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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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    PHT Power Rankings: Blackhawks hit bottom

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    If you turn on any random Chicago Blackhawks game on any random night against any random opponent it is a good bet they are already going to be losing by two or three goals 10 minutes into the first period. It has been a constant trend for about two months now.

    Sometimes they are able to push back a little and tie the game only to lose in backbreaking fashion, just as they have done in their most recent losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens.

    Sometimes they never push back and just get completely run out of the building.

    Either way the result is the same — a loss. Those losses keep piling up at an alarming rate and are sending the Blackhawks toward what is looking to be their worst season in years.

    Thanks to the seven-game losing streak they are carrying into the week the Blackhawks officially have the worst record (based on points percentage) in the entire league and are just 3-11-2 since firing Joel Quenneville.

    In other words, things are bad. Really bad.

    The problems are obvious. The good players that were part of the core that won three Stanley Cups in six years are older, more expensive and not as good as they once were (if they are even still on the team). Those larger contracts, combined with the salary cap, once again ripped apart the depth that always made the Blackhawks such a strong team.

    The latter point is where a lot of the problems really start to show up. The Blackhawks went through salary cap purges before but were always able to find ways to restock the cupboards, often times to the point of them still being able to compete for, and even win, championships.

    They have not done that over the past few years.

    Just consider this question: Who is the last truly impactful and useful the Blackhawks have added to their organization through free agency or a trade? Have there been any over the past three or four years? The re-acquisition of Brandon Saad is probably the answer you could come up with because he is a fine, decent player. But when you had to give up an even better player (Artemi Panarin) to get him back that does not really help things.

    Big contracts, an aging core, and no fresh talent entering the organization is a bad combination, and for this week it has the Blackhawks at the bottom of the PHT Power Rankings. They may be there for a while, too.

    On to the rest of the rankings!

    The Elites

    1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Quite simply the best hockey team in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are early season MVP candidates, Steven Stamkos is a point-per-game player right behind them, and they are 11-3-0 since their Vezina Trophy finalist goalie has been injured. That includes the six-game winning streak they carry into the week. They also are coming off of a dominant 7-1 win against a really good Colorado Avalanche team.

    2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets are 10-4-1 in their past 15 games and are averaging more than four goals per game during that stretch. There may not be a better collection of top-line forward talent anywhere in the league.

    3. Toronto Maple Leafs — Not too worried about the fact they haven’t won since William Nylander returned. The biggest concern here, just like last season, is that Frederik Andersen gets worn down from the workload he is being asked to carry. His play will determine how far they go in the playoffs.

    4. Nashville Predators — They have cooled off a bit in recent weeks but that has coincided with the team being crushed by injuries. When healthy this is still one of the league’s best teams.

    5. Washington Capitals — The champs are starting to get on a roll and Alex Ovechkin is still scoring goals at an unprecedented pace given his age.

    The Surprises

    6. Colorado Avalanche — Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon are both on pace for more than 120 points this season. Doubtful they will maintain those numbers over 82 games, but the fact they have done it over even 30 games is incredible.

    7. Calgary Flames — Have to be honest, did not see the Flames being the team to crawl to the top of the Pacific Division at any point this season. How long will they remain there?

    [Related: Are the Flames ready to contend?]

    8. Buffalo Sabres — When every game you play is decided by a single goal sometimes you are going to get the breaks, and sometimes you are not. Thirteen of the Sabres’ past 15 games have been one-goal games, a stretch that has seen them win 10 games in a row and then also lose five games in a row.  They are not as good as they looked during the winning streak and they are not as bad as they have looked during the losing streak. Things balance out.

    Strong Playoff Teams

    9. Boston Bruins — They are still going to have to find some secondary scoring if they are going to be a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup.

    10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky picked a terrible time to have his worst season as a starter. How good would the Blue Jackets be this season if he was playing at his normal level?

    The Middle Ground

    11. Vegas Golden Knights –– They might still be the best team in the Pacific Division and when all is said and done will probably end up winning it.

    12. Dallas Stars — The rapid emergence of rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen has helped make up for the absence of John Klingberg.

    13. Anaheim Ducks — John Gibson should be a finalist for MVP at this point, while Daniel Sprong has made a nice little impact in his first few games with the team. Nice move in the shootout on Sunday night to help pick up the win.

    14. Edmonton Oilers — If this team makes the playoffs Connor McDavid should be a unanimous MVP winner. He is doing even more than he did a year ago.

    Related: Seven stunning numbers from the first two months of the NHL season]

    15. San Jose Sharks — They have won three out of their past four and they don’t have a tough schedule coming up this week. Is this where it starts to turn around?

