Tim Connolly, Ondrej Pavelec

Brad Richards consolation prize? Maple Leafs sign Tim Connolly for two years, $9.5M

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the most talked-about teams when it came to the Brad Richards sweepstakes, but either the Leafs felt like he was too expensive or Richards didn’t feel comfortable committing to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the lockout. Whatever the case may be, Richards is a member of the New York Rangers for a risky nine-year term and Toronto needed to move on.

The Maple Leafs did just that this afternoon by making a gamble of their own, signing former Buffalo Sabres center Tim Connolly to a two-year deal worth $9.5 million. This deal constitutes a minor $250K per year raise for Connolly, whose two-year, $9 million deal expired with Buffalo this off-season.

Why it’s a risky move for Toronto

Connolly is one of the league’s most fragile players. After playing almost every game for the first four years of his career, a litany of injuries hampered the shifty playmaker for the last six seasons. Here’s a summary of his recent history (all with the Sabres).

2005-06 season: 63 games played, 55 points scored
2006-07 season: 2 games played, 1 point scored
2007-08 season: 48 games played, 40 points scored
2008-09 season: 48 games played, 47 points scored
2009-10 season: 73 games played, 65 points scored
2010-11 season: 68 games played, 42 points scored

As you can see, he misses at least nine games per season with some especially heavy losses from 2006-2009. In fact, there were some serious questions about his ability to play hockey for a living when things got really bad. Sure, he missed “only” 23 regular season games in the last two seasons, but he also suffered a concussion at the hands of Mike Richards during the 2011 playoffs that cast some more doubt on his long-term health.

Again, his fragility makes even a two-year deal a bit risky.

Why it might work out

That being said, when Connolly is reasonably healthy, he’s a few strides short of a point per game player. No one should doubt his ability to create offense; Connolly should help Phil Kessel approach (but not necessarily top) his goal-scoring peak years with superior passer Marc Savard in Boston.

And, yes, a two-year deal certainly makes it less of a gamble than what they would have needed to give Richards. It’s a bit surprising that they needed to give Connolly a per-year raise since he probably didn’t have that much value on the free agent market. Yet when you consider the kind of ridiculous deals being handed out for less talented and less proven players, $4.75 million isn’t a terrible cap hit to deal with for two seasons.

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When judging the success of most free agents, the clearest barometer for success is how close they came to justifying (or heavens forbid, eclipsing) the value of their deals. For Connolly and the Leafs, it’s more about him merely being in uniform. Toronto should be happy if he can play between 65-72 games per season; anything more is maple syrup-flavored gravy.

The Ducks look pretty mighty right now after six consecutive wins

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In what should be a disturbing trend for every other team in the Pacific Division, the Anaheim Ducks have now won six consecutive games, and eight of their last 10.

After dominating the shot clock for pretty much all of Friday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, the Ducks completely took over on the scoreboard in the third period. It seemed like only a matter of time before a breakthrough would occur.

Just 24 hours after beating the L.A. Kings, the Ducks earned a 5-2 victory over the Coyotes.

Ryan Kesler has eight points in his last six games. Corey Perry has seven points in his last six games. Patrick Maroon, who had only eight points all season prior to Friday, had a three-point night versus Arizona.

Again. Bad news for every other team in the Pacific.

The Ducks now have a three-point lead over the Coyotes for third place in the division. They’re one point back of second-place San Jose and eight back of division-leading L.A.

As for everyone else, more specifically the Canucks, Flames and Oilers, well it might be time to start focusing more on the upcoming trade deadline and, beyond that, the draft.

The Ducks had a terrible start to this season, one that started with so much hype about a team seen as an immediate Stanley Cup contender for 2015-16.

Count Corey Perry as one who believes those early season struggles could pay off at playoff time.

And remember all of that talk in October about Bruce Boudreau perhaps at the end of his days as coach of the Ducks?

