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Scott Taylor

Penguins to Repeat

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photos by James Carey Lauder and Jeff Miller

The Stanley Cup final begins on Monday night in Pittsburgh as the Nashville Predators face the defending champion Penguins in a series of firsts.

The Penguins can become the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships since the Detroit Red Wings pulled it 20 years ago in 1997 and 1998. In the Salary Cap Era, a time when the experts contend that there is parity in the NHL, a repeat by the Penguins would give the contrarians a point with which to argue.

For Nashville, it’s the first time the Predators franchise has reached the Final and the first time their only general manager, David Poile, has made it to a Final after more than 40 years in the hockey business.

It could be argued that just about every expert in the game called the Penguins (50-21-11). At the beginning of the playoffs, the defending champs seemed to have only one weakness – goaltending. Over the past two months, Matt Murray appears to have solved that problem.

Nashville is a big surprise. The Preds had only 94 points (41-29-12) this season and were the eighth seed in the West and No. 16 overall. This was a team that was lucky to be in the playoffs. However, they swept No. 1 Chicago in the Opening Round and then rode goaltender Pekka Rinne to series wins over St. Louis and Anaheim. Still, even though these teams split the two games they played this season, the Penguins finished 17 points ahead of the Predators.

The key for Nashville – besides Rinne, of course – has been the play of their defensive corps, led by PK Subban. If Subban pulls off 16 wins this spring it will certainly poke Montreal Canadiens fans in the eye. GM Poile sent 2016 Norris Trophy winner Shea Weber to the Canadiens for Subban last summer and despite some hiccups during the regular season, the 28-year-old All-Star from Toronto has been Conn Smythe Trophy-worthy this spring. 

Nashville Predators PK Subban

PK Subban – Nashville Predators

With the Championship series beginning Monday at 7 p.m. on NBC and CBC, here are the four keys to the Final:

The Stats

Nashville’s playoff power play is running at 14.9 percent (12th this spring) while the penalty kill is at 88.1 percent (fourth). With 2.94 goals per game, the Preds are first overall and with only 1.81 against (thanks to the brilliance of Rinne), the Preds are also first overall.

The Penguins power play is dangerous. At 23.6 per cent this spring, Pittsburgh is third overall. The penalty kill, at 84.9 per cent is ninth. Pittsburgh is third in goals scored at 2.89 and fifth in goals against at 2.21. If there is a Penguins weakness, it’s in goal.

The Injuries

The Predators will be without No. 1 centre Ryan Johansen. He will not play in the Final due to compartment syndrome in his left thigh. Kevin Fiala is also out for the remainder of the playoffs after sustaining a fractured femur in Game 1 of the second round. 

Mike Fisher is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. Craig Smith also remains day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, although he was on the ice for the pre-game warmup before to Game 6 of the West final. The Predators are optimistic both will be ready for Game 1 of the Final.

The Penguins were without Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, Tom Kuhnhackl and Chad Ruhwedel for most or all of the Eastern Conference Final. Schultz was the only one who returned to the lineup for Game 7. He scored a goal and had an assist on the OT winner.

Gifted but oft-injured defenseman Kris Letang has missed the entire playoff run with a neck injury and will not return.

Underdog vs. Favorite

There is no doubt that Pittsburgh will be the heavy favorite and for good reason. They are led by two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and have already been to the dance and won.

Nashville is a clear underdog. They’ve never been this far in the playoffs in their history so this is completely new territory. But they play in a great rink with a sensational atmosphere and they have an outstanding goaltender. Anything can happen.   

The Conn Smythe Candidates

For Nashville, it’s clearly goaltender Pekka Rinne. His .941 save percentage is the best of any starting goalie this post-season as is his 1.70 GAA. Also watch Filip Forsberg and of course, PK Subban. Forsberg’s 14 even-strength points are the most of any forward still playing. Subban is one of the most exciting players in the game.

For Pittsburgh, it’s simple: Sidney Crosby has come back from a concussion in Round 2 to lead the Penguins to back-to-back finals. Then there’s Jake Guentzel, the playoff goal-scoring leader (9) who is where he is today because coach Mike Sullivan put him on Crosby’s line. The Pens also have Evgeni Malkin who leads Pittsburgh in total playoff points and Phil Kessel, the team leader in shots on goal and chances.

Sidney Crosby – Pittsburgh Penguins

Players to Watch:

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel

Nashville: Pekka Rinne, Filip Forsberg, PK Subban

Season Series:

Even at 1-1.

