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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.”

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Flames-Jets stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Flames-Jets stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Flames and Jets. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Flames-Jets Game 2 stream at 2:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Flames jumped out to a 1-0 series lead, defeating the Jets 4-1 on Saturday. Andrew Copp opened the scoring for Winnipeg before the Flames scored four unanswered goals.

Calgary outshot Winnipeg 33-18 and went 2-for-4 on the power play and 7-for-7 on the penalty kill.

Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine both left Game 1 early with injuries. Scheifele suffered a leg injury and Laine left after a collision with Mark Giordano.

Scheifele went down awkwardly near the boards after a hit from Matthew Tkachuk. While Tkachuk contends there was nothing malicious about the contact, Jets coach Paul Maurice saw it differently: “It was a filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg. He went after the back of the leg. He could have cut his Achilles. He could have ended the man’s career. It’s an absolutely filthy, disgusting hit.”

It was reported late Sunday night that Scheifele’s injury was not long term, but that he and Laine were doubtful for Game 2

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN (live look-in)
ON THE CALL: Chris Cuthbert, Louie DeBrusk
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flames-Jets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (Flames lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets vs. Flames, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames vs. Jets, 4:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Canucks’ Ferland, Wild’s Kunin fined for Game 1 altercation

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The NHL’s department of player safety announced on Monday that Minnesota Wild forward Luke Kunin and Vancouver Canucks forward Micheal Ferland were fined for an incident that took place in the third period of Sunday’s game. The Wild won the game 3-0.

Kunin was fined $1,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct, while Ferland was given a $5,000 fine for spearing Minnesota’s Ryan Hartman on the bench.

“I could see it from Ferland’s standpoint,” Hartman said Monday. “He’s the kind of guy that runs on emotion. Stuff happens.”

The incident took place in front of the team benches just after Ferland finished a check on Minnesota’s Marcus Foligno.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

Ferland started the game by fighting Foligno just two minutes into the first period.

Game 2 of the best-of-five series will take place on Tuesday night (10:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

MORE:
Wild vs. Canucks series preview
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Hurricanes-Rangers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Hurricanes-Rangers stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Hurricanes and Rangers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Hurricanes-Rangers Game 2 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

In the first shot of the game, Jaccob Slavin scored 61 seconds in for the first NHL goal in an official game in almost five months. Sebastian Aho, who led Carolina in goals (38) and points (66) during the regular season, then scored in the second period to give the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead. The Rangers kept things close but ultimately could not overcome an 0-for-7 showing on the power play as Carolina defeated New York for the first time in five tries this season.

Perhaps the biggest development from Game 1 was the fact that the Rangers all-time winningest goalie was actually the one in net – as many expected newcomer Igor Shesterkin in that position. With Shesterkin, who watched Game 1 from the stands, deemed “unfit to play” – Henrik Lundqvist started his 128th consecutive postseason game with the Rangers – a single-team streak only bettered by Martin Brodeur (194 with New Jersey) and Patrick Roy (133 with Colorado).

Lundqvist will get the Game 2 start as Shesterkin remains out. Alexandar Georgiev will again serve as the backup.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: New York Rangers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Gord Miller, Anson Carter
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Hurricanes-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers (Hurricanes lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes*

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Sopel finds post-NHL purpose in sharing story about dyslexia

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Tears streamed down Brent Sopel’s face as he watched himself on screen, summoning the courage to detail the darkest moments of his lifelong struggles with dyslexia.

The stinging memories of being taunted by classmates. The empty feelings of worthlessness that drained Sopel even while winning the Stanley Cup as a defenseman for the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks.

And then there were his battles with alcohol and drug abuse upon retiring from pro hockey following a 17-career in which he played for six NHL teams, two more in Russia and lastly with the AHL Chicago Wolves in 2015.

Sopel outlined his story in a documentary, ”Brent Sopel: Here to Change the World.” The 25-minute film was recently released to promote his charitable foundation dedicated to helping others deal the challenges and stigma of dyslexia.

”It was tough. I cried through it,” Sopel said. ”It brings back a lot of raw emotions. I’ve got scars that will never go away.”

The film begins with the former player recalling the embarrassment he felt in ninth grade, when asked to read aloud during English class, which Sopel described as being ”probably one of the worst days of my life.” The documentary ends with an uplifting message, with Sopel saying: ”Hi, I’m Brent Sopel, here to change the world.”

This isn’t the first time Sopel has shared his story. Difficult as it might be for him to relive, it most certainly won’t be the last.

”No matter what battle you’re in, alcoholism, depression, dyslexia, when you’re in that battle, you think you’re alone. But I have to tell you, you’re not,” said Sopel, now 3 1/2 years sober. ”I never want another kid to feel the way I do each and every day.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, dyslexia is a learning disorder affecting the brain’s ability to process language, and leads to difficulty reading and writing. Though there is no cure for dyslexia, which affects nearly one in five people, its challenges can be overcome through tutoring, especially when diagnosed at an early age.

Growing up in Saskatchewan, Sopel didn’t know what was wrong with him. He turned to being a class clown and bully at school, something he will always regret. Hockey was his refuge.

”If I didn’t have hockey, I’d be dead,” he said.

Selected by Vancouver in the sixth round of the 1995 draft, Sopel became known for his grit and fearless shot-blocking. ”Petrified” about what his life would be without hockey, Sopel played through numerous injuries, including a broken hand.

The career highlight came with him raising the Cup in 2010, in what proved to be his second-to-last NHL season. And yet, the moment wasn’t entirely fulfilling.

”It felt great, but empty,” Sopel said.

Whatever glory he felt was washed away once his career was over and he spiraled into substance abuse and depression, with little prospect of landing a job because he lacked an education. There were days he couldn’t get out of bed.

”Drugs and alcohol became my best friend,” he said in the documentary. ”I was very close to death.”

Sopel credits family and friends for staying by him and intervening. He now has reason to get out of bed by dedicating himself to helping others, including coaching youth teams in the Chicago area.

”It wasn’t easy. But you know what, I’m here and in a better place,” said Sopel, whose now-teenage daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in the second grade. ”I have a purpose, and I think this is my purpose, the foundation and I’m telling it the way it is.”

Sopel’s message has been heard by many, and resonated with Kaid Oliver, a 20-year-old Western Hockey League forward, who is dyslexic. Oliver was reluctant to discuss dealing with dyslexia, even with a teammate who has the disability, until an assistant coach introduced him to Sopel.

”For someone to talk openly about it, and be willing to put themselves out there, it’s awesome what Brent’s doing,” he said.

Before encountering Sopel, Oliver could never have envisioned speaking about dyslexia so publicly.

”Even my tutor, she’s basically family and I’ve been working with her since I was super young. She was surprised I’m talking so openly about it,” he said. ”It’s not something I’m proud of, but at the same time, it’s something I have to deal with, and something people should know that they’re not alone.”

He’s taken up reading books for the first time, and signed up for a college course. Once resigned to working in his family’s business after he was done with hockey, Oliver can dare to see other job possibilities now.

”I feel more comfortable with life after hockey, or thinking about that portion,” said Oliver, whose father is dyslexic.

Sopel wouldn’t change a thing about his life by sharing his experiences.

”You take a look at Kaid and Jack (Rodman), who are on the video. They both were alone until they told their stories,” Sopel said. ”That’s why I’m telling them my story. It’s for those two and every other kid and 20% of the population to connect the dots and say, ‘I’m not alone.”’

He wouldn’t trade what he’s doing today for anything – even a Stanley Cup ring, which he once tried selling.

”It was a childhood dream winning a Stanley Cup,” Sopel said. ”But without a doubt, the legacy of me and my foundation, impacting kids’ lives, is way more important.”