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Pens recall pair of d-men, putting Schultz’s status into question (Updated)

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The Pittsburgh Penguins — in the wake of Olli Maatta’s surgery — have recalled a pair of defensemen, Cameron Gaunce and Steve Oleksy, from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The fact two d-men were recalled also calls into question the status of Justin Schultz.

Schultz was forced to leave last night’s victory over Winnipeg after turning his back on Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who proceeded to drive Schultz into the glass from behind.

The way Schultz’s head hit the glass, there’s reason to wonder if he suffered a concussion on the play. The 26-year-old is enjoying a fine season with the Pens, with nine goals and 30 assists in 56 games.

Update:

The Pens are in Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets tonight.

Hard-luck Maatta out six weeks after hand surgery

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 16:  Olli Maatta #3 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Rangers at Consol Energy Center on April 16, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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Another year, another significant injury for Olli Maatta.

On Friday, the Penguins announced that Maatta, who exited last night’s 4-3 OT win over Winnipeg with a hand injury, has undergone successful surgery and will miss the next six weeks as a result.

Maatta, 22, had enjoyed a reasonably healthy campaign up to this point. He’s appeared in 53 games — the only d-men to appear in more are Justin Schultz and Ian Cole — while averaging 18:13 TOI, with a goal and seven points.

The hand ailment is just the latest in what’s been a tough start to Maatta’s professional career. Over the last three year’s he’s had a cancerous tumor removed, major shoulder problems, a case of the mumps and lower-body issue that hampered him at the end of last season.

Maatta’s not the only Penguin on the limp right now, either. Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary are both sidelined, while Carl Hagelin remains out with a concussion. It’s also unclear what sort of shape Justin Schultz is in, after he was crunched by Dustin Byfuglien last night and exited the game.

As for Maatta, the six week timetable means he’s on target for a Mar. 31 return — which translates into as many as 20 games missed.

Penguins top jets in chaotic, brutally physical game

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 16:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with Kris Letang #58 after getting an assist to give Crosby his 1000th career point in the first period during the game against the Winnipeg Jets at PPG PAINTS Arena on February 16, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
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Probably the wildest game of the NHL schedule on Thursday took place in Pittsburgh where the Penguins were 4-3 winners over the Winnipeg Jets in what turned out to be a brutally physical and deliriously entertaining game.

Sidney Crosby recorded three points, including his 1,000th career point in the NHL, as well as the winning goal in overtime, to help lead the Penguins to what could end up being a costly win.

A few things that stood out in all of the madness.

— The Penguins ended up losing two defensemen during the game when Justin Schultz and Olli Maatta both left in the second period to injuries.

Schultz exited when he was hit from behind by Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and hit his head into the glass.

Maatta had to exit the game following a big open ice hit from Adam Lowry (watch it here).

With Schultz and Maatta out, the Penguins (who were already playing without Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust at forward) had to play the final half of the game with only four defensemen. It clearly started to wear on them a bit as the Jets rallied from a two-goal deficit to take a 3-2 lead in the third period.

— Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, who scored a goal and assisted on Crosby’s winning goal thanks to an incredible individual effort, added to the physicality on more than one occasion, and especially in the third period when he rocked Blake Wheeler with this high hit in the slot in front of the Jets’ net.

Malkin ended up receiving a minor for interference and a minor for roughing as a result of that sequence. Given that he appeared to leave his feet prior to contact, and that it was a high hit, you can be certain the NHL’s department of player safety is going to be taking an extra look at that play.

Wheeler briefly exited to the Jets’ locker room but returned to the game later in the third period.

— With the NHL trade deadline less than two weeks away there was a belief that this could have been Marc-Andre Fleury‘s final start in Pittsburgh as a member of the Penguins. If it was, he went out in style playing a vintage Fleury game that included some highlight reel saves, a terrible goal against, poke checks, and a season-high 44 saves.

— After Fleury gave up a horrendous goal to Byfuglien to allow the Jets to take a 3-2 lead, erasing what had been a two-goal deficit, Crosby drew a penalty in the offensive zone to set up a Phil Kessel power play goal to send the game to overtime. The overtime period was nearly five full minutes of back-and-forth hockey that featured Fleury making a huge save on a breakaway, the Jets having a couple more near misses, and then Crosby eventually scoring the winner on this tap-in in front.

— With his three points, Crosby is now up to 64 points on the season and — for the time being — regained the lead in the NHL scoring race.

The Penguins are back in action on Friday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a huge game in the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins lead the Blue Jackets by two points in the standings for the No. 2 spot.

Coach Mike Sullivan had no update on the status of Schultz or Maatta for that game.

