Tim Jackman, Curtis McElhinney

Around the Rink – Sunday, March 20th

It might be tough to top the pure hatred exhibited between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins during the NBC Game of the Week, but the five remaining Sunday contests should feature plenty of intensity. Every game has playoff implications, so it should be a fun night of hockey. As always, all start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

5:00 pm

Nashville @ Buffalo

The West’s eighth seed visits the East’s eight seed in a game that is important for both sides. Each team is coming off big Saturday wins, as the Predators rode an outstanding Pekka Rinne performance to beat the Red Wings while the Sabres absolutely crushed the Thrashers 8-2.

Buffalo will extinguish their one extra game in hand over the ninth-place Hurricanes, but could stretch their lead from two to four. Meanwhile, a win for Nashville would (briefly) propel them to fifth in the West.

New Jersey @ Columbus

Much like the Predators-Sabres game, this matches two conference twins, as the Devils rank 12th in the East while the Blue Jackets are in 12th in the West. While New Jersey’s odds are a little better (even though both teams are eight points behind their respective conference’s eight seeds), they both might already be toast. Whoever wins this game still can hold onto their slim dreams, while a loss – especially during regulation – could be the last straw.

6:00 pm

Montreal @ Minnesota

Both teams have been struggling a bit lately, but while the Habs’ main concerns regard their seeding more than earning a playoff spot, the Wild’s potential for a postseason keeps fading. It’s hard to imagine that Minnesota would be able to close the gap in time to make the playoffs if they don’t win this game. Sadly for them, it might be too late even if they do defeat the Canadiens.

8:00 pm

Calgary @ Anaheim

The ninth-place Ducks (83 pts in 71 GP) host the 1oth-ranked Flames (83 pts in 73 GP) in this high-stakes game. While Calgary has more to lose since they only have nine games remaining compared to Anaheim’s 11, both teams find themselves out of the West’s top eight right now. The Ducks could make a nice jump into the sixth or seventh spot with a win tonight, but the Flames aren’t going to make it easy.

Chicago @ Phoenix

The Blackhawks (84 pts in 71 GP) still need to fight to maintain their position in the top eight while the Coyotes (89 pts in 73 GP) have a legitimate chance to win the Pacific Division. After a red-hot run, Chicago is struggling with just one win in their last five games while Phoenix is on a five-game winning streak, so it seems like the Coyotes might have the advantage. At least on paper, anyway.

Laine makes Team Finland for World Cup, Puljujarvi doesn’t

Patrik Laine of Finland celebrates scoring against Russia during the 2016 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship final match between Finland and Russia in Helsinki, Finland, Tuesday Jan. 5, 2016. (Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva via AP) FINLAND OUT
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The Finns rounded out their 2016 World Cup of Hockey roster on Friday morning, and two of the country’s brightest young prospects received decidedly different news.

Patrik Laine, the reigning World Hockey Championship MVP and likely No. 2 overall pick at this year’s draft, was named to the squad. Jesse Puljujarvi, the 2016 World Juniors MVP and presumptive No. 3 pick, was left off.

Puljujarvi, 18, was edged out for a spot at forward by Laine, Minnesota’s Erik Haula and Sebastian Aho, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect that spent last season playing for Karpat of the SM-liiga.

Aho, another 18-year-old, played alongside Laine for Finland’s silver medal-winning squad at the Worlds and finished the tournament with seven points in 10 games.

On defense, Finland added three more skaters to the roster: Calgary’s Jyrki Jokipakka, Chicago farmhand Ville Pokka and Sami Lepisto, who plays in the KHL.

In goal, another KHLer — SKA Saint Petersburgh’s Mikko Koskinen — was selected, and will compete for minutes with Boston’s Tuukka Rask and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.

The Finnish roster, in full:

G Mikko Koskinen, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL) *
G Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
G Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

D Jyrki Jokipakka, Calgary Flames *
D Sami Lepisto, Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL) *
D Esa Lindell, Dallas Stars
D Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins
D Ville Pokka, Rockford IceHogs (AHL) *
D Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres
D Sami Vatanen, Anaheim Ducks

F Sebastian Aho, Karpat Oulu (SM-liiga) *
F Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
F Joonas Donskoi, San Jose Sharks
F Valtteri Filppula, Tampa Bay Lightning
F Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild
F Erik Haula, Minnesota Wild *
F Jussi Jokinen, Florida Panthers
F Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
F Leo Komarov, Toronto Maple Leafs
F Lauri Korpikoski, Edmonton Oilers
F Patrik Laine, Tappara Tempere (SM-liiga) *
F Jori Lehtera, St. Louis Blues
F Teuvo Teravainen, Chicago Blackhawks

* named to roster today

Among the notable “snubs” for Finland? Detroit’s Teemu Pulkkinen, Vancouver’s Markus Granlund (Mikael’s brother), Winnipeg’s Joel Armia, former Boston Bruin Joonas Kemppainen and Nashville’s Miikka Salomaki.

In addition to Puljujarvi, it’s also worth noting two of the country’s brightest young prospects failed to make it: Kasperi Kapanen, who made his NHL debut for the Leafs this year, and Mikko Rantanen, the promising Colorado forward taken 10th overall in ’15.

Pittsburgh’s run fueled by ‘Baby Pens’

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Thursday night was big for Pittsburgh.

