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Mishkin: Nine Musings as the playoff race heats up

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

1.In the summer of 1994, the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League were looking for a new radio broadcaster. Their previous announcer, Dan Kamal, had just departed for a job with the IHL’s Atlanta Knights. Hershey’s GM at the time was Jay Feaster and he selected me to fill the position. That choice not only provided me with the opportunity to call games for one of the iconic franchises in the AHL, it also marked the beginning of a personal relationship that has lasted for more than 20 years.

Recently, I conducted an in-depth interview with Jay for the Lightning Radio podcast. We began with his time in law school in the mid-80s and ended with his current position as the Executive Director of Community Hockey Development for the Lightning. Jay is one of the best orators and storytellers I’ve ever heard – and that’s one reason why the interview will be airing in three different segments. (Also, we had a lot of ground to cover!) The first segment, which took us from his law school days to a Pennsylvania corporate law firm to the Hershey Entertainment and Resort Company to GM of the Bears, was posted earlier this week. As well as being eloquent, he is incredibly frank and candid, qualities which make for a great interview. He was especially straightforward in describing his final days as GM with the Lightning in 2008 and later, his departure from Calgary last season. (Those discussions will air in the third and final segment). For me, what I enjoyed most about the interview was the trip down memory lane, particularly when he recounted Hershey’s run to the 1997 Calder Cup and the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup Championship. Lightning fans know about the latter, but not necessarily the former.

This photo from the 1997 Calder Cup Championship team features Feaster in the front row on the left hand side and me on the right hand side in the second row.

2.In 1996, the Bears needed to find a new NHL affiliate. Their previous affiliate, the Philadelphia Flyers, were moving to their new building and decided to place their AHL affiliate in the Spectrum, the arena they were vacating. The Bears ended up working out a deal with the Colorado Avalanche. Interestingly, the Avs’ previous affiliate, the Cornwall (Ontario) Aces, had developed a big rivalry with the Bears in the early-to-mid 90s. The Aces had eliminated the Bears from the playoffs in both 1994 and 1995, so Hershey fans hated the Aces and their players. But when the affiliates changes, nearly all of the “old” Bears became part of the newly-formed Philadelphia Phantoms, while the “old” Aces were now wearing Hershey jerseys. It didn’t take long for Bears fans to change their allegiance from the former Bears to current ones. The teams met in the second game of the 1996-97 season in Hershey. Like the contests in past seasons between Hershey and Cornwall, it was a heated, nasty battle and quickly cemented the fans’ newfound disdain for the Philly players. The feeling was mutual on the other side, as the Spectrum was always packed with over 17,000 fans for the games between the clubs. Jay referred to the rivalry as “white hot”.

As it turned out, Philadelphia and Hershey finished with the top two regular season records in ’96-‘97 and, because they were in the same division, met in the second round of the playoffs. Given the histories between the players on both teams, it was one of the most memorable, dramatic, intense playoff series I’ve ever called. Jay’s retelling of the anecdotes from that series captured that drama.

3.I asked Jay what his expectations were for the Hershey team heading into the 1997 playoffs. During the first six years of his tenure as Bears GM, Hershey (as a Flyers affiliate) had only recorded one playoff series win and a short preliminary round “mini-series” triumph. He said that he felt the ’97 playoffs would be different “because of the coach”. That coach was Bob Hartley, who would later win a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. The Hershey-Philly rivalry extended to the coaches, too, and Jay recounted a number of interesting (and humorous) exchanges between Hartley and Philly coach Bill Barber. Barber, of course, would later join Jay with the Lightning as Director of Player Personnel.

4.Speaking of Hartley, his Calgary Flames are still in the mix for a playoff berth in the Western Conference. In the preseason, not one “expert” predicted the Flames would challenge for a playoff spot. And when Calgary lost captain Mark Giordano to a season-ending injury a few weeks ago, many wrote off the Flames. But Calgary responded with a 5-0-1 mark in the six games following Giordano’s injury to stay in contention. Whether or not the Flames do get in, Hartley deservedly has earned consideration for Coach of the Year.