Shattenkirk heads list of UFA d-men who could be traded

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The Washington Capitals made a minor trade today, adding defenseman Tom Gilbert from the Los Angeles Kings in return for future considerations.

It’s a common transaction at this time of the year, with the trade deadline just two weeks away. Contenders like the Caps know injuries can hit in the playoffs, and an extra veteran d-man is a nice insurance policy. Last year, Roman Polak, John-Michael Liles, Kris Russell, Justin Schultz, and Jakub Kindl all found new teams in the run-up to the postseason.

This year, the list could include New Jersey’s Kyle Quincey, Carolina’s Ron Hainsey, Colorado’s Fedor Tyutin, Philadelphia’s Mark Streit, Buffalo’s Cody Franson, Buffalo’s Dmitry Kulikov, and Arizona’s Michael Stone. All are pending UFAs on teams currently outside the playoff picture.

Kulikov and Stone are the youngsters in that group, each just 26 years old. The former, however, may make suitors hesitant, as noted below by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman:

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of interest comes GM Tim Murray’s way forDmitry Kulikov. The defenceman has had a nightmare year since suffering a back injury when pushed into an open bench door during the pre-season.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” Kulikov said last weekend. “But I really don’t want to talk much about it.” Are you healthy now? “Yes,” he answered, although coach Dan Bylsma says Kulikov won’t practice every day. He’s also a free agent, but teams don’t really have a handle on where his game is.

Of course, the big UFA d-man is Kevin Shattenkirk. Back in January, St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong said he’d consider trading the puck-mover if the Blues were still stumbling through their season at the deadline.

“We don’t want to keep players here, hope to sneak into eighth place and get hammered in the first round,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong has since fired head coach Ken Hitchcock and replaced him with Mike Yeo, who seems to have the Blues headed in the right direction. Shattenkirk has four assists in his last four games, all St. Louis victories. The 28-year-old remains a big part of the Blues’ offense.

It begs the question: what kind of message would Armstrong be sending his players if he sold Shattenkirk for picks and/or prospects? After all, the Western Conference is pretty wide open this year, and Jake Allen is stopping the puck again. In the entire league, only four defensemen have more points than Shattenkirk’s 39.

“If something happens, then it happens,” said Yeo, “but until then, he’s on this team and he’s a real important player for us and he’s proven that.”

NHL scoring leaders: defensemen

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Sabres GM not actively shopping Evander Kane

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 7: Evander Kane #9 of the Buffalo Sabres during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at the KeyBank Center on January 7, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
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Tim Murray likes what Evander Kane has done this season, and he isn’t about to trade him for peanuts.

But at the same time, the Buffalo Sabres would like to upgrade their defense, and Kane — who’s only signed through next season — is an obvious candidate to be moved by the general manager.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Murray told WGR 550 radio when asked if Kane could get traded ahead of the March 1 deadline.

“Is there a crazy deal that somebody could throw at me that would force me to do it? I guess there is.”

But?

“I’m not pursuing a trade with him,” Murray insisted. “I haven’t made a call, with regards to him, to other teams. I’m a big fan of his game. He plays in our top six. He plays a hard, gritty, heavy game — with speed. And that’s a rare, rare combination.”

Murray then repeated that he’s not shopping the player; nor is he quietly telling the media that Kane is available.

“He’s the type of guy I think we need, if we want to be competitive every night and be a playoff team,” said Murray.

The Sabres weren’t very competitive last night, falling 5-2 to the Ducks while getting outshot 44-26.

On top of that, they lost defenseman Cody Franson for at least the next two games. Buffalo plays at Toronto tomorrow and hosts Vancouver Sunday.

“Franson blocked a shot in his foot and more evaluation for today,” coach Dan Bylsma said, per The Buffalo News. “He is not going to be playing tomorrow or Sunday.”

The hope is that Franson is only out a short while, as he’s one of the Sabres’ pending unrestricted free agents who could get cashed in at the deadline. Contenders are always on the lookout for depth on defense, as evidenced last year by trades involving Roman PolakJohn-Michael Liles, Kris Russell, Justin Schultz, and Jakub Kindl.

As for Kane, even if he doesn’t get dealt at the deadline, he could still get moved this summer. On July 1, the 25-year-old winger will be able to sign a contract extension — and if a team is going to trade for him, it will surely want to keep him for more than a year.

Or, he could re-sign in Buffalo. It all depends if he wants to stay. And if he does, how badly do the Sabres want to keep him?

Kane has 16 goals and 10 assists in 43 games this season.

Related: About those Evander Kane trade rumors…