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Bluelines: A Harsh, But Honest, View of the Contenders

With some help from his friends, Stan Fischler looks at how some of the top contenders will fare down the stretch run, the loss of a New York hockey staple, how train rides kept hockey teams close in the past and so much more.
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Editor's note: Happy birthday to Stan, who turned 90 on Thursday!

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SCOUT'S REPORT EXCLUSIVE: WHEN NOT TO PULL A GOALIE

In every issue, Bluelines and The Fischler Report will bring you a special, in-depth report by David Kolb, whose scouting career dates back to the early 2000s working for the Tampa Bay Lightning. As you will see by the following, this is an in-depth, no-nonsense evaluation of specific tactical success. An exclusive look at the end of the Michigan-Quinnipiac NCAA quarterfinal.

With two of my children attending the University of Michigan, it was natural for me to follow and watch most Michigan Wolverine hockey games this season.

Last Sunday, in the NCAA College Hockey Quarterfinals, Michigan looked incredible for the first two periods, dominating the Quinnipiac Bobcats -- and then the bottom fell out.

They began the third period with a 4-0 lead, until the Bobcats got on the board 4:12 into the third period. Then nearly five minutes later, Quinnipiac scored again, tightening the score to 4-2.

Momentum turned and Michigan tried to play it safe -- and the Bobcats kept pressing. Just over two minutes later, Quinnipiac scored again!!! And the Wolverines were clearly rattled and on the ropes.

Michigan continued to retreat into their own zone and Quinnipiac had them on the ropes. The play seemed to only take place in the Michigan end of the ice, and plenty of time was left on the clock.

This was not the way coach Mel Pearson wanted his team to close out the Allentown NCAA Regionals.

Then with an offensive zone faceoff about to be dropped, Bobcats coach, Rand Pecknold, pulled goalie, Dylan St. Cyr, with nearly four minutes remaining.

Immediately, I was stunned, considering the time on the clock and the sheer tidal-wave-like momentum Quinnipiac had at the time (without the extra-man). But Pecknold tried to parlay momentum with an extra skater -- and it backfired! Seconds later, after a faceoff deep in the Michigan end, forward, Thomas Bordeleau picked up a loose puck and passed it to Michael Pastujov, who scored the empty-netter to extend the Wolverine lead to 5-3, and all but end the game.

The game wound up ending 7-4, but after the smoke cleared, many questioned the strategy behind Pecknold’s game-changing decision.

He defended the move: “It was a pretty normal decision for how I operate. Probably the last 13, 14 years, we’ve done that pretty regularly, getting the goalie out early. It works a lot more than it doesn’t for us.”

His explanation is passable, but what he didn’t have throughout the past 13, 14 years was momentum of vast scale – complete domination, that Quinnipiac owned late in the third period.

“We were reeling. They had us on the ropes. It was an interesting time to pull the goalie,” said a gleeful Pearson post-game.

“They had all the momentum, and there’s like four minutes left in the game,” Pearson said. “I’m not going to question any coach. (Pecknold has) been around a long time. Ton of respect for him -- they were pushing, they didn’t need to pull the goalie, they were all over us.”

For me, four minutes -- with incredible momentum is too early to pull your goalie. One bounce, one mistake, one lost draw loses the game. I would have waited till the two-minute mark.

Particularly after seeing the younger Wolverines struggle, trying to close out Quinnipiac throughout that third period. They were scrambling all over the defensive end, having a tough time keeping up with the Bobcats. In fact it seemed inevitable that Quinnipiac would score to tie the game.

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A HARSH -- BUT HONEST -- VIEW OF THE CONTENDERS:

Our candid Gus Vic doesn't fool around. Listen up:

Honeymoon Over in Vegas – While it would not be fair to underestimate the severity of the injuries to Mark Stone or Alec Martinez, the timing for the Stone going on LTIR coinciding with the activation of Jack Eichel certainly had the bouquet of salary cap circumvention similar to that Tampa Bay pulled off last season with Nikita Kucherov. Whatever the truth is, the reality is Eichel was brought in to be the final piece for the Golden Knights title run and he is going to miss the playoffs again. The Stars are projecting to 97.6 points. The long-running feel good story in Sin City is coming to an end.

