‘Nothing’s going to be easy’ for the Preds, especially after the loss of Ryan Johansen

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The oddsmakers didn’t give the Nashville Predators much of a chance when the Stanley Cup playoffs began last month.

The Predators were considered one of the long shots to win it all, at 25/1, according to Bovada. No big surprise, given they were the second wild card team in the West and facing the No. 1 seed Chicago Blackhawks — also the favorites to win the championship when the playoffs began — in the opening round.

Since then, the Predators have swept the Blackhawks and advanced past the St. Louis Blues to make the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history.

They have played relentless hockey, backed for the most part by great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, an elite and productive group of defensemen, particularly Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, and a top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. Those seven players have combined for 71 points, which accounts for a substantial majority of Nashville’s offensive production.

On Thursday, the Predators fell one goal short of putting the Anaheim Ducks on the brink of elimination and moving within one win of the Stanley Cup Final. On Friday, the series shifted back to Anaheim tied at 2-2. On the surface, that’s not a bad position for the Predators to find themselves in.

However, Nashville’s Stanley Cup hopes were dealt a massive blow, with news that Johansen underwent emergency thigh surgery and is now done for the playoffs. Just like that, the Predators’ top center and playoff points leader removed from the lineup. Making matters worse is the fact captain Mike Fisher, who still doesn’t have a point in these playoffs, was also hurt Thursday. There was no update on his status the following day.

The Predators were already facing depth issues at center with Johansen out. If Fisher can’t play Saturday, it only adds to the current problem. It’s been widely suggested that if Johansen AND Fisher are both out, Calle Jarnkrok could be put into the No. 1 center spot.

Jarnkrok had a decent regular season with 15 goals and 31 points in 81 games. But he has only two points in 13 games during these playoffs and only five points in 33 career post-season games. His production has been a far cry from that of Johansen, who leads the team with 2.68 points per 60 minutes in these playoffs and a player for which most of the offense funnels through.

Others will need to step up. James Neal has five goals and seven points, but more will likely be asked of him with Johansen out. Colin Wilson has in the past emerged as an offensive threat — at least during the playoffs, anyway — but so far has only three points in 10 games this year.

If their offensive attack is limited without Johansen, it may put the spotlight back on the play of Rinne, their goalie. His play was sensational, bordering on out-of-this-world versus the Blackhawks. He posted a save percentage of .976 in that opening-round sweep, and it would be unrealistic to demand he sustain that for an entire playoff run.

He has still played well at times in this series, but the Ducks have also been able to find success. Rinne’s save percentage in four games sits at .911. The Predators may need him to be as close to perfect as possible the rest of the way.

Injuries occur to every team during the playoffs. Look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins, still alive in the East, as a perfect example. They haven’t had their top defenseman — and one of the best in the league — in Kris Letang for the entire playoff, and have also dealt with a plethora of injuries, including to Sidney Crosby for one game, as this spring has continued.

“Nothing’s going to be easy,” Neal told reporters on Friday. “That’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports.”

A few hours later, the hockey world learned the Predators would have to try to complete this already daunting task without their top center.

Tavares says ‘no rush’ to sign extension with Isles

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John Tavares keeps saying all the right things about his future with the New York Islanders.

But that doesn’t change the fact he still doesn’t have a contract extension in place.

Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, spoke with Newsday yesterday, telling the newspaper he was in “no rush” to sign and that he’s comfortable to just “let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal.”

It’s been reported that the Isles’ uncertain arena situation could be complicating matters. It’s still not clear where the team will call home for the long term.

On that topic, Tavares chose to avoid making any definitive statements.

“The possibility with Belmont and that RFP coming out, there’s great potential there,” the 26-year-old said. “We’ll see where it goes. A lot of those things are out of my hands. Some things I don’t try to worry about them too, too much. I’m just a hockey player. I try to be as best prepared as I can be. It’s a big decision obviously because it’s eight years of my career, really entering into my prime years and a great opportunity for myself to achieve what I set out to achieve when I was a kid, making it to the NHL, wanting to win a Stanley Cup and wanting to do that with the Islanders.”

There’s more in the interview, including his thoughts on the Isles’ offseason moves. Click here to give it a read.

Tavares also spoke with Newday about the thumb surgery he had in April. All’s well on that front, according to the captain.  

