Taylor Hall's First Goal and Six Degrees of Separation

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Written on 10/29/2010 by Jim Cerny

For the record Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, recorded his first National Hockey League goal last night. The goal came at 9:57 of the third period and helped Hall's Edmonton Oilers pull even with the host Columbus Blue Jackets 2-2, in a game Edmonton would eventually lose 3-2 in a shootout.

For the record, Steve Mason surrendered the first of what should be many goals for Hall, who had seemingly been carrying the weight of the hockey world on his shoulders after going his first seven games without lighting the lamp.

Hall seemed extremely relieved and happy to finally have scored his first goal when interviewed on Rogers following the game. He laughed when he estimated that he easily had answered the "So Taylor, when are you finally going to score a goal?" question at least a million times already this season.

The bottom line, though, is that Hall is an 18 year-old kid playing on a mediocre team. First overall pick or not, this year is going to be an uphill battle for the extremely talented youngster. Think of Steven Stamkos' rookie campiagn two years ago, and then you have a good comparison for Hall.

Last year John Tavares, already 19 by time training camp started, was the first overall pick by the Islanders. Extremely mature so as to be put in on-ice situations that Hall will not see just yet, Tavares scored 24 goals and notched 54 points while playing all 82 games. While I think Hall will steadily improve as the year progresses I don't expect him to match Tavares' numbers as a rookie.

But he's going to be a player, make no bones about it. And along with fellow youngsters Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, Hall is poised to help turn this organization around. The future is brighter in Edmonton, for sure.

Interesting that on the night Hall nets his first goal, Tyler Seguin---with whom Hall will always be linked, with Seguin selected second overall in the '10 draft---scored his second of the season in Boston's 2-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. And who plays for Toronto? Why Phil Kessel, of course---whose trade from Boston last year included a first-round pick heading to the Bruins that ended up turning into none other than Seguin.

Gotta' love that six degrees of separation in the National Hockey League.

Central Succes and Other NHL Tidbits

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Written on 10/28/2010 by Jim Cerny

So much going on in the world of hockey, so here are a few quick hits and random thoughts:

Central Success

Quick, name the only division in the NHL where currently all of its teams are playing above .500, so far. And I mean not only .500, but legit .500, not the NHL's bogus break-even point where a team can be, say, 4-4-3, and be considered a .500 team.

Stumped? Try the Central Division, where it's no surprise that Detroit and Chicago are winning, but so, too, are St. Louis and Columbus, and where Nashville sits atop the division.

The Preds are the only team in the league not to have a lost a game in regulation (5-0-3), and they are still perfect on the road (3-0-0). Also, perfect on the road are the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-3-0 overall and 3-0-0 away from the empty Nationwide Arena.

The Blues, behind the terrific play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, are 4-1-2, and a clean 4-0-0 on home ice. And the Red Wings (5-1-1) and Blackhawks (6-4-1) are also legitimately above .500.

Though I don't see Columbus as a playoff team when all is said and done, the Central easily could---and likely will---send four representatives into the Western Conference post-season tourny, which is pretty impressive considering this division usually is thought of as Chicago/Detroit and "the other teams".

More Ranger Injuries

John Tortorella or Glen Sather must have pissed off someone important upstairs because the rash of injuries decimating the Rangers continues to grow by the day. Already without their superstar sniper Marian Gaborik, their captain Chris Drury, and their second leading scorer from last season Vinny Prospal, the Rangers saw two more players felled by injuries during last night's 6-4 defeat at the hands of the Thrashers.

Second-year center Artem Anisimov, off to a stellar start with 6 points in 8 games, blocked a shot with the outside of his right ankle during the second period and did not see the light of day in the third. Limping badly after the game, Anisimov said he will undergo an MRI today. Tortorella expressed much concern over Anisimov's long-term status, though he---like everyone else---must wait on the MRI results.

Then with five minutes to play in the game veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival---playing perhaps his best hockey as a Ranger at both ends of the ice---hyper-extended his knee. He, too, will be further evaluated today.

Already shorthanded, the Rangers could be crippled if they lose two more of their most consistent players in Anisimov and Rozsival.

The talk throughout training camp was how much deeper the Rangers roster is this year, and that is true. However they are not nearly deep enough to lose five of their regulars and continue to be successful.

Evander Kane is the Real Deal

I know I raved about him in Rink Rap last year when he was just an 18 year-old rookie, but watching Evander Kane last night I saw a player that is going to be a star in this league. He is a great skater, with good size, and excellent hands. He creates offensively, and is willing to go to the ugly areas to score goals, too.

Last night he scored his 6th goal in 9 games for Atlanta, and it's not out of the equation that he could break out in his second year in similar fashion to how Steven Stamkos did a year ago with Tampa Bay. Kane is THAT good.

