James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

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

Report: Extension could come soon for Martin Jones, Sharks


The San Jose Sharks might not procrastinate when it comes to re-signing goalie Martin Jones.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that negotiations are going well between the two sides, making it possible that a contract extension could come as early as July.

Jones, 27, will see his $3 million cap hit expire after the 2017-18 season. There’s no word yet regarding how long the extension might be nor how much it could cost, which makes sense since the two sides must wait until July to ink a deal anyway.

One would assume it would be a healthy raise from $3 million, and considering his prime age, it could be for a decent duration.

The Sharks also have Aaron Dell signed through 2016-17 while Troy Grosenick recently inked a two-year, two-way deal, giving San Jose some insurance in case Dell is scooped up in the expansion draft.

Jones was solid this past season, going 35-23-6 with a .912 save percentage. He stopped 93.5 percent of the shots Edmonton sent his way in the first round, but the Sharks couldn’t provide enough offensive support in what would be a 4-2 series win for the Oilers.

Of course, some of Jones’ best work came in 2015-16, as he helped San Jose advance to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final before falling to Pittsburgh.

If a deal is reached, Jones would join Brent Burns as one of the few Sharks with deals beyond the next couple of seasons. Management was similarly proactive with Burns’ extension, giving him a big deal in November rather than waiting for this summer.

Kings re-sign crucial forward Tyler Toffoli for three years, $13.8M

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Being limited by the salary cap is almost always a bad thing, but sometimes it helps a team like the Los Angeles Kings to grind out some bargain contracts.

Maybe that wasn’t the case during the RFA negotiations with Tyler Toffoli, yet it sure feels like that considering the steal of a deal he signed with the Kings.

The Kings confirmed that Toffoli was re-signed for three years, $13.8 million (or a $4.6 million cap hit) on Wednesday.

GM Rob Blake & Co. came into this offseason with the challenge of restructuring a once-proud roster, but they also needed to find decent deals for two important RFA forwards in Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.

They accomplished that much with both, as Pearson’s deal run for four seasons at a very reasonable clip of $3.75 million per year. With that in mind, “That 70’s Line” of Jeff Carter, Toffoli, and Pearson costs about $13.6 million per season.

This is a heck of a deal, though a template might have been in place for high-value “bridge” deals considering the company he now keeps.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Blake’s job is done, but it’s a fantastic start. Cap Friendly places their cap room at a little less than $5.32 million after the Toffoli signing with 18 roster spots covered.

Report: Jerry Bruckheimer part of Seattle’s latest NHL, arena push


Should the NHL set aside “Pirates” for a Seattle team now, or would that be a little too hasty?

In revealing the latest plans to renovate KeyArena – and thus bring in an NHL team along with rejuvenating the beloved NBA’s Sonics – Tim Leiweke announced that famous Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer is expected to be part of a group looking to land a team in that area.

Also listed in that group is Boston Celtics minority owner David Bonderman, as KING 5’s Chris Daniels reports.

Daniels notes that Lieweke and Irving Azoff are spearheading a “$564 million gut remodel of the facility.”

“We’re committed to making sure that the passion we have for this city will be the passion that we give you every day to not only build a world-class arena for all of our generation, but to bring the NBA and the NHL back to Seattle—NBA back, NHL new,” Leiweke said.

To add even more legitimacy to the presentation, key members of the Vancouver Canucks (Francesco Aquilini) and Florida Panthers (Peter Luukko) were on hand, not to mention members from other professional sports teams and leagues.

More: Leiweke group picked.

Daniels reports that the Seattle Mayor Ed Murray confirmed contact with the NHL regarding the matter.

Interesting. This saga has already seen plenty of twists and turns, so we’ll see if there’s eventually fire to go with all the smoke.

Now, if a Bruckhemier-helmed group indeed lands a Seattle NHL team, we’re really going to need to hash out a perfect team name. “Pirates of the Caribbean” seems like the most obvious choice, and while it would be better than the Seattle Sorcerer’s Apprentice, his imdb page provides plenty of fodder to distract you before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final kicks into gear on Thursday.

His real name is Rocky: Golden Knights hire Thompson to coach AHL team

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The best part of virtually every “Rocky” movie was the training montage, so clearly you’d expect Rocky Thompson to be great at developing young players.

OK, so that probably wasn’t the elevator pitch that sold the Vegas Golden Knights on Rocky Thompson, but either way, they named him head coach of the Chicago Wolves (their AHL affiliate) on Wednesday.

” … As a player, he was competitive, tough, team-oriented and hard working,” Golden Knights GM George McPhee said. “As a coach, he is now coming off a Memorial Cup Championship season with the Windsor Spitfires and has enjoyed success at multiple levels. Player development is a significant priority for our organization and he has proven to be very capable in that area as well. Rocky is the right coach to help us win championships in Chicago.”

AHL head coaches are typically expected to work well with young players. Still, that could be especially crucial in this case, as the Golden Knights are expected to be a work in progress. Thompson may need to deal with a rotating cast even by the standards of sending key pieces to the NHL.

Getting the most out of fringe talent could help accelerate the build, so Thompson is an important hire.

His name also really is Rocky Lee Thompson, too, apparently.

More on the construction of the Golden Knights

Key dates to know

Tough break at NHL Draft Lottery

Vegas hires Gerard Gallant as head coach at NHL level