Jason Brough

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The Leafs are a ‘dangerous team,’ and they’re making a run at a playoff spot

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are taking a healthy run at their first playoff appearance since 2013.

The Leafs (15-12-7) rolled into Tampa Bay on a three-game winning streak, after beating the Panthers, 3-2, in a shootout last night in Sunrise.

Toronto is now just three points back of Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division, and the Leafs have three games in hand on the Bruins.

“The young guys are getting better and better and becoming dominant players,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock told reporters yesterday. “We trust them more and have become a better hockey club.”

Indeed, Auston MatthewsWilliam Nylander, and Mitch Marner, a.k.a. the “young guys,” were factors in beating the Panthers. Matthews scored his 17th of the season; Nylander potted his eighth, and Marner notched the shootout winner, after racking up nine shots in the actual game.

Tonight, the Leafs will take on a Lightning squad that is fully prepared for a tough test.

“They’re just a dangerous team,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper. “I think their win-loss record is not indicative of how they’ve played. They could have more points than they have right now.”

Yes, they could. Especially if they were better in the shootout, instead of 1-5. In terms of score-adjusted Corsi, the Leafs are in the upper half of the NHL. And that certainly wasn’t the case prior to the arrivals of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Babcock.

Read more: Babcock wants Leafs to be aggressive with the lead

If they can beat the Lightning in regulation, the Leafs will move into fourth place in the Atlantic, putting even more pressure on the Bruins and Senators, not to mention the Bolts and Panthers, two teams that came into the season with high expectations.

Don’t forget, the way things have gone in the Metropolitan Division, there may only be three playoff spots for Atlantic teams to grab. Montreal has a nice cushion at the top (for now, at least), but it’s going to be a serious scramble below.

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Related: It’s been a frustrating season for the Boston Bruins

Blues extend Bortuzzo through 2018-19

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The St. Louis Blues have locked up defenseman Robert Bortuzzo through the 2018-19 season.

The club announced today that Bortuzzo has agreed to terms on a two-year contract extension, with a reported cap hit of $1.15 million. The 27-year-old was a pending unrestricted free agent. His current cap hit is $1.05 million.

Bortuzzo, who hasn’t played since Dec. 3 due to a lower-body injury, is a rugged stay-at-home defender who has eight goals and 19 assists in 177 career games with St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the latter of which drafted him in 2007.

In 11 games this season, he has one goal, one assist, 26 hits, and is averaging 13:48 of ice time.

Panthers call up Sgarbossa; Barkov won’t play tonight against Habs

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In the wake of injuries to forwards Reilly Smith (concussion) and Aleksander Barkov (getting an MRI today), the Florida Panthers have recalled Michael Sgarbossa from their AHL squad in Springfield.

Sgarbossa, acquired in a trade with Anaheim in November, has racked up 12 points (4G, 8A) in just 14 games for the Thunderbirds. But the 24-year-old has yet to put up significant numbers in the NHL; he had no goals and three assists in 19 games for the Ducks and Avalanche.

Sgarbossa, like Barkov, is a center. Florida hosts Montreal tonight. Barkov is not expected to play.

The Panthers should be a desperate team against a division rival. Coming off a 3-2 shootout loss to Toronto, Florida now sits three points back of third-place Boston in the Atlantic Division. The Panthers are even further back of the second wild-card spot, seven points shy of Philadelphia.

Florida can only hope that Barkov’s MRI brings good news.

“It’s tough. He’s a great player,” coach Tom Rowe told reporters. “He’s one of the best, if not the best two-way centermen in the league for his age group, so it’s a hard one to replace.”

Smith, meanwhile, has been placed on injured reserve, retroactive to Dec. 22. That move cleared the necessary roster spot to add Sgarbossa.

Barkov remains on the active roster.

The Kings ‘don’t have a lot of scoring’ in their lineup, and it’s costing them

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Anze Kopitar scored 25 goals last season. And to boot, he was awarded the Selke Trophy.

Though the Kings’ captain is still playing good defense, with just three goals in 30 games, he’s on pace for the worst goal-scoring campaign of his NHL career. He’s getting shots, but for whatever reason, they’re not going in like they’ve done in the past. (See: Patrice Bergeron.)

Kopitar’s scoring struggles came into full focus last night in Vancouver, where the Kings lost, 2-1, and Kopitar was robbed by Ryan Miller on a brilliant chance.

The Kings were again missing Tyler Toffoli (injured reserve), and combined with Kopitar’s slump, it was perhaps no huge surprise they couldn’t battle back from a 2-0 deficit, even though they outshot the Canucks, 37-20.

“I just think that we don’t have a lot of scoring in our lineup, especially with Tyler out, and if you get down one, you’re fine, but if you get down two, you’re playing a different game then,” said head coach Darryl Sutter, per LA Kings Insider.

L.A.’s leading goal-scorer is Jeff Carter, who has an impressive 19. Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are next, each with eight. Kopitar, as mentioned, has just three; Dustin Brown a mere four; and Marian Gaborik just one in 13 games.

The Kings, of course, did not re-sign Milan Lucic, who scored 20 for them last season. They brought in Devin Setoguchi, but he’s only managed four goals.

Add it up and the Kings have the NHL’s 22nd-ranked offense, and their 17-14-4 record is barely good enough for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

“We’re getting into a stretch where every game is critical,” Kopitar told the L.A. Times prior to last night’s game. “Not that it wasn’t before, but now it magnifies a little bit because of how tight it is in our division. Now we have four games in a row within our division, so it’s a big stretch for us.”

They already lost the first of those “critical” four. They’re in Edmonton tonight to take on the Oilers, then it’s two games with the Sharks, the first at home Saturday, the second on the road Tuesday.

Related: Marian Gaborik a healthy scratch for Kings

Panarin, Blackhawks come to terms on extension (Updated)

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The Chicago Blackhawks have come to terms on a contract extension with winger Artemi Panarin.

Latest Update: The team made the signing official on Thursday morning.

From The Athletic:

Artemi Panarin isn’t going anywhere.

Panarin and the Blackhawks finalized a contract extension on Wednesday, according to a source. The contract details are unknown at this point. The deal is expected to be announced on Thursday morning.

Panarin, 25, has 15 goals and 22 assists in 37 games. His 37 points are the most on the ‘Hawks, two more than Patrick Kane‘s 35.

Panarin was reportedly asking for at least $6 million per season on a long-term deal.

Updated: Since news of this extension broke, financial terms and length of the deal have started to filter in. Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet is reporting that this new extension is for two years, a bridge deal, with $6 million average annual value.

It also appears there is considerable signing bonus associated with this contract.

Related: It’s a double-edged sword for the ‘Hawks, as Panarin keeps piling up the points