When we spoke Thursday, AJ Mleczko excused herself for a moment to deal with little hockey voices belonging to her children.
Sometimes real life even gets in the way of Game 7 of a compelling Stanley Cup playoff series.
The former Harvard hockey star and current NBC analyst provided insight during the first six games of the Winnipeg-Nashville series, which makes her something of an expert on the Knights’ opponent in the Western Conference Final, which begins Saturday.
But before she addressed the Winnipeg Jets, who eliminated Nashville 5-1 Thursday night as the battle to etch names upon the Stanley Cup rages on, she was asked for thoughts about the Vegas side.
In that the Knights are new kids on the NHL block, and she’s the new kid in the NBC broadcast booth, does she identify with the upstarts from the desert?
“I haven’t thought of it that way, but maybe I will,” said the congenial former Team USA standout who won a gold medal in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and a silver in Salt Lake City four years later, and whose work during these playoffs received solid reviews.
“I have to say that (living in the Eastern time zone) I didn’t get to watch them a lot before the playoffs. But they are a fun team and they were awesome during the regular season and yeah, it would be easy jumping on board with them.”
— AJ Mleczko Griswold (@AJMleczko) May 7, 2018
VGK: Secret no more
Mleczko said that with the postseason exposure, casual hockey fans finally are learning what VGK stands for. And people back in Beanpot country and elsewhere will have an opportunity to peruse the new kids on the block during the impending round of playoffs, because the puck will be dropped at a more reasonable hour (thanks to her employers).
“This isn’t just a new team with a crazy fan base,” Mleczko said about getting to know the Knights. “This is actually a good team.”
Asked what comes to mind at first mention of the Knights, or their cryptic three-letter designation on the ticker during NBC hockey broadcasts, Mleczko made no mistake.
“Fleury. The way pucks have been sticking to him,” she said of the Vegas puck stopper who answers to Marc-Andre, Flower, or Hockey God in Residence.
As in baseball, where a good pitcher usually beats a good hitter, so it is in hockey when a hot goalie can snuff out the most combustible of forward lines.
“I don’t think you can give a hot goalie too much credit,” Mleczko said about playoff hockey, where scores tend to be low and checking tight. “But sometimes a hot line doesn’t get enough credit.”
Meet the Jets
She said Winnipeg — like the Knights, a team with speed to burn — has two lines capable of throwing flames and pucks into the net.
The first is centered by Mark Scheifele, who scored two more goals Thursday against Nashville to give him seven on the road in the series — something that had never before been accomplished in Lord Stanley’s playoffs. The Knights can take solace in the fact that even should the series go seven games, only three will be played in Las Vegas.
With nine assists in the Nashville series and 12 in 12 playoff games, Scheifele’s linemate and Jets captain Blake Wheeler may be on the verge of becoming the NHL’s John Stockton.
The big gun on Winnipeg’s second line is Patrik Laine, a strapping 20-year-old Finn who scored 44 goals during the regular season but has yet to catch fire during the playoffs (three goals in 12 games). Unfortunately for the Knights, there’s still time for a guy with Laine’s size, talent and mentality to ignite a hockey barn.
“Scheifele, he’s a game-changer; when he gets going, he’s unstoppable,” Mleczko said in addressing the Winnipeg headliners. “But every shot Laine takes, he expects to be a goal. I read a quote that said he doesn’t even count assists.”
At the other end of the building, Connor Hellebuyck is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. But during the playoffs the puck hasn’t been sticking to him the way it has to Fleury.
Both sides have rabid fan bases and neither has been to Western Conference Final before, although two iterations of the Jets — one of which became the Phoenix Coyotes, the other of which began as the Atlanta Thrashers — have been trying for much longer.
Mleczko, the new kid in the broadcast booth, said she has no idea how the series between the new kids and Canada’s sole survivors will turn out, only that it should be exciting and that she and the kids are looking forward to watching at a reasonable hour.