Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? PHT staffers make their picks…

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Sixteen teams out of 30 make the playoffs, but only one can win. Now that we know those 16 teams, we’re making our Stanley Cup picks again. Has anything changed our minds from the preseason? 

Jason Brough: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Penguins over Blackhawks)

I would’ve stuck with the Penguins, but Kris Letang‘s injury swung the pendulum towards Washington. I just don’t see Pittsburgh winning four series with that defense. The Capitals, on the other hand, have three very capable, right-shot d-men in John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk. They’re obviously deep up front as well, with a much improved third line. Plus, they’ve got an excellent goalie. Bottom line: this really feels like Washington’s time. Granted, I said the same thing last year and was wrong, but only because the Caps ran into Pittsburgh. I don’t think the Pens will trip them up this year.

Mike Halford: Chicago Blackhawks

(Preseason pick: Lightning over Blues)

“That energy, that ambition and motivation is back,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said earlier this week. “We have that feeling again.” Without reading too much into a fairly stock quote, I’m buying what Toews is selling. Getting bounced by St. Louis in Round 1 last year might’ve been a good thing — it made the ‘Hawks hungrier, not unlike when they lost to Arizona in the opening round in 2012, then came back to win it all the season following. The energy angle is interesting, because it comes on two fronts: One is from all the young guys (Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero) that’ve never had a deep playoff run before, and are all playing vital roles. The second? The old guys, back for another shot at glory — Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya, specifically.

Adam Gretz: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Predators over Lightning)

Simply put, I think the Capitals are the best team in the NHL. They don’t really have any glaring weakness, they have elite forwards, are the best defensive team in hockey and only made themselves better after adding Kevin Shattenkirk, and they have a Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender behind all of that. Yes, they have been the best team in the league before and it has not yet brought them a Stanley Cup, but sooner or later things have to break their way in the playoffs, don’t they? They can’t run into a hot goalie every year, can they? Their obvious challenge in the Eastern Conference is going to be if they have to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round again, but even that should be different than a year ago simply because the Penguins will not have Kris Letang in their lineup, which is a total game-changer.

James O’Brien: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Stars over Penguins)

Much of what others have said about Washington’s depth and favorable luck (the Caps being healthy, peers such as the Penguins not so much) applies here. But allow me to add another wrinkle: the Capitals have some hungry players chasing raises. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov are the standouts among a slew of pending free agents who can boost their bank accounts via playoff heroics. “Greed is good” in sports, and it’s yet another feather in the Capitals’ … cap.

Cam Tucker: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Capitals over Predators)

I am sticking with the Capitals. This is it. This is the year the Capitals get beyond the second round and win the Stanley Cup. And they’re going to do so by getting by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the second round. It’s simple: The Capitals have just too many weapons. Look beyond the starting point of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Eleven different players reached double digits in goals scored and 11 different players had 30 points or more. They are stacked. If they remain healthy, they should get it done. Not only are they among the best scoring teams in the league, behind only Pittsburgh and Minnesota, but they allowed the fewest goals against. They’re among the best in the league on the power play and penalty kill. They have Braden Holtby in net. This is their time.

Joey Alfieri: Chicago Blackhawks

(Preason pick: Lightning over Stars)

The ‘Hawks got off to a decent start this season, but they really turned it on after their bye week in mid-February. Their 13-3-1 stretch allowed them to blow by Minnesota for top spot in the Central Division. The Blackhawks might not be as deep as a team like the Capitals, but they still have seven players (Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Richard Panik, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Hartman) that scored at least 19 goals in 2016-17. Add a group of veteran defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya, and a star goalie in Corey Crawford and you have a pretty solid team.

Eric Lindros’ famed No. 88 retired in Philadelphia

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No. 88 has always hung from the rafters in the minds of Philadelphia Flyers fans.

The organization seemed to revere it as well. No one but Eric Lindros has ever worn the number.

And on Thursday night in the City of Brotherly Love, those fans could finally see it with their own eyes.

