James Neal hopes to improve next season with Penguins

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At the trade deadline last March, the Penguins thought they finally found a winger who could make beautiful music with Sidney Crosby. Of course, things didn’t work out exactly as they had hoped. Crosby was sidelined with a concussion at the beginning of January and the newly acquired Neal never had an opportunity to show what he could do with the superstar center by his side.

The Whitby, Ontario native only managed a single goal in 20 games with the Penguins down the stretch of the regular season. More importantly for Pittsburgh, he only netted a single goal (and two points) in the Penguins 7-game defeat to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs last year.

It wasn’t only the absence of a true #1 center that held Neal back last season. Like many players before him, he learned first-hand that a mid-season trade can turn their world upside down. Neal spoke of the chaos that surrounds a player when they’re traded to another team in the middle of the season:

“You get a call one day and then you’re on a plane and you’re in Pittsburgh and your whole life changes in a matter of minutes. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it’s exciting. It’s a great chance to play on an amazing team with amazing players. It’s definitely for the better and I couldn’t be happier that it happened.”

The Penguins were clearly excited when they had the opportunity to acquire him (and Matt Niskanen) from the Dallas Stars for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Even though the stats weren’t where the wanted them to be last season, the organization is still looking at Neal to be one of their main producers on wing next season.

For his part, Neal is doing everything possible this offseason to make sure he thrives once the season starts next season. He’s been training with well-known fitness nut and former NHLer Gary Roberts as he works to get into peak physical shape for next season. Neal talked about his offseason conditioning with Roberts:

“My training is focused on what I need to improve in on the ice. Everyone wants to get faster. A big part of playing my game is skating and speed. You always try to strengthen your legs and get faster on the ice. At the same time, when you play a physical game and you’re in the corners and battling in front, you’ve got to have the strength to do that.”

The term you may be looking for right now is “contract year.” Obviously, Neal wants to improve upon his numbers and help the Penguins get back to the elite level they have seen over the last few years. But from a personal standpoint, this wouldn’t be a bad time to have a breakout season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2011-12 season and he could use a good season if he hopes to cash in on the opportunity.

In just three full season, Neal has already shown that he consistently score goals at the NHL level. He’s averaged 24 goals and 46 points over the course of his short career—numbers the Penguins hope increase by playing next to the likes of Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin for a full season next year.  No wonder Dan Bylsma thinks the Penguins will be better next season.

Last time around, the Dallas Stars gave him a 2-year deal worth $5.75 million as they expected him to continue to improve his game. Whether it was due to the mid-season trade, mounting expectations, or the weight of a new contract, Neal saw his game plateau last season. But if Neal can rediscover the game that has already made him a three-time 20-goal scorer, he has the potential to breakout for the Penguins next season.

And get a sizeable raise at the same time.

Schultz and Hornqvist will be game-time decisions; Sheary may play

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Justin Schultz and Patric Hornqvist will be game-time decisions for the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena.

That was the word this morning from head coach Mike Sullivan, who said yesterday that it would be “reasonable” to expect the two players to return for Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators.

But the signs from this morning’s optional skate were not particularly promising for either player.

Schultz did not opt to skate, which does not necessarily rule him out for tonight. That said, players returning from injury often choose to test things out the morning of the game, just to be sure they’re ready to go.

Hornqvist did skate; however, he stayed on the ice rather late, likewise putting his status for tonight into doubt.

In other news, Conor Sheary may return to the lineup. Sheary skated this morning and left the ice with the players who are playing, while Josh Archibald skated and stayed on later. That suggests Sheary, a scratch in Games 5 and 6, could replace Archibald.

Oilers reportedly lose Lander to Russia

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After eight years and over 200 games, Edmonton and Anton Lander are parting ways.

Per Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko, Lander has reportedly agreed to join KHL club Ak Bars Kazan. The deal comes after Lander’s two-year, $1.975M pact with the Oilers expired, and he became a restricted free agent.

The 40th overall pick in ’09, Lander had some decent spells in Edmonton. In ’14-15, he racked up 20 points in 38 games — which led to the aforementioned two-year extension — but could never find his niche as a full-time NHLer.

