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Dupuis: ‘I’m still, in my head, a player’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Pascal Dupuis headed home to Montreal last December, threw his hockey gear in the garage and waited for his retirement to become real.

The longtime Pittsburgh Penguins forward knew the pangs of regret would come, even as he understood it was the right choice to step away from the game due to lingering concerns about the blood clots that dogged him during the final stages of his 15-year career. The only choice, really, for a married father of four.

Dupuis just assumed his second thoughts would fade over time. Only they didn’t. If anything, they’ve become more acute while watching his teammates put together a stirring run to the Stanley Cup Final without the player simply known as “Duper,” who for so long served as the emotional touchstone in a dressing room filled with divergent personalities.

“Every day I’m thinking about it,” Dupuis said before the Penguins opened up the franchise’s fifth appearance in the Cup Final with a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 on Monday night.

So Dupuis searched for a compromise, finding one in becoming a special assistant of sorts, one straddling the line between player and coach. He doesn’t have a term for his job description, though he became perhaps one of the world’s most overqualified equipment managers when he found himself replacing the butt end of forward Eric Fehr‘s stick during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The hockey bag Dupuis ditched in the family garage didn’t stay zipped for long. He brought his skates back to Pittsburgh, though these days he works out alone on the ice well before his friends file onto the rink. It’s strange, really strange, not to be out there with them. He lifted the Cup in triumph when the Penguins beat Detroit for the franchise’s third championship in 2009. Yet there the Cup was on Sunday afternoon, barely 20 feet away as he spoke to reporters during Media Day, and in the most visceral way hopelessly out of reach.

“You still want it,” said Dupuis, who turned 37 in April. “If one thing, it makes it harder. You know what it feels like, you know what it tastes like and you want it again.”

It’s why Dupuis returned last fall even though for the better part of two years it seemed as if there was a voodoo doll somewhere with his No. 9 jersey on it. The torn ACL in December, 2013. The blood clots that surfaced in November, 2014. The long wait for doctors to OK his return as he worked his way off blood thinners only to sustain a lower-body injury during training camp last September.

Yet he pressed on before chest pains forced him to leave a game in San Jose in early December, and the long West Coast road trip gave him time to think about his future, his mortality and hockey’s role in both. Then came the decision to step away on Dec. 8, making the announcement during a practice day in Colorado. He knew it was time to go.

Just not that far, it turned out. General manager Jim Rutherford promised Dupuis the team would pay him through the remainder of the four-year deal he signed in 2013 even as it placed him on the long-term inactive list. The move paid off immediately. The Penguins used the salary cap relief to acquire defenseman Trevor Daley from Chicago, a deal that coincided with head coach Mike Sullivan’s arrival and began the midseason renaissance that brought the Pittsburgh to the cusp of a championship.

“In some ways, our misfortune with Duper became our good fortune as we went along,” Rutherford said.

Dupuis made it a point to earn his money, even if it wasn’t with a stick in his hands. He re-joined the Penguins on the road as soon as doctors gave him clearance and in some ways things haven’t changed. He kept his stall in the locker room and joked “I still put my underwear on before they go on the ice.” Even if it goes under a meticulously tailored suit.

“He still works out hard, he gives us insight,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said. “He’s on the plane. He’s on the buses. He’s still loose just like he was when we played.”

Maybe that’s because he isn’t quite ready to turn the page completely. The engine that led the former undrafted free agent to 190 career goals, many of them as the speedy sidekick to Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby, doesn’t idle easily.

“It’s not like I’m going to dinner with the coaches yet,” he said. “I haven’t stepped over that fence yet. I’m still, in my head, a player.”

Even if, in practice, he is not. That part will be hard to shake, particularly as he sees his former peers make their way back from similar problems. Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos returned to the lineup for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals just eight weeks removed from his own blood clot issues. Seeing Stamkos on the ice – on the same night the Penguins grinded out a 2-1 win to advance to the Cup Final – was both promising but also bittersweet. Medicine is advancing. In the near future, blood clots may not be the career-altering diagnosis they are now.

Those advances, however, won’t come in time for Dupuis. For now, he’s attempting to be content growing his lavishly thick playoff beard and be one of the guys hoping to extend his long goodbye for a couple more weeks.

“It’s hard to come to the rink,” Dupuis said, “but the bigger picture here is me helping this team win.”

Seattle NHL team breaks ground on practice facility

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SEATTLE — The foundation for Seattle’s future NHL franchise continued to take shape Thursday as the team broke ground on its practice facility just a few miles from the arena it will call home.

The team’s practice facility, which will eventually house three full ice sheets, and its headquarters are the centerpiece of a larger redevelopment project on the site of a former mall.

Seattle President and CEO Tod Lewieke said the practice facility is on a similar timeline as the team’s arena, which is being constructed on the Seattle Center campus. Leiweke said the goal is to have the practice facility open in the summer of 2021 in the hope of holding the club’s first rookie camp and training camp there.

The facility will house the only ice hockey rinks inside the Seattle city limits.

“There were some days I wondered, could we have gone to an existing rink, build locker room space, put up some paint and banners and checked the box? I’ve done that in a prior life,” Leiweke said. “Here we said it’s really a shortcut because how could you be playing in a city with no sheets of ice? The city of Seattle did not have a sheet of ice. Now they’re going to have four — one at the big house and three here. It gives us a chance to grow the sport. It gives us a chance to make a statement to players and so it’s the right thing to do.”

While primarily serving as the practice facility for the yet-to-be-named team, Seattle intends to make all three rinks open for public use and hopes it can become a destination for hockey and figure skating events in the Pacific Northwest. The main rink will have seating for 1,000 spectators with the other two each able to hold up to 400. The facility will be 180,000 square feet.