The Big E’s famous No. 88 in Flyers orange and black was retired at Wells Fargo Center, raised to hang next to the names of Bernie Parent, Mark Howe, Barry Ashbee, Bill Barber and Bobby Clarke.

“Without any doubt, this is the highest honor the organization can bestow on one of its members,” said Flyers president Paul Holmgren, who addressed the packed house. “Take a look at the rafters, only five players out of 600 to have ever worn the orange and black, and now that number will be six.

“When we raise your number in a few moments, know you’re back where you belong, and this time, it’s forever.”

Moments earlier, Lindros stood at center ice, waving at the standing ovation that engulfed the arena that encircled him.

“Wow. Haha. This is crazy,” Lindros said, peering out into the sea of orange and black as he followed Holmgren at the center-ice podium. 

“It’s no secret that when I left Philadelphia, it was under less than ideal circumstances,” Lindros said, crediting Holmgren and his wife Kina with helping him move.

Lindros sat out the entire 2000-01 season due to a contract dispute with Clarke and the organization.

Lindros was crushed by Scott Stevens in the playoffs in the previous season and was only cleared to play the following December. The Flyers had offered, and Lindros refused a two-way qualifying offer. Lindros, instead, wanted to be traded, with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs the preferred destination after his once-strong relationship with Clarke had deteriorated. Clarke refused to trade him at first, but finally did so in the following offseason, not to Toronto, but to the New York Rangers in the summer of 2001.

“Both, in their own ways, have taught me to move on, put in the past any differences of opinion, any hard feelings,” Lindros said. “It was time to remember the great moments I experienced here in Philadelphia, the friendships I’ve built in this great city and the respect I have for the fans of this team.”

Lindros was a member of the ‘Legion of Doom,’ a line that consisted of John LeClair and Mikael Renberg that dominated opponents and altered the game of hockey in the 1990s. Lindros acknowledged several people, including former general manager Russ Farwell, who brought Lindros, Mark Recchi and Rob Brind’Amour into the team and drafted Mikael Renberg.

Lindros also thanked Clarke, and said LeClair should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Lindros was one of the most physically gifted and dominating players to ever play in the NHL, a man who towered over most, skated better than most and score better than most.

Lindros won the Hart Trophy during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. He played 486 games in Flyers threads, scoring 290 goals and amassing 659 points.

In 2016, Lindros was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Roberto Luongo could return to practice soon

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The mandatory off week for the Florida Panthers appears to have done wonders for injured goaltender Roberto Luongo.

The Panthers No. 1 netminder has “turned a corner” as he continues to rehab a lower-body injury, Panthers head coach Bob Boughner said on Thursday.

The Panthers practiced for the first time since their mandatory break on Thursday, and although Luongo is still on pace for a return early next month, the news was good to hear for a team nine points adrift of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I think he’s turned a corner a little bit,” Boughner told reporters after the team’s practice. “He’s showing some good improvement here in the last few days. We’re excited to hopefully get him back out on the ice during a practice at some upcoming point.”

Luongo hasn’t played since Dec. 4, when he was injured in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Islanders.

The news of Luongo’s pending return was probably a little music to the ears of James Reimer.

Reimer has started Florida’s past 16 games, posting an 8-6-2 record with .924 save percentage during that span, but ran into the break losing four of his previous five starts.

Still, Reimer has performed admirably in Luongo’s absence, as he bounced back from an unfavorable start to the season that saw Luongo regain the starter’s reins.

The Panthers will have five games in-hand on Pittsburgh Penguins, who entered Thursday occupying the final spot. They play the Los Angeles Kings live on NBCSN at 10 p.m. ET.

The Panthers return to action on Friday when they host the visiting Vegas Golden Knights.

Reimer is expected to start No. 17.

