PHT staff projects the Eastern Conference playoff teams

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We here at PHT have already hooked you up with who we think is going to win the Stanley Cup and the NHL’s biggest awards so now we’re going to do the really adventurous predictions and see if we can figure out just how we think the conference standings will play out.

Since we’ve got a raging East Coast bias here, we’re starting off with the Eastern Conference. With Washington and Buffalo improved, Philly changing things up, Boston looking to repeat, and Pittsburgh lurking about things could shake out in any direction. Here’s what we’re thinking.

Joe Yerdon says:
1. Washington Capitals
2. Boston Bruins
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. Montreal Canadiens
7. New York Rangers
8. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Leafs, Devils, Isles, and Hurricanes will be in the playoff hunt until late in the season but Tampa and the Rangers will nose them out. Boston is still the class of the Northeast despite Buffalo’s advances and it’s only destiny that they’d draw Philly again in the playoffs. Washington should do just fine again in the Southeast while Pittsburgh is going to be the class of the Atlantic. Winnipeg and Ottawa should be terrible. At least they’ll sell out all year in the ‘Peg.

James O’Brien says:
1. Washington Capitals
2. Boston Bruins
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. New York Rangers
8. Montreal Canadiens

The Capitals have a little of everything: that same offensive top-end with extra elbow grease, a versatile defense that will improve with Roman Hamrlik’s addition and one of the best goalies in the NHL. The Sabres are the chic pick in the Northeast, but Boston’s deep down the middle, features the East’s best defenseman and best goalie combo. You can make a legitimate argument for four teams to make the Atlantic Division – even my 11th pick, the Devils – but my gut feeling is that people are sleeping on Ilya Bryzgalov. The 5-8 seeds feature some injury worries (in the Lightning’s case it’s a “What if Dwayne Roloson gets hurt because he’s really old?” worry) and other flaws that should keep them from the playoffs. The most interesting teams that didn’t make the top 8 are the wild card-heavy Leafs, the still-proud Devils and two young teams in the Jets and the Islanders. I’m not a huge fan of the Panthers rebuild, but that might work out too.

Matt Reitz says:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Washington Capitals
3. Boston Bruins
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
6. Philadelphia Flyers
7. New York Rangers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs

Even though Pittsburgh played half the season without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, they transformed themselves into a defensive team, and tied for the Atlantic Division championship. With two of the best players in the world returning, they should be the cream of the crop. The Caps have proven they are an elite regular season team and the Bruins still should be better than the Sabres. The Flyers slip just because of all the question marks surrounding the team as they attempt to find some team chemistry. The Maple Leafs slide into the final playoff spot because James Reimer should give them some solid goaltending for the first time in years. They may not be a great team, but they’ll rise up and improve a couple of spots in the standings. If any of the eight teams slip, the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes will be there to steal one of the last spots.

With that all squared away – check out our Western Conference previews here – who do you see winning the Eastern Conference? Let us know in our poll.

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.