Here they go again: Panthers hoping for late-season surge

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By Time Reynolds (AP Sports Writer)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are hoping for deja vu.

Sort of.

A year ago, the Panthers shook off a disastrous start to the season and caught fire after the All-Star break – only to miss the playoffs by a single point. This year, they’re heading into the break on a three-game winning streak and playing perhaps their best hockey of the season after spending the first three months of the year sputtering near the bottom of the NHL.

So here they go again, trying for another late and improbable playoff push.

”We have that confidence back, that swagger,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said after a 6-2 win over San Jose on Monday night.

They’ll need more than swagger.

The Panthers were 24-8-2 in the final 34 games last season, getting 50 of a possible 68 points down the stretch. This year, with 34 games left when they return to the ice on Feb. 1, they’ll need a similar run. Florida is 10 points out of the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, and 11 points from catching Boston for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot out of the Atlantic Division.

”I think we are starting to turn the corner,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”We have a long way to go.”

As unlikely as it seems – especially for the Panthers, an often-woebegone franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 – there is a potential path to the postseason.

Florida (20-20-8) has 12 games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 23, and 11 of those are on home ice. That’s the good news. The flip side is this: Of those 12, eight are against teams that are currently in the top half of the NHL, including matchups with Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington, Pittsburgh and Vegas quickly after the All-Star break ends.

”It’s nice to be back to feeling the way I like to feel and the confidence is there,” said Luongo, who has won consecutive starts for the first time in more than a month. ”The guys are playing well in front of me. It’s a two-way street. When the guys play well I feel good and when I feel good the guys play well.”

There is a clear urgency, and it started last week with the team on what was then a seven-game losing skid.

Florida was without Vincent Trocheck for 27 games after he broke his right ankle in November. When he returned to practice last week, the Panthers’ plan was to keep him out until after the break in order to make sure he was fully ready to go.

Trocheck successfully argued otherwise. Not only did he play in three games since returning to practice – in a four-day span, no less – the Panthers went 3-0-0 in those games, clearly sparked by his comeback.

”We’re having fun,” said Trocheck, who has two goals and two assists since returning. ”It’s fun to win some hockey games. It’s been tough for us this year in that department. To go into a break like this with a little bit of momentum, having some fun, it’s going to make a big difference for the second half.”

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

Sharks’ Erik Karlsson to return after missing nine games

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The San Jose Sharks have been one of the most dominant teams in the league over the past two months and will be getting even more good news on Saturday night when defender Erik Karlsson makes his return to the lineup after missing the team’s past nine games.

Karlsson last appeared in a game for the Sharks on Jan. 16 and had playing some of his best hockey of the season prior to the injury, recording 28 points over the previous 20 games.

It took him a while for his offensive production to get back to his normal career level, but Karlsson has been an impact player all season after arriving in an offseason trade with the Ottawa Senators. Among defenders that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Karlsson is in the top-five in both on-ice shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential.

His 43 total points are also among the top-10 even though he has, again, missed the past nine games.

So, yeah, he has been pretty outstanding no matter metric you want to look at.

The Sharks still managed to go 6-3-0 without him during that stretch and enter Saturday’s game having won six of their past seven games, a pretty strong statement on the overall quality of the team and the depth they have assembled. They are one of the NHL’s best teams, a true Stanley Cup contender, and now they are getting one of the best players in the league back.

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.

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.