Levi Bell failed Steelers to negotiate: “I want to pay attention to”

PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell felt he would be settling if he took the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offer during franchise tag negotiations, the All-Pro running back told ESPN on Monday.

Bell was hopeful that a deal would be finalized by the 4 p.m. ET deadline but said the two sides weren’t particularly close. Bell confirmed that he will play on the $12.12 million franchise tag but isn’t sure when he’ll sign his tender or report to camp, which begins July 27.

Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers negotiated until the 4 p.m. ET deadline but were unable to agree on a long-term contract. He'll now play the 2017 season under his franchise tender, worth $12.1 million.

Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers negotiated until the 4 p.m. ET deadline but were unable to agree on a long-term contract. He’ll now play the 2017 season under his franchise tender, worth $12.1 million.

“It’s a little frustrating, but it’s a business,” said Bell, who declined to comment on the particulars of the Steelers’ offer or his own projection of his worth. “I’m not in a rush to sign for something I’m not valued at if I feel I’m worth more than what they are offering me.”
Bell said the negotiations with the Steelers weren’t personal and that the team didn’t try to knock him for his health history — including multiple knee injuries and groin and hamstring ailments — during the process. He remains optimistic that the sides can reach an extension after the season.

The way Bell sees it, he’s a standard-bearer for a stagnate running back market. The Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy is currently the league’s highest-paid running back at about $8 million per season. That means Bell, like his running style, must be patient.

“The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” Bell said. “We do everything: We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin will be the second-highest-paid running back by base salary, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System. But in terms of “cash value,” Bell’s total is second among running backs behind that of Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette, who will make $18.3 million in cash thanks to his $17.89 million signing bonus.
However, Bell also said his value shouldn’t be constrained by position. He points to his status as the Steelers’ second-most-productive receiver behind Antonio Brown after he caught a combined 158 passes in his past two seasons of 12 games or more.

Bell has amassed 4,791 total yards the past three seasons, second among running backs, despite his missing 13 games due to injury or suspension. He can line up in the slot, out wide or in the backfield. Steelers players voted Bell the team MVP last season. He has missed five games due to suspension for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, but Bell said he has moved past those issues.

“I definitely don’t want to play for anybody else,” Bell said of the Steelers. “You never know what will happen. Today was a big eye opener. I’m going to definitely enjoy my best year with the Steelers and be happy with it.”

That begs the question: When will that season officially start? Because he hasn’t yet signed the tag, Bell technically doesn’t have to join the team until Dec. 1, though he wouldn’t get paid the franchise amount. He could sit out part of training camp. Bell said he hasn’t thought that far ahead but added, “I don’t need much” in the way of practices to be in game shape.

“I guess when it comes to camp and doing extra things when I’m training, I can’t be as aggressive as I normally would be because there’s no longevity,” Bell said. “But I’m still going to be out there and be Le’Veon Bell. … The way I train, all it’s going to take for me is a few practices and some game action. I haven’t thought about it that far. I’m game planning today. I was thinking the deal would be done. I’m going to take it day to day and see what happens.”

Bell said he feels healthy coming off groin surgery in March and believes he can post “crazy numbers” with a full 16 games in 2017. Then the same core issue might arise in negotiations.

“I want to be valued,” Bell said.

Michael Orr plans to report to the leopard training camp

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Michael Oher plans to report to training camp on July 25, a league source told ESPN on Thursday.

Oher’s future with the team, however, remains uncertain.

Oher was placed in the concussion protocol in September and missed the final 13 games of last season. The subject of the 2009 Hollywood movie “The Blind Side” remained in the protocol when he reported for a mandatory June minicamp after missing the voluntary portion of offseason workouts.

He never took the field during the mandatory minicamp, but he was scheduled to meet with doctors. Panthers coach Ron Rivera was vague when asked whether Oher would be with the team in training camp.

“We’re going to go into training camp with the guys that we have,” Rivera said. “We’ll have 90 on our roster, and we’ll be ready to go with those guys.”

Oher was Carolina’s starting left tackle during the 2015 Super Bowl run and the first three games of the 2016 season before suffering the concussion. The Panthers signed free agent Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million deal during the offseason to play left tackle, with the plan to move Oher to the right side.

