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Ekman-Larsson poised to lead Coyotes into the future

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson knew the desert was where he wanted to stay, yet consulted with former Coyotes captain Shane Doan before signing a long-term extension.

Doan had been in similar situations before, debating whether to stay in the only place he had ever played or head off someplace else for more money or a better chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

Doan kept true to the Coyotes throughout his career, spending his entire 21-year career with the same franchise, yet didn’t try to sway his former teammate one way or another during a 20-minute call.

”I just asked how he looked at when he was playing, so that helped me a lot,” Ekman-Larsson said. ”It was really nice to have a guy who had been in the same situation a little bit. He didn’t say what I was going to do. You should just do what’s best for you and what you’re feeling comfortable with. After that phone call, it felt great to agree on the long term.”

The long term was an eight-year contract extension signed last week that will pay Ekman-Larsson an average of $8.25 million per year. The 26-year-old Swede may have been able to command more money on the open market when his current contract expires after the 2018-19 season, but dollar signs were not what he was after.

Stability, comfortable surroundings and a hope for the future was what Ekman-Larsson sought. The Coyotes are the only team he’s played for and they have a roster filled with up-and-coming players, so it was the only natural fit in his mind.

”It’s only money. It’s not going to make you happier, so the money situation was never a problem,” Ekman-Larsson said. ”I didn’t even think about it. I’m just happy to be a part of this team and this community and the future.”

Since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Coyotes have regressed, becoming one of the NHL’s worst teams. They’ve been in rebuilding mode since that run but appear to be on the road to becoming a playoff-contending team again with a slew of moves and draft picks by general manager John Chayka.

Locking up Ekman-Larsson for the long term keeps a key, veteran piece to the puzzle in place, providing the Coyotes with leadership and rarely matched skill from the blue line.

”It’s a huge moment for our entire organization. Our fans should be proud, our ownership should be proud, our staff and everyone involved,” Chayka said after Ekman-Larsson’s signing. ”A superstar-caliber player has the option to go to maybe any of the 31 teams and felt the loyalty and felt the belief enough in what we’re doing to sign on long term. He’s a leader on and off the ice and a special person, a special player.”

Since being taken with the sixth overall pick of the 2009 NHL draft, Ekman-Larsson has established himself as one of the NHL’s most skilled defensemen. He has eclipsed 20 goals twice during eight NHL seasons and is annually among the league leaders in assists by a defenseman, finishing with at least 19 each of the past seven seasons.

Ekman-Larsson got the 2017-18 season off to a slow start, with eight goals and 22 assists the first four months while posting the league’s worst plus/minus rating.

The start came with extenuating circumstances.

Not only was he playing in a new system for a new coach in Rick Tocchet, Ekman-Larsson was still trying to come to grips with the death of his mother, Annika. She battled cancer for 10 years before succumbing and he missed the final three games of the 2016-17 season to be with his family. The weight of her death carried into the start of the 2017-18 season.

”Obviously, losing your mom is something I will have to live with the rest of my life,” he said. ”It’s not going to take one year, it’s not going to take 10 years, it’s something I’m going to have with me until I die. There’s days that you feel better about it and there’s days where you’re feeling sad about it, so it’s up and down a little bit. It’s OK to be that way, but at the same time it helps to do what I love doing, being around my teammates and great people. That’s something I really appreciate.”

Ekman-Larsson played better at the end of last season as he understood Tocchet’s system more, finishing with 14 goals and 28 assists while playing all 82 games. He expects the comfort level to increase for the upcoming season – and beyond, now that he has a long-term contract in place.

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Aleksander Barkov can’t stop scoring ridiculous goals for the Panthers

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How’s your week going? For Aleksander Barkov, it’s been quite good.

The Florida Panthers captain has been on an offensive tear, scoring five goals and registering nine points in three games. In each of those three games he’s scored a highlight-reel goal.

Let’s take a look.

Sunday

The 2018-19 goal of the year competition might have ended Sunday afternoon when Barkov drove to the net and went between-the-legs to beat Carey Price.

He would end the night with his second career hat trick.

“I’ve seen those [goals] in the YouTube and in highlights, and I was just dreaming about maybe one day I can score that kind of goal,” Barkov said afterward. “I think I’ve tried that like 17 times in my career. It worked [for] the first time. I’m happy, but, of course, more importantly we got the two points.”

