Peter Laviolette has ‘brought the best’ out of the Preds

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Peter Laviolette is not one to waste precious time reflecting on how he feels about taking his third different NHL team to the conference finals.

The coach is too busy trying to help the Nashville Predators bring the Stanley Cup championship to Music City.

“We’re excited to get going and start,” he said. “Guys have worked hard to get to this point and just want to keep working hard. Like I said, I think the most important thing is just keep our head down and keep doing the work.”

It’s tough to argue with Laviolette’s approach considering his success.

Now 52, Laviolette is just the third coach since the NHL split its playoffs between conferences in 1994 to take three different teams this far, joining Ken Hitchcock (Dallas, Philadelphia and St. Louis) and Darryl Sutter (Chicago, Calgary and Los Angeles). If the Predators get past Anaheim in the Western Conference finals , which start Friday night, he would be the first in that span to take three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final.

Laviolette won the 2006 Stanley Cup with Carolina and led Philadelphia to the finals in 2010. Earlier this season, Laviolette became just the second U.S.-born coach to win 500 NHL games and the 28th overall to coach 1,000 games. His playoff record is 60-52, including 17-13 in three seasons in Nashville.

Paul Holmgren, now the Flyers’ president, hired Laviolette to take over in Philadelphia in 2009 and watched the coach win the Eastern Conference title in his first season. Holmgren said Laviolette is so positive and such a strong motivator that the coach made him confident the Flyers would win every game. Laviolette’s offensive drills also impressed him.

“Peter brings out offensive confidence to his players …, and I think it’s obvious in all the stops he’s been,” Holmgren said. “His teams, not only do they play well defensively, but they get in the offensive zone they have a concept, an idea of how to get the puck in the back of the net.”

The offensive touch is exactly why general manager David Poile hired Laviolette three years ago . The Predators since have added Filip Forsberg, James Neal, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala to give the coach quality offensive talent.

“We’ve walked pretty much hand-in-hand in terms of what we’re doing to accommodate players to the way he wanted to coach,” Poile said.

How Laviolette asks players to play isn’t easy, demanding that they know the system so well that they don’t have to think on the ice. This is the third season for defenseman Mattias Ekholm, and he said he knows exactly how to react in any given situation with a confidence that flows through the rest of the team.

“We know that we can have a really good chance of winning games,” Ekholm said.

Forward Vernon Fiddler, 37, is back with the Predators after starting his NHL career in Nashville in 2002-03. He credits Laviolette with gauging just what the locker room needs.

“You can just tell he’s been through this before,” Fiddler said. “There’s never any second-guessing. It’s obvious this is the way it’s going to be and that’s how it is. There’s no gray area. It’s one way or no way. I think that’s what’s really driving our team.”

Laviolette certainly has the ability to tap the right player at the right time. The first game he played Fiddler was in the second round against St. Louis, and Fiddler came through with the game-winning goal . Eight different Predators have scored game-winning goals this postseason.

What Laviolette hates is telling someone he can’t play. But he does it because that’s his job.

“Those are different things, but things that have to be done,” Laviolette said.

It helps that Laviolette is a former player himself, though his NHL career as a defenseman lasted only 12 games with the New York Rangers during the 1988-89 season. A native of Franklin, Massachusetts, Laviolette played for the United States in the 1988 and 1994 Olympics with 594 career games in the minor leagues.

“He’s an honest guy,” Predators captain Mike Fisher said. “He’ll tell it like it is. He’s done a great job of communicating to us and what he wants and how we need to be successful. Yeah, he doesn’t pull any punches, for sure, and that’s a good thing. Guys know what you’re getting. I think he’s really brought the best out of a lot of people.”

 

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.

Rivals Crosby and Ovechkin relish being All-Star teammates

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have played dozens of regular-season and playoff games against each other since breaking into the NHL together in 2005.

The longtime rivals and respective captains of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have also shared the ice at All-Star Games before. But with each superstar in his mid-30s, they know this trip could be their last together.

They took advantage of it, with Ovechkin setting up Crosby for two goals Saturday in the lone game of the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament their Metropolitan Division team got to play.

“I think we have fun to play together, not against each other,” Ovechkin said, flashing his gap-toothed smile. “Right now, we was on the same team, and it was pretty special, pretty good moment.”

Crosby, who also had the secondary assist on Ovechkin’s goal, did not expect to get the puck back. That’s not unreasonable given Ovechkin has built a career on scoring and is only 82 goals back of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL career record.

“I was thinking I just did my job: gave it to him,” said Crosby, whose career numbers are so close to Ovechkin’s that he has just five more points overall. “I thought he was just going finish it, but he was kind enough to send me a couple back. We had some nice goals there.”

Not enough to win the 3-on-3 semifinal against the Atlantic, which beat the Central in the final. Ovechkin lamented not scoring more and took some jabs at his goalie teammates for a day: fellow Russians Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers and Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders.

“Obviously goalie could play better,” Ovechkin said.

Crosby and Ovechkin being together at All-Star weekend for the first time since 2018 was one of the themes of the weekend, given how they shared the stage as faces of the NHL for much of their careers. But they don’t want this to be a Sid and Ovi swan song and could do this again as soon as next year when the festivities are in Toronto.

“You try to go out there have fun and stay in the moment,” Crosby said. “Hopefully, it’s not our last one. That’s the best way to approach it.”

HOMETOWN HEROICS

The introductions for Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk were saved for last.

And of course, the two Florida Panthers stars, representing the Atlantic Division, delivered in their home arena.

