Wild return from break ready to make final push for playoffs

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild were playing at the beginning of the season like they were destined for the draft lottery, with the possibility of a high first-round pick hovering as a tantalizing prize for a franchise long mired in the middle of the pack in need of a jump.

The Wild, though, have proven time and again they’re too good to tank. With three wins in their last four games before the All-Star break and subsequent bye week, they made sure they’ll at least be in the thick of the chase for spots in the playoffs during the final nine weeks of the regular season.

”I think they’re going to put a push on. We have been pretty resilient, if we take away the first seven games of the year. We seem to play, other than Pittsburgh, pretty good against the good teams,” said coach Bruce Boudreau, recalling the 7-3 loss on Jan. 14 and the 7-4 defeat on Oct. 12 to the Penguins.

The Wild, who resume play on Saturday night against Boston for their first action in 10 days, have recovered well from their 1-6 start. Though they’re in 12th place in the Western Conference, they began the day on Friday five points out of a playoff spot with games in hand on most of the teams in front of them. The problem is Nashville, Winnipeg and Chicago are ahead of them, too, in the crowd of teams on the cusp of the wild card spots.

”I actually think that’s a good side to be on, because it gives us that urgency to push and not just hold on,” left wing Jason Zucker said after practice on Friday.

The good news for Minnesota is only defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis has separated from the pack, with catching Colorado or Dallas for a top-three finish in the Central Division still an attainable feat. That’s going to require the kind of hot streak that has been in short supply for the Wild this season, though. They went 9-1-3 over a 13-game stretch from Nov. 14-Dec. 14.

Last year, when the Wild’s streak of six straight appearances in the playoffs ended, they were in third place in the Central Division during their break. They were in control of a postseason spot until mid-March and wound up 11th in the Western Conference.

”Every team has to create their own story,” captain Mikko Koivu said. ”I think for us the mentality is that we can’t worry about other teams or look the scores and how every team is doing. It’s all about us right now, and we have to get that confidence back up again.”

Blurring the outlook a bit is the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24, but first-year general manager Bill Guerin is unlikely to make any major changes if the Wild are still in contention then. Their current collection of long-term contracts and no-trade clauses are also prohibitive of a potential tear-down.

Zucker had two goals and two assists over the last three games before the break, getting his rhythm back after a broken right leg cost him 10 games and beginning to forge some chemistry with new second-line teammates Victor Rask and Kevin Fiala.

”If we’re healthy, I’m liking a lot of the fits right now. The idea, though, is for us to win we need 19 guys. We don’t have Connor McDavid if 17 guys aren’t going, and that’s taking nothing away from our players. I love it when we have everybody playing and everybody contributing,” Boudreau said.

Blackhawks F Katchouk will be sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced Sunday.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.