Tuesday

Continuing to add to his highlight reel, Barkov took a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau and brought it between-his-legs and nonchalantly tucked it under Buffalo Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark’s pad.

“I was kind of trying to look for a pass until the end,” Barkov said. “Then I just tried to jam it in the goalie’s pads, maybe get a rebound. Then, behind the net, I saw the puck was in the net. I would call it a lucky goal.”

Thursday

In a back-and-forth game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Barkov evened the score after a wild deflection from a Evgenii Dadonov shot-pass that was going very, very wide.

At only 23 years old, we have plenty of years left to enjoy the wonder that Barkov brings to the ice every night.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hurricanes’ Justin Williams scores with face, then scores with stick

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Go to the net and good things will happen. Coaches tell players that all the time with the hope that good positioning will result in a goal. Justin Williams learned that the hard way Thursday night, joining a club that Connor Garland of the Arizona Coyotes entered earlier this season.

As the Carolina Hurricanes continue chasing one of the Eastern Conference’s wild card spots, they visited the Florida Panthers and opened the scoring in unusual fashion.

Just a few minutes into the first period, Brett Pesce sent a shot toward the Panthers’ net and it ended up deflecting off Williams’ face and past James Reimer into the Florida net. Williams, as you see, crumpled to the ice in a scary scene.

Williams would leave the game with blood dripping from his face and return only a few minutes. Later in the game the Hurricanes captain, with a nostril full of gauze, would use his stick to score and snap a 3-3 tie:

That second goal would stand as the winner and give the Hurricanes a 4-3 victory and help them move past the Columbus Blue Jackets for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kucherov needs only 62 games to reach 100 points

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Nikita Kucherov‘s magnificent season continued on Thursday night when he became the first player in the NHL to hit the 100 point mark this season.

He reached it by scoring his 30th goal of the season to tie their game against the Buffalo Sabres, 1-1, midway through the second period.

This is a big deal for a couple of reasons.

For one, it is the second year in a row Kucherov has hit the century mark and makes him one of just six active players in the NHL to have multiple 100 point seasons, joining a list that includes only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Joe Thornton, and Connor McDavid.

What makes this one so special for Kucherov is that he only needed 62 games to reach it, an unprecedented accomplishment in this era of the NHL. You have to go all the way back to the 1995-96 season to find the last time a player hit the 100-point mark this quickly when it was done by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Before them you have to go back to 1994 when Wayne Gretzky did it for the Los Angeles Kings.

Obviously some pretty good company to be with.

Given the way Kucherov is not only running away with the scoring title, but is also having arguably the best offensive season the league has seen in 25 years, and is doing it for what is by far the best team in the NHL he would seem to be the runaway favorite to win the MVP award this season.

It would be awfully difficult to build an argument against him at this point.

Related: Lightning’s Kucherov is having season for the ages

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Predators host Kings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Nashville Predators could end up being one of the biggest buyers during the impending trade deadline, but as far as Thursday’s concerned, they hope to beat the Los Angeles Kings.

If Nashville wins this game, they’d climb over the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Central Division, at least for a little while.

[More on the Predators having the Central in their sights]

The Kings are on a five-game losing streak, so it will be a challenge to keep their heads high entering a four-game road trip. For all we know, we might see certain Kings players suit up for L.A. for the last time (or last times) before possibly being moved. That thought likely also cross the minds of various low and mid-level Predators, in the event that Nashville has to give up parts in a splashy move.

Fans can also witness the slightly under-the-radar dominance of the Predators’ top line, although it’s possible that Viktor Arvidsson might not be able to suit up alongside Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen on Thursday.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Los Angeles Kings at Nashville Predators
Where: T-Mobile Arena
When: Thursday, Feb. 21, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Kings-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

KINGS
Alex IafalloAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Brendan LeipsicJeff CarterTyler Toffoli
Trevor LewisAdrian KempeIlya Kovalchuk
Kyle CliffordMichael AmadioAustin Wagner

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty
Oscar FantenbergPaul LaDue
Dion PhaneufMatt Roy

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

PREDATORS
Filip Forsberg — Ryan Johansen — Kevin Fiala
Colton SissonsKyle TurrisCalle Jarnkrok
Brian BoyleNick BoninoRyan Hartman
Cody McLeodFrederick GaudreauRocco Grimaldi

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Dan HamhuisYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

Alex Faust (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen with Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.

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.