Tag Archives: Mattias Ekholm

December 8 – Day 65 – James Neal loves gold

Welcome to your favorite day of the work week: Friday. Time to settle in for a weekend of online Christmas shopping while watching hockey.

There’s a small, but solid, selection of five games to watch this evening, starting with two (Columbus at New Jersey and the New York Rangers at Washington [NHLN/SN/TVAS]) at 7 p.m., followed by Vegas at Nashville at 8 p.m. and Buffalo at Chicago half an hour later. Finally, this evening’s nightcap, Minnesota at Anaheim (SN1), drops the puck at 10 p.m. to close the night out. All times Eastern.

I had two of these games circled on my calendar at the start of the season…

  • New York at Washington: Not only is this a rivalry game in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, but it’s also F Paul Carey and D Kevin Shattenkirk‘s first trip back to the capital since signing with the Blueshirts this offseason.
  • Vegas at Nashville: Welcome back to Music City, W James Neal!

…but I’m also very interested in Columbus and Jersey’s rematch of a game that happened only three days ago.

Here’s what we’ll do: if you want a preview of the Jackets-Devils game, go here (you should also probably read the recap of that game here). Otherwise, we’re going to feature a different game instead.

 

 

 

We haven’t featured either of these clubs yet this December, and there’s no time like the present.

The Golden Knights enter this game with a solid 17-9-1 record that is good enough for second place in the Pacific Division. Much of that success has been due to their imposing offense, which has managed a Western Conference-leading 3.44 goals-per-game.

There are few on the Knights’ roster that has had a bigger part of those goals than Neal, whose 21 points-per-game are tied for third-most on the squad. Of those 21 points, 13 of them have been goals – a total that is only one short of C William Karlsson‘s team-leading 14 mark.

What makes Neal a surprise is that Head Coach Gerard Gallant is getting even more than he expected when the Knights drafted him out of Nashville. For his career, he’s managed only .72 points per game, of which he’s directly produced .38 goals per game.  Assuming he plays a full 82-game season, that would translate into 31-28-59 totals, well above his 23-18-41 marks from last season.

This season, Neal is on pace for 39-25-64 totals, which would go down as his best season since his 40-41-81 effort in 2011-’12 with the Penguins.

Trying to slow Neal and co. down this evening are the 18-7-3 Predators, who are also second place in their division. They’ve found their success by playing some solid defense.

Of course, it’s hard to fail with 16-4-2 G Pekka Rinne as your goaltender. He’s managed a solid .92 save percentage and a 2.38 GAA to rank sixth-best in both statistics among all goaltenders with at least eight starts.

While I wouldn’t exactly say the Predators’ defense puts a major effort towards keeping pucks off Rinne (Nashville allows a seventh-worst 32.57 shots against per game), their strength is truly shown on the offensive end. Defensemen Mattias Ekholm (6-12-18 totals), Roman Josi (6-13-19) and P.K. Subban (4-14-18) are all among the league’s top 19 blueliners in points, and Nashville’s top pair of Ekholm and Josi are both in the top 10 in goals scored by defensemen.

With strength squaring off against strength, this game will likely come down to which team wins the battle in Nashville’s offensive/Vegas’ defensive end. Considering the Preds’ offense, which ranks eighth in the league (3.17 goals-per-game), is going against the 11th-worst defense (3.11 goals against-per-game), I’m leaning towards the hosts taking this contest.


Though the New York Islanders were able to level the game after trailing by two goals with five minutes remaining to force overtime, the Pittsburgh Penguins held on to win 4-3 at PPG Paints Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Much of this game’s action took place in the third period, but it was set up by the two goals that were struck in the opening two frames. F Jake Guentzel (D Kris Letang and F Evgeni Malkin) scored a power play tip-in with 7:43 remaining in the first period, followed by RW Jordan Eberle (D Ryan Pulock and D Nick Leddy) burying a wrist shot at the 5:53 mark of the second to level the game at one-all.

Just like the first period belonged to Pittsburgh and the second to New York, the first half of the third period belonged to the Pens while the Isles took the second half.

RW Phil Kessel (Letang and C Sidney Crosby) got the frame started with a power play snap shot at the 7:29 mark to return a one-goal lead to the Pens, followed 32 seconds later by Second Star of the Game C Riley Sheahan (LW Carl Hagelin) scoring his second goal of the season.

Then it was New York’s turn to play. Third Star C Mathew Barzal (D Scott Mayfield and C Casey Cizikas) started the Isles’ comeback with 4:53 remaining in regulation by burying a wrister, but it was F Brock Nelson‘s (LW Andrew Ladd and D Thomas Hickey) wrister with 70 seconds left on the clock that forced three-on-three overtime.

Confidence was certainly on the Islanders’ side at the end of regulation, but the short break before overtime allowed Head Coach Mike Sullivan an opportunity to regroup his troops. Whatever pep talk he gave obviously worked, because First Star D Matt Hunwick (W Bryan Rust) was able to end the game at the 1:29 mark with a gritty wrister.

There was nothing sexy about Hunwick’s goal, but it was certainly a nice reward for doing some dirty work in the slot. The defenseman was the one to enter the offensive zone with the puck, but he handed possession off to Rust once he was across the blue line. Once the [position] reached G Jaroslav Halak‘s goal, he tried to drag the puck across the crease for a backhander, but it was stopped by a combination of pads and defensive sticks.

Since Halak was unable to cover up the puck, it trickled towards Hunwick – who had been camping out waiting for such an opportunity – and before the netminder could react, the defenseman had tapped his wrister past Halak’s right skate and into the net.

G Tristan Jarry earned the victory after saving 23-of-26 shots faced (.885 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Halak, who saved 28-of-32 (.875).

For the first time this month, the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have won consecutive games. As such, they now own a 37-22-6 record that is 16 points superior to that of the visitors.

November 28 – Day 55 – Welcome to Smashville

If you’re a hockey fan and don’t look forward to Tuesdays, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. This is one of the busiest and most exciting days of the week!

The final Tuesday of November is no exception, as the NHL as scheduled 10 games to take place today. Like it usually does on a weeknight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with five contests (Tampa Bay at Buffalo, Vancouver at the New York Islanders, Florida at the New York Rangers [TVAS], San Jose at Philadelphia and Carolina at Columbus), trailed half an hour later by Los Angeles at Detroit. Chicago at Nashville (NBCSN) drops the puck at 8 p.m., with two more tilts (Toronto at Calgary and Arizona at Edmonton) in tow an hour after. Finally, tonight’s nightcap finds its start at 10 p.m. when Dallas visits Vegas (SN1). All times Eastern.

