comes "The Yeah, Buts."
Who says Captain Stamkos will be devoid of his endless injuries? And what about the One part of the One-Two punch, Nikita Kucherov? He's been out a long, long time. And we all know that rest is rust.
Carolina looms big and maybe their goaltending will hold up. But it didn't get them a Cup last year and I'm not totally sold on it this time around. Florida has the goalie alright and a gratifying regular season but we're talking about The Overachievers of Sunrise, 'Nuff said.
Washington, Boston, and Pittsburgh have duked it out all season for first -- the Isles faded in the stretch -- and, frankly, I can't pick a winner of the trio.
It's easier up North. The Leafs have to be the favorites but they're top-heavy up front, average on D and have Mr. Mark in goal. That's Mark, as in Question Mark.
Throw all of Connor McDavid's regular season points in the compactor. If the Jets or Habs can discern a formula for disarming The Big Guy -- not impossible, mind you -- morning in Edmonton will turn to mourning.
If the Peggers wake up in time, they could make trouble. The Habs? Better they should have Claude Julien.
The three-way race out West will test Nathan McKinnon's mettle and whether or not Herr Grubauer can fit in "Clutch" as his middle name. Maybe, yes; maybe no. Vegas says "No!" (By the way, the surprising Wild have a threat on all four scoring lines; don't discount them as a sleeper.)
That's one imposing outfit they've got there on The Strip. Yet, even with the addition of Alex Pietrangelo, an excellent coach, and balance, it just seems that an indefinable something is missing in their lineup.
Then again, maybe I'm missing something.
For now I have no choice but to go with the Champs. The rest?
My relatively - but not hermetically -- solid source insists that David Quinn will be given another year by new Rangers g.m. Chris Drury. Needle me if I'm proven wrong on this one.
The fact that Mark Messier lately has been commenting on Rangers stories suggests that The Captain somehow might figure into some Blueshirts role. In a New York minute, I'd make Mess an assistant coach. Hey, MSG boss said his club "lacked heart," didn't he? Mark would make lots of heart behind the Blueshirts bench.
Jeff Gorton should get himself a gig, post-haste. He's the guy who's constructed a young, gifted team that should scintillate next season.
What hurt the New Yorkers more than anything - when you think about it -- were all those "lost" games when Artemi Panarin went on his mysterious "leave of absence." ... Speaking of mystery, until the currently reclusive Jim Rutherford surfaces with a new job, you have to wonder whether he's decided to retire after all. If so, it would be a waste of genius.
Teams to watch in terms of changes have to be Anaheim and Philadelphia. The Ducks weren't expected to have a playoff year; the Flyers were. It looks like NBC vet Eddie Olczyk will be back on the American network telecasts.
Turns out there was no connection between the sacking of Jeff Gorton and John Davidson and the very critical letter the Rangers sent to the NHL that led to the club being fined $250,000 by the NHL. Both JD and JG reportedly wanted no part of the MSG critique.
New York State's Utica-Clinton sector has been superior hockey country for more than a century. Therefore it was gratifying to see the Devils move their AHL farm team into the Utica rink once the Canucks pulled out and installed the Comets into Abbotsford, B.C.
Weekend Wrap with Rob Taub
There’s not many words left to describe the brilliance we’ve seen from Connor McDavid. He hit a milestone on Saturday scoring four points in the win over Vancouver to make it an even 100 points through 53 games this season. It was incredible even for the man himself. McDavid: "I was trying not to think about it, I was trying to get myself ready to go in the playoffs and keep my game where it needs to be. Obviously when you're sitting around 96, 97, 98 points and you get to 99, it's obviously in the back of your mind, and thankfully I didn't have to wait too long to get there."
The Toronto Maple Leafs clinched their first division title since 2000 in as dramatic fashion as you can want. Going down 2-0 in the second, the Leafs stormed back and scored the next three to defeat who is most likely going to be their first round opponent, the Montréal Canadiens. The two storied franchises haven’t met in the postseason in over 42 years. That alone is an incredible fact.
Oh, speaking of first time in a long time, we are finally going to be treated to a Sunshine State showdown in the postseason between the Lightning and Panthers. Saturday night, the final rehearsal before the real thing starts next week, the Cats laid it on the Bolts 5-1 at the hands of an Alexander Wennberg hat trick — second of his career — to move ahead of Tampa in the Central. Said Wennberg: “It would be great (to finish second), but we're just looking to win the next game. Of course, you can look at the standings, but I feel like the focus is just to play the game and do what we can do. We'll see what happens. Obviously, we're going to do our best and we're excited to see where it's going to take us."
