Antti Niemi opts for salary arbitration with Chicago

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Niemi10.jpgWhile other salary arbitration filings have gone down today, one of the more interesting filings today was done by Chicago’s Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi.

Niemi’s Chicago-based agent Bill Zito, who confirmed the filing, and Hawks general manager Stan Bowman continue to discuss various opportunities for long-term and short-term deals.

A date for the arbitration hearing for a one-year deal is expected to be established in the next few weeks.

Arbitration is an interesting situation when it happens in hockey dealings. While it’s a bit of a more sensible thing when it happens in Major League Baseball, the NHL process has a reputation for being cutthroat and nasty. For instance, there’s a bit of a legendary story dating back to the late 90s when it comes to the past dealings of former Isles general manager Mike Milbury going through arbitration with one-time netminder Tommy Salo.

Islanders G.M. Mike Milbury, as only Mad Mike can do, spewed vitriol against his budding goalie. In Milbury’s mind, Salo’s mental approach was suspect, and he was in danger of losing his job to a rookie the next season. Milbury also said Salo was one of the worst-conditioned athletes on the team, and his performance was inconsistent.

Salo was reduced to tears. He won 23 games the next season, but the relationship was never the same, and he was dealt to the Oilers in March 1999.

That’s not to say that other general managers are as rough and nasty as Milbury when it comes to arbitration, but the NHL process basically asks for the general manager to make arguments as to why he shouldn’t pay the player what the player is asking for. It’s a bad scene because you’re just asking for problems in the future when it comes to contract negotiations. By the way, the rookie that Salo was in danger of eventually losing his job to? 1997 first-round pick Roberto Luongo, who Milbury later traded to the Florida Panthers to make room to draft Rick DiPietro first overall in the 2000 NHL draft. 

Obviously, Chicago GM Stan Bowman figures to be a bit more savvy than Mad Mike was and expecting Niemi and Bowman to go to arbitration might be perilous either way. Chicago could argue that the free agent goalie market dictates that Niemi shouldn’t get a huge contract because no elite goaltender has signed a contract and the ones that have signed for very reasonable deals (like Michael Leighton did). We polled PHT readers a few weeks ago to judge what you thought Niemi’s value was and the going rate was between $2 million and $3 million dollars. Those numbers could prove to be accurate. You guys are pretty smart after all.

Niemi can counter right back saying that he’s the only goalie this off-season that won the Stanley Cup last year and that he’s at least worth more and is more valuable than the other goalie on the roster in Cristobal Huet. Should it come to that, the Blackhawks had better hope that the judge doesn’t  know much about hockey or else you can back the Brinks truck up at Antti Niemi’s house.

Chicago, in the meantime, should be trying to get Niemi locked away for a long-term deal of some variety. Should they only sign him to a one-year deal, Niemi is set to become an unrestricted free agent next year because he’ll be 27 years-old then.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins, Jets, Predators look to advance

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Game 5: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET (Penguins lead 3-1)
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Call: John Forslund, Pierre McGuire
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Stream here

Game 5: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (Jets lead 3-1)
USA
Call: Dave Randorf, Louis Debrusk
Series preview
Stream here

Game 5: Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET (Predators lead 3-1)
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Call: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Brian Boucher
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[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Leafs ‘under the gun,’ especially Matthews and Kadri

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Nazem Kadri told reporters that he didn’t apologize to his teammates about the three-game suspension he received for a hit on Tommy Wingels, explaining that he was sticking up for Mitch Marner.

An apology might not be necessary, but the bottom line is that Toronto Maple Leafs fans likely expect a lot from Kadri – not to mention star center Auston Matthews – as this team tries to fight back from down 3-1 in their series against the Boston Bruins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Letdowns

The Maple Leafs dropped two of three games with Kadri out of the lineup, prompting plenty of “What if?” questions, even if people merely wondered how different things would be if it was just a one-game suspension.

Regardless, when it came to last night’s 3-1 loss in Game 4, Mike Babcock didn’t mince words about Toronto failing to exploit the Bruins’ absence in the form of Patrice Bergeron.

“I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come tonight and dominate the game. That’s what I thought,” Babcock said of Matthews. “That didn’t happen …”

Auston not scoring often

Ultimately, Matthews has been limited to one point (the game-winner in Game 3) through the first four games of this series. That’s a disappointment for the NHL’s biggest jersey seller, especially since he showed nicely during his first playoff series, collecting five points during that memorable first-round bout with the Washington Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s easy to throw Matthews under the bus, and Babcock essentially admits that not enough was there last night.

Still, quite a bit of this comes down to bounces. Matthews has generated more than four shots on goal per game (17 overall) so far in this series, suffering with a Rick Nash-like 5.9 shooting percentage during this postseason. Such numbers tend to balance out over time; note that Matthews scored four goals in six games during that Capitals series on 16 SOG, good for a 25-percent shooting rate that would be unsustainable during an 82-game regular season.

There’s also at least some reason to wonder if Matthews is at least somewhat limited by the injury that cost him 10 games from Feb. 22 until his return to the lineup on March 22. As brilliant as he was (six goals, seven assists for 13 points in nine games), maybe he’s missing a few mph on his fastball against unforgiving competition like Zdeno Chara?

Either way, Matthews (and William Nylander) have struggled while the Bruins’ top-line forwards Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak find ways to feast upon the Maple Leafs’ mistakes.

Kadri has plenty to prove

Expectations will be high for Kadri, too, and his offensive numbers have been modest over a small sample size of playoff appearances.

