Five best destinations Brad Richards could wind up during free agency frenzy

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So just where is Brad Richards going to wind up when the free agent semi-frenzy kicks off at noon? The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner with the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and now former Dallas Star is the most desired free agent this summer. Unlike last year when Ilya Kovalchuk was the main squeeze and he had basically two suitors in the Kings and Devils, the field to go after Richards is a bit bigger.

With teams having a bit more cap space or more need to spend big bucks thanks to the jump in the salary cap and salary floor, targeting Richards is the “in” thing to do this year. With some teams in desperate need for a playmaker or first line center, Richards at 31 years-old and a proven point producer he fits the bill for a lot of teams… But who? We’ve got a list of the five teams (in order of likelihood) we think stand the best shot at landing Richards come noontime.

1. New York Rangers
Why wouldn’t it be the Rangers? His former coach from the Lightning is there in John Tortorella, the Rangers have a burning need for a #1 center and playmaker, and the Rangers have been lusting after him since the trade deadline. Richards in New York makes a world of sense for them and they obviously don’t fear coughing up a monster contract to land him.

That said, the Rangers recent history in going after top centers isn’t so hot. They just bought out their most recent savior at center in Chris Drury and they traded Scott Gomez away two summers ago after he failed to live up to expectations. Drury’s example is one the Rangers should take particular care to look at as he too was 31 when he signed with the Rangers. The big production he had with Buffalo dropped off in a hurry. While that could be in the back of their heads, the possibility of seeing Richards feed Marian Gaborik endless feeds for goals is more on the mind of GM Glen Sather and we can’t fault him for that.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs also are in need of a true first line center and they’ve got a couple of fun scorers that would benefit from Richards’ passes in Nikolai Kulemin and Phil Kessel. While Mikhail Grabovski is a fine center in his own right, getting Richards in there to spark those two would give Toronto a top line to fear and deepen the team considerably.

The issue for Richards might be in having to play in the hyper-crazy hockey market that is Toronto. With the pressure and demands that come with playing hockey in Toronto, the stress of trying to lead the Leafs back to the playoffs might be a bit too much for a calm and cool character like Richards. If he does go to Toronto, watching him operate in the fishbowl that is Toronto will prove to be a fascinating study. If money is a big motivator for Richards, Toronto could be his landing spot as the Leafs have enough cap space to burn to get him with as CapGeek points out they’ve got nearly $18 million left under the cap.

3. Buffalo Sabres
Yeah, we’re still thinking the Sabres are going to make Richards an offer and we still think that Buffalo is a team he should strongly consider. If Richards is looking for a major league payday, then Buffalo may not be the place to go. After bringing Robyn Regehr aboard via trade and then signing Christian Ehrhoff to a ridiculous 10-year, $40 million deal, according to CapGeek the Sabres are left with just over $7 million in salary cap space for next year with only 17 players signed and a need to lock up a backup goalie.

Of course, Terry Pegula has done wonders to sell Buffalo to both Regehr and Ehrhoff and if he can do that why not sell it to Brad Richards too? He can point out a spot on Buffalo’s first line playing alongside Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville or also teaming up with 30-goal scorer Drew Stafford and rising offensive player Tyler Ennis as well as a healthy Derek Roy. That looks pretty good and we’d think Richards would like that as well as the undying support the Sabres get at home.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning
All right so this is a bit of a reach. The Lightning are busy trying to get Steve Stamkos locked up to a long term deal and while there’s all sorts of nonsensical talk that a team will swoop in and try to poach Stamkos with an offer sheet, the lure of Richards going back to Tampa Bay has to be intriguing. Richards used to play for the Lightning and still calls the city his home. Now that Jeff Vinnik is in place as the owner and Steve Yzerman is there as the GM with Guy Boucher as the head coach, things are a lot more stable with the Lightning than they were when Richards was dealt away.

