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Predators vs. Avalanche: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Nashville Predators’ record speaks for itself — they simply have everything in place to win a Stanley Cup.

They led the league with 117 points, garnering them the Presidents’ Trophy, and had the least number of regulation losses and the best away record in the NHL. They were simply dominant during the regular season and deserve the title as Stanley Cup favorites just hours before the first puck drops to start the 2017-18 postseason.

Nashville enters the playoffs with a 53-18-11 record. They were third in the NHL in terms of goal differential at +56.

While the Preds clinched weeks ago, the Avalanche needed to do so in their last game of the regular season — a thrilling 4-1 in a win-and-in against the St. Louis Blues (which featured a very close call on an offside review that ultimately stood as a goal).

Colorado finished the season with 43-30-9, good for 95 points – lowest among the 16 teams that made the dance.

In four games between both clubs, Nashville showed their might with a 4-0-0 record (three regulation wins and one win in overtime), while managing 17 goals for and just eight against.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nashville shouldn’t have any issues in this series. They’re healthy, have the likely Vezina winner between the pipes, two candidates for the Norris on the blue line and a forward contingent that only got more dangerous as the season wore on with the additions of Kyle Turris (via trade), Mike Fisher (who came out of retirement) and Eeli Tolvanen (who Nashville signed after this KHL postseason ended last month).

The Avalanche, despite closing out the season 2-4-1 in their last seven games, still found a way to get two points when they needed to. Sure, they’ll be riding that high and will have the benefit of having to have played several playoff-style games down the stretch, but it’s a tough ask for a team to go toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL without their starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-pairing defenseman Erik Johnson, both lost for the season due to separate injuries.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Nashville: The Preds have the luxury of icing four lines that can put up points. It’s not just Filip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals and 61 points), the team’s top two scoring leaders. Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith finished up with 20-plus goal seasons and Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino had 10-plus. In 5-on-5 situations, the Predators sit ninth in shot share at 51.5 percent and second in goals-for percentage at  56.7 percent. Hint: that’s good.

Colorado: Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (39 goals, 97 points), Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 62 points) combined for 36 percent of the team’s goal production this season. They were simply a force and a big reason why MacKinnon is a Hart Trophy candidate and the Avalanche are in the playoffs. That line absolutely has to produce to win, but the Avalanche need their other three lines to contribute. The analytics suggest the Avs struggle in 5-on-5 situations sitting in 27th in shot share with 47.6 percent. Even with their stacked top line, their goals-for percentage sits 15th at 52.1 percent.

Advantage: Predators. If it was top line vs. top line, Colorado would have the edge. But all four Predators lines can score, and do.

DEFENSE

Avalanche: Losing Erik Johnson for the playoffs is a massive blow, let that be known. Sure, Tyson Barrie plays a pivotal role on the backend in all three phases of the game, but Johnson isn’t a guy you can replace and his presence — 25:26 TOI per night — will be missed. Some of that extra ice time will fall to Samuel Girard. The rookie defenseman has been impressive this season and anchors the second-unit power play.

Predators: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are a formidable duo, and then teams have to deal with P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm. Nashville’s defense is as stout as there is in the NHL. They can also produce: Subban had 16 goals and 59 points this season and finished in the top-10 in d-man scoring. Josi, meanwhile, was no slouch either with his 14 goals and 53 points, putting him in the top-15.

Advantage: Predators. Only the Los Angeles Kings (202) allowed fewer goals than the Predators (204).

GOALTENDING

Avalanche: This matchup would be closer with Varlamov in net, but injuries derailed that late in the season. Bernier isn’t a bad goalie by any means, but asking him to carry the Avalanche in the same way the man 200 down ice from him can is nigh impossible. Bernier’s .913 save percentage won’t move the needle, but his 19-13-3 record helped propel this team to the playoffs, and when Varlamov missed time earlier this season, Bernier won nine straight amid a mid-season 10-game winning streak for the Avs that took them from the depths of the Central Division into a playoff fight they eventually won.

Predators: Pekka Rinne. Need we say more? He’s likely the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and eight shutouts. He also has one the best — if not the best — defenses playing in front of him. Rinne is one of the league’s elite.

Advantage: This one isn’t close unless Bernier goes on a heater. It’s the team with the likely Vezina winner. It’s Nashville. Both teams give up a lot of shots (both are in the lower third in the league). Advantage to the team with the guy better at stopping them.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Predators: The Preds loved trips to the penalty box – they were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, putting themselves shorthanded a whopping 299 times, 18 more than any other team. What helped them was a solid penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league at 81.9 percent. That will be crucial going forward — the penalty kill bit — but some discipline would be a welcomed addition to an already-formidable team. On the power play, the Preds finished with a respectable 21.2 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage. Subban led with way with 25 power play points while Forsberg kicked in 21 of his own.

