Preds can advance to first conference final tonight

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ST. LOUIS — Pekka Rinne was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the eighth round in 2004, back when the franchise was celebrating its first playoff appearance.

Thirteen years, 11 NHL seasons and 564 games later, Rinne and the team that drafted him in a round that no longer exists are a win away from reaching a place they’ve never been before.

If Nashville can eliminate the St. Louis Blues in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal Friday night at Scottrade Center, it will earn its first conference final spot.

“It would be huge for the organization,” Rinne said Tuesday night after stopping 32 shots in a 2-1 Game 4 win that gave the Predators a 3-1 series lead. “Our fans, our players and the city are hungry for the next round. When you have a chance to close these things out, you really have to step on their throat.”

Nashville proved to be superb closers in the first round, sending the Chicago Blackhawks home in four straight games, including a 4-1 victory in Game 4. While it has been the better team in this round as well, evidence suggests this closeout game might not go as smoothly as the first one.

St. Louis played well for most of Game 4, doing most of what it pledged to do after a 3-1 defeat in Game 3 which wasn’t close. It played more physically, outshot the Predators for the first time in the series and won 53 percent of faceoffs.

But Rinne, Ryan Ellis and James Neal offset the Blues’ solid performance with their heroics. Rinne improved to 7-1 in the playoffs with a microscopic 1.33 goals-against average, upping his save percentage to .953.

Ellis scored in his seventh straight game, tying the franchise playoff record with his fourth goal of the playoffs early in the third period. Neal supplied the game-winner with a spinning wrist shot that beat Jake Allen over the stick side with just under seven minutes left.

It capped Neal’s best game of the postseason. The right winger fired 10 shots in Game 4 and could have scored another goal were it not for Allen’s terrific stop early in the third period.

“You’re fighting for every chance you get and every piece of ice,” Neal said. “It’s a tough game, so you try to get good looks. When you get good looks, you try to get them off good.”

St. Louis doesn’t plan to change a whole lot from Game 4, other than perhaps reducing its time in the penalty box. The Blues took seven minors Tuesday night after drawing six in Game 3.

Nashville has three power play markers in the series and two other goals that occurred less than 30 seconds after 5-on-4 time ended.

“I think we did a lot of things better tonight than we have in the previous games,” St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo said after Game 4. “We put a lot more emphasis on the small things shot blocks and communication being there.”

Should the Blues stave off elimination, Game 6 would occur Sunday in Nashville.

Eberle even more under microscope after bad turnover in Game 4


Todd McLellan wanted more from Jordan Eberle.

What he got was a brutal turnover that led to an Anaheim goal.

The turnover occurred Wednesday in the second minute of the second period of Game 4. The Oilers had a 2-0 lead, but the Ducks were pressing in Edmonton’s end.

It was then that Eberle got to a loose puck and had a chance to make a play along the boards — either get it out or get it to center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

And if those two options weren’t available, eat it.

Instead, Eberle cleared it weakly to the blue line where Anaheim’s Brandon Montour was waiting. Montour passed it to Ryan Getzlaf, who ripped it past Cam Talbot to make it 2-1.

Eberle was soon demoted to the fourth line. He finished with just 11:39 of ice time. The Ducks won, 4-3, in overtime, tying the series at two games apiece.

Afterwards, Eberle’s coach chose not to pile on.

“He’s not the only one who made mistakes,” said McLellan, per the Edmonton Sun.

But it was a bad mistake at a bad time. And it was made by a highly paid player who was already under the microscope.

Game 5 goes tonight in Anaheim, and it remains to be seen where, and with whom, Eberle will play. But the 26-year-old winger could sure use his first goal of the playoffs. He only has two assists in 10 games, and he’s a minus-5.

Safe to say, if his play doesn’t improve, and if the Oilers don’t get past the Ducks, expect to hear Eberle’s name resurface in trade rumors this offseason.

Caps take page out of Penguins playbook with Ovechkin on third line


The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup with their best goal-scoring winger on the third line.

Maybe it’ll work for the Washington Capitals.

“Just try to get three lines going,” captain Alex Ovechkin told reporters today after practicing on the third line with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson.

Three lines have most certainly not been going for the Caps of late. Their third line of Eller, Wilson and Andre Burakovsky has gone completely dry offensively, one of the main reasons Washington finds itself on the brink of elimination.

The Penguins lead the Capitals, 3-1. Game 5 goes tomorrow at Verizon Center.

The Penguins, of course, rolled through the 2016 postseason with Sidney Crosby on the first line, Evgeni Malkin on the second, and Phil Kessel on the third (alongside Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin, comprising the HBK Line.)

“It’s pick your poison,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan liked to say of his three-line attack.

Whether that’s exactly what Caps coach Barry Trotz was thinking before he put Ovechkin on the third line is hard to say. Trotz called out his “top guys” after Wednesday’s Game 4 loss, and Ovechkin admitted himself that he didn’t play well enough.

“Obviously, I didn’t play my game at all tonight so I think, me personally, I have to play much better,” he said.

At practice today, Burakovsky took Ovechkin’s regular spot on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, while the second line of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams remained intact.

Related: On the ‘matchup problems’ the Penguins have given the Sharks

Crosby practices with Penguins, wearing a regular jersey


Sidney Crosby hit the ice for practice with the Pittsburgh Penguins this morning, and he did it wearing a regular jersey, as opposed to the non-contact type that injured players typically don.

Crosby, who was diagnosed with a concussion after being forced to leave Monday’s Game 3 against the Washington Capitals, skated yesterday by himself in full gear at the Penguins’ practice facility.

Via Ryan Recker of WTAE-TV, here’s video of Crosby this morning:

Conor Sheary (concussion) is also practicing today.

Crosby and Sheary did not dress for Game 4 on Wednesday.

Game 5 goes tomorrow in Washington. The Penguins lead the Capitals, 3-1.

Ovechkin practices on third line


The Washington Capitals hit the ice for practice this morning, and Alex Ovechkin was on the third line.

Ovechkin, who normally plays with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie on the Caps’ top line, was instead skating with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson.

Andre Burakovsky, who’s gone pointless in the series, replaced Ovechkin on the top line.

The second line of Marcus JohanssonEvgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams remained intact.

The changes came after Ovechkin admitted he did not play well in the Game 4 loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. He only registered two shots and was called for two minor penalties.

“Obviously, I didn’t play my game at all tonight so I think, me personally, I have to play much better,” he said.

His coach agreed.

“Our top guys didn’t step up tonight,” said Barry Trotz. “Which was unfortunate. Our top players need to play like top players. They didn’t.”

The Capitals trail the Penguins, 3-1.

Game 5 goes tomorrow at Verizon Center.

Read more: Three Capitals stats that explain their predicament