Playoffs Tonight: Blues challenge defending Stanley Cup champion Kings

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The playoffs start tonight and if we learned one thing from last year, it’s that any team can win, regardless of their seed.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at tonight’s action:

Game 1: The Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild (8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Chicago got off to a historic 21-0-3 start this season and never really hit a major rough patch. The Wild did manage to eke out a shootout victory against the Blackhawks on Jan. 30, but Chicago won the other two matches.

The Blackhawks’ depth is incredible, but 28-year-old goaltender Corey Crawford still has a lot to prove when it comes to postseason hockey. Plus, the Minnesota Wild can use their status as the clear underdogs to their advantage.

“I think now that they’re in the playoffs, they feel they have nothing to lose and they can relax and play their game,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson told CSN Chicago.

Game 1: The St. Louis Blues host the Los Angeles Kings (8:00 p.m. ET, CNBC)

We haven’t seen a team win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back campaigns since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings. Can the Los Angeles Kings defy the odds and win it all again?

It’s hard to bet against the Kings given how spectacularly they cruised through the playoffs last season. Along the way they swept the Blues in the Western Conference semifinals and they were also perfect against St. Louis in the 2013 regular season.

All the same, St. Louis has a lot of offensive weapons, a stellar defense, and an incredibly hot goaltender in Brian Elliott. Regardless of what the Kings have done to them in the past, this isn’t a team that can be taken lightly.

Game 1: The Anaheim Ducks host the Detroit Red Wings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Detroit won four straight games to get into the playoffs while Anaheim has a mediocre 8-9-2 record in its last 19 games. So which Anaheim Ducks will show up for this series and will Detroit’s edge in momentum be the difference in Game 1?

33-year-old forward Johan Franzen wasn’t able to be a major player in Detroit’s last two postseason runs, but he averaged a point-per-game in April. He’s a big X-Factor in this series and so is 30-year-old netminder Viktor Fasth. It’s not even clear if Fasth will be the Ducks’ starter in Game 1, but can he continue his remarkable and unusual rookie season if he’s called upon?

Agent: Schultz likes Pittsburgh, but wants to be ‘rewarded’

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Justin Schultz took a significant pay cut to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

He doesn’t begrudge the deal he signed, as the Penguins have been a big part of turning his career around.

One assumes winning a couple of Stanley Cups has been pretty fun, too.

That being said, the 26-year-old defenseman wants a raise.

“We took a one-year, discounted deal to come back from last year and build upon what he did,” Schultz’s agent, Wade Arnott, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The player took a lot of the risk. The player performed. Now the player should be rewarded.”

Schultz, a restricted free agent, had a career-high 51 points in 78 games last season. Those 51 points were the seventh most among NHL defensemen — just five fewer than this summer’s biggest UFA, Kevin Shattenkirk, managed.

Schultz then added 13 more points in the playoffs, as the Penguins managed to win it all without Kris Letang.

For the record, Schultz wants to stay in Pittsburgh. The question is whether the Pens can afford to keep him, or if they’d be better off selling high in a trade.

“We’ll probably have some more direction here this week with where we’re going with [a possible extension],” Arnott said. “But we’ve had some good discussions.”

After Stepan trade, Zibanejad negotiations become even more crucial

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For a good while, the center position in New York was largely carried by the one-two punch of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Now, the Derick & Derek show is no longer.

Stepan was shipped out during draft weekend in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. Brassard exited a year earlier in a move to Ottawa that brought Mika Zibanejad to the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad, 24, was acquired by GM Jeff Gorton in the hopes of one day becoming New York’s No. 1 center. He certainly showed he was capable this season — despite missing nearly 30 games with a broken fibula, he put together a fine offensive regular season and then surged in the playoffs, finishing with nine points in 12 games.

And now, a big negotiation sits on the horizon.

Zibanejad is a restricted free agent coming off a two-year, $5.25 million deal with a $2.625M cap hit. As we wrote earlier, Gorton is “open to anything” with regards to the extension, saying he’d be willing to go either short- or long-term.

One has to think Zibanejad has a ton of leverage. His acquisition price (Brassard) was significant, Stepan is now gone, and so too is depth center Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired by Vegas at the expansion draft. Right now, New York’s center depth consists of Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and maybe some spot duty from J.T. Miller.

Lias Andersson, taken seventh overall at Friday’s draft, said he wants to make the Rangers this year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll even play in North America this season, as Gorton could opt to send Andersson back to the Swedish League for further development.

The free agent market isn’t especially inspiring down the middle, unless someone thinks they can land Joe Thornton, and there’s no doubt Zibanejad’s seen the paydays scored by some other good, young, top-line centers. Winnipeg gave Mark Scheifele $49 million over eight years, while Calgary gave Sean Monahan $44M over seven.

Is Zibanejad at their level? If you surveyed folks around the league, the answer would be probably no. But he could be soon and, what’s more, the Rangers may be forced to pay him as if he already is.

Sabres bring back defenseman Fedun on two-year deal

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Taylor Fedun, the Sabres depth defenseman that was set to become a UFA on Saturday, has agreed to a two-year, two-way extension, Buffalo announced on Monday.

Fedun, 29, appeared in 27 games for the Sabres last year, splitting time between the NHL and the club’s AHL affiliate in Rochester. He was a very productive player for the Amerks, scoring 23 points in 29 games.

Moving forward, most expect Fedun to continue in the same role he served this year — a guy that can provide veteran stability at the minor league level, and fill spot duty at the NHL level when injuries strike.

Ottawa extends Pyatt — two years, $2.2 million

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Tom Pyatt, the veteran forward who enjoyed some success reuniting with Guy Boucher in Ottawa last season, has re-signed with the Sens on a two-year, $2.2 million deal, per TSN.

Pyatt was a steady contributor for the Sens, scoring nine goals and 23 points while appearing in all 82 contests. He averaged over 15 minutes per night and was a vital part of the club’s penalty kill, leading all forwards in blocked shots.

He also appeared in 14 playoff games, scoring twice.

Prior to playing in Ottawa, Pyatt had skated under Boucher in Tampa Bay. They spent parts of two years together with the Lightning, before heading off to Switzerland — Pyatt with Geneve Servette, Boucher with Bern SC.

Pyatt was set to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, but clearly liked the fit in Ottawa. He’ll get a pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made last year — a bit more long-term security, and possibly a bigger role with the Sens moving forward.

Ottawa has already stated it will cut ties with veteran tough guy Chris Neil, and decisions are still looming on UFA forwards Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels.