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Fischler Report: Strange But Fascinating Times in the NHL

These are unexpected times we are experiencing in the 2021-22 model of the NHL. Stan Fischler looks at that, Roman Josi's incredible play, Don Granato, why every playoff contender should be worried and so much more.
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These are unexpected times we are experiencing in the 2021-22 model of the National Hockey League.

They are also so melodramatic on so many levels that it's even hard to determine who's the best player in the world today -- Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl, or, yes, even Chris Kreider.

One aspect that's made the competitive equation so cockeyeed is the fact that -- with a ton of games still to play -- there are precious few playoff races left to contest.

Believe it or not, both the Rangers and Maple Leafs are in like Flynn.

Really, the East side of the hockey universe is top-heavy with contenders.

Champion Tampa Bay cannot be overlooked if only because the Bolts are two-time title-holders.

But the Southland's more threatening clubs reside in Raleigh and Sunrise. Matter of fact, the Hurricanes' playoff-clinching win last Thursday emphatically underlines a point -- Carolina may emerge as the Cup favorite.

The likes of Sebastian Aho and Jacob Slavin never will achieve the brand of attention Matthews and Marner obtain in Toronto. But when it comes to a one-vs-one playoff collision I'd go with Carolna all the way.

Florida's body of work through March has been admirable but April presents a different scenario. As was the case last year, ace-Dpman Aaron Ekblad's late-season injury could torpedo the Cats just as it did a year ago.

Add to that the sudden drop in Sergei Bobvodsky's goaltending could force rookie Spencer Knight into a starting playoff role. And that's not the plot choreographed by g.m. Bill Zito.

Further compounding the confounding puzzle are the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Rangers; with special attention to the Blueshirts.

Despite shortcomings up and down the line, both Boston and Toronto have displayed enough assorted strengths to make them lighter-than-darkhorses when the playoff chips are down.

Which brings me to the ever-underrated Rangers.

While he may not be the Vezina Trophy winner, Igor Shesterkin is completing a season in which he's made little pucks look like hot air balloons. Iggie could be a decisive factor in any series against Bob, Vasy or Freddie.

While New York's defense is young, it also is capable and led by Norris Trophy-winner Adam Fox. Adam is able and looks as good as he did last term.

But the big man to watch is Chris Kreider. Hidden for most of the season in the shadows of McDavid, Inc. the Blueshirts' marauding left wing has been scoring goals as if he ghost-wrote Maurice Richard's red light manual.

Then there's Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanenjad and some nifty Trade Deadline adds who could double the horsepower on the Rangers Playoff Machine.

And I didn't even mention Sidney Crosby and his play-through-adversity-sometimes- indomitables, it's because I doubt Pitt's goaltending. (Check Friday for the West.)

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ROMAN JOSI'S BROAD SHOULDERS IN NASHVILLE

It seems as if it took place in another century but last fall, the Predators were pegged to finish next-to-last -- alias seventh -- in the Central Division.

That won't happen this spring; not by a long shot, slap shot or wrist shot.

I can't tell you where, ultimately, David Poile's team will finish but I will assert that -- whatever happens -- Roman Josi's shoulders have been tested almost past the point of endurance.

Let's face it, the native of the fair city of Bern, Switzerland has been carrying Nashville to a point where his latest feat enabled him to set a new Preds point record.

And he isn't even a forward.

The modest fellow that he is, all season long Josi's prime objective was spelled neither Hart nor Norris although he's a legitimate candidate for both league prizes.

What matters is whether the defenseman achieves his October challenge; to lift his Predators into a playoff berth.

So far, so good; for Josi and his jesters.

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I'M JUST SAYIN':

* Don Granato fully deserves his extended deal. Unobtrusively -- and without any fuss or fanfare -- Cammi and Tony's brother has revived the dormant Sabres.

* One reason for Don's success can be defined via addition by subtraction. That's otherwise defined by the exit of Jack Eichel.

* Don't kid yourself, Vegas needs a heckuva lot more than Jumpin' Jack to move the Knights into the playoffs.

* They're only whispers but my buddy Sean Maccafrey has my ear when he views the Wild as "the playoffs darkhorse."

* It's been a challenging year for the Islanders but you have to like the manner in which Brock Nelson has emerged as a significant goal-scorer.

