Does Carolina’s fate rest on Ward’s shoulders?

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When Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller was reflecting on the his team’s “Jekyll and Hyde” 2013 campaign, it wasn’t hard for him to determine the turning point.

“A lot of it had to do around the time [goaltender] Cam [Ward] got injured,” Muller told the NHL.com. “Up until then, we were leading our division.”

Of course, Ward wasn’t the only noteworthy Hurricanes player that suffered a significant injury last season, but shortly after he went down, Carolina went on a stretch where it won just two of 17 games.

Carolina has made a habit of leaning heavily on Ward, with him appearing in at least 68 games in four of the last five seasons going into the shortened 2013 campaign. The only exception was in 2009-10 and as you might have guessed, that was also due to significant injuries.

For better and worse, the Hurricanes’ fate has been tied to Ward since he led them to their first and only Stanley Cup championship as a rookie. There’s no question that Ward is still an important piece of the puzzle going into 2013-14, but the Hurricanes hope to have found a solid alternative in Anton Khudobin.

Khudobin has enjoyed years of success at the AHL level and he finally got his big break last season with the Boston Bruins. He took advantage of it, posting a 2.32 GAA and .920 save percentage in 14 games as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Of course, Khudobin still is thin on NHL experience, so Ward is still their safest bet. That’s especially true given that Ward should be healthy going into the season and highly motivated after being snubbed from Team Canada’s orientation camp.

Still, if they had Khudobin last season instead of Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, perhaps things would have turned out differently. Perhaps history won’t repeat itself if Ward goes down again.

Kunitz is in for Penguins vs. Capitals in Game 1

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The Pittsburgh Penguins get a familiar face back in the lineup, as Chris Kunitz is good to go against the Washington Capitals in Game 1.

The 37-year-old has been sidelined since March 31, ending his regular season with just an assist in his final nine games. His last goal came on Feb. 16.

So, in other words … he’s not quite as big of a deal for this series as he had been in the past.

He’ll draw into a solid fourth line with Matt Cullen and Tom Kuhnackl, while Carter Rowney will be a healthy scratch. Check out the Penguins’ line combos heading into Thursday’s showdown:

Foligno, Getzlaf, Giordano vie for Messier Leadership Award

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The NHL announced the three finalists for the Mark Messier Leadership Award: Nick Foligno (Columbus Blue Jackets), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks) and Mark Giordano (Calgary Flames).

In case you’re curious about the process, the league explains how it works (and how the buck stops with Messier):

Mark Messier solicits suggestions from club and League personnel as well as NHL fans to compile a list of potential candidates for the award. However, the selection of the three finalists and ultimate winner is Messier’s alone. 

So, yes, it might come down to steeliness/60.

Anyway, the most fun part of this award is that Getzlaf and Giordano just engaged in a first-round series, with Getzlaf’s hit on Giordano (see above) being one of the standout moments.

Perhaps Giordano will at least get the best of Getzlaf in this one?

WATCH LIVE: Game 1 for Penguins – Capitals, Rangers – Senators

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It’s really happening.

For all the griping about having the Penguins and Capitals meet in the second round (again), it’s easy to forget the bright side: upsets didn’t dislodge this juicy matchup from taking place.

The West’s duo of Game 1 matchups kicked into gear last night, and now the East provides that battle between Sidney Crosby‘s squad and Alex Ovechkin‘s loaded team. Don’t sleep on Rangers – Senators, either, though; there should be plenty of intrigue in seeing superhuman Swedes Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson try to one-up each other.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the action:

New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: CNBC (Stream online here)

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream online here)

Sutter won’t retire from coaching, willing to join a rebuild

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Given he turns 59 this summer, has won a pair of Stanley Cups and coached over 1,000 NHL games, Darryl Sutter probably could’ve called it a career after getting fired by the Kings earlier this month, and done so comfortably.

But that’s not happening.

In speaking with TSN’s Gary Lawless, Sutter said he has no plans to retire from coaching. What’s more — and, perhaps more interesting — is that Sutter said he wouldn’t limit his next job solely to a contending team.

Currently, there are just two vacant coaching gigs in Buffalo and Florida. We wrote about the Panthers’ search earlier today (more on that here). The situation in Buffalo is more complex, as the Sabres need to hire a new general manager and coach. Logic suggests the GM will be hired first, then spearhead the new bench boss hire.

In that regard, Buffalo is pretty intriguing.

Though the Kings have yet to be contacted for an interview request, ex-GM Dean Lombardi has been tied to the Sabres gig. And Lombardi, of course, is forever tied to Sutter — he was the one that hired Sutter after a five-year coaching exodus to join the Kings, and the pair went on to achieve great success together.

That five-year coaching exodus does need to be mentioned, though.

History suggests that Sutter isn’t joking when he says he’ll be picky about the situation and won’t rush to find the right fit. After being dismissed in Calgary in 2006, he returned to work on the family farm in Viking, Alberta and seemed fairly content doing so.

That said, hockey always seems to draw him back.

“The game has given us everything,” Sutter told Lawless. “We still have lots to give.”