“For our players to be in the heart of the city, for our players to be 10 minutes away it makes a huge difference,” Lewieke said. “It was a scary thing initially and we knew we had to solve it, and it’s worked out fantastically.”

WATCH LIVE: Bruins host Stars on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Although the Bruins have lost two straight games, the defending Eastern Conference champions currently own the best record in the league with 90 points. The B’s are coming off a 5-2 loss to Calgary at TD Garden on Tuesday night just days after the Canucks handed them a 9-3 defeat in Vancouver. The last time the Bruins gave up 14 or more goals in a two-game span was Jan. 1 – Jan. 4, 2007 (15 goals allowed).

The race for the top seed in the Central will likely come down to three teams – St. Louis, Colorado and Dallas – just as it did a season ago with Nashville, Winnipeg and St. Louis. All three clubs are separated by four points, while the next closest team is 14 pts back of the first-place Blues.

Dallas has won seven of their last nine games (7-1-1) and also extended their road point streak to eight games (6-0-2) after defeating Carolina 4-1 in Raleigh on Tuesday, despite being outshot 41-16.

After helping the Bruins capture the Stanley Cup in 2011, Boston traded Tyler Seguin to Dallas in a seven-player deal on July 4, 2013. The Bruins sent Seguin, F Rich Peverley and D Ryan Button to the Stars for F Loui Eriksson and three prospects (Joseph Morrow, Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser). After going 17 straight games without scoring a goal, the longest single-season drought of his career, Seguin now has five goals in his last seven games. His opening goal Tuesday night at Carolina came on a nice pass from Jamie Benn off a turnover, sparking the first period onslaught.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Dallas Stars at Boston Bruins
WHERE: TD Garden
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 27, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Stars-Bruins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

STARS
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Corey Perry
Mattias JanmarkJoe PavelskiAlexander Radulov
Andrew CoglianoRadek FaksaBlake Comeau
Roope HintzJason DickinsonDenis Gurianov

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Jamie OleksiakMiro Heiskanen
Andrej SekeraRoman Polak

Starting goalie: Ben Bishop

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatric BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Nick RitchieDavid KrejciOndrej Kase
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Sean KuralyPar LindholmChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt GrzelcykJohn Moore

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

John Forslund, Pierre McGuire and analyst Mike Milbury will have the call from TD Garden. Thursday’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

Golden Knights’ Fleury shuns spotlight, keeps going strong

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s postgame routine used to include a call with his father, something that helped him step away from the stress of the game.

He’s had to get used to going without that. His father, Andre, died Nov. 27 after battling lung cancer.

“It’s hard, and took some time to get used to,” said Fleury. “All the guys have been very supportive and kind. The good thing was when I came back, we didn’t talk about it much, we just got back to normal.”

Normal, as in being one of the guys, something he became used to during his 13 years with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Andre “had such a big impact (on Marc-Andre); they talked about the game a lot,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby said of his close friend during his team’s visit to Las Vegas. “We could talk hockey for days, and I think that’s probably something any hockey player can relate to, that relationship with our mom or dad driving us to the rink. You build a pretty close bond.”

Following a rough patch on the ice after his father’s passing, some suggested Fleury’s skills were deteriorating and that the 35-year-old wasn’t handling things between the pipes well at all. He opened the season 11-6-2 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .919 save percentage through Nov. 23. When he returned from an extended leave after his father died, the Golden Knights were in eighth place in the Western Conference. They’ve since climbed to fourth in the conference and are atop the Pacific Division.

Now, as the face of a beloved franchise in one of the most recognizable cities in the world, Fleury does his best to balance life on and off the ice, all while trying to be just another player in the Golden Knights’ locker room.

“I’m a pretty reserved person,” the three-time Stanley Cup champion and five-time NHL All-Star said. “I just want to be treated like the other guys and be with the other guys. That’s how it was for most my career. Maybe Sid took the spotlight a lot, (which) was great. It’s just nice to be one of the guys.”

Which can be tough, considering the 16-year-veteran’s credentials.

With Wednesday’s league-leading fifth shutout, a 3-0 win over Edmonton, Fleury earned his 61st career shutout, tying him for 17th all-time with Turk Broda. His 465 wins rank fifth all-time.

“He’s accomplished so much in his career, but you would never be able to tell with his personality and how genuine and how good of a guy he is,” Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “Basically, he wants to be one of the boys and be treated like any other person. He doesn’t love the attention, but he knows who he is, and he knows what comes with that and he handles it very well.”

Fleury acknowledged he struggled at times to process his father’s death, and still does. But he knew he had to improve mentally if he was going to successfully endure the most difficult season of his highly decorated career.

“Everybody grieves in different ways,” Crosby said. “It’s certainly difficult, I’m sure, but (he’s) got some great memories. It’s something that as friends — as Flower’s family — we’re all gonna try to be there. It’s not easy, but we’ll get through it. He expects a lot of himself. He just wants to win hockey games.”

As of late, Fleury is doing just that.

Since Feb. 15, Fleury is 5-0-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average and .942 save percentage and appears poised to make another deep playoff run after Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon bolstered the lineup at the NHL trade deadline by trading backup goalie Malcolm Subban as part of a three-way deal that brought in Chicago goaltender Robin Lehner, a 2019 Vezina finalist.

It’s perfect timing, as Fleury is settling back into his comfort zone, being one of the guys on yet another playoff contender.

“He’s as advertised, both on and off the ice,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “You always recognize the talent and the skill and how good a goalie he was. I think when you spend time with him and you’re around him, you realize what a gentleman and what a good teammate and what a good person this guy is. And it’s not an act; it’s real. He’s a special person, and that’s what probably separates him more than even his talent, which is very high-end.”

Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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.