Third-year player Daryl Williams and rookie Taylor Moton competed at right tackle throughout offseason workouts.

Oher, 31, has spent most of the offseason in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was charged with assaulting an Uber driver in April. He is scheduled to appear in court for the misdemeanor charge on July 21.

Oher signed a three-year extension through the 2019 season in June 2016. He is set to count $5,093,750 against the 2017 salary cap. Releasing him would save only $1,693,760 in cap space this season.

The chiefs after a strange offseason, hired Brett Veach as their new general manager

The Kansas City Chiefs didn’t expect to have a new general manager in 2017, but they had to find one once they surprisingly parted ways with John Dorsey. On Monday, the Chiefs announced that co-director of player personnel Brett Veach will be their next general manager.

Veach got his start in the NFL a decade ago with Andy Reid and the Eagles. He’s been considered a top candidate to replace Dorsey for some time now. He started working for the Chiefs in 2013, coming over with Reid.

When the team announced it was parting ways with Dorsey, team owner Clark Hunt said, “I notified John that we would not be extending his contract beyond the 2017 season and, after some consideration, both John and I felt it was in his best interests and the best interests of the team to part ways now.”

A subsequent report from the Kansas City Star’s Terez Paylor revealed that Dorsey’s communication and management styles were reasons for the Chiefs’ decision. Paylor spoke with several sources inside the organization who said that Dorsey’s approach to leadership rubbed some people the wrong way.

“He’s not a big disciplinarian or big on chain of command,” a team source said, via Paylor, “so people did what they wanted.”

It was clear the Chiefs hadn’t planned to make a GM change, or they probably wouldn’t have let Chris Ballard leave in January. Ballard, who had been the Chiefs’ director of football operations, was hired as the Indianapolis Colts’ new general manager.

Dorsey’s firing looks even stranger when you look at the moves he made this offseason. In March, he made Eric Berry the highest-paid safety in the league. Dorsey followed that up in April by trading two first-round picks to move up in the draft to select Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ quarterback of the future.

Kansas City also unexpectedly released receiver Jeremy Maclin in June. The receiver, who has a good relationship with Reid, was angry that he found out about his release via a voicemail from Dorsey.

Right before the team announced that Dorsey was out, it gave Reid a new extension.

The Chiefs are the reigning AFC West champions and are expected to compete again in 2017. They just have to hope Veach signing puts an end to this rocky offseason.

NFL players need to stop complaining about NBA money

To NFL players complaining about how much more money NBA players are making: It’s time for a reality check.

It’s ridiculous for players to compare what they make to what athletes in other sports make. They might as well whine about movie stars’ pay, since both sports and movies are part of the entertainment industry.


The truth is every professional sport is unique with its own economic factors that drive the salary train, and it’s all based on total revenue, salary caps and roster sizes. The salary discrepancy between the NBA and the NFL is basic, and it’s not changing anytime soon — if ever.

MORE: NFL’s highest-paid players

The tweets from NFL players came fast and furious last week when NBA free agency opened and about a billion dollars worth of new contracts were negotiated. Leading the way was Stephen Curry and his five-year, $201 million contract with the champion Warriors, fully guaranteed, as virtually all NBA deals are.

But it’s more than just the top salaries of the Currys and the LeBrons that bother NFL players. It’s the Gordon Hayward-type signings — four years, $128 million with the Celtics. Sure, Hayward just made his first All-Star appearance, but he’s not exactly a household name.

NFL players are annoyed when they hear the average salary for NBA players was $6.2 million last season compared to their average of $2.1 million. (That and Major League Baseball’s average salary, which was $4.34 million last year).

Bills receiver Sammy Watkins said, “We gotta get paid more. NFL is the most watched sport. NFL makes more than NBA and their players make way more…something not adding up lol.” Doesn’t sound much like a true lol, does it?

Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders tweeted, “Looks like I chose the wrong sport.” His teammate, safety  T.J. Ward, said, “We getting peanuts compared to these NBA and MLB cats! Whoa.” And this from recently retired Colts punter Pat McAfee: “Hey NFLPA. Let’s chat with the folks from NBAPA ASAP.”