Avalanche: The Avs were a whole seven-tenths of a percentage point better than the Predators on the power play at 21.9 percent, scoring 65 times this season. When you’re top unit consists of the same guys who play on your top line, it’s a pretty safe bet that production will happen. Rantanen led the Avs with 35 power-play points, with MacKinnon a close second with 32. Tyson Barrie, manning the point with MacKinnon, pitched in 30. The second unit got 17 points for Alexander Kerfoot and 12 from Samuel Girard. On the penalty kill, Colorado finished fourth in the league at 83.3 percent despite finishing with the ninth most number of times shorthanded.

Advantage: The numbers don’t lie — gotta give this one to the Avalanche, although it’s very close.

X-FACTORS

Avalanche: Jonathan Bernier. With Varlamov done for the season with a lower-body injury, Bernier will be looked to for stellar goaltending against one of the top goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Bernier put up pedestrian numbers this season backing up Varlamov but owns a career 9-4-0 record with a .917 save percentage against the Predators.

Predators: The Avs own a good power play and the Predators like to take a lot of penalties. It’s not a winning concoction if you’re the Predators, even if your penalty kill is above average. In games that will be tight from pillar to post, toning down the number of trips to the sin bin could give the Predators another advantage in the series.

PREDICTION

Nashville in four games. Nashville dominated the season series, sweeping the Avalanche. The Predators have only gotten stronger while the Avs are dealing with key injuries. This should go quick.

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

Deep roster from savvy moves opens wide window for Predators

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Predators coach Peter Laviolette’s biggest challenge adding Finnish scoring whiz Eeli Tolvanen has been finding a spot for the teenager in his lineup.

Yes, the Nashville Predators are that deep.

It’s why the defending Western Conference champions have turned in their best season yet with their sights set on finishing what they couldn’t a year ago. Savvy drafting, surprising trades and a handful of salary-cap friendly contract extensions have the Predators on the verge of what could be a dominant run in the NHL.

Boston, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks have run into salary cap issues or injuries that slammed the window shut on chasing the Stanley Cup. Dean Lombardi, who won two Stanley Cups with the Kings, said he thinks Nashville general manager David Poile has done the best job yet giving the Predators the chance to compete for the next five years.

”He’s still got to win it, but I think he’s certainly positioned for that,” Lombardi said. ”To put a team of this quality together, which is one heck of a team. They can beat you in so many ways. They don’t have a weakness, and to be flexible going forward, I think is a remarkable job.”

The Predators not only are in the playoffs for an 11th time in the franchise’s 20 years, they head into the postseason having clinched their first Central Division title and Western Conference regular-season title with a 4-3 win at Washington on Thursday night. Then a few minutes later, Boston’s 3-2 loss at Florida handed Nashville its first Presidents’ Trophy for good measure.

Veteran center Mike Fisher, who unexpectedly came out of retirement in February to rejoin the Predators, sees an even deeper roster than a season ago. Despite not having a single player among the NHL scoring leaders, eight Predators have at least 48 points apiece this season along with four different 20-goal scorers.

”No question it’s stronger than last year for sure, as strong as I’ve been a part of,” Fisher said. ”You look at last year, you lose a couple key guys, and it made it tough. We were still real close. You just never know. Hopefully, we stay healthy. But you just never know. It’s always great to have that.”

Poile didn’t stand pat with a team that lost the final to Pittsburgh in six games.

With Fisher taking until August to announce his retirement , Poile signed center Nick Bonino as a free agent. Poile also signed center Ryan Johansen to the longest and richest contract the Predators have ever given out on their own, signing the then 24-year-old center to an eight-year, $64 million deal in July a couple days after signing Viktor Arvidsson to a seven-year deal.

Those contracts, combined with a six-year deal in July 2016 for Filip Forsberg, tied up Nashville’s top line through the 2021-22 season for a tidy sum of $18.25 million per year.

Poile joined Ottawa and Colorado in a three-way trade in November, bringing center Kyle Turris to Nashville . Poile also signed Turris to a six-year, $36 million extension, keeping him under contract through 2023-24 like Johansen and Arvidsson. The Predators gave Fisher a one-year deal.

Poile still had enough money to land forward Ryan Hartman at the trade deadline from Chicago, a seller that will finish last in the Central Division.

One deal that could haunt Nashville depends on defenseman Shea Weber, the former captain traded to Montreal for defenseman P.K. Subban . That deal netted the Predators a younger and cheaper defenseman, but Nashville needs Weber to play until he’s 40 to finish the 14-year, $110 million deal first offered by Philadelphia or face a salary cap hit that would cost more in 2025-26 than the Predators’ current defense corps.