Our Choice:

Pittsburgh in six games.

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Scott Taylor

Rinne the Star of 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

The number sits out there like a shining beacon on the hill: .951.

That’s Pekka Rinne’s NHL-leading playoff save percentage, the day after he led the Nashville Predators into the Western Conference final.

Of the goalies remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rinne is clearly the hottest goalie of the bunch. Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is next at .930 while Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins is third at .929. The Oilers’ Cam Talbot is fourth at .924 and then Ottawa’s Craig Anderson is a mediocre .909.

Frankly, the goaltending in the second round of this year’s post-season hasn’t been particularly sparkling. Heck, even Lundqvist gave up five in his last start. However, Rinne has been the exception.

After Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues took out the Minnesota Wild in the first round – and make no mistake, Allen was the ONLY reason St. Louis upset the Wild – it appeared as if the second round matchup between Nashville and the Blues would be a thriller. Two hot goaltenders and two underdog teams were going to make this series memorable.

Neither occurred. All thanks to Rinne.

After taking out Chicago in four straight and then beating the Blues in six, Rinne is now 8-2 in the post-season with a league best 1.37 goals against average and that eye-popping .951 save percentage. He’s playing his best hockey and the league’s best hockey at exactly the right time

“He gives us the confidence we need,” defenseman Roman Josi told NBCSN. “I think every game he’s been our best player. He’s so confident back there. He’s confident in making saves. He’s confident in passing the puck. And he’s been unbelievable for us.”

He is the reason the Predators will face either the Anaheim Ducks or Edmonton Oilers in the Western final.

And make no mistake, he had to be good to be better than Allen, the goaltender he beat in the second round. After all, despite all the media analysis you might have seen or read about the Blues’ first-round victory over Minnesota, the real reason – and the only reason – St. Louis won that series was the play of Allen.

“I don’t know how we could have been better,” said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau after Minnesota was removed in five games by the Blues. “Their goaltender stopped 40 shots a game. And it’s not like the shots didn’t come from everywhere. They came from in close, from between the circles and from the perimeter. We took shots from everywhere. Tip your cap. He was just better than we were.”

For those Minnesota fans and followers who still want to blame (a) Boudreau, (b) Parise and Suter, (c) Devan Dubnyk or (d) all the other players Chuck Fletcher ever brought to St. Paul, just check out these numbers: Jake Allen had a 1.47 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage in Round 1 against the Wild. That was monstrous.

After the first round against Minnesota, Allen was No. 2 in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Of course, he was well behind Pekka Rinne.

Rinne is a 6-foot-5, 34-year-old goaltender from Finland with 11 years of NHL experience. He has long been one of the two or three best netminders in the NHL. In 64 games with the Preds this season, he had a 2.42 goals against average and a .918 save percentage to go with a 31-19-9 record. It wasn’t his best season in the NHL, but it certainly wasn’t his worst.

Right now, however, he’s in the midst of his best playoff run ever. Period. He led the Preds when they swept Chicago in the first round and he made Jake Allen look like, well, Jake Allen again, in Round 2 against St. Louis. Now, he has a chance to take the Predators to a place the franchise has never been before – the Stanley Cup final.

Don’t be surprised if he pulls it off…

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Scott Taylor

Wild Set to Open Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photos by James Carey Lauder and Jeff Miller

New York Rangers professional scout Tom Thompson has been around the game of hockey for more than 40 years. By his own admission, he’s probably seen it all.

However, if there is one thing that still stokes his fire every season, it’s the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby (87) ,in NHL action at the MTS Centre,April 3 , 2014. JEFF MILLER PHOTO

“There is absolutely no doubt that the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is always the best,” said Thompson. “You have teams that finished high in the standings expecting to win against teams that were lucky to make the playoffs and now they have nothing to lose. The first round is always the toughest, the fastest, the closest and the most exciting. The first round is where the upsets happen. This is always hockey at its very best.”

And when we get started on Wednesday night, the 2017 Stanley Cup tournament should not disappoint. Especially here in Minnesota.

Devan Dubnyk (G) will be a key to the Wild’s playoff fortunes

The Wild have one of the best teams in the post-season tournament – despite that March swoon – and if they get the goaltending they need from Devan Dubnyk, should find themselves through to the second round and a date with their long-time nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks.