While it’s 98% likely that Stamkos will be back in Tampa, the possibility that Richards would take a sweetheart deal to play alongside his old pals in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to join up with those guys and Stamkos might be intriguing enough to bring him back. It’d give the Lightning a wealth of riches and a glut of top of the line centermen to figure out how to use, but having the Lightning bringing an All-Star team to the rink every night would be awfully fun.

5. Washington Capitals
We’ve played this dark horse card before a month ago when we looked at things and we’re sticking by it now. The Caps are letting Jason Arnott go to free agency and that clears out a spot for another top center. The Caps are going into today’s free agent party with a lot of cap room and a need for another playmaking center. Being able to march into battle each night with both Nicklas Backstrom and Brad Richards would give the Caps the two-pronged attack up the middle they’ve never had.

While guys like Arnott and Brendan Morrison in the past did OK, Richards would be the perfect kind of guy to either plug in next to Alex Ovechkin or Alex Semin to help spur them to huge offensive seasons. The team needs to find a way to keep Semin motivated all year and a competitor like Richards would be ideal in that role.

The Caps and GM George McPhee aren’t really huge splash makers on free agency day and they do have other areas to tend to (defense for instance) but grabbing Richards would send the message that the Caps are deadly serious about winning the Stanley Cup. If you’re worried about the money, the Caps are under the salary cap by about $10 million according to CapGeek. If your choices for a second center are Brad Richards or Marcus Johansson who would you be more comfortable with in chasing after the Cup? Exactly.

The Penguins know they got away with one

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins have made a habit this postseason out of struggling through games, getting outplayed for long stretches, and then somehow finding a way to scratch out a win. They did it against Columbus. They did it against Washington. They did it at times against Ottawa.

They did it again on Monday.

It hasn’t always been pretty. It hasn’t always been the way they want to play. Heck, it hasn’t always seemed like a sustainable method for winning.

But here they are after their 5-3 win on Monday night sitting just three wins away from winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

This latest win was perhaps their most absurd the postseason and one of the most bizarre Stanley Cup Final games you will ever see.

They took a three-goal lead after an early Nashville goal was negated on a razor thin offside review, they allowed that three-goal lead to eventually slip away, they managed only 12 shots on goal (the lowest total ever for a winning team in a Stanley Cup Final game) and went an almost unimaginable 37 minutes — nearly two full periods! — without recording a single shot on goal.

The most common question asked after the game simply seemed to be, “how?”

As in, how does a team this good, on this stage, go that long without putting a puck on net?

The most common answer?

They just didn’t play well.

Just ask coach Mike Sullivan.

“We weren’t very good,” said Sullivan. “We weren’t very good. When you’re playing a team like Nashville that has a balanced attack you have to have some pushback, and I don’t think in the second period we had any pushback.

“It seemed like we had a discussion between periods about staying on our toes, and playing the right way, and not trying to defend the lead or sit on the lead, we wanted to go out and try to get the next goal. And this team for the most part is usually pretty good about making sure we continue to play the game the right way. Tonight it wasn’t the case, we just weren’t very good.”

Not very good is probably an understatement.

Other than a five-minute stretch late in the first period where the Penguins were able to score three goals (one on a full two-minute, 5-on-3 power play; another the result of an own-goal off the body of Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm) they spent most of the night defending a relentless Nashville attack while being unable to generate anything against the NHL’s best defense.

The Penguins pointed to not doing enough of the little things to create any sort of a territorial advantage.

“We weren’t hard enough, weren’t skating, just didn’t play the way we normally play or the way we know how,” said defenseman Justin Schultz. “We have to be a lot better the rest of the series.”

Sullivan went into a little more detail.

“I didn’t think we were stiff enough in the battle areas,” said Sullivan. “As far as when we were defending we have to get into peoples bodies, we have to hit and stick, we have to stay engaged.

“It seemed like we were coming off of checks and giving them time and space with a little bit of separation and so we ended up with extended time in our end zone where we had opportunities where if we played a little stiffer we could create separation from the puck and give our guys an opportunity to win a puck battle. So much of this game boils down those thankless jobs, it’s about winning puck battles along the walls and gaining lines and gaining zones and that is how you control territory, if you’re losing your fair share of those it is hard to get to puck the back.”

