Scott Taylor

Blaine’s Hendricks Signs One-Year Deal with Jets

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

September 1, 2017
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A National Hockey League team located about seven hours by car north of the Twin Cities has decided that Minnesota hockey players make the best leaders.

In fact the three players considered to be the “leaders” of the Winnipeg Jets are Minnesotans – captain Blake Wheeler from Plymouth, defensive star Dustin Byfuglien from Roseau and now, highly-regarded penalty killer Matt Hendricks from Blaine.

This week, the Jets agreed to terms with the 36-year-old veteran Hendricks on a one-year deal worth $700,000.

Hendricks Tweeted: “Very happy to be joining the @NHL Jets organization. Can’t wait to meet the guys and get the season off to a good start!”

Hendricks spent the last four seasons with the Edmonton Oilers. Last year, he had four goals and seven points in 42 games and for the second straight season he led the Oilers in the faceoff circle, winning 132-of-232 draws (56.9 per cent).

photo courtesy: Edmonton Oilers

Hendricks, a left-handed shooting centerman, has also been a staple on the Oilers penalty kill. In fact, he is among the Top 25 NHL forwards in shorthanded time-on-ice during the last five seasons.

He has played 521 career NHL games with Colorado, Washington, Nashville, and Edmonton and has totaled 49 goals and 100 points with 664 penalty minutes and a career faceoff percentage of 53.9 per cent.

Hendricks, who is 6-foot, 205 pounds, was drafted by the Predators in the fifth round (131st overall) in the 2000 NHL Draft. He’s the son of an American Marine and a Swedish mother. He and his wife Kimberly have five-year-old twins, son Gunnar and daughter Lennon.

He represented the United States at the World Championships in 2015.

He has been called, “a great team player,” and “an outstanding leader.” In Winnipeg, that would describe all three Minnesota players.

 

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Scott Taylor

NHL Expansion Draft: The Knights Are Now on the Clock

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

The Las Vegas Draft

The Las Vegas Knights are now on the clock. All 30 National Hockey League teams have released their protected lists and available players for the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and the Knights have until 12 Noon (CST) on Wednesday to make their selections.

There are some good players available, depending on their contract status, such as goalies Petr Mrazek and Marc-Andre Fleury, defensemen Josh Manson, Marco Scandella, Matt Dumba, Jason Demers, Mark Methot, Sami Vatanen and Kevin Shattenkirk and forwards T.J. Oshie, Marcus Kruger, Eric Staal, David Perron, Carl Hagelin, Dustin Brown, Ryan Strome, Marian Gaborik, Vladimir Sobotka, Joe Thornton, Darren Helm and James Neal.

Las Vegas will have plenty of decisions to make. Take a UFA and try to sign him (like 30-year-old Oshie)? Wait until after the draft and take a run at a few UFAs? Claim vets, young unproven players or a combination? Grab some old Wheat Kings like Eric Fehr and Matt Calvert (after all, Kelly McCrimmon is assistant GM)?

The Wild have left Matt Dumba, Erik Haula, Marco Scandella and Eric Staal unprotected. I would not be surprised if one of that group was the player selected by Las Vegas and with McCrimmon’s knowledge of the Western Hockey League, I’d place a large bet that it will be Dumba.

Minnesota Wild Defenseman Matthew Dumba

Matt Dumba is on the Las Vegas Knights “Available List”…

The Knights must take one player from each team and a minimum of 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders.

The selections will be announced at the NHL Awards Ceremony on Thursday night in Las Vegas.

 

The following linked-lists

 courtesy of the National Hockey League:

Anaheim Ducks Arizona Coyotes Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres Calgary Flames Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks Colorado Avalanche Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars Detroit Red Wings Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers Los Angeles Kings Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens Nashville Predators New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders New York Rangers Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers Pittsburgh Penguins San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues Tampa Bay Lightning Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks Washington Capitals Winnipeg Jets

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Scott Taylor

Two Late Goals Give Penguins the Stanley Cup

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Pens Win Cup

The Nashville Predators did not score a goal in the final 123 minutes and 23 seconds of the Stanley Cup final.