So far, Kadri has generated two goals and six assists in 14 career playoff games, piling up 35 penalty minutes. At minimum, Toronto would like to see his finishing touch pay off a bit more in the postseason after the agitating center generated 32 goals in each of the past two regular seasons.

Much of that can be filed under “easier said than done,” particularly when Tuukka Rask is on his game.

Under the gun

That said, Babcock believes that players like Matthews and Kadri should “embrace and enjoy” the pressure.

” … No pressure means you have no chance. Go to the Olympic games, if you’ve got no chance for a medal there’s no pressure,” Babcock said during Friday’s press conference.

“Do you want to be that person or the person under the gun? I want to be under the gun. We want to build our program so big that we’re under the gun, we’re supposed to win. Like I said, I talked about those fans, we’ve got an unbelievable fan group. They expect us to be good. We want to be good. Let’s be good.”

Kadri, Matthews, and the Maple Leafs will get their chance to “be good” enough to keep this series alive in Game 5 on Saturday. You can tune in on NBC, with puck drop scheduled for 8 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins won’t have Hornqvist; Flyers lineup murky for Game 5

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If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 tonight, they’ll do so without Patric Hornqvist.

The Swedish winger already missed Game 4 with an upper-body injury, and the team ruled him out for Game 5. Hornqvist had been playing quite well lately, including generating a point-per-game (three in as many contests) during this series. He’s also been a pain in the neck, riling up his opponents while amassing 16 penalty minutes in Game 2.

It’s worth noting that Hornqvist scored the Penguins’ last series-clinching goal. He found the net late in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, stunning the Nashville Predators as Pittsburgh repeated as champs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Kessel gets boost with Hornqvist sidelined

The Penguins won Game 4 against the Flyers by a score of 5-0 after rearranging lines.

Hornqvist was lining up with Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, while Phil Kessel climbed to that second-line spot in Game 4 after pairing with Derick Brassard. Brassard’s wingers changed to Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, while Sidney Crosby anchors a line of Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel.

Those configurations worked well, but a desperate Flyers team could provide a different look.

That’s especially true if Sean Couturier can return to the mix for Philly after missing Game 4 himself. The team considers the Selke finalist a game-time decision, while he was seen wearing a knee brace during this morning’s optional skate.

Shuffling with Couturier hurt

The Flyers fiddled around with some interesting combinations with Couturier in doubt. Nolan Patrick centered Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux during much of Wednesday’s loss, while Left Wing Lock indicates that Valtteri Filppula could replace Patrick between Voracek and Giroux if Couturier is out.

Couturier playing or sitting is pivotal, as he’s been carrying a huge workload for Philly. That was especially true in Games 2 (27:15 minutes of ice time) and Game 3 (26:18), when Couturier logged big minutes. He also benefited the Flyers from a balance standpoint, as they were able to place Giroux and Voracek on different lines at even-strength with Couturier available.

That’s not the only big question mark for the Flyers (and perhaps for the Penguins’ hopes of prepping for the Flyers). Head coach Dave Hakstol didn’t name the starting goalie for Game 5, generating speculation that Michal Neuvirth may step in for Brian Elliott.

For all we know, the Flyers are aware of their starting goalie situation, along with Couturier’s status, but we might need to wait to actually find out. Then again, when you consider Patrice Bergeron‘s late scratch for the Bruins in Game 4 of their series, it could indeed be a coin flip for Couturier, too.

***

Game 5 airs on NBCSN tonight, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals lose Burakovsky for rest of Blue Jackets series

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Capitals coach Barry Trotz shared bad news with reporters (including the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan): Andre Burakovsky will miss at least the remainder of the series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Burakovsky required “minor surgery” for an upper-body injury suffered thanks to a Boone Jenner hit during Game 2 of the first-round series. (Game 4 took place last night, with the Capitals tying things up 2-2.)

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

NBC Sports Washington shared footage of Jenner’s hit on Burakovsky in GIF form:

On the bright side, the Capitals aren’t ruling out the possibility of Burakovsky returning during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, at least if they can advance beyond this first-round series against Columbus. Khurshudyan noted that Trotz said Burakovsky will be out at least through April 25, but the full window of recovery seems hazy.

This marks another daunting setback for Burakovsky, a 23-year-old who hasn’t had much injury luck lately. He only played in 56 games this season and 64 in 2016-17, totaling 25 points each time. It’s a bummer to see him not be able to take the next step after scoring 17 goals and 38 points in 2015-16, particularly since Burakovsky consistently churns out strong possession stats.

Trotz spoke of Burakovsky’s bad luck shortly after Game 2:

“For [Burakovsky], it’s frustrating,” Trotz said, via NBC Sports Washington’s Tarik El-Bashir. “Our mentality is the next guy up. Next guy up will be Jakub Vrana. I feel bad for Andre because everything for a young player is about getting confidence and building on that. So, every time he’s played very, very well he’s had some injuries. This is a setback but he’ll come back strong.”

Burakovsky had been lining up with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie during the Blue Jackets series. In his absence, Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson have been getting looks with Backstrom and Oshie. With Oshie also banged up right now, it certainly stings to realize that Burakovsky won’t be back for what’s been a difficult series, even though the Capitals deserve credit for hogging the biscuit lately despite being without one of their best puck-hoarders.

Game 5 shifts back to Washington on NBC/NBCSN on Saturday. Puck drop is slated for 3 p.m. ET. Here is the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.