Take a gander at the seven most-likely Stanley Cup winners and tell me who's gonna be the Champ.
A couple of months ago, I picked Toronto to finally – finally – do the trick. Since then too many negatives have grown in Hogtown.
Or, as my buddy, Sean Mccaffrey, has told me since September, "The Leafs will be one and done again. I can't see them knocking off either Florida team."
Then again, that youthful walking wizard, Kyle Dubas, just might make some Trade Deadline magic and the Leafs will again look like a contender.
But I'm inclined to swear by the words of the indomitable Gus Vic, who's more insider than that roving pack of "Insiders."
"You can throw a tarp over the teams currently in playoff position," says Vic, "and would not be off base by picking any of them to get through the first round."
Then, a pause: "Although, Washington does concern me. The Caps don't have championship goaltending. And that core has been together for an awfully long time. They're on the backside of the Cup arc."
Granted. Colorado always comes out the favorite, but Jared Bednar's boys may be using too much fuel, too soon. New York Post seer Larry Brooks also questions the Avs' goaltending. (I question the coaching. See I'm Just Sayin' below.)
With amazing stealth, the Rangers are looking more and more as if they can knock off anyone. But that is predicated on Iggie Shesterkin staying healthy. Otherwise, it's ucchin vay on Broadway.
Nothing more has to be said about the Defending Champs other than they have an indomitable goaltender, a sage coach and the up and down balance that's scary good. Right now the Bolts are just bidin' their time.
Their tropical rivals may be more motivated than Tampa Bay and that can make a difference – assuming that Goalie Bob can lift himself into the Vas class. As for Carolina, I say "Bully" every time Rod Brind'Amour's outfit chalks up another W.
Before returning to his trusty Ouija Board, Gorgeous Gus offers this postscript: "I keep waiting for Dallas to make its move in the West. Certainly enough experience, size, scoring and toughness. And only 1i months removed from a Final. I put them in a 'Get it done now' mode."
You want the winner? Throw that tarp over the contenders and pull one out. And, if it happens to be Toronto, well, throw it back in!
HOT AND BOTHERED, PART 1, STARRING JON COOPER
First full disclosure: I'm a big Jon Cooper fan. I rate him among my all-time favorite coaches for all the best reasons.
On Thursday night his Champs hosted the Penguins and lost.
No big deal, good teams don't always win. His team's defeat was not the issue. The issue was how come Coop was tossed out of the game for the first time in his distinguished career?
What was the big deal that caused ref Wes McCauley to give Pal Jon the heave? What was so offensive? That's what Coop is wondering as well. Or, as the Bolts coach put it: "I'm not so sure that in all the years, what I said was something new that he never before heard in the history of reffing. I want to know what that was?"
Was McCauley over-reacting? Or, as we used to say in Brooklyn – Rabbit Ears? But there's more to my buddy's beef? Like how come McCauley briefed Pitt's coach Mike Sullivan and not Cooper on the arguablle call? Why did Sully get the royal ref hearing and Coop not?
But there's still more: Jon raised yet another issue: "For some reason that (Penguins) team is the lowest penalized team in the league. I'm not sure why they are."
Geez: I'm even getting hot and bothered listening to Coop. In the end it comes down to a point I made here a few weeks ago: the race to The Finish Line is so intense that respectable coaches such as Rod Brind'Amour, John Hynes – and, now, Jon Cooper – get emotional over officiating decisions. Ergo: That's hockey!
HOT AND BOTHERED PART 2, STARRING JARMO KEKALAINEN
The Blue Jackets g.m. has been around long enough to know one thing, for sure: The closer we get to the March 21 Trade Deadline, the more crazy trade talk will be heard on Rue de Rumeur.
That's how it goes but it doesn't mean Not-So-Jovial Jarmo has to like it. He's especially miffed over baloney reports that his ace, Patrik Laine, is on the block. In a recent interview with The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun, Kekalainen snapped at the rumor inventors.
"It bothers me," Jarmo told LeBrun, "because people make up S–t. Sure, there are conversations and sometimes names leak out. But this is not the case. This is just somebody making s–t up, hoping for the headline and the clicks."
The pity is that Jarmo didn't finger the "somebody,"nor did he tell us whether it was an "Insider" or one of us "Outsiders."
In any event, the angry GM's parting shot went like this; "It's unethical and I don't have any time for it."
Conclusion: My time is Jarmo's time and he did tell Lucky Pierre that he'll try to move Max Domi and Joonas Korpisalo. So, there!