It’s interesting that we don’t hear NFL quarterbacks complaining. They know fans don’t want to hear it from players like Derek Carr, whose $25 million-per-year deal now tops the QB list (but will soon be surpassed). In fact, fans don’t want to hear any pro athlete talk about salary issues since players in the major sports are well paid compared to the vast majority of the general public.

Tannehill at 2017 Dolphin: This is the best attack I’ve ever played

In his first season as the Dolphins’ head coach, Adam Gase led Miami to a 10-6 finish in 2016 — a complete 180 from their previous season. After a prosperous free agency and offseason, quarterback Ryan Tannehill believes the Dolphins boast their most talented roster yet.
“Honestly, I can say it’s definitely the most talent we’ve had with the receiving corps, bringing everyone back, having a second year together in the same offense,” Tannehill told Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald. “That’s going to be huge for us. Adding [tight ends] Julius Thomas and Anthony Fasano, veterans who have played a lot of football, is [big]. Bringing back [running backs] Jay [Ajayi], Kenyan Drake.

0ap3000000818193_thumbnail_200_150“Keeping most of the offensive line together, adding a few pieces. Putting Laremy Tunsil back at his natural position. That’s going to be huge for us. You start to stack all those pieces together and we have a good unit. Now it’s a matter of being able to elevate our play throughout the season. Just because you have good pieces doesn’t mean you’re going to perform. That’s what the onus was on all spring. That’s what it’s on throughout the summer. As we hit training camp, it’s pushing each other each and every day to go out and be great. Not just be good, but really be great.”

Tannehill’s remarks about the offense and new additions does bode well for the team’s outlook this year. But, is this revamp enough for the Dolphins to claim the AFC East title? We’ll see come September.

Ezekiel Elliott led nine young people with the potential of the Hall of Fame


In Year 3, Jadeveon Clowney provided the kind of dynamic disruption that everyone expected when he went No. 1 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. And earlier this month, Texans defensive line coach Anthony Weaver told the Houston Chronicle about a comment he’d made to the immensely talented 24-year-old.

“I told him he can be a Hall of Famer,” Weaver revealed. “Now, there’s a number of things that have to happen. You’ve got to stay healthy, you have to be consistent and persistent. But he has all the qualities and athletic attributes in order to do that.”

Earlier this week, Clowney said these words “meant a lot” to him, before providing a juicy admission: “I’m not surprised. He sees my potential. He sees what I can do. I’ve been talking to him since he came in the building. He sees me working. He coached me. I would say hats off to my coach and I’m going to get ready to go for him.”
Hey — I guess — if you got, flaunt it!

But Weaver is spot on: Clowney is a freak with a Canton skill set. I’ve raved about Clowney and believed in him for years. The only thing that can hold him back is poor health.

So, sparked by Weaver’s remark and Clowney’s self-assured response, my incredible editors at NFL.com asked me to get wild and go deeeeeep into the crystal ball …

Who are the other youngsters — 24 or younger, to be exact — who have this kind of potential? I’m not fitting them for a gold jacket; I’m just recognizing rare talent, like Clowney’s.

Like George Costanza said before driving Susan’s parents to his fake house in the Hamptons, “You wanna get nuts?? Let’s get nuts!”
Here are the current NFL youngins with Hall of Fame potential, Schein Nine style:

1) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Zeke got my AP vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and I had him in the top four for league MVP. I’m not even going to give you his numbers — just remember that he led the NFL in rushing by more than 300 yards. In Year 1. And don’t forget: It took him a few games to get going.

Elliott did it all for Dallas: running the ball, catching it out of the backfield, taking heat off of Dak Prescott and preserving the defense. Zeke was the biggest reason for Dallas’ nine-win improvement from 2015.

Yes, he only has one NFL season under his belt, so — in theory — you want to take it slow and avoid hyperbole. But I know what I saw. And you know what you saw. This cat has what it takes to be a generational player.

2) Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Well, with this guy, I am going to give you the numbers — cause they’re absolutely mindboggling. In his first three NFL seasons, Beckham has racked up 288 catches for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns. That’s an average seasonal line of 96/1,374/12. Good grief.

