Five biggest factors for the 2011 Winter Classic

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The Winter Classic is tomorrow night and while it’s still just another regular season game, it’s also a game featuring two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and being played on the biggest stage outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs. We’ve seen how these two teams battle each other already this year with the Pens winning a in a shootout just before Christmas, but what can we look out for in this year’s game? We’ve got a list of the five things we think will be the biggest factors in this year’s game.

1. Washington goaltending

The Caps have one of the youngest goaltending duos in the NHL and this season we’ve seen our fair share of work from Michal Neuvirth who has led the Caps in wins this season. Semyon Varlamov is back and now splitting time with Neuvirth. Varlamov is the guy who was their de facto starter heading into the year, but injury problems have plagued him. Whether coach Bruce Boudreau goes with Varlamov or Neuvirth to start the Winter Classic could give us an idea of who he thinks is the guy that gives them an edge in a big game. How they handle themselves on such a huge stage in this game could be the sort of thing that gives the Caps an idea who their go-to guy could be.

With Varlamov and Neuvirth both being as young as they are things can change at any time. The Caps’ season is riding on either of these young goalies so getting a test like this early on can only help them out along the way. With Pens coach Dan Bylsma having made note of what he thought about Michal Neuvirth’s ability on the last episode of 24/7, you have to wonder if perhaps the Pens have a preferred Caps goalie they’d like to see.

2. The Sidney Crosby factor

You can’t help but wonder what the buzz and hype would’ve been for this game had Crosby’s point streak been able to continue. Instead, Sid the Kid and the Penguins come into this game off a tough and frustrating loss to the Islanders that saw Sid kept off the scoreboard for the first time in 25 games. If you’re looking for the perfect storm to put together to have Crosby get back into the swing of things, this is it. Having him face off with one of his biggest rivals in Washington and having the motivation to get his scoring touch back, you can’t help but think that Crosby will explode for a big game in front of even more home fans at the Winter Classic.

3. The Capitals dark days are over

All right so things weren’t quite as bleak as HBO’s 24/7 made them out to be, but the Caps’ eight game losing streak is behind them and it appears they’ve learned that losing can be the greatest motivator. After getting dumped in the first round of the playoffs as the Presidents Trophy winners and after stumbling through an erratic and miserable losing streak, the Caps renewed dedication to defense might be paying dividends. The Caps aren’t getting involved in shootout-type games anymore and if their big offensive guns can find their stride again, all of a sudden the Caps are a force to be reckoned with. With the Caps having their confidence back, they won’t be shaken very easily.

4. The role of the role player

Sure, it’s easy to pick out Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, or Nicklas Backstrom as the guys who will make a difference in the game, but the Winter Classic has that ability to play out like a playoff game and that means having to look out for the unsung heroes on each team. The Caps and Pens both have guys like that in spades. We’ve seen in the past that Maxime Talbot can turn a game and win a Stanley Cup, so what’s to keep him from stealing the spotlight in the Winter Classic? The same case can be made of guys like Brooks Laich and David Steckel of Washington playing the part of blue collar guys that can turn a game in their favor.

5. The weather

Yeah, we know you’ve heard almost too much about it by now but there’s no doubt that the weather forecast is looming over how things are going to go on New Year’s Day.  It’s looming over things so much so that the game has been re-scheduled to take place at 8 p.m. Saturday night. While the rain should clear out by the late afternoon or early evening, if it causes problems mid-game there are some rules in place that will help figure things out. Of course, if the rain persists though… We could be looking at Sunday for a game.

Pekka Rinne begins Stanley Cup Final as the Conn Smythe favorite

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Pekka Rinne enters the Stanley Cup Final as the favorite to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, according to odds released by Bovada.

No surprise.

The Predators have gone on a terrific run this postseason, hitting the high expectations laid out for them prior to the start of the season. There have been many reasons for their success this spring, most notably the play of Rinne in goal.

