Malkin shakes off tired talk heading into Game 5 of Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH (AP) Somewhere between the catfish lobbing , A-list national anthem singers, Carrie Underwood’s forgetfulness , Charles Barkley’s surprise cameo and P.K. Subban‘s breath, there’s been another notable development during the Stanley Cup Final:

A series has broken out. Perhaps the seeds of an upset, too.

A week ago, the Nashville Predators headed home down 2-0 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Pekka Rinne‘s game seemed to be in tatters and the Penguins fan base was musing whether it preferred a clean sweep or just a split of the two games in Nashville so the defending champions could raise the Cup on home ice.

So, about that.

The vibe inside PPG Paints Arena for Game 5 on Thursday night figures to be more anxious than anticipatory after the Predators evened the series at 2-2 with a pair of vintage performances on home ice that sent “Smashville” into a frenzy and delivered a very clear message that the first-timers are a clear threat to become first-time winners.

Through four games, Nashville has more goals, more shots on goal and a bit more swagger than Pittsburgh. What began as a two-month slog to the Cup is now a three-game dash, one that appears to be a coin flip. The Penguins have the experience. The Predators have the momentum. Both are fighting fatigue with adrenaline.

“I know people talk about how we’re tired, but believe me, they’re tired too,” Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin said. “It’s not only us tired. It’s only three games left. We’re not talking about being tired.”

Maybe, but Nashville appeared a step quicker in its home building, pouring in nine goals and handing Penguins goalie Matt Murray the first back-to-back playoff losses of his young career. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan isn’t concerned about Murray. He’s not really worried about the 190 feet in front of Murray, either. The Penguins have come within two games of the first team to capture consecutive Cups in nearly two decades due in large part to their resiliency.

And while captain Sidney Crosby says the “desperation level” will ramp up, Sullivan was quick to point out the term doesn’t mean what you think it means.

“`Desperate’ is a funny word for me because it gets thrown around our game a lot,” Sullivan said. “It always has a connotation of hopelessness. I don’t believe that’s the word that we want to use to describe our team. I think we’ve got to play with urgency. I think we’ve got to play determined. I think we have to play with conviction. I think when our team plays that way, we’re at our very best.”

Pittsburgh is just 7-7 over its last 14 games and has been limited to just one goal in six of its past 11 – including the two losses in Nashville. Still, Pittsburgh is pretty good in the house that owner Mario Lemieux built. The Penguins finished with the second-best home record in the league and have ripped off five straight victories on home ice since Ottawa stunned them in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, including the first two games of the Cup final when they needed just 36 shots to beat Rinne eight times.

Funny, Rinne hardly looked rattled back home, holding Pittsburgh to just two goals combined as Nashville rallied to tie things up in front of a giddy home crowd that included Underwood, who was so caught up in Cup fever she overlooked husband Mike Fisher‘s 37th birthday. Not that Fisher or his teammates keeping track anyway. Not with the ultimate prize so close at hand.

When the playoffs started in mid-April, the Predators were the last team in. Now they’re two victories away from a title few saw coming. At least one of those wins will have to come in Pittsburgh, where Rinne has never won a game.

Maybe it’s fitting considering the 19-season journey they’ve taken to get to this point. They’ll take their chances.

“We have no home ice, we knew that coming in,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “We have to win a road game. There’s no other way around it.”

The Predators are 5-5 when forced to wear the road whites, including a Game 5 victory against Anaheim in the West finals. Save for a pair of flurries (one at the end of the first period in Game 1, the other at the beginning of the third period in Game 2) Nashville has been every bit Pittsburgh’s equal.

“I think we’re going to expect their best hockey in their rink,” Predators forward James Neal said. “I think both teams have gotten better throughout the series and that’s expected. It’s going to be a battle going in there and we need to steal one in their arena.”

Do it and they might not steal a title, but earn one.

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

Agent: Schultz likes Pittsburgh, but wants to be ‘rewarded’

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Justin Schultz took a significant pay cut to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

He doesn’t begrudge the deal he signed, as the Penguins have been a big part of turning his career around.

One assumes winning a couple of Stanley Cups has been pretty fun, too.

That being said, the 26-year-old defenseman wants a raise.

