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Predators may have NHL’s best goalie combo on, off ice

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Pekka Rinne is off to an even better start than last season when he finally won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie, and backup Juuse Saros ranks among the league’s top 10 for victories.

With both goalies now signed to contract extensions, the Nashville Predators may have the best goalie situation both on and off the ice.

”There’s tandems that are much better than others, Nashville has one of them,” said Martin Biron, a former NHL goalie and now Buffalo broadcaster. ”And I think if you’re Peter Laviolette, if you’re the goalie coach and the staff, your job and your challenge is to keep them at the highest of levels for the whole season.”

So far, the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners are doing just that.

The Predators went into Tuesday night’s game in San Jose atop the league standings while also first in the NHL both in goals allowed (37) and 2.12 goals-against per game with Rinne and Saros (7-2-0) splitting the first 18 games. Rinne has been ”ImPekkable” with a 6-1-1 record, leading all goalies with at least eight starts with a 1.47 goals-against average and .951 save percentage.

”Every day he is and continues to be the backbone of this organization and team and has probably had the biggest impact on this organization,” Laviolette said.

Rinne is 3-0-1 with a .740 goals-against average and .976 save percentage and a shutout, stopping 121 of 124 shots faced since returning from injured reserve on Oct. 31. The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension taking him through 2020-21 on Nov. 3, and the goalie celebrated both the contract and his birthday with his second shutout of the season.

Biron said Tuesday that he doesn’t see a big competition for the starting job in Nashville.

”It’s Pekka’s job, and Nashville giving him that two-year deal I think is basically saying that ‘We want Pekka, and it’s going to be like that,”’ Biron said.

Rinne has been a Vezina finalist four of the past eight years, making the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed on an earlier birthday in 2011 worth every penny. That deal ties him for the fourth-priciest contract among goalies with Marc-Andre Fleury (33) of Vegas and Boston’s Tuukka Rask (31). Fleury is under contract through 2021-22, and Rask hits free agency after the 2020-21 season.

The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension worth $10 million on Nov. 3. General manager David Poile also signed Saros, 23, to a three-year extension in July worth $4.5 million. That means Nashville is projected to drop from seventh with $8.5 million of its salary cap invested in goaltenders to ninth next season with a $6.5 million average annual value, according to Sportrac.com.

Rinne could’ve pushed for more money. Montreal’s Carey Price, 31, is getting $10.5 million a year, while Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is being paid $8.5 million a year through 2020-21.

Biron calls Rinne one of the hardest-working goalies he’s ever seen who’s in unbelievable shape. He also sees Rinne simplifying his game as he got older, like Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Eddie Belfour. Rinne still can scramble and react, which Biron thinks will keep Rinne playing at a high level for possibly four more years like Lundqvist.

”Pekka can play at least through this next contract, and then after that we’ll see,” Biron said.

It’s up to Nashville to make that extra cap space pay off after losing the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games and then in seven games in the second round last May. Poile persuaded defenseman Ryan Ellis to take a bit less money with an eight-year deal for $50 million in August, and his next task will be trying to get captain Roman Josi to agree to an extension next summer before the final year on the defenseman’s current deal.

”Hopefully this helps in a way that makes this team stay together moving forward,” Rinne said. ”I think we have an opportunity to keep this same team. And I think that’s David’s goal and obviously I like the sound of it. I love this group, and I really think we have a chance this year and years to come.”

EARLY RETURNS

Tom Wilson of the Capitals returned to the lineup Tuesday night at Minnesota after arbitrator Shyam Das reduced the forward’s suspension by six games to 14 for his illegal check to the head of St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist at the end of the preseason.

He made an immediate impact, scoring a first-period goal in a 5-2 victory.

Nashville forward Austin Watson is eligible to return to the ice Thursday night when the Predators wrap up a road trip in Arizona after Das cut his suspension from 27 games to 18 after he pleaded no contest in July to a domestic assault charge.

Das is the same neutral arbitrator fired by Major League Baseball in 2012 after he overturned Ryan Braun’s drug suspension. The NHL fired arbitrator James Oldham in 2016 after his decision to reduce Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension to 10 for striking and injuring an official, and either the NHL or NHLPA can fire the neutral arbitrator after each season.

NWHL ALL-STAR GAME

The Predators, who hosted the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, will be hosting the 2019 NWHL All-Star Weekend capped by an NHL-NWHL doubleheader on Feb. 10. This is the third straight year the NWHL has held its All-Star Weekend in an NHL market, starting with Pittsburgh in 2017 and Minnesota in 2018.

Nashville will host St. Louis with a morning faceoff, and fans will be invited to stick around for the NWHL All-Star Game starting soon after the NHL matinee. The All-Star game will feature a pair of 25-minute halves with Shannon Szabados, goalie for the Buffalo Beauts and a three-time Olympian with Canada, captain of one team and Minnesota defender Lee Stecklein, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in February, captain of the other team.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Patrick Marleau and the Toronto Maple Leafs visit his old team in San Jose on Thursday night with Erik Karlsson still settling in with the Sharks.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 16; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 20; Points: Mikko Rantanen, (Colorado), and Connor McDavid, (Edmonton), 26; Wins: Frederik Andersen (Toronto), 10; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.47; Save percentage: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), .951.

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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    Will Flyers’ disastrous road trip spell end for Hakstol?

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    To put things mildly, there are a lot of reports and rumors revolving around the Philadelphia Flyers possibly firing Dave Hakstol to make Joel Quenneville their new head coach.

    With a lot of conflicting information in the air (things do seem dire for Hakstol in most scenarios), let’s consider how the Flyers got to this point.

    Terrible road trip

    Look, the Flyers weren’t exactly setting the world on fire before the disastrous five-game road trip, which concluded on Saturday with a 5-1 thumping by the Vancouver Canucks.

    Optics obviously matter, though, and things really devolved as this went along.

    After beating the Sabres 6-2 on Dec. 8, the Flyers suffered a four-game losing streak, only managing a single standings point in a 6-5 OT loss to Calgary on Dec. 12.

    Three of those four losses were absolute blowouts; Philly fell 7-1 to the Jets on Dec. 9, then really stunk up the joint during the last two losses, falling 4-1 to the Oilers on Friday and 5-1 to the Canucks on Saturday. There was little denying the negative feelings about that team, and Hakstol drew a lot of the blame for seemingly tepid efforts.

    After scrapping their way to a somewhat surprising berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers currently sit last in the Eastern Conference with 28 points in 31 games (12-15-4).

    Good and the bad

    If there’s one obvious tweak Hakstol made that produced huge dividends for the Flyers, it was moving Claude Giroux from center to the wing.

    Heading into 2017-18, there were serious concerns about Giroux. It seemed like his offense was slowing down, possibly pointing to him hitting the dreaded low end of the aging curve. Instead, Giroux appeared to be liberated by the freedom of playing the wing, often ceding the center duties to Sean Couturier this season. Giroux enjoyed an MVP-like season, powering his way to career-highs of 34 goals and 102 points.

    One can debate how Hakstol used younger players versus veterans. You could do that with many teams, not to mention other Flyers staffers, whether you’re pondering Carter Hart or, say, Travis Sanheim.

    There have been some structural issues. Much like Todd McLellan in Edmonton, much of Hakstol’s tenure has been marked by a questionable strategy to lean heavily on shots from the point.

    Sure, it’s nice to get the puck on the sticks of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere when it makes sense, yet you’re far more likely to hit paydirt if you generate high-danger chances from the slot. Easier said than done? Yes, but some teams emphasize shots from defensemen to the detriment of creativity, making things too easy for the opposition.

    The fall of a great power-play unit and a generally terrible PK might explain some of Hakstol’s struggles.

    Since Hakstol came into the league in 2015-16, the Flyers’ PK unit has killed 77.1-percent of penalties, the worst mark in the NHL. If Quenneville or another coach could find answers where Hakstol and his crew failed, that could be a nice area of growth.

    On the bright side, the Flyers have often had a deadly power play, although their overall mark (19 percent) under Hakstol is actually just tied at 17th.

    Some of that might be tied up in Philly’s steps toward adding more talent over the years, but either way, that unit hit a big wall in 2018-19. They’ve connected on just 12.9-percent of their PP opportunities, the third-worst percentage in the NHL.

    Hakstol didn’t sign the Flyers’ goalies, and it wasn’t his final call to opt against getting someone more established to compliment Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. A new coach’s system could absolutely make life easier for whoever ends up in Philly’s net going forward, but that could still be an area of serious concern.

    A new coach – if the Flyers were to make such a rumored change – might be able to install systemic changes that could help optimize this team. Some might come from finding more innovative special teams strategies, or maybe tweaking personnel decisions. Leaning on different players in different situations may also move the needle.

    It’s not necessarily a matter of Hakstol being a terrible head coach, but rather that there could be areas of improvement.

    Granted, the Flyers have dug themselves a big hole, so if they’re making changes, they might want to keep their expectations in check.

    Big decision coming Monday, and more later this week?

    Working past the understanding that people have been wondering about Hakstol for a long time, and beckoning for Coach Q to take over in Philly basically the second he was fired, things seemed to escalate on Sunday. Business picked up as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac reported that the Flyers would make that decision. Things got blurry from there, with TSN’s Darren Dreger describing the situation as “status quo” and that “no decision has been made.” Crossing Broad’s Anthony SanFilippo reports that Hakstol’s firing could be announced “within 24 hours,” but an interim coach may be named, possibly because there might be some wrinkles to iron out with Quenneville. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi backs that up, noting no change officially happening Sunday night, yet to expect a “busy” Monday.

    Maybe some of this comes down to semantics (official versus looming?), it all seems a touch odd, and a bit confusing.