Like every busy day, I have already circled a few games on my personal calendar (it’s actually an Excel spreadsheet, if we want to get really technical).

  • Chicago at Nashville: This rematch of a Western Quarterfinal has already occurred twice this season, but it’s yielded two stellar games.
  • Dallas at Vegas: D Marc Methot was a Vegas Golden Knight for five days this offseason before being traded to Dallas. But what a Knight he was!

Since the Chicago-Nashville series has already yielded two stellar games this season, I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect a third.

 

Somehow, 14-6-3 Nashville having only a four-point advantage over the 12-8-3 Blackhawks in the Central Division still undersells how competitive the games between these teams have been.

As hinted at before, these clubs are already well into their season series, having already played two of their four games this year. Game 1 at the United Center went the way of Chicago thanks to an overtime goal by W Brandon Saad, but home ice didn’t work in the Blackhawks’ favor 13 days later when the Predators beat them 2-1 on G Pekka Rinne‘s almost-perfect night. Those results mean Nashville has a 1-0-1 advantage against the Hawks so far this year.

Exactly one month has passed since the Predators made their second trip to the Windy City, but not much has changed in either team’s style. Nashville still plays stellar defense backed by Rinne – though the Preds’ offense has climbed to 11th-best in the NHL – while the Hawks continue to rely on the incredible play of G Corey Crawford to find wins.

Let’s jump into that for a minute, starting with tonight’s hosts, who currently occupy third place in the Central Division.

Averaging only 31.3 shots against-per-game to rank 11th-best in the NHL, the Predators play an above average defense that isn’t enough to write home about.

That being said, above-average is all Head Coach Peter Laviolette really needs when he has 13-3-2 Rinne in goal. It seems the Finn has finally bucked the trend of the past five seasons where he alternated yearly between success and misery, as he has followed up last season’s .918 save percentage and 2.42 GAA with superior .926 and 2.31 marks this campaign. Under Rinne’s leadership, the Predators have allowed only 2.78 goals against-per-game to rank ninth-best in the NHL.

Knowing Rinne can effectively dominate the defensive end on his own means the Preds’ blueliners can turn their attention to contributing on the offensive end. As such, defensemen Mattias Ekholm (6-9-15 totals), Roman Josi (5-10-15) and P.K. Subban (4-14-18) have all earned at least 15 points to rank among Nashville’s top-six point-earners. Mix in the incredible F Filip Forsberg (11-13-24 totals), and you have an offense that averages an 11th-best 3.09 goals-per-game.

No discussion about the Preds’ offense is complete without mentioning their special teams, as Nashville is home to the third-best power play in the NHL and best in the Western Conference. Of the players listed above, Forsberg and Subban are the brightest when the Predators have the man-advantage as both have at least nine power play points. The forward deserves special recognition for his seven power play goals, as he’s tied with the likes of C Sean Monahan, F T.J. Oshie and C Steven Stamkos for most in the NHL.

Facing the tall task of taking down a very complete team are the Blackhawks, who could use two points to hold off three teams trying to move into the top wild card position Chicago currently occupies.

When Chicago is at the top of its game, it’s the toughest team to score against in the division, as the Hawks allow only 2.61 goals against-per-game to rank fourth-best in the NHL. A major reason for that success has been the brilliant play of 11-7-1 Crawford, who has managed a .933 save percentage and 2.21 GAA (both second-best among goaltenders with at least 18 starts) behind a defense that allows a fourth-worst 34.1 shots against-per-game.

Unfortunately for Chicago, it seems unlikely that Crawford will see the ice tonight, as he played to 7-2 victory against the Anaheim Ducks last night at the United Center. Instead, the start will probably go to 1-1-2 G Anton Forsberg, who has earned only a .904 save percentage and 3.81 GAA.

I was surprised to see Crawford given last night’s start, considering the injury-riddled Ducks sport an offense vastly inferior to Nashville’s. Forsberg will need to put up a performance similar to his 40-for-42 (.952 save percentage) showing against the Oilers on October 19 to give the Hawks a chance in this game.

Since the odds of that aren’t exactly likely, the onus falls on Chicago’s eighth-ranked offense to find a way to earn a victory.

Usually this is when most would start talking about F Patrick Kane and C Jonathan Toews – and with good reason. Kane has managed 9-16-25 totals to lead the team, followed by Toews’ 6-10-16 effort for third-most points on the team.

However, it would be highly irresponsible to not highlight rookie F Alex DeBrincat. Having yet to celebrate his 20th birthday, DeBrincat has earned the second-most points for the Blackhawks this season with his 10-7-17 totals and is coming off the game of his life. Yesterday against Anaheim, the youngster had a four-point night that included the first hat trick of his career. Whether or not he can duplicate at least half of that effort tonight could determine the result of this contest.

If Vegas (the bettors, not the Golden Knights) is right, the Predators should be in line for a win tonight, as they’re favored at a -160 money line by most bookies. I’m siding with the bookies on this one since I believe Head Coach Joel Quenneville made a mistake in playing Crawford last night against the Ducks. The Predators’ offense should feast on A. Forsberg tonight.


In a game chock-full of momentum swings, the Pittsburgh Penguins emerged from overtime at PPG Paints Arena victorious over the Philadelphia Flyers 5-4 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

All in all, the game started calmly enough with only one goal struck in the first period. First Star of the Game F Jake Guentzel (D Justin Schultz and G Matthew Murray) is the guilty party, as his snap shot with 3:57 remaining before the first intermission gave Pittsburgh the lead.

It was in the second period when all heck broke loose, which played right into the hands of the Flyers. For starters, both D Brian Dumoulin and D Olli Maatta earned seats in the penalty box to allow D Shayne Gostisbehere (F Nolan Patrick and F Claude Giroux) to score a five-on-three power play slap shot 3:40 into the frame. Philadelphia then took the lead with 4:55 remaining in the second period courtesy of a F Travis Konecny (D Brandon Manning and Third Star W Michael Raffl) tip-in.

The next major play took place only 34 seconds after Konecny’s goal, but it won’t show up on the score sheet. RW Jakub Voracek blew an edge and crashed into Murray with, according to Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his skates directed towards the netminder’s midsection. Whatever the injury was, it forced G Tristan Jarry to enter the game, who proceed to allow C Sean Couturier (D Ivan Provorov and Giroux) to set the score at 3-1 with 32 seconds remaining before the second intermission.

