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Bluelines: Why the Lightning Have Won Three in a Row

Stan Fischler looks at why the Tampa Bay Lightning hold a 3-2 series lead, Barry Trotz watch, David Pastrnak, Bruce Cassidy's firing, Ken Holland, Cale Makar and so much more.
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THE LIGHTNING ARE STILL CHAMPS -- FOR NOW!

"Never bet against the Champions!"

That was my father's sage advice and if ever it should be underlined, it's being done before our eyes by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Champs' 3-1 win over the Rangers last night in Manhattan drummed home the point in a third-period crescendo.

It was a far cry from the Bolts' deportment after abjectly losing the first two games of the series. But -- and it's a big BUT:

Like a punchdrunk heavyweight pulling himself off the canvas after two knockdowns, the Lightning stormed back at the challenging Rangers with a vengeance.

One, Two, Three!

Just like that, the Bolts shocked the Blueshirts and even ended the myth that coach Gerard Gallant's team can never lose a biggie at Madison Square Garden.

The Lightning victory required yet another come-from-behind effort and not surprisingly the foot soldiers did the job, not the headliners like Steve Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

Little-publicized -- yet solid -- defenseman Mikhail Sergachev tied the game at 1-1 and then set up Andrej Palat's game-winner at 18:10 of the third period. Then Brandon Hagel tied the noose with an open-netter at 19:01. And all of this without injured ace Brayden Point.

Having jetted home, the defending Cup-winners could close the series at Amalie Arena on Saturday night.

Could!

But bear in mind that Game Five was a nail-biter down to the very end. No, the Rangers are not dead. Far from it.

For now, however, one thing is patently clear -- The Bolts are still champions.

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PRECISELY WHY TAMPA HAS WON 3 IN A ROW

Our super-scout, David Kolb, was at The Garden last night. As always, his insights are de luxe and the following analysis shows why:

1. Superior Coaching: "The Bolts have won three straight since Jon Cooper moved Steve Stamkos to center, filling in for injured Braden Point. The Captain gives everything that Point would, plus adds grit and experience."

2. Stamkos' Assets: "Steve gives linemates Palat and Kucherov more time and space because the Rangers defense respects Stamkos so much. Steve is relentless on the forecheck and never holds back when it comes to using his body. "

3. Offensive Plus: "The captain can single-handedly gain the offensive zone after darting through the neutral zone."

4. Defense: "He led his team with three blocked shots; did excellent backchecking and helped out in the Bolts defensive zone."

5. Fights: "At the game's end, he beat up Alexis Lafreniere."

IMPORTANT NOTE: The Champs' under-the-radar star remains defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Kolb adds: "He skates like the wind; uses his body well and adds offense. Plus, he has the knack of getting under the Rangers skin; and has been doing so with Artemi Panarin as the unhappy target."

BEHIND THE BARRY TROTZ WATCH: The longer it takes for the exiled Islanders coach to surface, the more apparent it is -- at least to me -- that he won't be coaching any NHL team in 2022-23.

My original theory still holds unless proven otherwise. This past season in which the Isles opened on the road for what seemed a lifetime took so much out of likeable Barry that now he wants a rest. (Like a full season of watching hockey; not coaching hockey.)

Why rush back when Trotz could play armchair coach on either ESPN or TNT networks and still get paid the last year of his pact.

The only way I'm wrong is when he signs a new deal. So far, I'm right!

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MAKAR KNEW OF WHAT HE SPOKE

In September 2020, Cale Makar told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News: "I think I can be better in different areas of the game. And there's still a lot of room for improvement."

Check out the Colorado defenseman's performance after three playoff rounds and you have to say that he understated his case.

Watching the Calgary native help sweep Edmonton out of the postseason, there's every reason to call Cale a "Latter-Day Bobby Orr!" If Makar helps the Avs to The Cup, why not just say, "He's another Orr?"

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WHY KEN HOLLAND SHOULD HAVE READ THE HOCKEY NEWS YEARBOOK: Hopes were high in Edmonton last fall as they should have been. Any team led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl automatically has a head start over half the NHL. The Hockey News had Rob Tychowski write the Oilers preview and he did it well.