Forward Conor Sheary, who ended a lengthy goal-scoring drought by scoring his first goal of the playoffs during that five-minute outburst in the first period, acknowledged they may have been a little too comfortable with that early lead.

“We could have been,” said Sheary. “We could have been caught up in that because we didn’t play a great first period but we came out with a 3-0 lead, and we might have come into the locker room a little comfortable, but we’ll move on from that and move forward.”

Still, what’s almost as unbelievable as the Penguins going more than half of a game without recording a shot is the fact they were able to do that and still come away with a win. In a best-of-seven series sometimes you need to steal one, and at this point in the season nobody is going to apologize for the method in which they win.

The Penguins were happy to accept the result but know they can not repeat that performance if they want to keep going.

“Yeah, we’ll take it but we know it wasn’t our best,” said Schultz.

Sullivan was a little bit more direct.

“What I love about about our group is we got a favorable result tonight,” said Sullivan. “But we know we need to be much better in order to continue to get to where we want to go. So none of us in our dressing room are fooled by the score tonight, so that is an important takeaway. We have a mature group, we have great leadership, and they understand it.”

Disallowed goal didn’t ‘deflate’ Preds

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PITTSBURGH — Given all that transpired on Monday night, there were plenty of topics to discuss in the aftermath of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Yet one seemed to rise above the rest.

P.K. Subban’s disallowed goal in the first period — wiped out after Pens head coach Mike Sullivan successfully challenged that Filip Forsberg was offside — was a huge talking point, with several Predators pressed for their thoughts on the matter.

“It never deflated us,” captain Mike Fisher said, when asked if the call took the wind out of Nashville’s sails. “We’ve had that happen twice in one game [versus Anaheim in the Western Conference final].

“It doesn’t change our mindset, but it’s unfortunate — we thought it was a goal.  What do you do? From there, we played solid. We just didn’t find that way to win.”

While Fisher said all the right things, it’s hard to suggest the call didn’t have a profound impact on the eventual 5-3 Penguins victory. The Subban goal seemed a just reward for Nashville after a good start, yet it was taken off the board under somewhat dubious circumstances, depending who you ask. (On social media, arguments are still ongoing as to whether video review showed conclusive evidence that Forsberg was offside.)

Fisher’s coach admitted the call changed the tone.

“The impact of that moment, and the chain of events that happened after that — the penalty kills, I think, changed the course of the game,” Peter Laviolette said. “[But] I thought our guys played well, from start to finish. I thought we played a good game. We hate the score, we hate the result, but we move forward.”

There’s another interesting angle in all this. The Pens certainly reaped the benefits from the overturned goal, and not just because it dug them out of a hole. PPG Paints Arena roared with approval upon hearing the announcement — the in-house video board quickly fired up one of those noise meter things — and, shortly thereafter, Pittsburgh exploded for three goals in a 4:11 span.

It was a turning point in a game filled with them. Afterward, Sullivan took time to praise video coordinator Andy Saucier, who was responsible for spearheading the challenge.

“He does a great job,” Sullivan said. “He’s smart. I think he has a really good eye for some of the challenges versus the no challenges. Those timeouts are really important, so we don’t want to use that challenge frivolously. We’re trying to be calculated about it. We’ve sat as a coaching staff at the beginning of the season, and we discussed the criteria so that we’re all on the same page. Sauce does a terrific job for us.”

Read more: A ‘weird game’ and a tough loss, but Preds feel good about their chances

A ‘weird game’ and a tough loss, but Preds feel good about their chances

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PITTSBURGH — “It was a weird game,” said Pekka Rinne, pretty much nailing it.

The Nashville Predators had just lost, 5-3, after keeping the Pittsburgh Penguins without a shot for almost two full periods of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Just think about that for a moment.

