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Survival of the lucky? Stanley Cup playoff hopes can rise and fall with significant injuries

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There’s plenty of knocking on wood this time of year around the NHL as teams hope to avoid injuries that could damage their playoff hopes.

For some, it’s already too late.

The Tampa Bay Lightning lost Steven Stamkos for four months — and counting — and now Tyler Johnson. The Florida Panthers went without Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov for much of the year. The Los Angeles Kings tried to stay afloat without goaltender Jonathan Quick until late February but will likely miss the playoffs.

While the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have withstood a barrage of injuries and the league-leading Washington Capitals have largely avoided them, they’re keenly aware of how quickly even one injury can make a difference.

“There’s other teams that are good teams that have just had some bad luck,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “Tampa Bay just couldn’t overcome the injuries. If Tampa Bay has Stamkos all the way through the season, they’d certainly be in a different place.”

Read more: Injuries keep adding up for Lightning

Considered Cup contenders at the start of the season, the Lightning had to make a run just to get within three points of a playoff spot with nine games remaining.

The Panthers got Barkov and Huberdeau back and dug out of an early hole, but a lower-body injury to goaltender Roberto Luongo contributed to a 3-7-1 tailspin that might ultimately cost them the chance to make the postseason for a second consecutive year.

“Sometimes just your body breaks up because of the games and stuff like that,” said Barkov, who missed 15 games with a back injury. “Some teams just get more injuries, and some teams just get lucky not to get injuries.”

Injuries have again been the story of the year for the Penguins, who are currently without half their regular defense in Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, and also lost trade acquisition Ron Hainsey. But they haven’t missed a beat.

“The guys that have come in just understanding whatever role that they get, they have to be accepting of it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They have a lot of responsibility in most cases, too, because they’re filling in for some guys who play a lot of key minutes.”

Injuries were a severe blow to the Dallas Stars, with 292 man games lost, and 265 man games lost has put the Detroit Red Wings’ 25-season playoff streak in serious jeopardy. The Edmonton Oilers have around 300 man games lost, but unlike last year’s stumble when Connor McDavid broke his collarbone they are poised to end a 10-year playoff drought.

“This organization seems to have a way of getting beat up and having injuries and needing others to support the group, and this year I think we’ve done a better job,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We haven’t lost those key forwards, knock on wood, like we did last year.”

Tampa Bay did when Stamkos tore the meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15 after putting up 20 points in his first 17 games. Friday night marked his 57th consecutive game out of the lineup.

Yet in Washington, the Capitals have a grand total of 42 man games lost all season and have only dealt with a hand injury that sidelined forward Andre Burakovsky 15 games and upper-body ailments that cost T.J. Oshie 13. Defenseman Brooks Orpik believes the Capitals’ fortunes are a combination of off-ice injury prevention techniques and luck, while the team’s brass thinks it’s also about taxing players less each game.

“The team philosophy of going four lines and spreading the ice time out and spreading the ice time out on defense and spreading the ice time out among your goalies, I think it puts less stress on your lineup,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Having a deep team, I think, results in less injuries.”

Depth up front helped the Chicago Blackhawks withstand captain Jonathan Toews‘ nine-game absence with back problems, and having backup Antti Raanta kept the New York Rangers on track when goaltender Henrik Lundqvist went out for two weeks this month with a lower-body injury. Lundqvist is expected back this weekend.

The Columbus Blue Jackets feel fortunate not to need to test their depth again this season after injuries ravaged them to the count of 510 man games lost two years ago. They’ve overcome defenseman Seth Jones‘ broken foot and Ryan Murray‘s broken hand to make the playoffs for the third time in franchise history, so it doesn’t feel at all like 2014-15 in Columbus.

“It’s just too good of a league to be able to survive that type of season,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “This year we’ve been lucky and hopefully done some things right as well where we haven’t been injured as much and knock on wood hopefully stay healthy for the rest of the year.”

Report: IIHF needs NHL’s Olympic decision by end of April

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The Winter Olympics are less than a year away and time is ticking on the NHL to make a decision — one way or another.

