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NHL On NBC: Blackhawks host Wild in huge Central Division showdown

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NBC’s coverage of the 2016-17 NHL season continues on Sunday afternoon when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild in a massive game when it comes to ultimately deciding the top spot in the Central Division.

The Blackhawks enter the game three points back of the Wild for the top spot in the division, while this is the final head-to-head meeting of the season between the two teams.

It is the classic four-point game on the NHL schedule because of how much things can change depending on the outcome. A regulation win by the Blackhawks would close the gap to just a single point in the standings and help create what would surely be a frantic stretch run. But a Minnesota win in regulation would push the gap to five points while the Wild would still have one game in hand.  The Blackhawks have won two of the previous three meetings this season.

Obviously, Sunday is a massive game.

Even though the Blackhawks enter the game having lost back-to-back games, 1-0 loss to Anaheim that they probably deserved a better fate in, and a 4-2 loss to Detroit, they are still in the middle of a 27-game stretch that has seen them win 19 games. Before these past two losses they had won seven in a row and 12 out of 13. They have been doing it with an offense that has been lighting up every defense and goaltender that has crossed their path, averaging more than 3.6 goals per game since Feb. 1.

On Sunday they are going to have to do it against the best goaltender in the NHL this season when they up against Devan Dubnyk.

Dubnyk enters the game with a league-best .932 save percentage and has established himself as one of the front runners for the Vezina Trophy. He has been the backbone for the Wild’s success this season as they have climbed to the top of the Western Conference standings and look to give coach Bruce Boudreau yet another division title to add to his resume.

But it’s not just about Dubnyk and his success this season. The Wild boast one of the NHL’s best, most balanced offenses, bringing seven forwards with at least 40 points on the season into Sunday’s game. That includes Mikael Granlund who is in the middle of a breakout season, leading the team with 62 points in 66 games, having already shattered his previous career highs in goals and total points with still 16 games to play on the season.

Puck drop on Sunday is 12:30 p.m. ET, and you can catch all of the action on NBC or on our live stream.

Canucks sign free agent defenseman Philip Holm to one-year deal

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The Vancouver Canucks announced on Friday that they have signed free agent defenseman Philip Holm to a one-year, entry-level contract.

Before signing with the Canucks Holm had been rumored to be on the verge of joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that obviously did not come together.

“Philip is a mobile, two-way defenseman who adds depth to our blue line,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning in a statement released by the team. “He made strides in his development last season with Vaxjo and played a strong series with Sweden at the World Championships We’re pleased to welcome him to the Canucks organization.”

The 25-year-old Holm has spent the past seven seasons playing professionally in Sweden for Vaxjo HC and Djurgardens IF.

He is regarded as a smooth skating, puck-moving defenseman and had a pretty strong season for Vaxjo this past year, scoring four goals and adding 17 assists in 52 games. He was the top-scoring defenseman on the team.

He also had three points (one goal, two assists) in seven games for Sweden at the 2017 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships. Sweden won the Gold Medal at the tournament by defeating Canada in the championship game.

The Canucks already have six defensemen under contract for 2017-18 (and they do not seem to be in a hurry to trade any of them) but it was a unit that clearly needs an upgrade, so Holm should be an opportunity to make an impact next season.

Sabres fire AHL coach Dan Lambert

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The Buffalo Sabres continued to overhaul their organization under new general manager Jason Botterill on Friday when they announced that Dan Lambert, the coach of the Rochester Americans, their AHL affiliate, has been relieved of his duties.

“I would like to thank Dan for his hard work and contributions to our organization during the last two seasons and I wish him the best in the future,” said Botterill in a statement released by the team.

“I felt this was the right move for both the Sabres and Amerks and we will begin the process of searching for a new head coach immediately.”

The 2016-17 season was Lambert’s only season as the head coach. The team ended up finishing with a 32-41-3 mark.

When he was hired by the Sabres Botterill talked about wanting to improve the team in Rochester and this appears to be the first step in that process. The entire Sabres organization took a pretty significant step backwards this season with the NHL team finishing with a worse record than it did a year ago. That resulted in general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma all being replaced.

The Sabres have yet to hire a replacement for Bylsma.

Now both of the top teams in the organization are in need of a new head coach.

