Flyers

Stanley Cup Final: Predators leaning on Pekka Rinne to force Penguins back to Pittsburgh

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Stanley Cup Final: Predators leaning on Pekka Rinne to force Penguins back to Pittsburgh

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Pekka Rinne is a friendly, polite man off the ice. Slipping the puck past the Nashville Predators goaltender is one of the few ways to anger the 6-foot-5 Finn.

Pucks bouncing past him on the NHL's biggest stage infuriate him. Rinne chopped his stick against a goalpost not once, but twice after giving up a fifth and final goal a year ago when Nashville was ousted from the playoffs.

That was just Game 7 in the second round.

Now Rinne goes into the biggest game of his career Sunday night needing yet another home victory to force both the defending champs and the Stanley Cup Final to a deciding seventh game back in Pittsburgh. And Rinne spent the past 40 minutes stewing on the bench as the Penguins finished off a 6-0 rout Thursday night in easily Nashville's worst playoff loss.

"You have those thoughts that why (is) the puck getting deflected in off our guys or something like that," Rinne said Saturday. "You try to work so hard that the luck is also on your side. When bounces not going your way, sometimes you question, have second thoughts in your head, but that's life."

The goalie so competitive he doesn't like teammates scoring on him in practice is back in Nashville where he's been nearly unbeatable over the past two postseasons at 13-1.

Rinne has a 9-1 record this spring with a 1.44 goals-against average and .949 save percentage in Nashville. He's allowed two or fewer goals in eight of those 10 games and tied Antti Niemi with his 36th playoff win for the most in NHL history by a Finnish-born goaltender.

Yet the goalie and the Predators stand between Pittsburgh and a big chunk of history.

The Penguins are trying to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons in nearly two decades since Detroit repeated in 1997 and 1998. One more win gives the Penguins the franchise's fifth Stanley Cup, tying them with Edmonton for sixth all-time.

All four of Pittsburgh's Stanley Cups have been clinched on the road with Chicago the last team to win the Cup on home ice back in 2015.

"Opportunities like this, they don't come around often, so you want to make the most of them," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said.

The Predators haven't scored a goal in 63 minutes, 23 seconds since Filip Forsberg's empty-net goal in Game 4. So Rinne will need to be at his best to give Nashville a chance at its first Game 7 and Pittsburgh's third this postseason.

Rinne understands coach Peter Laviolette was trying to wake up the Predators by pulling the veteran after allowing three goals on nine shots in the first 20 minutes of Game 5. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all put up at least two points each in that game.

Yet there's been no question that Rinne, who has never won a start in Pittsburgh, will be in net Sunday night.

"Right now our backs are against the wall, and this is our opportunity and I think you try to do anything in your power and prepare the best you can for this one," Rinne said.

The Predators know exactly what they need to do better against Pittsburgh. Part of that is being better in front of Rinne.

"We made mistakes in front of him," Laviolette said. "So I know there's things that we can do that can support our goaltender better."

Nashville may be without defenseman Ryan Ellis, who didn't finish Thursday night's loss. Ellis was among several Predators who did not take part in an optional practice Saturday. Ellis plays with Roman Josi on Nashville's top defensive pair and is tied for third with 13 points this postseason.

The Penguins skated in Pittsburgh before flying to Nashville. Center Nick Bonino, who has missed three straight games with an injured left foot, did not practice for the Pens.

Pittsburgh couldn't close out Columbus, Washington or Ottawa the first chance the Penguins had in each of their previous three playoff series. Coach Mike Sullivan thinks his Penguins are playing better, harder and smarter over the past two games.

"When these guys play a committed, inspired game the way they do and they execute, then their talent and their instincts are going to take over," Sullivan said. "And when they do that, they're hard to defend."

Having the Stanley Cup in Bridgestone Arena gives the Predators plenty of motivation as well in the first game they've faced elimination this postseason. Nashville went 3-1 in such games last year.

"Our motivation is the Cup," Nashville captain Mike Fisher said. "We want to win it."

Former Flyers defenseman Zarley Zalapski dies at 49

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USA Today Images

Former Flyers defenseman Zarley Zalapski dies at 49

CALGARY, Alberta — Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski has died at age 49, according to the Calgary Flames. No cause of death was given.

Zalapski, a native of Edmonton, played 637 NHL games for Calgary, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal and the Flyers from 1987 to 2000.

