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Kings hope to get over 1st-round playoff hump with Kovalchuk

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings made one significant addition during the offseason, but the question is whether it was enough to help them advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

While the top teams in the Pacific Division were busy, the Kings mostly stood pat. Their only major move was signing Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing in Russia.

The 35-year old left winger fits a familiar blueprint for the Kings – he’s over 30, has a big body and can control the puck but lacks quickness in getting up ice. Kovalchuk joins what is one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. He will be paired on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

Kovalchuk’s addition should add some punch to an offense that has struggled to score goals. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th out of 30 teams, and their 155 goals in 5-on-5 situations was the third lowest of a team that made the playoffs. They had only four skaters score 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters with three apiece.

Coach John Stevens said at the start of training camp that he was happy with some of the improvements made last year, which included creating more in the middle of the ice and scoring off the rush, but that more progress needs to be made.

”I don’t know if I want to say we want to do a whole lot of things different, but we want to do some things a whole lot better,” he said.

With the addition of Kovalchuk, Kopitar thinks the Kings can continue to build on some of the progress they made last season. He said early in training camp that last season was the best hockey they’ve played in the regular season since winning their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2014.

”I thought we showed more positives than negatives,” he said. ”We’re trying to look forward, draw on the positives and go about our business.”

Here are some other things to watch as Stevens begins his second season in charge:

KOPITAR’S ENCORE: Kopitar finished third in the Hart Trophy voting last season with a career-best 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. It is unlikely that he will repeat those numbers, but he shouldn’t revert to the form of 2016-17, where he struggled and had 52 points, which was the second-lowest of his 12-year NHL career.

SCORING BEYOND THE FIRST LINE: The Kings are hoping some of that comes from center Jeff Carter, who missed 55 games last season due to a lacerated ankle tendon.

Forwards Alex Iafallo (six goals, 11 assists) and Tyler Toffoli are expected to take another step. Toffoli (24 goals, 23 assists) was the only player not on the top line who had more than 16 goals.

COUNTING ON QUICK: Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top goaltenders down the stretch last season with two shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last 11 regular-season starts. Managing Quick’s workload will be more of a priority this season as he usually ranks in the top 10 in minutes played.

Jack Campbell has emerged as Quick’s backup. He earned at least a point in all four of his starts last season and had a 2.47 goals-against average.

THE SCHEDULE: The Kings begin the season with home games against San Jose and Detroit before heading on the road for six of their next nine. They face Southern California rival Anaheim only once before March 9.

AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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    Skinner focused on present in Buffalo rather than future

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    By John Wawrow (AP Sports Writer)

    BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jeff Skinner knows how much the Sabres and their playoff-starved fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

    ”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” the forward memorably said with a laugh in December. ”I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

    And yet, two months later, Skinner is nowhere closer to providing anything resembling a definitive answer regarding where he’ll be playing once his contract expires after this season.

    ”The present is still where we are, and that sort of thing will play itself out,” he said Thursday. ”I think there’s no point in really talking about it now because there’s nothing really to talk about from me on my end.”

    Skinner, however, can’t hide his emotions when asked how much he enjoys Buffalo.

    His eyes brighten and he breaks into wide, toothy smile in saying: ”I like it here. Yeah, I like it.”

    Cast off by Carolina as part of the Hurricanes’ latest rebuilding plan, the three-time 30-goal-scorer and 2011 NHL rookie of the year is approaching career-best numbers since being traded to the Sabres in August.

    He has a team-leading 34 goals – three short of matching a career high – and is second in the NHL behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (38). His seven game-winning goals are second in the NHL and most in Buffalo since Derek Roy had nine in 2008-09. Skinner has been so consistent, his longest goals drought was four games to start the season.

    And he and captain Jack Eichel have been inseparable on a top line that’s played a significant role in keeping Buffalo in playoff contention in a bid to end a seven-year postseason drought, and on a team that finished last in the overall standings in three of the previous five years.

    Despite going 11-15-5 since a 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres (28-21-7) already have 63 points – one more than they had last season – and sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.

    The topic of Skinner’s future is once again rising to the forefront with the NHL’s trade deadline looming on Feb. 25, and after Skinner was spotted having a lengthy conversation with his agent, Don Meehan, following a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

    ”To me it was just checking in,” Skinner said, referring to the meeting. ”No details to discuss. Nothing really to report.”

    As for the approaching trade deadline, Skinner shrugged and said: ”I don’t think about it at all.”

    It remains unlikely the Sabres will consider trading Skinner by Feb. 25.

    General manger Jason Botterill told The Associated Press in December he didn’t consider that date as being a deadline for contract talks. And there has been no indication – publicly or privately – that Botterill’s stance has changed since.

    Botterill has maintained regular contact with Meehan, and has said he wants Skinner to focus on playing and familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. What bolsters Botterill’s hopes is noting how Skinner chose to play in Buffalo by waiving his no-trade clause in a deal the Hurricanes acquired prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks.

    Eichel laughed when asked if he’s aware of Sabres fans campaigning for Skinner to stay.

    ”He has how many goals, 34?” Eichel said. ”I’m sure Sabres fans want him to stay. I mean, would they want him to leave?”

    Eichel’s certainly on board, too.

