Jaroslav Halak, Alex Pietrangelo

Blues clinch playoffs in win over Lightning

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With a 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Saturday, the St. Louis Blues became the first NHL team to 100 points and to clinch the playoffs. They no doubt have higher ambitions on their minds, but for a team that ranked 11th in the Western Conference last season, it’s a more than just noteworthy accomplishment.

Once again, a blend of defense and superb goaltending propelled them forward. 50-goal scorer Steven Stamkos was held pointless, and as a team the Lightning never managed more than nine shots on goal in a single period. St. Louis netminder Jaroslav Halak also did his part to earn his ninth win in his last 10 contests and his 25th victory of the season. Halak has now allowed just two or fewer goals in 11 of his last 12 starts.

With Andy McDonald sidelined due to a shoulder injury, 2010 first round draft pick Jaden Schwartz made his NHL debut. Schwartz made an immediate impact, scoring the game-winning goal on a power play in the first period.

David Perron and Patrik Berglund accounted for the Blues other two goals. The two have each recorded six points in their last six games.

Tampa Bay’s Brendan Mikkelson ended Jaroslav Halak’s shutout bid with just 4:11 remaining in regulation time. It was Mikkelson’s first goal in 116 career NHL games.

The St. Louis Blues have all-but secured the top spot in the Western Conference and can gradually start to shift their focus to preparing for the playoffs. That being said, it is still mathematically possible for them to surpass their franchise record of 114 points in a single season, set back in 1999-2000.

With this loss, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s situation has gone from bad to almost hopeless. Although they haven’t technically been eliminated from the playoffs, it’s hard to see how they can make up the seven-point gap between them and the Washington Capitals in the final three weeks of the season.

Poll: Are the Pens poised to repeat?

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

By now you know the statistic, but here’s a refresher anyway.

The NHL hasn’t had a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner since Detroit turned the trick in ’97-98, and hasn’t seen a reigning champ return to the Final since Detroit turned the trick in ’08-09.

Doing it once is tough. Doing it twice has become nearly impossible.

In fact, winning the Stanley Cup in recent years has, more often that not, paved the way for an extremely difficult encore. Chicago won it all in 2015, and was bounced in the opening round last year. L.A. hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug in ’14, and missed the postseason entirely in ’15.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On paper, this year’s Pens are a virtual carbon copy of the club that won the Cup in June. Their most noteworthy departures were defenseman Ben Lovejoy (off to join former Pens GM Ray Shero in New Jersey) and third-string netminder Jeff Zatkoff, who signed in L.A.

And that’s it.

Everyone else is back.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are back. The HBK line is back. Both goalies, Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, are back. Even the depth guys that some weren’t sure the Pens could afford — Justin Schultz and Matt Cullen — are back.

Head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff are back, and reigning GM of the Year Jim Rutherford is back.

At first glance, this would make Pittsburgh a likely candidate to “do the Detroit” (as outlined above, in either scenario). But the NHL is fickle, and a grind — and it’ll be curious to see what that does to a Pens team coming off an extremely long season, with six players set to participate in the World Cup of Hockey.

Anyway, go have a vote:

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s been a summer of celebration for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They enter the upcoming season as the defending Stanley Cup champs.

The Stanley Cup made its way to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in a heart-warming visit from Phil Kessel. Bryan Rust was photographed cuddling with hockey’s silver chalice, because, why not? Jim Rutherford was named the GM of the year when the end-of-season awards were handed out.

All of it a reward for a Penguins team that was struggling in the Eastern Conference before a mid-season coaching change. And shortly after Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench, the Penguins took over the conference, rolling to a championship.

This summer, the Penguins made their pitch to land coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, with Sidney Crosby reportedly reaching out to the 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner. Pittsburgh, like many other teams, was ultimately unsuccessful in its quest, as Vesey signed with the Rangers.

The Penguins did sign another college free agent, forward Thomas DiPauli, on a two-year entry-level contract.

They also re-signed forward Matt Cullen to a one-year, $1 million deal. Defenseman Tim Erixon re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract worth $575,000 in the NHL. Justin Schultz, who initially didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins, making him an unrestricted free agent, eventually re-signed in Pittsburgh and that could give Derrick Pouliot, another young blue liner, some stiff competition when the season opens up.

A Stanley Cup victory did not come easy. The Penguins came out of the playoffs with injuries to several players, including Kessel, who underwent hand surgery.

But Rutherford is confident all the injured players — The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review listed Trevor Daley (ankle), Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow) as those on the road to recovery this offseason — should be ready for the opening of training camp.

The Penguins could also have a competition in the crease.

Matt Murray, who turned 22 years old in May, backstopped the Penguins to their championship. But Marc-Andre Fleury, 31, would like the opportunity to regain his old No. 1 spot.

Capitals have big plans for Dmitry Orlov, but there is just one problem . . .

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 25: Dmitry Orlov #9 of the Washington Capitals celebrates after scoring a goal in the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center on November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Dmitry Orlov is still without a contract for the upcoming season.

A restricted free agent, the 25-year-old defenseman had eight goals and 29 points last season, while making $2.25 million in salary for the season, as per General Fanager. His previous two-year contract had an annual cap hit of $2 million. But with training camps approaching, he remains unsigned for right now.

As noted before, there is a cap crunch for the Capitals heading into the new season. Orlov is the only RFA left for the Capitals to re-sign.

From the Washington Post:

According to generalfanager.com, Washington has $3.4 million in salary cap space left, but to allow for in-season roster flexibility or a 14th forward, the Capitals have around $2.6 million to devote to re-signing Orlov.

Still, despite that fact, the Capitals coaching staff has big plans for Orlov for the upcoming season.

“I envision him playing with a [Matt] Niskanen or a [John] Carlson, probably more prime minutes as we try even out our defense a little bit in terms of [workload],” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, as per CSN Mid-Atlantic.

“It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s at the right age where he can really contribute. We’ll look for his contributions on the power play, the penalty kill, playing in that top-4 on a pretty regular basis. I just think it’s right for him.”

Maurice: ‘Zero repercussions’ for Jets prospect Laine following offseason knee surgery

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 21: Patrik Laine #29 of Finland looks on against Russia at Ice Palace on May 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Finland defeated Russia 3-1.(Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images)
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With NHL training camps approaching and the beginning of the World Cup of Hockey next month, Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice had some good news to report.

It appears that forward Patrik Laine, the second overall selection in this year’s draft behind Auston Matthews, is progressing well from the minor knee surgery he underwent following the NHL scouting combine. That same operation kept him off the ice when the Jets held their development camp early in July.

“He was held out of (Jets) development camp for precautionary reasons, but he’s back to full training and has been for quite some time,” Maurice told NHL.com.

“There will be zero repercussions moving forward.”

Laine, the reigning World Hockey Championship MVP from earlier this spring, was named to Finland’s World Cup team. The tournament begins Sept. 17. Finland begins the competition the next day against Team North America.

After an unbelievable 2015-16 season — he was named the Finnish league’s playoff MVP and won gold for Finland at the 2016 world juniors with seven goals and 13 points in seven games — Laine now looks to make the leap to the NHL.

With his shot and skill — not to mention an entry-level deal with that carries an AAV of $3.575 million, including $2.65 million annually in performance bonuses, as per General Fanager — he’ll be given plenty of opportunities.

“Patrik is going to be able to do all those things he’s always been able to do,” Maurice continued.

“How long it takes him to do it, I don’t know, but he’s going to get a chance to play. He fits in to what we’re trying to do as a hockey team, so you’ll live with some mistakes that are youth-generated, but he’s a very special talent and I would not be surprised if he comes in and is able to finish and put up numbers.”