He started the playoffs with consecutive shutouts versus the Blackhawks and then only gave up three goals in the final two games as Nashville swept Chicago, considered the Stanley Cup favorite when the playoffs began, in the opening round.

Rinne has continued to roll, with a .941 save percentage throughout the entire playoffs, while Nashville has allowed only 29 goals in 16 games.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are also near the top of that list for the Conn Smythe odds. Crosby is the reigning Conn Smythe winner, while Malkin leads all players with 24 points in 19 playoff games.

Here are the odds, via Bovada:

Pekka Rinne    9/4

Sidney Crosby    5/2

Evgeni Malkin    7/2

Matt Murray    9/1

Filip Forsberg    10/1

Phil Kessel    10/1

PK Subban    16/1

Roman Josi    25/1

Viktor Arvidsson    33/1

Ryan Ellis    33/1

Jake Guentzel    33/1

Chris Kunitz    33/1

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is Monday in Pittsburgh. After winning it all a year ago, the Penguins enter the series as the favorites against the Predators.

Related: Pekka Rinne has been the backbone for the Predators during run to the final

Here’s how the Penguins will line up for Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row and are looking to become the first team to win it in back-to-back years in two decades.

Here is a look at how they are expected to lineup on Monday night for the first game of the series.

Forwards

Chris KunitzSidney CrosbyConor Sheary
Scott WilsonEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Bryan RustNick BoninoCarter Rowney
Jake GuentzelMatt CullenPatric Hornqvist

This is based on what we saw from the Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Ottawa and based on the practice lines on Sunday. With Patric Hornqvist returning to the lineup on Monday night it is going to come down to Jake Guentzel or Carl Hagelin being the odd man out, and given that Hagelin spent extra time on the ice with the scratches following the morning skate it seems likely he will be the scratch. Guentzel is still the NHL’s playoff leader in goals, but is currently riding an eight-game goal drought.

The Kunitz-Crosby-Sheary line was assembled in Game 7 and produced two of the Penguins’ three goals in their double overtime win.

Defense

Ian ColeJustin Schultz
Olli MaattaTrevor Daley
Brian DumoulinRon Hainsey

While Mike Sullivan has had a tendency to throw his line combinations into a blender during the postseason, his defense pairings have remained relatively consistent as long as he has the same healthy players in the lineup. And they are the ones you see above. Cole and Schultz have spent a significant portion of the season playing alongside one another and have formed a really solid duo. Olli Maatta has had some struggles at times, but over the past couple of weeks has played some of his best hockey in over a year. All of these pairings will get a similar amount of ice time.

Goalies

Matt Murray (starter)
Marc-Andre Fleury (backup)

Murray has reclaimed his starting spot since returning from injury and has won three of his first four starts while posting a .946 save percentage. He is playing in his second Stanley Cup Final even though he is still considered a rookie in the eyes of the NHL.

Related: Here’s how the Predators will line up in Game 1

Here’s how the Predators will line up for Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — For the first time in franchise history, the Nashville Predators will play in a Stanley Cup Final tonight.

Here’s how the Preds are expected to look in Game 1 against the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena:

 

 

Forwards

Filip ForsbergColton SissonsPontus Aberg
Viktor ArvidssonMike FisherJames Neal
Colin WilsonCalle JarnkrokCraig Smith
Frederick GaudreauVernon FiddlerAustin Watson

The big omission up front is Ryan Johansen, the Preds’ No. 1 center who’s been diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome and won’t play in the final. Kevin Fiala was also lost for the playoffs after getting hurt in the second round.

Johansen was acquired last year to give the Preds the type of elite center they’d been missing. Obviously, the timing of his injury couldn’t have been much worse.

“We lost a lot of offense and a big, heavy, strong centerman in Johansen,” said Sissons. “There’s gonna be some big shoes for us to fill.”

Of note, Wilson was absent from this morning’s skate. If he doesn’t play for whatever reason, expect Cody McLeod to take his spot.

