Jason Brough

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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

Bruins recall McIntyre from AHL on emergency basis

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Update: As it turns out, Anton Khudobin might be the goalie dealing with an injury, according to the Boston Herald’s Steve Conroy. So, tonight’s starter boils down to Tuukka Rask or Zane McIntyre.

(Rask it is.)

***

Tuukka Rask was supposed to be back in goal for the Boston Bruins tonight.

But then, just a couple of hours before their game with the Nashville Predators, the B’s announced they’d recalled goalie Zane McIntyre from the AHL on an emergency basis.

It’s not yet clear why McIntyre was recalled. Rask missed Saturday’s game in Brooklyn with a lower-body injury, but coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier today that Rask was healthy and ready to go.

“Tuukka is healthy,” said Cassidy. “That’s what he indicated to me and that’s all I needed to hear. He’ll be our starter tonight.”

If Rask is unable to play, expect Anton Khudobin to get the nod.

Khudobin backstopped the B’s to a 2-1 victory over the Isles on Saturday.

Pre-game reading: On Kopitar’s challenging first season as Kings captain

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— Up top, Drew Doughty talks about the Edmonton Oilers, who can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight over Doughty’s Kings. “Their top guys and their forwards want to play defense now,” said Doughty, “whereas in the past I feel like their top guys just kinda worried about getting points and weren’t worried about playing defense.”

— It’s been a frustrating season for Kings captain Anze Kopitar, who tells the L.A. Times it’s been an adjustment taking over the team’s top leadership role. “I wouldn’t say a burden,” said Kopitar. It was definitely a change. It’s definitely some adjustments that I needed to make. I’m still learning. I don’t know if you can learn that overnight. It’s been, not a burden, but a new challenge that I think I’m in the process of getting the handle of it and I’ll get there.” (Los Angeles Times)

— NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly insists that the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas won’t be a problem for the expansion Golden Knights. “No, there’s not widespread panic,” said Daly. “I do think that while fanbases overlap to a certain extent, I think the products of an eight-game NFL home schedule versus a 41-game home schedule in hockey make the products a little bit different.” (Sportsnet)

— A Q&A with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who talks about the changes he’s tried to implement on offense since taking over from Claude Julien. “I think it’s a lot to do with we’ve kept pucks going toward the net down low, more half-wall attacks, more plays down low. We’ve emphasized more of that than always going low to high with it. We’re trying to get the guys to use more of their skill set, separate down low, especially with man-to-man coverages. So I think our quality of chances, if you look at that stat-wise, has gone up quite a bit in the last 20 games.” (NHL.com)

— Another Q&A, this one with Steven Stamkos, who talks about all the exciting, young players in the NHL today. “Yeah, 30 is the new 40 in this league. I’m closing in on 30 here, so it’s crazy to really think about it. … I’m 27 now, and next year will be 10 years [since joining the league]. It’s crazy how time flies. Now I’m one of the old guys on the team. You just never take it for granted. It’s such an honor to play in this league, and like I said, 30 is the new 40 now. So you’ve just got to cherish it.” (ESPN)

— Hockey Canada is making young kids play on reduced-size ice surfaces. “We know statistically when you’re in a smaller playing area it increases the number of puck touches, it increases the number of battles for loose pucks, it increases the number of shots on goal, it increases the number of passes and pass receptions.” Hey, it worked for Auston Matthews in that hockey hotbed of Arizona! (Canadian Press)

Enjoy the games!