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Bluelines: Explaining the Inexplicable Rise of Vegas and Boston

Stan Fischler shares an analysis of the surging Bruins and Golden Knights, recounts Jacques Plante's game-changing decision and more.
Vegas Golden Knights

SIX THOUGHTS ON A WEEK THAT IS

1. Mike Sullivan betrayed a weakness when he allowed himself to be distracted by heckling fans. A losing streak will do that to a losing coach.

2. Suggestions that the Maple Leafs' high command should dump Sheldon Keefe are dumb and dumber. (See Damien Cox below.)

3. Big money dulls motivation. Exhibit A: Jonathan Huberdeau's meh efforts in Calgary.

4. Right now, Bruce Cassidy and Jim Montgomery are tied for first in the coach of the year race.

5. Here's what happens when two Firewagon Hockey teams collide: New Jersey 4, Edmonton, 3, last night in Oil Can Town, no less. Jesper Bratt outplayed Connor McDavid, and 50,000 Albertans still can't believe it.

6. What started as an SOS in St. Louis and Pittsburgh has been upgraded to an SOS times three. Time to worry about goaltending, folks.

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The top five American-born players by Al Greenberg has been moved to Monday's edition of the Fischler Report. For the sixth through 10th best players, check out last Monday's Fischler Report.

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EXPLAINING THE INEXPLICABLE ASCENT OF VEGAS AND BOSTON

The Bruins have gone nuts with wins. Ditto Vegas. And both won a game last night. Who could have figured out the sudden orbiting? Our Sean McCaffrey has the answers right here and now:

How about this for complete NHL irony: The top two teams are the Bruins (10-1-0, 20 points) and Knights (10-2-0, 20 points).

Entering this season, each team faced a major challenge. In Boston, many wondered if the black-and-gold's core had peaked. Compounding matters for the B's is the Atlantic Division, where the Bruins have the Sunshine State one-two punch teams to contend with.

Not only are the Lightning and Panthers tough outs, the Bruins also have to contend with one of their oldest rivals, the Maple Leafs. If that wasn't enough, the Sabres, Devils, Senators and Red Wings all improved during the off-season.

Nearly 3,000 miles away from Boston in Sin City, the Knights had their own can of worms. For the first time in their young history, Vegas missed the playoffs in 2022. Wounded skaters and a rotating door of players were the main culprits.

Injuries continued to plague the Golden Knights heading into this season, especially when on Aug. 11, it was announced that starting goaltender Robin Lehner, would miss the entire campaign due to hip surgery.

Fast-forward to today, and Boston's "old" core, who like Vegas, also had injuries to contend with (Charlie McAvoy and Brad Marchand), are atop of the Eastern Conference.

The Knights were previously written off by the odds-makers in the city of bright lights. Today, behind a tandem of Logan Thompson, who entered this season with only 20 games of NHL experience, and Adin Hill, somewhat a Western Conference backup goalie for hire, Cassidy's new club ranks among the Western Conference elite.

While yes, the "it's still early" disclaimer applies; both franchises are shattering expectations. And it all starts with the bench bosses.

When Montgomery replaced Cassidy, many were skeptical of how the once-troubled coach, mainly known for his work at the college ranks, would handle a veteran club. The answer? So far, so good.

David Pastrnak, who everyone knows soon will receive a huge contract, already has 19 points in 11 games played. Defenseman Hampus Lindholm, acquired at last year's trade deadline, has 13 points in 11 games played. Ever-reliable Patrice Bergeron – he even contemplated retirement this off-season – also is averaging close to a point-per-game with 10 points in 11 games.

And ‘The Rat,’ No. 63, the player everyone loves to hate but wishes he was on their team, Brad Marchand? The long-time Bruin underwent double hip arthroscopy and labral repair surgery in May and wasn't expected back until Christmas. Instead, he returned on Oct. 27 and for kicks – scored two goals and picked up one assist in his season debut. In his second game of the season, he added another goal to his ledger.

No one ever questioned if the Knights could score this season, but if you had doubts, they've been answered. Jack Eichel has 13 points in 12 games. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has 9 points in 12 games. A trio of original Golden Knights, William Karlsson, Shea Theodore and Jonathan Marchessault, along with captain Mark Stone, all are sitting on eight points or more.

Most impressive are the two goalies who raised eyebrows heading into the season. Both Hill and Thompson rank top five in the league in both save percentage and goals allowed – something that not even the most reckless casino gambler would have figured.

Time will tell if these teams sustain their success and go wire-to-wire, but for now both clubs have given their fans something to root for - and there's no reason to doubt either team for playoff contention.

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HERE'S WHAT'S WRONG WITH CROSBY'S PENGUINS

After an enthusiastic start, Pittsburgh's sextet has looked like Penguins who neither can skate nor walk along ice floes. Our man in Pittsburgh, Vince Comunale, has the story:

The Penguins are mired in a six-game losing streak, five of them in regulation. They are still trying to play the speed game that won them Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, but this team is far from those teams. They are older, slower, and smaller than most of the teams they face.