As a result, Lander ended up as one of those guys that racked up points in the AHL, but struggled to replicate similar success in the bigs. Last year, with Bakersfield, he had 25 goals and 55 points in just 42 games.

At 26, he was probably ready to part ways with the only NHL organization he’s ever known. Earlier reports suggested Lander was also mulling a return to his native Sweden.

Report: Rangers goalie Hellberg to sign with Chinese KHL team

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Magnus Hellberg, the once-touted netminder that came to New York from Nashville two years ago, has reportedly left North America to join the KHL’s Chinese club, Red Star Kunlun.

The deal, per Russian news outlet R-Sport, is of the one-year variety and it comes after Hellberg appeared in a pair of games for the Rangers last season, spending most of his time in AHL Hartford.

Hellberg did fare well in his limited action with the Blueshirts, posting a .929 save percentage and 1.53 GAA.

As mentioned above, Hellberg came into the NHL with some fanfare. Selected in the second round (38th overall) by Nashville at the 2011 draft, Hellberg was first goalie off the board, taken one spot ahead of Anaheim’s John Gibson. There was some thought he would be Pekka Rinne‘s eventual successor in goal, but never panned out and was later surpassed by Juuse Saros as the team’s goalie of the future.

In New York, Hellberg was stuck at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta.

Pekka Rinne’s been the Predators’ backbone during run to final

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne‘s face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

“As a player, I feel like I’ve had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity,” Rinne said. “So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have.”

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he’s probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne’s 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

“What he does every night, you can’t put into words,” Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said.

The 19-year-old franchise has reached its first Stanley Cup Final behind Rinne’s standout performances.

After Nashville ousted Anaheim in six games Monday night , Rinne now is even stingier on home ice with a 7-1 record, 1.54 GAA and .947 save percentage. He made 38 saves on a night where Nashville took only 18 shots.

“Anytime you need to close a series out, you know that as a goalie you got to be good and as a team you got to be good,” Rinne said.

The native of Kampele, Finland, has been better than good. He also has the skill to skate out to play the puck. With coach Peter Laviolette’s team clogging the neutral zone to slow opponents, Rinne is an extra (tall) layer of frustration waiting at the end of the ice for opponents who dump the puck in – even those high on the glass.

Anaheim defenseman Kevin Bieksa said Rinne will throw his body against the glass to knock the puck down so he can pass it out to a teammate essentially turning the goalie into another defender.

“You don’t see many goalies that aggressive,” Bieksa said. “And he’s gone out, he’s played a lot of pucks. And he’s good at it. One of their strengths, for sure.”

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle noted Rinne had eight plays on the puck alone in the first period of Game 5, a 3-1 Nashville win that put the Predators up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

“You can’t give him that type of opportunity,” Carlyle said.

Laviolette calls goaltender the most important position on the ice and he said Rinne’s confidence is a huge benefit for the team.

“And it gives you opportunities,” he said.

Rinne now has 34 playoff victories and is no longer at the top of a list no goalie likes. Washington’s Braden Holtby (29) is now the active goalie with the most postseason wins who hasn’t reached the final.

The only surprise was that it took Rinne this long. He’s a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, finishing second in 2011 and 2015. He led the league with 43 wins in 2011-12 and was MVP of the 2014 world championships.

Rinne bounced back from a hip injury that required arthroscopic surgery and later an E. coli infection that limited him to 24 games in the 2013-14 season. With him out of the lineup, Nashville just missed the postseason, leading general manager David Poile to replace coach Barry Trotz with Laviolette.

“I think David and the owners have done a really good job providing Peter more tools and maybe higher quality players and more talent,” Rinne said.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm says Rinne’s competitive streak comes out on the ice.

“He will put his foot down, and say, `Hey, this is my crease. This is where I am,”‘ Ekholm said. “So I wouldn’t say he’s as polite on the ice vs. our opponents. He’s always a competitor, and he always wants to win.”

The next chance for a win comes Monday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.