Jonas Hiller’s long road from cloudy unknown to world-class netminder

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The 2010-11 season was shaping up to be a dream season for Jonas Hiller. He was in the midst of a career year with a .926 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average going into the all-star break. It would be his first career all-star appearance—the only goaltender in the Western Conference to earn the honor in 2011. The sky was the limit.

Then it all faded to black. Actually, that’s not true. It was then that the room started spinning out of control.

It was during that fateful weekend in January where Hiller’s dream season turned into a mystifying nightmare. At some point, something had happened to the Swiss netminder that doctors, coaches, and even Hiller couldn’t explain. The official word from the Ducks was “vertigo-like symptoms,” which basically means the goaltender’s world was spinning and no one knew why.

Six months later he said he was better. Then the Ducks said he was clear to play. With the great news of the offseason and Hiller stepping up in training camp, some of the details of Hiller’s bout with vertigo are starting to come to light. It’s long been thought that something happened during the All-Star weekend to Hiller, but it was mostly hearsay. In fact, he played in two more games after the All-Star break before the Ducks put him on injured reserve. Still, there’s no doubt that the man who returned from Raleigh wasn’t the same, all-world goaltender who was the only Western Conference goaltender that earned a trip to the all-star game.

Ducks legend Teemu Selanne shared with Pro Hockey Talk that there was something wrong with Hiller from the moment he returned. Something very wrong.

“I saw it right away,” Selanne admitted. “I think I was one of the first guys that saw him after the all-star break—the first practice, the first one he was so lazy out there. He was sitting on his stall [for an] hour, just looking in one spot. I said, ‘God, there’s something wrong with this guy.’ Then he tried to play, he couldn’t focus. It was obviously tough because up to that point, I think he was the best goalie in the league. That’s what it takes to win in this league these days. When the goalie is struggling, that’s a bad sign.”

The most frustrating part for Hiller and the Ducks was the unknown. After appearing in two games after the symptoms appeared – he was pulled after giving three goals in 11 minutes in the first game – the Ducks shut him down while they tried to figure out what was wrong with their prized netminder. At the end of March, the organization gave him another shot to get back to the ice to see where he stood. The news wasn’t good.

After giving up three goals on nine shots in an important game in Nashville, Hiller was returned to the bench while Ray Emery and Dan Ellis held down the goaltending duties. Hiller battled throughout the stretch run (and eventually the playoffs) to return to the crease, but it wasn’t to be. Bobby Ryan got an up-close and personal look at the Swiss netminder:

“You could see it in his eyes. He was battling a little bit. I think I noticed it the most in the playoffs, having some suspension time and getting to skate with him a little more then and work with him one on one.”

He was eventually shut down for the rest of the season.

That brings us back to today. Watching him stone teammates in practice, you’d never know that he was the guy who missed the last two months of last season. In his first game back, Hiller stopped 21 of 22 shots against the Vancouver Canucks and earned the #1 star of the game. When Selanne talks about Hiller’s performance in Vancouver, his tone noticeably changes for the better. Then again, he also shares that he wasn’t so sure how his goaltender would react to a live-game situation:

“He was outstanding in that game. You know, before that, you never know how the guy is going to be before he starts playing games. Obviously, it’s a totally different situation when you have the pressure of the games bring on you. It was great relief for everybody to see him doing well—he played so well.

“It’s funny,” Selanne continued. “A couple days in practice when the team went to LA, we were doing the shootouts and shooting the pucks and he was almost like a wall. We thought he was better than ever! So that’s great. We all know how important goaltending is these days. When the goalie gives you a chance to win every night, that’s huge.”

Around the league, organizations are looking to find new players in training camp to add to their respective teams to improve their team. But in Anaheim, the best “new” player may end up being that familiar face who was battling the unknown for the last six months of his life. Not many teams can claim they added a world-class goaltender to a team that already made a playoff run at the end of last season.

Look out Western Conference: the Hiller of old looks like he’s back.

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.