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‘Belief system is very strong’ for red-hot Hurricanes

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) In less than a month, the Carolina Hurricanes have gone from last place in the Eastern Conference to the edge of the playoff picture.

The Hurricanes enter the weekend four points behind Boston for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot with seven games remaining.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a team that earlier this week inherited the dubious distinction of owning the NHL’s longest active playoff drought – and all it took was earning at least one point in a franchise-record 13 straight games.

Heading into the final week of the season, they’ve got a chance – a slim one, but a chance nonetheless – to shed that label as quickly as they earned it.

“The belief system is very strong right now,” coach Bill Peters said.

They know they’ve got to remain near-perfect, though, starting with Saturday night’s game against Dallas and continuing through next week’s two-game road swing through playoff-bound Pittsburgh and Minnesota.

“It’s fun. That’s why you play the game,” said forward Jeff Skinner, who along with many of his teammates has never skated in a playoff game. “I think you look at guys are feeding off of each other, guys are playing well, we’re playing well as a team and it’s a lot of fun coming to the rink when you’ve got things on the line. Hopefully we can keep this thing rolling and keep it that way.”

The only other team in club history to earn points in 12 consecutive games went on to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2006.

These Hurricanes have gone 9-0-4 since March 9 to vault back into contention. They broke that 11-year-old club record Thursday night with a 2-1 overtime victory over Columbus in which Skinner scored the tying goal with 4:20 left in regulation, then set up Noah Hanifin‘s winner 2:16 into OT.

A pair of first-round draft picks has led the way: Skinner (2010) scored goals in a career-best six straight games, piling up nine points in that stretch, and Elias Lindholm (2013) had either a goal or an assist – or both – in 11 of those 13 games.

“We absolutely have a shot here to do this,” said Hanifin, their first-round pick in 2015.

Carolina’s string of seven straight years without making the tournament became the longest in the league when Edmonton clinched its first playoff berth since 2006. Coincidentally, the Oilers’ last appearance in the postseason came in 2006 – when they lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final to Carolina.

The Hurricanes’ only playoff berth since that championship season came in 2009 – when they won two early-round Game 7s to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Since then, they haven’t been close very often, finishing at least 10 points back in each of the last five years.

It wasn’t long ago that things looked bleak once again. Carolina was in last in the East on March 4 with 60 points, one behind the Detroit Red Wings, after a home loss to an Arizona team that remains the second-worst team in the league.

The Hurricanes have been tough to beat ever since.

“When you’re playing well, you want to get back out there,” said veteran goalie Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. “We’re starving to go to the playoffs, but you can’t do it all in eight games. You’ve got to take one game at a time and not look too far in the future. We’ve been doing a good job of taking care of ourselves and coming to the rink each day and trying to win the day. … Winning’s fun, so we’re having a lot of fun.”

Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap

Agent: Numerous Stanley Cup contenders have called on Kunitz

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Chris Kunitz is in demand.

That’s the word from agent Ben Hankinson, who this week told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette his 37-year-old client is garnering major interest from a number of teams — and certain kinds of teams, to be clear.

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Hankinson, who represents Kunitz, said he’s fielded calls from as many as 10 teams with a legitimate shot at knocking off the Penguins next season, all interested in signing Kunitz.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Hankinson said. “Chris does have interest from a lot of teams. Who knows exactly where that interest is going to be once the offers start flying around, but he does have a lot of interest.”

Kunitz, who turns 38 in September, has been told by GM Jim Rutherford to explore free agency (to be fair, Rutherford told all his UFAs this). It’s going to be really interesting what that means for Kunitz, who could bring plenty to a team looking to make a postseason run.

For starters, there’s his experience. Few active NHLers have played — and won — in the playoffs as much as Kunitz. He’s got 161 games on his resume with four Stanley Cups, and was a key contributor for Pittsburgh this past spring.

In 20 games, Kunitz racked up 11 points while averaging 14:52 TOI per night. His nine assists put him tied for fourth on the team, and he famously scored the double-OT winner against Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Given the lack of options in this year’s free agent class, Kunitz could score a pretty decent contract. That’s important, as it might be his last. The cagey veteran spoke at the Stanley Cup Final about how this could very well be his last kick at the can with Pittsburgh, and acknowledged that — given how limited opportunities are to win in the NHL — he needed to capitalize on every single one.

“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.

“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”

Report: Kovalchuk talking extension with KHL club

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Last week, Devils GM Ray Shero was of the belief that Ilya Kovalchuk was still planning to play in the NHL next season.

Today, however, a Russian media outlet is reporting that Kovalchuk is talking with his KHL club, SKA Saint Petersburg, about a possible extension.

If accurate, that would mesh with an earlier report — the one that Shero ostensibly shot down — that Kovalchuk had decided to keep playing in Russia.

The NHL’s decision to skip the 2018 Winter Olympics may be weighing on Kovalchuk. If he returns to North America, he won’t be able to represent his country in South Korea — a fact that was cemented last week when the NHL released its 2017-18 schedule.

Of course, all this could just be SKA Saint Petersburg making a last-ditch attempt to keep Kovalchuk.

“We have the desire to keep Ilya. He is our hockey player, a patriot and loves to play for the national team,” said club president Gennady Timchenko (translated, per Sportsnet). “We will talk today, and we might have some news later.”

Kovalchuk can’t sign an NHL contract until July 1.

Sens’ Stalberg drawing interest from Swiss League

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Viktor Stalberg, the veteran forward that was part of Ottawa’s recent playoff run, has reportedly landed on the radar of National League A outfit EV Zug.

Per Swiss Hockey News, club manager Reto Klay confirmed interest in Stalberg, saying he is “among the candidates” to be signed by the team this summer.

Stalberg, 31, split last season between the ‘Canes and Sens, combining to score 11 goals and 16 points in 57 games. He’s previously spent time with the Rangers, Predators, Blackhawks and Maple Leafs, recording a career-high 22 goals and 43 points with Chicago in ’11-12.

He was also part of the ‘Hawks team that captured the Stanley Cup in 2013.

Stalberg has played each of the last two seasons on one-year deals, and it’ll be interesting to see if he lands another one — or, potentially, try and secure a longer-term deal overseas.

Former Oilers tough guy Dave Semenko passes away from cancer

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Former Edmonton Oilers forward Dave Semenko has passed away after a short battle with cancer. Semenko was 59 years old.

The Oilers released a statement earlier this morning:

It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Oilers legend Dave Semenko after a short, but courageous battle with cancer. Dave will be remembered as a fierce competitor, loyal teammate, fan favorite and dear friend to so many. His legendary toughness on the ice is surpassed only by his kindness and caring for others, and his equally legendary wit and sense of humor.

Our hearts go out to Dave’s family and many friends.

Once an Oiler, Always an Oiler

Semenko played for the Oilers for parts of 10 seasons (two in the WHA, eight in the NHL). He also had short stints in Hartford and Toronto.

He finished his NHL career with 65 goals, 153 points and 1,175 penalty minutes in 575 games. Semenko also won two Stanley Cups with the Oilers in 1984 and 1985.