My hunch is a 30-goal campaign this season for Kane, but down the line 40 is a distinct possibility.

And he just turned 19 years old in August.

Atlanta has their player to build around, their new Kovalchuk, if you will. And hopefully with better team results to follow.

Be-Deviled Again

Lou Lamoriello is saying all the right things about rookie head coach John Maclean, but Johnny Mac has got to be sweating somewhat, what with his team off to a horrendous 2-7-1 start and Lamoriello not exactly known for patience with his coaches.

The latest example of the Devils not looking ready to play took place last night when they opened their road trip by surrendering three first period goals to the Sharks en-route to a 5-2 defeat. New Jersey has now allowed an NHL-high 35 goals already this season, a statistic that is so un-Devil like for a team built with a defense-first mindset for the past 15 years or so.

The Ilya Kovalchuk benching three games ago only adds to the uneasy feel around this team, one that had better turn it around soon or else one of the the most revered people in franchise history---Maclean---will be looking elsewhere for employment.

Kovy and Coach Offer No Explanation for Benching

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Written on 10/24/2010 by Jim Cerny

Not that they are obligated to at all, but neither Devils coach John Maclean nor New Jersey's $100 million superstar Ilya Kovalchuk offered up any explanations as to why Kovy was a healthy scratch last night, when each met with the media prior to this evening's contest with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The media, of course, IS obligated to ask why, if for no other reason than to avoid rumor, innuendo, and speculation.

But no answers were forthcoming, both coach and player instead looking to shove this sideshow, well, to the side, or at best, out of sight completely.

Not likely to happen any time soon, even if Kovy goes off on an offensive tear. And certainly it will be an even bigger story if the talented Russian shows any signs of sulking, or displays any anger towards the rookie bench boss.

"It was the coach's decision to give me a little rest, that's all," was Kovalchuk's laughable explanation as to why he was benched in a game the Devils eventually lost in embarrasing 6-1 fashion to the Sabres last night.

When asked if he sat because of an off-ice issue, Kovy answered with a quick and stern, "No Comment!"

The rumor floating around the Devils is that Kovy either missed, or was late to, a team meeting. If that is the case, then it would seem Maclean is more than justified in making his best, and highest-paid, player an example for his underachieving club.

So why not say so? Again, internal team issues are internal team issues, and the Devils are an extremely conservative organization to boot, so I'm not saying their approach is the wrong one here, but it certainly won't make this story go away any time soon, which has to make Lou Lamoriello et al extremely uncomfortable.

"The issue is over, and like I said yesterday it's an internal matter," said Maclean, whose team is 2-5-1 on the season and winless in five home games (0-4-1).

Maclean said that "we talked" earlier today and that "I stand by my decision."

Perhaps most important was the news that Kovalchuk will be back in the lineup this evening. Wouldn't be shocked to see him light the lamp 3 or 4 times, or see him pull an absolute no-show. It will clearly be the most interesting subplot to this game.

"Today is a new game, a new day," said Maclean. "The most important game is always the one you play today."

"That's his decision and it's going to stay between me and him," added Kovy. "I'm just a player and I am going to show up tonight to play."

Claude Julien Unplugged

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Written on 10/23/2010 by Jim Cerny

Though you wouldn't know it from this picture, Bruins head coach Claude Julien is one of the nicest, most personable, and affable coaches in the entire National Hockey League.

It's always a treat to catch up with Julien and hear his often verbose takes on various topics related to his team or the NHL.

Here in Boston where tonight the 4-1-0 Bruins host the 2-2-1 Rangers I was able to get Julien's take on several interesting topics.

Claude Julien Unplugged:

On the Poise of Rookie Tyler Seguin

"I think he had a lot of practice with that before he even got here because of the attention he had received before the draft. At the same tyime, off the ice our veterans have done a real good job of helping him through it, involving him with everything. I think that's been a great asset for him. He's a good kid to start with, and being surrounded by some great vets it makes everything a lot smoother. On ice, he's been good for us (1-2-3 in 5 games). You give him an opportunity and he's a pretty explosive player. He does the best with what you give him. What I like about him, so far, is that he wants to learn, and the fact that every game he plays he just keeps getting better and more comfortable."

On Early-Season Winning Streak, Now at Four Games

"I think you want to make it a habit, simple as that. You start winning games, you get hungry, and hopefully you get in the situation that you hate losing so much that when you lose a game here and there you want to get back to your winning ways. It's one of those things where you have to have the right mental approach. As a coach you can't go in there like they're playoff games and say that every game is the most important game. These guys have to be focused and say, you knw what, this is game day and we need to be ready to do our best and go out there and compete hard. You make that a habit."