He was with the Flames from 1993 to 1998.

"We are proud that Zarley wore the Flames jersey, made Calgary his home following his playing career, represented our alumni executive and we will always remember him as a member of the Flames family," Flames president and chief executive officer Ken King said Tuesday in a statement.

"This is a terrible loss of a man with great character who truly loved the game of hockey. We express our sincere condolences to the Zalapski family."

Zalapski was a member of the Canadian team that finished fourth in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

He had 99 goals, 285 assists and 684 penalty minutes in the NHL. Zalapski was named to the all-rookie team in 1989 and participated in the NHL All-Star Game in 1993.

Zalapski played stints in Austria and Switzerland after his NHL career and appeared in 11 games for the United Hockey League's Kalamazoo Wings in 2004-05.

He was the fourth overall pick by the Penguins in the 1986 entry draft.

'Special play' by Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux highlights Flyers' 4th straight win

'Special play' by Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux highlights Flyers' 4th straight win

BOX SCORE

The entire play was a thing of beauty.  

The only debate was which part was prettier: Claude Giroux’s pass or Sean Couturier’s shot?

“I don’t know," Couturier said. "Ask him and see what he thinks."

“It’s a pretty special play to be able to get that puck into open ice to let Coots skate onto it,” head coach Dave Hakstol said.

After Couturier won a faceoff in the defensive zone, the puck eventually swung towards the far boards in the neutral zone. Giroux delivered a backhand pass between his legs and the legs of Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev before Couturier chased it down and uncorked a perfectly placed shot that found the top-right portion of the net (see highlights).

“The puck was rolling so I just shot as hard as I could,” Couturier said. 

"I saw Coots had a foot race and usually he doesn’t beat the other guy, but he was able to beat him there,” Giroux said half-jokingly. “He’s been playing great hockey and it’s fun to be on his line.

“It’s that kind of play that you can’t really describe. I’ll put it somewhere where he might be able to get it."

Couturier’s game-winner with 2:55 remaining in regulation Tuesday was part of the Flyers' three-goal third-period outburst on the way to a 4-2 win (see observations). It was the team's fourth consecutive victory, making it the first time since February 2014 the Flyers have strung together four straight wins in regulation, improving their record to 12-11-7.

The Flyers also snapped a six-game winless streak at the Wells Fargo Center dating back to Nov. 9.

“The last three games before this one, we had the lead and everybody bought in on how we wanted to play to keep the lead, and now we had a different test,” Giroux said. “We’re down a goal and guys just have a feeling in the room that we’re going to come back. It’s a good feeling right now.”

The Couturier-Giroux combination got the Flyers on the board in the opening period when Couturier won the draw in the offensive zone after sliding the puck behind him and Giroux finished with a one-time blast that beat Frederik Andersen.

“We switch around and try different things offensively,” Couturier said. “Having him on the right side there, G is ready for a one-timer if I win it and lucky enough the puck ended up right on his tape.”

Not only did the Flyers have a pair of first-rounders on their top line, Hakstol also elected to pair fellow first-round picks Scott Laughton and Travis Konecny on the team’s fourth line. Together with Taylor Leier they brought an element of speed and energy that led to the Flyers' game-tying tally in the third period when Konecny’s shot grazed off two Maple Leafs for just his second goal in his last 20 games.

“It was definitely part of our game plan to outskate their D and get in there,” Konecny said. “As a unit of three, we know we can cheat a little bit and get in on the forecheck because we know we can get back and defend in the right spots, so yeah, we were on top of them.”

“You guys can label them whatever you want,” Hakstol said. “They’re just one of our lines. We thought that line combination made sense with the speed and pace that all three of those guys play at. It’s one small tweak to our lineup that we made coming off the road trip out west.”

The Maple Leafs came into the game a little short on star power with top center Auston Matthews day to day with an upper-body injury. However, it hadn’t affected the Leafs in previous games as Toronto had a 5-0 record in contests Matthews had missed. Head coach Mike Babcock believed Tuesday night’s game was more of a missed opportunity.

“To me, we gifted two goals,” Babcock said. “The one tough play the goalie touched the goal and then the play where they come in, we are above those. To me, you can’t do that.”

The Flyers took down the Maple Leafs for the second time this season. They’ll meet one more time on Jan. 18 at the Wells Fargo Center.