And that’s why the Pittsburgh Penguins are the 2017 Stanley Cup champions.

Thanks to two late goals – a bit of a fluke by Patric Hornqvist and an empty netter by the speedy Carl Hagelin – the Penguins won their second straight Cup with a 2-0 win over the Predators in Game 6 of the Championship Final.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby also won his second straight individual award – the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the playoff MVP.

Pittsburgh Penguins hoist the Stanley Cup for the second straight year

Pittsburgh wins their second straight Stanley Cup

It was the first time since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings that any team had won two straight Stanley Cups.

“This was our goal at the start of the year, we knew it hadn’t been done in a long time,” Crosby told NBC Sports. “To be able to accomplish it is a great feeling.

“We knew it was going to be tough all year. We just tried to keep with it. We had a lot of injuries and things like that, so we just kept finding ways. That’s really what we did all season, all playoffs, and it’s great to be able to do it.”

On Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena in Smashville, the high-spirited, and yes, magnificent, home crowd couldn’t coax their heroes into a goal. The Predators did not score a goal since Filip Forsberg scored his only goal of the final at the 16:37 mark of the third period of Game 4.

In Game 5, Matt Murray made 24 saves to get the 6-0 shutout in Pittsburgh and then, in Game 6 on Sunday, made 27 saves to get the 2-0 shutout in Nashville. In a series in which every expert claimed that the only way Nashville could win was if their netminder, Pekka Rinne, was significantly better than Murray, the Pittsburgh puck-stopper was clearly the best.

The goals on Sunday weren’t pretty. Of course, they didn’t have to be. The winner was a shot from behind the Nashville net, off Rinne’s back and up into the twine with 1:35 left in regulation time. The winner was a result of Hagelin’s under-rated speed as he won a race to a loose puck and almost skated that puck right through the net.

“It’s going to be the biggest goal I’m ever going to score,” Hornqvist said during a postgame interview on CBC-TV. “I just got lucky to score the first goal.”

“This was a team effort from the first shift to the last shift. This was a battle through the whole series. They played really well Nashville, but we came up big when we needed it.”

It was an amazing scene in Nashville after Hornqvist scored the winner. After all, it was the Predators who made Hornqvist the very last pick, No. 230, in the 2005 NHL Draft. For those who might have forgotten, Crosby was the first pick in the 2005 NHL Draft.

Hornqvist scored 106 goals in 363 games for the Predators before he was traded to the Penguins, along with forward Nick Spaling, for forward James Neal on June 27, 2014. The trade was the very first one made by Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford. It’s a crazy world.

Of course, this was a huge series for the three most important players, Murray, Hornqvist and Crosby, but it was also deeply important and even heart-warming for three American players: Virginia, Minnesota’s Matt Cullen is expected to retire today. He won the Cup at age 40. Woodbury, Minnesota’s Jake Guentzel tied a rookie playoff scoring record with 13 goals and 21 points. And Bolton, Connecticut’s Ron Hainsey, in his first NHL playoff at age 36, was the man Crosby handed the Cup to after the captain took the first skate.

One of the great things about hockey, what makes it more, well, player-friendly, than other major professional sport is that this is the only one in which the commissioner hands the trophy to the team captain, not the team owner. When Gary Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to Sidney Crosby for the second straight year, it pretty much solidified Crosby’s place among the greatest players in the game’s history.

The fans in Nashville didn’t like him and there are a lot of hockey fans all over who don’t care for Crosby’s form of passion. However, if you’re going to build a franchise around one player, it would be Sid the Kid. And he proved it again with a second straight Stanley Cup and a second-straight Conn Smythe Trophy.

 

 

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Scott Taylor

Crosby Stars, Kessel and Malkin Show Up

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Penguins Win Big

The Pittsburgh Penguins will head into Nashville on Sunday night with a 3-2 lead in the NHL’s championship series. They will also have good reason to believe they can lock up their second straight Stanley Cup, this time on the road.