EXCLUSIVE: THE SCOUT'S REPORT – HOW ANAHEIM WON
Starting with this 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 a specific tactical success.
Last night the Anaheim Ducks defeated the San Jose Sharks 3-2 only 14 seconds into overtime. But the story here isn't that the Ducks' Rickard Rakell scored only seconds into the extra session.
It's how he did it.
Rakell wasn't even on the ice when OT started. In fact, he was only credited with one second of ice time in OT, yet scored the game-winner.
How? He did so via a brilliant set-play/line change.
Adam Henrique won the opening drawback to a defenceman, Cam Fowler, who sent a short outlet to Jason Terry, skating up the ice on the left side away from the player's benches. While Terry began to head towards the San Jose zone, Henrique went to the bench, close to the red line.
Meanwhile, Rakell skipped through an open bench door, 20-feet up the ice, at the Sharks blueline, gained speed, straddling the line, then turned up the ice as Terry hit him with a crisp pass to Rakell's outstretched stick. By this time Rakell had blown past a confused, back-checking Logan Couture. In on a breakaway, Rakell lit the lamp and ended the game.
The San Jose gripe was that it was an illegal change because Henrique was still on the ice. But truth be told, Henrique was already leaning against the boards (well within the allotted 5 feet) when Rakell jumped on the ice, making it a legal change.
This is a play that should be used more by teams throughout the league, especially in overtime when the ice is available, playing 3v3.
If teams don't like it, here's the solution: don't flip sides after the third period, and eliminate the "long" change. But for now, it's legal, why not see it more?
Kudos to coach Dallas Eakins for the set play and the wherewithal to have Henrique (excellent on draws all night, winning 13 of 19 faceoffs - 68%), take the faceoff and bail to the bench for Rakell.
I'M JUST SAYIN':
* How, on Saturday night, could Jared Bodnar not put Norris Trophy favorite Cale Makar on for OT vs. Calgary? Johnny G scores for Flames before Cale could come out. (Poor coaching, I say.)
* Same night, A-1 coaching. Marty St. Louis pushing Nick Suzuki from star to superstar vs. Edmonton.
* A tough thing to figure is when – or if – that large Penguins bubble is going to burst.
* My Man in Steeltown, Vince Comunale, reports that the current Pitt six has reached 40 road points faster this season than any other year in the club's history.
* That tells me that Sidney Crosby is a top Hart Trophy candidate.
" And, if you want to fight about it, get this: Sid is the only player in NHL history to average more than a point a game for 17 consecutive seasons. Nobody else has done better than 15 such campaigns.
* The Hockey News asks a good question about where the 2023 World Junior Championship should be held. Here are three solid choices, Madison Square Garden. UBS Arena or Prudential Center.
* Or, if you prefer one of the best junior hockey towns on earth; it's gotta be Portland, Oregon, proud home of the rarely-lose Winterhawks.
* You tell me, 'cause I'm not sure: do those tv "Insiders" really know more than we "Outsiders?" Or are they just guessing?
* Then, again how does one graduate from being a mere "Outsider" to a lordly "Insider?"
* My favorite "Outsider," who doesn't call himself an "Insider," is the Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons. His weekender is the best.
* Note: The following is not a rumor, it's my opinion: Kris Letang will remain a Penguin. I figure he'll sign a contract extension over the summer.
* Ditto for Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks. I also like the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury wants to stay in Chi.
* In case you're looking to buy a castle in New Jersey, Ilya Kovalchuk is listing his chateau for $15 million; reportedly a massive discount.
* The new Sean Avery – without the Avery nonsense – is Pittsburgh's Mark Friedman. Man, is this guy a disturber or what? Another Jewish ace.
* Full Disclosure, Again: My mother's side of the family are all Friedmans but we're not related to Mark. And you can mark my words on that.
* My favorite "Senior" goaltender is Buffalo's Craig Anderson.
* Had Andy not been injured, I'd bet that the Sabres would be up around the .500 mark.
* Kudos to Kyle Dubas for frankly telling the media he'll be looking to add a defenseman but not a goalie.
* Dubbie added that his two puck stoppers – Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek – are "good." In Saturday night's 6-4 loss to Vancouver, Campbell did look "Good." That is, "good for the AHL!
* Another American-bred kid makes good. A seven-point game for Coyotes, Madison, Wisconsin native Nick Schmaltz on Saturday night.
* Canes g.m. Don Waddell is short two (injured) defensemen. I wonder how he'd feel about adding Zdeno Chara to his blue line. Big Z still can compete.