While listing such positive moves as the acquisition of versatile Zach Hyman, Tychkowski also flashed a very prescient warning when it came to the subject of goaltending and the fact that dubiously Holland was sticking with the Mike Smith-Mikko Koskinen tandem.

Wisely, Rob's critique noted that age -- 39 going on 40 -- could be a problem with Smith and stability is an issue with Mikko. But here's the key. Regarding the sketchy nature of the Smitty-Kosky combo, Tychowski pointed out: "There's time to address this, if necessary, as the season unfolds."

The 2021-22 campaign unfolded and it didn't take long to figure that the Smitty-Kosky act couldn't even cut it in the American Hockey League; they were that mediocre. Surely, ex-goalie Holland must have figured that out -- at the very least -- a month before the Trade Deadline.

Instead, Holland gambled and failed.

If nothing else, the Oilers three playoff rounds proved that: A. Koskinen is useless: B. Against Colorado, Smith set back the art of goaltending to pre-Georges Vezina days: C. Holland should read the Hockey News Yearbook more carefully!

At least Koskinen will leave Edmonton on his own. I have no idea what Smith is thinking. But I do know that Holland will fetch two new goalies or lose his gig.

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BEST INDIVIDUAL 3-PART EFFORT IN THE AVS-OILERS SERIES. 

1.J.T. Compher bursting out of the penalty box to snare a loose puck;

2. Then, Compher blowing past defenseman Evan Bouchard as if Boosh was a Kleenex tissue; 3. And then, finally, finding the 5-hole that goalie Mike Smith presented for the Overtime goal that, really, proved to be the series-clincher.

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EXPLAINING THE INEXPLICABLE:

The earlier-in-the-week firing of Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy stung me to the core. After all, we're talking about a relatively young, savvy mentor whose team finished with a handsome record -- 51-26-5 -- and whose club made the playoffs in each of Cassidy's six seasons.

The fact that the Beantowners exited in the seven-game opening round to a tough Carolina team should not have been cause for axing; or should it? Perhaps the B's high command felt that if the Rangers could beat the Canes, why not Cousin Brucie's boys?

Esteemed Boston Globe hockey writer Kevin Dupont let off some steam over the Cassidy caper.

"It's an irrational, short-sighted and scapegoating move by (g.m. Don) Sweeney and (club prexy) Cam Neely." wrote Duoint. Kevin believes that the general staff failed the coach. "They (Neely-Sweeney) gave Cassidy a team with not enough parts to last more than a round or two."

Columnist Scott Burnside was even hotter under the collar over the Neely-Sweeney rug-pulling on Cassidy. Listen up to this rip:

"All of this happens when you don't have any humanity or worse if you don't have a plan or clue -- or both!"

I must note that Boston hockey writer Matt Kalman warned in The Hockey News Yearbook last September that heads might roll because of a first round exit. But Kalman listed all three -- Neely, Sweeney, Cassidy -- and obviously the top two live to see another season.

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A DIEHARD BRUINS-WATCHER COMMENTS ON GONE CASSIDY

Former New England Sports Network hockey producer George Falkowski also was stunned by the Cassidy ouster. "I've seen some strange coaching moves in my time," says Falkowski, "and the Cassidy firing is right up there.

"Everyone knows that Neely and Sweeney have been best buds since their playing days. Unless there was a major fracture, you can't see Neely firing his pal. Not unless ownership demands it.

"Collectively the Bruins are getting older and more injury-prone and not as fast as the better competition. Like Carolina. But we live in a world that has come to demand a championship, or else the season is considered a failure. The man who replaces Cassidy had better be good because Neely and Sweeney may have their jobs riding on that choice."

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ARE YOU WONDERING WHICH NHL TEAM BROADCAST IS BEST?

The Athletic did a comprehensive survey and picked Detroit as the winner. Ken Daniels -- a personal favorite of mine -- handles the play-by-play while Mickey Redmond is the color analyst. Here's the Athletic's capsule report: "Their formula works well with Daniels' direct play-by-play as a natural foil to the story-telling Redmond weaves into his analysis."