It seems power play goals are the way to steal momentum, because that’s exactly how RW Patric Hornqvist (Guentzel and Second Star C Sidney Crosby) pulled Pittsburgh back within a goal 67 seconds into the third period. The Penguins completed their comeback 39 seconds later courtesy of a W Bryan Rust wrist shot.

Courtesy of an unassisted backhanded shot by Raffl, Philly reclaimed a one-goal lead with 3:41 remaining in regulation to put the pressure on the hosts, but the Pens were up to the task. Guentzel (Schultz and Crosby) leveled the game at four-all with 64 seconds remaining before the final horn to force three-on-three overtime.

The overtime period lasted only 1:48 before Crosby (D Kris Letang and RW Phil Kessel) top-shelfed a redirection to win the game. Following Kessel returning the puck to the point while the Penguins were still on a four-on-three power play, Letang blasted a clapper intentionally wide of the goal to Crosby, who was waiting near the right post, at the same time the door opened to allow Voracek back onto the ice. The captain angled his stick just right to elevate the shot over G Brian Elliott and into the top of the netting.

Jarry earned the victory after saving eight-of-10 shots faced (.8 save percentage) in place of Murray, who saved 20-of-22 (.909) before exiting the game. Elliott, DtFR’s honorary Fourth Star, takes the overtime loss after saving 47-of-52 (.904).

Don’t all look at once, but home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a three-game winning streak. That elevates the hosts’ record to 30-19-6, which is 11 points better than the visitors’.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 7

Player of the Week: William Karlsson

The kid the Jackets bribed Vegas to take in the expansion draft is making Jarmo Kekalainen and John Davidson sweat, and CBJ fans like myself weep.

Karlsson’s 13 goals in 22 games this season already far surpass his previous best effort of 9 in 81 games with Columbus 2 years ago, and he is only 3 points off of a career high of 25 last year with the Jackets. Those eye-catching stats are due in large part to his current scorching stretch of 5 consecutive multi-point games (and 6 multi-point games in his last 7 contests), as the young Swede has really found his offensive game in an increased role with the expansion Golden Knights.

This week’s 3-game stretch saw ‘Wild Bill’ tally 4 goals and 6 points, including just his 2nd power play goal of the year (Karlsson has as many shorthanded tallies as he does PP markers), and he’s a major reason that Vegas is riding a 5-game winning streak and have found themselves suddenly propelled to 4th place in the entire league.

Team of the Week: New York Islanders

…what? Oh, right, sorry, I was still watching that John Tavares setup on Josh Bailey‘s OT goal.

A pair of exciting games capped with OT wins against the Flyers and a 2-1 victory over the Senators took the suddenly-streaking Islanders to a 3-0-0 week and 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. The Isles are starting to show signs of the balanced attack I hinted at in the season preview I wrote a few months ago, with 14 different players tallying at least 1 point this week, led by Josh Bailey’s 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists). Bailey’s lone goal was an overtime game-winner, which was made possible by John Tavares absolutely ruining Sean Couturier‘s reputation as a defensive stud with the prettiest bit of 1-on-1 puck protection you’re likely to see by anyone not named Pavel Datsyuk.

Questions loom over the legitimacy of the Isles as contenders, but for now they’re as hot as their arena is terrible.

Game of the Week: Nashville Predators 3 @ Carolina Hurricanes 4 (SO), Sunday November 26, 2017

This week had a helluva lot of potential choices for this award, but I’m giving the nod to Preds/Canes on the basis that it’s not a traditional matchup that you’d expect to see produce a fantastic game, but that’s exactly what it did.

Two teams that don’t see much of each other certainly didn’t play like strange bedfellows, with a combined 71 hits. Tack on 71 shots for good measure, and you’ve got all the makings of a spectacular Sunday matinee.

Josh Jooris would kick things off just 3:37 into the 1st period, receiving a stretch pass from Marcus Kruger and using his speed to create just enough separation from Mattias Ekholm (boo for my fantasy team) to sneak a backhander through the legs of Juuse Saros that would just squeak across the goal line to give the Canes the early lead. Both netminders were extremely solid for the bulk of the first (and the entire game for that matter), but with just over 4 minutes remaining Ekholm (yay for my fantasy team) would find Viktor Arvidsson with a stretch pass of his own, and Arvy would go to work from there. Gliding across the blueline on the left wing side, Arvidsson gave Noah Hanifin the old howdoyado with a gorgeous toe-drag, before collecting the puck on his forehand and burying a quick wrister bar-down over the glove of Scott Darling to knot the game at 1.

The first half of the 2nd period saw a goaltending duel, before finally just past the 10 minute mark Ekholm (yay for my fantasy team) would blast home a power play goal to give the Preds their first lead of the game. But just 1:04 later Victor Rask would collect a bouncing puck at the side of the Nashville net and bury the equalizer.

The two netminders again duked it out until Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams would collect the rebound of Mr. Jersey Number 7 Derek Ryan and give the Canes the lead once again at 5:49 of the 3rd period on a power play goal. Then just over 5 minutes later it would be Craig Smith once again tying the game, capitalizing on a netmouth scramble after a hectic odd-man rush and tallying the goal that would eventually send the game to extra time.

A relatively tame 3-on-3 period was highlighted by a heroic penalty kill shot block by Joakim Nordstrom on P.K. Subban, but the game was eventually settled in the shootout by a pair of Finns, as Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen would both score on countryman Saros to send the Raleigh crowd home happy.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Hockey Fights Cancer month continues to destroy everyone’s ability to be negative, as this week we saw Brian Boyle score the night the Devils had their HFC promotional game, as well as Alex Ovechkin tripling the wish of cancer survivor and new best friend Alex Luey, who asked for a goal from his buddy and was rewarded with 3.

Carey Price returned to the Montreal lineup, and promptly reminded the Sabres that they’re still worse than the Habs, with a 36-save blanking in a 3-0 win. Oh, and in case you thought you were done reading this article through tear-blurried eyes, he did so on a night where he was joined for the anthems by 11-year-old Charlotte Richard, a cancer patient who was attending her first ever Canadiens game and meeting her hero in the process. Break the tissues back out, no shame in it.

In a complete 180 from heartwarming stories like those, the Anaheim Ducks posted (then promptly deleted and apologized for) a video of a naked Ryan Kesler strolling through their offices, apparently celebrating the NHL’s 100th birthday in his birthday suit. I’m not sure who’s idea this one was, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out they were no longer gainfully employed.