But it was also big for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as well.

After the Penguins defeated Tampa Bay 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, head coach Mike Sullivan praised four key players that spent parts of this year with the club’s minor-league affiliate: Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl.

Lest we forget, Sullivan is a WBS guy too. He was coaching in the AHL prior to replacing Mike Johnston midway through the year, and seemed to know his minor league guys — the ‘Baby Pens’ — could produce at the NHL level.

“Those guys were huge,” Sullivan said in his presser. “I told our players after the game that one of the things I really loved about this game was it
took every single man in the lineup to win, and everybody made a significant contribution to helping us win, regardless of how many minutes they played.”

The most obvious hero was Rust, a rookie that scored both goals in the Game 7 win. The Notre Dame product had five goals in 55 career regular season games, but now has five goals in 17 playoff games this year.

“I love what he brings to this team and couldn’t be  happier  for him for his effort and his contribution as far as how he’s helped this team win for four or five months now,” Sullivan said of Rust. “To see him get rewarded with a couple of goals is a thrill for all of us because he’s such a great kid and he plays so hard.”

Murray, who turned 22 earlier this week, was also a key factor. He was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

Sheary, the diminutive speedster, had two points through Games 5-7 and fired an impressive five shots on goal tonight. Kuhnhackl was a little quieter, but still chipped in with five points this postseason, and provided a physical presence.

Overall, the quartet provided something that Pittsburgh’s lacked in previous playoffs. The knock was always that if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin weren’t producing, the Pens weren’t winning. They just didn’t have the depth at forward to compensate when their star players went quiet.

That’s not a problem anymore.

“Guys made key plays at key times, subtle plays — plays on the wall, blocked shots, won face-offs, decisions with the puck, a good save, a big hit,” Sullivan explained. “There was a lot of those subtle plays throughout the course of the game that, I think, makes us the team that we are.”

‘We love him’ — Bolts heap praise on Stamkos as uncertain future awaits

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 26:  Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 26, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This may have been Steve Stamkos‘ last game in a Tampa Bay uniform.

If it was, it didn’t go according to script.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special.

Stamkos stunned the hockey world on Thursday night by making his playoff debut in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, returning from a two-month absence due to a blood clotting issue.

After undergoing vascular surgery and spending weeks on blood thinners, the captain was cleared to return for his team’s most crucial game of the season — one the Bolts lost, 2-1, the narrowest of margins.

The outcome didn’t take away from how Tampa’s players and coaches felt about Stamkos’ return

“He’s an extremely important player on our team, and we weren’t quite sure when this was going to happen, but a decision was made that he could play for Game 7,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “It was an emotional boost for all of us. The guys were really excited to have him back, and I thought he did a great job.”

By the boxscore, Stamkos’ impact on the game was minimal. He received less than 12 minutes of ice time and finished minus-1. But he did have two shots on net — one of them showing just how dangerous, even in a limited capacity, No. 91 can be:

“I thought I beat him,” Stamkos told NHL.com. “It just went through him and out the other side.”

The focus for Stamkos and the Bolts now shifts to his contract situation. Slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the former 60-goal scorer projects to be the biggest star to hit the market since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter became UFAs in 2012.

Those two, you may recall, cashed in quite nicely, signing identical 13-year, $98 million deals.

So you can see why Stamkos’ future is of great interest across the league.

Of course, nobody has officially ruled out the 26-year-old’s return to Tampa Bay, and tonight’s drama probably strengthened some pretty serious emotional ties. Remember, this is the only team he’s ever known. The Lightning made Stamkos the first overall pick in 2008 and, six years later, the 10th captain in franchise history. He won two Rocket Richard trophies with the Bolts, and played in a pair of Eastern Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final.

He’s the team’s leader and face of the franchise. That’s not small stuff.

But in the end, it might not matter. It’s important to remember the Lightning got to this point without Stamkos because they’ve got incredible depth and some really good young players. Those young players will need to be paid too, and there might not be enough money under the cap for GM Steve Yzerman to make Stamkos an offer he can’t refuse.

Which is why it was hard not to listen to comments the Bolts made tonight, and wonder if they’re aware of what the future probably holds.

“We hope we can stick together, but you just never know,” Boyle said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Thought we were destined for some pretty special things.”

Here’s your Stanley Cup Final TV schedule

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks skates on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on November 19, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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From the NHL:

The National Hockey League announced today the schedule for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, which begins Monday, May 30, in Pittsburgh.

Based on their superior regular-season point total, the Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins will host Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final, as well as Games 5 and 7, if necessary.

The Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks will host Games 3 and 4, as well as Game 6, if necessary.

In the U.S., NBC will televise Game 1 and, if necessary, Games 5-7. NBCSN will broadcast Game 2. Television information for Games 3 and 4 will be announced at a later date.

Game 1 Monday, May 30 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 2 Wednesday, June 1 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBCSN
Game 3 Saturday, June 4 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 4 Monday, June 6 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 5* Thursday, June 9 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 6* Sunday, June 12 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose NBC
Game 7* Wednesday, June 15 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC

Media day will be on Sunday, May 29, time TBD. PHT will be on location for the entirety of the final, and a reminder that all games will also be broadcast on NBC Sports Radio.

PHT’s Mike Halford (that’s me) and Jason Brough will be providing analysis for both pre- and post-game shows.