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Why Predators are so hot right now

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Last night, the Nashville Predators beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1, reaching 100 standings points in just 69 games.

(Yes, there were a lot of “nice” responses on Twitter.)

The reigning Western Conference finalists aren’t just having a strong season, they’re also playing their best hockey of 2017-18 right now. Yes, the Jets were tired and banged up last night, yet it was another instance of the Predators sending a message that they’re for real. A 3-2 shootout loss to the Devils on Saturday ended a 10-game winning streak, but at 11-0-1, they’ve now collected points in 12 consecutive games. They have a very real chance to win the Presidents’ Trophy, as the Tampa Bay Lightning are at 100 points but have played in one more game.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

So, which players are really driving this success? Let’s start with the obvious.

Pekka Rinne, Vezina frontrunner?

A week ago, it was noted on PHT that Rinne and other goalies were gaining on Andrei Vasilevskiy in the race for the 2018 Vezina. It’s possible that Rinne has emerged as the new leader as of today, and not solely because of Vasilevskiy seemingly hitting a wall of fatigue.

As of this writing, Pekka Rinne sports an absurd record (38-9-4) with a fabulous .929 save percentage. His backup Juuse Saros is no slouch, either, making it quite likely that Nashville’s goalies will collect the William Jennings Trophy this season, too.

Rinne’s frequently received criticism from the fancy stats community, but this season? He’s been unassailable so far:

The season’s far from over, so Vasilevskiy could regain his lead in this race. Either way, Rinne is the top reason why the Predators are running away with the Central Division crown, the first spot in the West, and possibly the Presidents’ Trophy as well.

The return

Before his 2017-18 debut on Jan. 2, a popular refrain was “Imagine how good the Predators will be when Ryan Ellis is back?”

It felt like a dangerous assumption, however, to believe that Ellis would just bounce back from knee surgery. Plenty of athletes require a year or more to recover from certain procedures, and some are never the same.

As it turns out, the Predators have indeed taken off since the underrated defenseman returned to the lineup, as Ellis has been outstanding. The 27-year-old has generated 23 points in 31 games, and he’s been especially impressive lately. Since Feb. 14, Ellis scored 15 points in 14 games, tying Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, Anze Kopitar, Artemi Panarin, and Mark Stone during that span

Plenty of options

Ellis is a rising part of such a deep attack that Peter Laviolette is already resting players for the upcoming playoff run.

The 2017-18 season is proving that Viktor Arvidsson is a legitimate top-line forward, as he’s justified the rave reviews the Predators received for locking him down to a long-term, bargain contract that carries just a $4.25 million cap hit. Arvidsson has 16 points during the same month span that Ellis has been on fire for, and he’s on track for another 30+ goal season with 26 goals (not to mention 26 assists).

P.K. Subban is the Predators’ strongest Norris candidate with a brilliant all-around campaign that includes 15 goals and 50 points, but Roman Josi has been as explosive as ever, contributing 46 points in just 62 games.

[Earlier this season, P.K. was an even stronger Norris candidate]

Kyle Turris‘ numbers have dipped a bit since a hot start after being traded to Nashville, yet he’s been a catalyst for two Predators wingers for much of his time there, helping Kevin Fiala (22 goals) and Craig Smith (21) join Arvidsson as 20-goal scorers. Filip Forsberg‘s experienced an up-and-down season, yet he’s not that far behind them with 18 goals.

That’s the thing. The Predators boast the depth that allows for the team to navigate hurdles more comfortably than much of the league. At this current robust level, they’re simply overwhelming opponents.

***

This is all the masterwork of David Poile, who now boasts the most regular-season wins of any GM. In a way, this renaissance truly stretches back to the hiring of underrated head coach Peter Laviolette, who owns the distinction of bringing three different NHL teams to the Stanley Cup Final after last year’s memorable run.

It remains to be seen if Laviolette can help Poile win his first Stanley Cup, but if that happens, there’s a solid chance that they’ll get it done by one heck of a “committee.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL schedule for First Round of 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

2020 nhl playoff schedule
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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Tuesday, Aug. 11 in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. The league has released the 2020 NHL playoff schedule for the First Round.

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round. The losing teams from the Qualifying Round have been entered into Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery.

Below is the 2020 NHL playoff schedule.