    ”I’m not Skins’ agent. I’m not our GM, but he’s been a big part of our team this year,” he said. ”You could probably say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

    It will ultimately be up to Skinner to decide.

    One positive is how much the Toronto-born player has enjoyed playing closer to home, and having his family attend games in Buffalo (essentially a two-hour drive) as opposed to Raleigh, North Carolina (roughly a two-hour flight).

    Coach Phil Housley noted Skinner’s proximity to home and family has provided incentive. And it helps playing alongside Eichel.

    ”Jeff finds that open area, he’s a positional player, and Jack seems to find him in those areas,” Housley said. ”They just seem to have a great chemistry together.”

    Skinner must also weigh what offers he might command in free agency at a time more teams are spending less in free agency and committing more salary cap-space to re-signing their own players.

    All that can wait.

    ”As a player, you can only sort of control a small number of things,” Skinner said. ”For us right now, that’s moving on to tomorrow’s game and getting ready for that.”

    More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

    Sam Gagner headed back to Oilers after trade with Canucks

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    The Edmonton Oilers continued shaking up their roster by shipping Ryan Spooner to the Vancouver Canucks for Sam Gagner.

    A day after moving Cam Talbot to the Philadelphia Flyers for Anthony Stolarz, the Oilers made the one-for-one swap hoping  the 29-year-old Gagner can rekindle his scoring touch from his early days in Edmonton.

    Gagner spent the first seven seasons of his NHL with the Oilers where he posted five consecutive 40-point seasons to start his career and was a big contributor on the power play. He did hit 18 goals and 50 points two years ago in Columbus, but was slowly phased out after moving on to th Canucks last season. He’s only played seven games in Vancouver this season, spending most of his time on loan to the AHL Toronto Marlies where he scored 12 goals and recorded 37 points in 45 games. The team is hoping to get him to Brooklyn in time for Saturday night’s game against the Islanders.

    Spooner’s travels continue as he’s now joins his third NHL team of the season. After signing a two-year deal with the New York Rangers in the summer, they then shipped him to the Oilers for Ryan Strome in November. (The Rangers retained $900K of Spooner’s salary in the deal.)

    It’s one of those “change of scenery” deals we see often in the NHL. In this case, the scenery is familar for Gagner and the Oilers are hoping he can be a beneficial presence as they try to salvage the mess that is this season.

    MORE: PHT NHL Trade Tracker

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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.

    What’s better than a goalie goal? A double OT goalie goal

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    Everyone loves a goalie goal — a true goalie goal. Not one of those bad passes that turns into a goal and the netminder gets credit because they touched it last.

    Goaltender Anthony Hurtubise scored a goal Friday night for his St. Thomas Stars of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. But it wasn’t just any goalie goal. The 20-year-old scored his in double overtime. Yes, double overtime. It was the only tally in the 1-0 win over the Komoka Kings.

    Here’s Hurtubise describing how it went down inside the Joe Thornton Community Centre via Instagram:

    We were tied 0-0 with about a minute and a half left in the second over time (3 on 3, if no one scores it’s a tie game, each team gets a point). Other team pulled their goalie to try and get two points as there are only a few games left before playoffs. I saw the goalie go to the bench while they were on the rush, made a glove save and took my shot.

    (Komoka has already secured a playoff spot but clearly were trying to make up ground on fifth-place LaSalle.)

    And not only did Hurtubise score the game-winning overtime goal, he also stopped 27 shots to record a shutout. Pretty nice way to spend a Friday night.

    Stick-tap Chris Peters

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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.

    The Buzzer: Schneider snaps winless run; Halak posts fourth shutout

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    Three stars

    1. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

    He didn’t start the game, and coming into it, he hadn’t won since December 2017. But when Nico Hischier‘s shot off a rebound crossed the line in overtime, Schneider’s nightmare run between the pipes was over.

    Schneider made 15 saves in relief of Keith Kinkaid, who allowed four goals on 17 shots. The Devils trailed 4-1 at that points but rattled off three unanswered to force overtime. Schneider did his job, making a couple great saves to give New Jersey a chance.

    And that’s all they needed as Schneider stopped his winless streak at 21 games.

    This is what relief looks like:

    2. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins

    Beating the Anaheim Ducks these days isn’t much of a feat. That said, shutting out any team in the NHL most certainly is.

    Halak has his fourth shutout of the season, tying him for third most in the NHL, after stopping all 30 shots sent his way in a 3-0 win.

    The Bruins have now won four straight and have points in nine of their past 10. They’re just a point back of second place in the Atlantic, currently occupied by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and more importantly, five points up on the Montreal Canadiens, who are in the first wildcard spot.

    3. Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes

    Niederreiter had himself an interesting night. He scored twice in a 3-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers to push his goal total to eight in 12 games since joining the Hurricanes from the Minnesota Wild.

    He’s been a point-per-game player in Carolina, adding four assists in that span. The scoring has been a welcomed addition for the Canes.

    Niederreiter was also on the receiving end of a hit from behind, and on the giving end of one, too:

    Highlights of the night

    Bat flip, run the bases:

    Tic-tac-goal:

    Factoids

    Scores

    Rangers 6, Sabres 2
    Hurricanes 3, Oilers 1
    Devils 5, Wild 4 (OT)
    Bruins 3, Ducks 0


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck