Top picks from 2016, 2017 unfazed by playoff pressure

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Auston Matthews got a taste of playoff hockey last season. Patrik Laine has been waiting two years for this.

The third pick in the 2016 draft? Well, Pierre-Luc Dubois is taking a surprising star turn in the spotlight of the NHL playoffs, too.

Matthews, Laine, Dubois and 2017 top picks Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick all look unfazed as they handle significant responsibilities in the postseason. All are in top-six forward roles and have combined for five goals and six assists.

”These guys are young guys,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said after Matthews’ Game 3 winner against Boston was the 20-year-old center’s first point of the series. ”They’re playing against real players and they’re young guys. You’ve got to go through some of these slappings in your life to kind of respond and learn how to respond and do things right.”

These five budding superstars have been doing a lot of things right all season. Matthews’ 34 goals led the Maple Leafs; Laine’s 43 for Winnipeg were second in the NHL; Hischier’s 48 points were second on the Devils; and Patrick’s 30 and gradual improvement earned him a promotion to the Flyers’ second-line center spot.

Dubois was a bit of a surprise pick by Columbus behind Matthews and Laine at the 2016 draft, and he didn’t break into the NHL right away. Dubois wasn’t expected to mature this quickly and doesn’t get the kind of attention as last season’s top finishers for rookie of the year, but he’s used to that by now.

”I’ve always been the guy kind of under the radar,” said Dubois, whose 48 points were third on the Blue Jackets. ”All my life it’s been pretty much like that. I don’t really look to impress other people. I just want to play well. I’ve never been the guy that everybody talked about, so it never really fazed me.”

Dubois most impressively has earned the trust of old-school coach John Tortorella enough to be the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 center at age 19. Tortorella uses Dubois as an example to show older players how to handle situations, an ultimate sign of respect from a Stanley Cup-winning coach who doesn’t hesitate to put him on the ice against opposing stars.

”He accepted it, he excelled,” Tortorella said. ”He has a mental toughness for a 19-year-old kid, to accept that type of responsibility and want more. It’s a different guy. You’ve got to be careful with young kids, but he has showed me tremendous progress and instant mental toughness as I’ve gotten to know him as the season’s gone on.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Laine isn’t tracking the stats of the other players in his draft class, but he knows how they are doing. Similarly, Dubois enjoys watching Matthews and Laine while trying not to compare himself to them.

”They’re obviously really great players,” said Dubois, who picked up two assists in his first playoff game. ”I know my game and people that know my game know that we’re all different players. There’s the offensive side of it, there’s the defensive side, there’s everything. Everything’s different about our games.”

Production ties them together with Hischier and Patrick, who also don’t look out of place at all in their first playoffs at 19.

New Jersey coach John Hynes said Hischier has been one of the Devils’ best players, which is the continuation of a season of learning for the first Swiss No. 1 pick.

”I’ve seen every city, every rink and just for me it was a lot of experience this year, and guys helped me a lot,” said Hischier, who scored in Game 2 against Tampa Bay and played over 17 minutes in the Devils’ Game 3 win. ”Just all around I think I grew as a person and as a hockey player.”

Patrick wasn’t putting up a lot of points in the first half of the season but still felt he was playing well. Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol felt good enough about Patrick’s game that he promoted him and has reaped the benefits for the past couple of months and in the first round against Pittsburgh.

”Obviously I’m more confident in my game,” Patrick said. ”It’s nice for the confidence. I think my worked my way up and earned that spot. I think it’s easier to get into games and get in the flow of it more playing a little more.”

Ice time isn’t a problem for Matthews and Laine, who are key drivers of play for the Leafs and Jets. Toronto finally got going against the Bruins in large part because of Matthews, who said he felt an earthquake in his feet when he scored in Game 3 and let out a scream to match.

After Laine scored the tying goal in Game 1 against Minnesota in what became the Jets franchise’s first playoff victory, he motioned to fans for cheers before jumping into the glass. The Finnish winger is used to scoring goals – and a lot of them – but in the playoffs it’s even more special.

”It was maybe a little bit nicer,” Laine said. ”I was saving my goals and celebrations for the playoffs. Now I can celly (celebrate) a little bit harder.”

AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
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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.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.