Southeast Division Watch (January 31)

With the All-Star break over, it’s time for the NHL playoff races to intensify. Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division’s outlook. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Southeast Division outlook

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-15-5 for 67 pts; 51 Games Played)

Current streak: five wins in a row

Week ahead: three home games – Philadelphia (Tuesday), Washington (Friday) and St. Louis (Sunday).

Thoughts: The Lightning started off their epic 12-game homestand with two wins. This week won’t be easy with a game against the top team in the East and their biggest divisional threat, but at least they get plenty of time to rest.

2. Washington Capitals (27-15-9 for 63 pts; 51 GP)

Current streak: two straight losses

Week ahead: home vs. Montreal (Tues), away vs. Tampa Bay (Fri) and home vs. Pittsburgh (Sun).

Thoughts: Their schedule is similar to Tampa Bay’s week, at least in the way the games are tough but spread out in a friendly way. Friday’s game is the biggest, but they should be mad at themselves if they don’t win at least two of these games considering the fact that the Penguins are banged up.

3. Atlanta Thrashers (24-19-9 for 57 pts; 52 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Home vs. Islanders (Tues), home vs. Calgary (Thurs) and road vs. Carolina (Sat).

Thoughts: The Thrashers stumbled into the break before winning their last game, but this week presents an opportunity for them to strengthen their playoff foothold. Winnable home games against the Islanders and Flames give way to an important game against the hard-charging Hurricanes, their biggest playoff threat.

4. Carolina Hurricanes (26-19-6 for 56 pts; 50 GP)

Current streak: Two wins in a row.

Week ahead: Home vs. Boston (Tues), road vs. Toronto (Thurs) and home vs. Atlanta on Saturday.

Thoughts: The Bruins are going to be a tough out, but perhaps the Hurricanes will be pumped up after hosting a successful All-Star weekend? Carolina needs to take Toronto seriously to give themselves a great chance at earning at least two wins this week. If they could beat Atlanta in regulation, they might find themselves in the top eight by Saturday night.

5. Florida Panthers (22-22-5 for 49 pts; 49 GP)

Current streak: Lost their last game.

Week ahead: Three road games – Toronto (Tues), Montreal (Wed) and New Jersey (Fri).

Thoughts: The Panthers’ optimism can be gauged by how they look at this week. There is the half-empty: three road games and a back-to-back to start things off. Then there’s the half-full: they play against two cellar dwelling teams in the Maple Leafs and Devils, so the games are winnable. If they flop this week, they might want to begin eye-balling a lottery pick.

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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.