Steven Stamkos

Five Thoughts: Why the Penguins should be nervous; Washington’s hockey renaissance

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Happy Easter to everyone who celebrates that today. Here’s to hoping that today provides us some baskets of hockey joy through all of today’s playoff games.

1. The Penguins find themselves in a precarious position. Yes, they’re a win away from the second round of the playoffs still, but in their 8-2 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 5 something happened that we hadn’t seen yet in the playoffs. Big offensive guns Steven Stamkos and Simon Gagne got on the score sheet in big ways. While a one-off game that turned into a blowout shouldn’t be a big reason for Pittsburgh to worry, seeing those guys find the net for the first time in the playoffs should be.

While the Penguins are without their major offensive weapons in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the Lightning’s major players are on the ice and after they’ve finally broken through, it gives Dan Bylsma something else to be concerned about heading into Game 6. If those guys have arrived, Pittsburgh’s hands are even more full than they thought they were heading to Florida.

2. Washington’s march into the second round is most impressive. The Rangers threw everything they had at the Caps and still got bounced in five games. While a lot of people might be upset or sad at seeing the Caps be less of an offensive dervish than in previous years, their handling of the Rangers was a clinical exercise in how to shut down an opponent’s offense and power play.

It may have seemed like a lot of the talk about the Caps’ new commitment to offense was just bluster but it’s very real and very apparent that it works well. The Caps are both high powered offensively and defensively stifiling. With Alex Ovechkin playing like a man possessed and Michal Neuvirth playing especially solid in goal, the Capitals are looking quite formidable. Look out world.

3. If you’re not enjoying the thrills and up and down play that Boston and Montreal are providing in their series I don’t know where to begin with you. Tremendous hockey and last night’s Game 5 double overtime win from Boston hammered that all home again. We’re rooting hard for Montreal in Game 6 just so we can have a Game 7 insane asylum special with these two. It’s only natural after all.

4. After back-to-back rough performances from Jon Quick and the Kings getting down 3-1 in the series, it was tough to believe that the Kings had another win in them. Then Quick goes out of his way to stop 51 out of 52 shots to lead the Kings to victory. That kind of win can be inspiring. Now if only the Kings could win on home ice…

5. It’s Sunday morning, do you know who your Flyers starting goalie is? If I had to take a guess I’d say that Brian Boucher gets the chance to prove himself in Game 6 but the leash will be short. Any signs of looking off and he’ll be out. Michael Leighton looked OK in relief in Game 5, meanwhile we’re wondering if perhaps Sergei Bobrovsky is totally out of gas after a big rookie season. Either way all around, the Flyers have some questions in goal to answer in the offseason whenever that begins.

Wild GM Fletcher undecided on Vanek buyout, but notes ‘our cap situation is much better this year’

Minnesota Wild left wing Thomas Vanek controls the puck during NHL hockey training camp in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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Thomas Vanek hopes he’s not bought out, but his rough 2015-16 campaign has made that a possibility.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher certainly isn’t ruling it out, but at the same time he also presented an assessment for Vanek that was in a way more of a mixed than negative review.

“I thought Thomas in October and November was arguably our best forward – or certainly played as well as any body on our team,” Fletcher said, per the StarTribune. “He seemed to lose confidence. But I thought he really shot the puck well and did a lot of great things early. And there’s no question he pressed after that and then got banged up. He’s a goal scorer and we need to find a way to score more goals. Our cap situation is much better this year.”

That last point is particularly relevant given that a buyout essentially boils down to missing out on the chance of Vanek bouncing back in exchange for some short-term cap relief. To put figures on it, buying out Vanek would save Minnesota $5 million in cap space for the 2016-17 campaign, but then it will cost Minnesota $2.5 million in 2017-18, per General Fanager.

With Vanek in the books, the Wild are projected to consume $63.8 million in cap space next season and that figure doesn’t including pending restricted free agents Jason Zucker, Jordan Schroeder, Zac Dalpe, Matt Dumba, or Darcy Kuemper. If the 2016-17 ceiling is $74 million, as has been previously suggested, then it seems reasonable to believe that Minnesota can lock up its RFAs, keep Vanek, and still have some flexibility left over to engage in other changes over the summer. Although obviously gaining an extra $5 million would make it easier for them to make more sizable moves.

“I’m much more comfortable with our flexibility this year than last year. It’s going to give us more options,” Fletcher said.

The plan is for Fletcher to take a couple weeks before deciding on what to do with Vanek.

Related: No Chemistry issues or character problems here, says Wild GM

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh at Washington – Game 1

Washington Capitals' goalie Braden Holtby (70) makes a save during the first period of an NHL hockey game, against the Ottawa Senators, Tuesday, March 22, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario.  (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
The Canadian Press via AP
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The series between Pittsburgh and Washington will kick off tonight and while it’s obviously highlighted by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, that’s far from the only interesting storyline in this series.