One first round matchup that’s also now confirmed, the Hurricanes and Predators, could be the dark horse in terms of intrigue. Carolina, the winners of the Central, were dominant from the start of the year; Nashville, their season was on life support back in early March. But they stuck with it and got tremendous goaltending from possible Vezina candidate, Juuse Saros. The two clubs’ clashing style of play will make for a dynamite matchup.
If the reports are true about John Tortorella’s future in Columbus not with him behind the bench, it was nice to see him go out with a win in the Jackets’ final home tilt. Torts’ club were victorious 5-4 in OT on a Max Domi tally. Tortorella has been the head man in Columbus the last six seasons and helped the franchise reach its most success since being founded. “I'll put it to you this way. People talk about a shelf life, I don't think there's a shelf life for a coach," Tortorella said postgame. "But what I believe in is the right fit. I think the fit of the players and personnel, I think that's the most important thing. That's something [general manager Jarmo Kekalainen] and I have discussed very honestly quite often.” It’s reported that Torts already told his players that he’s leaving the team.
Saturday marked a first for several players across the league. Both Ottawa’s Tim Stutzle and Vegas’ Reilly Smith notched the first hat tricks of their respective careers. Pittsburgh’s Maxime Legace recorded the first shutout of his NHL career. And unknown forward Josh Richards tallied his inaugural point with an assist in the Rangers’ 5-4 victory in Boston.
To end on a high note, congrats to Buffalo’s Michael Houser on a memorable week. Though he didn’t get the win on Saturday in his hometown of Pittsburgh, the 28-year-old ECHL product was incredible, making 22 of 23 stops. If not for getting his first two career wins earlier in the weekend, his performance over the weekend still would have made him one of the true fun stories of the league this entire season.
DEPARTMENT OF YOU-NEVER-KNOW:
Many moons ago I was sitting in the Devils press room when Neil Smith introduced me to a young fellow just breaking into the agenting business.
"Keep your eye on this guy," Neil whispered. "He's going places."
Never one to take Neil lightly, I kept an eye on Mark Gandler. Good thing, too; did he ever go places. In a relatively short time, he became a respected rep, specializing in Russian stickhandlers.
Meanwhile, I took under my wing an intern named Todd Diamond. I really liked this kid; mostly because he laughed at eleven out of ten of my jokes.
Then, one day General Gandler phoned and said he needed an assistant. Since I had run out of jokes, I recommended this Diamond in the rough.
So, now it's 2021 and Diamond's edges have been smoothed. I know that for a fact because his letterhead reads, "Todd J. Diamond, COO/Executive Vice President International Sports Advisors Co., Inc.”
Guess what? His boss still is -- as it was eons ago -- Mark (Himself) Gandler. Just for the heck of it, I asked Todd what he does for a living. "We have a tremendous group of clients," he modestly replied; "better than any point in our history."
The kid isn't kidding. Aleksander Barkov, Mikael Granlund, Ivan Provorov, Pavel Buchnevich, among many others. They figure to have a top ten draft pick in William Eklund, an offensive dynamo from Djurgården in Stockholm.
Imagine, had Neil Smith not introduced me to Mark Gandler, I doubt that Todd Diamond would have on his desk, the following message: COO/Executive Vice President.
Thank you, Neil and Mark. I always wanted to tell my grand-kids that I knew a vice-president when he still was studying French 01!
KELLY HRUDEY ON MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Hillel Kuttler and Kelly Hrudey talk mental health.
Former NHL goalie and current TV analyst Kelly Hrudey candidly discussed the importance of mental health with award-winning journalist Hillel Kuttler on the latter's podcast, Athletics Beyond Coronavirus.
Hrudey, who starred in the famed Easter Epic game in 1987, when the Islanders defeated the Capitals in Game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals, told Kuttler that his daughter Kaitlin's tackling her own mental-health challenges inspired him to come forward with his struggles, which began in 1992. Hrudey said he continues to see a therapist each week.
"With my platform, I thought it'd be really nice if I shared it with people," Hrudey said. As a result, many hockey executives "have shared with me their personal stories" and challenges -- struggles they haven't shared with their spouses, he noted.
"It's hard to hear, but it's the start to getting better," Hrudey said.
During last season's delayed Stanley Cup final, Hrudey admitted, "my mental state wasn't good" because of a new wave of infections that had hit Canada. Anxiety over the renewed outbreak had caused his wife to break out in shingles; she'd even feared that she was having a heart attack.
Sports psychiatrist Antomia Baum, who joined Hrudey on Kuttler's program, commended him for being available to his peers. "It means so much more that ... they feel they can talk to you," she said.