Apparently Andy Andreoff has never been on the internet, because he seemed to think challenging Kevin Bieksa to a fight was a solid strategy. Much like Radko Gudas, Andreoff waded in to the deep end without his water wings, and found himself on the receiving end of Bieksa’s 2nd superman punch KO of the season. Andy tried to pop right back to his feet and look tough, but we all saw those Bambi legs, bud. You’re not fooling us.

November 24 – Day 51 – Fastest guns in the West

While I’m sure yesterday’s break was enjoyed by hockey players and fans alike, I think I’m safe in assuming that we’ve been looking forward to resuming play today since the end of Wednesday’s games in Southern California.

Making up for yesterday’s lost time, the NHL has scheduled a whopping 14 games scheduled over the course of eight hours. The action starts at 1 p.m. when Pittsburgh visits Boston (NBC), followed three hours later by a trio of contests (Winnipeg at Anaheim, Colorado at Minnesota and the New York Islanders at Philadelphia [SN]). Tampa Bay at Washington (NHLN) drops the puck at 5 p.m. and San Jose at Vegas finishes up the matinee slate an hour after. The normal starting time of 7 p.m. brings with it a four-game set (Edmonton at Buffalo, Vancouver at New Jersey, Detroit at the New York Rangers and Ottawa at Columbus [RDS]), with Toronto at Carolina waiting half an hour before dropping the puck. Nashville visits St. Louis (TVAS) at 8 p.m., with tonight’s co-nightcaps – Los Angeles at Arizona and Calgary at Dallas – cleaning up the festivities 60 minutes later. All times Eastern.

Let’s see what games I had circled on my calendar…

  • Detroit at New York: Nothing gets me in the holiday spirit like a nasty, old-fashioned Original Six rivalry.
  • Toronto at Carolina: The man, the myth, the legend D Ron Hainsey is back in Raleigh for the first time since being shipped to Pittsburgh at last season’s trade deadline, taking on a Hurricanes team he played with for four seasons.
  • Nashville at St. Louis: If last year’s Western Semifinals matchup is any indicator, this game has a chance of getting nasty.
  • Calgary at Dallas: While this game should be exciting in and of itself, the real treat is happening pregame when RW Jere Lehtinen‘s 26 is retired to the American Airline Center’s rafters.

It’s been a while since we’ve featured either the Blues or Predators. What better way to kick start the second third of the season than a contest between two of the top three teams in the Western Conference?

 

For those that can’t remember all the way back to the last week of April and the first week of May, this was a physical playoff series between these two clubs. In six games, both squads combined to throw 365 total hits, or 60.8 hits-per-game. While I wouldn’t argue that it’s the reason the Predators were able to win the series 4-2, they did technically out-hit the Blues 184-181.

Of course, one of the major motives for the violence – beyond being Central Division rivals, of course – was W Kevin Fiala breaking his leg as a result of one of those hits, a check from D Robert Bortuzzo in Game 1 at Scottrade Center.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, given the extra motivation to avenge their fallen comrade, the Preds were able to claim the only road victory of the series in that game. Though the next five games never had goal-differentials of more than two goals (barring F Calle Jarnkrok‘s empty-netter with a minute remaining in Game 6), Nashville’s imposing home advantage at Bridgestone Arena was enough to earn it a ticket to the Western Conference Finals and, ultimately, the Stanley Cup Finals.

Big hits like those during last year’s playoff series usually imply an active and effective defense. While I have no doubt in the of this year’s blue line, the 13-6-2 Predators of the 2017-’18 season seem to have a much better handle of the game when they are controlling things offensively.

That has been made no more evident than during the three-game winning streak they’re currently riding, as the Predators’ 12 goals are the (t)second-most in the NHL since November 18. While that’s a problem in-and-of itself for the Blues, figuring out who is scoring the goals is another issue entirely.

During this three-game winning streak, the only staple in Nashville’s production has been D P.K. Subban, who has provided five assists since November 18 to lead the team in points. As for who he’s assisting, your guess is as good as 12-5-1 G Jake Allen‘s. 10 different skaters have scored goals in this trio of contests, with only D Mattias Ekholm and F Filip Forsberg scoring more than one.

If St. Louis is going to pick only one forward to stop tonight, they’d probably be best off eliminating Forsberg. Not only has he scored a team-high 11 goals on the season, but he’s also tacked on another dozen assists for a club-leading 23 points.

Unfortunately for the Notes, Forsberg is a tough man to keep under wraps, because he does most of his work while Nashville has the man-advantage. Seven of his goals and 12 of his points have come on the power play, and as such the Preds’ 25.3 percent success rate with the extra man is the third best in the NHL. With St. Louis managing a below-average penalty kill (its 78.6 percent kill rate is [t]11th-worst in the NHL) Forsberg could be well on his way to adding to his season totals tonight if F Brayden Schenn and F Vladimir Sobotka can’t stay out of the penalty box.

Of course, Forsberg and the Predators aren’t going to show up in St. Louis and simply be handed two points, as they are going up against a team that is riding a three-game winning streak of its own: the Western Conference-leading 16-5-1 Blues.

As you’d expect from a squad in their position in the table, it’s hard to find too many issues with the Blues game (ok, beyond the penalty kill). After all, they rank fifth best in the NHL in both goals-for (3.45 per game) and goals-against (2.64 per game) on the season.

That being said – and with no disrespect to Allen’s .909 save percentage and 2.74 GAA for the season – offense has been the name of the game during this little winning streak the Notes have going. In the past three games, the Blues have managed an impressive 16 goals that is (t)second-most in the league since November 16. In fact, considering most teams have played four games in that span, St. Louis’ 5.33 goals-per-game effort has actually been the best performance in the league for the second half of the month.

Now, before we go any further, it should probably be mentioned that two of the Blues’ last three games were played against a struggling 8-12-2 Oilers team that was never known for their defense even in last year’s return to the postseason. St. Louis won both games by a combined score of 12-4, but the biggest takeaways from those games (beyond four points, obviously) was the positive momentum, rhythm and confidence built by seeing what this team is truly capable of.

Whether we’re looking at just this three-game run or the entire season, there’s few names on the Blues’ offense that shine like Schenn and F Jaden Schwartz. While Schwartz has been truly spectacular on the season as a whole with his 11-19-30 totals (he’s on pace for 41 goals and 112 points), first-year Note Schenn has been stealing most of the headlines of late. In only his past three games, the former Flyer has earned 5-3-8 totals to lead the team and bolster his season marks to 10-20-30. Schenn is currently riding an eight-game point streak that includes seven goals.

Of course, this all ignores that RW Vladimir Tarasenko – the third member of St. Louis’ first line – is also on this team, the man who effectively carried the Blues’ entire offense on his back only a season ago with his 39-36-75 totals.

It’s the very fact that he’s not the lone goal provider that is making this Blues team so dangerous. With his linemates scoring like there’s no tomorrow, a potent second line of Sobotka, Paul Stastny and Alex Steen backing them up and a defensive corps that includes the likes of Joel Edmundson (6-2-8 totals), Colton Parayko (2-8-10) and Alex Pietrangelo (7-13-20), Tarasenko is able to settle into his original role as the Notes’ goal-sniper extraordinaire. Considering his 12.1 shooting percentage is (t)second-best in the league among players with at least 85 shots on goal, I’d say he’s gotten back into the swing of things rather nicely.

And if there’s one thing 12-3-2 G Pekka Rinne doesn’t want to see tonight, it’s Tarasenko lining up one of his deadly wrist shots with the option to pass to an equally potent forward. In addition to his dozen goals on the season, Tarasenko has also assisted on 14 other St. Louis tallies, making that top line one of the most intimidating in the conference, if not the entire league.

With two extremely talented offenses going at it, it would seem likely that the better defense should be able to come out on top after everything is all said and done. If I’m right in that prediction, it should be the Blues that see their winning streak continue, as their 2.64 goals against-per-game is lower than Nashville’s 2.9.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #79- Zone Time 101

Nick, Connor and Cap’n recap the Matt Duchene trade and pick a winnner(s). The crew also discussed how good the Tampa Bay Lightning are and how the Montreal Canadiens haven’t been smart with asset management in recent years and where they could go from here.

Listen to this week’s podcast on our Libsyn page (and/or on your favorite podcast listening app that snags our RSS Feed).

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

Nashville Predators 2017-’18 Season Preview

Nashville Predators

41-29-12, 94 points, fourth in the Central Division

Eliminated in the Stanley Cup Finals by Pittsburgh

Additions: C Nick Bonino, D Alexei Emelin, LW Scott Hartnell

Subtractions: D Matt Carle (retired), F Vernon Fiddler (retired), C Mike Fisher (retired), D Brad Hunt (signed with VGK), LW Mike Liambas (signed with ANH), G Marek Mazanec (signed with Slovan), W James Neal (drafted by VGK), F Colin Wilson (traded to COL)

Offseason Analysis: Let’s get this out of the way: yes, the Predators can make a second-straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

Oh, you’re expecting something more in-depth?

Usually this is where we talk signings and other roster moves, but I think the biggest focal point for Nashville has been a constant member of its squad since 2008, a player that’s been among the top-nine at his position (measured by save percentage and GAA) since starting regularly.

In 2012-’13, G Pekka Rinne posted a solid .91 save percentage for a 2.43 GAA, but followed up that performance a season later with .902 and 2.77 numbers. 2014-’15 was a return to form for the Finn, earning himself .923 and 2.18 marks, but ’15-’16 was another lapse in play (.908, 2.48).

That brings us to last year’s performance to earn Nashville’s first-ever Campbell Cup. 31-19-9 Rinne posted impressive .918 save percentage and 2.42 GAA efforts, the (t)seventh- and (t)ninth-best performances, respectively, among netminders with 50+ starts.

What’s alarming about this not-very-well-hidden pattern is we’re coming upon an even-numbered playoff year. Last season was undoubtedly a good performance, so is this recurrence a forecast for this campaign or can Rinne buck the trend?

The answer to that question lies in Nashville’s defense, and what a corps it has in Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and co. Not only is this defense more than capable of providing an offensive presence (Nashville tied San Jose with 181 points from defensemen last season, tops in the league), but they were also adept at limiting Rinne’s workload. He faced an average of 30.1 shots-per-game, tying for 13th-fewest in the NHL.

No discussion about Nashville’s defense is complete without acknowledging Ryan Ellis’ offseason knee surgery that has him sidelined until January. He plays a vital role on this defense, having posted 16-22-38 totals and a +17 rating last season to go with his team-leading 137 blocks and 37 takeaways (second-most among Predators defensemen).

Providing only .19 points-per-game during his six seasons in Montréal, Emelin is no replacement for Ellis’ scoring contributions, but he’ll hold his own blocking shots having rejected 127 last season. Besides, Emelin likes to make his presence known in other ways than scoring – specifically by providing a nasty physical defensive force.

Considering he’s in a place nicknamed “Smashville,” he’ll fit in beautifully.

Offensively, Nashville signed two-time Stanley Cup champion Bonino from Pittsburgh (Like I always say: “If you can’t beat ‘em, sign their players.”) and Hartnell to replace Fisher and Neal, respectively.

This is Hartnell’s second stint in Nashville after being its first-round pick in the 2000 draft and wearing gold through the 2006-’07 season. Posting only .47 points-per-game last season, 2016-’17 was a down year for the 16-year veteran, so his one-year deal is relatively low-risk, high-reward for a club with over $6 million in cap space – especially considering youngsters Pontus Aberg and Kevin Fiala exist.

Instead, I’m intrigued by Bonino’s four-year deal to be Nashville’s second line center. It seems to make sense statistically to play Bones (.46 points-per-game for his career) at the position instead of Calle Jarnkrok (.35 points-per-game), but Bonino found his success on the Pens’ third line.

The difference between playing on the second and third lines is far superior to that between the first and second. So really, the question is if Bones is top-six material.

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in his way, Bonino never had consistent opportunities to play on a second line and showcase his ability. I think he’s best suited for the third line, but maybe he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Offseason Grade: C+

Like students allowed to retake a test, this grade has the potential to improve after seeing the Preds’ final product. I will be the first to admit I’m wrong about Bonino’s second line abilities, but I want to see evidence that he is capable of playing the position. Beyond that, Nashville had very little it needed to improve. As long as they can successfully adjust to playing without Ellis – and then readjust when he returns – the sky should be the limit for this Predators squad.

2017 NHL Expansion Draft: Protected Lists

30 of the NHL’s 31 teams submitted their protected lists on Saturday by 5 p.m. ET. The protected lists were made public at 10:30 a.m. ET (originally scheduled for 10 a.m.) on Sunday. Additionally, the available lists of players to choose from were released.