Odell is such a gifted, rare receiver with speed, athleticism and hands that are all extraordinary. This is a guy who cannot be stopped.

3) Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Overshadowed by his draft classmate listed just above, Evans is someone who demands more attention. The beastly wideout has gone over 1,000 yards in each of his first three pro seasons and just authored his second 12-touchdown campaign.

Now, with Jameis Winston coming into his own — as well as Tampa’s offseason additions of O.J. Howard and DeSean Jackson — Evans’ domination and numbers will be off the charts.

4) Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
After holding out during training camp and missing the first four games of last season due to a hamstring injury, the Chargers’ sack artist stunned me with his sheer ability to wreck games. He notched a pair of sacks in his first NFL contest and finished the year with 10.5 (in just 12 games).

His Defensive Rookie of the Year season was just the beginning. The Bolts have a true gem on their hands.

5) Brandin Cooks, WR, New England Patriots
Still just 23, Cooks already has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons to his name. And he logged 17 touchdowns over the past two years. So, the numbers — and the ability to stretch the field — are there.

And now I’m projecting what his numbers will be in New England, where he’ll be catching passes from the greatest quarterback of all time.

6) Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis was drafted No. 1 overall for a reason. He has Hall of Fame ability — and leadership skills that remind you of some of the most notable names enshrined in Canton.

The time is now for the Bucs quarterback. The weapons are there. Winston takes that step forward in 2017 and turns into a bona fide superstar.

7) Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Wentz over Dak Prescott? You betcha. This isn’t about 2016 or Rookie of the Year results. And I love Dak. But I think Wentz is going to be a better quarterback in the years to come — especially now that he has legit receivers around him, highlighted by Alshon Jeffery.

Remember, 2016 wasn’t even supposed to happen. The kid from North Dakota State was supposed to be groomed behind Sam Bradford. But a lucrative trade opportunity presented itself, and Wentz was thrust into the lineup. And I believe it turned into an excellent building block in Wentz’s road to stardom.

8) Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
Cooper’s numbers are excellent: two years, two 1,000-yard campaigns. And being teamed up with Derek Carr certainly doesn’t hurt. I think Carr and Cooper are going to be a special and winning combination for a prolonged period of time. And that sort of thing definitely helps build a legacy.

9) Landon Collins, S, New York Giants

The Giants safety has a knack for making plays (SEE: five interceptions and four sacks last season). And he’s a major part of a great defense — Big Blue just yielded the second-fewest points in the NFL.

Having established himself as a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2016 — his second NFL season — Collins has the ability to be entrenched as a first-team All-Pro for a long time.

TOUGHEST OMISSIONS: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys; Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams; Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans; Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears; Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs.

Big Red Soda Announces A Perfect Match Made In Texas – A Partnership With Dallas Pro Football Rookie Taco Charlton

AUSTIN, Texas, June 26, 2017 /PRNewswire/ — Big Red, America’s original and best-selling red soda, announces that Taco Charlton, Dallas’ first round pick and 28th overall in the 2017 draft, has signed on to be a brand ambassador for the upcoming football season. Charlton, whose given name is Vidauntae, was nicknamed “Taco” as a child by his mother and grandmother for a still, unclear reason. Now, that moniker could not be more relevant as the rookie defensive end kicks off his professional football career in Texas – home of Big Red and some of the country’s best tacos.

“When Taco was drafted to start his pro football career in the Lone Star state, it made perfect sense to us, a Texas-based company, to combine three things Texans love – football, tacos and Big Red.” says Thomas Oh, SVP of Marketing at Big Red, Inc. “This fall, we are looking forward to supporting Taco in his rookie season and reminding consumers that nothing complements tacos better than the sweet, smooth flavor of Big Red.”
This fall, images of Big Red and Taco Charlton will be found on Big Red soda displays at hundreds of stores across North and South Texas. As part of the promotion, Big Red will host a sweepstakes offering fans the chance to win Big Red football memorabilia autographed by Charlton. Big Red will also host Taco Charlton meet-and-greet sessions at select North Texas grocery stores later this year.

