Hurricanes keep pace in Central Division; Key points slip away for Blackhawks

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The Hurricanes and Blackhawks are in the middle of very different Central Division races, but Thursday’s game was important to both teams.

You could see the difference in the level of these two teams at plenty of points. Carolina controlled the puck for long swaths of the contest, especially early on.

That said, the Blackhawks found a way to stick with it — until the dying moments, and that’s what must make the Hurricanes’ 4-3 win hurt. Especially since it happened during regulation.

Hurricanes in race atop Central; Blackhawks in fight for last Central playoff spot

Thursday represented a busy day in the Central Division, even beyond Hurricanes vs. Blackhawks.

In Carolina’s case, the other top Central Division teams won their games.

Updated standings atop the Central Division

Lightning: 25-9-2, 52 points in 36 games played (beat Blue Jackets 3-2)
Panthers: 24-9-4, 52 points in 37 GP (won 3-2 in overtime vs. Detroit)
Hurricanes: 24-8-3, 51 points in 35 GP (regulation win vs. Blackhawks)

It would have been even more satisfying for the ‘Canes if they won while one or more of their opponents slipped. But, with a game or two in hand, and how much this went down to the wire, this is a satisfying result for Carolina.

Updated race for fourth Central Division playoff spot

Predators: 19-18-1, 39 points in 38 GP (16 regulation/overtime wins) – Stars broke their winning streak in regulation
Blackhawks: 17-6-5, 39 points in 38 GP (15 ROW) – again, lost to Hurricanes in regulation
Blue Jackets: 14-16-8, 36 points in 38 GP (12 ROW) – fell to Lightning in regulation
Stars: 12-12-10, 34 points in 34 GP (11 ROW) – beat the Predators in regulation

As you can see, the Blackhawks could have stepped into that fourth Central Division playoff spot — at least for now — if they merely made it to overtime. Yep, that’s painful.

Still, the Blackhawks can take some solace in that they didn’t lose ground to the Predators or Blue Jackets.

Of course, the Stars make things more complicated, being that they’re only five points behind the Blackhawks and Predators (and two behind Columbus) with four games in hand.

From here, Chicago faces the Predators in their next game, take on the Stars twice, and the Blue Jackets twice. The Blackhawks wanted more, but splitting these past two games vs. the Hurricanes is promising enough.

‘Gross hockey’ benefitting Blackhawks vs. Hurricanes?

After the Blackhawks beat the Hurricanes 2-1 on Tuesday despite only firing 16 shots on goal, Rod Brind’Amour called it like many saw it.

“We gave them two goals,” Brind’Amour said, via the AP. “It was kind of a gross hockey game to be honest with you.”

“It wasn’t like we gave much, but we didn’t do enough to win the game.”

Through much of Thursday’s game, it felt like a sequel. Of an already bad horror movie.

Early on, Blackhawks only managed “gross hockey” vs. the Hurricanes. Carolina probably could have been up more than 1-0 through a first period where they generated a 13-3 shots on goal advantage.

When Warren Foegele made it 2-0 just 2:22 into the second period,* it seemed like the Hurricanes might win easily against the Blackhawks. Thanks to an improved pushback from the Blackhawks, and Kevin Lankinen continuing his strong play, this game gradually turned into a nail-biter.

* – Yes, that’s a lot of two’s.

Once it became clear that the Blackhawks might stay in Thursday’s game against the Hurricanes, it seemed like goaltending might be the difference. James Reimer looked shaky at times, while Lankinen made several difficult saves.

The ending changed that mood, though.

Despite looking behind him, Reimer made a key save in the waning moments of the third. Then Jesper Fast put a rebound past Lankinen with about 30 seconds remaining, securing a win that had to really burn a Chicago team that seemed like it might steal a point or two.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.