“We took a one-year, discounted deal to come back from last year and build upon what he did,” Schultz’s agent, Wade Arnott, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The player took a lot of the risk. The player performed. Now the player should be rewarded.”

Schultz, a restricted free agent, had a career-high 51 points in 78 games last season. Those 51 points were the seventh most among NHL defensemen — just five fewer than this summer’s biggest UFA, Kevin Shattenkirk, managed.

Schultz then added 13 more points in the playoffs, as the Penguins managed to win it all without Kris Letang.

For the record, Schultz wants to stay in Pittsburgh. The question is whether the Pens can afford to keep him, or if they’d be better off selling high in a trade.

“We’ll probably have some more direction here this week with where we’re going with [a possible extension],” Arnott said. “But we’ve had some good discussions.”

After Stepan trade, Zibanejad negotiations become even more crucial

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For a good while, the center position in New York was largely carried by the one-two punch of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Now, the Derick & Derek show is no longer.

Stepan was shipped out during draft weekend in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. Brassard exited a year earlier in a move to Ottawa that brought Mika Zibanejad to the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad, 24, was acquired by GM Jeff Gorton in the hopes of one day becoming New York’s No. 1 center. He certainly showed he was capable this season — despite missing nearly 30 games with a broken fibula, he put together a fine offensive regular season and then surged in the playoffs, finishing with nine points in 12 games.

And now, a big negotiation sits on the horizon.

Zibanejad is a restricted free agent coming off a two-year, $5.25 million deal with a $2.625M cap hit. As we wrote earlier, Gorton is “open to anything” with regards to the extension, saying he’d be willing to go either short- or long-term.

One has to think Zibanejad has a ton of leverage. His acquisition price (Brassard) was significant, Stepan is now gone, and so too is depth center Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired by Vegas at the expansion draft. Right now, New York’s center depth consists of Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and maybe some spot duty from J.T. Miller.

Lias Andersson, taken seventh overall at Friday’s draft, said he wants to make the Rangers this year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll even play in North America this season, as Gorton could opt to send Andersson back to the Swedish League for further development.

The free agent market isn’t especially inspiring down the middle, unless someone thinks they can land Joe Thornton, and there’s no doubt Zibanejad’s seen the paydays scored by some other good, young, top-line centers. Winnipeg gave Mark Scheifele $49 million over eight years, while Calgary gave Sean Monahan $44M over seven.

Is Zibanejad at their level? If you surveyed folks around the league, the answer would be probably no. But he could be soon and, what’s more, the Rangers may be forced to pay him as if he already is.

Sabres bring back defenseman Fedun on two-year deal

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Taylor Fedun, the Sabres depth defenseman that was set to become a UFA on Saturday, has agreed to a two-year, two-way extension, Buffalo announced on Monday.

Fedun, 29, appeared in 27 games for the Sabres last year, splitting time between the NHL and the club’s AHL affiliate in Rochester. He was a very productive player for the Amerks, scoring 23 points in 29 games.

Moving forward, most expect Fedun to continue in the same role he served this year — a guy that can provide veteran stability at the minor league level, and fill spot duty at the NHL level when injuries strike.

Ottawa extends Pyatt — two years, $2.2 million

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Tom Pyatt, the veteran forward who enjoyed some success reuniting with Guy Boucher in Ottawa last season, has re-signed with the Sens on a two-year, $2.2 million deal, per TSN.

Pyatt was a steady contributor for the Sens, scoring nine goals and 23 points while appearing in all 82 contests. He averaged over 15 minutes per night and was a vital part of the club’s penalty kill, leading all forwards in blocked shots.

He also appeared in 14 playoff games, scoring twice.

Prior to playing in Ottawa, Pyatt had skated under Boucher in Tampa Bay. They spent parts of two years together with the Lightning, before heading off to Switzerland — Pyatt with Geneve Servette, Boucher with Bern SC.

Pyatt was set to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, but clearly liked the fit in Ottawa. He’ll get a pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made last year — a bit more long-term security, and possibly a bigger role with the Sens moving forward.

Ottawa has already stated it will cut ties with veteran tough guy Chris Neil, and decisions are still looming on UFA forwards Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels.