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 have clear path to postseason but ...

ap-scott-laughton-flyers-devils.jpg
AP Images

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

It’s about to get real for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Real serious and potentially really hard. The Flyers have played the fewest divisional games of any team in the NHL.

That might be beneficial if the team located about 40 minutes off the shores of the Atlantic Ocean actually played in the Atlantic Division. The Flyers have hammered Atlantic teams this season: an 8-4-0 record including a win in Tampa and their most recent three-game series sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Whereas the Atlantic houses a collection of domesticated poodles and Pomeranians, the Metropolitan Division is more a breeding ground for vicious Dobermans and pit bulls.

And the Flyers are about to enter the teeth of that beast.

Dave Hakstol’s club plays 19 of their remaining 37 games against the rock-solid Metropolitan, the only 8-team division in hockey without a legitimate doormat or two. 

“It’s good or bad depending on whether you’re winning or not,” general manager Ron Hextall said.“It’s great taking points from other teams and adding to your total. It does put a higher importance on those games for sure. Every game is important, but certain games are just a little more important. Your lows can’t be too low. That’s the bottom line.

“They’re divisional games. They’re huge games for us, especially with how tight it is with that wild card spot,” center Sean Couturier said. “We’ve got to step up and be ready for the challenge.”

Unfortunately for the Flyers, their sore spot over their past two-plus seasons has been their play against the Metropolitan elites — the teams they’re typically chasing in the standings.

4-4-1 vs. Capitals
3-5-2 vs. Rangers
3-6-1 vs. Penguins
2-3-4 vs. Blue Jackets

Collectively, that’s a 12-18-8 record in the Dave Hakstol era with just a 4-9-6 mark on the road. Interestingly, defenseman Brandon Manning believes roster formation has been part of the reason behind the success of the Flyers' opponents.  

“Credit to them, I think they’ve done a good job of getting better every year,” Manning said. “You look at what Pittsburgh does with their turnover and still finding a way to win. Columbus is so much better and you look at Jersey, which hasn’t been the greatest team the past couple of years, but this year they have a really good hockey team. I think credit to those teams for finding a way to get better.” 

And if there’s a direct path to the postseason, then winning these crucial divisional games has to be the way to get there. Since the formation of the NHL’s current four-division alignment in 2013-14, the Metropolitan has sent 17 teams to the playoffs and only once has a team reached the postseason without a winning record within the division — the Pittsburgh Penguins finished 9-17-4 in the Metro in 2014-15. 

The Capitals, Rangers and Blue Jackets also have the luxury of rostering a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in crucial divisional games, whereas, Hakstol will rely more on a platoon based on Elliott’s first-half workload and Neuvirth attempting to regain his early season form.  

“I haven’t studied the schedule that much in depth, but considering Moose started a stretch of 25 out of 30 games, that’s a real heavy workload,” Hakstol said. “I would expect the workload to be more spread out than that. We’ll find the best rhythm to be able and have both of them help our team.

“You need two goalies. I don’t care who you are,” Hextall said. “Look around the league. I said it before, there’s no Marty Brodeurs.”

Maybe not, but Saturday it all starts with Brodeur’s former team and with a back-to-back against the Devils and the Capitals this weekend. The Flyers' position within the division can change very drastically one direction or the other.

Pleasant surprises in a first for Flyers

Pleasant surprises in a first for Flyers

BOX SCORE

When asked what he thought about the current Flyers team prior to his retirement ceremony, Eric Lindros admitted he really didn’t know all that much regarding this year’s team. 

After Thursday night’s 3-2 win over Lindros’ hometown Maple Leafs (see observations), "Big E" and a sold-out Wells Fargo Center crowd learned something about the Flyers that no one in Philadelphia had been privy to.

The Flyers capped off their first win this season when trailing by two or more goals entering the third period. Interestingly, the only other third-period comeback that led to a victory was when they trailed this same Toronto team, 2-1, on Dec. 12. Prior to this game, the Flyers were 1-12-2 this season when trailing after two periods.

Certainly, the Flyers needed goal scoring, but more importantly, they also received a handful of momentum saves from goaltender Michal Neuvirth.

“Huge," Neuvirth said regarding his 29-save performance. “When we tied it, it was like, 'OK, here we go. You gotta be at your best right now.' So I was just focusing on the next shot. Just happy the way the guys responded in the third.”

Neuvirth had little, if any, margin of error after the Leafs scored twice in a 28-second span to grab a 2-0 advantage, but the Flyers' backup netminder provided a handful of momentum saves that allowed the Flyers to win in overtime.

• A minute after Wayne Simmonds tied the game at 2-2 with a shorthanded goal, Neuvirth stopped Auston Matthews and Connor Brown on back-to-back shots, including an impressive blocker save on Brown from up close.

• With 2:48 remaining in regulation, Neuvirth made the save of the game with the Leafs coming down on a 2-on-1. Neuvirth expected Nazem Kadri to shoot. Instead, he passed it to his left, forcing Neuvirth to make a full extension on Patrick Marleau, turning aside the shot with the tip of his right pad (see highlights).

• Neuvirth denied Matthews from in tight with another pad save just 10 seconds into overtime. That save created a 2-on-1 scoring chance resulting in Sean Couturier’s game-winning score. 

“At least three 10-bell saves by Neuvy. He was tremendous,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We generated a lot in the third period, but when you give up those chances against, Neuvy stole the show in my opinion and you need those saves sometimes to win games. For me, he was first star.”

Neuvirth and the rest of the Flyers needed an initial spark and 19-year-old rookie Nolan Patrick was surprisingly the one to provide it. After taking a shot that hit the side of the net and caromed behind it, Patrick chased down Mitch Marner, stole the puck and fired a quick shot on goaltender Frederik Andersen for his first goal in his last 25 games.

“I tried to forget how many games it was in a row without a goal and just keep playing,” Patrick said. “I thought I was playing some good hockey lately and I knew it would come.”

A minute and 52 seconds later, Simmonds tied the game at 2-2 with the Flyers' second shorthanded goal of the season, extending his point streak to six games.

Struggling to find the right overtime combinations, Hakstol elected to go with the trio of Couturier, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov to start the extra session. Couturier continued his magical run and now has 11 goals in his last 12 games, while also providing five game-winning goals in the Flyers' last 10 victories. 

“He’s hot. We keep calling him ‘Rocket,’" Simmonds said, referring to Hall of Famer Maurice “Rocket” Richard. “You just keep giving him the puck and he’s going to find the back of the net. When you’re hot, you want to keep giving it to a guy like that. Hopefully, he’s going to continue to score for us.”

More Couturier goals and more game-changing saves, and the Flyers will find themselves rocketing up the standings.