Five best destinations Brad Richards could wind up during free agency frenzy

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So just where is Brad Richards going to wind up when the free agent semi-frenzy kicks off at noon? The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner with the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and now former Dallas Star is the most desired free agent this summer. Unlike last year when Ilya Kovalchuk was the main squeeze and he had basically two suitors in the Kings and Devils, the field to go after Richards is a bit bigger.

With teams having a bit more cap space or more need to spend big bucks thanks to the jump in the salary cap and salary floor, targeting Richards is the “in” thing to do this year. With some teams in desperate need for a playmaker or first line center, Richards at 31 years-old and a proven point producer he fits the bill for a lot of teams… But who? We’ve got a list of the five teams (in order of likelihood) we think stand the best shot at landing Richards come noontime.

1. New York Rangers
Why wouldn’t it be the Rangers? His former coach from the Lightning is there in John Tortorella, the Rangers have a burning need for a #1 center and playmaker, and the Rangers have been lusting after him since the trade deadline. Richards in New York makes a world of sense for them and they obviously don’t fear coughing up a monster contract to land him.

That said, the Rangers recent history in going after top centers isn’t so hot. They just bought out their most recent savior at center in Chris Drury and they traded Scott Gomez away two summers ago after he failed to live up to expectations. Drury’s example is one the Rangers should take particular care to look at as he too was 31 when he signed with the Rangers. The big production he had with Buffalo dropped off in a hurry. While that could be in the back of their heads, the possibility of seeing Richards feed Marian Gaborik endless feeds for goals is more on the mind of GM Glen Sather and we can’t fault him for that.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs also are in need of a true first line center and they’ve got a couple of fun scorers that would benefit from Richards’ passes in Nikolai Kulemin and Phil Kessel. While Mikhail Grabovski is a fine center in his own right, getting Richards in there to spark those two would give Toronto a top line to fear and deepen the team considerably.

The issue for Richards might be in having to play in the hyper-crazy hockey market that is Toronto. With the pressure and demands that come with playing hockey in Toronto, the stress of trying to lead the Leafs back to the playoffs might be a bit too much for a calm and cool character like Richards. If he does go to Toronto, watching him operate in the fishbowl that is Toronto will prove to be a fascinating study. If money is a big motivator for Richards, Toronto could be his landing spot as the Leafs have enough cap space to burn to get him with as CapGeek points out they’ve got nearly $18 million left under the cap.

3. Buffalo Sabres
Yeah, we’re still thinking the Sabres are going to make Richards an offer and we still think that Buffalo is a team he should strongly consider. If Richards is looking for a major league payday, then Buffalo may not be the place to go. After bringing Robyn Regehr aboard via trade and then signing Christian Ehrhoff to a ridiculous 10-year, $40 million deal, according to CapGeek the Sabres are left with just over $7 million in salary cap space for next year with only 17 players signed and a need to lock up a backup goalie.

Of course, Terry Pegula has done wonders to sell Buffalo to both Regehr and Ehrhoff and if he can do that why not sell it to Brad Richards too? He can point out a spot on Buffalo’s first line playing alongside Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville or also teaming up with 30-goal scorer Drew Stafford and rising offensive player Tyler Ennis as well as a healthy Derek Roy. That looks pretty good and we’d think Richards would like that as well as the undying support the Sabres get at home.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning
All right so this is a bit of a reach. The Lightning are busy trying to get Steve Stamkos locked up to a long term deal and while there’s all sorts of nonsensical talk that a team will swoop in and try to poach Stamkos with an offer sheet, the lure of Richards going back to Tampa Bay has to be intriguing. Richards used to play for the Lightning and still calls the city his home. Now that Jeff Vinnik is in place as the owner and Steve Yzerman is there as the GM with Guy Boucher as the head coach, things are a lot more stable with the Lightning than they were when Richards was dealt away.

While it’s 98% likely that Stamkos will be back in Tampa, the possibility that Richards would take a sweetheart deal to play alongside his old pals in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to join up with those guys and Stamkos might be intriguing enough to bring him back. It’d give the Lightning a wealth of riches and a glut of top of the line centermen to figure out how to use, but having the Lightning bringing an All-Star team to the rink every night would be awfully fun.

5. Washington Capitals
We’ve played this dark horse card before a month ago when we looked at things and we’re sticking by it now. The Caps are letting Jason Arnott go to free agency and that clears out a spot for another top center. The Caps are going into today’s free agent party with a lot of cap room and a need for another playmaking center. Being able to march into battle each night with both Nicklas Backstrom and Brad Richards would give the Caps the two-pronged attack up the middle they’ve never had.

While guys like Arnott and Brendan Morrison in the past did OK, Richards would be the perfect kind of guy to either plug in next to Alex Ovechkin or Alex Semin to help spur them to huge offensive seasons. The team needs to find a way to keep Semin motivated all year and a competitor like Richards would be ideal in that role.

The Caps and GM George McPhee aren’t really huge splash makers on free agency day and they do have other areas to tend to (defense for instance) but grabbing Richards would send the message that the Caps are deadly serious about winning the Stanley Cup. If you’re worried about the money, the Caps are under the salary cap by about $10 million according to CapGeek. If your choices for a second center are Brad Richards or Marcus Johansson who would you be more comfortable with in chasing after the Cup? Exactly.