The Nashville Predators, meanwhile, have to bounce back from a 6-0 shellacking in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Of course, in this series they’ve done that before.

Thursday night, Sidney Crosby set up three goals, the heretofore AWOL Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin showed up and scored goals and Matt Murray recorded the shutout as the penguins built a 6-0 lead after two periods and coasted to their third win in the series. They are now just one win away from being the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back National Hockey League championships.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” said Crosby, making sure he sticks with those meaningless, oft-ignored clichés. “Still, the way we played tonight, if we can build off that momentum, that’s important. Yes, we know we’re going to be facing a desperate team and we’ve already played two games there and know the atmosphere and know how much they feed off their fans. So we still have a lot of work to do.”

Ever since that bizarre Game 1 when Pittsburgh built a 3-0 lead, allowed Nashville to tie it up and then won it 5-3 by scoring five goals on 12 total shots; the series has been one blowout after another. The Pens took a 2-0 series lead with a 4-1 win in Pittsburgh in Game 2, then Nashville won 5-1 and 4-1 at home to tie the series and then Pittsburgh whipped Nashville 6-0 in Game 5. Now, now we head back to a place where Nashville is 9-1 in the playoffs and has already outscored the Pens 9-2.

“We’re going into Game 5 with the same approach,” said Nashville coach Peter Laviolette at today’s news conference. “We need to win a hockey game. We came back after losing two and I said at that point that there’s a lot of confidence in our group on how we play the game. We’ve liked a lot of what we’ve done in this series. We don’t like the way we played Thursday. We’re all ready to own that. We’re ready to admit that, and we’re ready to move forward from it.”

They should certainly have confidence on Sunday. After all, they don’t lose very often in Smashville.

However, while Justin Schultz, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Ron Hainsey also scored for the Pens on Thursday night, Woodbury’s Jake Guentzel tied the NHL record for playoff points by a rookie with 21 (13 goals and eight assists). Even more important, Malkin and Kessel made an appearance and that has to be disconcerting for Nashville. The Preds had shut down two of Pittsburgh’s Big 3 for most of this series. If those two are actually ready to go hard in Nashville, it could be tougher than the Predators think.

Meanwhile, there was also a bit of a goaltending worry – again – for Laviolette. While Murray made 24 saves to get the shutout, Laviolette yanked Pekka Rinne after giving up three goals on nine shots. Backup Juuse Saros didn’t fare much better, allowing three more on 15 shots.

Still all five games of the series have been won by the home team (strangely, that’s happened only 12 times since 1939), so Nashville has that going for it in Game 6 on Sunday. However, the Preds need to get off to a good start. Pittsburgh has outscored Nashville 9-2 in the first period of each the five games so far in this final.

Oh, and history says that the team that won Game 5 has gone on to win the Stanley Cup 17 of the last 24 times.

Almost two weeks ago, we picked the Penguins to win this series in six. If Crosby continues to play at the level he’s played at throughout this series, if Malkin and Kessel show up again and if Pekka Rinne struggles one more time, we just might be right.

 

 

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Scott Taylor

Stanley Cup Final Now Best Two-of-Three

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photo by James Carey Lauder

Preds Win Again

If the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is going to be about home ice advantage, I guess we’re going seven. If it’s about the team that’s playing best, it will be over in six.

And it won’t end in the way in which we originally expected.

On Monday night in Smashville, the Nashville Predators whipped the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 in front of a now-legendary crowd that is right off the hook.

Granted the final goal by the Preds was scored into an empty net, but my point is simple. The Predators were the best team on the ice from start-to-finish for the fourth straight game and while we’re obviously in a 2-2 deadlock, there is this feeling that the 16th seed – eighth in the West – might just be good enough to steal this thing.

Playing in front of that wild and woolly crowd in Tennessee, the Predators dominated the Penguins for the fourth straight night. Calle Jarnkrok opened the scoring for Nashville, but Sidney Crosby tied it for Pittsburgh before the end of the opening period (Crosby is now 20th overall in career playoff scoring).

That’s when Frederick Gaudreau (with his third goal of the final and his second game-winner in two games) and the little speedster, Viktor Arvidsson, scored unanswered second-period goals for Nashville to put the game away. With Pekka Rinne playing like the real Pekka Rinne again, the Preds had all they needed at 3-1. Rinne stopped all 18 shots that he faced in the final two periods, Filip Forsberg finally scored his first goal of the final into the empty Pittsburgh net and the Preds had a 4-1 win on the heels of their 5-1 victory on Saturday.

Now the two teams will head back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Thursday, all even at two wins apiece.

In Nashville, Pittsburgh did not look like defending champions. Much of that had to do with the play of Rinne, who was first star on Monday and the man who made one of the great saves in playoff history off Penguins goal-scoring sensation Jake Guentzel. You’ve probably seen it re-played a thousand times by now. Rinne made 50 saves on 52 shots in the two games in Nashville and is now playing like the best goaltender in Predators history – which is exactly what he is.

On Monday, he earned his 36th playoff win and is now tied with Antti Niemi for most playoff wins by a Finnish-born goaltender. He’s now 14-6 in the 2017 playoffs and 9-1 at Bridgestone Arena (the Preds have outscored the opposition 34-15 in those 10 games at home) where he has a 1.44 goals against average and a .949 save percentage. He has been named first star in each of the last two games.

Of course, the biggest surprise in this final has been the goal-scoring prowess of one Frederick Gaudreau, the 24-year-old journeyman from Bromont, Que., who was playing in the ECHL in 2015. On Monday, he became only the second player in NHL history to score his first three NHL goals in the Stanley Cup Final. The other was John Harms of the Blackhawks, 73 years ago in the spring of 1944.

Nashville Predator Frederick Gaudreau

Nashville Center Frederick Gaudreau

It’s also the first time in playoff history in which the four game-winning goals in the Final were all scored by rookies – Gaudreau has two and Guentzel has two.

“Gaudreau’s been unbelievable for us, the way he’s come in,” said Preds captain Mike Fisher. “He’s been so good, timely goals and composed. He definitely belongs, and he’s been a huge part of our success and it’s good to see for sure.”

Well, it’s amazing to see, that’s for sure.

As we noted, Game 5 goes Thursday in Pittsburgh. The Penguins need to find that magic they concocted in Games 1 and 2. They need to embarrass Rinne again. To do that, it might help if Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel get involved in the offense. They were both invisible in Nashville.

Fact is, Pittsburgh has been outplayed in every game. If Rinne is Rinne, they might just be done in six. Thursday’s game – now the first of a best two-out-of-three – is, without question, the pivotal game of this year’s Final.

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Scott Taylor

Best Team Wins in Smashville

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photo by James Carey Lauder

Preds Win

The best team won. That is not a statement on the quality of the two small-market teams in the Stanley Cup final, but it is a statement on the team that has played the best hockey in this year’s championship series.

No one doubts the talent or heart of the Pittsburgh Penguins. After all, through three games of this year’s final, the Penguins hold a 2-1 series advantage. However, in every game, the Nashville Predators have fired more shots on goal, have controlled the puck longer, have generated the most scoring chances and, taking everything but the goaltending into consideration, should be ahead in the series.

However, after Saturday night’s 5-1 Nashville shellacking of the defending Cup champions, we know that, clearly, the best team won on Saturday and maybe the best team is about to turn this series around.

Granted, TV ratings haven’t been great for the Stanley Cup final (although they are up from last year’s “historically low numbers”), but the games themselves have been memorable.

Getting home to play in front of the incredible fans of Nashville didn’t make much of a difference early. Jake Guentzel, the Woodbury kid who gets better with every shift and just might steal the Conn Smythe Trophy, got Pittsburgh on the board with his 13th post-season just two minutes into the game, but early in the second period Nashville might have changed everything.