Consider the odds against it.

Rinne, the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite heading into the series, only saw 11 shots the whole night. Four of them beat him, including one that bounced off his own defenseman to put the Preds down, 3-0, in the first period.

Nashville eventually battled back to tie it at three, thanks to a couple of power-play snipes and an even-strength tally by Frederick Gaudreau. But Jake Guentzel‘s goal at 16:43 of the third, on a shot that broke the Penguins’ unfathomably long stretch without one, proved to be the winner. Minutes later, an empty-netter sealed it for the defending champs. 

“At the end of the day, my job is to make the save,” said Rinne, “and at the end of the game I’m disappointed I couldn’t help my team. We showed a lot of character. I thought that we played a great game. I think we have a lot of things that we can take away from this game, a lot of positives.”

Captain Mike Fisher had no idea that his Preds had held the Penguins shotless for 37 minutes, a stretch that went from 19:43 of the first, when Nick Bonino‘s one-handed pass was cleared by Rinne into Mattias Ekholm‘s pads and then into the net, all the way to Guentzel’s winner.

“I knew they weren’t getting too many chances and we were playing pretty strong,” said Fisher. “We found a way to get back in it, but it wasn’t our night.”

Defenseman P.K. Subban, who had a goal called back in the first after video review determined that Filip Forsberg was a hair offside, was characteristically positive afterwards.

“That’s hockey,” said Subban. “That’s just what it is. And if we just play the way we did, minus some of the mistakes that we made, I like our chances. We’ll be better next game, that’s for sure. I’m sure they’re going to be better. … This is going to be a long series.”

Read more: The Penguins know they got away with one

Penguins avoid collapse, beat Preds in crazy Stanley Cup Final opener

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PITTSBURGH — The game of hockey can be crazy at times.

Then you have nights like Monday, when it gets really crazy.

In a game that often made no sense at all, the Penguins built up a 3-0 lead, blew that lead, then rallied late to beat Nashville 5-3 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

So, uh, where to even begin with this?

Let’s start with the game-winner. Jake Guentzel, who was on the verge of being a healthy scratch for tonight’s affair, scored with less than four minutes remaining to snap an eight-game goalless drought.

Now, consider the circumstances under which this goal was scored.

Guentzel was facing tremendous pressure to get his offense going. And the shot he scored on was Pittsburgh’s first in 37 minutes of action. During that time, the Pens recorded the first zero-shot playoff period since NHL began tracking SOG in 1957-58.

Guentzel’s goal also came after Nashville had staged a furious, wild three-goal rally to even things up.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Preds, with Sissons and Gaudreau finding the back of the net less than four minutes apart in the final frame. Gaudreau, who up until a few weeks ago was playing in the Calder Cup playoffs, looked as though he was primed to become the next unlikely postseason hero.

But it wasn’t to be.

Because there were other equally unlikely developments on the night.

Heck, we haven’t discussed the first period yet. Evgeni Malkin, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino scored in a span of 4:11 in the opening frame, a flurry filled with fortuitous bounces and breaks. Malkin’s tally came on a 5-on-3 man advantage, after Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal were whistled for simultaneous penalties. Bonino’s marker was an own goal, knocked in by Preds d-man Mattias Ekholm.

Oh, and there was that disallowed marker.

Perhaps you heard? It was an ignominious start for the NHL on its biggest stage. Seven minutes in, the Preds looked to have taken a 1-0 lead when P.K. Subban‘s blast beat Matt Murray. But hold on. Pens head coach Mike Sullivan quickly challenged and, upon review, it was deemed that Filip Forsberg entered the Pittsburgh zone illegally.

More, from the NHL’s situation room blog:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Linesmen, NHL Hockey Operations staff determined that Forsberg preceded the puck into the attacking zone, nor did he have possession and control before crossing the blue line.

This ruling came just hours after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman defended offside challenges in his state-of-the-league address.

Crazy is right. And fitting, given what transpired tonight.