5.NHL broadcasters vote on the Coach of the Year and it’s never an easy choice. That’s because there are three different coaching scenarios that can warrant a vote. One, a coach for a team has exceeded preseason expectations. Two, a coach for a team that has overcome especially steep obstacles, such as injuries. Three, a coach for one of the top point teams in the league. Sometimes these three scenarios overlap, sometimes not. So from a voter’s perspective, it depends on which feat is most impressive in a particular year. Before Monday’s game between the Lightning and Canadiens, I was chatting about Hartley with Montreal television analyst and former Lightning goalie Marc Denis. Denis, by the way, joined the ’97 Bears in the playoffs following his final junior season and picked up two important wins on the team’s run to the Cup. So he knows Hartley well. He agreed that Hartley will get votes, but he made an interesting point. If Detroit’s Mike Babcock is regarded as one of the league’s best coaches (and he is), how can it be that he has never won the award? I would counter that Babcock, who is always in the conversation for Coach of the Year, has fallen victim to one of the “surprising” coaches, especially in those seasons when the Red Wings had been at or near the top of the standings. (Votes are placed after the end of the regular season, but before the playoffs). In 2008, a year in which the Wings won the Stanley Cup, he lost the award to Bruce Boudreau, who took the Capitals from the cellar to a division crown. In 2009, following another terrific Detroit season, Babcock missed out to Claude Julien, who moved the Bruins from the eighth seed in 2008 to the league’s second-best overall record. So it’s true that coaches whose teams are regularly among the league’s elite miss out on the award. But while there’s something to be said for maintaining excellence, there’s also cause to acknowledge a coach who has helped his team exceed expectations and improve dramatically.

6.It seems that with each passing week, the wildcard and playoff races take several interesting turns. In the East, the Boston Bruins entered last Sunday’s game in Washington on a 7-0-1 streak and had moved into a tie with the Caps for the first Wildcard spot. But Washington beat the Bruins, 2-0, then won the next night in Buffalo. On Tuesday, the Bruins dropped a shootout decision to the Sabres and are now three points behind Washington. Furthermore, the Ottawa Senators, with four straight wins, are just four points behind Boston with a game in hand. The Sens and Bruins conclude their regular season series Thursday night in Ottawa.

7.So with a win on Thursday, the Sens have a good shot to catch Boston. (They’ll need to overtake Boston, though, as the Senators are on the losing end of the tiebreaker). They’re on an amazing 12-1-1 run in their last 14 games. The one regulation loss was to the Bruins, which hurt, but as mentioned above, they’ve bounced back with four consecutive victories since that defeat. Naturally, the play of goalie Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond has been a big reason why the Sens still alive for a postseason berth. With his win over Carolina on Tuesday, Hammond has now tied a league record by holding the opposition to two goals or less in each of his first 12 NHL starts.

But Ottawa’s streak reaffirms how tough it is to make up ground in the NHL standings. Even with 25 points gained in their last 14 games, the Sens are still four points back of the Bruins. That’s because like Ottawa, the Bruins also have elevated their intensity and desperation level as they attempt to nail down a postseason berth.

8.League-wide, teams on either side of the playoff bubble are generally playing better (or at least “munching points”, as Jon Cooper likes to say) than those well above the playoff cut line. The Lightning, fortunately, have been an exception to that trend so far, going 5-2-1 in March. But other top teams have been scuffling. Before going 2-1-0 on their just-completed road trip, Montreal had just one win in six games. Detroit had lost four of five before winning in Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Islanders have dropped four in a row. The Pens are on a three-game skid. Prior to their recent two-game winning streak, the Capitals had lost three of four. In the Central Division, Nashville has struggled since the end of February, losing nine of 11. Barring a lengthy, damaging late-season skid, all these teams should eventually clinch a playoff berth. But as they attempt to get ready for the playoffs and, in many cases, acclimate new players acquired at the deadline, their intensity and crispness might not match the level of those teams fighting for their postseason lives.

9.Now that the NHL General Managers have made their recommendations, we’ll see how the NHLPA feels about the potential rule changes. Personally, I like them. The coach’s challenge for goalie interference may not completely resolve the contentiousness of the issue. It’ll still be a judgment call. But a challenge will give officials a chance to review a play and decide whether it jives with what they thought they saw on the ice. After a goal, team video coaches should have time to look at a play and recommend over a headset to the head coach if a challenge is warranted. The puck over glass play is different, though, because the pending power play would start immediately. Video coaches will need to quickly cue up a replay and hurry correspondence to the bench. Of course, a penalized player may likely know whether he shot it straight out, so he too can suggest a challenge to his head coach.

The AHL experimented with three-on-three in overtime this year. The GMs have recommended that NHL implement three-on-three in OT beginning next season. Based on the AHL’s percentages, the number of shootouts will decrease, which GMs want. Now the question is: will the NHLPA approve it? And if so, will the players want the AHL version, which consists of three minutes of four-on-four, followed (after the first whistle) by four minutes of three-on-three? Or will the Union prefer just five minutes of three-on-three? Either way, look for teams to start practicing three-on-three next year. I’m curious to see if savvy coaching can affect the outcome of a three-on-three. Coaches will look to not only generate situations that lead to scoring chances, but also devise “structure” to prevent opposition chances. With so much open ice, it’ll be interesting to see if teams can really limit time and space during a three-on-three. You can bet coaches are going to try.

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