Chris Kunitz, Al Montoya

Eastern playoff race: Caps clinch #1 seed, Sabres are in

Eastern Conference playoff race

z-1. Washington – 107 pts
x-2. Philadelphia – 104 pts
x-3. Boston – 101 pts
x-4. Pittsburgh – 104 pts
x-5. Tampa Bay – 101 pts
x-6. Montreal – 94 pts
x-7. Buffalo – 94 pts
8. Carolina – 91 pts
9. NY Rangers – 91 pts

x – clinched playoff spot

Pittsburgh 4, NY Islanders 3 (SO)

The last time the Penguins ventured to Long Island, they were crushed 9-3 and the two teams racked up 346 total penalty minutes. Twelve minutes into the game, Francois St. Laurent and Eric Furlatt had already dealt out four fighting majors and three misconducts. Maybe the officials did a good job of getting the game under control, maybe it’s because Colin Campbell was in attendance, or maybe it was just because the Penguins had too much to play for—but that was where the really rough stuff ended. In front of a ton of Pittsburgh fans in Nassau Coliseum, the Penguins jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the 1st period and held a 3-2 lead in the waning moments of the 3rd period. But a funny thing happened on the way to Pittsburgh’s victory—Travis Hamonic scored with 35 seconds to force the game to overtime. The Islanders had plenty of chances to win it in OT, but failed to score the game winner. The game went to a shootout and finally fell as Chris Kunitz scored the only goal for the Pens’ victory.

The win guarantees the Penguins will finish no worse than 4th in the Eastern Conference and will start the playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center with home-ice advantage. They also were able to pull into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers with 104 for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Even though the Flyers own the tiebreaker, the divisional crown will come down to the last game of the season.

Tampa Bay 4, Florida 2

From the outside looking in, this game didn’t offer very much intrigue. The Lightning were locked into the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they had won 5 of their last 6 games, and were playing against a rival who had lost 9 straight. After the game, the Lightning were still locked in the 5th seed, they’ve now won 6 of 7 and the Panthers are winless in their last 10. The win put the Lightning over the century mark (101 to be exact) for the season and pleased their first-year coach Guy Boucher:

“When you pass 100 points in this league, you are automatically part of the elite. It’s hard to get 100 points … and so it’s quite an achievement for a team that started with so many new faces and had injuries all year long and battled through so much adversity lately.”

Buffalo 4, Philadelphia 3 (OT)

For all of the playoff implications on Friday night, the Sabres/Flyers game was the only game in the Eastern Conference where both teams had something on the line. Behind a perfect 3rd period return by Ryan Miller and thrilling overtime winner by Thomas Vanek, the Buffalo Sabres were able to lock up their ticket for the playoffs. For the Flyers, the news wasn’t as good. The overtime loss delivered the Eastern Conference’s top spot to the Washington Capitals. The loss also dropped Philadelphia into a first place tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic Division. Even though they’ve lost five straight, they only need to beat the lowly Islanders at home on Saturday night to win their first Atlantic Division title since 2004 (and the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference). However, if they fall to the Isles and the Penguins are able to win their final game, the Flyers will drop all the way down to the #4 seed and secure a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Carolina 6, Atlanta 1

After the New York Rangers lost on Thursday night, they gave the Carolina Hurricanes control over their own destiny. Judging by their performance against the Thrashers, they have every intention of grabbing onto their playoff opportunity and running with it. Rookie Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu each had a goal and two assists while goaltender Cam Ward came within 39 seconds of his second shutout in a row. Then again, one goal against isn’t a big deal when the team in front of him puts up a 6 spot.

The Hurricanes now have 91 points after their win in Atlanta and move into a tie with the Rangers. The problem for the Rangers is that the Canes also own the tiebreaker. Long story short: if the Canes win their final game at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they’re in the playoffs. If the Rangers lose in regulation, the Canes are in. The beauty of controlling one’s own destiny.

Kessel takes World Cup snub in stride — ‘It is what it is’

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 26:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in action against the Tampa Bay Lightning 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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PITTSBURGH — Phil Kessel has nine goals and nine assists in 18 playoff games. Some have said he’s playing the best of his hockey of his career.

