Ilya Kovalchuk considered Russia as an option, but eager to get started in New Jersey

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Thumbnail image for ilyakovalchuk6.jpgIlya Kovalchuk’s wild summer is over and he’s in training camp ready to go. Of course, arriving at training camp for the first time means having to answer some questions about just how stressful the summer was. Thankfully, Tom Gulitti was there to get the word from the Devils superstar about how he handled the contract struggles and just how seriously he considered going to the KHL.

But Kovalchuk admitted playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League would have been a possibility if his second contract was rejected too, though he said the report of their being a deadline wasn’t quite accurate.

“There wasn’t really a deadline, but (playing in Russia) was definitely one of the possibilties because if the league was going to reject another contract, I don’t know what to feel about it,” Kovalchuk said. “I know they were trying to make an example, but it’s not my fault. The team offered a contract and if you like it, you sign it. But’s all in the past. I’m very excited to be back here.”

Kovalchuk said that if his 15-year, $100 million contract had been rejected too, “Then, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody knows. But I’m glad I didn’t go anywhere and the contracts stays and now I’m a part of the New Jersey Devils.”

Those are some good, peaceable PR-friendly words from Kovalchuk about being happy to stay in Newark. It is intriguing to read that the KHL was out there as a possibility. Granted we don’t really know how seriously Russia was being considered as an option but the fact that it was out there while no other NHL team aside from New Jersey was considered is telling.

With all that aside, the focus turns to how well Kovalchuk will perform on the ice with the Devils over a full season. His centerman will be any one of Travis Zajac, Jason Arnott or Dainius Zubrus this season and his other winger is as yet to be determined. With Patrick Elias moving to the left wing, the speculation for how the Devils very talented lines will shake out will be of great interest to everyone, especially with Kovalchuk in the mix.

Everything comes up Bruins on Saturday

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Honestly, Zdeno Chara signing another team-friendly contract would have been enough to make Saturday great for the Boston Bruins, alone. But the good times didn’t stop there.

Nope, the Bruins carried those positive vibes to the ice, as they pummeled the Florida Panthers by a score of 7-3. In managing that lopsided win, the Bruins became the second team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A clinched spot and a big win to go with that Chara extension … that’s it, right? Nope, more fun stuff came when you zoomed into the specifics of the game.

For one thing, Chara celebrated his extended stay with the Bruins by scoring the 200th goal of his splendid NHL career, and it was a pretty nice one. (You can watch that milestone tally in the video above this post’s headline.)

Chara also had an assist in that win, so quite an all-around Saturday for “The Big Z.”

He wasn’t the only Bruins player to have a memorable evening, as Noel Acciari scored a goal and also threw punches at a gatling-gun-rhythm in quite the fight with MacKenzie Weegar:

*Infomercial voice* But wait, there’s more …

The Maple Leafs only managed a point against the struggling Rangers on Saturday, so now the Bruins hold a seven-point edge for the Atlantic’s second seed, and home-ice advantage in that looming first-round series.

While Toronto would be a tough opponent – warts and all – it must be tantalizing for the Bruins to picture what they might be capable of. After all, the B’s are starting to get healthier following a season of injury headaches, and they’re heating up considering their four-game winning streak.

They’re also an impressive 28-7-3 at home this season, so home ice could be pretty significant.

Yes, life was good for the Bruins on Saturday, and they aim to carry that over to most nights in April, and beyond.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

March Madness is theme of Hurricanes’ latest win celebration

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When you think of March Madness, it won’t take long for the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels to come to your mind, especially if you’re living in the Carolinas. That apparently isn’t lost on the Carolina Hurricanes.

The team’s latest celebration evoked the NCAA’s beloved college basketball tournament, as the Hurricanes distanced themselves from the East’s bubble teams by thoroughly defeating (the very much West-bubble-dwelling) Minnesota Wild 5-1 on Saturday.

It was a great performance, with Teuvo Teravainen playing the role of MVP via one goal and two assists.

If Teravainen was the star, then call Trevor van Riemsdyk “The Human Hockey Highlight Reel,” as he showed some solid ups with his dunk during this fun celebration:

The Hurricanes are only going deeper into the “prop” stage of these win celebrations, and let me tell you: I’m all for it, and not just because it annoys the crustiest of crusty old hockey men.

Carolina now holds the first East wild-card spot with 89 points in 74 games played. The Montreal Canadiens are behind them in the second WC spot (87 points in 75 GP), making things only tenser for the struggling Blue Jackets, who remain out of the top eight with 84 points in 74 games played.

More and more, it looks like the Hurricanes will avoid another trip to hockey’s NIT (which would be the golf course, or maybe the hockey championship tournament overseas?), as their grip tightens on a playoff spot.

