Jason Brough

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Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski

Hobbled Penguins hoping to be ‘healed up right around playoff time’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Ron Hainsey arrived in Pittsburgh from Carolina a month ago on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time in his 14-year career.

The durable defenseman found an odd but perhaps apt way to fit in with his new team: He got hurt. Ten games into his tenure with the Penguins, Hainsey went down with an upper-body injury to join an increasingly long line of familiar faces watching in suits from the press box rather than wearing sweaters on the bench.

“Injuries happen,” Hainsey said on Tuesday after skating with his teammates, an important step toward his hopeful return before the postseason begins next month. “Obviously, this team we have a lot of them.”

So many to so many bold-faced names — from Hainsey and fellow defensemen Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Kris Letang to star center Evgeni Malkin and energetic young forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary — that it’s remarkable the defending Stanley Cup champions have been able to hang around in the chase for the Metropolitan Division and the Presidents’ Trophy.

“It’s been crazy around here,” said defenseman Justin Schultz, one of only five players to miss fewer than five games so far. “You see so many guys walking around, it’s wild.”

The wear and tear from trying to keep it together with a threadbare lineup, however, is beginning to show.

Pittsburgh’s hopes of catching first-place Washington took a hit during a third-period implosion on Sunday night at home against Philadelphia as the Flyers poured in four goals over the final 20 minutes of a 6-2 win that left the Penguins three points behind the Capitals with seven games to go.

It was a rare forgettable night in a season that’s showcased both the brilliance of center Sidney Crosby (who’s 42 goals lead the league) and the laser focus preached by coach Mike Sullivan.

There have been few signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. The Penguins have the fewest home losses in the league and they’ve kept Washington and Columbus within arm’s reach despite the kind of health issues their two rivals have largely avoided.

The key now, even with players on the verge of returning, will be keeping it going. While the odds of Pittsburgh emerging from the three-way race – and avoiding a first-round matchup against the other runner-up – are iffy at best, don’t expect the Penguins to ease up in an effort to rest for the playoffs.

“Our experience has been that you just don’t flip a switch and turn it on,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to go into each game with a mindset of trying to win.”

Pittsburgh went 8-2 over its final 10 games of the regular season last spring then rolled to the franchise’s fourth championship. Putting together another surge will be difficult, though there were promising signs during a crowded post-practice dressing room.

Sheary, who left the loss to the Flyers with a lower-body injury, practiced on Tuesday and should play on Wednesday when Chicago visits. Jake Guentzel, who suffered a concussion last week after getting hit illegally by Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, skated but no timetable has been set for his return.

The rookie, who struggled getting off the ice after being leveled by Ristolainen, called the hit “just a hockey play,” though it ended with Ristolainen receiving a three-game suspension.

The line of Guentzel, Sheary and Crosby had almost single-handedly kept Pittsburgh’s offense going with Malkin out. They’re optimistic they’ll get a chance to recreate the mojo before the regular season ends.

“You don’t want to limp into the playoffs, losing a few games,” Sheary said. “I think momentum is a huge thing in this game. If you’re playing well going into the playoffs, I think that carries over big time.”

Getting familiar faces back in the lineup before mid-April is critical.

On that front at least, the Penguins appear to have been spared. It seems everyone has a chance to be in uniform when things get going for real.

“It seems like all the injuries are supposed to be healed up right around playoff time,” Sheary said.

“Hopefully we can get those guys back and use it to our advantage.”

School’s out: McAvoy signs ATO with Providence Bruins

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Charlie McAvoy is done with college hockey.

The 19-year-old defenseman is leaving Boston University to sign an amateur tryout with the Providence Bruins. It’s expected he’ll make his AHL debut this weekend.

McAvoy was drafted 14th overall in 2016 by the Boston Bruins. In addition to starring for the Terriers the past two seasons, he was named to the World Juniors All-Star Team after helping the Americans to the gold medal in 2017.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney did not rule out the possibility of McAvoy making his NHL debut this season. (If McAvoy does, he’ll burn the first year of his entry-level contract.)

As for the other BU star and Bruins draft pick, Sweeney said forward Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson has yet to decide whether to go pro.

Forsbacka-Karlsson, 20, was drafted 45th overall in 2015.

IOC resistant to NHL’s demand to be treated like Olympic sponsor

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In order for the NHL to keep sending its players to the Olympics, Gary Bettman wants the IOC to treat his league more like an Olympic sponsor gets treated.

“We don’t even get the opportunity to promote the fact that we’re at the Olympics,” Bettman lamented earlier this month. “We don’t get to use the rings. I’ve said to the IOC, you know, Coca-Cola is a sponsor, they get to promote their association and say ‘proud sponsor of the Olympics.’ They won’t let us do that.”

It’s not a wholly unfair request by the commissioner. The NHL has to disrupt its season to send players to the Games, and the owners have to risk the health of their stars.

That said, it doesn’t sound like the IOC is going to budge.

“Obviously, this time the owners of the NHL clubs are putting more commercial conditions to the IOC and the Olympic movement,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told Reuters.

“The IOC knows that the NHL understands that the Olympic movement cannot treat the owners of a commercial franchise of a national league better than an international sports federation or other professional leagues with regard to the Olympic Games.”

Translation: The IOC isn’t about to open a can of worms. (See: Mark Cuban, NBA participation)

Recently, NHLPA chief Donald Fehr summed up the NHL’s desire to get compensated for Olympic participation.

“Based on the proposals to us and the suggestions to the IOC, they don’t care who pays them,” Fehr told Postmedia. “They just want somebody to.”

And according to Fehr, it won’t be the players who pay the NHL.

So if the players aren’t going to give the NHL anything, and the IOC isn’t going to give the NHL anything, well, you see the problem.

Related: Bettman points finger at IOC