    A lot to take in, right? PHT will keep you updated, whether Monday ends up being busy or just … awkward for Hakstol and the team, if nothing is actually happening. Buckle up.

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

    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.

    Corey Crawford leaves Blackhawks game after hard collision

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    As the hockey world wonders what’s going on with former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville (is something happening with Philly?), Chicago worries about more immediate concerns.

    Sunday’s game between the Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks already began as a tough one for goalies, as Martin Jones was eventually pulled after allowing three goals, including two on Chicago’s first two shots. The night is rougher for Crawford, however, as he left the contest late in the first period after a very hard collision involving Blackhawks teammate Dylan Strome.

    Crawford isn’t that far removed from vertigo and other issues that prompted at least some concerns about his career being in jeopardy, so seeing his head hit the post so hard is very disconcerting:

    Not good. The Blackhawks announced that Crawford will not return to Sunday’s game. We might know more about the situation later tonight.

    Some have wondered about the Blackhawks possibly hitting the “reset” button by trading Crawford (among others), yet you wonder if other GMs would be worried about health challenges. This would only make those concerns worse, particularly if it ends up being as troubling as it looks.

    PHT will monitor updates on Crawford (not to mention the situation involving his former coach, Joel Quenneville.)

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

    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.

    Ilya Sorokin submits save of the year candidate at Channel One Cup

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    With a little more than two weeks left in 2018, goaltender Ilya Sorokin wanted to make sure he got his name on the list of potential saves of the year during Saturday’s Channel One Cup game against the Czech Republic.

    During a 7-2 victory, the Russian netminder, a third-round pick by the New York Islanders in 2014, made an incredible stick save to keep the Czechs at bay. One that you will really appreciate once you see it through the various camera angles.

    There’s a chance we see Sorokin later this season in the NHL. As Arthur Staple of The Athletic reported earlier this month, the 23-year-old Sorokin could join the Islanders once his season with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow ends. Through 24 games he’s posted a 1.18 goals against average and a .943 save percentage, continuing a trend of strong numbers since the 2015-16 season.

    As the Islanders figure out if their answer in goal for the future is Robin Lehner, Thomas Greiss, or maybe even Sergei Bobrovsky, Sorokin’s presence gives them a possible in-house option to ponder.

    Stick-tap Jeff Veillette

    ————

    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 Buzzer: Barkov gets first-career hat trick; MacKinnon and Co. dominate

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    Three stars

    1. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

    It takes something special these days to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs. They simply can score at will when they want to.

    Barkov’s hat trick, then, was that special moment. He helped the Panthers get out to a 1-0 lead, put them ahead 3-2 in the third and then when Toronto forced overtime, it was Barkov once again to save the day, scoring on an incredible backhand deke for the win.

    Not bad for a first-career hatty.

    2. Daniel Sprong, Anaheim Ducks

    Sprong scored to tie the game 1-1 in the first and then scored 1:19 into overtime to help the Ducks down the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1.

    Sprong now has three goals in five games with the Ducks since joining Anaheim in a trade from the Penguins earlier this month. The Ducks have won three straight.

    3. Nathan MacKinnon (and Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog), Colorado Avalanche

    MacKinnon had a four-point night (one goal, three assists). Rantanen had two goals and a helper and Landeskog had two tallies of his own. That’s nine points for that line.

    MacKinnon and Rantanen now have 50-plus points apiece and they led the Avs to a 6-4 win against the stubborn Dallas Stars.

    The best line in hockey does it again.

    Other notable performances: 

    • Alex Ovechkin scored again (and notched the shootout winner). He’s now got a 14-game point streak (extending a career high) and a six-game goal-scoring streak (one shy of a career high set in 2005-06). He’s got 29 goals in 32 games.
    • Claude Julien earned his 600th career win as a bench boss in the NHL as the Canadiens won 5-2 against the Ottawa Senators.
    • Tyler Seguin did his best to try and help the Stars, scoring twice an adding an assist against the Avs.
    • John Gibson kept his Vezina-caliber season going with 36 saves for the Ducks. He’s won three straight and has a .927 save percentage this season.
    • Keith Kinkaid (27 saves) and Juuse Saros (33 saves) had a nice little goaltending duel going. Saros ended up winning in the sixth round of the shootout.
    • 13 Vancouver Canucks had a point in their romp of the Philadelphia Flyers.

    Highlights of the night

    Barkov’s OT winner and hat-trick goal:

    Obliteration:

    Barzal breaking ankles:

    Nice release:

    Factoids

    Scores

    Flames 2, Wild 1

    Canadiens 5, Senators 2

    Panthers 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)

    Islanders 4, Red Wings 3 (SO)

    Penguins 4, Kings 3 (OT)

    Capitals 4, Sabres 3 (SO)

    Ducks 2, Blue Jackets (OT)

    Predators 2, Devils 1 (SO)

    Avalanche 6, Stars 4

    Canucks 5, Flyers 1


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck