Top 10 NHL stories to watch…once the All-Star break is over

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The NHL All-Star break, which begins Thursday, is the last deep breath everyone gets to take before the playoff stretch drive. So with that in mind, here are 10 stories we’ll be covering closely in the coming months, once everyone’s filled up their lungs this weekend.

Will Sidney Crosby be back this season?

We’ve covered Crosby’s battle with concussions from time to time on PHT (and by “time to time,” we mean “obsessively”), and don’t expect that to change. He’s the best player in the world, and at just 24 years old, it’s not being overly dramatic to say his career is in jeopardy. Not to mention, if he can return in time for the playoffs, the Penguins go from probable Stanley Cup contenders to definite contenders.

The Feb. 27 trade deadline

This one has the potential to be epic, and we’re not just saying that because the trade deadline is great for the blogging business (though it is). Combine a ton of cap space for a number of Cup contenders (Chicago and Detroit leap to mind) with an unusually high supply of big names that have come up in trade speculation – from Bobby Ryan to Jeff Carter to Ryan Suter – and we could be in store for some blockbuster deals.

Teams that were expected to make the playoffs, but might not

The Washington Capitals, for example. Just imagine for a minute if they don’t make it. Would GM George McPhee have any hope of keeping his job? Would a new GM come in and blow things up? How would Alex Ovechkin handle it? Would Penguins fans ever stop laughing? Another team to watch is Los Angeles. The Kings still have the worst offense in the NHL, though things have gotten slightly better under new coach Darryl Sutter.

Teams that were expected to miss the playoffs, but might not

Ottawa, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas, Calgary – all remain in the mix. To address just one of those teams, nobody expected the Senators (27-19-6) to be where they are right now, and that includes their owner. But while the Sens head into the break with a five-point lead over eighth-place New Jersey, we’ve seen already how quickly surprise teams can fall in the standings. (Ahem: Wild.)

The pursuit of a top seed

A quick glance at the standings and some fairly unexceptional teams occupy the seventh and eighth spots in each conference. Unexceptional compared to last year at least, when Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy and was rewarded with a first-round matchup against defending champion Chicago. The Blackhawks, who were treading water for most of the regular season, kicked it into gear once they got their hate on and took the Canucks to overtime of Game 7. While still possible, a scenario like that seems less likely this time around, meaning a first or second seed could be a significant advantage. Third and fourth? Not so much.

Will the Leafs finally make the playoffs?

The richest team in the league in the capital of the hockey world (self-anointed, but probably true) hasn’t played a postseason game since 2004. Miss the playoffs again and it would make seven straight seasons. Which when you think about it, is pretty pathetic. GM Brian Burke’s job is likely safe regardless, but coach Ron Wilson, contract extension and all, would have to be out the door. (Right?) Expect Toronto to be active prior to the trade deadline to boost the top six forwards. The Leafs are one of the rare clubs with a surplus of defensemen, a commodity that’s always in heavy demand heading into the playoffs.

A new CBA needs to be negotiated

The current agreement expires in September, with talks between the league and players’ union expected to start after the All-Star break. For certain, the NHL is in better shape financially compared to the 2004-05 lockout that cost an entire season. However, if the owners try to cut the players’ share as we saw recently in the NBA, things could get…tense. New union leader Donald Fehr is no pushover, and by blocking realignment he’s already sent a message to Gary Bettman that the players won’t be bullied.

The race for the Hart Trophy

The league’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, is the current top candidate, having put the Penguins on his back minus Crosby and a host of other key Pittsburgh players that have suffered long-term injuries. But remember what Corey Perry did down the stretch last year. Anything can happen (including an injury to Malkin.) Claude Giroux, Marian Hossa, Pavel Datsyuk, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews are all in the MVP conversation. Shea Weber should be too, but the Hart rarely goes to defensemen.

Supplemental discipline as the games become more important

OK, let’s say the Capitals have five games left, they’re neck and neck with two other teams for the final playoff spot and, uh-oh, Ovechkin leaves his feet again to hit a guy. What does Brendan Shanahan do? Throw the book at Ovi? Go easy on him? Hide under some jackets? Not saying it’ll involve Ovechkin, but something like this is bound to happen in some shape or form.

The final days of the Phoenix Coyotes?

When the deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was announced in May, the playoffs were still underway. And chances are, that deal didn’t come together overnight. So that gives you an idea of how much time is left for the league to find an owner that will keep the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. That is, assuming the NHL isn’t willing to give status quo another season in Arizona, which would likely necessitate the city of Glendale covering millions and millions more of the team’s losses. This really does seem like the last stand for the franchise in its current location. Granted, it’s felt like that before. Many times actually. But this really, really feels like it.