Yet when Team USA announced its final World Cup roster on Friday, Kessel wasn’t on it. Four forwards — David Backes, James van Riemsdyk, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky — were added instead.

“Obviously, you’re disappointed,” Kessel said Sunday. “But it is what it is. I think I’ve had a pretty good playoffs, I’ve always done pretty well for (Team USA) in all the tournaments I’ve played in for them. But we’re in the Stanley Cup Final. I can’t be disappointed.”

Two years ago, Kessel led the Americans in the Olympics with eight points (5G, 3A) in six games. He was named the best forward in the tournament. Callahan, in comparison, had no goals and one assist in six games.

Of course, Callahan has a history with World Cup head coach John Tortorella. So does Dubinsky. And let’s face it, when you think of the kind of player that epitomizes Tortorella-coached teams, it’s not Kessel, it’s blue-collar workers like Callahan and Dubinsky.

Still, to not choose a guy who’s a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate?

“I’m surprised he was left off Team USA,” Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford said today, before head coach Mike Sullivan praised Kessel for his competitiveness and for improving his play away from the puck and along the boards.

At any rate, Kessel didn’t sound like getting left off the World Cup squad was bothering him too much. One day from playing in his first Stanley Cup Final, he’s pretty happy with where he’s at right now.

“I’ve never really been on a team that’s felt like this,” he said. “I don’t even know how to describe it, to be honest. I’m so excited to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup and play with these guys.”

Pominville: ‘Name one guy who had my start who winds up having a good year’

UNIONDALE, NY - MARCH 18:  Jason Pominville #29 of the Minnesota Wild skates during an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on March 18, 2014 in Uniondale, New York.  (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
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Jason Pominville couldn’t have envisioned a worse start to his season.

Pominville picked up four assists in his first three games of 2015-16, but he didn’t score his first goal until Nov. 28 (22 games). The 33-year-old finished the year with 11 goals and 36 points in 75 games. Those are clearly disappointing numbers for a player who comes with a cap hit of $5.6 million per season.

“Last year it was just the start I had,” Pominville said during a Q & A with the Star Tribune. “I’m not even too worried about the rest of it. You get off to the start I had, and name me one guy who had my start who winds up having a good year. It’s tough to get behind the 8-ball. You lose confidence, you’re trying to find your play and get back to where you’ve had success, but you get away from it because you’re trying to overdo things or overthinking. I just need to get off to a better start, and my points will be where they normally would be.”

It’ll be intersting to see if the Wild give Pominville the opportunity to have a bounce-back season. A high cap hit combined with poor production could also lead to him finding himself elsewhere in 2016-17.

Wild beat reporter Michael Russo mentioned that Pominville could be bought out this summer, but that would be expensive. If Minnesota buys out the veteran, they’d have $877,777 of dead money on the cap next year, but a significantly higher amount after that.

Here’s what the full buyout would look like (via General Fanager):

Pominville

A $4.627,777 cap hit in 2017-18 is definitely steep.

The Wild could also decide to keep Pominville around and see if he can rebound from last year’s disaster. After all, he’s one year removed from an 18-goal, 54-point season and two years removed from a 30/30 season.

Fleury: Now’s not the time to think about future in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 02:  Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on from the bench in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 2, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — The last time the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup Final, Marc-Andre Fleury was the club’s unquestioned No. 1 netminder.

Now, seven years later, the Pens are back — but Fleury’s in a greatly reduced role. He’s backing up 22-year-old Matt Murray, which has cast doubt on Fleury’s future in Pittsburgh.

It’s a situation he acknowledged at today’s Stanley Cup media availability, but one he didn’t exactly want to dive into.

“Not yet,” Fleury said, when asked if he’s thinking about what might happen next year. “It’s not time. It’s time to win it, it’s time to chase the Cup, and that’s all that matters.”

Fleury’s future in Pittsburgh has been a hot topic this postseason. Pens GM Jim Rutherford was asked about it during the Eastern Conference Final, and offered up an emphatic defense of his longtime No. 1 netminder.

From the NHL:

Q: What about the young players?