This should be a terrific two weeks. The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins are back. The three-time Stanley Cup-winning Jonathan Toews version of the Chicago Blackhawks are favored in the West. The Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals just might be ready to snare their first Cup. While the aging San Jose Sharks will take a solid veteran lineup into the biggest tournament of the year against the upstart – and exciting – Edmonton Oilers.

The 2017 Stanley Cup Tournament begins on Wednesday, April 15 with 16 teams. In two months, only one will be standing.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty fired up….

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NHL Playoffs: Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Series A: Washington Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points).

The Caps have a team that is built to win right now. Granted, the President’s Trophy champion doesn’t often win the Stanley Cup, but with the Capitals talent and Coach Barry Trotz, this could be the year.

Nicklas Backstrom led the Caps in scoring with 23 goals and 86 points while Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie each had 33 goals. The key for Washington, however, is goaltender Braden Holtby. He had a 2.07 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Goaltending is probably the most important element in the playoffs and the Caps might have the best goalie in the NHL.

Toronto has the feel good story of the season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and making the post-season for only the second time since 2004 under Coach Mike Babcock. Likely NHL Rookie of the Year, Auston Matthews, led the Leafs with 40 goals and 69 points while Matthews, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander and Mitch Marner all had at least 60 points, the only NHL team with five 60-point scorers.

However, the key for the Leafs will be goalie Frederik Anderson. He had a 2.67 goals against average and a .918 save percentage and he will have to be at least that good against Washington.

Players to Watch:

Washington: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby,

Toronto: Auston Matthews and Frederik Anderson

Season Series: Washington won 2-1.

Our Choice: Washington in five games.

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NHL Playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series B: Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points)

The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins didn’t have a great year but they sure had a good one. Led by captain Sidney Crosby who had 44 goals and 89 points, the Pens got 33 goals from Evgeni Malkin and 70 points from Phil Kessel. They also have a nice, young defense and a sound (if not spectacular) goaltender in Matt Murray.

Blue Jackets winger Matt Calvert carries the puck up ice...

Blue Jackets winger Matt Calvert carries the puck up ice…

Columbus is led by Coach of the Year lock, John Tortorella, who made the Blue Jackets one of the toughest teams in the league to play against. They only had one player with 60-plus points, 35-goal scorer Cam Atkinson but the key to their success was goalie Sergei Bobrovsky who went 41-17-0 with a 2.06 goals against average and a .931 save percentage.

Pittsburgh won the last meeting 4-1 on April 4 and that might be more indicative of this matchup than Columbus’ 7-1 win back on Dec. 22.

Players to Watch:

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray

Columbus: Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad and Sergei Bobrovsky

Season Series: Series tied 2-2.

Our Choice: Pittsburgh in six games.

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NHL Playoffs: Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series C: Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9, 103 points) vs. New York Rangers (48-28-6, 102 points)

The Rangers have one thing nobody else has: Henrik Lundqvist in goal. However, they also have scoring spread all over the lineup. Mats Zuccarello led the team with a mere 15 goals and 59 points, but they have three 20-goal scorers in Rick Nash (23), Chris Kreider (28) and J.T. Miller (22) and 10 players who scored at least 11. Ultimately, King Henrik is the key.

Of course, Montreal has Carey Price who went 37-20-0 with a 2.23 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. Max Pacioretty led the Habs with 35 goals and 67 points and had 10 players who scored at least 10 goals. These teams appear, on paper, to be evenly matched (103-102 points), but Montreal won all three meetings and won the last outing on March 4, 4-1 in New York.

Players to Watch:

New York: Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist

Montreal: Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber and Carey Price

Season Series: Montreal won 3-0.

Our Choice: Canadiens in six.

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NHL Playoffs: Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series D: Ottawa Senators (44-28-10, 98 points) vs. Boston Bruins (44-31-7, 95 points)

The Senators obviously match up well against the Bruins. Ottawa won all four meetings with Boston this season – 3-1 on Nov. 24, 4-2 on March 6, 3-2 on March 21 and 2-1 in a shootout on Apr. 6. The last two games were played in Boston recently.

The Senators don’t dominate the Bruins but they find ways to win. The Sens are led by defenseman Erik Karlsson (17 goals and 71 points) and forwards Mike Hoffman (26-35-61), Kyle Turris (27-28-55) and Mark Stone (22-32-54). Mike Condon will likely get most of the playoff work in goal.

