The Real Sleeper is in Uniondale

Islanders have the goods to go deep again. Stars Tyler Seguin gets back on the ice. Checking in on Alexis Lafreniere. Michael Hauser gains his first NHL win.

We all know who the Cup favorites are; not to mention a couple in the Runner-Up category.

You just have to like Tampa Bay if only because no sane bettor wages against the Champs.

Unless, that is, the betting man is from Vegas. Then, logic dictates putting cash on the Golden Knights because they've had a more 14-carat gold season than the Bolts.

North Division-watchers will give you any number of reasons why Boston (Taylor Hall's new home), Washington (Ovie) or Pittsburgh (Sid) have reasonable shots at The Mug. Each has legit assets.

Which is not at all a slight at Carolina, Colorado or St.Lou. But enough of that fiddle-faddle; let's get to the Sleeper of all Sleepers. 

The New York Islanders.

By certain Lou Lamoriello standards, the Nassaumen have been constructed for playoff hockey.

Start with the goaltending. Semyon Varlamov and his youthful but experienced sidekick Ilya Sorokin, provide as solid a one-two combination as seen in Nassau since Glenn (Chico) Resch and Battlin' Billy Smith.

Even without the out-of-for-the-season captain Anders Lee, coach Barry Trotz has been able to compensate. His lines are well-balanced but without a true gunner in the Ovechkin-Crosby class.

Any one of the four lines is apt to score while still sticking to a conservative, Trotz playoff style.

They proved themselves in the double-dip wins on Thursday and Saturday night against the previously surging Rangers. The contrast was striking. The Isles dominated; the Blueshirts offered less than nothing. "There was no answer to Islanders pressure," says our Gus Vic, "and no forecheck."

Mathew Barzal stands out among the most creative of the Isles forwards. With his dazzling break-out speed, he has a touch of Connor McDavid. Big Brock Nelson, whose game skyrocketed under Trotz, owns the hardest shot.

The Isles defense has been surprisingly good despite the permanent loss of Johnny Boychuk who had been the balance wheel of the backliners.

Almost magically, Lamoriello obtained the seemingly-about-to-retire Andy Greene late last season. Plugged into Boychuk's slot, the gregarious Greene has acted like a young vet not one headed for the Used D-Man lot.

Greene may be the bargain surprise of the entire season in the league. 

Meanwhile, the Ryan Pulock-Adam Pelech tandem ranks among the best quiet D-pair between Montauk and Montana.

The Isles answer to Alex Pietrangelo is the subdued-yet-smooth Nick Leddy, easily one of the NHL strongest skaters since  Paul Coffey. Like others under the Trotz baton, Bashful-Nick-Ready-To-Click curbs his scoring enthusiasm just enough to play a solid, two-way game.

Slick sophomore Noah Dobson remains the wild card. Like the Rangers' Adam Fox, Dobson's unlimited talents make him a threat on any shift. Dobson essentially is the replacement for Devon Toews.

They're a "sleeper" for a reason; issues that need remedies. One is the power play and the other has to do with the late-comers; Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri. Chemistry with the new guys must be developed.

The balance wheel in the end is Barzal. He must bolster his defensive side and be the offensive force that he can be.

All hands agree that the Islanders have played playoff hockey all season. For that reason alone, Lou's lads can turn "sleeper" into super.


HEADLINE: DECIPHERING THE RANGERS ENIGMA

THE JIVE: Our super-insightful seer, Gus Vic,, called the shot on the Rangers a few weeks ago. He's now taking those facts and looking ahead.

Blueshirts Faithful should listen up.

Vic: "The last two losses to the Islanders should give John Davidson and Jeff Gorton a clear picture of what the 2021-22 blueprint needs to be. When looking at the success against more defensively-structured teams in their division (Pitt, Isles Bruins) the Rangers mark is decidedly weaker than against those less-structured (Caps, Flyers, Devils, Sabres). 

"David Quinn's first order of business in the off-season needs to be how to figure a buy-in for adjusting styles based on the foe. The Blueshirts have put themselves in a position to play catch-up each of the past two seasons. If the team starts slow in the fall David Quinn may give way to Kris Knoblauch sooner than later.

"This Rangers team is laden with talent. When it can spread its wings, the club can skate and move the puck with any team in the NHL, But when the team runs into opponents with a modicum of defensive structure. Poof! All that feel good goes away."

What remains to be seen -- and heard and possibly done -- is the result of John Davidson's evaluation of coach Quinn. Although subdued, there are voices that suggest that J.D. will import his own man; not one he inherited.


HEADLINE: CHEERING FOR CHYCHRUN

THE JIVE: About a dozen or so years ago my Florida fishing boat captain, Steve Horowitz, phoned. "There's a kid here who's gonna be going places. Put down his name: Jakob Chychrun." So, I told Pal Steve that the only Chychrun I ever knew was Jeff and he was a darn good player. "Yeah," snapped Steve, "and Jakob is Jeff's kid."

A couple of years later, Jeff gave me an update on his son. Now I have an update-on-the-update. Coyotes defenseman Jakob, 23, stands 6-2, 210, and merely is the second-highest scorer for Arizona. One recent scouting report offered this: "Jake's been so good that he deserves some 'award' consideration later this year." 

Well, we know he won't win the Norris Trophy -- who will?-- and, frankly, I don't know what other prize is available that fits Chychrun's talents, so I'll make one up for you. "The Coconut Award -- For Best NHL Player Born In Boca Raton, Florida."


HEADLINE: TYLER SEGUIN RETURNS AFTER MISSING 51 GAMES – DALLAS RALLY FALLS SHORT

THE JIVE: Dallas Stars’ star Tyler Seguin played his first game of the season last night after rehabbing from off-season hip surgery. He looked good in 17:09 of ice time spent on multiple line combinations as well as special teams. His third period goal capped a rally which brought the Stars to a 4-4 tie in Florida, only to lose in OT. The desperate Stars are barely clinging to a playoff hope. The one point left them four behind Nashville with four games remaining as compared to Nashville’s three.

Post-game Seguin spoke about his difficult rehabilitation, admitting that at times he had his doubts. About the first game back, “It was emotional. This whole day – trying to make your mind your friend. A lot of excitement, a lot of nerves and, frankly, a lot of emotion. It was a long journey to get to this point. It’s been tough watching our team going through everything they have this whole year and not being able to help so it was nice to finally get out there.”

Coach Rick Bowness added, “He’s been working very hard to get himself back in shape to play and help the team, which he did tonight…When you take that much time off there’s no way you’re going to have the timing of the hands and the reads. The game gets so fast out there…He probably played more than I had originally planned going into it but when we fell behind…we tried to keep his shifts very short and he was very good.”  


HEADLINE: GRADING THE FIRST OVERALL DRAFT PICK

THE JIVE: When the Rangers selected Alexis Lafreniere first overall in the 2020 Draft, his scouting report stated: "He has elite-level creativity, vision and anticipation. Alex also is top-notch with his work ethic, poise and competitiveness." Since my Rangers fan grandson, Ariel -- who's 15 and plays competitive hockey -- knows his pucks, I asked him to grade Lafreniere. His reply: "I give him a five out of ten. And for this reason: He was under pressure with all the publicity of being a first pick. Also the epidemic hurt his progress. He pressured pretty well. He has a good shot and passes well but his numbers haven't matched his hype. As rookies go, K'Andre Miller was better."


HEADLINE: A FEEL-GOOD STORY TO MAKE YOU SMILE.

THE JIVE: Feel Good Story Department: Congratulations to Tampa Bay taxi squad goalie Chris Gibson on getting his first NHL victory in over three years. Prior to Saturday’s start his resume this year consisted of one NHL and two AHL starts.

The 28-year-old Gibson, a journeyman minor leaguer, last won a game on March 20, 2018 as a member of the New York Islanders. His 22 saves in the 2-1 victory over Detroit featured thwarting a 5-3 disadvantage for a full two minutes.

Post-game, Gibson stoically accepted his plight. “It’s been a challenge. Every hockey player wants to play every single night. I’m lucky enough – we have a great taxi squad group here too and the guys have been great with me and encouraging every single day.”

Gibson’s emergence provides more playoff depth to a team already wealthy in goaltending talent.


HEADLINE: YET ANOTHER FEEL-GOOD STORY

THE JIVE: Wherever dear Cinderella may be hanging out these days, the dear girl must be delighted with what's going on in the NHL; one Cinderella story after another. The latest took place last night in Buffalo. Without a first-rate starting goalie, the Sabres hauled career minor leaguer Michael Houser out of the mothballs.

So, what does the ECHL veteran do? He wins his first career NHL start, making 34 saves against the Islanders; a 4-2 decision. We're talking about a guy who's played hundreds of minor league games and, poof, just like that he bests the playoff-bound Islanders. "I remember Houser as a Florida Panthers farmhand," says Alan Greenberg, my man in Sunrise. "He was a great guy and always super positive." (This just in: Cinderella is smiling!)


HEADLINE: A MIGHTY STRONG VIEW OF THE RANGERS

THE JIVE: The New York Post's Larry Brooks has covered the Rangers longer than any beat man in The Big Apple or anywhere else. His recent column on Coach Quinn is arresting to say the least. Listen up:  "There's an issue at the top of the Rangers lineup that must be resolved," Larry asserts. He points out that it involves key performers and their playing, vis-a-vis the Quinn style. Brooks goes on: "There's a disconnect between the team's marquee players and Quinn. The high-end players don't see the game the same way ." This is fascinating stuff from someone who views the Blueshirts more keenly than anyone." (The reaction from the high command bears watching.)


TRIVIA CORNER:

Which hockey family had its own all-sister team and who were the Hall of Fame brothers in that family?

(Answer below)


CLASSIC COMMENTS FROM YESTERYEAR: "Yeah, but Louis (Fontinato) got some good body punches in that hurt."

-Rangers publicist Herb Goren putting a New York spin on his defenseman Lou Fontinato who badly lost a fight to Gordie Howe late in the 1958-59 season. Louie was hospitalized as a result of the beating. As far as anyone could see, Howe was unhurt!


TRIVIA ANSWER: Mr. and Mrs. Bill Bentley of Delisle, Saskatchewan had seven daughters. The gals comprised a very successful team of their own.

Their brothers were Max and Doug Bentley.