For example, for all the offensive might that these two squads feature, this series has the potential to be a terrific goaltending duel. Braden Holtby is a Vezina Trophy finalist who posted a 0.84 GAA against Philadelphia in the first round. Matt Murray is just 21 years old and naturally far less established as a result, but so far he has looked like a star in the making. After dominating in the minors, Murray had a 2.00 GAA and .930 save percentage in 13 regular season games this season. In the playoffs he’s managed to improve to a 1.33 GAA and .955 save percentage in three starts.

This series will be a big test for both goaltenders, but while we might be talking about a player that had a hat trick at the end of the night, it also wouldn’t be surprising if the final score is 2-1 or 1-0 thanks to some stellar work between the pipes.

If you want to see what happens, the game is scheduled to start at 8:00 p.m. ET and will air on NBCSN. You can also stream it online via the link below:

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Flyers not ‘focusing on or looking’ to trade Neuvirth, Mason

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One of Philly’s areas of strength this year was in goal, where Steve Mason and Michal Neuvrith both enjoyed solid seasons and, at times, held the No. 1 gig.

That’s led some to suggest that a trade could be in the works — y’know, deal from a position of strength.

But that’s not what GM Ron Hextall is thinking.

“I don’t believe that’s a strength that you want to weaken,” Hextall said, per CSN Philadelphia. “The old saying, Wayne Gretzky got traded, right? So I’m not going to sit here and say no I wouldn’t trade anybody on our team, because the reality of it is, if the deal was right, it’s my job to strengthen our team and the organization.

“It’s certainly not something we’re focusing on or looking to do.”

In fact, Hextall suggested both goalies would head into next season in a similar situation to this year, and platoon the starting job. Mason was the busier of the two — 53 starts to Neuvirth’s 29 — but some of that had to do with Neuvirth’s late-season knee injury, which saw Mason play exclusively down the stretch and at the start of Philly’s opening-round playoff series against the Caps.

Neuvirth was the one that finished the Washington series, however, and finished it strong. He posted a ridiculous .981 save percentage over the final three games, allowing just two goals on 105 shots.

Now yes, Neuvirth’s appearance came after Mason struggled, allowing a horrific long-range goal in Game 2 before getting beat six times in Game 3. But that didn’t take away from his body of work this season — “Mase played the last month-and-a-half and was terrific,” Hextall said — and Mason is under contract for one more year, at $4.1 million.

Finances matter for the cap-strapped Flyers, and that’s probably why Hetxall is comfortable keeping the status quo in goal. Like Mason, Neuvirth is also under contract for one more year — with a tidy $1.625M cap hit — which makes for a much more affordable goaltending duo than in, say, Dallas, where the Stars have over $10 million tied up in Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.

Both Mason and Neuvirth have expressed their desires to be the No. 1 guy. Hextall seems content to let them battle for it.

“To have inner competition is a good thing,” the GM explained. “So we get two good goalies and I think as we saw this year, it’s nice to have.”

Good news for the Senators, who move one step closer to building a new arena

OTTAWA, CANADA - OCTOBER 11: Owner, governor and chairman Eugene Melnyk of the Ottawa Senators walks the red carpet and greets fans during the Senators' 20th anniversary pre-game ceremonies prior to the start of the NHL home opener against the Minnesota Wild at Scotiabank Place on October 11, 2011 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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The Ottawa Senators got some very good news today in their quest to build a downtown arena.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

The plan from Eugene Melnyk’s RendezVous LeBreton team has emerged as the highest ranked of two competing proposals for the redevelopment of 21.6 hectares of vacant land on LeBreton Flats.

RendezVous LeBreton’s plan focuses on a new downtown arena that would house Melnyk’s Senators and major events. It also includes a restored “heritage aqueduct” lined with shops and cafes and an Abilities Centre catering to disabled and able-bodied athletes.

The Sens were one of two bidders to develop LeBreton Flats and build an arena on the vacant land. The other proposal came from the deep-pocketed Devcore Canderel DLS Group — a group that was bidding despite Melynk’s insistence that 1) the Sens weren’t for sale “at any price” and 2) he had no interest in moving into an arena he didn’t control.

According to the Citizen, the DCDLS bid was “rated lower but will remain in contention as a second choice,” meaning the Sens will still need to deliver on their proposal.

From CTV Ottawa:

This is one major step in a long process, but the Senators group promised in their bid that a new arena would be ready for the puck to drop by September of 2021.

The big question for Kanata residents now: what are the plans for the Senators current home the Canadian Tire Centre.

Melnyk says he has plans for that site too, and will reveal them soon.