WATCH LIVE: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Buffalo Sabres

Benoit PouliotJack EichelKyle Okposo

Evander KaneRyan O'ReillyJason Pominville

Zemgus GirgensonsEvan RodriguesSam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabeJustin Falk

Josh Gorges — Casey Nelson

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings]

New York Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller — Vinni Lettieri

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey

Michael Grabner — Peter Holland — Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Brendan SmithSteven Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Is Babcock holding the Maple Leafs back?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs might not be a perfect team, but on paper, you wouldn’t expect them to go through many scoring droughts.

It’s not just Auston Matthews, and really, it’s not just sophomores Mitch Marner and William Nylander that makes this seem so dangerous. Toronto also has solid supporting scorers in the likes of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. They added some veteran savvy to the mix with Patrick Marleau, too.

Even so, frustration is building. In the last six games, they’ve only managed 12 goals (not counting shootouts). The Maple Leafs have lost six of their last eight games and haven’t won in regulation since Dec. 28.

Dry spells are going to come, but the heat is starting to rise on Mike Babcock’s lineup decisions.

Not that he’s flustered by such criticisms, as TSN’s Kristen Shilton reports.

“This is how I kind of look at it: I think they hired me to decide,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “So that’s kind of how I approach it … I’m just going to keep on keeping on. In your lifetime, you get to decide what you react to.”

This video has more from Babcock, including the veteran coach calling for the Maple Leafs to shoot more rather than trying to make the perfect play. It’s a nice supplement to more granular studies, like TSN’s Travis Yost’s deep dive on the Maple Leafs and icing (the unsavory infraction, not delicious frosting).

In the grand scheme of things, Babs should be commended for how he’s embraced this team’s young core, particularly in quickly acknowledging that Auston Matthews can do heavy lifting as far as deployment goes.

Still, people are getting frustrated with certain usage situations.

ESPN’s split stats allow you an opportunity to see who’s being used most often in January, this stretch in which Toronto’s scoring is really drying up.

Maybe you’d want Babcock to lean even more on Matthews (averaging 18:54 TOI this month, 18:38 on the season), but that’s a smaller quibble. People are most bothered by the reemergence of Roman Polak (17:02 per game in January) and Leo Komarov‘s frequent use (about a shift fewer than Matthews per game at 18:24 per night in January).

Komarov is getting two more minutes per game lately than Mitch Marner (16:16) and JVR (16:01). Combine that with low scoring, and yes, people are going to get frustrated.

With these developments in mind, the irritation is rising, as you can see in Ryan Fancey of Leafs Nation’s column: “The Leafs aren’t just boring, they’re mediocre.”

Toronto has stopped scoring, and their overall attack has been neutered for weeks. And what’s worse, it seems intentional. Every Babcock quote over the last couple months seems to be about “playing tight” and being more defensive, which apparently means sitting back and being fed in your own zone before ripping the puck up ice for a stretch pass (a.k.a Carlyle hockey) or getting it to the red and going for a dump-and-chase. The Leafs can’t seem to get any flow to their play when it comes to breaking out or using the neutral zone to create offense, and it’s concerning because it seems like a step back from last year. What’s even worse is that it’s so, so boring.

It’s that “intentional” part that’s interesting.

This ultimately comes down to a fascinating conundrum. The Leafs have some nice defensemen, but could use help in that area and probably lack a truly elite one, though Morgan Rielly is coming along nicely. There are some forwards with two-way ability, but no one demanding Selke bids, either.

Babcock’s goal is to get the most out of that group, so does that mean going for a high-stakes style like that of, say, the Penguins or Devils? Maybe that was the leaning for a bit, yet the charge now is that the Maple Leafs are trying to lower the number of events in their own end, which means playing a more conservative style overall.

With a reasonably comfortable grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, maybe Babcock is merely using this window to experiment? The ideal scenario could be to find the right mix of careful play and daring offense.

At least, that’s what would happen if things fall the right way.

Can Babcock figure this out – as he’s figured out many different alignments during his impressive career – or is this a case of ego and/or stubbornness lowering a team’s ceiling? There’s still time to figure this out, but it’s an interesting story to watch.

Even if the team itself isn’t always as fun as it once was.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.