Capitals pushed by ‘that hurt’ from playoff letdown

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) When Matt Niskanen contemplated skipping a trip to the gym over the summer, he remembered what happened in May.

As the offseason went on, Niskanen thought less and less about the Washington Capitals’ loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Instead, he let the memory of the second-round playoff exit fuel him from time to time.

“That hurt, it lingers, and I think you can use that as motivation,” Niskanen said. “That kind of stuff creeps into your mind and it pushes you.”

Now several months removed from another painful playoff loss, the Capitals came to training camp ready to harness whatever energy they could from that while also preparing to move past it and focus on another run at the Cup this season. Almost the entire roster is back from the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team that ran roughshod over the NHL during the regular season, and with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby in their primes, there isn’t time to waste on reflection and hindsight.

“You need to see where things went awry and try to rectify it,” said veteran winger Justin Williams, one of several players with one year left on his contract. “We set a standard with having successful teams, a team every year fans can look at and say, `You know, we legitimately have a chance to win it again.’ As players we embrace that and we respect it and we know that these opportunities that we have in front of us aren’t forever.”

Along with Williams, winger T.J. Oshie and defenseman Karl Alzner could be unrestricted free agents July 1. Restricted free agent center Evgeny Kuznetsov will get a big raise on a new deal, and Washington’s salary cap picture will get more difficult as the years go on.

Ovechkin also just turned 31, and while he led the league in scoring last season, there’s no certainty as to how long his Hall of Fame-caliber production will keep up. After winning the division by 16 points and losing in the second round – again – general manager Brian MacLellan doesn’t think there’s a bigger burden on winning this year with so many unknowns on the horizon.

“I think there’s pressure every year,” MacLellan said. “Last year we were a contender, there’s pressure. Same pressure this year. We have a goal of winning a championship. We know we’re close and we need to pursue it and we’ll do everything we can to get there.”

Alzner was just starting to get over the early exit when pictures of the Penguins celebrating with the Cup filled up his social media feeds. The ironman whose groin injury forced him out of the deciding Game 6 and led to sports hernia surgery scoffed at the notion that Pittsburgh winning makes the loss easier to take.

“It’s worse, in my opinion, because then you really think, `OK if I could have got past that team then the Cup was ours,”‘ said Alzner, who’s still working his way back to 100 percent. “I think that all of us in the room thought that we were going to win that last year.”

Being great in the regular season and losing in the first or second round has become the Capitals’ reputation over the past decade. The 2015-16 team was perhaps the best on paper, which made the late stumble into summer that much more confounding.

As more top players continue to trickle back into town after playing in the World Cup of Hockey, associate coach Todd Reirden expects the staff to impart lessons about last season on the full group. Early in camp, the mood is light with players eager to make a fresh start and learn from losing to the Penguins.

Asked what the Capitals can do to improve, Williams deadpanned: “We can finish the season with a win. That’s it.”

That’s a challenge that can’t be accomplished until the spring. Players, coaches and fans may want to fast-forward until then, but Washington has to again get there first.

“You’ve got to be patient,” center Jay Beagle said. “The game has to develop. We’ve got new guys, so we want to go into this year making sure we’re playing our best going into the end of the year and in the playoffs.”

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.