Video: Calls go Penguins’ way early in Game 1; own goal plagues Predators

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However you feel about the context of each call, it’s tough to deny that some big decisions ended up going favorably early for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

To start, a would-be 1-0 goal by P.K. Subban was waved off thanks to Filip Forsberg being deemed offside. More on that here.

In a rare span, the Predators were whistled for two penalties during the same sequence in the first period, giving the Penguins a 5-on-3 advantage for a full two minutes. Pittsburgh started off the advantage a little rocky, but then Evgeni Malkin made it 1-0. (Video of that tally in the headline above.)

The controversy comes as Sidney Crosby seemed to get away with interference/elbow shortly before that goal was scored. That sequence will feed a conspiracy theory or two.

The Predators have managed to avoid tough stretches for much of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but things seemed to really escalate from there. The Penguins managed three goals in a staggering 4:11 of game time, with Nick Bonino putting a puck off Mattias Ekholm for a painful own goal, making it 3-0 as the first period concluded.

The Penguins seemed to take control of the game after that disallowed goal, adding to the argument that some combination of the decision and the slowdown helped turn the tide.

How will the Predators respond to this adversity in Game 1? Find out on NBC and via the stream below.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Subban goal waved off hours after Bettman defends offside challenges

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The Nashville Predators were controlling the play early in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, showing little concern for the big stage of Game 1. It looked like that early edge would come with the reward of a P.K. Subban 1-0 goal.

(Subban had to feel that much more satisfied as he was being booed early and often by Penguins fans in Pittsburgh.)

But, alas, the dreaded goal review negated such a goal, as it was determined that Filip Forsberg was offside. You can watch the process in the video above, while this is a GIF of the moment in question.

As a reminder, Gary Bettman said all the right things about reviews working “exactly as they are intended to” mere hours ago, even as snarky folks make snarky jokes about a rapid contest being interrupted by replays that … might not entertain everyone.

Whether the NHL likes it or not, this will be a talking point for many.

Updated Stanley Cup Final lineups: Carl Hagelin, Colin Wilson out in Game 1

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PHT provided early looks at what the Nashville Predators’ and Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineups might look like, and those viewpoints ended up being mostly correct.

That’s especially true when it comes to the Penguins. As expected, Carl Hagelin will not suit up for the Penguins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Patric Hornqvist indeed returns while Jake Guentzel avoids a healthy scratch.

Here’s the lines that Pittsburgh listed on Twitter:

The Predators provide a surprise, however, as Colin Wilson is not in the mix. Instead, the Predators will have Craig Smith and Mike Fisher in the lineup.

Game 1 is just minutes from beginning. Check it out on NBC or stream it via the link below.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Daly addresses Voynov potentially returning to Kings

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An interesting development on Monday, prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final — following Gary Bettman’s state of the league address, deputy commissioner Bill Daly was asked about the possibility of former Kings d-man Slava Voynov returning to the NHL.

Voynov hasn’t played in L.A. since the ’14-15 campaign, when he was suspended indefinitely while facing domestic violence charges.

“If that was ever something that was proposed, we’re on record as saying that would require a proceeding before the commissioner,” Daly said, when asked about Voynov’s possible return.

When asked if Voynov had “served his time,” Daly offered the following:

“Ultimately that’s not my decision, that’ll be Gary’s decision.

“I don’t want to speculate either on what that might be. I’ve heard from time to time that he might have an interest in coming back to the National Hockey League, but that hasn’t advanced in any material way to this point.

“So let’s wait and see if it happens.”

The Voynov topic arose when a reporter asked Daly about the league’s stance, on the understanding that “at one point, the Kings were considering trying to bring [Voynov] back.”

That came on the heels of a report from John Hoven of Mayor’s Manor, who said Kings management and scouts had seen Voynov play “multiple times” this season.

In July of 2015, Voynov pleaded no contest to a reduced misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Months later, he returned to his native Russia and signed a three-year pact with SKA Saint Petersburg.

The move freed L.A. from Voynov’s $4.16 million average annual cap hit. Per The OC Register, Voynov’s decision to “self-depart” the U.S. may have kept the door open for a return to North America at some point in the future.

In October, Team Russia tried to include Voynov on its active roster for the World Cup of Hockey, claiming it was in negotiations with the league on the matter. The NHL eventually ruled him ineligible — “our position was the NHL suspension disqualified him,” Daly explained — and he was eventually replaced by Bolts blueliner Nikita Nesterov.