Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four

Four games have three potential first round clinchers on tap for a busy Saturday

It’s as big and busy of a Saturday as you’ll find in the playoffs as four games will dominate your afternoon and evening across the NHL playoff landscape and there’s the possibility we’ll see three teams lock up spots in the second round of the postseason today. Oh yeah and we’ve also got the Bruins and Canadiens looking to beat the tar out of each other again. If your groove in the couch hasn’t been carved out yet, it will be after today. All times are Eastern

Tampa Bay @ Pittsburgh – 12 noon (Versus)Pittsburgh leads series 3-1

A little afternoon delight for the Penguins as they’ll look to wrap things up with the Lightning and after seeing James Neal get the game winner in Game 4, they’ll be hoping to see him continue filling the net. As for Tampa Bay, we’re still waiting on Steve Stamkos to show up in this series. Through four games, Stamkos has just one assist. Meanwhile, Martin St. Louis has been carrying the team on his back in hopes of getting through the first round. He needs some help though and he’ll need some tougher goaltending out of Dwayne Roloson. Roloson’s been OK, but the three goals he allowed in Game 4 were all very stoppable shots. If he’s not big today, the Lightning will be pondering what could’ve been at the end of the day.

NY Rangers @ Washington – 3 p.m. (NBC)Washington leads series 3-1

The Caps will be looking to take a sort of zen approach heading into Game 5 as they look to close out the Rangers. They keep saying they’re not thinking about last year’s first round loss to Montreal, but you know in the back of their heads they realize they had the Canadiens in this spot last season and failed to close them out. For the Rangers, they’re hoping that Henrik Lundqvist can do his part to evoke the spirit of Jaroslav Halak while the rest of his teammates figure out a way to score goals and play smart defense to hold a lead.

Montreal @ Boston – 7 p.m. (Versus)Series tied 2-2

Is it really home ice advantage for the Bruins in this game or should the Habs have any kind of comfort level playing in front of a hostile crowd in Boston? We’ll see how much their tough Game 4 overtime loss affects them mentally as they were able to score first on the B’s in that game and managed to blow a 3-1 lead before losing in OT. Montreal is hard-headed enough to know they just have to stick to what they do well to frustrate Boston but they should fear the Bruins getting reinvigorated with confidence after sweeping the Canadiens in Montreal. For now, Montreal hopes that this “road team winning” trend continues and they can get a shot at finishing things at home.

Los Angeles @ San Jose – 10:30 p.m. (Versus)San Jose leads series 3-1

The Kings are hoping they can find a stroke of luck and some better defense and goaltending to put some fear into the Sharks. Scott Parse will rejoin the Kings lineup in Game 5 to give them someone a bit more helpful than either Oscar Moller or Kevin Westgarth. No, Dustin Penner won’t hit the press box although you’d have to think coach Terry Murray would be tempted to do so. The Sharks are hoping that they can again twist the knife on the Kings and put them down for good.

San Jose’s getting tremendous production out of Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe in this series and considering those guys play on what’s essentially their third line, that doesn’t bode well for the Kings prospects on the road tonight. Jon Quick will hope to evoke some of that magic he had in Game 2 to fire up his team to get back into this series.

Looking to make the leap: Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”

That quote was from former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, speaking in May about newly minted Toronto defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who went up against Whitney in the KHL.

So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.

And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.

That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.

And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.

It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.

The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.

The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.

Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).

And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.

That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.

And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.

‘Canes extend GM Francis, who’s ‘rebuilt our organization the right way’

Ron Francis
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The Carolina Hurricanes locked in a key part — arguably the most key part — of their rebuild on Tuesday, signing GM Rom Francis to a contract extension through the 2018-19 campaign.

“Ron has rebuilt our organization the right way, stocking our team and system with young players who will help this franchise compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out,” club owner Peter Karmanos said in a release. “I’m thrilled that he will continue to see the job through.

“The future is very bright for the Hurricanes in Carolina.”

Francis, 53, has been on the job in Carolina for the past two years, and has done a terrific job of stockpiling young talent through the draft and via trade: Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, to name a few.

Francis was also instrumental in hiring head coach Bill Peters. At the time of the hire, Peters was something of an unknown — an under-the-radar assistant with no NHL head coaching experience — but has since developed into one of the game’s more respected bench bosses.

Peters was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the most recent world championship, and led the country to gold.

This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Mike Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.

“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained in July, when he extended Peters’ contract through 2019. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”

For all the praise Francis has received during his short time on the job in Carolina, there is one area of concern — goaltending. This summer, Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.

It’ll be interesting to see how that move plays out.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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In a lot of ways, the 2015-16 season represented more of the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The results were nearly identical to 2014-15, right down to finishing in the basement of the East (69 points last season, 68 the one the year before).

Indeed, Brendan Shanahan is probably correct in saying that the Maple Leafs earned the No. 1 pick “the hard way,” or at least “earned” the higher draft lottery odds that helped them land Auston Matthews.

The big question, really, is how long will fans be patient with the Maple Leafs taking baby steps in the right direction?

Off-season

Naturally, the team tried to make more a leap forward in seeking Steven Stamkos and, to a less dramatic extent, Jimmy Vesey.

They fell short in those regards, but that doesn’t mean that management merely idled while hoping for improvements from in-house development.

The Maple Leafs made bold changes in net, ending the Jonathan Bernier era while betting big on Frederik Andersen and also bringing in a promising backup in Jhonas Enroth.

Beyond those big moves in net, the Maple Leafs made some minor adjustments. They handed surprising money and term to Matt Martin while taking short-term fliers on veterans Milan Michalek and Roman Polak.

On paper, this team still looks quite a few steps away from being a playoff contender, but perhaps we’ll start to see things come together?

A lot of that rides on the work of Matthews, Morgan Rielly and other young players (William Nylander, Mitch Marner) who may or may not make a lasting impact on the regular season roster.

Will the rebuilding plan start to pay dividends? PHT explores the iconic franchise on Tuesday.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.