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The Predators built the NHL’s best defense, and it is going to be around for a while

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The Nashville Predators are preparing to play in their first Stanley Cup Final after marching through the Western Conference playoffs.

Their appearance in this year’s Final is being looked at as a little bit of a surprise because of their place in the standings among the NHL’s playoff teams (16th out of 16 during the regular season) but this was still a team that was looked at before the season as a legitimate contender. They had a disappointing first half that kind poured some cold water on the preseason hype, but since starting 17-16-7 the Predators have put together a rather dominating 36-17-5 stretch (playoffs included) since the first week of January.

They have a defensive unit that rivals any other in the NHL to thank for a lot of that success.

The addition of P.K. Subban over the summer to a group that already included Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm has given the Predators one of the most dominant top-four groupings in the league, and they all perfectly fit the modern NHL game.

They can call skate at a high level, they can all move the puck, they can all contribute offensively. And they can all play major minutes.

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs coach Peter Laviolette has leaned heavily on that quartet, giving each of them an average of 23 minutes of ice-time per game, meaning that just about every time you look at the TV one of those four players is going to be patrolling the ice. Last week I looked at the ice-time distribution of Nashville’s Stanley Cup final opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and how injuries (specifically the one to Kris Letang) has forced coach Mike Sullivan to take a defense by committee approach where all six defenders on a given night are getting almost the exact same ice-time. Each one plays roughly 30-35 percent of the game in what is a rather unconventional approach for a Stanley Cup Finalist.

In Nashville, it is a little different with each of the top-four playing more than 40 percent of the game, while the bottom pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin (two solid defensemen in their own right) are only playing about 20 percent of the game … or an average of about 11 minutes per game.

Following their Game 7 win against the Ottawa Senators, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz referred to Nashville’s defense as having “four Erik Karlssons,” and while that might be a little bit of an exaggeration (Karlsson is the NHL’s best defenseman and there probably are not four other defensemen in the league even close to him) it is at least telling as to how much respect this unit has around the league and how good they are.

But what should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Western Conference is that this unit is going to be around for quite a while and still in the prime of their careers

When looking at the top-four, Subban is the “old man” of the group currently at age 28. They are also all signed for at least two more seasons beyond this one at a combined cap hit of just a little over $19 million per season.

That is a group that contains two of the top-six offensive defensemen in the league (Subban and Josi) over the past three seasons and two of the best shot suppression defensemen (Ekholm and Ellis) over the same stretch (out of more than 250 defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey since 2014-15, Ekholm is seventh in shot attempts against per 60 minutes; Ellis is 45th).

When you combine their ability with the fact that quartet has an average age of just 26.7 years old it is an incredible bargain against the salary cap.

They are backbone of this team, and a big reason why no matter what happens over the next weeks on the ice the Predators should be a formidable contender in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.

The Buzzer: Night of the goalies

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Players of the Night:

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning needed Vasilevskiy to play like the NHL All-Star that he is and that’s exactly what he gave them, stopping 40 shots to help the Lightning to a 2-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. The win was important for Tampa, who regained the top spot in the NHL standings and ended a three-game slide in the process. Vasilevskiy’s league-leading seventh shutout of the season ties a franchise record.

Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings: Mrazek fielded 37 shots from the New Jersey Devils on Monday night and handled each and every one of them for his second shutout in as many starts.

Nick Cousins, Arizona Coyotes: Cousins got the ball rolling for the Desert Dogs in the first period, giving them a 1-0 lead. After the Islanders tied the game in the third, Cousins put the final stamp on the game with a goal 2:21 into overtime to give Arizona their second straight win.

Comeback of the Night:

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: Zucker got drilled in the head with a slap shot in the first period and had to be helped off the ice. Miraculously, Zucker returned a short time later and went on to score the game-winning goal at the 4:59 mark of the third period, breaking a 1-1 tie in the Wild’s 3-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.

Highlights of the Night:

Granlund and Dumba:

Mrazek made plenty of saves on Monday and perhaps none better than this one (Brian Boyle‘s reaction is priceless):

Ottawa Senators fans will like this, even if the end result wasn’t great:

Auston Matthews had the celebration of the night:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Avalanche 4, Maple Leafs 2

Red Wings 3, Devils 0

Wild 3, Senators 1

Lightning 2, Blackhawks 0

Sabres 2, Flames 1 (OT)

Coyotes 3, Islanders 2 (OT)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning end three-game skid with 2-0 win over Blackhawks

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Jon Cooper called declared that his team was “out of sync” prior to Monday night’s game in Chicago.

It’s three words that haven’t been used at all this season to describe the Tampa Bay Lightning who, up until Sunday, was known as the best team in the NHL.

The Lightning came into Monday night nursing a three-game losing streak, another foreign concept for a team saw four of its players elected to the NHL’s All-Star Game this coming weekend.

But just as quickly as they dropped out of the top spot in the NHL — the Vegas Golden Knights assumed that throne for 24 hours after a win on Sunday night — the Lightning snatched it back in a 2-0 triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Windy City on Monday.

For a team that perhaps forgot how to play with one another, they looked comfortable in each other’s company against the Blackhawks.

The game was tight for the most part, and it took the Blackhawks being caught napping shorthanded to break a 0-0 deadlock late in the second period as Chris Kunitz took advantage of a defensive mishap. 

Jake Dotchin’s wrister sailed wide, but Kunitz was allowed to waltz behind the net, pick up the loose puck and put it behind Jeff Glass, nearly untouched through the whole process.

The NHL’s top goalie once again lived up to the distinction as Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside all 40 shots that came his way.

The Blackhawks put up 10 or more shots in each of the game’s three periods, including 17 in the second frame. But the All-Star netminder played and exceptional game, including stopping 10 out of 10 on the power play to keep Chicago 0-for-6 on the power play.

Yanni Gourde sealed the game late in the third with a blast to make it 2-0.

It’s a win Tampa needed, especially after finding out they’ll miss forward Ondrej Palat indefinitely.

The struggles continued for the Blackhawks, meanwhile.

Chicago has now been shutout twice in their past three games and is on a three-game skid with a 4-5-1 record in their past 10.

The Lightning could afford their losing streak. They’ve earned an opportunity to slide a little bit.

For the Blackhawks, another loss means another chance missed trying to survive in a deeply competitive Central Division.

The Blackhawks are hanging by a thread and time is running out quickly.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Colorado Avalanche’s win streak hits double digits

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The streak is now in double digits.

The Colorado Avalanche won their 10th straight game on Monday night, taking down the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

Yes, that’s 10 wins by the team that ended last season with an NHL-worst 48 points.

Hockey is wonderful, isn’t it?

The Avalanche have been pretty darn good during that streak, outscoring opponents 41-16 during that span. Scoring four goals per game on average will win you more than it won’t.

And the Avs have had success on the back end. Jonathan Bernier has been completely lights out during the streak. He is on a streak of his own with nine straight wins, becoming the third netminder in franchise history to win nine in a row after Stephane Fiset (9) and Patrick Roy (11).

Colorado’s streak is also an NHL-best this season and it’s the second longest streak in Avs history (they won 12 straight during the 1998-99 season).

The Avs are sitting on 57 points, good for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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How in the world did he get up?

Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

Talk about hard-headed.