From TSN.ca:

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel tells The Associated Press he needs to know by the end of April whether NHL players will be cleared to play in the South Korea Olympics next year.

NHL team owners have made it clear they don’t want to stop their season again for the Winter Games and put their stars at risk of injury. The reluctance has come up before and yet the NHL has participated in the Olympics since 1998. This time, however, there seems to be an impasse.

For those hoping NHL players will compete in South Korea next year, the situation right now appears bleak, given the recent comments of commissioner Gary Bettman, who told Reuters that “…people should assume we are not going.”

Bettman has also argued the compressed schedule that accompanies the league’s participation in the Olympics is bad for the NHL.

Read more: Fehr: Players won’t negotiate with NHL over Olympics

Meanwhile, a number of players — Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Jakub Voracek and rising star Connor McDavid among them — have publicly lobbied for the opportunity to once again compete in the Olympics, adding that having the world’s best players there is a benefit to growing the game.

(In McDavid’s case, he has never played in the Olympics, but given his stature as arguably the league’s best player right now in only his second season, he’d be a shoe-in to make Team Canada if healthy.)

Voracek recently sounded off the matter, essentially calling the league’s position, “Absolutely ridiculous.”

Goalie nods: Vezina candidates clash as Bobrovsky faces Holtby

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Sergei Bobrovsky leads the NHL in GAA, at 2.04. Braden Holtby sits second, at 2.05.

Bobrovsky leads the NHL in wins, with 39. Holtby sits second, with 37.

Holtby leads the NHL in shutouts, with eight. Bobrovsky sits third, with six.

Perhaps you see where this is going.

Tonight, the two will square off in a much-anticipated game, as the Jackets travel to Washington to take on the Caps.

“It’s a great opponent,” Bobrovsky said, per NHL.com. “It’s going to be interesting. It’s one of the best teams in the League, so we’ll see. We’ll see who’s going to be better.”

Holtby is the reigning Vezina winner, while Bobrovsky captured the trophy three years prior. Both have already been unofficially shortlisted for this season’s award — along with Devan Dubnyk and, perhaps, Cam Talbot — but tonight’s game is about much, much more than goaltending.

The Caps head into the tilt two points up on Columbus for first spot in the NHL (and just one up on Pittsburgh). Columbus has made it clear it would love to capture the first Preisdents’ Trophy in franchise history, and a victory tonight would be a big step towards it. The Jackets, Penguins and Capitals all have 10 games left in their respective seasons, and Columbus will have one more shot at each this year.

Elsewhere…

— The Bolts begin a back-to-back set tonight, and will start Peter Budaj against the Bruins. Tuukka Rask will likely be in for the B’s, after allowing three goals on just 22 shots in a loss to Ottawa on Tuesday.

Keith Kinkaid, who’s seen more playing time that usual down the stretch, will get another start when the Devils take on the Leafs in New Jersey. Curtis McElhinney goes for the Leafs, after Frederik Andersen beat Columbus last night.

— It’s Matt Murray versus Mike Condon as the Penguins take on the Sens.

Eddie Lack, who’s played very well since being verbally lambasted by head coach Bill Peters, looks to start when the ‘Canes take on the Habs in Montreal. Carey Price will be in goal for the Canadiens.

— After Reto Berra’s first start in over a year on Tuesday, the Panthers will go back to James Reimer against Arizona. The visiting Coyotes will start Mike Smith.

Ryan Miller goes up against his old Blues teammates as the Canucks visit St. Louis. Jake Allen, who continues to be one of the better comeback stories this season, looks for his seventh win in his last eight starts.

Chad Johnson gives Brian Elliott a night off as Calgary takes on Nashville. Looks as though the Preds are going back to Pekka Rinne, after he earned his third straight win over the Coyotes on Monday.

— It’s Steve Mason versus Devan Dubnyk as Philly travels to Minnesota.