“We play regular-season and playoff games here, but with this event, it’s even more special to be here representing the Florida Panthers,” Barkov said.

Tkachuk was clearly comfortable playing in the same arena where has amassed 66 points (sixth in the NHL) this season with the Panthers. He had seven points (four goals, three assists) Saturday, including a goal and an assist in the Atlantic Division’s 7-5 win over the Central Division to take the All-Star game title.

Tkachuk had a hat trick and a pair of assists in the Atlantic squad’s semifinal game against the Metropolitan division – tying a single-game points record for the 3-on-3 All-Star format. Two of those goals were assisted by his Panthers teammate to give their squad a win 10-6 and advance to face the Central division the final.

By the time Barkov and Tkachuk came out for the All-Star game final, “Let’s go Panthers!” cheers were being belted throughout FLA Live Arena.

Barkov, the beloved Panther in his 10th season, has 14 goals this year and 33 assists. He has 234 career goals and 600 points.

BROTHERLY LOVE

Brothers Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk have played against each other plenty over the years. But with both players starting for the Atlantic division, they got to experience playing together as the 11th set of brothers to be All-Star teammates.

The brothers each had a goal in Saturday’s semifinal game between the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions. And Brady assisted on his brother’s goal in the final against the Central division.

Matthew, drafted in 2016 by the Calgary Flames, is a two-time All-Star with 177 career goals and 448 points.

Brady, the younger Tkachuk sibling, was drafted in 2018 by the Ottawa Senators and has 110 career goals and 243 points.

Both were All-Stars back in 2020 in their hometown St. Louis. Brady represented the Atlantic division, while Matthew represented the Pacific squad.

WEATHER WOES

It was 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) outside FLA Live Arena when the All-Star 3 on-3 tournament started – more than 50 degrees warmer than 2024 host Toronto. That doesn’t mean this year’s event didn’t have a weather issue.

The NHL All-Star Beach Festival – which had areas where fans could test their hockey skills, get a photo with the Stanley Cup and check out a Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit, among other things – couldn’t open on Saturday.

Rain in the morning delayed the opening on Fort Lauderdale Beach, and then 40 mph (64 kilometers per hour) wind gusts later in the day forced the NHL into keeping it closed and calling off a watch party for the All-Star Game.

It was open Thursday and Friday.

MVP Matthew Tkachuk lifts Atlantic to NHL All-Star Game win

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk was right at home at the NHL All-Star Game.

Again.

Detroit’s Dylan Larkin had a hat trick, Toronto’s Mitch Marner had three assists and the Atlantic Division topped the Central Division 7-5 in the All-Star Game final.

All-Star Game MVP Matthew Tkachuk – playing alongside his brother Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators – had seven points on the day, after a five-point outburst in a semifinal win over the Metropolitan Division. Larkin had five goals in the Atlantic’s two games.

And for the MVP, winning in front of Panthers fans meant more than just winning.

“It’s been an honor to play in front of them this whole year and it’s great that the other players in the league can see what a great place this is to play,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “I’m as happy as can be here.”

Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Dallas’ Jason Robertson, Colorado teammates Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen all had goals for the Central in the final. Makar also had two assists.

It was the first time the Atlantic won the All-Star Game, after six previous tries in the divisional format. The 11 players – nine skaters and two goalies – on the Atlantic roster split $1 million for the win.

“It was so much fun,” Larkin said after the first final game hat trick in this All-Star format. “I’m proud of how we won it. What a great group of guys … it was just a great weekend.”

Matthew Tkachuk has now been on the winning team in both of his All-Star appearances, and both times, he enjoyed the comforts of home. He helped the Pacific win the 2020 All-Star title in St. Louis, his hometown and one of the many spots that his father – Keith Tkachuk, who was in the crowd Saturday – played during his career.

This one truly had home-ice advantage. Matthew Tkachuk – the former Calgary standout who picked Florida this past offseason, despite much speculation that he would be going to St. Louis — had three goals and two assists in the Atlantic’s 10-6 win over the Metropolitan in the second semifinal.

It was 3-0 Atlantic after the first half of the 20-minute final; all games under this All-Star format are 3-on-3, 20 minutes in length with a brief break after 10 minutes. The lead got to 4-0 early in the second half of the final, giving the Atlantic 10 consecutive goals; it trailed 6-4 in the semifinal before closing on a 6-0 run.

NOTES: The NHL gets right back to play on Monday with six games, including a home game for Florida – meaning it’ll be a quick turnaround for the arena. … The Central Division is now the only one yet to win an All-Star Game in this format. The Pacific has three wins, the Metropolitan has three wins and now the Atlantic has one. … Florida was supposed to host this game in 2021, only to have it canceled by the pandemic. The Panthers hosted All-Star weekend in 2023. … Attendance was a sellout, 19,250.

SEMIFINAL 1: CENTRAL 6, PACIFIC 4

Keller had two goals and an assist, MacKinnon scored twice and the Central moved into the title matchup. St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and three assists for the Central. Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson had two goals, while San Jose’s Erik Karlsson and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid also scored for the Pacific.

SEMIFINAL 2: ATLANTIC 10, METROPOLITAN 6

The teams combined for a record-tying – in the 3-on-3 era, anyway – 16 goals. Matthew Tkachuk had three goals and two assists, tying a single-game record for the format. Brady Tkachuk had a goal and three assists for the Atlantic. Columbus’ Johnny Gaudreau had three goals for the Metropolitan. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby had two goals and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin had the other.

UP NEXT

The next NHL All-Star weekend is Feb. 2-3, 2024 in Toronto.