On Lightly-Regarded Rangers

"It's always a hard-fought game and it's physcical against the Rangers. They are a team that likes to crash the net, which makes for a physical game around the net area. They are also a team that doesn't get enough credit for how well they play in their D zone. They really front pucks well, and play well in front of their crease area. Plus they have a great goaltender in (Henrik) Lundqvist. So with that great D zone coverage, they are tough to score goals on."

Some Other Kids

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Written on 10/19/2010 by Jim Cerny

Think NHL young guns and the names of John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, and Jordan Eberle are probably among the first to come to mind.

But while those players are surely some of the true rising stars in the National Hockey League, there is a whole group of youngsters not receiving nearly the amount of publicity the aforementioned group is.

Here's a quick look at five young guns you should know more about.

Chris Stewart-Colorado Avalanche

Stewart (photo right) began to take off in his second NHL season a year ago, scoring 28 goals and notching 64 points in 77 games, and that just may be the tip of the iceberg for this hulking power forward. The Avs first round pick in 2006 is an absolutely fearless physical force, as capable of dropping the gloves on the first shift of a game with one of the league's most willing fighters---as he did on Saturday with the Islanders Zenon Konopka---as he is camping out in front of the opposition's net to bang home a goal or two---as he did last night, scoring twice against the Rangers from no more than a foot or two from the goal line. Stewart (23 next week) already has 5 goals and 7 points in 6 games this season, and could be on his way to a 35-goal or better campaign.

Mark Letestu-Pittsburgh Penguins

The feel-good story of the 2010-11 season, so far, Letestu registered another goal and assist in last night's 5-2 win over Ottawa, raising his season numbers to a point-per-game average (4-3-7 in 7 games). Not drafted, spent parts of four years in the minors---including time in the ECHL---Letestu (24) made his NHL debut last season and even appeared in four playoff games, earning one assist, for the Pens. Though Letestu had "AHL Star...NHL Wannabe" written all over him, he earned a roster spot out of camp and has been terrific over the first two weeks of the season.

Josh Bailey-New York Islanders

Like Stewart, Bailey's success so far this year should not be a huge surprise because he, too, was a first-round pick (9th overall in 2008). As a 20 year-old second-year pro a year ago he picked up 16 goals and 35 points in 73 games. This year it's not only the 3 goals and 6 points in 6 games he has scored, it's how he is earning his points, with tremendous skill, vision, and artistic flair. Still just a baby at 21, the Islanders should be reaping the benefits this year from having force-fed Bailey at the NHL level right after drafting him in '08.

Cal O'Reilly-Nashville Predators

In his third NHL season, O'Reilly (24) has seen his ice time jump five minutes per game from a year ago (to an average of 18+ minutes a night). As a result, O'Reilly has four points (all assists) in four games. It's a small sampling, but it looks like the Preds are ready to give the kid a chance to show he can replicate his point-per-game numbers from the minors, where has spent the bulk of the past four years after being selected in the 4th round of the 2005 draft. Looks to be more of a playmaker than a goal scorer (he has taken only 5 shots on goal, so far, this year), but there's nothing wrong with that. Nashville seems to always fly under the radar, and so, too, has O'Reilly to this point.

Matt Taormina-New Jersey Devils

He's not a forward, and probably won't fit under the title of "Young Gun", but Taormina is a surprisingly poised rookie defenseman off to a good start playing for a head coach---John Maclean---who coached him in the minors a year ago. Maclean witnessed first-hand Taormina's 50-point season at Lowell last year. When he became bench boss in Jersey, Maclean brought Taormina with him, and the kid is playing 20+ minutes a night, with 3 points in his last 3 games. With Paul Martin now in Pittsburgh, and no other great option on the roster, keep an eye on Taormina (24 tomorrow) evolving into the Devils power play quarterback of the future---and the present.

A New Epidemic in New York

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Written on 10/16/2010 by Jim Cerny

You heard about the bedbug epidemic in New York? I'm sure you must have. You know, nasty little critters sabotaging hotels and closing down retail stores in and around Manhattan? Yeah, those bedbugs have become quite the story, so much so that my aunt in Iowa brought it up to me the second my plane landed out her way during a visit this past summer.

But I digress.

There is another epidemic sweeping through the New York area---one that has infiltrated Long Island and into New Jersey, as well. And it affects only hockey players.

It is called the injury epidemic.

It actually began on the Island, taking strong hold and wiping out numerous key members of the New York Islanders. Then the New York Rangers took a few hits in Manhattan as did New Jersey Devils in Newark. And last night the full force of this epidemic came crashing down on the Rangers during their home opener at Madison Square Garden when superstar sniper Marian Gaborik suffered a separated shoulder and team captain Chris Drury suffered the second fracture to his left index finger in the span of a month.

There is no end in sight to this vicious epidemic.

Here's a detailed look:

New York Rangers:

Drury broke his finger blocking a shot during the first scrimmage of training camp. He missed the entire pre-season, and first two games of the regular season, before returning last night. He lasted into the second period when he collided with teammate Michal Rozsival and fractured the finger in a new spot. He is out six weeks. "I am worried about him," said head coach John Tortorella. "He is fit to be tied." Gaborik was boarded by Toronto's Colby Armstrong, suffered a separated shoulder, and the 42-goal scorer from a year ago is out 2-4 weeks. The team's alternate captain Vinny Prospal missed all of training camp with a sore knee. He will undergo surgery Tuesday and is lost for an indefinite period without having played a single shift yet this year. So gone from the equation are three key veterans, including two of the Rangers top scorers from a year ago.

New York Islanders:

All-Star defenseman Mark Streit was forced to undergo major shoulder surgery after being hit during an intrasquad scrimmage that was opened up to the fans in mid-September. He is out six months. Gone is the club's minutes-muncher and power play quarterback. Winger Kyle Okposo---a 52-point scorer a year ago at the age of 22---also injured his shoulder before the season's first game. He is out indefinitely. Center Rob Schremp suffered a back injury, and the Isles lose another key power play performer. He's gone on a week-to-week basis. And just when it doesn't look like it can get any worse, John Tavares---the focal point of the Islanders and last year's first overall draft pick---suffered a concussion on opening night against the Dallas Stars. He likely will return tonight against Colorado, but still....this is The Franchise we are talking about...never good to put the word "concussion" next to John Tavares' name.

New Jersey Devils:

Now in the Devils case, one could argue that their injuries have been extremely timely because some of them have offered salary cap relief via the long term injured reserve list, of course made necessary by the Ilya Kovalchuk contract signing. But again, I digress. Defenseman Bryce Salvador suffered a concussion during the pre-season and is out indefinitely, placed on long term IR. Veteran forward Brian Rolston joined him on IR, and provided signifciant salary cap relief in the process, by undergoing a sports hernia operation earlier this week. He'll be out at least 4 weeks. Rugged defenseman Anton Volchenkov broke his nose on opening night and hasn't played since. Meanwhile the Devils skirt questions about whether or not Volchenkov, too, suffered a concussion. And another defenseman went down this past week when Mark Fraser fractured his hand.

OUCH!

We are a little more than a week into the 2010-11 season and that is a total of 11 key players injured on three teams loacted within a 30-mile or so radius of one another.

It's an injury epidemic.

Don't go drinking the water.

Follow Me On Twitter at: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

Modano and Gagne Return Home

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Written on 10/15/2010 by Jim Cerny

I found it quite interesting that Philadelphia and its fans gave a warmer reception to ex-Flyer Simon Gagne upon his return to The City of Brotherly Love last night with his new team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, than the Dallas organization gave Mike Modano (photo) upon his return with his new club, the Detroit Red Wings, also last night.

Gagne, who was a salary cap casualty this summer being shipped to Tampa after ten seasons with the Flyers, received a long ovation during his first shift and then a sustained standing ovation at the conclusion of a moving video highlighting his career was shown on the scoreboard during a play stoppage.

Modano, the 40 year-old sure-bet Hall of Famer who spent the first 20 seasons of his career with the Stars---both in Minnesota and then in Dallas---decided to continue his career this season after signing with rival Detroit during the summer. Last night the fans treated him with love, but the Stars organization simply chose to put his picture on the scoreboard with a simple "Thank You Mike" message.

Perhaps the Stars organization, including GM Joe Nieuwendyk---a former teammate and good friend of Modano's---felt that proper tributes took place in Modano's final home game in Dallas last April and that both sides have moved on. If so, that was a mistake because the fans turned out to salute Modano last night, and the organization should have done so, as well.

Modano said afterwards that he is relieved to get on with the rest of the season now. With one goal and a -2 plus/minus so far, Modano still is looking to find his footing with the Red Wings.

Same goes for Gagne, the reluctant Bolt, who is pointless and a -4 in three games for Tampa Bay.

Here are two excellent takes on Modano's return to Dallas and Gagne's return to Philly.

####

A few other NHL observations:

The Islanders are fun to watch: No Mark Streit...no Kyle Okposo...no John Tavares...no James Wisniewski...No Problem! This hungry and gritty team does not quit and they play an entertaining in-your-face style, plus these kids are growing up and learning to score. There may be a lot of 5-4 games in their future, but who says that's a bad thing? Rally from two down to force overtime against Dallas. Rally from 4-3 down late in third to beat the Rangers 6-4. Lead Washington for a long stretch of the game only to lose 2-1 on the road without four of their best players. It's early, but these guys really may be a pain in the ass to play against this year.

