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Ward: Hurricanes can’t settle for anything less than playoffs next season

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Hurricanes have begun yet another early offseason.

The owners of the NHL’s longest active playoff drought – now at eight years and counting – cleaned out their lockers Monday with a belief that they’re getting closer to finally getting back to the postseason.

“Certainly I would think that anything but the playoffs next year, we wouldn’t be satisfied with,” veteran goalie Cam Ward said. “If we could have put it together for a whole season, we wouldn’t be talking to you today – we’d be getting ready for Round 1” of the playoffs.

When the Hurricanes look back on this season, they’ll remember several high points – both on and off the ice – but also a string of missed opportunities that prevented them from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Carolina finished with 87 points, eight points behind Toronto in the chase for the final wild-card berth. That total was buoyed by a late string in which the Hurricanes earned at least one point in a franchise-record 13 straight games, going 9-0-4 in that stretch to make a last-gasp push up the standings.

That’s their most points since the 2010-11 team had 91 and fell two points shy of the postseason.

But it still wasn’t enough. Not in a division that had three of the top four teams in the league. – Washington (118 points), Pittsburgh (111) and Columbus (108).

Some things to remember about the Hurricanes’ 2016-17 season:

WHY ARE THEY OUT? The Hurricanes will lament an untimely five-game losing streak in late January in which they were outscored 23-5 to drop from the cusp of playoff contention. Another 0-4-1 stretch in late February didn’t help, and before their they were in last place in the East. They also struggled to beat some of the league’s weaker teams, going just 2-4-2 against the four worst teams in the Western Conference – including an ugly 0-1-1 finish against a Colorado team that earned a league-fewest 48 points. “We don’t necessarily have to be in first place, but you can’t be hanging around the bottom for too long and expect to make a push and get back into it,” defenseman Justin Faulk said.

LEADERSHIP: The Hurricanes have chosen not to select a captain ever since they traded Eric Staal in February 2016, instead relying on a rotation of alternate captains. In hindsight, maybe one of the league’s youngest teams could have used a single voice of leadership in the dressing room.

BRIGHT SPOTS: There were some bright spots, though: 24-year-old forward Jeff Skinner scored a career-high 37 goals and matched a career best with 63 points while further establishing himself as the team’s most dangerous offensive player. Sebastian Aho was third among league rookies with 24 goals. And a young defensive core led by Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce took some steps forward in their second seasons in the league. “It’s funny how these young kids in this organization, they’re so young but they’re so mature for their age,” Ward said.

HEART-WARMERS: Two lasting memories had little to do with wins and losses. Equipment manager Jorge Alves, pressed into duty as the emergency goalie when Eddie Lack became ill, wound up living a dream by playing the final 7.6 seconds of a game at Tampa Bay in January. And forward Bryan Bickell, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with Chicago who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, fought his way back to the NHL in the final week before deciding to retire at season’s end. His career ended with a goal in the shootout Sunday night at Philadelphia.

The Buzzer: Kopitar keeps Kings rolling; O’Reilly gives Sabres OT win

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Player of the night: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. The Los Angeles Kings continued their impressive start on Saturday night with a 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving their record to a league-best 6-0-1 through their first seven games.

Anze Kopitar was the star of the night as he finished with two goals, an assist, three shots on goal, a plus-five rating while also winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.

His second goal of the game, which came with less than three minutes to play in regulation, proved to be the game-winner for the Kings.

Dustin Brown added an empty net goal (he finished with four points in the win) a minute later.

Kopitar is coming off of a down year offensively in 2016-17 but already has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far this season for a Kings team that looks to be vastly improved under new coach John Stevens.

Highlight of the night. 

For most of Saturday night it looked like the Buffalo Sabres were on their way to another ugly loss, continuing what has been a miserable start to the season. At one point in the second period they found themselves trailing by a 4-1 margin. But they slowly started to chip away then after Evander Kane scored a late third period goal to tie the game, Ryan O'Reilly ended up winning it in overtime on this beauty of a play to give the Sabres their second win of the season.

Factoid of the Night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two superstars at forward. They are playing like it. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the first pair of teammates in more than 15 years to start a season with matching nine-game point streaks. [NHL]

Misc.

— Three more assists for Erik Karlsson on Saturday night giving him six on the season. He has played in two games. After major ankle surgery. He is not human.

Clayton Keller added to his rookie leading goal total with his sixth of the season. He is the one bright spot for the Arizona Coyotes this season as they remain winless after their 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

— With the first two-goal game of his NHL career Tyler Pitlick was the difference for the Dallas Stars in their 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both off to tremendous starts for the Boston Bruins. Both players scored a pair of goals for the Bruins on Saturday night in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Both players already have six goals on the season.

