Avs’ Michael Hutchinson turning into unlikely playoff hero

Before he was thrust into the spotlight ahead of Game 5, Michael Hutchinson’s playoff experience had been limited to the American Hockey League.

The Colorado Avalanche goaltender played 25 Calder Cup games with the Toronto Marlies, St. John’s IceCaps and Providence Bruins. During his three best NHL seasons while with the Winnipeg Jets, Hutchinson wasn’t able to experience the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That lack of experience couldn’t be given consideration by Jared Bednar when he turned to the 30-year-old netminder. Philipp Grubauer, injured in Game 1, isn’t returning anytime soon. Pavel Francouz is also out. Hutchinson went from being a No. 3 with a perch up high in Rogers Place for games to playing a vital role in Colorado’s Second Round series comeback versus the Stars.

Hutchinson entered this series in relief of Francouz in Game 4. After Francouz was deemed “unfit to play” for Game 5, Hutchinson got the start and was given a five-goal first period from his teammates as a welcoming gift during the Avs’ 6-3 win against the Dallas Stars. He followed that up by stopping 27 out of 28 shots to force Friday’s Game 7 (4 p.m. ET, USA Network; livestream).

That victory put Hutchinson in an interesting class. He became the seventh goaltender in NHL playoff to record his first two postseason wins with his team facing elimination. (Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko would become the eighth later that night). The rest of the list includes Jacques Plante, Robbie Moore, Frank Pietrangelo, Wade Flaherty, Manny Fernandez, and Michael Leighton.

Little did Hutchinson or any of us know he would be starting a Game 7 with a conference final berth on the line. But 2020 has thrown us our share of knuckle pucks, right? Getting to this point has been a journey that saw him spend time in the Panthers’ and Maple Leafs’ organizations the past two seasons before being dealt to Colorado in February.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“A lot of hockey is just being in the right place at the right time, and being able to take advantage of certain opportunities that come up,” Hutchinson said. “This whole situation, with the bubble and everything going on, is so absurd and surreal at the same time. I’ve been able to play quite a few NHL games, practice with teams for quite a few years. I’ve always felt like my game was in a place where, if I got an opportunity I could be successful. Now, the guys in front of me, winning these last two games is on them. As a goalie, when you have a team that works that hard in front of you, it makes my job a lot easier.”

Since his days as part of an NHL tandem were put on hold, Hutchinson has been a steady backup wherever he’s gone. The chances to play haven’t been plenty, but seizing an opportunity when presented has been something he’s been prepared to do.

“My career has been a long journey, sent down and called up a bunch of times,” said Hutchinson. “There are always some moments when you get sent down when you think you’re never going to play another NHL game, but those moments, you put them behind you. Just keep working hard and trying to be a good teammate.”

Hutchinson’s coach can relate to his travels. Bednar spent most of his professional playing career in the ECHL before getting into coaching at age 30. His chance to lead an NHL bench didn’t come for 14 years, and it only happened after Patrick Roy’s abrupt resignation in Aug. 2016.

[NHL Second Round schedule]

Given his own background, Bednar can relate to Hutchinson’s story.

“I love it,” the Avs coach said. “It’s not just for Hutch, but for all the guys that don’t have an easy path. But they want it. And they stick to it. And they buy into their dream, they invest in themselves and continue to battle to play at the highest level they possibly can, and then they eventually get a chance. There’s value in those players, because they appreciate what they have.

“Playing in the best league in the world, playing this game for a living. You have a healthy respect for what it takes to get here, and when you get here you don’t want to let it go. They tend to give it their all every single night. There are lots of ups and downs in guys’ careers. It’s not an easy league to get to, and certainly not an easy league to stay in. But if you respect the game, and you give it the effort it deserves, you come to appreciate it.

“I couldn’t be more happy for this guy. He’s just a great teammate, a great person. It makes him easy to cheer for.”

No. 2 Avalanche vs. No. 3 Stars (Series tied 3-3)

Stars 5, Avalanche 3 (recap)
Stars 5, Avalanche 2 (recap)
Avalanche 6, Stars 4 (recap)
Stars 5, Avalanche 4 (recap)
Avalanche 6, Stars 3 (recap)
Avalanche 4, Stars 1 (recap)
Game 7: Friday, Sept. 4, 4 p.m. ET – USA Network (livestream)

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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.

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    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 Friday 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

    Rasmus Sandin
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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.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”