Locked in since January, path to Cup through East isn’t easy

Two months after the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference were locked in before the NHL even reached the All-Star break, Rod Brind’Amour set Carolina’s lineup for a game against Pittsburgh with the future in mind.

“Everything you do is built towards the Stanley Cup,” veteran defenseman Ian Cole said. “(Brind’Amour has) been saying: ”I’m not here for the short term. I know we’re going to make the playoffs. This is how do we best put ourselves in a position to win the Stanley Cup five months from now.′ It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Now, it’s a sprint for the Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals that have made up the top eight in the East since Jan. 2. Florida and Carolina emerged as division winners, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers are favored to come out of the East and win the Stanley Cup, but no team’s path to the final is an easy one.

“We’ve got to beat everybody at some point,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said Sunday. “It’s a new season anyway. Regardless where you finished after 82, it’s what you do now.”

That has been true for almost two decades in the East, where the top seed going into the playoffs has not reached the final since the salary cap era began in 2005. Only one Presidents’ Trophy winner in that time has won the Stanley Cup in an 82-game season over that time.

Their first opponent, the Capitals, know that pain all too well after finishing atop the NHL standings in 2016 and 2017 before bowing out in the second round and then winning the Cup the next year when expectations were low. The same goes this time around as heavy underdogs against Florida in a stacked bracket with the winner of Tampa Bay-Toronto waiting in the second round.

“The East is full of really good teams: high offensive, octane teams, and it’s really anyone’s game,” Washington winger Tom Wilson said. “It’s up for grabs.”

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1 FLORIDA vs. 4 WASHINGTON

The Panthers are -355 favorites on FanDuel Sportsbook, which also has a five-game series as the outcome with the lowest odds. Florida has the firepower to blow the Capitals out after leading the league in scoring, and getting through this quickly would be advantageous.

The longer the series goes, the more it benefits Washington, which is a bigger and more physical team that will try to impose its will on an opponent with no recent history of playoff success.

Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky is Florida’s guy in net, though rookie Spencer Knight has played well especially recently and could also see some action. The Capitals are one of a handful of teams with major goaltending questions and are almost expected to use Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov.

“They know that just based on the way that it’s been here for two years,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “We have counted on and relied on both goaltenders. And they’ve done a good job.”

Alex Ovechkin is expected to play for the Capitals after missing the final three games of the regular season with what they’re calling an upper-body injury. Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad also looks in line to return after being out the past six weeks with an upper-body injury.

2 TORONTO vs. 3 TAMPA BAY

The Lightning have won the Stanley Cup the past two years. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series with this core or even gotten past the first round as a franchise since 2004.

Toronto is due to break through eventually, and much like Florida its success is predicted on scoring. Auston Matthews led the league with 60 goals in the regular season and he’s just one star among John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

The Maple Leafs go in with Jack Campbell as their projected starting goalie and Erik Kallgren next in line. Their playoff hopes rely on one of them being solid.

Tampa Bay’s core has played more high-level hockey than anyone on earth the past two years, and fatigue may take its toll. But after the Lightning saw the big trophy they hoisted twice again recently at the White House amid a late-season surge, they look poised to make another deep run.

“The good thing with our group is the hunger’s still there,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We don’t need any kind of extra motivation.”

METROPOLITAN DIVISON

1 CAROLINA vs. 4 BOSTON

The Hurricanes beginning the playoffs without starter Frederik Andersen because of injury threatens to throw off the balance of the series that begins Monday. Brind’Amour said Andersen would not play in Game 1 Monday and there’s no timetable for the Dane’s return.

Now the biggest question for Carolina becomes whether the rest of the team can make up for Andersen’s absence in front of either Antti Raanta or rookie Pyotr Kochetkov.

The Hurricanes lost in the second round last year, got knocked out by Boston in the bubble in the same round in 2020 and were swept by the Bruins in the conference final in 2019. Nothing close to that will be acceptable this time around.

“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Cole said recently. “That is it. Anything short of that is a failure of a season. So from Day One, our goal has been to win the Stanley Cup. Nothing else is acceptable.”

Boston can similarly set that lofty goal thanks to high-end talent like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. The Bruins are leaning on rookie Jeremy Swayman in net but also got elite defenseman Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline and are built to win now.

2 N.Y. RANGERS vs. 3 PITTSBURGH

Not counting the expanded, 24-team tournament two years ago, the Rangers are in the traditional playoffs for the first time since 2017. New York is ahead of schedule on a rebuild in its first season under new coach Gerard Gallant.

That’s because of the play of Igor Shesterkin, who posted a league-best 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. If he keeps up that kind of play and can steal games, the Rangers could do anything this spring.

They also dominated during the regular season against the Penguins, who will be without injured starter Tristan Jarry for the start of the playoffs and have turned to Casey DeSmith to make his NHL playoff debut Tuesday in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.

“I’ve had playoff experience at every level (except for the NHL),” DeSmith said. “But the bottom line is nothing really changes as far as (being a goalie) and the mindset. It’s really just another hockey game. Obviously, it means a little bit more. But as far as mindset and approach, everything stays the same.”

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    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

    Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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    TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

    The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

    The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

    The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

    The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.