The Predators are focused on this postseason with Laviolette taking advantage of his depth not to rush anyone back from injury.

”Winning always solves a lot of problems, and we’ve been able to do that inside of this game plan,” Laviolette said.

To some critics, adding Tolvanen at the risk of needlessly burning a year on the forward’s entry-level contract seemed almost like too much.

Not to the Predators who remember forward Kevin Fiala breaking his leg in their second-round series with St. Louis last spring or Johansen needing emergency surgery for acute compartment syndrome suffered during the Western Conference finals against Anaheim. Johansen said depth matters most in the playoffs.

”We feel like we’re in a great spot right now going into this postseason,” Johansen said. ”We got a lot of bodies that can not only play certain roles, but versatile players that can step up and be great players in any area of the game. So for us, our team feels really confident in what our capabilities are.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Predators bolster roster with signing of KHL standout Eeli Tolvanen

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An already scary-looking Nashville Predators team became a little more frightening on Thursday.

The Preds signed Finnish-born Eeli Tolvanen on a three-year, fully-loaded entry-level contract, a precedent-setting deal according to Sportsnet, who reported that Tolvanen is the first player ever selected outside the top two in the NHL draft to receive full “Schedule A” and “Schedule B” bonuses from the team who selected him.

The Predators took Tolvanen with the 30th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“This is a great move, obviously, for today and our future,” general manager David Poile told reporters on Thursday, standing next to Tolvanen. “He comes in at a great spot right now with six games left in the regular season. It gives us an opportunity to give him a look and gives us that depth that we’re going to need in the playoffs.”

Tolvanen put together a historic season playing in his native Finland for Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League, becoming the highest scoring teenager in league history with 36 points in 49 games, surpassing Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s previous record of 32 points in four fewer games. His 19 goals and 17 assists are both KHL records for an 18-year-old.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

“He’s had basically just a normal year,” Poile joked, adding that Tolvanen should have gone a lot earlier in last year’s draft.

On Thursday, Tolvanen was fully aware of the situation he was coming into.

“The playoffs are coming,” he said. “I know they’re a really good team, so it’s easy to jump in, I think, because there’s a lot of good players, and they’re going to push me forward. That’s a good thing for me.”

Tolvanen was a popular figure at the 2018 Winter Olympics, where he had three goals and nine in five games, tied for second-most in the tournament and the second-best total by an under-19 player in Olympic history.

Prior to joining the KHL, Tolvanen played two seasons with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers, recording 47 goals and 92 points in 101 games. He was supposed to head to Boston College in the NCAA but was rejected by the school’s admissions office the day before last year’s draft after he did not meet the school’s standards.

The move for the Predators adds another piece to a puzzle that already looked to be complete.

Nashville entered Thursday’s action as the top team in the Central Division, the Western Conference and the whole of the NHL with 109 points and are arguably the clear favorite to avenge their Stanley Cup loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

Predators coach Peter Laviolette said Thursday that Tolvanaen could make his NHL debut on Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres. That matchup probably bodes well for his chances to snipe his first NHL goal, as well.

One thing is for certain: Nashville has one downright scary looking roster.


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

Eeli Tolvanen is coming as the Predators get even stronger

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Jokerit’s quest for the KHL’s Gagarin Cup ended on Saturday, which opened the door for top prospect Eeli Tolvanen to join the Nashville Predators for their Stanley Cup run.

The 18-year-old winger, a 2017 first-round pick, saw his contract with the team mutually terminated on Monday thanks to a clause allowing for an opt-out. He’ll fly to Music City on Wednesday to sign his entry-level deal.

Tolvanen had a fantastic rookie season in the KHL scoring 19 goals and recording 46 points in 49 games. Those numbers were the best of any U-19 player in league history. He also produced in the postseason, scoring six times in 11 games for Jokerit. He also was named KHL Rookie of the Month twice, earned Rookie of the Week honors six times and was the youngest player to record a hat trick in KHL history. Want more? Representing Finland at the World Junior Championship, he recorded six points in five games and then nine points in five games at the Olympics in PyeongChang.

So, yeah, you can see why the Predators have been excited at the prospect of adding him this season.

“I’m getting enthusiastic about Nashville,” Tolvanen said (translated) via Iltalehti. “This has been my dream ever since. Now it’s really close. A year ago I did not think I was playing at KHL and then I went to NHL.”

Tolvanen isn’t a stranger to the smaller sheets (or highlight-reel goals). Before joining Jokerit, he played two seasons in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers where he led the team in goals both seasons and put up 92 points in 101 games. So while there might be an adjustment period as he plays the final games of the Predators’ regular season, the size of the rink shouldn’t be an issue.