Rangers win Cup - It won't happen. Let’s bury the Rangers annual championship.. No question this team is on an upward arc. It’s a good squad whose success has also been enhanced by the goaltending of Igor Shesterkin. Though I am not big on the uber-analytics, their numbers do underscore flaws in terms of puck possession and chances generated in relation to their opposition. While this reporter believes they actually match up well with every team in the east except for Carolina and it’s not out of the possibility to make a deep run. The spring of 2023 or 2024 feels more like it. Like the parts added with Copp, Motte and Braun but still need to make a couple of more tweaks to give this team the composite identity.

Let’s Not Hand the West to Colorado Just Yet - The pressure on this team will eclipse that of all other teams in five weeks. The Avs remain high-octane, high-entertainment value. Aside from the lingering question of Darcy Kuemper’s ability to backstop 16 wins, there's a pair of ornery teams they may have to get through just to reach the buzzsaw which exits the East. I’ve shared with our talent that I do not believe the Avalanche can get through both Minnesota and Calgary to win the Cup. The Wild are big and heavy and now have a three-time Stanley Cup champion in net while the Flames are right out of Central Casting from the Darryl Sutter teams of 2012 and 2014. It’s been a marvelous season for Nazem Kadri. Since early November, I’ve regarded him as the single most important player for a Cup push outside of Kuemper. All’s good for now but who’s not to say brain freeze Part 4 won’t kick into play when Minnesota and/or Calgary get in his grill at every given opportunity

The On Switch – So Tampa Bay is in a bit of a slide. Back-to-back Cups have earned them the respect of many who believe the ship gets righted in time for the playoffs. Personnel-wise and even with a re-made third line, there is little question the Bolts remain formidable. Unlike the past two seasons, however, the East is loaded. No easy path regardless of the combination of teams they’d have to beat to get to the Final. Heck, the Panthers and Hurricanes are primed to take that next step and believe their motivation outweighs that of Tampa Bay in their hunt of “Dynasty” status. Not to mention the problems Pittsburgh, Boston and the Rangers have created for them during the regular season. On a side note, Sebastian Aho recently got under the skin of Kucherov. The latter has certainly shown he can take the abuse during the Cup runs. However, this also brought to mind his 2019 meltdown in the sweep absorbed at the hands of Columbus. This, along with the Tampa gas tank, will clearly be worth watching come May 2.

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HOW THE BOLTS ARE SHAPING UP FOR A THIRD CUP 

With a team as good as the Lightning I normally wouldn’t let a three-game losing streak, or their recent string of six losses in eight games, be a deterrent in the quest for three. But the losing streak didn’t end easily. The three straight wins over Detroit, the New York Islanders and Carolina were all come from behind efforts. This has not been the Lightning team that we’re accustomed to seeing dominate games. They finished March with a less than impressive 8-7-0 record.

I would be concerned for a team with an aging nucleus and that has gone through two consecutive long playoff runs. The Lightning had only 83 days to rest from their last Cup win to the start of training camp. Their final 16 games of this season will be completed in a span of 29 days. This allows minimum rest and practice time. On the flip side, twelve of those games are at home.

For a short time, the Bolts slipped from the Atlantic Division top three to the wild card competition.

The grueling season has taken its toll, perhaps more so on the Lightning than any other contending team. Steven Stamkos had a recent 8-game goal-less streak. Nikita Kucherov has but one goal in his last 14 games (although he’s had 11 assists in that span). Ondrej Palat hasn’t scored in 23 games. This has to improve come playoff time. Somehow it always does for the Lightning. Last year coach Jon Cooper sacrificed a division title in order to rest his star players at the end of the season. He may have to do the same this year.

After the Carolina win, Cooper, forever the optimist and positive motivator, spoke of his team’s troubles and the recovery. He downplayed the losing spell. “They’re putting the puck in the net. You guys (media) judge everything on the puck going in the net. They’ve had a ton of looks before but it wasn’t going in and now it’s going in for them…They’re starting to see dividends of what they were doing before.”

The road ahead will not be easy. The Bolts have an overworked goalie and tired players. The loss of Ryan McDonagh and his gritty playoff reputation will be significant. This year, with cap constraints, GM Julien BriseBois couldn’t pull off the magic he did in seasons prior with people like David Savard, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. His acquisition of Brandon Hagel from Chicago can be this year’s sleeper. Acquiring Riley Nash and Nick Paul for depth may be just what Cooper needed to cut some ice time from his vets.

Never count the Lightning out. They have the talent, experience and coaching for a deep run but I think they will ultimately wear out the younger legs of either Florida or Carolina in the East.

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MY GRANDSON'S VIEW OF THE HOMESTRETCH:

My Grandson, Ariel Fischler, plays hockey for a Swiss team, the very-winning Thun Dragons.He's a forward and very much a student of all things hockey, including the NHL. With the homestretch right ahead of us, I asked Ariel how he views the better teams in the four NHL Divisions. (Most likely winners come first on his lists.)

ATLANTIC: Tampa Bay will do best because of the Bolts experience -- winning the last two Cups. Jon Cooper is the most motivated coach I've seen. Plus, his goaltending is top-notch. I believe the team that will come closest to the Bolts -- and this may come as a surprise -- is Toronto. Adding defenseman Mark Giordano is a huge plus to complement the likes of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Alex Nylander. The Leafs have enough offense to compensate for any flaws. Third but not least, Florida has many assets. Adding Claude Giroux is huge plus Jonathan Huberdeau, ? Barkov and a number of other solid forwards pack plus punch. Bobby and the kid, fortify the read. The Cats boast two good goalies.

METROPOLITAN: Carolina has it all, but, of all important things I'm nuts about their terrific teamwork,.The goaltending of Fred Andersen has been super all year and Rod Brind'Amour is an exceptional motivator. Runner-up is Pittsburgh, the team everyone forgets. Sidney and Geno both have enough gas for a strong push. Plus, Kris Letang still is at the top of his game. Goaltending has to prove its playoff worth. The Rangers have done wonders climbing from last season's depths. But the Blueshirts are too inexperienced to make a hit this year. Granted, they have toughness that had been missing. Chris Kreider is a legit threat and if you add Irog Shesterkin and the amazing offense, they could be the sleeper.

CENTRAL: I go with Colorado first on the grounds that Darcy's Koemper's goaltending is better than most think. Between Nathan MacKinnon and ?? Rantanen you have that amazing captain Gabe Landescog. The Aves have too much in too many places to be topped; especially with Cale Maker is a defense-difference- -maker. If not the Avs, then Minnesota gets my runner-up vote. Adding Marc-Andre Fleury is a big point in their favor, The Flower and Cam Talbot make a terrific one-two goaltending combo. The Wild also feature underrated forwards such as Mats Zuccarello, Kirill Kaprisov and Kevin Fiala. Matt Dumba is a first-rate defender. In third place, Nashville, Roman Josi is the NHL's hest D-man and Jussi Sarros has grown as good as Pekka Rinne. The Preds offense, led by Filip Forsberg, is worry.PACIFIC: Calgary for sure belongs on top. Jacob Markstrom is having his best year in goal. Johnny Gaudreau should get more attention for his bounce-back year while Matt Tkachuk also is enjoying an amazing season. Rasmus Anderson is vastly underrated on D. Plus, Dwayne Sutter has the entire unit hustling. Fpr runner-up,. I like L.A. The likes of Anze Kopitar, ? Kempe and Phil Danault give the Kings a strong offense. Drew Doughty still has the blue line goods as does Jon Quick in goal. ? Petersen is a darn solid back up. Sorry, bue even with McDavid's magic, the Oilers can't win big with their goaltending.

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WHO SAID IT? "I'm the only one the Lockout didn't affect." (Answer below.)

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WHAT'S GOING ON HERE DEPARTMENT?

Food for thought from the very cerebral Glenn Dreyfuss in Krakenville. Our man in Seattle sees a new trend in 3-on-3 OT strategy. Call it an Orderly Retreat.

"Teams seem to be taking a more deliberate overtime style," says the dauntless Dreyfuss. "In a Caps-Sabres game, Buffalo retreated out of the offensive zone no less than five times. They either skated out or passed the puck back to the neutral zone.