    16. Montreal Canadiens — The P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade gets ripped (and deservedly so) which makes it kind of easy to forget that Weber is still pretty good. He is just older, has a worse contract, and might be starting to break down a bit physically. Still, he can play a little. He has five points in his first six games since returning to the lineup this season.

    17. Pittsburgh Penguins — Every time it looks like they are going to get everything together and go on a roll they put together a terrible showing. Still, they have picked up 13 out of a possible 20 points over their past 10 games.

    18. Minnesota Wild — They have some concerns right now, with the biggest potentially being whatever is wrong with starting goalie Devan Dubnyk.

    19. New York Islanders — Still not sure they have enough offense to emerge from the pack and make the playoffs this season.

    20. Carolina Hurricanes — The Hurricanes can not catch a break in goal. Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to solidify the position for a little bit, played extremely well, and then ended up injured. Now it is back to the Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek duo that was not working earlier this season

    21. Arizona Coyotes — It is really tough to see the Coyotes hanging around in the Western Conference playoff race given the injury situation with Antti Raanta.

    22. Detroit Red Wings — Dylan Larkin is on track for the best season of his career and several of their potential trade chips (Gustav Nyquist, Jimmy Howard) are having productive seasons. So they have that going for them.

    23. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist is still getting it done, he just doesn’t have enough around him for it to really matter.

    24. Philadelphia Flyers — Now that they have a new general manager in place it will be interesting to see where this team goes from here and where “bias for action” takes them.

    [Related: Chuck Fletcher’s plate will be full as new Flyers’ GM]

    25. Ottawa Senators — Losing Matt Duchene and Bobby Ryan to injury for the foreseeable future is really going to hurt what has been a surprisingly good offense this season.

    26. Florida Panthers — With better goaltending this season they may not be needing another second half surge just to get back into playoff contention.

    Lose For Hughes

    27. Los Angeles Kings — The worst goal scoring team in the league by a huge margin and the third-fewest shots on goal per game. They are redefining what bad offensive hockey is in this era.

    28. Vancouver Canucks — Since starting the season 10-6-2 the Canucks have managed to go only 3-10-1 over their past 14 games. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are still studs, though.

    29. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall has to be having flashbacks to his Oilers days.

    30. St. Louis Blues — After getting blown out on Sunday the Blues sounded like a completely broken team. They are still better than their rivals.

    31. Chicago Blackhawks — Maybe Jeremy Colliton goes on to be a good NHL head coach, but right now the decision to fire Quenneville just looks comical.

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Koskinen has Oilers thinking playoffs again

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    A lack of quality goaltending was one of the reasons the Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs last season. Cam Talbot, who was an integral part of Edmonton’s run to the playoffs in 2017, saw his numbers slip in a big way in 2017-18. Now, it’s another goalie that has the Oilers back in the playoff hunt.

    Many hockey fans were left scratching their heads when Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli signed Mikko Koskinen to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. The move was a little random considering Koskinen hadn’t suited up in the NHL since the 2010-11 season. The 30-year-old had spent the previous five seasons in the KHL.

    Talbot opened the year as the starter and Koskinen didn’t make his first appearance of the season until the nine-game mark, but things have changed. Not only is Koskinen coming off 24-save shutout over the rival Flames on Sunday, but he’s also been victorious in four of his last five and he has just one regulation loss since Nov. 20 (seven games).

    Not only did Koskinen put an end to Calgary’s five-game winning streak on Sunday, he also helped extend his team’s streak to three games. So all this means is that the Oilers are just a single point behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and they’re also one point away from the San Jose Sharks, who are in third in the Pacific Division. The Oilers have played two fewer games than Vegas and one less than San Jose.

    He now owns a 9-3-1 record with a 2.06 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. He’s been totally unbeatable at home, as he’s a perfect 6-0 with an 0.91 goals-against-average and a .970 save percentage. That’s unreal. His numbers on the road are a little less flattering, but he’s done enough to go 3-3 away from Rogers Arena.

    If we take a deeper look at his numbers, only Pekka Rinne and Jaroslav Halak have better save percentages and only Rinne has a better goals-against-average. Of course, the small sample size is important to keep in mind, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Finn has played really, really, really well.

    As good as Koskinen’s been, the Oilers will probably need Talbot at some point in the near future. Over the last five seasons, Koskinen has played more than 41 games just once. He’s currently on pace to play in 38 games, but you’d have to imagine that he’ll keep getting starts if he stays hot. Anyway, a wall will be probably be hit at some point.

    But right now, Oilers fans aren’t worried about walls, they’re just glad to be back in the playoff hunt.

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s broken playoff format; Can Matthews score 50?

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    Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

    • We’re still a few years away from the Seattle expansion draft, but The Tennessean is already looking ahead to who the Preds would protect in 2021. (The Tennessean)

    • Speaking of protection lists, who will the Blue Jackets protect in 2021? (The Cannon)

    • The New York Post’s Larry Brooks explains why the NHL’s playoff format is broken. (New York Post)

    • The Ottawa Senators have gone through some tough times this season, but there are positives that have emerged. One of them is promising center Colin White. (Ottawa Citizen)

    • Even though he’s missed some time with a shoulder injury, it’s not impossible that Auston Matthews scores 50 this season. (Toronto Sun)

    • The Hockey News breaks down 10 things we’ve learned about the NHL so far in 2018-19. (The Hockey News)

    • Sportscaster Rob Simpson is almost done visiting all 31 NHL arenas in 31 days. He’s doing all this to benefit Hockey Fights Cancer. (NHL.com)

    • As you’d imagine, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk broke their share of windows while playing hockey in their driveway. (TSN.ca)

    • Sports Illustrated takes a deeper look at the connection between being a younger sibling and becoming a goalie. (Sports Illustrated)

    • Ready for this random fact? Former Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki was a perfect 17-0-0 against the Atlanta Thrashers during his career. I told you it was random. (Broad Street Hockey)

    • It’s been a tough year for Kevin Shattenkirk in New York. What does the future hold for the veteran defeseman? (Blue Shirt Banter)

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    The Buzzer: Is it too early to give Pettersson the Calder?

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    Three Stars

    1. Elias Pettersson

    What’s easier: giving Pettersson the top star of Sunday, or just cutting through the red tape and handing him the Calder right now?

    OK, the NHL can’t do that. After all, someone might close the 11-point gap between Pettersson (30 points) and every other rookie (Colin White‘s in second with 19), especially if the league is robbed of the glory of more Pettersson in the event of an injury.

    His special Sunday really highlighted the gap between the Canucks wunderkind and everyone else. Pettersson scored the game-winning goal to go with four assists for a five-point performance. The kid is special, and you really don’t need the “for a rookie” caveat.

    2. Brock Boeser

    Normally, it might be best to lean away from placing two teammates in the top three, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge the truth. These two forwards are a blast to watch. The Boeser + Pettersson combo doesn’t merely make the Canucks palatable. If you’re not ready to go, they can absolutely dominate, stealing games for Vancouver in the process.

    Boeser collected a hat trick as the Canucks bombarded the Blues by a 6-1 score:

    3. Josh Morrissey

    This is a tough call, as Morrissey’s teammate Mark Scheifele and Ducks forward Ondrej Kase also deserve serious consideration with their own three-point Sundays.

    Morrissey gets the nod because his goal was a game-winner (Scheifele had three assists, while Kase’s goal and two assists lacked the GWG). Granted, it was the GWG in a lopsided game but … hey, we’re splitting hairs, here.

    There were some nice goalie performances, yet with Mikko Koskinen being the only guy getting a shutout – and a light one, needings 24 saves – let’s hand the bronze to a skater.

    Morrissey celebrated his first game in a week by collecting those three points as the Jets routed the Flyers. Along with the goal and two assists, Morrissey managed a +2 rating, three SOG, and one blocked shot.

    Highlights

    Admittedly, it’s strange to use the word “harmonious” to describe a hockey play, especially when Brad Marchand is involved. Such a description comes to mind here, though, as Marchand, David Krejci, and Torey Krug combine for an absolutely beautiful overtime game-winner:

    While it doesn’t match the sheer beauty of that Krug tally, Connor McDavid scored the only goal of Edmonton’s 1-0 win against Calgary on another nice bit of puck movement:

    Sunday featured at least a couple throwback “pad-stacking” saves, including this one by John Gibson:

    Not hockey, but if you have even a passing interest in the NFL, this Miami Dolphins play is just bodacious. Honestly, “Miami Miracle” doesn’t even feel too over-the-top.

    Lowlight

    Here’s not how to help Cory Schneider, a goalie who’s been struggling for quite some time: the Devils were guilty of three own-goals on Sunday, with this one possibly being the most egregious:

    Factoids

    Montreal’s tight win against Chicago is more impressive when you realize the procession of penalties they faced, particularly during a high-stick-happy third period:

    Could Mikko Koskinen be the latest goalie to flourish under Ken Hitchcock? He already started off pretty well for Edmonton, but the “low-event” Oilers have really helped him heat up:

    More impressive: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s wins total(s), or his sweet, sweet pads?

    Scores

    VAN 6 – STL 1
    WPG 7 – PHI 1
    BOS 2 – OTT 1 (OT)
    MTL 3 – CHI 2
    ANA 6 – NJD 5 (SO)
    VGK 4 – DAL 2
    EDM 1 – CGY 0

    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.