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Canadiens reward Antti Niemi with extension after turnaround

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There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.

Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).

The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.

With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.

In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.

As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Where will Mark Hunter go after leaving Maple Leafs?

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The hockey world hasn’t heard from Maple Leafs assistant general manager Mark Hunter since the team promoted Kyle Dubas to GM last week. Well, on Tuesday, the team announced that the two sides have mutually agreed to part ways.

“Following extensive discussions with Mark, he and the Toronto Maple Leafs have mutually agreed to part ways,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “I’d like to sincerely thank Mark for everything he’s done for this organization over the last four years and I wish him nothing but the best in the future.”

Many speculated that Hunter wasn’t happy about being passed over for the general manager opening that eventually went to Dubas, and this kind of confirms that theory. During his tenure with the Leafs, Hunter was in charge of the pro scouting, amateur scouting and player evaluation. He played a big part in Toronto’s rapid rebuild.

So now, Hunter is free to pursue other opportunities outside of the Leafs organization. But according to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, he can’t join another team until after the NHL Entry Draft and free agency. That seems fair considering he has a lot of intel into Toronto’s off-season plans and because he’s departing with term left on his contract.

It’ll be interesting to see if Hunter decides to join forces with former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who officially became the Islanders president of hockey ops on Tuesday morning. After all, current Isles GM Garth Snow is on thin ice, so there could be an opening for a new general manager in the near future. Assuming they move on from Snow, Hunter could be in line to get the job if he decides to go there. If Snow sticks around, he could still join the team in a different capacity.

If things don’t work out with the Islanders, Hunter could always join another NHL team with a front-office opening. Getting a GM gig might be a little difficult considering there aren’t any more openings right now, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get a good gig elsewhere. The Montreal Canadiens have already made some changes to their management group by allowing Rick Dudley to move on to Carolina. Could Hunter be a fit there? It would be a heck of a statement for him to go from Toronto to Montreal.

Of course, if Hunter doesn’t like the NHL offers on the table, there’s also a possibility that he could return to the OHL with the London Knights. When the Leafs came calling in 2014, Hunter was serving as part owner and general manager of the Knights (he remains a co-owner of the team with his brother, Dale, and Basil McRae).

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: How Reaves became a playoff hero; Which non-playoff teams can make 2019 postseason?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The fact that the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final is good for all hockey fans and it’s a great story. (Vice Sports)

• No American team has sold for merchandise than the Golden Knights. Stores couldn’t keep the Western Conference Champion hats and t-shirts on the shelves. (Vegas Review-Journal)

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was furious that Caps forward Tom Wilson refused to fight Jamie Oleksiak after Wilson broke Zach Aston-Reese‘s jaw with a hit. “When Jamie challenged Wilson, he couldn’t run quick enough to get away from him.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Ryan Reaves has had to adjust his game to stick around in the NHL. Things haven’t always worked out for him, but he eventually became a hero for the Golden Knights in the third round. (ESPN)

• If the Golden Knights were to win the Stanley Cup, Vegas casinos would lose a ton of money. (MLive.com)

• Hockey Graphs looks at whether or not the NHL has become more competitive by analyzing advanced statistics between 2007-08 and 2017-18. (Hockey Graphs)

• The St. Louis Blues’ home rink will have a new name going into next season. For the next 15 years, the arena will be named “Enterprise Center”. (NHL.com/Blues)

• Down Goes Brown looks at which non-playoff teams could make it to the postseason next year and which ones could even get to the conference final. (Sportsnet)

• Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis has one year remaining on his current deal. What will his next contract look like? Based on some comparables, expect him to earn at least $5.5 million. (On the Forecheck)

• A young boy who suffered serious injuries in a school bus crash received an incredible gift from the New York Rangers that included a stick signed by Henrik Lundqvist. (NBC New York)

• The IIHF has voted to allow both the men’s and women’s Chinese hockey teams to take part in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (China.org)

• Have you ever dreamed of being an NHL scout? Well, take a look at what scouts look for when assessing potential talent. (The Hockey News)

• Anaheim’s farm team, the San Diego Gulls, have signed head coach Dallas Eakins to a multi-year contract extension. (San Diego Gulls)

• Despite struggling at the end of the season, Devan Dubnyk had another solid year for the Minnesota Wild in 2017-18. (Hockey Wilderness)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Lightning.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Lightning power play, Capitals penalty kill will make or break series

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The Tampa Bay Lightning went into Game 3 in Washington trailing 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final. Things were looking bleak, but they came through with a huge victory on the road.

The Lightning ended up winning Game 3 because of a strong performance from their power play. Not only did Tampa get a power-play tally from Steven Stamkos, they also got one from Nikita Kucherov. But this is nothing new for this team.

They’re now clicking at 30 percent on the man-advantage in the postseason, which is third in the league behind Boston and Washington. During the regular season, they were also third in that category behind Nashville and Winnipeg.

If you look back to their performance in Game 3, the Lightning showed exactly why they’re so difficult to defend when they have a five-on-four advantage. When the opposition is down a man, it’s nearly impossible to defend a one-timer from Stamkos and Kucherov.

No chance for Holtby on this blast from the captain:

“It’s no different than [Capitals forward Alex] Ovechkin, there are some guys that have their spots and they can score from them,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, per NHL.com. “Some nights the shots are getting blocked and the goalie is getting them, but the reason those two [Stamkos and Ovechkin] in particular are special players is because it doesn’t matter how you defend them, they can find a way. Niskanen was over there, Holtby was set, and he still found a way.”

For the Lightning to even up this series, they’ll probably have to get their power play to contribute like it did in the last game, which means that it’s the Capitals’ job to make sure they stay out of the penalty box. In this series, Tampa has shown that they can beat you on special teams. Through three games, they’re 5-for-12 on the man-advantage.

The Caps can try taking Stamkos’ one-timer away, but there’s a pretty good chance that someone else is going to be free to do something creative. So the best way for Washington to limit the damage is to stay as disciplined as they can.

“There’s no power play that works when they don’t get them,” Caps head coach Barry Trotz said, per NHL.com. “I thought some of our penalties (in Game 3) were unnecessary, and because of that, that put the game at risk.”

Trotz’s team has given the Lightning three, four and five power play opportunities in the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final. To push the Bolts to the brink of elimination, they’ll likely need to make sure that number shrinks in Game 4 or they could be headed back to Tampa Bay tied 2-2.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Mike Sullivan’s ‘thank you’ letter; Vegas is a hockey town

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Flyers prospect Alex Lyon has been terrific in the AHL playoffs (he made 94 saves in one game), which means he could be in line for a contract extension this summer. (NBC Sports Philly)

• Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan wrote a thank you letter to the fans in Pittsburgh. Even though they weren’t able to three-peat, he’s still proud of the way his players played. (NHL.com/Penguins)

• Former Winnipeg Jets forward Dale Hawerchuk coached Mark Scheifele in junior, so he’s thrilled about the way the 25-year-old is playing right now. (Canadian Press)

• Paul Maurice and Gerard Gallant have had some bumps in the road during their career, but they’ve both led their teams to impressive runs this postseason. (Associated Press)

• Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues is thankful that his parents took time to bring him to all of his youth hockey games and practices even though they don’t know much about the sport. (NHLPA)

• This Marc-Andre Fleury fan traveled 38 hours from Australia to see her favorite player suit up in Winnipeg and in Vegas. “It was greatly spur-of-the-moment,” Tina Girdler said. “I got caught up in the excitement. Vegas had their Cinderella story and Fleury’s at the centre of it. I couldn’t resist coming to watch my favourite goalie — the reason I am a goalie — in his prime.” (Winnipeg Sun)

• Even though they’ve been knocked out of the World Hockey Championship, there’s no denying that Danish hockey has improved. (Associated Press)

• There’s no denying that Vegas has become a hockey town. Everywhere you go, you can’t take five steps without seeing a Golden Knights logo. (TSN)

• Sportsnet’s Mark Spector remembers a time when he watched two minor-league teams play four-quarter hockey in Las Vegas in the late 90’s. (Sportsnet)

• The Montreal Canadiens have hired former NHL defenseman Joel Bouchard as the head coach of their AHL team in Laval. (NHL.com/Canadiens)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Golden Knights and Jets. 

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.