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Penguins believe goals will come against Predators

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The goals that came so easily to the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final – the ones that arrived in bunches and seemed to signal an emphatic end to Pekka Rinne‘s spectacular playoff run – have disappeared.

Across six periods in Nashville, the NHL’s highest-scoring team managed to beat Rinne just twice as the Predators rallied to tie the series. Yet Penguins coach Mike Sullivan hardly seems frustrated heading into Game 5 on Thursday night back home in Pittsburgh.

Sullivan is 7-0 in series with the Penguins, and the way he sees it, his team’s inability to solve Rinne in Games 3 and 4 had little to do with lack of effort or opportunities. It had everything to do with a remarkable performance by the 34-year-old goaltender.

Where do you want to start? With Rinne’s no-look left pad stop on Jake Guentzel early in the second period of a tie game on Monday night? Maybe the one about a minute later when Rinne denied Chris Kunitz on a breakaway? Or maybe the diving blocker stop on Guentzel just before the midway point, the one that preserved Nashville’s lead on the way to a 4-1 victory?

Sullivan understands it’s easy to look at the result and be discouraged. That’s not his job. The coach who has made “play the right way” part of the franchise’s lexicon is more focused on the process. The Penguins didn’t produce much in Games 1 and 2 and somehow won going away. They “got to their game” (another of Sullivan’s favorite mantras) repeatedly in Game 4 only to lose.

It’s hockey. It happens.

“We believe that we have some guys that are due to score some goals here,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “They’ve had some high-quality chances, and the puck hasn’t gone in the net for the last couple of games. We believe if we continue to try to do the right things out there, we’ll score.”

Game 4 marked the sixth time in their last 11 games the Penguins have scored just one goal, compared to just twice in 24 playoff games last spring.

Pittsburgh has survived anyway thanks in part to a resilience that has been their hallmark under Sullivan. When limited to one goal during the 2016 postseason, they won the following game. When the Penguins had just three goals during the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa last month, they scored 10 over the next two to take control.

“It just comes down to burying your chances,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who picked up his first goal of the series in Game 4.

Something the Penguins did more than anybody during the regular season when it led the NHL in scoring. Pittsburgh is averaging 3.0 goals per game in the playoffs, the same as the Predators. It’s not a coincidence they’re the last two teams standing, both two wins away from a championship.

What the Penguins are saying now sounds an awful lot like what the Predators were saying after coming up empty in Pittsburgh to start the final. Nashville was every bit the defending champ’s equal in the opening two games only to be undone by a pair of dominant bursts by the Penguins. The Predators weren’t shaken then, much like the Penguins aren’t shaken now.

“I know it’s a nasty hole to be in,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said Tuesday. “But we really liked the way we played in Game 1. We thought we played a real competitive game in Game 2. Could have had results in both those games.”

While Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen said there are no moral victories during the postseason, the way the Penguins were able to generate odd-man rushes and stretch the ice were encouraging. They got the puck everywhere it needed to go, just not in the net. Though that style also generated opportunities for the Predators at the other end, don’t expect Pittsburgh to try and rein it in. That’s now how they got to the cusp off back-to-back titles.

“If anything we just need to press a little more,” Cullen said.

Well, everything except the panic button. Though Sullivan experimented liberally with his line combinations – something he frequently does when trying to break the Penguins out of a funk – there appear to be no plans to make a change in net.

Asked twice Tuesday if he planned on reevaluating his goaltending situation after Matt Murray allowed eight goals in Nashville, Sullivan stressed “we haven’t lost games because of our goaltending.”

The issues have been at the other end of the ice, where Rinne suddenly has his groove back. For now anyway. If the first four games of an unpredictable series have dictated anything, it’s that momentum is just one shot away.

“We found a different level (in Game 4),” Crosby said. “If we continue to get those chances, they’ll go in for us.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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.