If things go really well, maybe the Hurricanes could celebrate a big win by cutting down the nets?

via Getty Images

Hey, they might as well file away ideas if they keep winning at this pace.

Jets dominate Predators, clinch playoff spot

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This is basically how the Winnipeg Jets probably dreamed of clinching a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With Kyle Connor collecting a hat trick, the Jets firmly took control of first place in the Central Division by drubbing the Nashville Predators 5-0 on Saturday. This outcome doesn’t just clinch that playoff berth, it also gives Winnipeg a four-point edge on Nashville.

The Jets also hold a game in hand, as they have seven games remaining, while the Predators only play six more.

The most spectacular of Connor’s three goals came when he shimmied around P.K. Subban (someone who regularly gets booed in Winnipeg), and then Pekka Rinne had no chance to stop the young winger:

The Predators find themselves vulnerable to beginning the first round on the road, as the Blues aren’t far behind them for the second seed in the Central.

Connor actually also had an assist in this game (3G, 1A), as he’s showing some fascinating chemistry with Kevin Hayes, who joined him in having a four-point game (1G, 3A). Considering how dangerous the Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler duo tends to be, and the luxury wingers Winnipeg also has in Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, a deadly combination of Hayes and Connor could be an absolute nightmare for opponents.

The Jets have been notably up-and-down at times this season, yet you could argue that it might be a matter of mild complacency. For the first time ever, this franchise is enjoying a glut where they can sort of mosey into the playoffs, so maybe they had been “struggling with prosperity” to some extent?

Well, as dangerous as it might be to supposedly “flip on the light switch,” the Jets are playing well enough that you might really start to hear some puns involving “taking off” and “getting fueled up” soon. That’s fair enough, if they fly as high most nights as they did on Saturday.

(Oh no, I’m doing it already, too.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

GM bashes Blue Jackets for not ‘playing like a team’

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Plenty of people are under pressure as the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in a panic-inducing spot: out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as of this moment.

Yet, you have to believe that GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s seat is the hottest. After all, he’s the one who decided to not only keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but also load up big-time during the trade deadline.

The thought was that keeping Bread and Bob would be “like getting trade deadline rentals” in the first place, so why not swing for the fences instead of giving up?

Well, instead of a deep run looking fully in view, the Blue Jackets instead are gazing at the standings, wondering if they might miss the postseason altogether. Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets have gone an unsettling 5-7-1, and Kekalainen told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline that he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

“We have to start playing like a team,” Kekalainen said (sub required). “Right now, we’re looking like a group of individuals who are pulling in different directions. We don’t look like a team.”

Is it John Tortorella’s fault that the Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team?

That’s an argument for another day, but Kekalainen emphatically shot down any thought of Torts getting fired during the waning days of the 2018-19 season, telling Portzline that “if anybody can figure out how to turn this thing around, it is going to be [Tortorella].”

So, what might be the problem, then?

Well, unfortunately, those big holdovers aren’t delivering in a way that will please those worrying about Bobrovsky and Panarin leaving for nothing.

Panarin hasn’t been terrible, mind you, with a respectable eight points (though only one goal) in his last 13 games. And, as up-and-down as Bobrovsky’s been both this season and since the deadline, it’s not all Bob’s fault, as he’s dealing with some injury issues.

But those new additions really haven’t been able to take off. Matt Duchene seems to bring a hex with him everywhere he goes, and he’s only managed four points with Columbus. Most disturbingly, Pierre-Luc Dubois only has a single assist since the deadline.

It’s frustrating to linger on bad luck as a major reason for things going sideways, particularly for a team that’s been as frustrated in big games as the Blue Jackets have been. Still, it’s undeniable that bad bounces have been a factor.

Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets’ even-strength shooting percentage is just 5.23-percent, the second-worst number in the NHL (according to Natural Stat Trick). During an NHL season where teams are averaging close to three goals per game (2.82), the Blue Jackets have just 27 goals in 13 games, barely managing two per game (a bit less than 2.08).

As much as teams want to just will their way to goals and wins, sometimes it’s simply difficult to overcome cold streaks.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Kekalainen made was overrating his team/”group of individuals,” then? The underlying stats pointed to a Blue Jackets team that had mostly been middle-of-the-pack when it’s come to owning the puck and controlling high-danger chances, with a few key players like Panarin helping to make that key difference between victory and defeat.

Maybe making so many changes to the roster threw off delicate chemistry just enough to ruin that tightrope act? Could it be that Panarin actually … wanted to move on, to some extent, and feels a tad-bit dejected to have to play out the string?

Or, most likely, the bounces just haven’t been there, and such headaches have magnified issues, turning molehills into mountains?

Either way, it’s clear that things haven’t been coming easily for the Blue Jackets lately, and the pressure is getting to just about everyone — including the GM who put the team together.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.