These are unexpected times we are experiencing in the National Hockey League’s 2021-22 model.
They’re also so melodramatic on so many levels that it’s hard to even pinpoint who the best player in the world is today – Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl or, yes, even Chris Kreider.
One aspect that has made the competitive equation so bizarre is the fact that – with a ton of games still to be played – there are very few playoff races left.
Believe it or not, the Rangers and Maple Leafs are like Flynn.
Truly, the east side of the hockey universe is full of suitors.
The Tampa Bay champ can’t be ignored, if only because the Bolts are two-time title holders.
But Southland’s most threatening clubs reside in Raleigh and Sunrise. In fact, the Hurricanes’ playoff victory last Thursday clearly underscores a point – Carolina could become the Cup favorite.
The likes of Sebastian Aho and Jacob Slavin will never reach the mark of attention that Matthews and Marner are getting in Toronto. But when it comes to a playoff collision, I would go with Carolna all the way.
Florida’s work through March has been admirable, but April presents a different scenario. As it did last year, ace Dpman Aaron Ekblad’s season-ending injury could torpedo the Cats like it did a year ago.
Add to that Sergei Bobvodsky’s sudden drop in goaltending could force rookie Spencer Knight into a starting role in the playoffs. And this is not the plot choreographed by gm Bill Zito.
The Bruins, Maple Leafs and Rangers further compound the confusing puzzle; with particular attention to the blue shirts.
Despite shortcomings down the line, Boston and Toronto have displayed enough matched strengths to make them lighter horses than dark horses when playoff chips are down.
Which brings me to the ever-underrated Rangers.
Although he may not be the Vezina Trophy winner, Igor Shesterkin is finishing a season in which he made little pucks look like hot air balloons. Iggie could be a deciding factor in any series against Bob, Vasy or Freddie.
Although New York’s defense is young, it’s also capable and led by Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. Adam is capable and looks as good as he did last season.
But the big man to watch is Chris Kreider. Hidden away for most of the season in the shadow of McDavid, Inc., the Blueshirts’ safety left wing scored goals like he wrote Maurice Richard’s red light manual.
Then there’s Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanenjad, and some nifty Trade Deadline additions that could double the power of the Rangers Playoff Machine.
And I didn’t even mention Sidney Crosby and his games in adversity, sometimes indomitable, it’s because I doubt Pitt’s goalkeeper. (Check Friday for the West.)
THE BROAD SHOULDERS OF ROMAN JOSI IN NASHVILLE
It seems like it took place in another century, but last fall the Predators were supposed to finish second to last — aka seventh — in the Central Division.
It won’t happen this spring; not by a long shot, a slap shot or a wrist shot.
I can’t tell you where, ultimately, David Poile’s side will end up, but I will say that – come what may – Roman Josi’s shoulders have been tested almost beyond the point of endurance.
Let’s face it, the native of the beautiful city of Bern, Switzerland has carried Nashville to a point where his latest achievement has allowed him to set a new Preds points record.
And he’s not even a striker.
The modest guy that he is, throughout the season Josi’s main target hasn’t been spelled Hart or Norris, despite being a legitimate contender for both league awards.
What matters is whether the defender passes his October challenge; to elevate his Predators into a playoff spot.
So far, so good; for Josi and his jesters.
I’M JUST SAYING:
* Don Granato fully deserves his extended deal. Quietly – and without noise or fanfare – Cammi and Tony’s brother revived the sleeping Sabers.
* One of the reasons for Don’s success can be defined via addition by subtraction. It’s otherwise defined by Jack Eichel’s output.
* Don’t kid yourself, Vegas needs more than Jumpin’ Jack to get the Knights to the playoffs.
* These are just whispers but my mate Sean Maccafrey has my ear when he views the Wild as “the playoffs black Horse.”
* It’s been a tough year for the Islanders, but you gotta love how Brock Nelson has established himself as an important scorer.
* Much of the credit goes to coach Barry Trotz for improving Nelson’s career.
