Panthers cough up chance to clinch Southeast, playoffs

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There aren’t many sports that allow you to “back into” a third seed, but the Florida Panthers might just do that with the Southeast Division this season. They keep inching toward that mark and/or their first playoff berth in more than a decade, but they’re earning virtually zero style points (not to mention tempting the jinxing gods.)

At first, it seemed like they were ready to cruise to an exciting destination as they opened up a 3-0 lead against a Winnipeg Jets team that had every excuse to fold – especially on the road.

Blame it on “playing not to lose,” just not being good enough or any number of other factors, but the bottom line is that the Jets took over the scoring after Tomas Fleischmann made it 3-0 just 25 seconds in the second period. Winnipeg collected two goals to end the middle frame and then scored two goals within four minutes of the third period to make it 4-3. On the bright side, the Panthers squeezed another charity point out of the game as Tomas Kopecky scored the game-tying goal but Andrew Ladd’s OT winner has to be tough to swallow.

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Well, unless you’re the team that ends up with the East’s sixth seed, that is. In that case, you’re probably licking your chops.

Southeast showdown

This sets up a great opportunity for the Washington Capitals to unseat the Panthers for the Southeast title. Florida only needs a point to clinch a playoff spot and the division but the Caps could make that less of a certainty by beating them at the Verizon Center on Thursday.

After that, the Panthers visit the Carolina Hurricanes while the Washington Capitals face a Rangers team with little to play for in Madison Square Garden – both on Saturday.

It would be surprising if Florida fails to win the division and even more shocking if they fall out of the East’s top eight if things really fall apart, but they opened themselves up to that possibility by letting a seemingly certain victory slip away.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.