Fleury, Kessel lift Penguins over Blue Jackets in Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins were probably pretty happy that they ended up keeping Marc-Andre Fleury on their roster this season because they needed him on Wednesday night in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Fleury was a late entry into the starting lineup on Wednesday after Matt Murray went down with a lower body injury in warmups and ended up stopping 31 of 32 shots in a 3-1 win over the Blue Jackets.

Even though the Penguins ended up winning by two goals this was far from a cakewalk game for Fleury and the Penguins, especially early on. The Penguins came out completely flat in the first period, playing what was perhaps one of their worst periods of the season and allowing Columbus to take 16 of the game’s first 19 shots.

Penguins vs. Blue Jackets: Stream on NBC Sports

The actual play on the ice was every bit as lopsided as that shot differential would indicate, and it seemed as if the absence of Kris Letang was finally going to take its toll on the Penguins’ defense. Their breakouts were a mess, they couldn’t get out of their own zone, and Columbus was completely dictating the play.

Fleury was able to keep the door shut long enough for the Penguins to regroup between periods and come out flying in what would turn out to be a three-goal second period.

“The fact we have flower [Fleury] and Matt, I think gives us a comfort level because we know they are both No. 1 goalies,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan after the game. “I have said to them all along we are going to need both of you. We’ve used them both all year long.”

Sullivan had no update on Murray’s status after the game, only saying they will have more information on Thursday.

Phil Kessel, once again at his best in the playoffs, was the driving force behind the offense in the second period when he set up Bryan Rust for the Penguins’ first goal, and then scored one of his own just two-and-a-half minutes later on an absolute rocket of a wrist shot from just inside the left faceoff dot that Sergei Bobrovsky seemed to have no chance on.

Nick Bonino added another goal later in the period after pouncing on a loose rebound in front of Bobrovsky.

This was really a tale of different games. After getting outshot 16-3 in the first period, the Penguins were able to completely turn the tables on the Blue Jackets in the second and third periods and finish the game with a 26-18 edge over the second and third periods.

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.