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After so-so regular season, Preds playing much better defense in playoffs

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NASHVILLE — During the regular season, the Nashville Predators had the 15th-best goals-against average (2.68) and the 15th-best penalty killing (80.9) in the NHL.

Which is to say, they were a mediocre defensive team.

And given the past seven Stanley Cup champs have ranked no worse than sixth in regular-season GAA, and that penalty killing is always important in the playoffs, it was fair to wonder if the Preds had what it took to be a successful postseason team.

Well, the Preds are in the Stanley Cup Final now, and their defensive play is a big reason why. In 19 playoff games, their GAA is a measly 2.09, while their penalty killing is running at 89.1 percent. In Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh, they had some breakdowns in front of Pekka Rinne that cost them. But they bounced back Saturday in a 5-1 pasting of the Pens.

Read more: The Penguins’ power play has hit the skids

“As much as we sit here and talk about attack all the time … you have to play good defense,” said Preds coach Peter Laviolette. “We went through times in the season that we had to have meetings that peeled back the layers of what we’re doing on the ice. If we don’t play good defense, we won’t be successful.”

Occasionally, Nashville will fall back into a 1-3-1 structure through the neutral zone, similar to how the Ottawa Senators were positioned under coach Guy Boucher.

The Penguins know all about that, of course.

“I don’t think they’re committed to it as much as Ottawa was, when it felt like every time we were coming through the neutral zone that’s what we were looking at,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “With Nashville, they kinda pick their spots to fall back into that. But it helps playing a team previously that looked to do that, just knowing what to expect.”

One way to attack the 1-3-1 is to gain the center line, shoot the puck in, and go get it. The problem with doing that against the Predators? Firstly, Rinne is an excellent puck-handler. Secondly, Nashville’s defense is extremely mobile.

“With them, they just skate themselves out of trouble,” said Crosby. “They don’t have to spend a lot of time in their end. So the times you do get the puck, you need to get possession, challenge them, and force them to play defense.”

The Penguins also need to get their power play back on track. At practice this morning, that’s what they worked on the most.

“We practiced some concepts that we’ve been working on all season,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s not anything that’s new to them. But obviously we haven’t had the success in this particular series, but we believe that these guys are capable. We’re just trying to reinforce some strategies.”

Game 4 goes Monday at Bridgestone Arena. The Penguins lead the series, 2-1.

Related: The Penguins played great defense their own way

The Buzzer: Kempe, Schwartz record hat tricks; Leafs honor Gord Downie

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Players of the night: Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues / Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings

The Blues forward tallied his third career hat trick during a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Schwartz scored the game’s first two goals before completing his hat trick with a late empty-net goal to stave off a Chicago comeback.

Wednesday’s feat for Schwartz came three years to the day of his first career three-goal game.

Kempe, meanwhile, tallied his first NHL hat trick and finished with four points during LA’s 5-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Two of his three goals were assisted by Mike Cammalleri, who also finished the night with four points.

Highlight of the night:

Eddie Olczyk returned to the NBC broadcast booth as he continues his battle against colon cancer. Olczyk, along with Doc Emrick, called the Blues-Blackhawks game from Scottrade Center Wednesday night.

MISC:

Auston Matthews recorded the 20th multi-point game of his career. He now has six goals and 10 points on the season.

Patrick Marleau became the 18th NHL player to reach the 1,500-game mark.

Jake Allen kept his shutout bid alive with this great stick save on Patrick Kane late:

-The Kings are off their best start in franchise history at 5-0-1. They’ve allowed only 10 goals against through six games.

Jeff Carter left the game in the first period and did not return after tangling with Jeff Petry. Afterward, Kings head coach John Stevens said the forward will miss some time.

-Finally, The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away from cancer at age 53 on Wednesday. The Maple Leafs paid tribute before their game against the Red Wings.

Factoid of the night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 6, Red Wings 3

Blues 5, Blackhawks 2

Kings 5, Canadiens 1

Cammalleri, Kempe power Kings over Canadiens

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Adrian Kempe recorded his first career NHL hat trick and Mike Cammalleri added two goals as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

After Paul Byron opened the scoring for Montreal midway through the first period, the Kings responded with five unanswered goals to hand the Habs their sixth straight defeat.

Cammalleri, who inked a one-year deal over the summer to return to the Kings, had a hand in four of LA’s five goals. He started the scoring for the Kings in the first period by celebrating the Dodgers’ playoff run with his own special kind of baseball swing.

Kempe, who finished with four points as well, scored his three goals over a span of 10:50 in the third period to help the Kings to their best start in franchise history (5-0-1).

LA remains the only NHL team yet to lose in regulation this season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jaden Schwartz’s hat trick leads Blues over Blackhawks

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Jaden Schwartz‘s third career hat trick helped power the St. Louis Blues over the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 in a Central Division clash Wednesday night at Scottrade Center.

Schwartz’s eventful evening began with a goal 4:46 into the first period. It was nearly ended minutes later after a scary crash into the end boards following a scoring chance.

After missing some time, Schwartz returned in the second period and doubled the Blues’ lead with his fourth of a season, thanks to a great outlet pass from Allen.

As the Blues built up a 4-0 lead, the Blackhawks spoiled Allen’s shutout bid with a pair of late power play goals 80 seconds apart. The furious rally was stopped, however, and Schwartz capped off his hat trick with an empty netter to put the game out of reach.

St. Louis dominated the first two periods, outshooting the Blackhawks 26-8 as they built up their 2-0 lead. The Blackhawks’ power play failed them early in the game, missing out on five chances to capitalize with the extra man through 40 minutes.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens at Kings

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The Montreal Canadiens play their second game of a three-game west coast trip Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

It hasn’t been the best start for the Habs, who sit tied for last in the Eastern Conference with a 1-4-1 record. They’re winless since an opening night win over the Buffalo Sabres. On the other side of things, the Kings are the only NHL team that has yet to lose in regulation. Their 4-0-1 start puts them a point behind the Vegas Golden Knights, and their game in-hand gives them the opportunity to leap into first place in the Pacific Division with a victory.

You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (10:30 p.m. ET) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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