James Neal

Avs drop fourth straight as Preds’ Rinne shuts them out

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The Colorado Avalanche lost netminder Semyon Varlamov again on Tuesday due to a lingering groin injury, but their goaltending wasn’t the reason they suffered a 3-0 defeat to Nashville on Tuesday.

Calvin Pickard did an admiral job filling in for Varlamov. He stopped 33 of 34 shots and Filip Forsberg’s game-winning goal would have been a tough one to stop.

Gabriel Bourque and James Neal padded the lead with empty-net goals in the final two minutes of the contest.

At the other end of the ice, Pekka Rinne earned a 26-save shutout. He’s emerged as an early contender for the Vezina Trophy with a 18-5-1 record, 1.81 GAA, and .934 save percentage in 24 games this season. Perhaps he’ll get some consideration for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy too given that he’s putting up these numbers after missing most of the 2013-14 campaign because of a hip injury.

Colorado has now lost four consecutive games to fall to 9-13-6 in 2014-15. The Avalanche have to overcome a nine-point deficit if they want to make the playoffs. The only silver lining is there’s still plenty of time for them to do that.

Video: Shaw sends Neal into Blackhawks bench

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It’s a battle of two teams in an early fight for the Central Division, so naturally it’s going to be physical. Just ask James Neal.

Neal, the Nashville Predators forward, was sent into the Chicago bench by Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw in the first period of Saturday’s game. Shaw isn’t the biggest guy, listed at only 5’11 tall. Meanwhile, Neal stands about 6’2″ tall. The hit sparked a brief melee near the bench.

How strong are the Predators, really?

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After eking out a 1-0 overtime win against the ailing Edmonton Oilers, the Nashville Predators wake up on Black Friday atop the Central Division and among the NHL’s top teams.

That’s quite the feat considering the mixed predictions this team brought into 2014-15, not to mention two straight seasons outside of the playoffs. So how seriously should this team be taken?

Let’s look at some key numbers to ponder that question.

1. They’re strong in possession, but have also been a little lucky – The Oilers carried a notable shot advantage last night, but Nashville won. The Predators have been a quality possession team, yet they’ve also been a little lucky this season.

Nashville’s PDO is 103.3, indicating that the Predators are enjoying more “puck luck” than any team in the NHL.

2. Pekka Rinne has been outstanding – Critics wondering if Rinne is worth $7 million per year are probably a little quieter today, as he’s been fantastic; in a way, his play last night symbolized the starkest difference between Edmonton and Nashville.

Rinne’s on a five-game winning streak and has won nine of his last 10 games. With a sparkling .932 save percentage, he’d be the easy choice if the Vezina was determined today.

3. The best against the West – Another glaring contrast between Edmonton and Nashville: records against the West. Plenty has been said about the Oilers’ inability to beat West teams, but it’s worth mentioning that Nashville has the best record against the best conference.

They are 12-3-2 against the West. Only one other team (Vancouver at 10-5-1) is in double-digits in victories versus West opponents so far in 2014-15.

That’s a fabulous head start, if nothing else.

4. Filip Forsberg could maintain some of his ridiculous momentum – Look, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the 20-year-old to maintain a point-per-game pace all season long.

Still, while his shooting percentage is high (15.4 percent), it’s not so over-the-top that he can’t keep up a nice scoring rate over the next five months. He’s averaging almost three shots per game (65 in 22) and has quality linemates in James Neal and Mike Ribeiro, so the Calder frontrunner has a chance to remain productive.

5. Nashville’s power play has been awful – While a lot of numbers scream “regression” for the Predators, their power play is almost bound to improve.

They’ve only converted on 12.9 percent of their power-play opportunities, which ranks 24th in the NHL. If they can merely bump that number up to “middle of the pack” – certainly not an outrageous thought with Peter Laviolette behind the bench and Shea Weber leading a slew of talented offensive defensemen – they could deal with some of the likely drop-offs they might face.

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Overall, it’s tough to imagine Nashville being the cream of the crop in the brutal Central Division by the end of the season, as even today they’re only two points ahead of the St. Louis Blues. They’re stocking up on enough standings points that they could be a playoff team, however … and possibly a dangerous one, in that.

Video: Neal scores late as Predators stop Blues’ winning streak at seven games

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The St. Louis Blues just kept on winning and winning. Then they ran into the Nashville Predators, off to a pretty formidable start to the season themselves, on Saturday night and suffered a loss.

James Neal scored with just over six minutes remaining in the third period to give the Predators a 2-1 victory over their Central Division rivals. The win improves Nashville’s record to 9-3-2 and stopped the Blues’ winning streak at seven games.

Neal beat St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott with a quick wrist shot, though it was one the puck stopper said after he wanted back.

“I lost it in the bodies in front for a split second there,” Elliott told NHL.com. “I definitely want it back, especially late in the third period in a tied game, but those are going to happen too.”

 

All due respect to Trotz, Preds are playing some entertaining hockey

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It was understandable that Shea Weber didn’t want to answer the question. With Barry Trotz still held in high esteem in Nashville, the captain of the Predators wasn’t about to suggest that things are so much more fun now that there’s a new coach behind the bench.

“Honestly, I don’t want to get into comparing,” Weber said Sunday when asked if the style of hockey the Preds are playing under Peter Laviolette was more “enjoyable” than it was under Trotz.

“I’m not going to say it’s more enjoyable or not. Obviously, it’s been pretty successful for our team this year. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re told.”

Weber deftly ducked the question after Nashville had improved its record to 7-2-2 with a 3-1 win over the Canucks in Vancouver.

At the very least, he admitted that things were different this season.

“We’re playing an aggressive style,” he said. “We’re really trying to play forward.”

The Preds still aren’t scoring a ton, and they’re still solid defensively. Just like under Trotz. But Sunday’s game featured the kind of back-and-forth, entertaining action that Nashville GM David Poile had hoped to see when he hired Laviolette.

It sure helps that Pekka Rinne has been back to his old self in goal, and that newcomers James Neal and Mike Ribeiro, along with rookie-of-the-year candidate Filip Forsberg, have developed chemistry as a first line.

And while some observers remain skeptical, pointing to Nashville’s NHL-high PDO (a statistic that, essentially, measures luck), the Preds are leaving their opponents impressed.

“They have a deep lineup with a lot of threats on different lines,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. “You have to be focused every time you’re on the ice.”