Further, the Penguins' special teams aren't what they used to be either. The Penguins lost PK specialist Zach Aston-Reese in a trade late last season, and the PK hasn't been the same since. The Penguins' PK this season is ranked 28th and the once-vaunted power play is ranked a pedestrian 14th. The PK is mostly passive and allows the opponent to set up shop right in front of its goaltender, unobstructed. The power play is mostly perimeter passing and very few shots. The power play quarterback is Kris Letang, and it is so obvious he is not going to shoot that the opposition PK usually just focuses on the other four players.

Lastly, for the past few seasons, the Penguins have put together very few 60-minute efforts. In many instances, the talent was enough to win them games despite lackluster efforts. However, this season's talent alone is no longer enough. On Tuesday night, the Penguins blew a three-goal lead – on Wednesday, they blew a two-goal lead. In 11 games played, they've blown two-goal leads in four of them. This club is confronted with many problems. Solutions are mandatory, and more so because they're stuck with this core group for at least the next three seasons.

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DON'T FIRE KEEFE SAYS THE TORONTO STAR'S DAMIEN COX

The respected veteran Canadian columnist says nix to any firing until after the playoffs. Cox's defense of Sheldon Keefe is logical. To wit:

"Keefe has proven he can wake this team up after a snoozy start and guide it to a regular season finish. He can't win a playoff round in October or any time before April."

One more thought from Damien: "Why would anyone conclude that Toronto will absolutely be a .500 team or worse because of its mediocre start?"

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CELEBRATE THE PLANTE REVOLUTIONARY MOVE THIS WEEK

This week marks the 63rd anniversary of a game-changing move that, literally, altered the face of goaltending. Noted Guardians Of The Goal author George Grimm provided me with the timely reminder. On Nov. 1, 1959, the Canadiens goalie, Jacques Plante, donned a mask and thereby changed The Game. I happened to be there at the time, and here's The Maven's story.

During the late 1950s, every Rangers-Canadiens game at Madison Square Garden was epic. United Press International reporter Joseph Breu once said, "A Habs-Blueshirts match is more dramatic than the best drama on Broadway."

But, on this night, the drama was even more intense. Led by their captain, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the Montrealers were en route to their fifth straight Stanley Cup. Plante, who enjoyed playing the puck, had enraged Rangers captain Andy Bathgate who accused Plante of deliberately tripping Rangers – including himself – on Jacques' many excursions from his crease.

Bathgate's revenge was a harsh backhander deliberately aimed at the goalie's bare face early in the first period. It not only hit its mark but downed Plante in a pool of blood. Jacques eventually was taken to the Habs room where he was stitched up. It was then that the goalie told coach Toe Blake that he'd return to the game only if he could wear a mask.

Blake said no to the face protector, and the pair argued without decision for a few minutes. Meanwhile in the dressing room corner, Joe Schaefer, the "house goalie" of the night, strapped on his pads in case Blake called on him. When Toe realized he might lose two possible points with Schaefer, he grudgingly allowed the masked Plante to return to play.

The Garden crowd – me included – was stunned as Plante returned to the goal. This was only a day after Halloween, and Jacques looked more like a grotesque holiday character than a goalkeeper. But he played like the Hall of Famer he would become and beat the Rangers 3-1.

Furthermore, well-masked, he kept on winning, although Blake begged him to play at least one more game without his face protector. Plante finally agreed and was badly beaten. From that point on, he wore his mask, and soon other goalies began wearing them until every goaltender took to the protective device.

It's worth noting that Montreal won its fifth straight Cup while Plante did what came naturally to him in the spring of 1960 – winning with his mask.

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Yays and Boos

YAYS AND BOOS:

YAY TO CONNOR MCDAVID. He just keeps on truckin' and I don't see anyone – not even the savvy Darryl Sutter – stopping him.

BOO TO THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS for letting down Bruce Boudreau just as they did Travis Green before him.

YAY TO DON SWEENEY for taking a coaching gamble on Jim Montgomery. Brother and Sister, has that been paying off or what?

BOO TO GOALIE INJURIES that are getting too numerous to count. (This would be funny were it not tragic.)

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JOHNNY HOCKEY IS HOKEY IN COLUMBUS

The Blue Jackets high command believed that Johnny Gaudreau would be the conquering hero in Columbus. So far, he has been neither conqueror nor hero. Teams such as the Devils are tickled pink that they were bypassed by Gaudreau's general staff.

One insider tells me: "The coach, GM or someone with Columbus will be fired over the construction of their team. The Blue Jackets offer a small team with no dimension.

"I like their management group as a whole, but I'm left to wonder what in the world they were thinking in putting together their roster. Granted, it's early in the season, but from my view, the Jackets don't look competitive enough. And am I glad our club didn't sign Gaudreau."

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WHO SAID IT? "We goaltenders tend to be very proud bastards." (ANSWER BELOW.)

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THE MAVEN'S NEW INVENTION – THE ALIBI SHREDDER

Like so many others who cover – or simply follow – the NHL, I get tired of listening to losing coaches beef about their defeats. I say, "Enough already." See if this Alibi Shredder works for you.

