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Preds see no reason to mess with success in chase for Cup

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators see no reason to make any major changes to a roster that won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, not with a group that has been so very close to that elusive Stanley Cup the past two seasons.

”It didn’t work out in the playoffs the way we wanted,” Nashville captain Roman Josi said. ”But we truly believe this team can win a Stanley Cup, and that’s why we want to keep this team together.”

The Predators lost the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games to Pittsburgh and followed that up with the best regular season in team history. But Nashville’s quest for a repeat run to the Final ended in the first Game 7 on home ice in the Western Conference semifinals with a loss to Winnipeg , the team that finished second overall behind the Predators in the regular season.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm said a Game 7 can go either way. The Predators know the rest of the Western Conference keeps loading up with talent through trades and signings. That makes just reaching the playoffs a challenge in the West, much less repeating either as conference or Central Division champs.

”It’s a privilege we are together still, and we barely had any change on our roster,” Ekholm said. ”I see that as a very positive thing.”

Some other things to know about the Predators this season:

NET QUESTIONS

Pekka Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy-winning season, his first in his fourth time as a finalist for the award for the NHL’s top goalie in the regular season. He was at his best carrying the Predators to the Presidents’ Trophy, going 42-13-4 with eight shutouts, a 2.31 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. He also earned his 300th career victory on Feb. 22. Rinne turns 36 in November and is going into the final season of his current contract.

The Predators also signed Rinne’s backup, a fellow Finn in Juuse Saros who was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team for the season. Saros, 23, signed a three-year extension after going 11-5-7 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

”There’s more skill on the ice than ever before, the same goes for goalies,” Rinne said. ”You really have to take care of yourself, and I feel like I had a good summer. I’m healthy and energized and feel really good so looking forward to this season.”

ROSTER TWEAKS

Center Mike Fisher retired again, this time for good after coming out of retirement to rejoin the Predators in late February. Veteran forward Scott Hartnell also was let go with his experienced replaced by signing Dan Hamhuis, a defenseman Nashville drafted at No. 12 in the 2001 entry draft. Defenseman Alexei Emelin also was allowed to leave for the KHL.

NASHVILLE KEEPERS

Along with an extension for Saros, general manager David Poile also signed forwards Ryan Hartman and Miikka Salomaki to extensions keeping the restricted free agents around. The biggest deal of the offseason for Nashville easily was signing defenseman Ryan Ellis to an eight-year deal worth $50 million that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season. Ellis still had a season remaining, so Poile kept the defenseman’s status from hanging over the Predators. The move also keeps three of Nashville’s top four defensemen – Ellis, P.K. Subban and Ekholm – signed through the 2021-22 season.

YOUNG HOPES

Eeli Tolvanen couldn’t have come to the NHL with much higher expectations after setting a scoring record as an 18-year-old for Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League, and he also tied for the second-most points by an under-19 player for Finland at the Winter Olympics with nine points in five games. He played three games down the stretch for Nashville. Rinne said European media were disappointed Tolvanen didn’t have a hat trick in his opener, but the goalie believes the teen made the right move to get acquainted with the Predators last spring.

”I’m expecting big things out of him,” Rinne said.

Ryan Johansen

The Predators sure could use a big step forward in the regular season by the big first-line center. Johansen ranked fourth on the team in points in the regular season with 54 in 79 games. Then Johansen scored better than a point a game with 14 points in 13 games in the postseason, and the center looking a bit more at the net than passing could provide a boost across the top line with Filip Forsberg.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

Sabres’ Zach Bogosian out 5-6 months after hip surgery

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian will miss five to six months after his second hip operation in a little more than a year.

The Sabres provided the update Tuesday, two weeks after their season ended. Bogosian missed the final eight games with what the team referred to only as a lower-body injury.

The timetable for recovery means Bogosian is in jeopardy of missing the start of next season.

The surgery is the latest setback for the 28-year-old hard-hitting defenseman, who has played 70 games just twice in his 11 NHL seasons. Bogosian was limited to playing just 18 games in 2017-18 before season-ending hip surgery in January of that season.

Last season, he finished with three goals and 19 points in 65 games, matching the most he played since 2011-12, when Bogosian was with Winnipeg.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Turnabout for Stars, Blues complete with Round 2 showdown

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DALLAS (AP) — When first-year Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery called out his team over a “culture of mediocrity” in January, the St. Louis Blues weren’t too far removed from having the worst record in the NHL.