Report: KHL team in talks with Capitals’ Orlov

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After losing in the second-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs again and entering an offseason where they have several free agents, it is expected that the Washington Capitals roster is going to be look very, very different next season.

One of those upcoming free agents already seems to be drawing some interest, and not from an NHL team.

According to a report from Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko, the KHL’s CSKA Moscow is in talks with defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

Orlov, who turns 26 in July, is slated to be a restricted free agent this offseason. He has played in every game for the Capitals the past two seasons and has emerged as a solid defenseman on the team’s blue line. He has posted pretty dominant possession numbers the past two seasons and has tallied 29 and 33 points during that stretch. He played nearly 20 minutes per game for the Capitals this season and should be in line for a pretty significant pay raise.

Along with the Orlov news, the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan mentioned on Twitter that another KHL team may also be in talks with restricted free agent Evgeny Kuznetsov, though she downplayed the possibility of him leaving. Given that Kuznetsov is one of the top offensive players in the league that would certainly be a shocking move, but it still seems like a long-shot to think that he would leave the NHL.

The Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final has been filled with challenges

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PITTSBURGH — When a team wins the Stanley Cup there is always an expectation that it should be able to come back the next season and contend for it once again. So it shouldn’t be a huge shock that the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with an All-Star cast of forwards led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, are back in the Stanley Cup Final for a second year in a row (and for the fourth time in 11 years) thanks to their thrilling 3-2, double overtime Game 7 win over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night.

What is a shock is how they managed to do it.

Getting back to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done.

Keep in mind the NHL has not had a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. It has only had two repeat champions since 1990 (the Red Wings, and the 1991 and 1992 Penguins). Only six teams have even made it to the Finals in back-to-back years. It is a grueling task that requires not only a talented, well-coached team that is playing well at the right time of year, but also a lot of luck.

And luck is not just limited to puck luck or getting the right bounces. It is also about having the right matchups and having the right players healthy all at the same time.

All of that seemed to be working against the Penguins this postseason in what has been a run that has, in a lot of ways, defied the odds. Not only did they have to get through two of the top-three teams in the NHL this season in the first two rounds, but they had to do it with an injury list that seemed to grow by the day, leaving them with what was at times an undermanned defense.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talked extensively about their journey so far after their Game 7 win on Thursday night.

“It’s been hard. It’s been a really hard playoffs, and I give this group of players so much credit,” Said Sullivan. “They find ways to win, and we’re not perfect on some nights by any stretch. But this group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I’ve been around.”

“I think it starts with the leadership group we have. We’ve got a group of veteran players. I think they have a certain perspective that they understand the opportunity to play this deep and compete for the Stanley Cup doesn’t come around every year. And when it does, when a team like ours puts itself in the position like we have, we have to maximize this opportunity. It’s a great opportunity. And our veteran guys know it. They’ve been around the game a long time, and they understand when they have something special, and we believe we have that with the chemistry of this team. We did it last year, and we’re finding ways to do it again this year. But it’s hard to win. This is the hardest trophy in sports, in my mind. It’s a war of attrition. And I don’t think any team has endured more injuries than this group of players has endured, and we continue to find ways to win.”

The injury situation has been especially brutal.

After entering the playoffs without their best defenseman (Kris Letang), forcing the team into a defense-by-committee approach that is almost unheard of for teams going this deep into the playoffs, they have also had to spend time without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley for stretches.

All of that, combined with the daunting path through two of the NHL’s best teams, resulted in a style of play that has not been quite as consistently impressive as their run a year ago.

Until Game 4 of their series against the Senators the Penguins had been dominated on the shot chart and were bleeding chances against, spending the entire postseason to that point defending and relying heavily on the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to get through.

“I mean, just the competition,” said Chris Kunitz, the Game 7 hero on Thursday night when asked about the different challenges they have faced this year.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s tough to overcome them, or sustain maybe that pressure that we had last year. It felt like we were in more of a flow. This year it’s been back and forth. It’s been tough,” he continued. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night. We haven’t dominated the play that maybe we wanted to. Maybe we’ve done a better job these last couple of games. But it’s something we’re going to have to get better at playing a 60-minute game if we’re going to have a chance to beat Nashville.”