JOE THORNTON IS ON A ‘JUMBO’ ROLL WITH THE LEAFS
TFR’s Toronto correspondent, Rob Del Mundo, provides an update on the future Hall of Famer.
A testament to Joe Thornton’s longevity was exhibited in Thursday night’s Leafs win over the Canadiens when the veteran forward earned an assist on a highlight reel end-to-end goal by Mitch Marner. The tally came at the expense of goaltender Cayden Primeau, whose uncle Wayne was part of the package that San Jose sent to Boston to obtain Thornton, in November 2005.
Fifteen and a half years later, the collective pittance of Boston’s return; Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm, have all retired from the NHL, while Thornton prepares for what might be – in his 22nd season – his last chance at a Stanley Cup.
Indeed, the last half of April and the beginning of May has seen Thornton undergo a renaissance to his 2021 campaign that had been plagued with inconsistency. A fifteen-game scoring drought that started in mid-March left many pundits to wonder whether the grind and rigors of the schedule was taking its toll on the oldest forward in the NHL.
But, in response to his naysayers, all Thornton has done between April 22 and May 6 is compile a seven-game point streak (2 goals, 5 assists), becoming the fourth oldest player in league history, at 41 years, 308 days to amass a run of that length. Along the way, he bypassed Allan Stanley as the oldest Maple Leaf to score a goal and registered his 1,100th career assist.
His versatility is evident in his rotation throughout the forward lines. At the beginning of the month, Thornton was on the fourth line with fellow veteran Jason Spezza and second year forward Adam Brooks, the latter of whom may have felt like he was at “take your kids to work day” suiting up alongside a pair of aging superstars.
Last Thursday, Thornton was reunited with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the top line, a unit that was assembled by coach Sheldon Keefe at the start of the year.
“I feel like I'm a chameleon,” Thornton told reporters before the game. “I feel like I can play anywhere in the lineup. I feel real comfortable at left wing now. Put me anywhere."
With the imminent return of injured forwards Nick Foligno and Zach Hyman, Thornton is among a group of players that includes Brooks, Wayne Simmonds and Pierre Engvall who will be jockeying for a spot in the starting lineup at playoff time.
But even if Thornton were to sit for a game or two, the intangibles that the future Hall of Famer brings into the lineup – his experience and work ethic – continue to permeate throughout the dressing room.
"No stress," Matthews said of Thornton. "He's a guy that just has no stress. Something I've learned from him is just not to stress out and just go with the flow."
Beneath the patented playoff beard, Jumbo is certainly peaking at the right time.
COBY’S COLUMN: BRUINS HITTING THEIR STRIDE
With just two games remaining, the Boston Bruins have won six of 10 and despite a 5-4 loss to the Rangers on Saturday, look to be peaking at the right time. Just before the playoffs.
Tuukka Rask is back for Boston and is playing at an elite level, posting a .926SV% in eight starts since returning from injury he suffered back in late March. Contrarily, in 15 starts prior to the injury, his save percentage was at .907.
22-year-old backup goalie Jeremy Swayman has been fantastic as a rookie, boasting a .946SV% in nine starts. His addition to the goalie group has been massive, as Jaroslav Halak, their backup since the 2018-19 season, has made one appearance since April 23rd and has a poor .873SV% in his last five starts.
The early returns on Boston’s three trade deadline acquisitions have been promising. Forward Taylor Hall has 12 points in 15 games, and defenseman Mike Reilly has seven points and a +7 rating in 14 games while providing solid minutes on the blueline.
‘The Perfection Line’ still leads this team, though. Brad Marchand is tops with 67 points, good for third in the league, followed by Patrice Bergeron with 48 and David Pastrnak with 47.
Charlie McAvoy has had a superior season on defense, posting 30 points in 50 games while ranking 10th among defensemen with a +21 rating. He has improved offensively this season, posting a career high 0.60 points per game while contributing eight power play points. He had 11 career power play points coming into this season.
With just two games left, Boston can finish no higher than third in the East, but they only have a one-point lead over the Islanders for that spot. However, the Bruins have a game in hand.
The Bruins have kicked it into high gear in the last month. And if they keep up their stellar play, they will be a tough out in the playoffs.
Good news for Utica! I had heard that the Devils' policy was to have all their farm clubs use the Devils name, but the Comets will live on with new uniforms and colors. This will be the second time for the Devils' AHL affiliate to be located in Utica, the first having been in operation from 1987 to 1993. I have fond memories of that team, Utica's various other clubs and the Clinton Comets, whose only retired number is in honor of my wife's uncle, Tom Lewis.