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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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    Playoff injuries continue to pile up for Hurricanes

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    As the Carolina Hurricanes hope to make it a long and successful Round 1 series against the Washington Capitals, and a deep run during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs in general, they’re not just facing talented opponents. They’re also facing “themselves,” and not just in a mental sense — they have to overcome the limitations on their own bodies.

    Injuries are one of the top hurdles you have to overcome alongside bad bounces and hot goalies.

    The good news for Carolina so far in Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) is that the Hurricanes went up 1-0 with a Warren Foegele goal just 17 seconds into the contest.

    The bad news is that while that good trend of a hot streak continued, a negative trend of injuries also persists. Carolina already came into Game 4 without Andrei Svechnikov because of that ill-fated fight against Alex Ovechkin, and they were also missing beefy forward Micheal Ferland thanks to an upper-body injury.

    It’s unclear if Jordan Martinook will end up missing significantly time, but he needed help off the ice after an awkward bump into the boards. Martinook briefly returned toward the end of the first period, yet was not seen on the Hurricanes bench to begin the second, and the team eventually announced that he would not return for Game 4.

    (You can see that unfortunate bump in the video above this post’s headline.)

    Martinook isn’t a huge loss on his own, but when you consider that part of Carolina’s strength is depth and scoring by committee, the ice packs are really piling up. Consider that:

    • Martinook scored a career-high 15 goals and tied a career-high with 25 points this season, and had an assist coming into Game 4.
    • Ferland finished fourth in team scoring with 40 points, including 17 goals, and may have hit 20+ if he wasn’t limited to 71 games played.
    • Svechnikov’s been a fantastic rookie who’s flourished as he’s gained Rod Brind’Amour’s favor as the season went along. Svechnikov generated 20 goals and 37 points during the regular season, and had two goals and one assist for three points in his first three playoff games.

    Those are three players who bring different abilities to the table, from grinding to having the sort of sniping skills that can break a tight postseason skirmish open – and the Hurricanes have to hope that most, if not all, of them can return to the lineup as they hope to push this Round 1 match longer.

    See if the Hurricanes can tie this series at 2-2 by winning Game 4 against the Capitals, even with a shorthanded group, on NBCSN right now.

    [WATCH LIVE]

    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.

    Barkov, Monahan, O’Reilly are 2019 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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    Next up in the NHL’s 2018-19 awards announcements is the Lady Byng Trophy, which is awarded “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

    The nominees, who are voted for by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the conclusion of the regular season, are Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames, and Ryan O'Reilly of the St. Louis Blues.

    O’Reilly, who won the award in 2014 and was a finalist in 2018, was announced on Wednesday as one of the three Selke Trophy finalists.

    Lady Byng, wife of Canada’s Governor General at the time, presented the Lady Byng Trophy during the 1924-25 season. After Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers won the award seven times in eight seasons, he was given the trophy to keep and Lady Byng donated another trophy in 1936. After Lady Byng’s death in 1949, the NHL presented a new trophy, changing the name to the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.

    The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

    [NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

    The Case For Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers forward, who was also a finalist in 2016 and 2018, recorded a career season with 35 goals and 96 points in 82 games. He received 1,833:01 of ice time and only wound up taking four minor penalties, the fewest among the NHL’s top 50 scorers this season.

    The Case For Sean Monahan: Like Barkov, Monahan also registered a career season with 34 goals and 82 points in 78 games. In 1,486:16 of ice time, he recorded only six minors, the fifth time he’s finished a season with 20 or fewer penalty minutes. A victory for Monahan would make him the third Flames player to take home the award since 2015 (Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau).

    The Case For Ryan O’Reilly: Another career season here as the Blues forward scored 28 goals and recorded 77 points in 82 games. He also played a career high in minutes with 1,702:13 and was only called for six minors. It was the 10th time in 10 seasons for O’Reilly that picked up fewer than 20 penalty minutes.

    MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
    Selke Trophy

    ————

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

    WATCH LIVE: Hurricanes try to even up; Golden Knights look to advance

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    Game 4: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 2-1)
    NBCSN

    Call: Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire
    Series preview 
    Stream here

    Game 5: St. Louis Blues at Winnipeg Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
    USA Network
    Call: Gord Miller, Ray Ferraro
    Series preview
    Stream here

    Game 5: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks, 10 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead 3-1)
    NBCSN
    Call: Alex Faust, Mike Johnson
    Series preview
    Stream here

    NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Anson Carter, begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Paul Burmeister, Jeremy Roenick, and Patrick Sharp will anchor USA Network’s studio coverage during St. Louis at Winnipeg.

    PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
    Capitals vs Hurricanes
    Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
    Predators vs. Stars
    Blues vs. Jets
    Flames vs. Avalanche
    Sharks vs. Golden Knights

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

    Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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    VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

    Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

    After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

    ”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

    Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

    ”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

    Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

    And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

    Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

    ”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

    Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

    The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

    ”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

    One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

    Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

    ”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

    History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

    Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

    ”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

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