The Vegas Golden Knights will now spend the next few days constructing their roster, with the full reveal set for Wednesday night during the NHL Awards Ceremony at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

To recap, here’s all of the protected players:

Anaheim Ducks

Forwards: Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, Antoine Vermette

Defensemen: Kevin Bieksa, Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm

Goaltender: John Gibson

Arizona Coyotes

Forwards: Nick Cousins, Anthony Duclair, Jordan Martinook, Tobias Rieder

Defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Connor Murphy, Luke Schenn

Goaltender: Chad Johnson

Boston Bruins

Forwards: David Backes, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Riley Nash, David Pastrnak, Ryan Spooner

Defensemen: Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller

Goaltender: Tuukka Rask

Buffalo Sabres

Forwards: Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Evander Kane, Johan Larsson, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo

Defensemen: Nathan Beaulieu, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Ristolainen

Goaltender: Robin Lehner

Calgary Flames

Forwards: Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett, Micheal Ferlund, Michael Frolik, Johnny Gaudreau, Curtis Lazar, Sean Monahan

Defensemen: T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton

Goaltender: Mike Smith

Carolina Hurricanes

Forwards: Phillip Di Giuseppe, Elias Lindholm, Brock McGinn, Victor Rask, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen

Defensemen: Trevor Carrick, Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy

Goaltender: Scott Darling

Chicago Blackhawks

Forwards: Artem Anisimov, Ryan Hartman, Marian Hossa, Tomas Jurco, Patrick Kane, Richard Panik, Jonathan Toews

Defensemen: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook

Goaltender: Corey Crawford

Colorado Avalanche

Forwards: Sven Andrighetto, Blake Comeau, Matt Duchene, Rocco Grimaldi, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Nieto

Defensemen: Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, Nikita Zadorov

Goaltender: Semyon Varlamov

Columbus Blue Jackets

Forwards: Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner, Brandon Saad, Alexander Wennberg

Defensemen: Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, David Savard

Goaltender: Sergei Bobrovsky

Dallas Stars

Forwards: Jamie Benn, Radek Faksa, Valeri Nichushkin, Brett Ritchie, Antoine Roussel, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza

Defensemen: Stephen Johns, John Klingberg, Esa Lindell

Goaltender: Ben Bishop

Detroit Red Wings

Forwards: Justin Abdelkader, Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, Frans Nielsen, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Henrik Zetterberg

Defensemen: Danny DeKeyser, Mike Green, Nick Jensen

Goaltender: Jimmy Howard

Edmonton Oilers

Forwards: Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu, Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Defensemen: Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera

Goaltender: Cam Talbot

Florida Panthers

Forwards: Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck

Defensemen: Aaron Ekblad, Alex Petrovic, Mark Pysyk, Keith Yandle

Goaltender: James Reimer

Los Angeles Kings

Forwards: Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli

Defensemen: Drew Doughty, Derek Forbort, Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin

Goaltender: Jonathan Quick

Minnesota Wild

Forwards: Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu, Nino Niederreiter, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Jason Zucker

Defensemen: Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter

Goaltender: Devan Dubnyk

Montreal Canadiens

Forwards: Paul Byron, Phillip Danault, Jonathan Drouin, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty, Andrew Shaw

Defensemen: Jordie Benn, Jeff Petry, Shea Weber

Goaltender: Carey Price

Nashville Predators

Forwards: Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Ryan Johansen

Defensemen: Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban

Goaltender: Pekka Rinne

New Jersey Devils

Forwards: Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac

Defensemen: Andy Greene, John Moore, Mirco Mueller, Damon Severson

Goaltender: Cory Schneider

New York Islanders

Forwards: Andrew Ladd, Anders Lee, John Tavares

Defensemen: Johnny Boychuk, Travis Hamonic, Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock

Goaltender: Thomas Greiss

New York Rangers

Forwards: Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello

Defensemen: Nick Holden, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal

Goaltender: Henrik Lundqvist

Ottawa Senators

Forwards: Derick Brassard, Ryan Dzingel, Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Zack Smith, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris

Defensemen: Cody Ceci, Erik Karlsson, Dion Phaneuf

Goaltender: Craig Anderson

Philadelphia Flyers

Forwards: Sean Couturier, Valtteri Filppula, Claude Giroux, Scott Laughton, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek

Defensemen: Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas, Brandon Manning

Goaltender: Anthony Stolarz

Pittsburgh Penguins

Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin

Defensemen: Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz

Goaltender: Matt Murray

San Jose Sharks

Forwards: Ryan Carpenter, Logan Couture, Jannik Hansen, Tomas Hertl, Melker Karlsson, Joe Pavelski, Chris Tierney

Defensemen: Justin Braun, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Goaltender: Martin Jones

St. Louis Blues

Forwards: Patrik Berglund, Ryan Reaves, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Sobotka, Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko

Defensemen: Jay Bouwmeester, Joel Edmundson, Alex Pietrangelo

Goaltender: Jake Allen

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forwards: Ryan Callahan, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos

Defensemen: Braydon Coburn, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman

Goaltender: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Toronto Maple Leafs

Forwards: Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Josh Leivo, Matt Martin, James van Riemsdyk

Defensemen: Connor Carrick, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly

Goaltender: Frederik Andersen

Vancouver Canucks

Forwards: Sven Baertschi, Loui Eriksson, Markus Granlund, Bo Horvat, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Brandon Sutter

Defensemen: Alexander Edler, Erik Gudbranson, Christopher Tanev

Goaltender: Jacob Markstrom

Washington Capitals

Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson

Defensemen: John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov

Goaltender: Braden Holtby

Winnipeg Jets

Forwards: Joel Armia, Andrew Copp, Bryan Little, Adam Lowry, Mathieu Perreault, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler

Defensemen: Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba

Goaltender: Connor Hellebuyck

Home ice continues to pay off; Pens a win away

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 5

 

After giving up its two-game advantage on the road, Pittsburgh stomped the Predators 6-0 at PPG Paints Arena Thursday to pull within a victory of hoisting its second-straight Stanley Cup.

Whether it was the friendly confines of the Steel City or the extra day of rest, everything went right for the Penguins. Pittsburgh’s most noticeable success was converting a quarter of its 24 shots on goal into tallies, especially when six different skaters scored the markers.

One of those proved especially important – and not only because it proved to be the game winning-goal. With a slap shot from the blue line, Justin Schultz (First Star of the Game Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist) revived the Penguins’ dormant power play only 91 seconds into the contest by scoring between Austin Watson and Pekka Rinne‘s legs.