Minnesota Turns Up The Power: The Wild picked up their first win of the season last night, using four man-up goals to power past Edmonton 4-2. I tuned in on Center Ice mainly to get a look at Edmonton's talented kids---Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi---and instead had my eyes fixed on Minnesota's captain Mikko Koivu all night. His play was inspirational, leading his club back from a 2-1 hole to the 4-2 victory, not just scoring the tying and winning goals, but there was a look in his eyes that all great leaders have. The Wild needed someone to be a difference maker, and Koivu made sure that it would be him.

Hey! What Is This, the NFL or NBA?: A bit of a rough week publicity-wise for the NHL. Isles d-man James Wisniewski graphically shows Sean Avery what he can do with his, um, stick in full view of fans and TV cameras to become a YouTube sensation. Stars forward Mike Ribiero and his wife are arrested for an incident outside a Dallas bar. Thank goodness news broke that Brett Favre took pictures of his crotch and sent them to a Jets employee a couple of years ago, and that Sports Illustrated's cover story is about an agent decsribing how he illegally paid off college football players, or else people might start confusing the NHL with the NFL or NBA!

Avery Not The Bad Guy This Time

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Written on 10/12/2010 by Jim Cerny

Listen, probably too much breath and too many words have been wasted already on the incident yesterday involving Islanders defenseman James Wisniewski and Rangers forward Sean Avery.


Bottom line is two guys, playing hard in an intense game, jawed at each other---with much smack, I'm sure, spewed back and forth---and then Wisniewski unfortunately decided to make an obscene gesture/act, repeatedly I might add.

If the referees had done the right thing---the officials clearly had to see what Wisniewski was doing, as you can tell from the video clip I posted---and penalized the Isles d-man for unsportsmanlike conduct then this would be a minor story---vulgar, but minor.

The issue is that the referees chose to ignore Wisniewski, and his act went unpenalized, leading to the inevitable anger from Avery after the game, from which this story really grew legs to become one of the top stories from around the league today.

I was there when a calm, but clearly irritated, Avery said after the game, "It was pretty obvious what happened...it's interesting that you'd get a warning (from the refs) for something like that...can you imagine if I did that (said with sarcastic laugh)...they sent me to rehab the last time I did something like that...it's crazy."

I am not an Avery apologist, and it's not like I have any kind of personal relationship with Sean, just a professional one. His past transgressions, as well as his rap sheet, is well documented.

But he is right. What the heck would have happened if Sean had made the same obscene gesture to Wisniewski? Would the officials have looked the other way as they did on Monday? Not a chance.

I'm not insinuating that the refs are out to get Avery, though I will say that when he returned from his suspension and counseling two years ago, clearly plays involving Sean were ruled on a different standard. But I don't think that was the case last year, and I don't foresee it to be that way this year.

The refs just blew it with Wisniewski yesterday. And as such it has become a bigger story than it likely would have been had there been a penalty called.

Today Hockey Night in Canada analyst, and former NHL player, coach, and GM, Mike Milbury made himself part of the story by shifting the focus away from Wisniewski's ill-advised actions and instead focusing on why he believes Avery is a discredit to the league.

Here's a snippet of Milbury's comments: "Here we are we're talking about Avery again, not because he made a great backhanded pass to set up the game-winning goal, but because he's part of another unsavory incident. It's like watching a car wreck. You know it's not going to be pretty but you can't seem to turn away from it until you've had a look."

News Flash to Mr. Milbury: Avery did not make the obscene gesture. It's Wisniewski who disgraced himself.

Is Sean a saint? Hell no. Is he an agitator to the max? Absolutely. But agitating is part of the game, always has been, always will be. C'mon, Milbury was a pretty good agitator with his play and his mouth while manning the Bruins blueline back in the day. And Milbury the GM/Coach would have LOVED having Sean Avery on his side.

So why all the hatred now?

Funny that Milbury mentioned about Sean not making a great pass for a game-winning goal. Great timing, Mike. Avery had two assists on opening night in Buffalo, including a perfect feed from behind the net on Derek Stepan's third goal of the game. Guess he missed that, huh? And maybe Mike missed that Avery has been one of the two or three best players throughout camp, pre-season, and the first two games for the Rangers.

Don't know which is worse, Milbury's misdirected tirade or the referees' blown call.

Follow Me on Twitter at: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

Behind the Scenes for Derek Stepan's Big Day and Night

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Written on 10/10/2010 by Jim Cerny

Last night in the Rangers locker room following their season-opening 6-3 win in Buffalo, I approached goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for his take on Derek Stepan's NHL debut.