Note: Teams are re-seeded after each round.

EASTERN CONFERENCE (Scotiabank Arena)

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Montreal at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders

Wednesday, Aug. 12: NY Islanders at Washington, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: NY Islanders at Washington, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Carolina at Boston, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Carolina at Boston, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WESTERN CONFERENCE (Rogers Place)

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Chicago at Vegas, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Chicago at Vegas, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Vegas at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Sunday, Aug. 16: Vegas at Chicago, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Chicago at Vegas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Vegas at Chicago – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Chicago at Vegas – TBD

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Arizona at Colorado, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Arizona at Colorado, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Calgary at Dallas, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Calgary at Dallas, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver at St. Louis, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

2020 nhl playoff schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jets’ Mark Scheifele on injury: ‘I’ll be back better than ever’

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The injury Mark Scheifele suffered in Game 1 of Winnipeg’s Qualifying Round series against Calgary is fortunately not as bad as it appeared.

Scheifele left 5:29 into the opening game after a collision with Matthew Tkachuk along the boards. It initially looked like he had suffered a serious knee injury, or even worse, was cut by Tkachuk’s skate. He didn’t reveal the exact nature of the injury, but did say he expects to be 100% very soon.

“Initially I thought I tore my Achilles and I was done for six months,” the Jets forward said on a video call with reporters Tuesday.

Tkachuk called the play an “accident.” Jets head coach Paul Maurice went off on the Flames forward in the postgame, describing the play “a filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg.”

Scheifele doesn’t believe what Tkachuk did was intentional and the two have spoken since Game 1.

“If someone is on the ice trying to cut someone with their skate, I don’t think Matt was trying to do that,” he said.

In their conversational Tkachuk did admit he was out of control and skating too fast before the collision.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“The way I look at it, at the last second, I turned up and it was kind of like a knee-on-knee scenario,” Scheifele said. “The one thing I know — and he talked about being out of control and skating too fast. He took ownership of that. I know for me as a hockey player, I work every single day at being in control, at being in control of where I’m at on the ice and the space around me. That’s what I work on every single day.

“It’s one of those things that’s a learning curve for everyone. You try to be in control all the time. I look at it as a knee-on-knee scenario. That’s just the way the game works. It’s a fast-moving game, but I’m thankful it wasn’t as serious as it could have been. I had a lot of bad thoughts go through my mind that I was going to be out for six months and that my career could be over. That was tough on me, and the worst part was the anticipation of getting some answers. All I could do was thank God that I am on the mend, I didn’t need surgery and I’ll be back better than ever.”

Despite playing only three shifts and now spending his off-season recovering, Scheifele isn’t one to hold a grudge.

“The way my parents raised me you forgive everyone, and that’s all you can do. You wish the best on every person,” he said. “Matt’s a great hockey player and has a ton of work ethic. I have no hard feelings. Obviously, I wish it never happened and I played in the rest of that series, but there is nothing you can do about that now.

“All you can do is wish everyone the best and hope that everyone stays safe and healthy. That’s kind of the only thoughts on my mind. In my mind, I’m just trying to get better, trying to get my body back to 100% and that’s all I can worry about.”

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets-Lightning stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

Blue Jackets-Lightning stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Tuesday’s First Round matchup between the Blue Jackets and Lightning. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Lightning stream at 2:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

For the second straight season the Blue Jackets and Lightning will face off in the First Round of the postseason after Columbus became the first team in NHL history to sweep a Presidents’ Trophy winner in the opening round a season ago when they defeated Tampa in four games. That victory was the Blue Jackets’ first ever playoff series win after 18 seasons in the league and now a year later these clubs meet again following Columbus’ winner-take-all victory over Toronto on Sunday night.

The Blue Jackets advanced through the Qualifying Round by defeating the host city team, Toronto, in its own building. Columbus bookended the series with Joonas Korpisalo shutouts, sending the Maple Leafs home for the offseason on Sunday night after a 3-0 win.

The Lightning went 2-1-0 in its first three games this postseason, defeating Washington (3-2 SO) and Boston (3-2) before falling to Philadelphia (4-1) on Saturday in a game that determined the No. 1 seed. A victory over the Flyers would have matched Tampa against Montreal in this round instead of this rematch.

