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Rinne stars as Predators even up Stanley Cup Final

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NASHVILLE — The Stanley Cup Final is now a best-of-three, and definitely coming back to the Music City.

The Nashville Predators cemented both of those on Monday night, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece.

Calle Jarnkrok, Frederick Gaudreau, Viktor Arvidsson and Mattias Ekholm scored for the Preds who, for the second straight contest, put forth a diverse and balanced offensive attack. In Game 1, Nashville had nine different skaters register a point.

Tonight, it was 12.

That wasn’t the only theme carried over from Saturday’s tilt. Just like he did in Game 3, Pekka Rinne again came up big in goal, allowing just one goal on 24 shots.

The Finnish tender has completely turned his series around after a rough opening in Pittsburgh. His save percentage over the first two games was a ghastly .778.

Over the last two, it’s .961.

Rinne was at his absolute finest in the second period, turning aside all eight shots faced, none more difficult than this sequence of stops on Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel:

Crosby was the lone Penguin to beat Rinne on the night, converting a nice breakaway chance late in the opening frame for his first goal of the Cup Final. The Pittsburgh captain was a going concern throughout, and had his best game of the series.

But it wasn’t enough.

Several of Crosby’s mates will want to forget the two games in Nashville ever happened. Phil Kessel failed to score a single point. As did Evgeni Malkin. Collectively, the Penguins could only generate two goals, went o-fer on the power play and were out-shot in both contests.

But the Pens will be hopeful the narrative of this series continues — the one in which the home team has consistently held serve, and won every game.

And so, back to the Steel City we go.

And then we’re right back in Nashville.

Notes…

Gaudreau became just the second player in NHL history to score the first three goals of his career in the Cup Final. The other was Chicago’s John Harms, who did it in 1944…Nashville now has the best home record in the playoffs, a 9-1 mark. The Preds have outscored opponents 34-15 in those games…The Preds also became the first team since 2011 to rally from an 0-2 series deficit and even things up. The last team to do it, the 2011 Boston Bruins, went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Stars give Lindell two-year extension

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More news out of Dallas, where the Stars have signed defenseman Esa Lindell to a two-year, $4.4-million contract extension.

From the release:

Lindell, 23, posted 18 points (6-12=18) in 73 games played for Dallas during the 2016-17 regular season, his first full season in the NHL. He finished second on the team by averaging 21:52 of time on ice per game and his +8 plus/minus rating finished third. Additionally, he finished second on the team with 119 blocked shots and tied for fifth with 93 hits.

The Stars still have a couple of restricted free agents on the back end. Both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are arbitration-eligible. Lindell was not.

Earlier today, it was reported that the Stars were buying out goalie Antti Niemi.

Dallas also signed forward Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension. The 24-year-old was acquired from Chicago in the Johnny Oduya trade on Feb. 28.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.