* A large gob of credit is due to coach Barry Trotz for Nelson's career improvement.

* Other Isles plusses this term -- UBS Arena, best in the NHL -- and MSG Networks' Brendan Burke who has fast emerged as a fabulous network play-by-play wizard.

* Speaking of best-at-mike, we'll all miss the genius of ever-wonder Rick Jeanneret. , Buffalo's best-in-voice for decades.

* Sorry, but I still can't believe that Michigan -- so well-sprinkled with NHL draftees -- was knocked off by Denver, eventual champs..

* Did you catch Iggy Sheserkin waving "good-bye" -- or was it an advance we'll beat you in the playoffs "Hello" -- to Losing Goalie Tristan Jarry the other night?

* Would I love to see a Pitt-Rangers four-out-of-seven.

* At best -- his very best -- Jarry would lose itto Iggy, four games to one.

* Then again, after Game Two, it might be necessary for Mike Sullivan to insert Casey DeSmith.

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THE APRIL WORRY MACHINE

No matter how you shake it, every coach of a contending team suffers pre-playoff worries. Here are a few who could use a ton of aspirins:

TAMPA: Too much wear and tear.

FLORIDA: Eklad's injury is poison --same as last year.

COLORADO: They got too hot, too soon.

BOSTON: Charlie McAvoy is an ace on D but the B's lack a genuine playoff goalie.

CAROLINA: Freddie Andersen's playoff performances have been -- eh!

TORONTO: It's tradition. The Leafs never reach the peak.

RANGERS: Many of the impressive imports may disrupt the previously cool chemistry.

PITTSBURGH: Coach Sully is too dependent on older players whose tires are worn.

CAPITALS: Pete Laviolette has no one to bail them out in goal.

VOILA! MINNESOTA: No headaches for Pal Billy Guerin. His Wild is a legit upset-maker!.

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WHO SAID IT? "The Islanders choose Denis Potvin." (Answer Below)

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A BOUNCE BACK IN BUFFALO

Among the most loyal fans on the continent, residents of Sabres rate a break; as in a playoff team.

Although it won't happen this year, the sun is coming up over Lake Erie and Key Bank Center. Our sage Al Greenberg had a close-up view of Don Granato's sextet and sees hope for the Sabres future.

"The encouraging news," writes Greenberg, "is that Granato has the goods to rebuild the team."

For starters, Buffalo's skating migraine, Jack Eichel, had to be jettisoned; the sooner the better. Unfortunately for Granato, it was neither soon nor better. As long as the Eicher Black Cloud hovered over the franchise, no genuine good could be achieved.

Now that Eichel is in Vegas, the rebuilding has begun. Last month, for example, the Sabres ran up an 8-3-3 mark. "It was," says Greenberg, "their best output in years. During one stretch of 13 games, they managed points in 11 of them."

Remarkably, a catalyst of the Sabres surge is Phoenix, Arizona-born Tage Thompson who looks better today than Eichel looked then. How about this Southwesterner whose previous best NHL year was worth eight red lights. At last look, Double T had 32 G's.

Granato has extracted the Islander-best out of Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner is looking a lot like JEFF SKINNER.

Better still, the Sabres even have looked good in losing.

Greenberg: "After back-to-back losses to Carolina and Florida, Granato remarked, "I love the competition in our guys. They now fully believe and expect to win a game."

My favorite Sabres savior is goalie Craig Anderson. At age 41, he's playing like a latter-day Johnny Bower, the Leafs four-Cup Hall of Famer who played his best hockey after age 30.

"Andy has been a life-saver during the resurgence," adds Greenberg. "Alex Tuch, Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens have helped upfront."

Granato rates a ton of credit but prefers an ounce instead. "I can't take credit," he insists. "These guys have dug in and worked hard. They earned it. I push these guys and hope they respond and I'm grateful."

Don is even more grateful that Michigan great, Owen Power, has signed and will be playing defense for the club. Plus the Sabres have three first-round picks this year.

"Granato has plenty of talent now and in the pipeline," Greenberg concludes. "The question is -- will he be allowed enough time to properly develop it?"

ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? The Islanders general manager Bill Torrey at the 1973 Entry Draft.

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