Women’s hockey looks to keep momentum after Rivalry Series

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Women’s hockey has been in the spotlight the past couple weeks with the Rivalry Series and the NHL’s All-Star weekend.

It’s valuable exposure in a non-Olympic year, and the big challenge is trying to sustain the momentum.

With the five-game series between the United States and Canada concluding on Saturday and progress toward a viable league at a standstill, the next big event won’t happen until March 31, when the World Championships begin in Canada.

“The last few weeks have been special for players and fans but hopefully these opportunities continue to build,” said U.S. forward Hillary Knight, who had three goals in the series. “You can get on a treadmill and run until you are blue in the face or get on a line and sprint back and forth but there is nothing like playing in games and being in game shape. It’s challenging but every single day we know what our responsibilities are.”

The National Women’s Hockey League has five teams in the U.S., but the top American and Canadian players are boycotting because they don’t believe it is financially viable. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association was formed last year and has held a couple showcases for players to remain in game shape. One is scheduled for Philadelphia this month and plans remain in the works for another in Arizona before the World Championships.

The players who took part in the NHL All-Star Skills event and 3-on-3 exhibition game were all members of the PWHPA. But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he isn’t interested in starting a women’s league while one is still operating.

“We all love this game so much to not figure it out and grind through this year to leave this game better than we entered it,” U.S. forward Kendall Coyne Schofield said. “You soak in the moments you’re together because more times than not you’re alone and you’re passing to the boards or you’re passing to a little rubber band that’s passing back to you.”

While a new league might be at least a couple years away, one way to increase exposure might be extending the length of the Rivalry Series. It was three games last year and five games this year. Players on both teams said they would welcome going to seven games next year.

Each of the games in this year’s series were televised in the U.S. and Canada, which also helps with getting increased exposure.

“We’re definitely trying to make the most of the exposure,” Canada forward Blayre Turnbull said. “We only get on television three to five times a year and it is about finding more outlets. We don’t get the luxury of playing in a league or getting two or three games a week.”

Saturday’s finale at the Honda Center drew 13,320, which is the most to view the national team in the U.S. It surpassed the previous mark of 10,158 for a 2002 game against Canada in Detroit.

Molly Schaus – a former U.S. goaltender and two-time Olympian – was the driving force behind ticket sales and getting the game in Southern California.

Coyne Schofield said that the crowd and game, won by the U.S. 4-3 in overtime, was a harbinger of future games on a bigger stage.

“Tonight the Ducks set the tone and proved to the rest of the NHL clubs that you can host a women’s hockey game in your building and sell it,” she said. “Molly proved to a lot of people that didn’t believe this building could hold 13,000 for women’s hockey.”

The U.S. will go into the World Championships with momentum after winning four of five against their rival as well as being the defending champion. Canada remains in a bit of a transition after Troy Ryan took over as coach last month. The U.S. has won eight of the last 11 against Canada.

“We’re a confident team. No doubt about it,” U.S. coach Bob Corkum said.

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.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.