James Reimer was great for the Florida Panthers, stopping 41 shots in their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. With Roberto Luongo on injured reserve the Panthers are going to need a couple of big games from Reimer over the next week.

Mikhail Sergachev looks fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now up to eight points on the season.

Wayne Simmonds was the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday with a late goal to help lift them to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He is now up to six goals on the season. Claude Giroux scored his fifth goal in the win.

Logan Couture‘s hat trick was not enough to help the San Jose Sharks in New York on Saturday night against the Islanders. John Tavares had a goal, two assists in the win.

Scores and recaps

New York Rangers 4, Nashville Predators 2

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

Buffalo Sabres 5, Boston Bruins 4

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Ottawa Senators 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

New York Islanders 5, San Jose Sharks 3

Los Angeles Kings 6, Columbus Blue Jackest 4

Florida Panthers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Dallas Stars 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Arizona Coyotes 2

Minnesota Wild 4, Calgary Flames 2

Vegas Golden Knights 3, St. Louis Blues 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jaromir Jagr leaves game with lower body injury

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Calgary Flames forward Jaromir Jagr played just four shifts on Saturday night before exiting their game against the Minnesota Wild in the first period.

The Flames later announced that Jagr would not return with what the team is calling a lower body injury.

They had no other update.

After going through the entire summer unsigned as a free agent, Jagr finally landed a one-year deal with the Flames just before the start of the season. So far he has appeared in five games for the team recording a pair of assists.

He recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games for the Florida Panthers a year ago.

Even though he appeared in every game a year ago he still showed some signs of finally starting to slow down, and you have to assume that there is going to be some sort of an injury concern for a player that is turning 46 years old in February.

Senators top Maple Leafs but lose Bobby Ryan for a month

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The Ottawa Senators’ 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night came with a price.

After the game coach Guy Boucher confirmed that veteran forward Bobby Ryan broke his right index finger during the game and is expected to miss at least the next month.

Ryan has yet to score a goal for the Senators in eight games this season but has recorded five assists.

He fought through an injury plagued season in 2016-17 that ended with one of the worst individual stat lines of his career. He was able to salvage the season however with a tremendous postseason performance that saw him finish with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 19 games as the Senators went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals where they would lose in double overtime.

The Senators are off to a great start this season earning at least a point in seven of their first eight games (4-1-3).

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Penguins seem to have a backup goalie problem

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The Penguins worked to address one area of concern on Saturday when they acquired forward Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings.

Now they need to start working on another major area of concern — their backup goalie.

The Penguins had to know Antti Niemi was never going to step into Pittsburgh and replace what Marc-Andre Fleury gave them on the ice, but they had to be expecting a little more than what they have received thus far.

After giving up seven goals in the Penguins’ 7-1 loss in Tampa Bay on Saturday night, Niemi has now given up 16 goals in 128 minutes of hockey this season. His save percentage is a brutal .797.

In games Niemi starts the Penguins are 0-3 and have been outscored 22-6, losing games by margins of 10-1 and 7-1.

In the games he hasn’t started they are 5-0-1 and have outscored their opponents 24-17.

It would be unfair to put all of the blame on Niemi, because even with regular starter Matt Murray in net they have also had stretches where they have struggled defensively and not quite played at the level they showed the past two seasons.

Niemi has also made all of his starts in the second half of back-to-back situations against teams that were not only rested the night before, but also teams that should be among the best in the league this season (the Chicago Blackhawks, two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning).

But none of that can excuse the way Niemi himself has played thus far, either. At some point you  need your goalie to make a save no matter who your team is playing or what is happening around him. His rebound control has been shaky, he looks uncomfortable when he is making saves and it is not like he is coming off of a great performance a year ago. In 42 appearances with the Dallas Stars he finished with an .892 save percentage, one of the worst marks in the league, and was at .905 the year before. He is 34 years old and has not performed at a better than league average level (or even at a league average level) in several years.

It has to be an area of concern for the Penguins because if Murray has a flaw early in his young career it is that he has missed some time due to injury. In the past they have had Fleury there to step in. They do not have that luxury now.

Niemi is only signed for one year at $700,000 so it is not like they have a huge investment in him.

If they decide to go in another direction already (they will probably give Niemi a little bit of a longer leash, I am sure) they have Tristan Jarry in the American Hockey League, or perhaps explore a trade if they are uncomfortable with such a young duo and inexperienced backup behind Murray.

Either way, it is really difficult to see them sticking around with this sort of performance from their backup for much longer.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.