“I felt I didn’t want this reoccurring and the recovery time was only six weeks,” he said, “so it was the right thing to do once the season ended.”

Related: Tavares open to signing contract extension this summer

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot (again)

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

For the second straight year, Derrick Pouliot is our pick for the Pittsburgh player under the most pressure heading into the season.

Perhaps we should just focus on someone else, but the Penguins gave the 23-year-old defenseman a one-year contract extension in July. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Pouliot knows time is running short to prove Pittsburgh didn’t make a big mistake.

It should be compelling to watch how he fares.

“I’ve got to make an impact right away and show that I belong in the NHL,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “It’s been three years now. I haven’t fully established myself yet. I want to take it one step at a time and build as the year goes on.”

Pouliot felt he had a strong finish to his AHL season, and perhaps that will help his confidence heading into camp.

But it’s worth noting that he’s no longer exempt from waivers. So unless he earns a spot, that could mean a change of scenery, with the Penguins either losing him for nothing or trading him for pennies on the dollar.

Pouliot could feasibly crack the opening roster as Pittsburgh’s eighth defenseman, behind Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel and new addition Matt Hunwick.

He could then languish on that roster until an injury gives him a chance to play.

The first step, though, is coming into camp and building off the back half of last season.

“For me to establish myself as an NHL defenseman, a regular guy in the lineup, it’s kind of playing how I ended the season: solid defensively, consistent in that regard,” Pouliot said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s been one thing that’s always been brought up about me, inconsistency. So I think it’s starting with that and building each game.”

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”

Poll: Who will the Penguins miss the most?

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been forced into making some changes to their roster.

It’s only normal that championship teams won’t be able to bring all their players back, especially in a salary cap world.

This offseason, the Penguins lost Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft and Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and Matt Cullen in free agency. Each one of those players played an important role in at least one of the two title runs.

Fleury may not have been between the pipes when the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in each of the last two seasons, but he played a crucial part in each victory. On top of playing 38 games during the regular season, he also compiled a 9-6 record with a 2.56 goals-against-average and a .924 save percentage during the 2017 postseason.

Without Fleury on the roster, the pressure will fall squarely on Matt Murray‘s shoulders. Murray may own two rings, but he has yet to go through the challenges of an 82-game season plus playoffs. New backup Antti Niemi probably won’t be capable of filling in as well as Fleury did.

One of the major reasons the Pens were able to go on two championship runs was because of the depth they had accumulated at center. Any team would love to have one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to have both. The Penguins’ depth didn’t stop there. They also had Nick Bonino on their third line and Matt Cullen on their fourth, which is pretty impressive.

Both Bonino and Cullen will play in the Western Conference next year. Finding competent players to play on the third and fourth line isn’t as difficult as getting top line talent, but those two losses will probably hurt them pretty badly.

Bonino had 18 goals and 37 points during the 2016-17 regular season and he added a modest seven points in 21 games during the postseason before being ruled out with a lower-body injury. Last year, he put up less points in the regular season (29), but he had an impressive 18 points in 24 games during the playoffs. He was also capable of playing a solid two-way game.

Cullen, who signed with Minnesota yesterday, also found a way to contribute, despite playing a bottom-six role on such a deep team. The 40-year-old scored 32 and 31 points in his two years with the Penguins and he also added six and nine points during the playoff runs. He also won plenty of key faceoffs and played well without the puck.

Trevor Daley was unable to finish the 2016 playoffs because of an ankle injury, but he also played a vital role during Pittsburgh’s impressive accomplishment. Daley, who is now with the Red Wings, was able to hold down the fort while Kris Letang was out. He averaged over 20 minutes of ice time during the regular season and 19 more in the spring.

Ron Hainsey was a smart, underrated trade deadline acquisition by GM Jim Rutherford. The veteran stepped into the lineup and played 21 minutes per night for his new team. He also chipped in with eight points in 25 games. He got himself a nice contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1st.

Chris Kunitz had been a big contributor for the team, but his production fell off dramatically. After scoring 35 goals during the 2013-14 season, he added 17, 17 and nine during his last three years in Pittsburgh. It became pretty clear that he wasn’t able to play at the same level he had been in previous years, so it wasn’t surprising to see him go elsewhere (Tampa Bay) when free agency opened.

It’s your turn to vote. Make sure you make a selection in the poll below and feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.