With the sold out crowd at Bridgestone Arena going completely nuts, the Preds scored twice in the first seven minutes of the second period. The momentum switched at the 5:51 mark of the second when Roman Josi and Frederick Gaudreau scored within 42 seconds of each other.

James Neal scored again, just 23 seconds before the second intermission, putting Nashville up 3-1, and then Craig Smith and Mattias Ekholm added insurance goals in the third period to seal the deal. 

The barrage made good on defenseman PK Subban’s guarantee that Nashville would win. It’s unlikely he’ll need one for Game 4 at Smashville on Monday night.

Nashville's PK Subban fire a shot from the blue line...

Predator’s All-Star PK Subban

No doubt, there was a lot of frustration in the Predators room after Game 2. They clearly outplayed Pittsburgh and yet lost 5-3 and 4-1 because All-World goalie Pekka Rinne didn’t play very well. But on Saturday, Rinne was at his best – after a wobbly start – and made 27 saves to get the win. Those rocky first two games in Pittsburgh have been forgotten. At least temporarily.

This has been quite a series. Two teams that were once near bankruptcy – Pittsburgh in 1975 and 1998 and Nashville in 2007 – are now the talk of the National Hockey League.

In fact, the Predators were on the verge of selling to Hamilton, Ont. businessman Jim Balsillie when when a group that includes 59-year-old Calgary businessman Brett Wilson stepped up and bought the team and left them on Broadway in Nashville.

Now, the Predators are beloved. On Saturday, there were thousands of fans both inside and outside the rink as Nashville won its eighth home game in nine outings this spring.

Sure, TV ratings are down in both Canada and the United States and outside Pittsburgh and Nashville there isn’t a lot of buzz for this series. However, the hockey has been intense, physical and interesting and the sub-plots have produced plenty of intrigue.

If nothing else, this year’s Stanley Cup final proves that small-market franchises in a league with clubs in New York, Chicago and L.A. can compete, thanks in no small way to the salary cap and brilliant management.

Monday night’s Game 4 might not produce a record number of TV viewers, but it will be a heck of a hockey game.

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Scott Taylor

Whatever Happened to Pekka Rinne

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photo by James Carey Lauder

A week ago, everyone in hockey was hailing Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne. He had been almost unbeatable and had carried the Preds to the Stanley Cup final.

Now, after the first two games of the championship round against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Predators head coach Peter Laviolette won’t commit to Rinne for Game 3.

What happened to Rinne, a guy who entered the final with a 1.70 goals against average and a .941 save percentage?

Well, first of all, if you can figure it out then you know why the Predators are down 2-0 in the final. However, the numbers don’t lie.

In the first two games at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena, Rinne had a .778 save percentage. In Game 1, he allowed four goals on 12 shots. Despite an almost perfect defensive effort by his teammates, Rinne couldn’t make a save when he needed one.

In Game 2, he gave up three goals in first 3 ½ minutes of the third period in a game that was deadlocked at 1-1. As a result, in nine games, the great Pekka Rinne, one of the three or four best goaltenders in the NHL, has never beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Nashville Predators superstar goalie Pekka Rinne

Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne

For those who love advanced analytics, Rinne’s performance has made those numbers a nightmare for Nashville. In fact, Nashville has dominated possession statistics and high-danger chances in the first two games.

Now, to be fair, there was no way Rinne was going to be as good against Pittsburgh (or anybody else) as he was in the first round against Chicago. Rinne had a .976 save percentage against the Hawks. That’s borderline impossible. He shut out the Blackhawks twice in four games and allowed just three goals on 126 shots. That number fell to .932 against St. Louis and .925 against Anaheim. His save percentage numbers have gone down in every series, but .925 is still pretty damn good. After all, his career save percentage is .916 in 66 playoff games.

