Sullivan wants Kessel to have a shoot first mindset

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Since arriving in Pittsburgh before the 2015-16 season Phil Kessel has proven to be an important piece to the Penguins’ puzzle. He hasn’t been the 35-or 40-goal scorer that he was expected to be upon his arrival, he has still been an extremely productive player and especially in the playoffs where he has always been at his best.

But while the production is there once again this postseason (he has 20 points in 22 games, good enough for third best in the league) he hasn’t looked quite as dominant as he did a year ago, and he has even faced some pretty harsh criticism for his play from some in the Pittsburgh media.

He has also had his ice-time drop a bit over the past couple of weeks, logging less than 16 minutes of ice-time in five of his past seven games, nearly two minutes off of his postseason average the past two years.

Held without a goal in Saturday’s Game 3 loss to Nashville, Kessel has now gone five games without a goal and has just one in his past seven. Granted, that really isn’t that huge of a slump because even the elite players run into dry spells when it comes to putting the puck in the net. Big picture, five games really isn’t that long of a slump.

Even so, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked on Saturday night if he sees anything in Kessel’s game that indicates if he might be on the verge of breaking out of that mini-slump and if Kessel is playing with confidence.

“Well, he’s an elite shooter,” said Sullivan. “He can score goals. We always try to encourage him to shoot the puck more because he has one of the best shots in the game, we believe. He had a couple looks tonight. He had a breakaway late in the game.

“I think Phil is a guy, if one goes in for him, it certainly gives him a boost of confidence. We’re trying to encourage him to shoot the puck and think shot first. I think, you know, he’s certainly at his best when he’s in that mindset.”

And that starts to drill down to where some of the concern might be coming from. He’s not getting shots at the same rate as he has in the past, something that started even during the regular season when he averaged just 2.79 shots on goal per game. That was his lowest total since his second year in the league. In the playoffs, he is averaging 2.86 after averaging more than four in the playoffs a year ago. It’s almost as if he made an effort this season to become more of a playmaker (and he has always been an underrated passer) instead of taking full advantage of his opportunities to use his elite shot.

Kessel is always going to be an interesting case, and this postseason is no different. He is paid to score goals because that is what he does best, and given his style of play (not physical, considered “one dimensional”) he is going to face criticism when he isn’t doing that, even if the overall production is still there.

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.

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.