Home is where the ‘L’ is? Home teams struggling in playoffs

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Having home ice is supposed to be an advantage in the NHL. So far in the 2018 playoffs, the only guarantee to playing at home is a monochrome backdrop provided by fans in team-specific T-shirts.

Consider the following:

– The Pittsburgh Penguins finished with the second-worst road record among the 16 playoff teams. Then the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions ripped off three wins in Philadelphia to kickstart their pursuit of a three-peat and backed it up with another victory in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series in Washington.

– The Capitals dropped Games 1 and 2 at home in overtime against Columbus in the opening round only to beat the Blue Jackets three times in Columbus on their way to advancing to the NHL’s final eight for the fourth consecutive year.

– Winnipeg posted an NHL-high 32 wins on home ice. One of their seven regulation home losses, however, was a wild 6-5 setback at the hands of Nashville in February. The Predators’ triumph helped them win the Presidents Trophy and guarantee home ice through the playoffs. The Jets, of course, won the series opener in Nashville to steal that advantage.

Home teams are just 26-26 so far in the playoffs heading into Tuesday, when Pittsburgh hosts Washington (7:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN) and Winnipeg welcomes the Predators (8 p.m., CNBC). Both series are tied after the visitors claimed their respective openers on the road.

Asked why the games have become a coin flip regardless of venue, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan – whose team was outplayed at PPG Paints Arena by Philadelphia in Game 2 and Game 5 in the opening round – admits he can’t really come up with a reason.

”I don’t know if I have answer for you that makes sense,” Sullivan said Monday. ”Sometimes when teams go on the road, they have tendency to simplify their game … I know our team historically has been very good at home and I believe we will continue to do that.”

If Pittsburgh wants to become the first franchise in 35 years to win three straight titles, it doesn’t really have much of a choice. Though Sullivan is right in that the Penguins are pretty good at PPG Paints Arena, they’ve only been so-so when facing the Capitals. Washington won Game 3 and Game 6 in Pittsburgh during the 2017 postseason and wrapped up its third straight Metropolitan Division title with a 3-1 win there on April 1.

”You’ve got to create your own momentum, but it gives you good memories,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ”If you have to go back into the memory bank, at least we have one. Those are things that you can bank on maybe for some positive feeling going forward.”

Predators forward Nick Bonino couldn’t offer up any specifics about Nashville’s victory in Winnipeg even though it happened all of two months ago, saying only ”I’m sure we played a solid road game.”

The road does offer the visiting team a sense of routine. There aren’t as many friends or family around. No kids waking up in the middle of the night. No traffic to deal with in most places. Just wake up, suit up and go play.

”You go out to dinner, there’s not really any distractions,” Bonino said. ”You’re there for hockey.”

And the hockey in both series has been spectacular. Nashville avoided heading to Canada in an 0-2 hole with a thrilling double-overtime escape in Game 2. Washington responded after blowing a two-goal, third-period lead in Game 1 by winning a predictably chippy Game 2.

That chippiness included a questionable hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson to Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumolin’s head in the second period that sent Dumolin into the concussion protocol. Dumolin skated with his teammates on Monday and his status – much like the status of star center Evgeni Malkin (lower body) and Carl Hagelin (upper body) – won’t be determined until Tuesday.

Wilson was not penalized for the hit and received a pass from the league when it opted not to schedule a disciplinary hearing to review the play. While Dumolin said he didn’t see Wilson coming because he was bracing for a hit by Alex Ovechkin, Wilson claimed Dumolin turned his head just before impact leaving Wilson with no time to react.

”He stops and turns and I’m kind of right there as (Ovechkin) is coming in pretty aggressively,” Wilson said. ”It’s a collision.”

Pittsburgh star Kris Letang wasn’t surprised Wilson’s hit wasn’t deemed illegal. Why?

”Because we don’t know anymore (what’s legal and illegal),” he said.

And we don’t know what a given night is going to bring anymore either. Home teams get to sleep in their beds. They get the luxury of the last line change before faceoffs, allowing them to get the matchups they want. And so far it has made zero difference in the result.

”It doesn’t have to be pretty always on the road,” Predators defenseman Matt Irwin said. ”I think we embrace that.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington, D.C., and AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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.