The extra-man opportunity was a direct result of the Pens’ early offensive onslaught. Even though Rinne faced only two shots on goal before Schultz’ marker, the first 50 seconds of play all took place in Nashville’s defensive zone. That prolonged Penguins possession directly led to Ryan Ellis holding Crosby to stop play at the cost of a seat in the penalty box. 31 seconds later, the Pens found themselves with a lead.

That man-advantage goal proved to simply be the tip of the iceberg for the Penguins. Bryan Rust (Chris Kunitz and Trevor Daley) doubled Pittsburgh’s lead 5:12 after Schultz’ marker, and Evgeni Malkin (Second Star Phil Kessel and Third Star Ron Hainsey) took advantage of a four-on-four situation with 11 seconds before the first intermission to set the score at 3-0.

The cause of the four-on-four play was another chapter in the Crosby-P.K. Subban saga. With 1:32 remaining in the first period, both were officially charged with coincidental holding penalties when they fell to the ice behind Matthew Murray‘s net and – instead of getting up and rejoining play – continued their shenanigans.

First it was Crosby repeatedly shoving Subban’s head into the ice. Once the defenseman finally could separate himself, he did his best to repay the favor before play was stopped and they received early dismissal to their respective dressing rooms.

More than simply scoring pucks was involved in this effort. Aside from giving the puck away five times (due in large part to Smashville living up to its name and throwing 41 hits, including seven by Watson), the defense also played a major role in stopping a Predators club that was trailing for basically the entire game.

Led by Mattias Ekholm‘s four shots on goal, Nashville managed just as many shots on Murray as the Pens did against Rinne: 24. That number could have been significantly larger in favor of the Preds if not for the excellent play of the blue liners. Led by Schultz’ three rejections, the Pens blocked an impressive 16 shots to keep Murray’s workload relatively minimal.

Not that Murray needed much help. He saved all 24 shots he faced – including a few stops with his suspect glove – for his second shutout of the postseason. Pittsburgh has now won four games by shutout – two apiece by Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury – to double the effort of any other 2017 playoff team.

Murray’s solid play in net, especially in comparison to his performances in Nashville, was more than enough motivation for the Penguins to keep applying pressure offensively. After notching three goals in the opening frame to chase Rinne, Pittsburgh matched its effort in the second with tallies from Conor Sheary (Crosby and Jake Guentzel), Kessel (Olli Maatta and Crosby) and Hainsey (Malkin and Kessel) against Juuse Saros.

In particular, Sheary’s tally was important due to rookie Guentzel’s involvement in the play. With another secondary assist for his 21st point, the youngster has tied Dino Ciccarelli and Ville Leino for most playoff points by a rookie.

He’ll have at least one more opportunity to break the record and help his club hoist the Stanley Cup in Game 6 this Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. Just like all the others in this Finals series, that contest is scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern time and will be televised on NBC in the United States and CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.

Preds’ counterattack levels Cup Finals

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 4

 

After losing the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, Nashville has done exactly what it needed to do by beating the Penguins 4-1 at Bridgestone Arena in Game 4 to level the series at two games apiece.

Entering Monday’s match, the Predators had averaged 32.3 shots-on-goal per game in the Finals, a lofty number compared to the Pens’ 22.3 average.

Even though it didn’t quite reach that number Monday, three offerings proved extremely important for Nashville in the 15th minute of the first period. The first was an Austin Watson wrist shot fired on Matthew Murray‘s net from beyond the far face-off circle with 5:11 remaining in the frame. The netminder was able to make the stop, but he couldn’t contain the rebound.

That’s where Calle Jarnkrok (Craig Smith and Watson) comes into play only two seconds later. He and Smith both crashed Murray’s crease to collect the rebound. Smith was the first to the loose puck and bat the puck out of the air over the goalie’s left leg. Murray deflected that offering too, but he couldn’t stop the third: a Jarnkrok wrister from the near corner of the crease to give the Preds a 1-0 lead.

Mike Sullivan elected to challenge the play for goaltender interference, but Toronto correctly ruled that Smith’s follow-through, though it made obvious contact with Murray, did not occur before  before the puck had entered the net.

Beyond that marker, offense – specifically offensive possession – was at a premium in Game 4. Don’t let a 4-1 final score fool you, as both clubs managed only 26 and 24 shots, respectively, due in large part to the strong defensive efforts by both squads.

Pittsburgh preferred to keep Murray’s workload to a minimum by blocking shots before they reached his crease. In total, the Penguins blocked 18 Nashville attempts, including an impressive four rejections by Brian Dumoulin.

Meanwhile, the Predators played with a bit more finesse in front of First Star of the Game Pekka Rinne, preferring to force and capitalize on turnovers. Not only did Matt Irwin lead that charge with two of the Preds’ eight takeaways, Nashville was a bigger beneficiary of the Penguins’ sloppy handling. Pittsburgh gave the puck away 16 times, including a miserable four by Ron Hainsey.

Regardless of how either team decided to play, this type of game makes a club’s ability to counter-strike paramount to its success.

The first of those breakaway tallies was struck only 66 seconds after Jarnkrok had finished celebrating his second goal of the playoffs, courtesy of Sidney Crosby (Dumoulin).

Given the events late in Game 3 and their interactions over the first 15:57 of play, P.K. Subban was definitely under Crosby’s skin early in the contest. Anytime they came in close contact, Crosby made sure to give the defenseman an extra shove.

But being under Crosby’s skin does not mean he cannot score. After Dumoulin laced a blue line-to-blue line pass to him at the top of his offensive zone, Pittsburgh’s captain took advantage of his one-on-one matchup with Rinne to patiently wait until the netminder committed to a forehand deke. Crosby then pulled the puck across to his backhand side to bounce the puck off the far post and then off the netminder’s left skate to level the game.

The score read 1-1 for the remainder of the opening frame, but the counterattack theme continued in the second period. This time, both goaltenders were up to the task… at least at first glance.

First up was Rinne, who saved a breakaway wrister fired from the crease by Chris Kunitz at the 3:29 mark. That attempt was followed only 16 seconds later by Murray batting Third Star Frederick Gaudreau‘s wrap-around offering back towards center ice just before it crossed the goal line.

Or so it seemed.

