Cam Tucker

Predators advance to Western Conference Final for first time in franchise history

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They swept the Blackhawks.

They handled the Blues in six games.

The Nashville Predators are now off to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history.

A year ago, they were one victory away from that same feat, only to lose in Game 7 of the second round. Not this time. On Sunday, the Predators shook off a slow start in the first period for a 3-1 victory in Game 6 against the Blues in front of the home crowd in Nashville.

It’s been quite a journey to this point.

The Predators entered this post-season as the second wild card team in the West. It wasn’t enough to upset the Blackhawks in the first round. They dispatched the No. 1 seed in the West in four games and made it look relatively easy, too, almost completely shutting down Chicago’s offense. The sensational play of Pekka Rinne in net was a major reason why.

The Predators’ production from the blue line has been a major reason for their success in the second round. On the other hand, forwards Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg had been having a difficult time producing in this series, with only three points between all of them in five games.

Talk about a perfect time to bust that collective slump.

Johansen had an assist on Roman Josi‘s second period goal — more scoring from the Nashville blue line? Get out! — and then scored the eventual winner early in the third period. Beautiful goal, too, as Johansen made a move to the backhand to beat Jake Allen after the Arvidsson pass into the middle caught Nashville’s center streaking toward the net at full speed.

Of course, Nashville could’ve increased its lead, too. The Predators had two breakaways and a two-on-one after taking the lead but couldn’t convert. They also had a look at the open net but Arvidsson’s attempt (from inside the blue line) was blocked, providing an anxious few seconds for the locals.

Rinne made 23 saves for the win and had an assist on the series-clinching empty net goal.

The Predators now await the winner of the Anaheim-Edmonton series. Game 6 goes tonight in Edmonton. The Ducks lead the series 3-2.

The IIHF is ‘keeping the door open’ for NHL participation in 2018 Olympics

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Is there still a chance NHL players will be going to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea after all?

Just over a month ago, the NHL said ‘No’ to the Olympics, which led a number of star players to criticize the decision.

Apparently, based on a report Friday, there has been another development on that front.

More from NBC Sports’ OlympicTalk:

The IIHF said it is “exploring options” with the NHL Players’ Association and the IOC and still “keeping the door open” for NHL participation at the 2018 Olympics.

On Friday, a German report quoted IIHF president Rene Fasel as saying ongoing talks to overturn the NHL’s decision not to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Games had a July deadline.

Fasel was speaking at the IIHF world championship co-hosted by France and Germany.

The IIHF later denied that talks were happening between the IIHF and the NHL. The IIHF did not confirm or deny the July deadline.

Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet later discussed the supposed prospects of the NHL participation in the Olympics — this late in the soap opera. It doesn’t sound promising, to say the least.

“There’s been a rumor going around that the International Ice Hockey Federation will try to sit down with the NHL again and re-open the Olympic conversation. ‘Is this dead? Can we still find a way to make it work?'” said Friedman on Saturday.

“I’m told the NHL is saying, ‘No. There’s going to be no discussion about this. There’s no re-opener. We’ve made our decision. And that is our position.’ It’s final.”

Related:

Malkin keen to go to Olympics, hopes Penguins will let him

Pre-game reading: Go to Olympics ‘at your own peril’

Russia wants players back in KHL for Olympics

Despite recent struggles, Braden Holtby ‘stepped up’ in Game 5 to help keep Capitals alive

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After four games of this series against the Penguins, there was plenty of blame to go around the Capitals as they faced the growing possibility of another early playoff exit.

Head coach Barry Trotz had, after a disappointing Game 4 loss, taken his stars to task. The Capitals, Trotz argued, needed more from many in their lineup, including their top players.

They needed more offensive production from some of their depth players. They needed more from goalie Braden Holtby.

After a .925 save percentage in the regular season and subsequent status as a Vezina Trophy finalist, and with a career save percentage of .933 in 56 playoff games, Holtby had struggled in this series. Through four games, he had posted a save percentage of .867 and had been pulled in Game 2.

