The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers seem poised for a first-round playoff matchup, but Sunday’s game (12:30 pm ET, NBC) is more than just a preview of what’s to come. Only three points separate the Penguins and Flyers and they’re scheduled to play each other twice in their final four games. Ultimately, they’re fighting for home ice advantage in the first round, which is a big deal considering that both teams have been dominant while playing at home.
Philadelphia has been one of the most offensively gifted teams in the league this season. Claude Giroux has not only proven that his 2010-11 breakout campaign wasn’t a fluke, he’s managed to set new career-highs in goals, assists and points. Meanwhile, Scott Hartnell is having one of the best seasons of his career and has been one of the league’s top all-around forwards this season — no one else has at least 35 goals, 100 penalty minutes, and 100 hits.
Beyond their top two scorers, Philly has a terrific supporting cast led by Jaromir Jagr, who has proven he still has what it takes to play in the NHL after spending three seasons in the KHL.
Still, for as many offensive weapons as the Flyers have, the Penguins outdo them in that department. Sidney Crosby is a huge threat now that he’s healthy, but he just represents the tip of the iceberg. The Penguins have five players with at least 20 goals, including two of the top-four leading goal scorers in Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. In fact, starting with their game against Boston on March 11, Pittsburgh has found the back of the net at least three times in 10 of their last 11 games. The one exception was on March 18 when the Penguins ran into the only goaltender that has been able to stand up to them lately: Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov.
The problem is that Bryzgalov has a chip fracture in his foot, so he’ll either be playing through the pain on Sunday or, more likely, sitting out of the contest. In either scenario, the Flyers defenders will need to do their part if they want to beat the Penguins and give themselves a legitimate shot at the fourth seed.
—Brian Campbell may have spoken to teams about continuing his career, but he didn’t start negotiating with any of them because he knew he wasn’t willing to continue playing. “I’ve been thinking about [retirement] for a while. At the end of the season, I didn’t know if I was ready to do it anymore. So that was only fair. But I will say July 1 was tough, a tough day. There’ve been some tough days. But I think we’re happy with our decision.” (CSN Chicago)
–The Hockey Writers ranked each team’s farm system from 1 to 31. Interestingly enough, the Vegas Golden Knights don’t have the worst system in the league. That honor belongs to the San Jose Sharks. The number one team on the list is the Philadelphia Flyers. (The Hockey Writers)
—Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been with the Oilers for six years now, but he still hasn’t established himself as one of the dominant forces on the team. Per the Edmonton Journal, he could be skating on thin ice. “With Draisaitl likely to be paid next season and McDavid already signed to big money the following campaign, the cap budget at centre is tight. Whether Nugent-Hopkins stays or goes in the longer term, he needs a major bounceback next season to prove his worth.” (Edmonton Journal)
–On Nov. 1, 1959, Jacques Plante revolutionized the game of hockey by putting on a goalie mask for the first time. NHL.com contributor Stan Fischler wrote: “The legacy of Plante’s decision is evident in today’s game. Not only are all goaltenders required to wear a mask, but teams must dress two goalies for every game. And when a goalie’s mask comes off during a game, the whistle is blown and play is stopped.” It’s a remarkable story. (NHL.com)
–It’s always fun to think about how teams over in Europe would do against an NHL team. With the help of a couple of Russian hockey journalists, The Score put together a KHL all-star team, and asked fans to vote on where they think that team would finish in the NHL. Most people feel like the KHL all-stars would finish somewhere between 17th and 29th in the NHL. (The Score)
—Justin Williams signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes this summer, which means he had to move out of Washington. Some of his valuables got a little more attention than others:
From the sound of things, Kyle Okposo‘s presence at “Da Beauty League” was a beautiful sight for Buffalo Sabres teammates, former teammates on the New York Islanders, and friends around the NHL.
NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce was at that informal game, which apparently didn’t go well for Okposo’s team.
That’s not the important part, certainly not in July. While Pierce noted that Okposo wasn’t comfortable answering questions during his first on-ice action in almost four months, it sounds like the talented winger was looking good on Wednesday night.
Onlookers agreed with that sentiment, and also seconded the notion that he’s been doing well this summer, overall.
“Obviously seeing a teammate go through something like that and struggle to get healthy is tough,” Sabres teammate Hudson Fasching said, via Pierce’s piece for NHL.com. “He’s such a good guy and going through a lot with that whole deal, trying to figure out what was wrong.
“I’m just happy he’s healthy and happy for him to get back.”
It was already noted that Okposo is expected to be ready for Sabres training camp, yet nights like these make it clearer that he’s likely on course. That’s a fantastic turnaround from his health scare in April.
Pierce also has more here.
Things change quickly in hockey, but it’s often especially interesting when someone gives their team a “window” for their best chances at success.
Considering the trying summer for the Capitals, GM Brian MacLellan’s two-year window proclamation might have been dead-on for Washington. If Johnny Gaudreau has similar prognosticating skills, then the Calgary Flames need to take some big swings in the next three seasons.
“I think we have three great years ahead of us,” Gaudreau said last week, according to NHL.com. “I’m really looking forward to these next three years.”
No, this isn’t Gaudreau hedging his bets based on his own situation; his contract runs through 2021-22. His partner-in-crime Sean Monahan‘s deal expires after 2022-23, so it’s not that, either.
Instead, the dazzling young forward noted that some of the team’s most important supporting cast members are locked in for three more years. Take a look:
Expiring after 2019-20:
T.J. Brodie ($4.65 million)
Travis Hamonic ($3.86M)
Michael Frolik ($4.3M)
Troy Brouwer ($4.5M)
Michael Stone ($3.5M)
Meanwhile, Mike Smith‘s contract lasts two more seasons, as does the rookie deal for Matthew Tkachuk. Dougie Hamilton‘s signed up for four more himself.
Gaudreau likely didn’t have this in mind, but it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer Mark Giordano will be at or near an elite level. Yes, he’s at a reasonable $6.75M for five more seasons, but he’s already 33.
All things considered, Gaudreau is reasonable in pinpointing these next three seasons specifically. In particular, defensemen as talented as Brodie and Hamonic are almost certain to command higher prices.
On the other hand, merely having such a talented player as Gaudreau signed for such a reasonable deal – not to mention the Flames lacking many “albatross” contracts – could mean that they’ll have a solid chance at competing for some time. Still, Gaudreau might be right that this is Calgary’s best chance at winning big in quite some time.
Players on American Hockey League contracts will be eligible to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
President and CEO David Andrews confirmed through a league spokesman Wednesday that teams were informed they could loan players on AHL contracts to national teams for the purposes of participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics. The AHL sent a memo to its 30 clubs saying players could only be loaned for Olympic participation from Feb. 5-26.
The Olympic men’s hockey tournament runs from Feb. 9-25. Like the NHL, which is not having its players participate for the first time since 1994, the AHL does not have an Olympic break in its schedule.
The AHL’s decision does not affect players assigned to that league on NHL contracts. No final decision has been made about those players.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .
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