Predators general manager David Poile added Ryan Hartman before last month’s NHL trade deadline. Mike Fisher also came out of a short retirement to re-join the team. Now with Tolvanen’s addition, Nashville’s depth up front gets even better, especially for a team with eyes on playing hockey in June once again.

Poile has said he can see Tolvanen in the Predators’ top-six, which has featured Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith on the wings. Head coach Peter Laviolette should have plenty of time to find the right fit for him as he tweaks the lines ahead of the start of the postseason.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

In other top NHL prospect entry-level signing news, Jordan Greenway (Boston University, U.S. Olympic team) joins the Minnesota Wild, while Adam Gaudette (Northeastern University) inks his deal with the Vancouver Canucks. Casey Mittelstadt (University of Minnesota) agreed to his ELC with the Buffalo Sabres and will join them later this week.

An interesting note, as TSN’s Bob McKenzie pointed out, is that Mittelstadt has a late birthday (November), which means signing his contract with the Sabres burns the first year of his ELC. That doesn’t count as a year of pro, however, which is important to the team as he will be exempt from any Seattle expansion draft in 2020, should it happen. When his deal expires, he won’t be a full restricted free agent, as well, meaning he won’t be eligible for offer sheets or possess arbitration rights.

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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.

Lightning, Predators should take advantage of opportunity to rest players

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The Nashville Predators announced on Thursday afternoon that forward Calle Jarnkrok will be sidelined for the remainder of the regular season due to an upper-body injury.

Given that Jarnkrok has 16 goals and 35 total points in 68 games this season it is not an insignificant injury for the Predators. But as long as he is back for the start of the playoffs it really is not going to be all that damaging of a blow because of their current place in the standings.

As of Thursday they are in first place in the Central Division (eight points ahead of the second-place Jets)  and five points ahead of Vegas for the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference. Barring a major collapse down the stretch they should be in a pretty good position to wrap up both spots.

All of that brings us to something teams like the Predators — who have been doing this already — and Tampa Bay Lightning should consider down the stretch run of the regular season: Giving some of their key players an occasional night off.

This is taking a page out of the NBA playbook, but NHL teams that are pretty secure in their playoff spot should do it a lot more often. The NHL season (including regular season and playoffs) is an intense physical and mental grind, and lot of times the playoffs don’t just come down to the best team, they come down to the healthiest team.

Nashville is a team that has already played a ton of hockey the past two seasons given its run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago and it doesn’t exactly have a light schedule coming up down the stretch.

Eight of their remaining 13 games are on the road.

They have two sets of back-to-back remaining.

Along with that, they have a couple of stretches where they play four games in six nights.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

That is a lot of hockey down where they don’t really have a ton to gain. What would it hurt to sit a different key player or two each game during those stretches? Just to keep their legs fresh, maybe reduce even a little bit of the wear and tear that goes along with the grind of playing in the NHL. It is a given that starting goalie Pekka Rinne will sit on those back-to-back nights and probably a few more games here and there.

But it does not have to stop there. Pick one night, give P.K. Subban the night off. Do the same for Filip Forsberg on the next night. Will it make a huge difference in the end? Probably not, but it can’t hurt, either, especially when there is very little to gain in the standings.

Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, there’s already been talk about fatigue setting in for starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, going through his first full season as a No. 1 goalie and the Lightning have tried to schedule some spots where he can get some additional rest. As good as the rest of the Lightning roster is it is going to need a healthy and productive Vasilevskiy in the playoffs if it is going to go on a deep postseason run.

Tampa Bay’s schedule isn’t quite as grueling as Nashville’s down the stretch in terms of travel, but it still has a four-game-in-seven-night stretch at the end of the month and three more sets of back-to-backs. There is no reason that a player like Victor Hedman, for example, should be playing 26 minutes a night in all of those back-to-backs.

When it comes to the subject of rest there is always a bit of controversy that goes with it because fans pay a ton of money for tickets and expect to see star players in action. If you buy a ticket to a Lightning game you want to see Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Vasilevskiy on the ice playing at their best. But the team’s biggest obligation to the fan base is to put itself in the best possible position to win a championship. Hockey is probably the last sport this sort of strategy would be widely implemented (“resting” players seems to run counter to the grind it out, we’re tougher than you mindset the sport likes to sell), but it’s probably the sport where it would make the most sense given the length of the season and the physical nature of the games.

If giving a couple of star players an occasional night off down the stretch for a regular season game that probably does not have a ton of importance in the standings helps improve those chances even a little bit, it is something that is worth considering.

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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.