1. BACK-TO-BACK GAMES. No, alibis, please, just grin and bear it.

2. INJURIES. Everybody has them. Next man up and shut up!

3. OFFICIATING COMPLAINTS: See #2.

4. GOALIE WOUNDS: When will netminders stop with the illogical "Butterfly." It's straining groins and ending careers. Yoo-hoo, goalkeepers, wise up. Try standing up for a change. The puck won't hurt, not with all your pillow protection.

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I'M JUST SAYIN'

* The Rangers are better because they have Vincent Trocheck and not Ryan Strome in their lineup.

* Have you noticed how the nasty band of "Coach Fire-ers" has stopped pointing a finger at Lindy Ruff?

* On the 40th anniversary of NHL hockey in the Garden State, the Devils are shaping up as a winner, well-crafted by Tom (I Once Was a Super Penalty-Killer) Fitzgerald.

* It was nice of captain Ryan O'Reilly to take the blame for his Blues' slump. What about the other 20 guys?

* I consider Seattle's 5-4 win over the Flames in Calgary a landmark decision for the emerging expansion club.

* Buffalo was picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic. How about a re-think and, perhaps make it first.

* In case you're interested, Alex Tuch is my favorite Sabre.

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LOOKING BACKWARD – A CUTTER MAKES GOOD JAZZ WITH ELLA

During the Second World War, the U.S. Coast Guard hockey team based in Baltimore at the Curtis Bay Yard was sprinkled with former NHL players. They played in the fast Eastern Amateur Hockey League and frequently faced the New York Rovers – the Rangers farm team – at old Madison Square Garden.

One of the Cutters' stars was ex and future Rangers defenseman Bob Dill. Senior Bob's son, Bob Junior, recently recovered a precious letter about an off-ice incident involving his father. I find it worth recalling because it followed a Cutters-Rovers game I saw at The Garden.

The letter was sent by fellow Cutter and former Minnesota minor league star Joe Kucler. After playing against the Rovers during the 1942-43 season, the Coast Guard team headed to a Manhattan night club for dinner and entertainment.

Dill Sr., who had been nicknamed ‘The Singing Sailor’ because of his resonant tenor and love of entertaining his mates, was part of the crowd. When they reached the nightclub, fellow Minnesotans Manny Cotlow, Johnny Mariucci and Kucler urged Dill to get on stage and entertain the cabaret audience.

But Bob stayed silent through the first act and then disappeared from the table. Here's how Kucler described what transpired next:

The house lights dimmed, and the crowd began to applaud. Standing at center stage was the headliner, the great vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, hand in hand with Bobby Dill.

To the amazement of his Coast Guard teammates – and other audience members – the two launched into about a 15- to 20-minute set.

As they ended their set, the whole club rose to its feet and gave the two singers a long and loud standing ovation. The crowd roared, and Dill thanked Miss Ella, hugged her, jumped off the stage and headed to the Cutters' tables with a big smile. Then he sat down between Manny and Maroosh without saying a word.

Soon, the club owner was at their table thanking Dill and his teammates. He insisted on comping their dinner and drinks. And when they left the club that night, the owner made sure they had four or five cases of beer for the trip back to Baltimore on the train. It was a great, all-around evening.

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BIG QUESTION: CAN TORTS KEEP PHILLY COMPETITIVE OVER THE MARATHON?

BIG ANSWER: Yes. His Flyers work hard and are resilient. Adds Gus Vic: "John is realistic that the current members don't support sustainability. The revived Carter Hart will save them enough times. And there's plenty of buy-in by his players and fans. Give them two years from now."

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AS THE SENATORS RISE IN THE STANDINGS, THE TEAM’S UP FOR SALE

Sports Business columnist Evan Weiner has the following update on a potential sale of the Senators. Read on:

The daughters of the late Eugene Melnyk, who was the owner of the Senators, have decided to sell the franchise. Eugene Melnyk died on March 28. The team has hired a financial advisory company as a consultant in a possible sale of the team.

What might complicate the sale is that the Senators ownership ended up with a conditional deal to develop the LeBreton Flats area to build an arena or an arena village in Ottawa. The team plays its games in Kanata, which is more than 20 minutes away from downtown Ottawa.

The National Capital Commission has signed a deal with Senators ownership that would see a new arena and mixed-use development built on the property. Senators ownership is partnering with former New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon’s Sterling Project Development, Populous, Tipping Point Sports and music promoter Live Nation in an attempt to build the arena.

The present-day Senators founder Bruce Firestone said he wanted to build a home for the NHL team at LeBreton Flats 30 years ago but was told by the head of the National Capital Commission that it would never happen. But this time, the National Capital Commission has named the Senators ownership as the preferred bidder to build a major attraction.

In 2018, Senators owner Melnyk was going to partner with developer John Ruddy to develop the LeBreton Flats site which would have included an arena village. By November of that year, Melnyk was suing Ruddy for $700 million, claiming that Ruddy had a conflict of interest because he was involved in another Ottawa development near the LeBreton Flats area. The possible LeBreton Flats deal may or may not be part of the Senators sale.

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ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Bruins goalie and two-time Cup-winner, Gerry Cheevers.

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