None in the building noticed it, but someone in Toronto did. From approximately 770 miles away, the NHL stopped play almost a full minute later to force a review of Murray’s seemingly miracle save. Video showed that the puck did barely completely cross the red goal line before Murray sent it the other way, meaning the Predators earned a 2-1 lead. Ryan Ellis and Harry Zolnierczyk provided the assists on Gaudreau’s tie-breaking – and what proved to be game-winning – tally.

Yet another Predators breakaway opportunity formed with seven minutes remaining before the second intermission. It started in Nashville’s defensive zone along the far boards when Roman Josi forced the puck towards the blue line. Though Ian Cole tried to separate James Neal from the puck, the former Penguin forced his way past the defenseman to advance it into the neutral zone to Second Star Mike Fisher. Fisher’s adversary was Evgeni Malkin, who knocked the Predators’ captain to the ice – but not before he batted a puck towards Viktor Arvidsson. Arvidsson beat Justin Schultz to the pass, and in doing so set up a one-on-one matchup with Murray. Arvidsson took the opportunity to line up a wrister towards the far post to beat the goalie’s suspect glove.

Trailing by two goals in the final period, the Penguins managed the best offense they could muster in attempts of tying the game. Even then, their 10 shots were not enough to get past Rinne. To further tilt the tables in its favor, Pittsburgh pulled Murray with 3:31 remaining before the final horn. The Pens were rewarded for that decision only eight seconds later when Filip Forsberg (Mattias Ekholm and Subban) scored a wrister from his defensive face-off circle to set the 4-1 final score.

The Stanley Cup Finals, now a best-of-three series, will recommence following a 90-minute flight from the Music City to the City of Bridges. Game 5 is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern time at PPG Paints Arena and may be viewed on NBC in the United States and CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.

Preds’ power play perplexes Pens

2017 Stanley Cup Final – Game 3

 

After returning home to the friendlier environment of Bridgestone Arena, Nashville dominated the Penguins Saturday night with a 5-1 victory to pull within a game of leveling the Stanley Cup Finals.

One of the biggest story lines coming into Game 3 was which goaltender Peter Laviolette would play: usual starter Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros, who played the remaining 16:32 of Game 2. It should have been no surprise that Rinne maintained his position between the pipes, just as it was no surprise that the Penguins tried to test him early.

Though Pittsburgh fired only a half-dozen first period shots at Rinne, none were better than Jake Guentzel‘s (Ian Cole and Sidney Crosby) wrist shot 2:46 into the contest. The lone goal of the first period, he took advantage of Rinne being unable to contain the rebound off Cole’s slap shot from the near point and squeezed his five-hole attempt underneath the netminder for an early Pens lead.

With his 13th tally since April 12, Guenztel has surpassed Jeremy Roenick for second-most playoff markers by a rookie is only a goal short of tying Dino Ciccarelli‘s record for most all-time.

It was only Rinne’s second shot faced of the night and gave an early impression that he was still fighting the same demons he was in the Steel City. As it would turn out, he was more than deserving of his First Star of the Game honor.

Following the rough start to the evening, Rinne would save 26-straight Penguins shots to close the remaining 57:14 of play with an overall .964 save percentage.

But after allowing a goal early in the game, it does not matter how well a goalie performs if his offense cannot find the back of the opposition’s net.

Then again, who needs an offense when Nashville has such a productive defense?

With Justin Schultz in the penalty box for holding Harry Zolnierczyk at the 4:13 mark of the second period, Second Star Roman Josi (Calle Jarnkrok and Mattias Ekholm) fired a slap shot from the far face-off circle with 22 seconds remaining in the man advantage to level the game with the first of the game – but certainly not the last – to beat Matthew Murray‘s glove.

That power play goal, paired with the rejuvenated support from Nashville’s “Seventh Man,” proved to be exactly the spark the Preds needed. Only 42 seconds after Josi’s game-tying marker, Third Star Frederick Gaudreau (Austin Watson and Josi) found what proved to be the game-winner: a breakaway wrister that turned a defending Cole into a screen against his own netminder to beat him – once again – glove side.

The second period couldn’t end quickly enough for Pittsburgh, but it couldn’t get to the dressing room before getting officially reacquainted with an old friend. With 23 seconds remaining before the second intermission, former Penguin James Neal (Viktor Arvidsson and Josi) completed the Predators’ fantastic frame by banking an insurance wrister off the back of Murray’s glove and into the net.

Just as the night’s scoring began for the Predators, it would also find its conclusion on the power play. This time, Crosby (for boarding Ryan Ellis), Filip Forsberg (for cross checking Evgeni Malkin) and Malkin (for cross checking Forsberg) were all in their respective penalty boxes to set up a five-on-four opportunity for Nashville. Ekholm (Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons) waited only 27 seconds before ripping a slap shot top shelf over Murray’s stick shoulder.

Though Ekholm’s marker would prove to be the last yielded by Murray, the damage was more than done. He saved only 23-of-26 shots faced (.848 save percentage) for five goals allowed, but his most striking statistic is his performance against the power play.

Even though Murray faced only two shots while short a skater, both offerings found their way past him. The fact that the Penguins penalty kill allowed only two shots on three Predators power plays proves that it is Murray that needs to improve on this aspect of his game before Game 4.

Not all of Murray’s goals allowed were directly his fault though. The goaltender was able to stop the Preds’ first breakaway opportunity in the third period – an offering by Gaudreau 2:27 into the period – but he couldn’t save the second. After Chris Kunitz bounced the puck off Phil Kessel‘s skate to give it to Craig Smith at center ice, it was all the wing could do but attack Murray’s unreliable glove side with a wrister from between the face-off circles to set the score at 4-1 with 15:06 remaining.

Offensively for the Penguins, it should be very concerning to Mike Sullivan that his primary striking corps of Crosby, Kessel and Malkin managed only three shots on goal among them (all by Kessel). Though the story of Guentzel is exciting, it is these men that are expected to spearhead their club – not the rookie. If the Penguins cannot get this issue resolved, they could find the same fate awaiting them in Game 4.

If the Penguins did anything well, it was block shots. Though the Predators led the shots-on-goal statistic 33-28, that differential could have been much higher if not for Pittsburgh’s impressive 20 rejections. In particular, Olli Maatta stood out from the rest by leading his club with three blocks – a total matched in Game 3 only by Nashville’s Ellis.

Bridgestone Arena will come alive once again this Monday – country singers, catfish and all –  at 8 p.m. Eastern time. For those that don’t have tickets, you’re encouraged to tune your television to NBC if you reside in the United States or CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.