Nashville leaning heavily on defense corps against Penguins

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Roman Josi downplays the production of the Nashville Predators’ defensemen as simply the product of their system.

“Our system allows defensemen to jump on the play and make something happen in the offensive zone, too,” Josi said. “And our forwards (are) doing a great job getting pucks to us, and yeah, tipping pucks, getting screens from that, and our job is just to get the puck through.”

Yes, the Nashville Predators lean on their defensemen not only to smother the NHL’s best attackers, but also to score in bunches. They combined for five points Saturday night to help Nashville pull within 2-1 of the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

Game 4 is Monday night.

Josi leads the unit with 14 points, followed by defensive partner Ryan Ellis with 12 and P.K. Subban with 11. Mattias Ekholm had a goal and an assist Saturday night for 10 points, making Nashville the third team in NHL history with four defensemen to reach double-digits in the same postseason, along with the 1984 Edmonton Oilers and 1993 Los Angeles Kings.

On top of that, the Predators helped hold Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a shot on goal for the first time in their lengthy careers in the same playoff game.

“Amazing, amazing job,” Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “I mean, they been doing that all playoffs long, so it’s obviously our backbone is our defense. And they do a tremendous job defensively and creating offense.”

When general manager David Poile started putting this expansion franchise together nearly 20 years ago, he focused on building from the goaltender out to the defense. Poile hired coach Peter Laviolette three years ago, and the coach brought in a system that allows everyone but the goalie to join the rush and try to score.

The Predators tied for the league lead with 181 points from their defensemen this season, and their 50 points this postseason tops the NHL with 14 goals and 36 assists. The Penguins’ defense corps has nine goals with 41 points in the playoffs.

Josi, who has six goals in these playoffs, had three points in the second period Saturday night with a goal and two assists. He became the first defenseman with three points in a period in a Stanley Cup Final game since Larry Murphy had three assists for Pittsburgh on May 23, 1991, against Minnesota.

“As you can see by the way we play, our defensemen have the green light to add to the rush or lead the rush, take charge offensively in the offensive zone,” Laviolette said Sunday. “That kind of takes the restriction off of just playing on the blue line in the offensive zone.”

The defensemen have helped Nashville outshoot Pittsburgh in each of the first three games. They’ve also stuck so closely to the Penguins that Pittsburgh went 37 minutes without a shot in Game 1. The Penguins also have managed just four shots on goal in 13 power plays in the series with just one goal with the man advantage.

“They just skate themselves out of trouble,” Crosby said. “They don’t spend a lot of time in their end. So I think the times we do get the puck … we’ve got to challenge them and force them to play defense.”

So far, Josi and Ellis have gone against Crosby often, with Subban and Ekholm hitting the ice against Malkin. Crosby has just three assists with no goal yet despite having 23 points this postseason. Malkin has two goals.

“This coaching staff has never been one to take our team out of the flow to try to chase matchups,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “We believe in the group we have. We know they can play against anybody. When they’re at their best, regardless of who their opponent is, they’re going to have their hands full.”

The Predators are 8-1 at home this postseason, while the Penguins are 13-2 in the playoffs coming off a loss under Sullivan. Goalie Matt Murray, who allowed five goals in the span of 15 shots, also has never lost when starting a game either after a Pittsburgh loss (9-0) or a playoff loss of his own (7-0).

Nashville will be leaning again on its defense corps to try to send this series back to Pittsburgh all tied up.

“All of our defensemen, if I’m being honest, even from a team concept defensively, it’s been pretty good in the playoffs to this point,” Laviolette said.

 

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.