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Tuesday, August 11, 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Gord Miller, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

‘Heavy lifting:’ West is big, tough, deep and wide open

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The top of the Western Conference features the defending Stanley Cup champion, a 2018 finalist with even more talent and an MVP front-runner.

Good luck picking a favorite.

The Vegas Golden Knights earned the top seed in the West by winning all three of their games in a round-robin tournament against the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. But the Avalanche still have Nathan MacKinnon and are healthier and deeper than before, and there’s no sleeping on the Blues after they muscled their way to the Cup.

”It’s deep,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”There are no easy paths. … We’re happy to be a part of it, we’re happy we have the No. 1 seed, but we know there’s a lot of heavy lifting here left to do.”

Heavy is the name of the game out West, where size is as big an element of success as scoring. St. Louis is the standard, but the Calgary Flames bruised their way into the first round by beating up Winnipeg and present an obstacle for the third-seeded Stars.

”The West, there’s a lot of heavy, hard teams that play a pretty simple game and the Blues are obviously the best at it being the champs,” Dallas captain Jamie Benn said. ”I think Calgary’s pretty similar. They got some pretty rugged forwards that play the game hard, so we have to be prepared for that.”

Reigning playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said the Blues are aware of the difficult road back to the final but are only preparing for their first-round opponent: the faster and smaller Vancouver Canucks. He and Canucks coach Travis Green mirrored each other minutes apart Monday by each saying his team must play its best hockey to win.

The same goes for the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks going up against Vegas, and the seventh-seeded Arizona Coyotes against Colorado. Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon is among the best players in the world and has a strong supporting cast with captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and rookie defenseman Cale Makar.

”They’re built to win right now,” Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said. ”They’re highly skilled, they’re hard on the puck. … They got arguably one of the best players if not the best player in the league. Just a well-rounded team.”

MacKinnon showed his value in the regular season by carrying the banged-up Avalanche to second in the West. Now he’s ready to try to push them toward the Cup.

”Every year you play in the NHL, you realize you don’t have many chances,” MacKinnon said. ”For me, this feels like my first real chance to win, which really excites me and I think it excites everyone.”

INJURY CONCERNS

There are injury questions surrounding three Western teams’ leading scorers, including Vegas winger Max Pacioretty‘s anticipated playoff debut for Game 1 against Chicago. Pacioretty hadn’t entered the Edmonton bubble until last week, though general manager Kelly McCrimmon said the 31-year-old cleared quarantine in time to skate four days in a row and practice Monday.

Pacioretty being ready to go makes the Golden Knights even scarier.

”It gives us more depth,” DeBoer said. ”It adds our leading scorer back into our lineup. It helps our power play. He helps us in a lot of different areas.”

Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness said ”everyone’s healthy,” which seems to be good news for 50-point producer Tyler Seguin and starting goaltender Ben Bishop, who each missed the round-robin finale Sunday.

Tocchet said forward Nick Schmaltz had gotten a full practice under his belt and was feeling better. He might not be ready for Game 1 against Colorado on Wednesday, but Schmaltz is ”definitely getting close.”

GOALIE CAROUSEL

The top three teams in the East could all employ something of a goaltending tandem in the first round. That’s not common among the NHL’s best, but this is an uncommon format that includes one set of back-to-back games in every series.

”We’ve got two starters – a great luxury to have,” DeBoer said of the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. ”How we’re going to roll them out is to be determined.”

Colorado has Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz to roll out however coach Jared Bednar sees fit. He has chosen his Game 1 starter but won’t say. The same goes for the Stars between Bishop and Khudobin, who split time in the round-robin.

OH, CANADA

With the (empty arena) hosts Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs out and with all due respect to the East’s eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, the best hopes of ending Canada’s 27-year Cup drought are the Flames and Canucks.

Vancouver faces the tall first task of needing to knock off the reigning champs, and Calgary is considered an underdog as the No. 6 seed against No. 3 Dallas. The Winnipeg series made the Flames look ready for playoff hockey.

”What probably people mean when they talk about being an underdog and being in a position to upset, I think really they’re really they’re probably referring to how hard the team plays and how good they are away from the puck,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”If you get those two attributes in your game, you’re always going to find that you’re in a game and you’re going to be a difficult team to beat.”