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Deep roster from savvy moves opens wide window for Predators

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Predators coach Peter Laviolette’s biggest challenge adding Finnish scoring whiz Eeli Tolvanen has been finding a spot for the teenager in his lineup.

Yes, the Nashville Predators are that deep.

It’s why the defending Western Conference champions have turned in their best season yet with their sights set on finishing what they couldn’t a year ago. Savvy drafting, surprising trades and a handful of salary-cap friendly contract extensions have the Predators on the verge of what could be a dominant run in the NHL.

Boston, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks have run into salary cap issues or injuries that slammed the window shut on chasing the Stanley Cup. Dean Lombardi, who won two Stanley Cups with the Kings, said he thinks Nashville general manager David Poile has done the best job yet giving the Predators the chance to compete for the next five years.

”He’s still got to win it, but I think he’s certainly positioned for that,” Lombardi said. ”To put a team of this quality together, which is one heck of a team. They can beat you in so many ways. They don’t have a weakness, and to be flexible going forward, I think is a remarkable job.”

The Predators not only are in the playoffs for an 11th time in the franchise’s 20 years, they head into the postseason having clinched their first Central Division title and Western Conference regular-season title with a 4-3 win at Washington on Thursday night. Then a few minutes later, Boston’s 3-2 loss at Florida handed Nashville its first Presidents’ Trophy for good measure.

Veteran center Mike Fisher, who unexpectedly came out of retirement in February to rejoin the Predators, sees an even deeper roster than a season ago. Despite not having a single player among the NHL scoring leaders, eight Predators have at least 48 points apiece this season along with four different 20-goal scorers.

”No question it’s stronger than last year for sure, as strong as I’ve been a part of,” Fisher said. ”You look at last year, you lose a couple key guys, and it made it tough. We were still real close. You just never know. Hopefully, we stay healthy. But you just never know. It’s always great to have that.”

Poile didn’t stand pat with a team that lost the final to Pittsburgh in six games.

With Fisher taking until August to announce his retirement , Poile signed center Nick Bonino as a free agent. Poile also signed center Ryan Johansen to the longest and richest contract the Predators have ever given out on their own, signing the then 24-year-old center to an eight-year, $64 million deal in July a couple days after signing Viktor Arvidsson to a seven-year deal.

Those contracts, combined with a six-year deal in July 2016 for Filip Forsberg, tied up Nashville’s top line through the 2021-22 season for a tidy sum of $18.25 million per year.

Poile joined Ottawa and Colorado in a three-way trade in November, bringing center Kyle Turris to Nashville . Poile also signed Turris to a six-year, $36 million extension, keeping him under contract through 2023-24 like Johansen and Arvidsson. The Predators gave Fisher a one-year deal.

Poile still had enough money to land forward Ryan Hartman at the trade deadline from Chicago, a seller that will finish last in the Central Division.

One deal that could haunt Nashville depends on defenseman Shea Weber, the former captain traded to Montreal for defenseman P.K. Subban . That deal netted the Predators a younger and cheaper defenseman, but Nashville needs Weber to play until he’s 40 to finish the 14-year, $110 million deal first offered by Philadelphia or face a salary cap hit that would cost more in 2025-26 than the Predators’ current defense corps.

The Predators are focused on this postseason with Laviolette taking advantage of his depth not to rush anyone back from injury.

”Winning always solves a lot of problems, and we’ve been able to do that inside of this game plan,” Laviolette said.

To some critics, adding Tolvanen at the risk of needlessly burning a year on the forward’s entry-level contract seemed almost like too much.

Not to the Predators who remember forward Kevin Fiala breaking his leg in their second-round series with St. Louis last spring or Johansen needing emergency surgery for acute compartment syndrome suffered during the Western Conference finals against Anaheim. Johansen said depth matters most in the playoffs.

”We feel like we’re in a great spot right now going into this postseason,” Johansen said. ”We got a lot of bodies that can not only play certain roles, but versatile players that can step up and be great players in any area of the game. So for us, our team feels really confident in what our capabilities are.”

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

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Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blue Jackets’ Matt Calvert scores unusual breakaway goal

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We’ve all see some breakaways go horribly, horribly wrong in the past.

Patrik Stefan reigns supreme here. Devin Setoguchi didn’t fare too well on this one. And then there was this gaffe by Dennis Wideman once upon a time.

But sometimes one screws up, only to rebound quickly and turn a near-blunder into a nice-ish goal.

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert did that today, in what’s already being called the best/worst breakaway attempt of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As you can see in the video above, Calvert gets a nice clean breakaway. As he attempts to first a wrist shot, he whiffs on the attempt but manages to corral the puck back, doing the whole spin-o-rama thing, and deposit the puck past Braden Holtby for his second goal of the game.

Sometimes it just all works out.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Lightning, Bruins try to move on to Round 2

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Game 5: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (Lightning lead series 3-1)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Gord Miller, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Ray Ferraro
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET (Bruins lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream

*Regionalized coverage – Florida markets and WNBC in New York metro area will air NJ-TB on NBC and CBJ-WSH on NBCSN; all other markets will receive CBJ-WSH on NBC and NJ-TB on NBCSN

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]