Still, nobody thought Rinne would be this bad. There are junior and college goalies who would have stopped nine of 12 shots in the first game. Rinne stopped only eight. He’s better than that.

Regardless, Rinne has stopped just 28-of-36 shots in the five-plus periods he’s played in the final. Meanwhile, Nashville has outshot Pittsburgh 64-39 in the first two games and they find themselves down 2-0.

Sure, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have been wonderful in these playoffs and it’s likely one of them will win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but Pekka Rinne was almost a certain winner until he somehow lost his way.

Rinne is a class act. He answered every question directed his way after the loss in Game 2. He’s been that way all season long. Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said on Tuesday that Rinne was, “our team’s MVP this season.”

“Obviously, it’s a mental thing,” Rinne said on Wednesday. “You just have to look back to good games and make yourself feel better.

“It’s very disappointing right now. We have to put it behind you. For me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I waited a long time and it’s my first time having a chance to play for the Cup. You just have to bury these two games and find a way to have some success.”

Saturday night, the Predators play Game 3 at home. Rinne might or might not play. He should. He’s the guy who got the Preds past Chicago in a series that no one thought they’d win. They not only won, they dominated and now they have a chance to play for the Cup.

Despite two bad games, Rinne is still the Predators MVP. They will not win the Cup without him.

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Scott Taylor

Bizarre Beginning to Stanley Cup Final

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Pens Win Opener

It was, perhaps, the strangest game ever played in a Stanley Cup final. Or, maybe, at any other time of any other season. To put into some kind of orderly fashion, all of this took place:

  1. The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins took a 3-0 lead into the second period, blew it and came back to win 5-3.
  2. During the Predators comeback, the Penguins – the highest-scoring team in the playoffs this season — went almost two full periods (37 minutes in total) without a single shot on goal.
  3. The Penguins scored their five goals in only 10 shots against the best goaltender in the playoffs this season. In fact, until Monday night, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne was the odds-on favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs.
  4. A man threw a catfish on the ice. He was charged with public mischief, a charge that could result in six years in prison.
  5. The eventual winning goal was scored by Jake Guentzel, a kid from Omaha who played for Hill Murray High School, and spent half of this season with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. When brought up with 40 games left in the season, they put him on a line with Sidney Crosby. He suddenly became a scoring sensation and now has 10 goals and 17 points in 20 playoff games this spring. Guentzel’s winning goal came seconds after Nashville’s James Neal hit the post at the other end.
  6. Nashville’s first goal by PK Subban was called back because the officials (or somebody) decided that Filip Forsberg was a teeny, teeny, tin half-skateblade offside. I still haven’t seen how he was offside and I’ve watched the play two dozen times.

After all that, Nashville forward Colton Sissons put the strange night in perspective.

“Nothing surprises me in this game anymore, honestly,” Sissons said. “You just never know.”

Man, this was a strange one. After Evgeni Malkin (15:32), Conor Sheary (16:37) and Nick Bonino (19:43) scored the first three goals for Pittsburgh in a span of four minutes and 11 seconds at the end of the first period.

Then, in the second period, Ryan Ellis scored to make it 3-1 and then, in the third, Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau, made it 3-3 with just six and a half minutes to play.

But then Guentzel scored his 10th of the playoffs at 16:43 and Bonino tallied his second of the night into an empty net at 18:58 and the Pens had drawn first blood despite the fact they had no shots in the second period, only four in the third and only 12 on the night.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Penguins centre Sidney Crosby said of his team’s lull, which spanned the entire second period. “I think you’re just hoping to get a shot on net and see what happens.”

Teams that win Game 1 of the Final have gone on to win the Stanley Cup in 60 of 77 seasons (78 per cent) since the league introduced the best-of-seven format in 1939. The last team to win the Stanley Cup after dropping the opening game of the series was the 2011 Boston Bruins when they came back to beat Vancouver.
Game 2 will be played Wednesday night at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. If it’s half as crazy as Game 1, it will be just like watching the circus.

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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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