Now the Central Division rivals will meet in the second round of the playoffs – and Montgomery is ready to move on from his scathing critique, while declaring that the culture has changed.

”If you’re in that locker room, you see the culture now,” Montgomery after the Stars beat Nashville 2-1 in overtime in Game 6 on Monday to finish off the first-round series. ”You see how much more professional we are. We work efficiently. We work effectively. And we work together.

”We’re going to be eight of 31 teams left, right? We’re doing something right. But we hope not to be done. But we know we’re facing a really good team next, again.”

The Blues went from having a league-worst 34 points on Jan. 2 to becoming the first team that was last in the NHL at the beginning of the calendar year to advance in the postseason.

Montgomery’s blunt assessment came after a 3-1 loss to St. Louis when the Blues were beginning to dig out of their hole. The Dallas turnaround started a week later with the beginning of a five-game winning streak that bridged the All-Star break.

A year after collapsing late in the regular season with an eight-game losing streak that started with six straight losses on the road, the Stars picked up seven of eight possible points on a four-game Canadian swing late in the season to all but wrap up their first playoff berth in three years.

That most recent playoff trip in 2016 ended with a Game 7 loss in the second round to the Blues in Dallas.

”We had a lot of changes this year and a lot of uncomfortable conversations throughout the year,” said Tyler Seguin, the high-scoring forward who was injured when the Blues and Stars met three years ago. ”Guys came out of their comfort zones and that’s made us a closer team and that’s why we’re here tonight.”

The last rookie coach to win his first playoff series was Dale Hunter with Washington seven years ago. And Montgomery is the second Stars coach to do it, following Dave Tippett in 2003.

An NCAA championship winner at the University of Denver two years ago, Montgomery was also the third coach in three seasons for the Stars. He followed Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock, who returned to Dallas and missed the 2018 playoffs, 19 years after leading the franchise to its only Stanley Cup title.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

”I think the journey through the year toughens you up, hopefully,” Montgomery said. ”And it definitely did for us. You have to face adversity to get better as a group, especially when it’s your first time together. And we have. And the trust has grown.”

Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist who had a playoff career-high 47 saves to finish off the Predators, will be facing his hometown team, and the one that drafted him 14 years ago.

”I’ve been trying not to think about it, obviously trying to worry about this series,” Bishop said. ”It kind of gets a smile.”

The Blues and Stars were the lower seeds in their first-round matchups. St. Louis beat Winnipeg, also in six games. If Vegas wins Game 7 at San Jose in the remaining first-round Western Conference series Tuesday night, all four lower seeds will have advanced.

”If you look around the league, I think everyone who gets into the playoffs has a really good chance to go win,” said John Klingberg, who scored the clincher 17:02 into overtime . ”You see a lot of top seed teams that are out right now.”

A couple of weeks before Montgomery’s frustration boiled over, Seguin and captain Jamie Benn were profanely ripped by CEO Jim Lites. The longtime team executive also used words such as ”terrible” and ”embarrassing” to describe the play of the high-priced forwards.

The concern for Lites, who said he was echoing the frustration of owner Tom Gaglardi, was that the Stars would end up in danger of missing the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years. Instead, they wrapped up a series on home ice for the first time since 2008.

”We are very excited about this, and you can tell the crowd is too,” Klingberg said. ”We’ve been playing some good hockey here at the end. It’s going to be a quick turnaround here. We all know how the Blues are playing, how good they are.”

Neither team was saying that when the calendar turned to 2019.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Healthy Vlasic making huge impact for Sharks

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The Vegas Golden Knights haven’t found getting shots on Martin Jones to be particularly difficult over the last two games. The problem is that Good Martin Jones returned just in time for the San Jose Sharks to help force a Game 7 Tuesday night at SAP Center (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

In Game 5, the Golden Knights fired 32 shots towards Marc-Andre Fleury, only beating him twice during a 5-2 defeat. During Sunday’s double overtime loss, Vegas outshot San Jose 59-29 and couldn’t put the puck past Jones more than once. They’ve dominated possession in the last two games (60-39 Corsi percentage advantage at 5-on-5) but goaltending, which was the Sharks’ Achilles heel earlier in the series, has rebounded and brought us to this Game 7 scenario.

The other problem for their Golden Knights? Their dynamic second line has been held in check.

Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty were extraordinary during the first four games of the series. The trio combined for 12 goals and 28 points, 10 of which came on the power play. They were unstoppable. Then Marc-Edouard Vlasic got healthy.

The Sharks defenseman, who was injured early in Game 2, returned for Game 5, the start of the San Jose comeback. Vlasic has spent a lot of time against that Golden Knights’ second line, and done a good job of limiting their chances. The trio is pointless in the last two games, managing a combined seven shots at even strength, per Natural Stat Trick.

“Shutting down the top line. That’s my job,” Vlasic said. “You look at the last two games, if I keep them off the scoresheet I did my job.”

Game 5 was a good example of what Vlasic can do when fully healthy. He broke up a 3-on-1 chance for the Golden Knights in the second period with the score tied 1-1 and later sent a one-touch pass to Tomas Hertl out of the Sharks’ zone in double OT, which resulted in the winning goal.

“He’s just always in the right place at the right time,” Sharks defenseman Justin Braun, who’s been a consistent partner of Vlasic’s, told Pro Hockey Talk earlier this season. “He’s got one of the best sticks in the league knocking down passes, breaking up plays. He’s got the ability to jump up into the play and finish. It’s what you want in a partner. He’s never outside of his game, pushing the pace too much. He makes every guy around him better.”

Vlasic has been an underrated defenseman for most of his career. He’s averaged 32 points a season through 965 NHL games and been a consistent positive possession player. Despite strong numbers at both ends of the ice, he’s never been a finalist for the Norris Trophy having finished 12th, 20th, 21st, and 11th in the voting in four of the past five seasons.

While 2018-19 was a tale of two halves for Vlasic, he’s returned to good form of late, which is something the Sharks have needed from their blue line.

Vlasic doesn’t stand out like a Brent Burns or an Erik Karlsson, he just does his job steadily, and Braun gets a close-up view of  those little impactful things that can easily missed.

“Just how many plays he breaks up,” said Braun. “Two-on-one, in the corner, shutting guys down. You’re talking about the best players in the world that can’t get away from him. He’s keeping them off the scoresheet every night. That’s the biggest thing. You don’t really see who’s breaking up the passes every time, but he’s right there. Good gap, making guys dump it in, you don’t notice that on TV.”

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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.

The Wraparound: Round 2 picture gets clearer with pair of Game 7s

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Round 1 is reaching its conclusion as we get to enjoy three Game 7s over the next two days. The fun begins tonight as the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Boston Bruins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) and then the Vegas Golden Knights visit the San Jose Sharks (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream). We finish this dizzying opening round on Wednesday when the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals try to defend home ice against the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

The Maple Leafs and Bruins meet yet again in a Game 7 in Round 1. The Bruins prevailed last season as well as that memorable final game in 2013. They currently own a five-game playoff series winning streak over Toronto, who have not won a round since 2004.

Per the NHL, the Bruins and Maple Leafs are the seventh set of franchises in league history to require a Game 7 in consecutive years, joining the Canadiens-Red Wings (1954 SCF, 1955 SCF), Blackhawks-Red Wings (1964 SF, 1965 SF), Avalanche-Stars (1999 CF, 2000 CF), Avalanche-Kings (2001 CSF, 2002 CQF), Capitals-Rangers (2012 CSF, 2013 CQF) and Kings-Sharks (2013 CSF, 2014 R1).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Another fun stat: When Zdeno Chara hits the ice, he’ll play in his 13th career Game 7, tying Patrick Roy and Scott Stevens for most all-time.

When the puck drops at SAP Center, the Golden Knights will be playing in their first ever Game 7. The Sharks, meanwhile, are veterans in this do-or-die scenarios, entering Tuesday with a 6-4 record in such playoff games.

Martin Jones, whose 58-save performance in Game 6 is a big reason why we’re here, is one of six different San Jose goaltenders to have won a Game 7. A victory tonight would make him the first netminder in franchise history with multiple wins in a Game 7. His opponent at the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury, has three career Game 7 wins, all coming on the road.

Henrik Lundqvist, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur hold the NHL record with six Game 7 victories.

Here are three trends via the NHL to keep an eye on over the next two days:

Of the 172 all-time Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs…
• The team that scores first is 128-44 (.744)
• Home teams own a 100-72 record (.581)
• Forty-one have required overtime (23.8%). Home teams have a 21-20 edge.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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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.