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THE DWINDLING DAILY NEWSPAPER SCENE

On Friday, June 3, 2022, the Rangers provided the biggest sports story in town. For the second straight game, they beat the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and looked like a potential Stanley Cup-winner.

As usual, the New York Post provided blanket coverage. Led by the veteran Larry Brooks, the tabloid hockey staff included stories by Mollie Walker and Ethan Sears.

That same night the erstwhile "newspaper of record," The New York Times, had a grand total of zero reporters covering the epic contest. Two days later, I contacted journalism critic Steve Viuker, a Times subscriber.

"There isn't a story on the Times' site yet on the Rangers second game win," wrote Viuker. One might wonder just what the Times' sports section was waiting for -- an exhibition game in September?

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THE PASSING OF LUNCHPAIL WARRIORS

Since the beginning of the month hockey lost a pair of blue-collar skaters who did their grunt work in another helmetless era.

Larry Hillman was a much-traveled defenseman of note who played for four of Punch Imlach's Stanley Cup-winning Leafs teams -- 1962, 63, 64 and 67.

While never in the Bobby Orr-Brad Park class, Hillman played the game hard but clean and was an asset to any of his employers.

Ditto for Eric Nesterkenko who -- unlike Hillman -- came to the Maple Leafs with glowing notices based on his superior play in Junior hockey.

Nesterenko's misfortune was that the Toronto media immediately compared him to Montreal's Jean Beliveau. While Eric and Jean were tall for their time, that's the beginning and end of the comparison.

While Beliveau emerged as the quintessential superstar, Nesterenko suffered the buildup to a letdown. Only when he was traded to the Blackhawks did Eric prove himself a solid defensive center. He was a key player in Chicago's successful crusade for the !961 Stanley Cup.

Ironically, to do so, Nester's Windy City skaters had to beat out Beliveau's Habs.

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WHO SAID IT? "Playing for the Canadiens is like getting a Harvard Law degree. Montreal players know what it's like to win." (Answer Below.)

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I'M JUST SAYIN'

* Amazing that the silence of Barry Trotz isn't broken by one of the "insiders." Seems as if Barry is operating from a submarine.

* Not that it matters, but the vaunted Edmonton scoring machine couldn't produce a single win against a back-up goalie, Pavel Francouz, who didn't play a single game last season.

* Talk about "Much Ado About Nothing," try the media nonsense about players jinxing themselves -- and team -- by touching the Clarence Campbell Bowl.

* My jinx comment: "Gimme a break!"

* At this moment, Jay Woodcroft still is an interim coach. Next week: head coach. His record in the final 38 regular season games was 26-9-3.

* Good thing Jay wasn't coaching the Bruins.

* Lesson from Avs-Oilers: In the playoffs good defense beats big-shot offense.

* Looking backward, I say Zach Hyman should have remained a Leaf and taken a hometown discount.

* Joe Sakic doesn't get enough credit for being architect of the Cup favorite Avs. The quiet man gets loud results.

* I just wonder how well the Avs will stack up against a really strong club like the Rangers or Tampa Bay.

* Sportsnet's Mark Spector wonders what the Oilers will do with Evander Kane. Hey, pal, they have no choice but to sign the star; and, guaranteed, Ken Holland will.

* If it's not just money that Johnny Gaudreau is after then he should say bye-bye to Calgary and take the big bucks he can get from his near-hometown Flyers, or nearby Devils.

* Although nobody's making a big deal about it, I guess it's safe to say that the much-heralded Connor McDavid-Nathan McKinnon heavyweight bout was a TKO for Mac. Four swift rounds!

* Correction: In the previous Fischler Report, Xavier Guterrez was called owner of the Coyotes. He's president and CEO. Alex Meruelo is the majority owner and the force behind the proposed Tempe arena. (Thank you, Alan Greenberg.)

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WHO'S FIBBING ABOUT PASTRNAK?

There's a hot story on the rumor mill that dauntless David Pastrnak wants out of Boston because he doesn't like the way GM Sweeney is orchestrating the Bruins. Dave's agent broke all speed records denying the tale while insisting that talks will be held. Who do you believe? (I'm with the rumor; just a gut feeling; that's all.)

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ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Chris Chelios.

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