Corey Crawford will look to bounce back after allowing four goals on 10 shots (and getting hooked) against Vancouver on Tuesday. The visiting Stars look like they’ll go with Kari Lehtonen.

— Some thought Cam Talbot, the NHL’s leader in starts, would get a rest tonight in Colorado after getting hooked against Anaheim last night. Nope. Talbot’s back in, going up against Jeremy Smith for the Avs.

— In the late game, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck gets back in goal after Michael Hutchinson scored a rare win on Tuesday. He’ll be in against Ben Bishop, who looks to keep the Kings’ faint playoff hopes alive.

‘Hawks sign Kero to two-year extension

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Chicago has re-upped with winger Tanner Kero on a two-year deal, the club announced on Thursday.

Kero, 24, is in his second season with the ‘Hawks. He made his NHL debut in ’15-16 and has earned a more prominent role this year, scoring 12 points through 38 games.

Undrafted out of Michigan Tech, Kero parlayed a strong senior season — which included being a Hobey Baker finalist — into a contract with the ‘Hawks. He’s spent quite a bit of time in AHL Rockford, emerging as a quality goalscorer.

That said, Kero has developed a more well-rounded game with Chicago, and impressed head coach Joel Quenneville in the process.

“He’s reliable in a lot of ways,” Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “He puts himself in the right spot, down low in his own end, underneath coverage, and seems to be useful in killing penalties as well. There’s more offense in his game that hopefully can come around and add to his reliability defensively.

“We feel he’s done a good job of being a guy in the middle you can use and we like what he’s brought to our team in a position where, [earlier in] the year, I don’t know if he was forecast to be a regular like that. But he’s become more and more reliable, or used more.”

Financial details of the new contract weren’t released. Kero is in the last of a two-year, $1.85 million deal with a $667,500 average annual cap hit.

 

Pre-game reading: ‘Assume we are not going’ to Olympics, says Bettman

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— In what might be his most definitive statement on Olympic participation to date, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday told Reuters people shouldn’t expect players to participate in the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

“There are no negotiations ongoing,” Bettman said, while at the Sport Business Summit in New York. “We were open to having discussions on a variety of things that might mitigate the damage to our season but that had no resonance.

“As things stand now people should assume we are not going.”

These remarks come after Bettman’s comments during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, when he was sharply critical of the IOC’s decision to stop covering out-of-pocket expenses for NHLers to attend the Games.

“What I think has happened…you know, there were probably some owners over time who always thought the Olympics were a good idea, there were some owners who always hated it,” said Bettman, “and there were probably a bunch of clubs that really didn’t give it much thought until the IOC said we weren’t going to pay the expenses. And then I think it caused a number of clubs to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, if that’s how they value our participation, why are we knocking ourselves out?’”

Today, Bettman re-iterated Olympic participation was terribly disruptive for NHL business, adding “we have been unable to quantify any benefit from it.”

For more from Reuters, including info on which sponsors are trying to help broker a deal, click here.

Meanwhile, here’s what NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly had to say on the matter:

— In what’s been a disappointing year for the Sabres, sophomore sensation Jack Eichel is playing exceptionally well. He rebounded from a severe high ankle sprain, one that cost him the first 21 games of the year, and was one of the league’s highest-scoring players over the last few months.

From NHL.com:

Since making his season debut, Eichel is tied for eighth in the NHL in scoring with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) in 52 games and is first in shots on goal with 207. Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, the player selected ahead of Eichel in the 2015 draft and the League’s leading scorer, has 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists) in that time.

Since Feb. 1, Eichel is second in the NHL with 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 24 games, one point behind Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, who won the Hart Trophy as most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion last season.

Yet to hear Eichel explain it, the personal achievements don’t mean much.

“Frustrating more than anything,” Eichel said of this season. “Want to be a playoff team. Want to play in the playoffs, get a taste of it. It’s tough when you don’t get there.”

Over at ESPN, Craig Custance, Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and more discuss who’s the best current fighter in the league. About the only thing the writers agreed on is that it’s a difficult question to answer, which is a testament to today’s NHL.