Penguins avoid Niemi’s revenge for win

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Nights like these remind you why the Pittsburgh Penguins often pay a big price to add depth. Nights like these also help explain why the Penguins decided that they had to hand Patric Hornqvist a contract extension.

Despite closing out a back-to-back set after allowing the Rangers to rally in OT last night, the Penguins played like the fresher team against the Montreal Canadiens, generating a 39-20 shots on goal advantage. Antti Niemi almost made the difference to get revenge against a team that discarded him as a backup earlier this season, but Hornqvist and the Penguins gutted out a 5-3 win tonight.

Niemi’s showcase was in the second period. Pittsburgh really flexed its muscles then, firing 18 shots on Niemi to only four for Montreal. Despite that disparity, each side scored one goal, and the two teams entered the final frame tied 3-3.

Hornqvist finally attempted a shot that even Niemi couldn’t stop, collecting the game-winner and also the 400th point of his career.

That was his second goal of the night, and Hornqvist also collected an assist, so he’s actually at 401. Not bad for a guy who was once “Mr. Irrelevant” as the final pick (230th overall) of the 2005 NHL Draft.

(There’s some sweet symmetry that Hornqvist, the final pick of that draft, has celebrated some fantastic victories with Sidney Crosby, who went first in 2005.)

Again, this was a game in which the Penguins’ depth allowed them to dominate a hungry (if reeling) opponent. Derick Brassard helped the Penguins begin a rally from down 2-0 by creating a turnover, then sending the puck to Bryan Rust, who found Phil Kessel for Pittsburgh’s first goal. If they can stay healthy, the Penguins’ playoff opponents will have to deal with the notion that, on any given night, Brassard can pick up the scoring burden if a team is slowing down Evgeni Malkin and/or Sidney Crosby.

You know, not that anyone has really been slowing down Malkin lately.

The Washington Capitals pasted the New York Islanders 7-3 tonight, so the Penguins weren’t able to make up ground in the battle to win the Metropolitan Division crown. (Both teams are at 87 standings points, but Washington holds two games in hand.)

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Pittsburgh seems increasingly likely to grab at least a round of home-ice advantage, though, as the Flyers seem like they might slip into a bubble battle with Columbus and New Jersey rather than posing a real threat as the second seed. Actually, with six straight wins, the Blue Jackets might be the greatest threat … but wins like these really give the Penguins some meaningful breathing room.

[The East playoff bubble intrigue increased on Thursday night.]

The Penguins probably grimaced at coughing up a lead against the Rangers last night, but by pushing through for a win in this one, they left a back-to-back set with three of four points. Maybe it’s not always pretty, but this veteran group is used to “finding ways to win,” as they proved once more on Thursday.

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.

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.