Praise for Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Penguins looked like they needed a day off. Maybe more than one.

And yet there the defending Stanley Cup champions were on Tuesday morning, dressed and skating barely 12 hours removed from a listless Game 6 loss to Washington that put Pittsburgh’s bid for a repeat in serious peril.

The Penguins weren’t there to get loose. They weren’t there as punishment. Mike Sullivan had a point to make. Several actually. And the coach owner Mario Lemieux hired nearly 18 months ago to be the voice that cut through the noise figured it was time to remind his players of a few things.

Namely, to stop being passive bystanders while the Capitals attacked and attacked some more. So for more than half an hour Sullivan zipped around the ice at the rink named after his boss, whistle at the ready. Intermittently he’d head to the whiteboard hanging against the glass then call his players over to join him so he could loudly – and repeatedly – make a point, his thick Boston accent ping-ponging off the walls and over the din.

“There’s times where you need rest, there’s time where you’ve got to work on some things and try and get better,” forward Bryan Rust said. “And that was our goal (Tuesday) and we accomplished it.”

The proof came in Game 7 on Wednesday night, a clinical 2-0 victory over the Capitals that sent Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa. While Sullivan deflected any praise in the aftermath – preferring instead to pepper his answers with words like “leadership” and “character” and noting the spectacular play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury – the Penguins understand their ability to summon their best when they absolutely need it is due in no small part to the guy with the immaculate suits, blunt demeanor and knack for saying the right thing at the right time.

“Xs and Os, he’s one of the very best coaches I’ve played for,” said 40-year-old forward Matt Cullen, who has bounced between seven teams during his 19-year career. “(As for) motivation, he does a heck of a job. He’s got a real feel for the pulse of our group.”

One that was visible at his first practice after taking over for Mike Johnston in December 2015. The Penguins and their star-powered lineup led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were treading water. Sullivan wanted them to play faster. He wanted them to play smarter. He wanted them to be more accountable to each other. While general manager Jim Rutherford went about getting Sullivan the pieces he needed to – as Sullivan is so fond of saying – “play the right way,” the coach turned the focus from the big picture to a smaller one.

Just worry about today. Not about winning the Cup that won’t be determined in six months. Not about their place in the standings. Not about the outside pressures that come when you happen to have two of the best players in the league on your roster. Just today.

It’s a message he hasn’t wavered from. Not after Pittsburgh brilliantly sprinted to the franchise’s fourth Cup last June. Not during what could have been a difficult regular season as injuries devastated the blue line. Not after a 3-1 series lead against Washington fell apart amid a smattering of boos inside PPG Paints Arena.

Sullivan didn’t panic. It’s not his thing. While Washington took Tuesday off after its win, Sullivan put his players back to work.

“His ability to stay calm and refocus us is something I think our team feeds off of,” defenseman Ian Cole said.

There were noticeable adjustments before Game 7. Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson in the lineup in place of Carl Hagelin and Tom Kuhnhackl. It was more than that, however. After spending the better part of six games letting Washington dictate the terms, Sullivan challenged the Penguins to get back to what made them nearly unstoppable last summer. Put the puck in deep. Forecheck. Take educated gambles.

“It wasn’t one big thing,” Cole said. “It’s little things all over the ice. It’s chipping bodies. It’s being physical and being tough to play against. Taking away their ice.”

Pittsburgh did more than that. The Penguins sapped Washington’s will. Rust’s goal near the midway point gave the Penguins the lead. Hornqvist’s backhand flip by Braden Holtby following a sloppy play by Capitals star Alex Ovechkin pushed the advantage to two. And Pittsburgh kept on coming, outshooting the Capitals over the final 20 minutes, playing with desperation and precision while Washington watched the clock tick away one last time.

“It’s about compete level, a mindset,” Sullivan said. “It’s about heart and soul.”

And the steady hand behind the bench, too.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

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

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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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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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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.