Defense

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt Irwin —  Yannick Weber

This is the strength of Nashville’s roster. Essentially, the Preds have two first pairings at their disposal, and head coach Peter Laviolette deploys them as such.

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin told reporters yesterday that it’s like the Preds have “four Karlssons,” referring to Josi, Ellis, Ekholm, and Subban.

That’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s arguably the best top four in the league.

Goalies

Pekka Rinne (starter)
Juuse Saros (backup)

Rinne has been excellent in these playoffs, compiling a 12-4 record with a .941 save percentage. This after a regular season where his save percentage fluctuated wildly from month-to-month.

“I think we started off really well (in the playoffs) against Chicago, then you gain some confidence, and personally I was playing well,” Rinne said. “Once that ball starts rolling you feel better and better and things start to go your way. I feel the biggest thing is as a team, for a long time in the regular season we were trying to find consistency and at times we didn’t do a good job. I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now.”

Rinne has been so good that Saros has yet to even play a second of the postseason.

Related: Here’s how the Penguins will line up for Game 1

Sens GM doesn’t rule out possibility of asking Dion Phaneuf to waive NMC for expansion draft

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Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion met with reporters on Monday, and quickly made one thing clear heading into the summer: Craig Anderson will be protected from the expansion draft.

Beyond that, Dorion has a myriad of pending decisions on his plate over the next few weeks — as does every NHL general manager, with the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights approaching.

While Anderson is going to be protected, Dorion admitted he and his staff are still figuring out who on their roster will gain protection. Those discussions, it appears, will include Dion Phaneuf, the 32 years old defenseman with four more years on his current contract and a hefty cap hit of $7 million.

Phaneuf scored nine goals and 30 points during this past regular season, and had one goal and five points during the postseason.

He also has a no-movement clause in his contract, which garners protection from the expansion draft. But there have been rumblings the Sens may ask him to waive that no-movement clause.

“That’s something we’re going to talk internally (about) in the next few weeks. We know we have quite a few good defensemen,” said Dorion.

“If we ever end up losing a defenseman, we know we have guys that can come in and replace him. I’m not sure. There’s a lot of discussions to be had. If ever we were to go that direction, I think I should let Dion know first.”

From the Ottawa Citizen:

The Senators issues have been well-documented, especially on the back end. Asking veteran defenceman Dion Phaneuf to waive his ‘no-move’ clause to allow the club to protect Marc Methot makes the most sense. The Senators don’t want to lose Phaneuf and the guess is they’d get re-assurance from Vegas they won’t.

The Senators do have a solid young prospect defenseman in Thomas Chabot, the 18th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, who Dorion singled out as a player that could challenge for a roster spot when training camp opens in September.

Dorion said he didn’t expect “big radical changes” to this roster next season, but the club also has several players on expiring contracts, including six unrestricted free agents (Viktor Stalberg, Chris Neil, Chris Kelly, Tommy Wingels, Tom Pyatt and Mike Condon).

They also have some key pending restricted free agents to get under contract, as well. Ryan Dzingel emerged as an every-game player, while Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored eight times in 19 games during the playoffs, which is only four off from matching his entire goal production from 82 games in the regular season.

“I will meet personally with Chris Neil and Chris Kelly in the next few weeks to find out what their plans are and if they’re in relation with our plans,” said Dorion.

Both Kelly and Neil are 36 and 37 years old, respectively, and were used sparingly during the playoffs. Dorion will meet with his staff, including the coaches, to determine a plan for that entire group of unrestricted free agents.

“They can’t all be back. It’s just a numbers thing. So we have to look at who fits best — our needs, our mock roster, where we need to go,” said Dorion.

A key decision on that front is likely in net.

Dorion put the onus on pending UFA goalie Condon, saying he will make him an offer and it’s up to Condon to decide whether he wants to sign it and return to Ottawa next season.

In the event Condon rejects the offer, Dorion said Andrew Hammond could come back as the No. 2 goalie to Anderson.