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”

Maurice wants Jets to stay loose ahead of elimination game

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice wants the Jets to focus on fun, not the magnitude of Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The expansion Golden Knights are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference final and could eliminate the Jets and reach the Stanley Cup Final with a victory.

”These are the best games, always are, when everything is on the line,” Maurice said Saturday. ”Everybody will be at their most excited. You have to find a way, and it shouldn’t be very difficult, to love every minute of it. … This has to be your finest hour. Before the puck drops, I’m not talking about the play, be able to get your mind that this is the most fun game of the year now.”

The Jets have accomplished more in the playoffs than the Atlanta Thrashers franchise did before relocating to Manitoba in 2011. They’ve also surpassed the achievements of the original NHL Jets franchise that moved to Arizona in 1996.

As the current Winnipeg team eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the first round in five games and then bounced the Predators in a Game 7 in Nashville, fans from across the country have cheered on the only Canadian team left in the championship run.

Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot and his teammates have seen the adoration, particularly in Winnipeg with their white-clad crowd inside Bell MTS Place and thousands more outside at ”whiteout” street parties around the rink.

Now, though, isn’t the time to let the hopes of hockey fans weigh them down, he said.

”I don’t think you can think about that, how many people we have watching us,” Chiarot said.

”It’s a little daunting when you think of a whole province, or even the whole country, watching us play. So you just focus on what you do and the guys in the room and that’s all we focus on.”

Winnipeg won the first game against the Golden Knights at home.

The Jets had an NHL-best home record of 32-7-2 in the regular season and finished with nine straight victories at home. They added four more in the playoffs, but have lost three of their last four games at home.

In the last two losses to Vegas, the Jets gave up the first goal. When they did tie it up in both matches, the Golden Knights responded with goals in under a minute to regain their lead.

”It’s going to be really important, not only just to score the first, but just to have a good start,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said. ”We felt like we actually started OK last game, just kind of got in penalty trouble early. That can determine how it looks like you start.”

If the Jets can pull out a victory Sunday, Game 6 is Tuesday night in Las Vegas. A Game 7 would be Thursday night in Winnipeg.

Maurice wants his players to approach the do-or-die game like their Game 7 victory in Nashville.

”I want them to take their experience from Game 6 and 7 and create the environment they created there where they came out with an excitement and smile on their face,” he said. ”Going into Game 7, there’s as much pressure in that game as there was here, right? It’s the exact same game. This one is at home. We’ll need that crowd. They’ve been great for us.

”Both teams, all four teams now (left in the playoffs), there’s not quite as much in the tank as there was before. You’re looking to draw on that and go out with an excited smile.”

PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5

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1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy’s great play continued in Game 5 after a bit of a stumble to start the series. In making 28 saves, he helped the Lightning beat the Washington Capitals 3-2 to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final. He’s now stopped 100 of the last 106 shots he’s faced. Tampa can clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final with a win Monday night in Game 6 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

2nd Star: Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning

Callahan had his biggest game of the playofs with a goal and an assist in the Tampa win. He first assisted on Cedric Paquette‘s opening goal 19 seconds into the game and followed that up with an early tally himself in the second period. His goal, which would end up standing as the game-winner, came just 33 seconds into the middle period.

3rd Star: Dan Girardi, Tampa Bay Lightning

The blue liner logged 19:34 during Game 5 and blocked a game high four shots, including one in the final minute on Alex Ovechkin to help preserve the lead.

[Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth]

Highlight of the Night:

John Carlson might have nightmares about this save by Vasilevskiy with seconds to go:

Factoid of the Night:

Sunday’s schedule: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream (Vegas leads series 3-1)

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth

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You can’t spot a team a 3-0 lead and expect to win in the playoffs.

And while the Washington Capitals tried desperately to not fall victim to their own undoing earlier in the game, they simply ran out of time in a 3-2 loss on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning now lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 as the series shifts back to D.C. for Game 6 on Monday. Tampa is 7-0 all-time in Washington in the playoffs and has now won three straight in the series after falling behind 0-2.

In the first period and into the second, the Capitals appeared to be the same old disappointing playoff team — they just delayed their arrival this season for an extra round.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5]

This does look like vintage Capitals collapse, no?

Giving their opponents a 3-0 lead in just over 20 minutes, including allowing goals at 19 seconds of the first period (Cedric Paquette) and 33 seconds of the second period (Ryan Callahan), isn’t a winning formula.

Nor is your superstar getting exactly zero shots on goal for the first 58 minutes of the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin hit the bar earlier in the third period, and once he did get shooting, he found twine on his second shot of the game with 1:36 left and the net empty, but it was all too late in the end.

Tampa is now a team on the verge of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final and the Capitals on the brink of their yearly disappointing exit from the postseason.

A silver lining: Evgeny Kuznetsov keeps producing. But you’re not winning a conference final riding on the back of one player, as Washington is figuring out.

The urgency displayed in the third period from the Caps would be better used spread out over all three periods.

But perhaps most concerning for the Capitals is how Tampa found their stride 5-on-5.

They didn’t manage to win the puck possession battle (as per usual in this series) but they did have a nearly 3-to-1 edge on high-danger scoring chances for at 15-6.

All three of their goals came at 5-on-5 and they didn’t have to rely on their power play to get their offense rolling.

That will be interesting to watch in Game 6. Giving the Lightning a man-advantage was a death sentence. But if they’re scoring 5-on-5 as well, Washington is going to be in a world of hurt.

This isn’t helping either:

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


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