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.

Stars give Lindell two-year extension

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More news out of Dallas, where the Stars have signed defenseman Esa Lindell to a two-year, $4.4-million contract extension.

From the release:

Lindell, 23, posted 18 points (6-12=18) in 73 games played for Dallas during the 2016-17 regular season, his first full season in the NHL. He finished second on the team by averaging 21:52 of time on ice per game and his +8 plus/minus rating finished third. Additionally, he finished second on the team with 119 blocked shots and tied for fifth with 93 hits.

The Stars still have a couple of restricted free agents on the back end. Both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are arbitration-eligible. Lindell was not.

Earlier today, it was reported that the Stars were buying out goalie Antti Niemi.

Dallas also signed forward Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension. The 24-year-old was acquired from Chicago in the Johnny Oduya trade on Feb. 28.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.