Meanwhile, the guy at the other end of the rink, Marc-Andre Fleury, placed on the bench a year ago in favor of Matt Murray and had trade rumors circulating around him during this regular season, had been the better of the two goalies and was sensational in a Game 4 win in which Washington held a huge advantage in shots on goal and puck possession.

The Penguins tested Holtby only 10 times through two periods Saturday. They had beaten him twice, taking the lead on a Phil Kessel power play goal and putting Washington 20 minutes away from elimination. But Holtby didn’t allow anything the rest of the night, stopping all 12 shots he faced in the third period.

That was crucial because his teammates in front of him were able to solve Fleury for a trio of goals in just under five minutes and the Capitals were able to hold on from there.

“I thought [Holtby] really stepped it up. We got a lot of energy from those saves that he made,” Trotz told reporters. “In the third, they had a push when we got up a couple there and I thought he was huge.”

Capitals offensive attack erupts to extend series vs. Penguins

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The Capitals are still alive.

They have extended this series to a sixth game thanks to a 4-2 win over the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

On home ice for Game 5, the Capitals were 20 minutes away from another sudden, disappointing departure from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the second round against the rival Penguins — and all of the critical questions, second guessing, difficult decisions and possibly some very significant changes that can follow such a result.

The Penguins, with Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary back in the lineup after missing the last game due to concussions, held the lead going into the third period. They had stifled the Capitals in the second period. It was hardly exciting, but it did, up until then at least, have the desired impact.

As a result, they were on the verge of eliminating the Capitals and doing so in front of the Washington fans, which certainly would’ve added further insult to an organization that has been unable to escape the discussion about its past playoff failures.

Then, from almost out of nowhere, the Capitals offense erupted. Those star players that coach Barry Trotz was demanding more from emphatically answered the call.

The depth of their offensive attack had been lacking in terms of production, but that changed for at least one night with a two-point effort from Andre Burakovsky, who halted his playoff scoring drought at 10 games and his playoff point drought at six games.

Nicklas Backstrom started the onslaught. He beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a shot under his left arm. That tied the game 2:49 into the third period. The Capitals were just getting started. Evgeny Kuznetsov followed that up less than five minutes later with the go-ahead goal and Alex Ovechkin increased Washington’s lead just 27 seconds later.

That’s Ovechkin’s second goal of this series. He had a difficult performance in Game 4 and admitted as much afterwards. He responded with an inspired third period that also included a shot off the post.

The Capitals finally found an answer to Fleury. They had outplayed the Penguins in the second half of Game 4 but couldn’t find that tying goal in large part because of the play of Pittsburgh’s goalie, who had a .937 save percentage entering Saturday’s contest.

Fleury had outplayed Braden Holtby at the other end in this series. But not in Game 5. Holtby, who had an underwhelming .867 save percentage through four games against the Penguins, was much better when his team absolutely needed it.

Game 6 goes Monday in Pittsburgh. The Penguins still lead the series. The Capitals still have plenty of work remaining if they are to pull off what would be a tremendous comeback.

But for the Capitals, this was a pretty good start.

Video: Capitals’ Burakovsky finally snaps playoff scoring drought

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There are many reasons why the Washington Capitals find themselves once again facing elimination against the Pittsburgh Penguins, down 3-1 in this series.

Among those reasons has been a lack of depth scoring from certain players in their lineup.

That includes 22-year-old Andre Burakovsky, who hadn’t scored a goal in this series or this post-season prior to Saturday, and hadn’t recorded a point in his last six games, dating back to the opening round versus Toronto.

Burakovsky finally snapped his scoring drought, beating Marc-Andre Fleury with a quick wrist shot on the blocker side. Nice shot, but an even better toe-drag move — talk about patience — to set up the shot.

The Capitals needed that goal, too.

Needing a win to extend the series back to Pittsburgh, the Capitals trailed the Penguins 1-0 until the Burakovsky goal with 30 seconds remaining in the period, despite shot totals and puck possession once again favoring Washington.