"I also saw the Kraken do virtually the same thing four different times. And Dallas did it three times in a game against the Canes. Interestingly all three games wound up going to Shootouts."

Go figure.

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THE CLOSING OF GERRY COSBY'S AT THE GARDEN

For the past two years there's been a huge gap in Metropolitan New York's hockey life. And even that's an understatement.

The centerpiece meeting place for anyone heading to The Garden for a Rangers home game was the Gerry Cosby hockey store. Now it is no more. Even in its last run on West 31st Street -- the smallest of the Cosby hockey terminals -- the shop was the stopping off point for all hockey fans; many from overseas.

"Every hockey fan worth his weight in pucks would stop off at Cosby's either to buy something or just look around or even to merely schmooze," recalled George Falkowski who got his first Devils jersey at the landmark store.

The original schmoozing began at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets during the late 1940's onward. Gerry Cosby, himself a former goalie, ran the establishment.

In those halcyon days of the Original Six NHL teams Cosby's sold everything hockey from skates to assorted equipment and even such chochkes as hockey tie pins and even cufflinks. Everything! (I got my first Maple Leaf decals there. Still have 'em.)

The beauty part of any visit was that if you just wanted to drop in and talk hockey, you were as welcome as any big spender. And there always were hockey people around. My younger son, Simon, who worked in the store, remembered some of the "names" who were frequent visitors.

"Wayne Gretzky became a friend just by dropping in to buy something but also to chat," Simon remembered. "I found him to be a great guy to talk to as well as being a great hockey player."

At any given time you'd find a Ranger there, stopping by before heading to the dressing room for supplies. Gerry's son, Michael, soon learned the business from his dad and became the face of the franchise.

It was Michael who stocked the store with hockey books. When a new edition came out, you could be sure that Mike would schedule an autographing event.

'One of the biggest turnouts we ever had was when Rocket Richard came to the store after we moved to the New Garden," Mike once told me. "His book was called 'The Flying Frenchmen' and we had so many people show up that there was a line outside the store for folks who wanted to buy a book and have Richard autograph it."

"Cosby's transition from its Eighth Avenue location to the new Garden was seamless although the first new store was on 31st Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. It later was moved to Seventh Avenue between 31st and 33d Streets, actually inside the Garden building itself.

"That was an ideal location because fans couldn't miss it as they walked past it and into the arena itself," Falkowski recalled. "And if you went often enough you'd get to know the help as if they were good friends."

We knew them so well by their first names -- Jim, Rick, Patti, et. al. and all pals. But, most of all Michael, a quasi-businessman and friend. Chats with him were priceless and adored. My older son, Ben, who also worked there also misses the place.

"My fondest memories," said Ben, "include Mike holding court behind the counter and the delightful chaos of all the goods stored everywhere."

As much as Cosby's, the store, will be missed, so too will Mike, Rick, Patti, Jim and the whole, other wonderful gang of hockey folks who never rejected a good chance to schmooze about our favorite game.

So, a fond adieu to everyone's second hockey home, Cosby's at the Garden!

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TAKING A TRAIN TO A GAME:

During the Original Six Era and way beyond, it was normal for an NHL club to use the railroads for out-of-town games. As a matter of fact, it really was the only way to go. But air flights -- necessary for transcontinental travel -- long ago replaced the intercity Pullman rides. So it was with great interest that we learned that the Panthers -- after a game in Montreal -- took the train to Ottawa for their next contest.

When Mike Milbury ran the Islanders, he had his club board the Long Island Rail Road at its Mineola station for the trip to Manhattan and a game with the Rangers.

I recall watching forward Dave Scatchard -- a train buff -- squeeze into the engineer's compartment for the ride to Penn Station and MSG.

Many veteran players from the 1940's and 1950's praised the train rides for the camaraderie it produces among teammates; something that doesn't quite work the same way on plane rides.

Rangers from the Ed Giacomin era will tell you about the times they rode the Long Island Rail Road from their Long Beach homes to contests at The Garden. Or the time Eddie, the goalie, and some teammates never got to a game. Their LIRR express was marooned in a blizzard!

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ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Rangers goalie Glenn Healy, who rarely played because he was backup to ironman starter Mike Richter.

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