Flyers

NHL Notes: Predators know shutting down Penguins' stars not possible every game

NHL Notes: Predators know shutting down Penguins' stars not possible every game

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nashville Predators have shut down the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf this postseason.

They have slowed down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Stopping them completely? Even Nashville defenders Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and All-Star P.K. Subban are susceptible to an off night as they find out just how hard it is to keep track of Pittsburgh's superstar forwards.

"It just seems to be like every second game, they're talking about how good we play defense and then the other game they talk about how good they are as an offense," Ekholm said Friday. "And that's just going to be like (that). It's world-class players. We can't shut them down game after game."

The Predators need another great defensive performance Sunday night in Game 6 or they will watch Pittsburgh celebrate a second straight Stanley Cup championship on their ice, in front of their frenzied "Smashville" fans, catfish and all. Pittsburgh took a 3-2 lead Thursday night by routing Nashville 6-0 in a game that did more than just put the Pens a win from the title.

Ellis, who plays with Josi as Nashville's top defensive pair, skated only 10 minutes, 44 seconds during the loss. He lasted just two shifts into the second period before he went to the bench in pain.

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette gave no update on Ellis on Friday. His teammates weren't sharing any information either. Whether Laviolette will start goalie Pekka Rinne isn't a question despite the 34-year-old Finn giving up three goals on nine shots before being pulled after the first period. Not with Rinne 9-1 at home this postseason.

Penguins: Crosby doing it all again with Cup in reach
PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby's teammates keep saying nothing ever changes with the Pittsburgh Penguins captain. That the secret to his greatness is really no secret at all. The Penguins believe he remains the same player and the same person every shift, every night.

In theory, yes. But not always in practice.

What separates Crosby is an ability to raise his play in lockstep with the stakes. His team's grasp on a second straight Stanley Cup tenuous at best heading into Game 5 against Nashville on Thursday, Crosby did more than send a message. He took over. And he led. In more ways than one.

Sure, Crosby dished out three assists in Pittsburgh's lopsided 6-0 win to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead in their increasingly coarse series with the Predators. Yet becoming the franchise's all-time leader in points during this Stanley Cup Final (surpassing his boss, Mario Lemieux) captures only a slice of the brilliance and brawn (yes, really) that pushed Pittsburgh to the verge of a fifth title.

There was his quicksilver first shift, when Crosby split the Predators defense shortly after the opening faceoff, then rang shot off the left post while drawing a penalty from Nashville's Ryan Ellis, who tried futilely to slow him down. Pittsburgh scored on the ensuing power play and never looked back.

There was his scrum behind the Nashville net late in the first period with frequent tormentor P.K. Subban. Crosby responded to the All-Star defenseman doing some "UFC move" on his right foot by trying to make Subban's face a permanent part of the ice.

There was the slick blind backhand pass to Conor Sheary just 1:19 into the second period that made it 4-0. Oh, and don't forget the water bottle toss just moments before Phil Kessel's first goal of the series pushed the lead to 5-0. He insists it was accidental.

Crosby only spent 18:03 on the ice during the rout. It just seemed like more.

"When he plays that way it's awfully easy to follow him," Penguins forward Matt Cullen said. "He's pretty inspirational when he plays that way and he gets to a level that not many guys can get to" (see full story).

Predators: Hockey, country music collide in Nashville
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nashville Predators' improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals has blurred the dividing line between music and sports, a convergence that's expected to hit a crescendo in Tennessee's capital city this weekend.

The thousands of fans in town to celebrate the annual CMA Music Festival have joined with thousands more hockey fans celebrating in the streets and honkey-tonks of Music City.

"Nashville is a hockey town; they are crazy about the Preds here," said country artist Darius Rucker, the former frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish.

"It's great for hockey for a Southern town to be that much into the team and into the sport."

Anticipation has grown with each game over which country music legend will sing the national anthem. Will it be Carrie Underwood, whose husband, Mike Fisher, is the Predators' captain? Tim McGraw and/or Faith Hill, one of Nashville's power couples? Maybe even Dolly Parton?

The Predators host Game 6 of the NHL Finals on Sunday evening as the country music fest holds its closing concert, headlined by Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. The entertainment district between the two venues will be packed: City officials expect 100,000 people to throng the downtown streets.

Country music fan Darlene Dye, who planned her trip from Dayton, Ohio, months before the Predators' playoff run, said she's enjoyed seeing the team embraced by country stars.

"Even the artists are like, `Go Preds!' And they're wearing their jerseys," she said. "I think it's a blast" (see full story).

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

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USA Today Images

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

With the Flyers' elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team's third-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft was officially transferred over to the Red Wings.

What was originally a fourth-round selection in the acquisition of goaltender Petr Mrazek was upgraded to a third-rounder once Mrazek won five regular-season games and the Flyers qualified for the postseason.

The Flyers could potentially still owe the Red Wings a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL draft if Mrazek is re-signed. However, that seems unlikely with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth already under contract for next season and Mrazek’s poor play over the final five weeks of the regular season.

In all likelihood, the Flyers will have the 19th overall pick in the June draft, which is scheduled for June 22-23 at American Airlines Center in Dallas. If the Blue Jackets are eliminated before the Eastern Conference Finals, then they will select 18th with the Flyers slotted in at the 19th selection.

Once again, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will be watching intently during Saturday’s NHL draft lottery, where the Flyers could also acquire the St. Louis Blues' first-round selection.

The Flyers have a 95 percent chance of obtaining the Blues' first pick as compensation in the Brayden Schenn trade that was completed at last year’s draft in Chicago. 

The Blues' pick is top-10 protected, but they have only a five percent chance of moving into the top three — 1.5 percent for No. 1 overall, 1.7 for No. 2, 1.8 for No. 3, 91.8 for No. 14 and 3.2 for No. 15. So, either the Blues draft in the top three, they remain at 14 or fall back to 15.

However, as Hextall discovered just a year ago, anything is possible.

Last year, the Flyers made the monumental leap from the 13th-worst record in the league to obtaining the second overall pick — a lottery move that had just a 2.4 percent chance of falling in their favor. With that selection, the Flyers chose Nolan Patrick.

Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and a future cornerstone blueliner. 

The NHL draft lottery is held in Toronto.

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to CapFriendly.com. The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.