* The other islands added this quarter – UBS Arena, the best in the NHL – and Brendan Burke of MSG Networks who has quickly established himself as a fabulous network play-by-play magician.
* Speaking of best-at-mike, we’ll all miss the genius of the ever-wonderful Rick Jeanneret. , Buffalo’s best voice in decades.
*Sorry, but I still can’t believe that Michigan – so well studded with NHL rookies – was eliminated by future champions Denver.
* Did you catch Iggy Sheserkin saying “goodbye” — or was it an advance that we’ll beat you in the playoffs “Hello” — to losing goaltender Tristan Jarry the other night?
* Would I like to see a four out of seven Pitt-Rangers.
* At best — his best — Jarry would lose it to Iggy, four games to one.
* Again, after Game 2, it might be necessary for Mike Sullivan to insert Casey DeSmith.
AVRIL’S WORRY MACHINE
No matter how you shake it, every coach on a contending team suffers from worries heading into the playoffs. Here are a few that could use a ton of aspirins:
TAMPA: Too much wear.
FLORIDA: Eklad’s injury is a poison, like last year.
COLORADO: They got too hot, too soon.
BOSTON: Charlie McAvoy is an ace over D but the B’s lack a real playoff goaltender.
CAROLINA: Freddie Andersen’s playoff performances were — eh !
TORONTO: It’s tradition. The Leafs never reach the top.
RANGERS: Many of the awesome imports can disrupt the previously cold chemistry.
PITTSBURGH: Coach Sully is too dependent on older players with worn tires.
UPPERCASE LETTERS : Pete Laviolette has no one to bail them out in net.
SO ! MINNESOTA: No headache for Pal Billy Guerin. His Wild is a legit upset maker!.
WHO SAYS THAT? “The Islanders choose Denis Potvin.” (Answer below)
A REBOUND IN BUFFALO
Among the Continent’s most loyal fans, Sabers residents rate a break; like in a playoff team.
Although that won’t happen this year, the sun is rising over Lake Erie and the Key Bank Center. Our sage Al Greenberg has seen Don Granato’s sextet up close and sees hope for the Sabres’ future.
“The encouraging news,” writes Greenberg, “is that Granato has the means to rebuild the team.”
For starters, Buffalo’s skating headache, Jack Eichel, had to be jettisoned; the earliest would be best. Unfortunately for Granato, it was neither sooner nor better. As long as the Eicher Black Cloud hovered over the franchise, no real good could be done.
Now that Eichel is in Vegas, the rebuilding has begun. Last month, for example, the Sabers went 8-3-3. “It was,” says Greenberg, “their best performance in years. Over a 13-game streak, they had runs in 11 of them.”
Remarkably, a catalyst for the Sabers push is Phoenix, Arizona-born Tage Thompson, who looks better today than Eichel did then. How about this Southwest whose best previous year in the NHL was worth eight red lights. At last look, Double T had 32 G.
Granato extracted the best islander from Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner looks a lot like JEFF SKINNER.
Even better, the Sabers even looked good losing.
Greenberg: “After back-to-back losses to Carolina and Florida, Granato said, ‘I like the competition in our guys. They now fully believe and expect to win a game.”
My favorite Sabers savior is goaltender Craig Anderson. At 41, he’s playing like a late-day Johnny Bower, the Leafs’ Four-Cup Hall of Famer who played his best hockey after age 30.
“Andy saved his life during the resurgence,” adds Greenberg. “Alex Tuch, Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens helped from the start.”
Granato rates a ton of credit but prefers an ounce instead. “I can’t take credit for it,” he insists. “These guys dug in and worked hard. They deserved it. I push these guys and hope they respond and I’m grateful for that.”
Don is even more grateful that Michigan great Owen Power has signed and will play defense for the club. Additionally, the Sabers have three first-round picks this year.
“Granato has a lot of talent now and in the pipeline,” concludes Greenberg. “The question is – will he have enough time to develop it properly?”
ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Islanders general manager Bill Torrey in the 1973 entry draft.