Under Pressure: Pekka Rinne

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“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the Nashville Predators, we pick…Pekka Rinne.

The $49 million netminder is facing a number of questions, so let’s start with the biggest one:

How’s his health?

Rinne, who turns 31 in November, underwent hip arthroscopy during the offseason, a major procedure that sidelined him for nearly four months.

Though he’s yet to fully recover, Rinne insists he’ll “be 100 percent on opening night,” and is keen to put the 2013 campaign behind him, a season he called “so disappointing.”

Which leads to the second question: What happened last year?

While he shouldered his usual heavy workload, playing in 43 of Nashville’s 48 games, the lanky Finn wasn’t nearly as effective as previous seasons. As a result, the Preds missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The most startling number was his drop in save percentage. After posting a .923 and .930 in back-to-back years, Rinne finished 26th among NHL netminders last year with a .910.

But that decrease comes with an asterisk. Preds head coach Barry Trotz said Rinne was playing hurt all year, trying to win games in which he was getting little offensive support. What’s more, the club couldn’t rely on backup Chris Mason, who struggled in limited action and is now tending goal in the Italian league.

This leads us to the third pressing question: How much will Rinne need to carry the Preds this year?

Most figure Nashville isn’t going anywhere unless Rinne plays often and plays well, but it’s unclear if the team will reprise Rinne’s 2011-12 workload, when he set league highs in games (73), shots faced (2,153) and finished second in minutes played (4,168).

It’s a lot to ask of someone coming off major hip surgery.

Of course, managing Rinne’s minutes won’t be easy. Nashville’s new backup goalie is 27-year-old Carter Hutton, a former Chicago farmhand with 58 minutes of total NHL experience. It harkens back to when the Preds made Anders Lindback the No. 2 in 2010-11. Prior to getting the gig, Lindback had zero NHL games to his credit.

Lindback did have success in his rookie year, playing in 22 games and posting solid numbers (11-5-2, .915 save percentage, 2.60 GAA). Preds goalie coach Mitch Korn praised the Rinne-Lindback tandem, saying “every good team needs two competent, successful goalies,” adding, “it’s a long season.”

it’s possible Hutton could be in line for a similar workload, especially if Rinne has issues with his hip.

All this said, and as obvious as this sounds, the Preds aren’t going anywhere unless Rinne returns to the form that netted him consecutive Vezina nominations in ’11 and ’12.

Anything less, and it’s probably another year of missing the playoffs.

For all of our Under Pressure series, click here.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

Their struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.

Video: Friday night fights between Bolts and Red Wings

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Not much offense — actually, just one goal midway through the second period as of the writing of this post — between the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday.

But there has definitely been some animosity between the two clubs.

Tempers flared late in the first period, with Adam Erne and Andreas Athanasiou getting involved in a spirited scrap — and Athanasiou unsuccessful in his attempt at the take-down.

The bad blood continued in the second period with Greg McKegg and Anthony Mantha getting involved in a fight, and Mantha — given the instigator — landing a couple of shots with McKegg on the ice.

 

NHL, MLB player unions support U.S. women hockey players’ boycott

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Unions representing NHL and Major League Baseball players are backing U.S. Women’s National Hockey team players’ decision to boycott next week’s world championships because of a wage dispute.

The NHL Players’ Association posted a note on its Twitter account on Friday saying it supports the U.S. players while panning USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements. The NHLPA says the decision to go with replacement players “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

Earlier in the day, the MLB Players Association encouraged all women hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Read more: USA Hockey says it will not offer living wage, as dispute with women’s national team continues

The Twitter messages were posted a day after USA Hockey announced it would begin gauging interest of replacement players to compete at the tournament, which opens next Friday in Plymouth, Michigan.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period.