Before the question was even completely out of my mouth, Lundqvist was shaking his head in disbelief and laughing heartily. And then he said the only possible thing that could sum up the rookie center's 3-goal first-game as a pro.

"Wow!"

Perhaps Lundqvist's laugh and shaking of the head said more than words---or the word "Wow"---could. Because those responses really said, "You've got to be kidding me! A 20 year-old kid, fresh out of college, scores a hat trick in his first NHL game! No freaking way! This game is not that easy."

But Stepan made it look that way. In fact he has made a lot of things seem so easy since turning pro this past summer. He has an easy-going confidence, a terrific knack for being in the right place on the ice most of the time, and is an extremely intelligent kid.

"He has an inner confidence about him, yet he is very respectful and always asking questions, trying to learn," said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. "He loves challenges, and we have challenged him a lot along the way here."

Stepan became only the fourth player in the entire history of the National Hockey League to score three goals in his first game. I was fortunate enough to be up in Buffalo and cover his great accomplishment. Following is a behind-the-scenes look at Stepan's big day and night (and a little more, too).

Saturday

11:15-The zamboni is cleaning the ice following the Sabres morning skate at the HSBC Arena. An eager Stepan, his NHL debut roughly eight hours away, is sitting on the Rangers' bench alongside defenseman Dan Girardi watching the zamboni. No other players are on the bench just yet. Makes you wonder if the kid is super excited, insanely nervous, or always one of the first ones out at the morning skate.
11:30-Stepan and his teammates hit the ice for the quick skate, which is meant to wake the players up, get the blood flowing. Stepan skates with veteran linemates Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko during line rushes, and he will center those two as he did late in the pre-season.
11:45-Tortorella meets with the media outside the Rangers dressing room. When asked if he will have to keep an eye on Stepan, fearing the kid may be a bit nervous on this night, Tortorella sounds almost prophetic when answering, "I don't think that's going to be a problem because I think he embraces his challenges...I think he'll be a good player for us tonight." Little did I know that Torts had just written the lead to what would be my post-game story on the Rangers web site later on in the evening.
12:00-I chat with Stepan by his corner locker and ask him a few questions about nerves. "Slept well last night", "Think I'll be more excited than nervous", "Not thinking about being nervous...but if you keep asking me about it...!" are just some of his relaxed answers.
12:45-Back at the team hotel Stepan meets with family and friends, including his Mom, who drove to Buffalo from Minnesota. Next it's a little lunch with his teammates and then a nap (later on he told me he had no problems napping!).
First Period-Stepan had joked to me in the morning that on his first shift he might just "take a skate" and let Avery and Fedotenko handle the puck just to get acclimated to his first NHL game. In reality, Stepan steals the puck along the left wall in the offensive zone, and though his centering pass is knocked away, it almost leads to an early scoring chance. Kid seems on top of his game. At 10:53 he is credited with his first NHL goal when Girardi's slap shot is deflected by the rookie, bounces of Buffalo's Tyler Myers, and slips across the goal line. "That's the way everyone's first goal is. They're never pretty," Stepan tells me later.
Second period-With the Rangers 2-1 lead hanging by a thread, thanks to Lundqvist's brilliance in net, and with the visting team being outshot by a wide margin, Stepan kills the home team's momentum by getting free in front and lifting a rebound of Marc Staal's point shot over Ryan Miller's glove. 3-1 Rangers 15:08 into the second. Then with 1:40 left to play Stepan whips a shot from the slot into the back of the cage off a pretty feed from Avery. 4-1 Rangers. Hat Trick in his NHL debut for Stepan. Torts told me today, "What I really liked is that he didn't go all crazy about it. He was excited, but he expects to do good things."
Third Period-As amazing as his NHL debut was, incredibly Stepan's night could have gone even better. He misfired on an odd-man rush up ice and then missed with a long shot at an empty net after Miller was pulled for an extra attacker. Kid could have had four, or five, goals on the night!
Post-Game-I am the first reporter to get to Stepan, who is more than willing to chat---he always is, great kid---though he undresses quickly at the same time because you can tell that he has the rookie fear that he might miss the team bus to the airport. I feel like saying, "Relax. Tonight, they're not going anywhere without you!". Typically, Stepan is gracious in his praise of his linemates and downplays his huge night, though he does confess, "This was exciting...the hockey gods must have been looking down on me." As I leave Stepan he is besieged by a media horde, so I seek out others for opinions on what Stepan accomplished. Lundqvist offers, "What can you say about a first game like that? We'll let him enjoy it tonight, but tomorrow it's back to work and it's forgotten. It's going to be our job to help guide him through his first year. But he is very mature kid and I think he'll handle it well." Brandon Dubinsky said, "It's awesome! He's such a great talent and is going to be a really big part of the team. Best thing about him is he's confident, but pretty mellow, stays with that even keel." Staal added, "He was smart, in the right place, didn't get caught running around, and it transferred into three goals because he was in the right position. It's impressive."
10:30-Stepan heads to the bus after saying goodbye to Mom. Then on to airport where the charter takes him and his teammates back to New York.