Boston is a typical Bruins workhorse team and with two of their scrappy leaders – Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron – they can be gritty, chippy and tough. This club had two 30-goal scorers in Marchand (39) and David Pastrnak (34) and two more with 20 in David Krejci (23) and Patrice Bergeron (21). It’s a good club, but not a great club although, with a strong post-season from goalie Tuukka Rask, they could scare some people.

Players to Watch:

Ottawa: Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson

Boston: Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron

Season Series: Ottawa won 4-0.

Our Choice: Ottawa in six games.

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NHL Playoffs: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Series E: Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, 109 points) vs. Nashville Predators (41-29-12, 94 points)

When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they started their run by eliminating the Nashville Predators in six games. They’d certainly love to do it again and likely will. The Hawks got better as the season went along and by the time the final game was played, this was the best team in the West.

Led by veterans Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and goalie Corey Crawford, this is a professional hockey team that loves the post-season. This was Toews 10th season in the NHL. The 28-year-old captain has won three Cups with Chicago since 2010 and he’s favored to come out of the West again this year.

Nashville forward Colin Wilson

Nashville, a team that dealt Shea Weber to Montreal in order to acquire P.K. Subban, had a really solid year. The key to the Preds success is stopping the opposition from scoring and with goalie Pekka Rinne (2.42 GAA and .918 save percentage) between the pipes, there is always a good chance that will happen. Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg each had 31 goals and led the offense.

Players to Watch:

Nashville: P.K. Subban, Pekka Rinne and Viktor Arvidsson

Chicago: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith

Season Series: Blackhawks won 4-1.

Our Choice: Chicago in five games.

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NHL Playoffs: Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series F: Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, 106 points) vs. St. Louis Blues (46-29-7, 99 points)

This is a series between a team that finished second in the Central and third in the Central and yet the team with seven fewer points won the season series 3-2. St. Louis is led by a strong offense that includes veterans Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and David Perron, a crew that scored between 40 and 75 points.

Tarasenko had 39 goals while Berglund (23), Schwartz (19), Stastny (18) and Perron (18) all had at least 18. Alex Pietrangelo leads a strong defense.

Minnesota Wild winger Nino Neiderreiter

Nino!

The Wild, meanwhile, is the highest-scoring Western Conference team in the playoffs, but Minnesota was the class of the league in February and a complete bust in March. They did right the ship in April, but this is a team that really struggled for four weeks right before they clinched a playoff berth.

Minnesota is led by defenseman Ryan Sutter and four 20-goal scorers – Mikael Granlund (26), Eric Staal (28), Nino Neiderreiter (25) and Jason Zucker (22). However, the key is Devan Dubnyk in goal. If he’s good, the Wild can win the Stanley Cup. If he’s not, the Wild could lose in the first round.

Players to Watch:

St. Louis: Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and Alexander Steen

Minnesota: Devan Dubnyk, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Suter

Season Series: St. Louis won 3-2.

Our Choice: Minnesota in six games.

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NHL Playoffs: Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series G: Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13, 105 points) vs. Calgary Flames (45-33-4, 94 points)

These two teams finished 11 points apart in the standings and while Anaheim won four of the five games between the two clubs, a couple of the outcomes were close and Calgary’s only win, back on Dec. 4, was 8-3. Still, the The Ducks have been superior all year and won the last two meetings on April 2 and April 4, by 4-3 (in Calgary) and 3-1 (in Anaheim) scores.

The Flames aggressive forecheck did not stop the Ducks from scoring this season (at least three goals in every game) and in all five meetings, the Flames goaltending was suspect. If Calgary expects to win this series, it will have to find a way to shut down Ryan Getzlaf, Richard Rakell, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry and that might be easier said than done.

For Calgary, the star in Johnny Gaudreau, who had 18 goals and a team-high 61 points. Sean Monahan (2&) and Mikael Backlund (22) were the big goal scorers. Tough guy Micheal Ferland (15 goals and 25 points) had a solid year offensively and his grit will be a key in the post-season.

Goalie Brian Elliott, 2.55 goals against average and .910 save percentage, will have to be good. Rakell led Anaheim is scoring with 33 goals while Getzlaf led in scoring with 73 points. Jakob Silfverberg (23), Kesler (22) and Perry (19) were also big offensive threats. With two No. 1 goalies – John Gibson and Jonathen Bernier – the Ducks have lots of talent between the pipes. This series is Anaheim’s to lose.

Players to Watch:

Anaheim: Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Richard Rakell and Ryan Getzlaf

Calgary: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland 

Season Series: Ducks won 4-1.

Our Choice: Anaheim in five games.

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