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Bluelines: All Hail the Panthers!

Stan Fischler looks at a pair of Florida-based powerhouses, Jeff Blashill, the Jack Adams award, the underrated Pittsburgh Penguins, the Vegas Golden Knights, officiating and much more.
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7 THINGS YOU SHOULD THINK ABOUT THIS WEEKEND

1. OILERS: The scariest team heading into the playoffs has to be Edmonton. All they need is half-decent goaltending.

2.VEGAS: Owner Bill Foley never wanted to trade Marc-Andre Fleury. Someone is going to have to pay the price for non-playoff.

3. RANGERS: Chris Kreider just won the "Rod Gilbert-Mister Rangers Award." He's the Blueshirts not-so-secret playoff weapon.

4.PREDATORS: For Nashville's sake, Juuse Saros had better get better in a hurry. He's John Hynes' playoff upset-maker.

5. JACK EICHEL: GM Kelly McCrimmon has to be wondering why Jumpin' Jake never is on a playoff club. Is it Jack or the team?

6. MINNESOTA: The most meaningful game last night featured two of the best teams. The Wild beat the Flames, 3-2. Minny's hot!

7. KK=A-OK: The Wild's Kirill Kaprizov got the OT winner. The Rapid Russian is the most underrated sniPer heading to the playoffs.

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ALL HAIL THE PANTHERS:

No question; the annual Presidents' Trophy-winners never get the credit they deserve. Never. Finishing on top in a marathon season is just as tough -- if not more taxing -- than winning the Stanley Cup.

Under interim coach Andy Brunette, Florida finished with an astounding 58-17-6 Presidents' Trophy-winning season. And down the homestretch of16 games, the Cats went 14-2-0. That's beyond fabulous. Kudos to GM Bill Zito for making this possible!

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THE CHAMPS HAVE FOUND THEIR FORM -- JUST IN TIME

Time is running out on the Tampa Bay Lightning. That is, if you believe last night's 5-2 loss to Columbus means anything.

Either the defending Champs will relinquish their throne in the first playoff round or maybe even survive all the way to the Final.

OR -- and it's a big OR -- they will ape the 1949 heroics performed by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That was the season, 73 years ago, when coach Hap Day's team struggled to win an unprecedented third consecutive Stanley Cup.

Of course nobody thought such a feat was possible. After all, no team had ever won more than two Cups in succession. And, besides, the Leafs had a mediocre, under .500 campaign -- 22-25-13.

But that was the regular season and now the boys were playing for big money. Suddenly, the Dead Leafs became the Dreaded Leafs.

First, they knocked off the Bruins in five games and then faced Detroit which finished with a breathtaking 34-19-7 mark.

What a joke. Toronto knocked off Abel-Lindsay-Howe in four straight for their third Cup in a row.

This raises the pertinent question: can the Lightning pull off a reasonable facsimile and -- for a third Cup hat trick -- win all the marbles, artfully disguised as thousand-dollar bills?

Like those '49 Leafs, the Bolts have reawakened and. like those Leafs, Tampa Bay has the horses. Hey,, perhaps, Jon Cooper's club spent the regular slate same as Toronto did when there still were Oldsmobiles.

What Toronto's right wing Howie Meeker said then, just might hold for the Bolts entering the real season:

"Anybody who knew us, knew the Leafs were much better than we showed," said Meeker. "We weren't a below .500 club really. Anybody who considered us that was 'way out of their minds!"

Same holds for the defending Champs!

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BAD VIBES ABOUT BLASHILL

The more learned folks I talk to, the more certain I am that Steve Yzerman is thinking about getting a new benc boss. Even Detroit reporters and thinking along those lines. Same for our trusty Gus Vic.

"Blashill was supposed to be a disciple of Mike Babcock," says Vic, "and although there's been some uptick in Detroit's personnel, Blashill has been there seven seasons and missed the playoffs in the past six.

"Plus the Red Wings have no true identity and have been surpassed by Buffalo as a team poised to be a threat in the Atlantic. Detroit is three seasons away from the playoffs. Part of that is on the coach."

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I'M JUST SAYIN' 

* My Adams Award favorite is Todd McLellan for turning L.A. into a playoff team a year ahead of schedule.

* Right up there is old pal John Hynes who fooled the forecasters by getting his Preds into the postseason..

* Stevie Yzerman should be thinking about Travis Green, Claude Julien or David Quinn on the assumption that Blashill will be sacked.

* The real question is this: Just who is Yzerman's kind of guy?

* After his successful run as ESPN guru, my buddy, John Tortorella, might want one more kick at the coaching can. Might!

* Alibis, notwithstanding, the De-Knighting of Vegas is the deason's most unexpected event. This figured to be a Cup year.

* What went wrong in Sin City? Jeff Gordon of the St.Louis Post-Dispatch puts it best: "Spastic management can create a mess."

* I like Mike Augello's four-word view of Toronto's Cup chances: "Jack Campbell or bust!"

* Every spring The Champs need a new energizer. This time around it's gritty Nick Paul who arrived in Bolts-ville at the deadline.

* Nick told Al (Paul Pal) Greenberg: "I can play heavy, hard and win battles. Playoff hockey is my kind of hockey." (We shall see.)

* Hard To Believe Department: Florida's fabulous coach Andy Brunette stil is listed as an "Interim Coach" with an expiring deal.

* Brunette's boss, Bill Zito, must like his bench guy. Summing up the Cats since Joel Quennevlle left, Zito opined, "The train kept moving forward."

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WHO SAID IT? "We had to play at a high level to play our way back in."

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THE MOST UNDERRATED ON THE UNDERRATED PENGUINS

Behind Sidney, Gino and Kris there have been non-headline heroes up front and on D. My veteran Pitt analyst Vince Comunale offers his views on this pertinent pair:

Jeff Carter: "He's quietly gone about his business on the third line racking up respectable numbers. His versatility in jumping up to play with Crosby or Malkin on the wing shows that he's still got offensive prowess. Plus Jeff's veteran leadership has been invaluable to guys like Kasperi Kapanen.

Chad Ruhwedel: On the depth chart he's the fifth or sixth defenseman yet he's never a candidate for a healthy scratch. And while it won't wow anyone, he set a career high in points and has been as steady as they come."

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THE READERS WRITE: BUTTERFLY VS. NEW IDEA,

Reader Richard C. Clontz says the butterfly has become a too "predictable move." And "different positions" should be tried. Clontz offers an "Alternative Position." Listen up, goalies, you might agree:

"One pad down in the horizontal position and the other skate with the blade on the ice. This makes the goalie taller and takes away more of the high shot. The goalie is able to slide across the crease more easily by alternating the pads from left to right.

"This position is also much easier for the goalie stick's blade to be flush with the ice and cover the five-hole. Also, this position helps address the issue of strains on the hips, groins and knees of goalies."

I don't know about you but I find Richard's reasoning very rational. To wit: "Goalies need to show shooters a different look. When the goalie forces the shooter to make adjustments he gains an advantage. Goalies are capable of showing many possible positions to keep the shooters guessing, and make them make adjustments; especially in this Shootout hockey era."

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JOE DIONISIO ON 'STUPID' WHINING ABOUT OFFICIATING

Joltin' Joe studies refereeing with an Argus eye. Listen up because this guy makes sense:

"By far the stupidest whine I regularly hear is when a ref calls a subtle hook or interference penalty and an NHL player or coach barks: 'Why are you calling such trivial, ticky-tack garbage? Let the players decide the game, not the refs!'

"Neither comment passes the logic test. If that subtle hook to the glove or slash-on-stick is so darn ticky-tack, then why do NHLers even bother to do it? Because it's an effective way to skirt the rules, and not nearly as innocuous as they allege.

"When Connor McDavid gets mauled on a breakaway while the ref keeps his whistle silent, how is that 'letting the players decide the game?' I prefer officiating that follows the NFL model of protecting the quarterbacks.

"We need a systemic change that lets McD display his skills, instead of allowing a no-name fourth-liner to display his whacking skills!"

(Any objections to Joe D, lemme know.)

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HOW THE OWNER OF AN A-1 JR. TEAM RELATES TO PLAYERS

What kind of kicks does a New York guy who owns the Portland Winterhawks get from his franchise? Michael Kramer has the answer:

"The best and most surprising part has been the ability to participate with these boys as they go through pursuing their dream. Every one of us grew up with some sort of dream and these guys are actually living in the middle of that dream; and doing it away from their homes.

"We're going to continue building on all the life issues with these boys because we feel a sense of responsibility over them. And it means something to us seeing them sign their NHL contracts. I feel honored to follow these guys as they go forward.

"For example, I still talk to (ex-Winterhawk now with Carolina) Seth Jarvis and I talked to Nick Cicek when he re-signed with San Jose. Being able to follow up with our players has been a great thing for me."

Now that his Hawks have won their first playoff round, Mike may be hanging around Portland for a long Memorial Cup quest.

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THE PYTOR PUCK STORY IN RALEIGH

This is a scary time for playoff-bound coaches forced to use backup goalies as starters. Sometimes back-ups-to-the-backups.

Take Carolina as an example. With crack starter Freddie Andersen gone for who knows how long, coach Rod Brind'Amour started his ancient backup Antti Raanta last Sunday in goal.

Oops! Something went wrong with Raanta and out he went for who knows what.

The replacement says it all: Roddy had to insert Pyotr Kochetkov of Penzo, Russia to finish the game against the Islanders.

Carolina won. Then Pytor Puck came to Seventh Avenue and beat the Rangers on Tuesday night.

It says here that we may have a Cinderella story with Kochetkov as Cindy.

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ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Oilers GM Ken Holland (the other day) assessing his Edmonton skaters' climb in the standings.

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