Sunday:

12:00 Noon-Just as Lundqvist said 14 hours earlier, it's back to work. Stepan is on ice with his teammates practicing for Monday afternoon's showdown against the Islanders. Three goals in your first game, kid? No problem. Now let's see what you can really do!

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The Cloudy Crystal Ball

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Written on 10/07/2010 by Jim Cerny

With the puck dropping on the 2010-11 NHL season today (Yes! Finally!!) I might as well dust off the ol' crystal ball to make a few predictions.

Warning!!! Do not even think of running to Vegas or to your local bookie and lay any cash on these predictions. Past performance has proven that this crystal ball can be quite cloudy...

Though I will pat myself on the back and remind you that last October I did have the Flyers representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. Of course there is no way I could have accurately predicted the bumpy road it took for Philly to arrive at that point, but in this case the end justified the means.

Of course I also had the Canucks in the Finals, and, well, we know how good a prediction that was.

In all I had 12 of 16 playoff teams predicted correctly.

But that's in the past, let's look ahead to 2010-11. And since it is likely those of you reading this are hockey fanatics and have read every hockey blog and magazine and watched every NHL preview show, I won't bore you with too many details as to why my picks are my picks.

So here goes....

Eastern Conference:

These 4 teams are locks: Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, and Philadelphia Flyers.

These 4 teams will fight their way in: Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers.

These 3 teams will just miss out: Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, and Montreal Canadiens.

These 2 teams will be better, but not good enough: Atlanta Thrashers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

These 2 teams will continue to struggle: New York Islanders and Florida Panthers.

Western Conference:

These 5 teams are locks: Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks.

These 3 teams will fight their way in: St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Phoenix Coyotes.

These 2 teams will just miss out: Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames.

These 2 teams will be improved, but not good enough: Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers.

These 3 teams are just not good enough, period: Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild, and Dallas Stars.

In the Stanley Cup Finals I see the Pittsburgh Penguins, still young and talented and now extra motivated after last year's playoff failure, returning to represent the East just as they did in 2007-08 and 2008-09; but out West the answer is not as clear-cut in my mind. My gut tells me Vancouver...but I hate agreeing with almost every other pundit out there, most of whom are saying that this is finally the Canucks year. I can see Detroit, if they remain healthy, making another run. And I don't count out the Blackhawks, as most everyone else has, despite the dismantling of the lower half of the champs' roster. In the end, though, I'll have to say.....

Stanley Cup Finals: Penguins vs. Canucks

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Souray on the Move...Not What You Think

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Written on 10/06/2010 by Jim Cerny

The Edmonton Oilers finally moved veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray today. But don't get too fired up over this piece of news because the real story isn't nearly as exciting as you might have hoped.

Souray, whom the Oilers have been trying to trade or lose through waivers all summer and through training camp, today had his rights assigned to the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League.

No, Hershey is not Edmonton's farm team. That would be Oklahoma City.

Hershey is the minor league club for the Washington Capitals. Souray is being loaned there the same way that the Caps have loaned a veteran they don't want around---center Michael Nylander---to Rochester, the top farm team for the Florida Panthers.

While Edmonton is still forced to pay Souray's big salary, the Oilers do not have to absorb his robust $5.4 million cap hit while he is in the minors. Clearly GM Kevin Lowe does not want to pay Souray all season, but right now it is best for the 34 year-old defenseman---with 2 injury-marred seasons in the past 3 years---to prove that he is healthy and not a shell of his former All Star self.

Last year a concussion shelved Souray early and a broken hand suffered in a fight with Jarome Iginla in January finished off the rest of his season. Those injuries, plus his salary and cap hit, his age, and his questionable attitude kept other teams from trading for Souray or picking him off the waiver wire a few days ago.

Is he finished as a  star NHL player? Or is he the answer to some team's power play woes? It's worth noting that Souray played in 81 games with trhe Oilers just two years ago and totaled 23 goals (12 on the power play) and 53 points.

The real Souray must make himself clear in Hershey. If he displays a poor attitude and plays sub-par hockey, the Oilers are stuck paying him for the next two years, a huge issue for a notoriously penny-pinching team. However if he shows to be still a quality player, injury-free coupled with a solid attitude, Souray will be back in the NHL, no questions about it.

