Nashville leaning heavily on defense corps against Penguins

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Roman Josi downplays the production of the Nashville Predators’ defensemen as simply the product of their system.

“Our system allows defensemen to jump on the play and make something happen in the offensive zone, too,” Josi said. “And our forwards (are) doing a great job getting pucks to us, and yeah, tipping pucks, getting screens from that, and our job is just to get the puck through.”

Yes, the Nashville Predators lean on their defensemen not only to smother the NHL’s best attackers, but also to score in bunches. They combined for five points Saturday night to help Nashville pull within 2-1 of the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

Game 4 is Monday night.

Josi leads the unit with 14 points, followed by defensive partner Ryan Ellis with 12 and P.K. Subban with 11. Mattias Ekholm had a goal and an assist Saturday night for 10 points, making Nashville the third team in NHL history with four defensemen to reach double-digits in the same postseason, along with the 1984 Edmonton Oilers and 1993 Los Angeles Kings.

On top of that, the Predators helped hold Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a shot on goal for the first time in their lengthy careers in the same playoff game.

“Amazing, amazing job,” Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “I mean, they been doing that all playoffs long, so it’s obviously our backbone is our defense. And they do a tremendous job defensively and creating offense.”

When general manager David Poile started putting this expansion franchise together nearly 20 years ago, he focused on building from the goaltender out to the defense. Poile hired coach Peter Laviolette three years ago, and the coach brought in a system that allows everyone but the goalie to join the rush and try to score.

The Predators tied for the league lead with 181 points from their defensemen this season, and their 50 points this postseason tops the NHL with 14 goals and 36 assists. The Penguins’ defense corps has nine goals with 41 points in the playoffs.

Josi, who has six goals in these playoffs, had three points in the second period Saturday night with a goal and two assists. He became the first defenseman with three points in a period in a Stanley Cup Final game since Larry Murphy had three assists for Pittsburgh on May 23, 1991, against Minnesota.

“As you can see by the way we play, our defensemen have the green light to add to the rush or lead the rush, take charge offensively in the offensive zone,” Laviolette said Sunday. “That kind of takes the restriction off of just playing on the blue line in the offensive zone.”

The defensemen have helped Nashville outshoot Pittsburgh in each of the first three games. They’ve also stuck so closely to the Penguins that Pittsburgh went 37 minutes without a shot in Game 1. The Penguins also have managed just four shots on goal in 13 power plays in the series with just one goal with the man advantage.

“They just skate themselves out of trouble,” Crosby said. “They don’t spend a lot of time in their end. So I think the times we do get the puck … we’ve got to challenge them and force them to play defense.”

So far, Josi and Ellis have gone against Crosby often, with Subban and Ekholm hitting the ice against Malkin. Crosby has just three assists with no goal yet despite having 23 points this postseason. Malkin has two goals.

“This coaching staff has never been one to take our team out of the flow to try to chase matchups,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “We believe in the group we have. We know they can play against anybody. When they’re at their best, regardless of who their opponent is, they’re going to have their hands full.”

The Predators are 8-1 at home this postseason, while the Penguins are 13-2 in the playoffs coming off a loss under Sullivan. Goalie Matt Murray, who allowed five goals in the span of 15 shots, also has never lost when starting a game either after a Pittsburgh loss (9-0) or a playoff loss of his own (7-0).

Nashville will be leaning again on its defense corps to try to send this series back to Pittsburgh all tied up.

“All of our defensemen, if I’m being honest, even from a team concept defensively, it’s been pretty good in the playoffs to this point,” Laviolette said.

 

Penguins, Kings among teams with notable waiver moves

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If an NHL team wants to add a big winger with two Stanley Cup rings,* they merely need to make a waiver claim.

TVA’s Renaud Lavoie tweeted out Tuesday’s list of waived players, with the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins making some of the most interesting moves.

In the case of the Kings, they waived Jordan Nolan and former Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff. Here’s the full list, via Lavoie:

There are some bullet points that can sell Nolan, but the 28-year-old’s production was quite limited at the NHL level. Nolan’s never scored 10 goals in a single season; in fact, he’s only reached 10 points once in his career (six goals and four assists in 64 regular-season contests back in 2013-14).