Big Red Soda Announces A Perfect Match Made In Texas – A Partnership With Dallas Pro Football Rookie Taco Charlton

Big Red Soda Announces A Perfect Match Made In Texas – A Partnership With Dallas Pro Football Rookie Taco Charlton

“I love my name and I actually do love tacos,” says Charlton (@TheSupremeTaco). “Although I am new to Texas, I quickly learned that nothing goes better with tacos than Big Red, so I’m excited to partner with such a unique, iconic brand.”

Big Red Inc. is one of the top 10 beverage companies in North America with a history dating back to 1937. Along with Big Red®, recognized as the number-one selling red soda, Big Red Inc. also markets beverage brands Big Red Zero®, Big Blue®, Big Peach®, Big Pineapple®, NuGrape®, and Nesbitt’s® products. Distributed widely throughout the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Independent Bottlers and Pepsi Beverages Company, consumers across the country enjoy Big Red Inc.’s beverages.

The Celtics 76ers have identified a blockbuster deal to exchange top picks

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have officially completed a blockbuster trade that sends the No. 1 overall pick in this week’s NBA draft from Boston to Philadelphia.

The Sixers, who are expected to select Washington guard Markelle Fultz first overall, traded the No. 3 overall pick and a future first-round pick to the Celtics.

On top of its No. 3 overall pick, Philadelphia is also sending the 2018 first-round ‎pick it owns via the Los Angeles Lakers, which the Sixers acquired from Phoenix at the 2015 trade deadline.

But if that Lakers pick doesn’t fall between No. 2 and No. 5 in the 2018 draft, Philadelphia will instead send a 2019 first-rounder to Boston that it acquired from the Sacramento Kings.

“We’re thrilled to be able to select what we expect [to] be an impact player with the third pick in this year’s very talented draft class, while also adding a highly valuable future asset as we continue to build toward Banner 18,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said in a statement.

It will mark the second straight year that Philadelphia selects first overall. The Sixers used the No. 1 pick last year on Ben Simmons, who missed the entire season because of a foot injury.

76ers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said the trade “puts us in the enviable position of selecting first overall in consecutive draft years.”

“History suggests that No. 1 has the greatest odds of producing franchise-level talent, and we are confident that this year’s draft class has that very potential,” Colangelo said. “Thursday night will see us take another significant step toward building a successful and sustainable basketball program.”

Ainge said Monday that he believes the player the Celtics would have selected with the No. 1 on Thursday will be there when the team picks at No. 3.

“I think even before the lottery, we’ve been evaluating these kids for a couple years, and we felt like it was very close with the top handful of players, and we still feel that way,” Ainge said in a conference call Monday after the trade was formally announced. “We think there’s a really good chance the player we’ll take at 3 is the same player we would have taken at 1. So this was a great opportunity to acquire an impactful asset.”

Ainge didn’t rule out the possibility that Boston could use the No. 3 pick in a secondary move but seemed to hint that the team made this initial move simply because it believed it could add a future pick while still getting its desired player.

Celtics fans have been leery about moving down, particularly with all the buzz about Fultz. But Ainge repeatedly stressed that the Celtics are excited about this move.

“We feel like it’s a jump-start for us,” Ainge said. “We’re getting the player we want. They’re getting the player they want. And we’ll get an additional player that we want in next year’s draft, or the year after. So I think it’s a good deal for both teams.”

Ainge noted that Philadelphia’s trade offer was the best Boston received for the No. 1 pick and “by a significant margin.” Ainge also downplayed the suggestion that Boston might have aided what might be its primary Eastern Conference competition down the road and said Boston’s front office was unanimous on the decision to move down.

Tyronn Lue says no major changes for Cavs for Game 3

CLEVELAND — Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue is digging in his heels on his approach to coaching his team despite trailing the Golden State Warriors 0-2 heading into Wednesday’s Game 3.

Lue announced Tuesday that he will keep J.R. Smith as his starting shooting guard, even though Smith combined for just three points on 1-for-6 shooting, two rebounds and zero assists, steals and blocks in Games 1 and 2.

A Cavs source told ESPN following Game 2 that the team would consider starting Iman Shumpert over Smith after Shumpert had some success guarding Kevin Durant and played aggressively on offense. Lue, however, is sticking with Smith, who started 35 of the 41 games in which he played this season.