MORE ON MARTY THE MAGICIAN:
Early in the season, a Habs visit to Calgary would have been a major minus for the Montrealers. Yet, on their last visit, the Canadiens exited with two points. Once again rookie coach St.Louis continues to do unreal things. Exhibit A is the handling of Nick Suzuki. Or as our savant David Kolb explains:
"St. Louis keeps Suzuki on for so many offensive zone face-offs. If Nick or someone else on the team wins the draw and gains possession, Suzuki stays on. If he loses the draw he heads to the bench for a change, Marty's coaching is providing more offensive chances than before.
"In these ways he's turned the whole franchise around. St.Louis has erased the red ink in the Montreal papers. And, under the circumstances, that's a major accomplishment."
In case you missed it, Suzuki outshone Edmonton's Gold Dust Twins on Saturday night in Alberta. The Habs 5-2 win not only featured a goal and two helpers for Nick The Natural. Also pivotal is Cole Caufield's re-awakening under St.Louis. Double C had a goal and assist in the Non-Goaltending Capital Of The World, Edmonton.
WHO SAID IT? "Hockey is a contact sport for me, not the Ice Follies." (Answer below).
FORGET THE EXPRESSION 'NON-TRADITIONAL MARKET'
Non-Traditional Market once was a denigrating expression of Southern failure in some NHL circles but not any more. For proof positive, just try and get Bolts tickets. In Tampa Bay they're at a premium.
That, of course, does not mean that every warm weather NHL market is booming. The trick now is that the challenges are much fewer than the days when the Lightning were playing home games at substandard venues before landing at Amalie Arena.
Bettman, Inc. has worked hard to turn Southern sites into hockey boom towns such as Tampa Bay and Nashville. Our man in the Southland, Al (The Pal) Greenberg has studied the scene and offers these points.
"Bringing popular outdoor games to former non-traditional markets is but another marketing coup engineered by Commissioner Bettman," says Big Al. "He has steadfastly supported finding new audiences for hockey.
"His backing is the reason franchises in Arizona and Florida (Sunrise) are still in place and will eventually be profitable. The NHL support of development programs in the South and West have brought people like Auston Matthews, Shayne Gostisbehere and Jakob Chychrun, among others, to the NHL."
Let's not forget that a crowd in excess of 85,000 filled the Cotton Bowl for a Preds-Stars Winter Classic. What's more the one-time non-traditional market of Raleigh, North Carolina will host a Stadium Series game next year featuring the Canes and Capitals.
Greenberg: "This should be a competitive and ratings winner. Los Angeles and The Bay Area once were tough sells but by the time the San Jose Sharks entered the league in 1991– accompanied by a massive and successful merchandising campaign – Californians were ready to accept the sport.
"Two years later Anaheim joined up and California was anything but non-traditional."
GOOD GUYS GET REWARDED
Hail to Rick Nash whose No. 61 went airborne at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Saturday night. The large guy became the first big name for the Blue Jackets. Nash was less so as a Ranger but not a flop either. Major kudos as well to The Warriors' Warrior, Wayne Simmonds for reaching his 1,000th NHL game. The Leafs fourth-line left wing made it to the top from Toronto's kid leagues on his indefatigable spirit. Wayne has been a credit to every big-league team he's graced with his presence.
Last but certainly not least, Happy 90th Birthday to Dick Irivn. Son of the famed Canadiens coach of the same name, Dick was an award-winning Montreal-based broadcaster. He worked with the legendary Danny Gallivan among many other notables.
Few may be aware but Irvin also penned some terrific hockey books. My favorite is "The Habs," which is a marvelous collection of oral histories of Montreal players. By far the best are those from the Maurice Richard era. They include The Rocket, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion – the works. Great history. Mazel tov, Dick.
DEPARTMENT OF INCREDIBLE BUT TRUE
Pal Ken White, who knows all about Canada's Peace River Country, tells a rare tale about Sydney (Shorty) Sweenie, who played hockey despite just having one leg. This was in the 1930's and Sweenie – deformed at birth – was able to play by putting a sharp nail at the end of his crutch to propel himself around the ice.
"He played right wing for the Peace River Palace of Eats," White recalls. "The cafe sponsored the team. They played outdoors since covered arenas were about 15 years away in the Peace River Country.
"Some guys I know from Peace River were so enamoured of Sweenie's story that they made a trophy with a peg leg. They play for it at their annual golf outing – the Shorty Sweenie Memorial Golf Tournament."
ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Flyers enforcer Dave (Hammer) Schultz.