At the end of October, GM Bob Murray vowed to be patient despite such a poor start just a few months after being one win away from the Stanley Cup Final last June.

There is still plenty of hockey remaining in the regular season. The Ducks have 32 games remaining on their schedule. But it appears that patience Murray showed in October is paying off.

Jets can’t complete the comeback after miserable start against Hurricanes

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) Phillip Di Giuseppe, Andrej Nestrasil, Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk scored in the first period, and the Carolina Hurricanes held on for a 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night.

The Hurricanes scored four times on their first nine shots, taking a 4-0 lead just 10:04 into the game. Nestrasil added another goal in the third period, and Cam Ward made 33 saves. Staal and Joakim Nordstrom each had a pair of assists.

Alexander Burmistrov, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler scored for Winnipeg.

Jets rookie Connor Hellebuyck allowed three goals while facing only six shots before being replaced by Michael Hutchinson after Staal’s power-play goal just 4:33 in. Hutchinson, who hadn’t played since a 4-1 loss in Anaheim on Jan. 3, finished with 21 saves.

The loss wrapped up Winnipeg’s season-high six-game homestand, which included just one victory.

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Carolina’s first goal came after the Jets turned over the puck and Di Giuseppe scored on a sharp-angled shot at 1:43.

Hellebuyck then kicked out a bad rebound and Nestrasil tallied his 16th goal of the season in his 100th NHL game from almost the same angle at 3:05.

With Byfuglien in the penalty box for delay of game, Staal’s shot beat Hellebuyck, ending the young goalie’s night.

Faulk made it 4-0 when his team’s third shot at Hutchinson went between his pads at 10:04.

The Jets came out at a faster, more aggressive pace to start the second period and it paid off with 1:25 remaining.

Andrew Copp and Chris Thorburn were battling a pair of Hurricanes behind the net when Thorburn poked the puck out front as he was falling and Burmistrov got his sixth goal of the season.

Ladd, who hit the post late in the second period, banged home a rebound with Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner off for hooking at 9:07 of the third.

Byfuglien one-timed a pass from Nikolaj Ehlers that Wheeler deflected to make it 4-3 with 6:12 remaining.

Nestrasil sealed the win with his second goal at 18:40.

NOTES: Ehlers’ assist extended his point streak to six games, with four goals and four assists. … Winnipeg heads out for a two-game road trip starting in Colorado on Saturday. Carolina visits Montreal on Sunday.

Video: Zatkoff robs Condra with sprawling paddle save

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All Erik Condra had to do was lift the puck off the ice.

He didn’t, and as a result, he was robbed by sprawled out Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who made a spectacular desperation save with the paddle of his stick on the Lightning forward.

The save occurred just past the midway point of the third period. That kept the Penguins in the game, down by a goal at the time.

However, the Penguins couldn’t get the equalizer. The result was a 6-3 loss for Pittsburgh, as Tampa Bay scored twice later in the period.

Defending Eastern Conference champion Bolts continue hot streak

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Remember those distractions the Tampa Bay Lightning had to endure?

— The future of captain Steven Stamkos, who is a pending unrestricted free agent and whose contract situation has been an ongoing discussion point for months now.

Jonathan Drouin‘s camp publicly requesting a trade, then having the 20-year-old forward sent to the minors and then suspended by Tampa Bay, etc.

Well, through it all, the defending Eastern Conference champions have emerged and are now one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League . Since the start of January, the Bolts have lost twice. In 13 games.

They continued their hot streak Friday, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins — another of those teams on an impressive streak — by a final score of 6-3, with Tyler Johnson leading the way with three points. He was one of six Tampa Bay players to record a multi-point night.

Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots.

Tampa Bay is now five points behind the Florida Panthers for first in the Atlantic Division.

For the Penguins, the loss keeps them on the outside of the playoff bubble for now. They remain one point back of New Jersey for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

Sidney Crosby extended his point streak to nine games. He also has goals in five straight and is one point shy of 900 for his career.