Rutherford: “They speak for themselves. Those two goalies – you can never have enough good goalies. The Penguins have three good ones now. I feel bad for Fleury. He’s such a great team guy and we’re fortunate that he is. He’s handled this situation like a pro. First class. He’s ready to go when called on.”

Q: Does this mean he’s history with the organization?

Rutherford: “Absolutely not.”

That absolute hasn’t kept pundits from pointing out that Fleury’s future in Pittsburgh is far from certain.

First, there’s the fact the No. 1 gig may not just be Murray’s now, but also moving forward — meaning Fleury, who turns 32 in November, would be a backup making $5.75 million annually through 2019. An expensive backup, sure, but also a good backup. Fleury’s had at least 30 wins, a 2.35 GAA and .920 save percentage over each of the last two seasons, and was an All-Star in 2015.

That’s the kind of goalie a few teams could use.

One of them, as has been speculated over the last few months, is the proposed Las Vegas expansion club. While the announcement has yet to be made official, all signs — including discussions of expansion draft format at the most recent GM meetings — have led to assumptions Vegas will be a go.

With that said, consider this bit from Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston:

An interesting aspect of the recent deal worked out by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association regarding expansion draft rules is that only players with a full no-movement clause will have to be protected by their team, according to a source.

Fleury’s contract includes a no-movement clause for the purposes of waivers or being assigned to the American Hockey League, but it is limited when it comes to trades. Each year he submits a 12-team list of teams where he can’t be dealt.

As a result, he’s not exempt from the expansion process and the Penguins would have to decide between protecting either him or Murray if both remained on the roster through the end of next season.

It might ultimately force general manager Jim Rutherford into making up his mind sooner in order to trade one away and get a return on the asset.

Now, keep in mind the Penguins do love Fleury, and still think he’s quality goalie. That’s partly why Fleury received the chance to reclaim his starting gig in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, when head coach Mike Sullivan parked Murray after yanking him in Game 4.

But Fleury wasn’t great — allowing four goals on 25 shots — and Murray stepped back in like he hadn’t missed a beat, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

As such, it sees as though it would take a pretty dramatic turn of events for Fleury to regain the net. Because of that, he spent most of Sunday focusing on the “we,” not the “I.”

“To me, it’s about the team — it’s not about me or the way I play. I can’t be selfish about it,” he said. “I’ve been playing here a long time and I really love this city, and I’d really love for them to have another championship here.

“It’s a lot bigger than me, you know?”

Pittsburgh Med: Bonino ‘fine,’ Letang MIA and Daley not ruling out a return (Update)

OTTAWA, ON - APRIL 5: Phil Kessel #81 and Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate a third period goal against the Ottawa Senators scored by Carl Hagelin (not shown) at Canadian Tire Centre on April 5, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — Here are your Penguins health updates prior to Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final:

Nick Bonino: The center of the HBK line — he’s the B between Carl Hagelin and Phil KesselBonino didn’t skate yesterday and didn’t practice today, but will be “fine” for the series opener, per head coach Mike Sullivan.

Bonino was shaken up during Pittsburgh’s Game 7 win over the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, with what looked to be a lower-body injury (possibly a leg ailment, due to blocking a shot).

Bonino has been terrific this postseason, with 15 points in 18 games.

Kris Letang: This one is a little more unclear. Letang didn’t practice on Sunday and, like Bonino, didn’t meet with reporters during Stanley Cup media day afterward.

Sullivan didn’t address Letang’s absence during his availability. So nobody’s quite sure what’s going on.

Letang logged his usual massive ice time in the series clincher against the Bolts — 28:13 — and there was no indication he was dealing with any injury.

Trevor Daley: Interesting development from Daley during media availability. He said his timetable for return from a broken ankle in Game 4 (May 20) of the Tampa Bay series was 4-8 weeks, and wouldn’t completely rule out a return in this Stanley Cup Final.

Now, do keep in mind Sullivan already said Daley’s season was done, and Daley acknowledged that’s probably true.

“I do feel sorry for myself,” the veteran blueliner said. “I try to control what I can control. This — I can’t control this situation. So I’m going to have to try and make the best of it.

“I’ll be around, but I don’t know about being involved. They ain’t gonna keep me away, though. I’m going to be around for this.”

Update: