Juuse Saros is saving the Predators’ season

Juuse Saros Predators

Things have changed rapidly in Nashville.

It was less than two months ago that the Predators looked to be a team going nowhere in a lost and forgettable season. They seemed destined to be sellers at the trade deadline, we were seriously questioning if it was time for a massive rebuild, and they were 10 points out of a playoff spot in seventh place in the Central Division.

Their playoff chances did not just seem slim. They seemed finished.

That is no longer the case.

Thanks to their 1-0 win over the Stars on Saturday night, the Predators now find themselves in a position where they control the playoff race for that fourth spot. They have a three-point lead over the Stars and have two upcoming games against a Columbus Blue Jackets team that has become one of the league’s worst. Even if they only win two of their remaining four games, Dallas would need to go 4-1-0 in its remaining five games to pass them.

It is a good position to be in considering where they were in the middle of March.

The biggest change since then: Goalie Juuse Saros has put the team on his back and is almost single handedly carrying to a playoff spot.

That is not an exaggeration, either. This season has become the Saros show in Nashville.

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The interesting thing about Nashville’s struggles a year ago, and even through the first half of this season, is that they were a very good 5-on-5 team. They consistently outscored their opponents when play was even, they were on the plus side of shot attempts and scoring chances, and there was reason to believe they should have been better than their record.

The biggest problems were goaltending and lousy special teams. While the power play remains a significant issue, goaltending could always play a big role in improving the penalty kill. Recently, it has. Significantly so with the Predators owning the sixth best penalty killing mark since the middle of March.

It was around that time that Saros took control of the net and started playing out of his mind.

The numbers are stunning.

Over his past 20 games Saros has posted a 14-5-1 record with a .945 all situations save percentage. That is tops in the NHL. No other goalie with at least 10 appearances during that stretch has a mark higher than .939. He also has a .952 mark during even-strength situations. That is also tops in the league.

This run has not only put Nashville right back into the thick of the playoff race, it has also put Saros in the middle of the Vezina Trophy discussion and, perhaps even maybe the MVP discussion. He is not going to beat Connor McDavid, but he is going to appear on at least a few ballots for the way he has played in the second half of the season.

Especially when you consider the injury situation Nashville has dealt with on its roster.

During this second half surge the Predators have played a significant number of games without some of their top players.

Ryan Ellis has only played in 11 out of 24 games since March 14. Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene have only played in seven each since then. Eeli Tolvanen has missed seven games and Luke Kunin has missed six. Roman Josi has missed four games.

That is a lot of high-end talent out of the lineup for the most important stretch of the Predators’ season, and they have not missed a beat.

The play of Saros is the biggest factor for that.

Ever since he became the Predators’ top backup during the 2016-17 season, and then started to gradually get more playing time in becoming the starter, he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies. There have been 51 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games over the past five seasons, and none of them have a higher save percentage than Saros’ mark of .921 in that time. He is currently in a four-way tie with Andrei Vasilevskiy, Antti Raanta, and Ben Bishop for that top spot. His even-strength mark of .927 is also in the top-five of the league.

His play this season is finally starting to get him some recognition, and that is only going to increase if he carries this Predators team to the playoffs.

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.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.