Predators’ confidence not shaken after Game 5 blowout

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PITTSBURGH — When the Nashville Predators lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins they had every reason to remain confident in their game.

They were not only the better team at times and carried the play for extended stretches against the defending champs, but they had a great chance to win both games. In the end, they did not, but the process was still in place and they ended up getting the results over the next two to even the series.

None of that was not the case on Thursday night in their 6-0 Game 5 loss that turned into a blowout within the first 10 minutes.

As a result they are now facing elimination for the first time this postseason and have to win on Sunday night in Nashville to extend the series to a seventh game.

They do not seem phased by the situation and remain confident in their ability to defend home ice at Bridgestone Arena where they are 8-1 this postseason and have yet to lose a game in regulation.

“The real hockey starts now,” said Predators defenseman P.K. Subban.

“You’re in the Stanley Cup Final, this is what it’s all about. It’s about going back and forth and back and forth. At the end of the day we’ve already parked this game, we are focussing on Game 6 in our building. We know the energy is going to be there. We know we are going to play our best hockey and we’re going to come back with an even better performance.”

It would be difficult for them to follow up Thursday’s game with a worse a performance. For the Predators, it was probably their worst overall game in what has been an otherwise dominant postseason.

Coach Peter Laviolette was adamant that his team will be ready for Sunday.

“Our guys will be ready,” said Laviolette.  “I’m telling you, there is a lot of confidence in that room. We have a lot of confidence in our home building. We have a lot of confidence in the way we played this year and we have a lot of confidence in the way we’ve played in the playoffs. Think about it, you’ve played over 20 games and there are probably two games where we could have played better. This was one of them. Our guys will respond.”

In a sign of just how quickly things can get flipped upside down in a best-of-seven series the big question for the Predators now once again drifts back to starting goalie Pekka Rinne.

After a tough start to the series in Games 1 and 2, including a Game 2 performance that saw him be replaced by Juuse Saros, Rinne bounced back with two spectacular showings on home ice and seemed to have the series trending in Nashville’s favor.

Then on Thursday everything fell apart in the first period and it was once again Saros going back into the game.

Even with that performance and having to switch goalies twice in the first five games of the series Laviolette and the Predators remain firmly behind their starter. Especially given the way he played earlier this postseason when he was one of the biggest keys to their success.

“I know we have to be better in front of him,” said Laviolette. “If you go back and look at the goals and the way they scored, we gave up the power play early on. The next two we need better coverage. There are things we can do better in front of him. I don’t think they were bad goals. We’ll look to clean that up and be better the next game. Our guys have a tremendous amount of confidence in him we have to be better in front of him.”

Rinne was asked about his confidence level after the game.

“Good,” he said. “Feeling good. Obviously disappointed with the game. That was a huge game, we came here well prepared and we did not have it tonight. As a team we just have to feel confident playing at home.”

There is almost no question that Rinne will be back in net for Game 6, especially after Juuse Saros gave up three goals of his own after replacing him.

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.