‘I’m getting chills just thinking about it’ — Pens revel in joining back-to-back club

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NASHVILLE — It’s often hard to contextualize accomplishments, especially in the immediate aftermath.

It didn’t seem to be a problem for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After Sunday’s thrilling win over the Predators in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins joined some rarefied air. They became the first repeat champion of the salary cap era, and the first back-to-back winner since Detroit turned the trick nearly 20 years ago.

To a man, nearly all the Penguins acknowledged how special this was.

And they had no problem describing how it felt.

“The ’97-98 Wings, who I grew up cheering for being from Michigan,” forward Bryan Rust said. “To be in the same breath as those guys, Stevie [Yzerman] and all them, it’s something that’s irreplaceable.

“I’m getting chills just thinking about it.”

With tonight’s win, the Penguins have sparked a debate about the greatest team of the cap era. They and the Blackhawks are now tied with three titles each — and with all due respect to the Kings and their two Cups, they’re out of the conversation.

The Penguins would, seemingly, have the leg up on Chicago based solely on the last two seasons. The ‘Hawks never advanced past the conference final the year after winning a Cup. With these back-to-back championships, the Pens have done what no other cap teams has and, accordingly, raised the bar.

Head coach Mike Sullivan explained how his group accomplished such a feat.

“Part of the process is listening to all the experts, guys like you guys, telling us we can’t do it,” he said. “And history is telling us we can’t do it, because it hasn’t been done. The very first conversation we had with these guys, I challenged them right away and said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we?’

“Let’s not let someone else write our story.”

Pittsburgh certainly wove its own narrative. It won a title despite having no clear-cut No. 1 defenseman and, per Sportsnet, became the first team to ever win a Cup with a blueline comprised of guys that had never received a Norris vote.

The Pens won with an unheralded first-year player, Jake Guentzel, coming out of nowhere to tie the NHL record for playoff points by a rookie. They won despite losing versatile center Nick Bonino to a broken tibia in Game 2.

Their story had plenty of twists, even more turns, and an unlikely ending. Patric Hornqvist knocked home an ugly game-winner tonight, banking a puck from behind the goal and off Pekka Rinne‘s shoulder.

Put it all together, and Pittsburgh’s story isn’t just unique — it’s historic. The team is now forever etched in in NHL lore, right alongside a Detroit club the players talked about with reverence.

“I remember watching those Red Wings teams,” Ian Cole said. “It was something special to watch those teams, and I remember the way I felt watching those teams win.

“I knew if there was a team that could do it, it would be us.”

Stars give Lindell two-year extension

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More news out of Dallas, where the Stars have signed defenseman Esa Lindell to a two-year, $4.4-million contract extension.

From the release:

Lindell, 23, posted 18 points (6-12=18) in 73 games played for Dallas during the 2016-17 regular season, his first full season in the NHL. He finished second on the team by averaging 21:52 of time on ice per game and his +8 plus/minus rating finished third. Additionally, he finished second on the team with 119 blocked shots and tied for fifth with 93 hits.

The Stars still have a couple of restricted free agents on the back end. Both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are arbitration-eligible. Lindell was not.

Earlier today, it was reported that the Stars were buying out goalie Antti Niemi.

Dallas also signed forward Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension. The 24-year-old was acquired from Chicago in the Johnny Oduya trade on Feb. 28.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.