Overall, it wouldn’t be surprising if a team targeted Nolan as a depth guy, even if his ceiling is limited.

While the Penguins’ entries seem notable for sheer volume as much as anything else, Frank Corrado is another name that stands out.

Corrado was often the catalyst for debates about his playing time (or lack thereof) with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it doesn’t seem like the defenseman is having much success catching on with the Penguins, either.

Zatkoff, meanwhile, fits in with quite a few other names on this list: possibly prominent in the AHL, only likely to get the occasional cup of coffee in the NHL, at this point.

* – Yes, it’s OK to think of Jaromir Jagr before that sentence ends.

Red Wings are ‘excited’ about Michael Rasmussen’s offensive upside

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The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, but there appears to be something good that came from that.

Instead of drafting in the back half of the first round, the Wings were able to get a top 10 selection in last June’s NHL Entry Draft. With the ninth overall pick, they chose power forward Michael Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. NHLers of that size are a rare breed. Add the fact that he’s gifted offensively, and it looks like the Red Wings may have a gem coming through the pipeline.

In his first three career preseason games, the 18-year-old has already picked up two goals. His play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the organization.

“I’m excited about him as a prospect,” head coach Jeff Blashill said, per MLive.com. “He’s big, he’s smooth, he’s got good hands, he’s got good offensive sense.”

With all big forwards, a lot of their success will be determined by their skating ability. In today’s NHL, it’s pretty clear that you need to be able to move if you’re going to have a long and productive career. But according to Blashill, skating isn’t a big issue with Rasmussen.

“I think he skates well. People have questioned that, but I don’t see that at all. I think he covers lots of ground in a hurry. I think he needs to move his feet a little bit more at times in the D-zone, but overall I’ve been happy with his play.”

No matter what he does between now and the end of training camp, it sounds like Rasmussen will be heading back to the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, where he’ll look to improve his numbers from last year (32 goals, 55 points in 50 games).

Luongo pushes through ‘mental, physical grind’ in comeback from hip injury

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Roberto Luongo is back, taking part in the preseason for the Florida Panthers, in preparation for when the games begin to count in the standings.

However, his latest comments suggest he didn’t know if that would indeed be the case, after suffering a hip injury that resulted in surgery following the 2015-16 season and then shut him down in March last season.

“For a good two- to three-month period it was a battle mentally to just figure out if I could be able to ever come back,” Luongo told NHL.com. “I didn’t feel like I was getting better and it was constantly bothering me, so it was as much a mental grind as a physical grind from March until almost June if I could ever fully recover and feel good on the ice.”

Luongo is now 38 years old and the rigorous demands of playing that position for more than 960 career regular season games — not to mention playoffs or international duty — can surely take a toll on the body. The Panthers have a good tandem in net with Luongo and James Reimer, but what will be intriguing as the season progresses is how head coach Bob Boughner divvies up playing time between the two, with Luongo appearing to be healthier and as Florida looks to get back into the postseason.

The past several weeks, though, have been encouraging for Luongo. He returned to the ice well ahead of training camp and gave an optimistic report, saying there weren’t “any issues.” That was just over a month ago. He stopped all eight shots he faced during 31:26 of ice time in his preseason debut last week, which was a good start.

Auston Matthews puts on a show in preseason tilt vs. Habs

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Auston Matthews and William Nylander are showing no signs of any sophomore slump so far through the pre-season.

Matthews had a hat trick and an assist and Nylander had a goal and two assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 in an NHL preseason game on Monday night.

Matthews scored his first goal of the game 47 seconds into the first period. His wrist shot from just inside the blue line went over the right shoulder of Canadiens goaltender Al Montoya.

Matthews made it 2-0 at 4:56. Nylander’s initial shot went high, and Matthews batted down the rebound and into an open side of the net.

He scored his third goal in the third period. While on a breakaway, Matthews shot the puck between the legs of Montoya at 3:46.

Matthews has four goals and two assists in three preseason games.

Jeff Petry scored for Montreal while on the power play at 11:37 of the second period.

Nylander scored at 6:03 of the third period to give Toronto a 5-1 lead.

Patrick Marleau also had a goal for Toronto while Frederik Andersen made 20 saves.