Shumpert, who required an IV after Game 2, appeared Tuesday to have recovered from the cramps that plagued him Sunday. He and Smith engaged in a spirited game of 1-on-1 during the portion of the practice that was open to the media and Shumpert could be heard encouraging Smith to bring the same mindset he displayed in practice to the rest of the series.

Lue also remained steadfast in the Cavs playing with a frenetic pace, even though the Warriors have outscored them 245-204 in the series so far. The Cavs were average, at best, in terms of pace during the regular season, ranking 16th in the league.

“I think taking good shots when we’re playing with pace and not turning the basketball over, letting them get out in transition,” Lue said. “So, that’s our game. We’re not going to change our game because of who we’re playing. And I’m confident that we can play that way, and we did it last year. A lot of people said we couldn’t. But that’s our game. That’s who we are. And we’re not going to change just pause we’re playing Golden State.”

The Cavs are playing at a quicker pace than LeBron James has ever played before. James has played with an average pace of 90.6 possessions per game in his 14-year career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the Finals, the Cavs are averaging 105.5 possessions per game so far.

In the first quarter of Game 2, the Cavs played with the fastest pace of any quarter of the 1,275 games James has played — regular season or postesason. Despite the extra possessions, Cleveland trailed 40-34 heading into the second. The quickened pace was not sustainable in Game 2, as the Cavs had 59 possessions in the first half and 49 possessions in the second half.

James rejected a reporter’s call for more of a halfcourt-oriented game from the Cavs on Wednesday.

“That’s not our game. We don’t play slowdown basketball,” James said. “We play at our pace. We play our game. We got to this point playing our way. We have won a lot of games playing the way we play, so we’re not going to change.”

Lue acknowledged one adjustment, saying that starting center Tristan Thompson could continue to play reduced minutes.

“It’s not anything Tristan isn’t doing,” Lue said. “I just think that against this team you have to score the basketball.”

If it’s not Thompson, the Cavs will likely go more to Channing Frye, who was 1-for-5 for two points in Game 2. He is not the only role player struggling. Smith, of course, has yet to make an impact, and Deron Williams is 0-for-9 in the Finals so far.

“We have done a great job of getting everyone involved and making sure that everyone feels comfortable, but now we need everything and everybody,” Kyrie Irving said. “And I know they know how important they are. And it’s our job, my job to exude as much confidence as I can in them in order to get the very best, and I will do that.”

Preds coach Peter Laviolette refuses to discuss possible goalie change

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Predators coach Peter Laviolette is giving no hint of whether goaltender Pekka Rinne will start in a pivotal Game 3 against Pittsburgh on Saturday night.

Laviolette pulled Rinne for Juuse Saros after the Predators gave up three goals in the first 3:28 of the third period Wednesday night. Pittsburgh finished off a 4-1 win for a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

Asked Thursday if he has made a decision for Game 3, Laviolette said he will not talk about lineup changes. Laviolette said the goalies know who will start, although the Predators’ public relations department clarified that neither Rinne nor Saros knows who will start Game 3, according to TSN.

Rinne went into the final with the stingiest numbers in net this postseason, and he is a favorite to win the Conn Smythe trophy as postseason MVP. The 34-year-old goalie has instead given up eight goals on 36 shots through two games. Two goals went off teammates and into the net, but it has not been the inspiring performance that the Predators and their fans are used to from the big Finn.

His save percentage has dipped throughout the playoffs — .976 against Chicago, then .932 against St. Louis and .925 in the West finals against Anaheim. Against the quick-strike Penguins, it’s just .778.

Still, the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist has allowed only 13 goals in eight playoff games at home and his teammates vowed to play better defense.

“It’s not his fault by any means,” Nashville captain Mike Fisher said of the goals allowed in Pittsburgh. “We know we can do a better job in front of him. It’s a team game, and everyone looks at shots and save percentage but forget about the quality and who we’re playing. And certain parts of the game where we got to help him out.”

Defenseman Ryan Ellis, who has played with Rinne for six years, called the goalie Nashville’s best player, night in and night out.

“There’s nothing that can replace Peks,” Ellis said.