How does he return, if he returns?

If the Oilers are very lucky, they work out a trade with another team, say Columbus, who has been long-rumored to be interested in Souray. If they are not as lucky, the Oilers will place Souray on re-entry waivers and some team will snag him for half the salary and half the cap charge. That's not a perfect answer for the Oilers, but better than paying a player more than 4 million bucks to play for another team's minor league squad.

Souray was on the move today.

It won't be his last move this season.

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Golfing in the Rain

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Written on 10/05/2010 by Jim Cerny

The Rangers held their annual golf outing, reception, and dinner yesterday at beautiful Trump International. And save the cracks that the Rangers usually do their best golfing in April.

Though the weather was lousy---Rangers center Brian Boyle told me that at one point the rain was literally slanting sideways directly into his face because of a stiff wind---the event was yet another classy success.

The entire current roster and coaching staff was on hand, along with a string of Rangers alumni, to golf and mingle with various corporate types and fans.

Several of the new players told me that, though many teams hold annual golf/dinner outings, the Rangers event clearly stands out. This organization just does not do anything less than first-class. The Rangers take tremendous pride in being an Original Six franchise and in celebrating their 85th Anniversary this year. They stand right alongside the Canadiens and Red Wings as NHL teams that do things "the right way".

Here are a few observations from yesterday:

*The Rangers saluted all 25 captains in franchise history, with former bearers of the C Harry Howell, Bob Nevin, Dave Maloney, and Mark Messier on hand. Kelly Kissio, Ron Greschner, and Walt Tkaczuk were originally scheduled to attend, but the first date for the event was rained out more than a week before and none of those three could reschedule.

*The four former captains on hand ascended a stage and answered questions from host Sam Rosen. The most poignant remark came from Messier, not surprisingly, who, when asked about the most important quality a captain needs to have, said, "I found it very important to be transparent at all times...my teammates needed to be able to see right through me always, to see that I spoke from the heart". Messier also said that there were so many qualities important for a captain to posess that he could speak for weeks on the topic, spending several days alone on each individual trait. Yet another example of why he is known simply as The Captain.

*Nevin was funny recounting that, after winning 2 Stanley Cups in Toronto, it was a bit of a letdown coming to a struggling Rangers team. "I figured I'd make the best of it," said Nevin, who did just that by living the high life in Manhattan with the extremely social Rod Gilbert! Nevin told me on the side that he and Gilbert spent an evening with Joe Namath at his nightclub just weeks after Broadway Joe led the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl Three. A real Time Capsule Moment, for sure.

*I was fortunate to sit at the same dinner table as both Messier and Maloney, as well as Rangers broadcaster Kenny Albert. Kenny and I really gave it to Dave when the Rangers played a video saluting the 25 captains, showing a young, long-haired Maloney---a defenseman known more for his play in his own end than in the offensive zone---making a gorgeous solo dash which resulted in a goal. "Where'd they dig that up from?," teased Kenny. "No doubt Dave had this video stowed away at home and offered it up," I answered. Dave is one of the real good guys and laughed long and hard. He later showed us the beautiful Tiffany cufflinks with the captain's "C" engraved on them that each captain in attendance, including current Rangers captain Chris Drury, received. It pays to be the captain, it looks like!

*Rangers head coach John Tortorella put 20 year old rookie center Derek Stepan (photo above) on the spot and the kid handled himself quite well. After the team was introduced one-by-one and stood on stage side-by-side, Torts spoke to those in attendance about what it means to be a Ranger and the great tradition of playing for this organization. He then said, "You probably want to know about training camp. Well Derek Stepan, come on over here and tell everyone about training camp." As the veterans laughed loudly Stepan awkwardly accepted the microphone from his head coach and joked, "I couldn't feel my legs after the first three days, but other than that it's been great!" Torts explained today that he wasn't hazing the rookie, just testing him. And he felt that Stepan, just as he has done on and off the ice throughout training camp and the pre-season, passed another test with flying colors. "He has such an inner confidence, and such a sense of maturity to him," said Tortorella. You know how Torts and Glen Sather talk about the Rangers Young Core? This kid is going to be a big part of the core for a long, long time.

*Henrik Lundqvist knows his role with the Rangers organization, and plays it to perfection. And I don't just mean being the club's world-class goaltender. Lundqvist understands that he is the face of this organization and as such it is his responsibility at these types of events to be seen and to schmooze with the attendees. And he did just that, easily moving from group to group casually making small talk, telling funny stories, and most importantly, making each guest feel that he, personally, appreciated that he/she was there. It is a gift that not every famous athlete owns. But Henrik indeed has that gift.

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