Here they go again: Panthers hoping for late-season surge

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By Time Reynolds (AP Sports Writer)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are hoping for deja vu.

Sort of.

A year ago, the Panthers shook off a disastrous start to the season and caught fire after the All-Star break – only to miss the playoffs by a single point. This year, they’re heading into the break on a three-game winning streak and playing perhaps their best hockey of the season after spending the first three months of the year sputtering near the bottom of the NHL.

So here they go again, trying for another late and improbable playoff push.

”We have that confidence back, that swagger,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said after a 6-2 win over San Jose on Monday night.

They’ll need more than swagger.

The Panthers were 24-8-2 in the final 34 games last season, getting 50 of a possible 68 points down the stretch. This year, with 34 games left when they return to the ice on Feb. 1, they’ll need a similar run. Florida is 10 points out of the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, and 11 points from catching Boston for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot out of the Atlantic Division.

”I think we are starting to turn the corner,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”We have a long way to go.”

As unlikely as it seems – especially for the Panthers, an often-woebegone franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 – there is a potential path to the postseason.

Florida (20-20-8) has 12 games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 23, and 11 of those are on home ice. That’s the good news. The flip side is this: Of those 12, eight are against teams that are currently in the top half of the NHL, including matchups with Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington, Pittsburgh and Vegas quickly after the All-Star break ends.

”It’s nice to be back to feeling the way I like to feel and the confidence is there,” said Luongo, who has won consecutive starts for the first time in more than a month. ”The guys are playing well in front of me. It’s a two-way street. When the guys play well I feel good and when I feel good the guys play well.”

There is a clear urgency, and it started last week with the team on what was then a seven-game losing skid.

Florida was without Vincent Trocheck for 27 games after he broke his right ankle in November. When he returned to practice last week, the Panthers’ plan was to keep him out until after the break in order to make sure he was fully ready to go.

Trocheck successfully argued otherwise. Not only did he play in three games since returning to practice – in a four-day span, no less – the Panthers went 3-0-0 in those games, clearly sparked by his comeback.

”We’re having fun,” said Trocheck, who has two goals and two assists since returning. ”It’s fun to win some hockey games. It’s been tough for us this year in that department. To go into a break like this with a little bit of momentum, having some fun, it’s going to make a big difference for the second half.”

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Bruins look to stay healthy after mid-winter break

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By Matt Kalman (Associated Press)

BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins almost made it into their mid-winter break completely healthy.

Forward Joakim Nordstrom is recovering from a fractured lower leg and goaltender Tuukka Rask is dealing with a concussion sustained against the New York Rangers on Saturday. Otherwise, the Bruins’ lineup from the start of the season was on the ice when they completed their 49th game with a 3-2 loss to the Rangers.

A nearly full complement of players had the Bruins excited about what they could accomplish after the break. They’re in third place (27-17-5) behind Tampa Bay and Toronto in the Atlantic Division despite fighting injuries throughout the first half.

”I think we can continue to build on some of the success we had in the beginning of the season,” said defenseman Kevan Miller, who missed 26 games because of injuries. ”We think we still have some areas in our game that we need to work on. But I think the break will help a little bit, some guys get their legs.”

The eight-day vacation, which combines the NHL-mandated break and the NHL All-Star break, possibly came at just the right time because of Rask’s head injury. He was bowled over by Rangers forward Filip Chytil in the midst of the wing scoring a goal on an end-to-end rush in the first period on Saturday.

Rask is 14-8-3 with a .919 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against this season and has formed an impressive goaltending tandem with Jaroslav Halak. He signed as an unrestricted free agent last summer and is 13-9-2 with a .919 save percentage and 2.47 GAA. When Rask struggled early in the season and took a four-day leave of absence to attend to a personal matter, Halak carried the load. Rask has returned the favor after Halak struggled in the weeks leading up to the break.

Their performances were a big reason the Bruins overcame their injury issues, including a 16-game absence of four-time Selke Trophy-winning center Patrice Bergeron and 19 games without captain Zdeno Chara. The Bruins are tied for second place in the NHL at 2.61 goals allowed per game.

”Our goaltending . they’ve been healthy, a balanced workload,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You look at the numbers, they’re almost identical now. So you’re getting a chance to win every night.”

Cassidy noted their back-to-back record has been good – finishing 6-1-1 in the second game.

”Guys pick each other up around here,” he said. ”So they understand if someone, a major part of the lineup is out, they’ve got to pick it up.”

More than a week off between games could give Rask and others a chance to heal up for the stretch run and could prevent an unfortunate slide in the standings. The Bruins followed a 6-1-0 stretch with a 1-2-1 record before the break, including regulation losses to the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, teams 10 points or more behind them in the standings.

Boston ranks just 17th in goals scored per game (2.90) and leans a bit too much on its second-ranked power play (27.2 percent).

”I thought we had some really good games,” Chara said. ”You know we had some games we could’ve played better, but overall I think we’re in a good position going into the break. It’s always very important to play better and keep improving the closer you get to the playoffs. You demand to play the best hockey.”

Concussion lawsuit settlement deadline for players extended

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The deadline for retired players to opt in to the $18.9 million settlement of the concussion lawsuit against the NHL has been extended.

Players’ attorneys confirmed the extension to The Associated Press on Friday night. It was not immediately clear what the new deadline was.

The 318 former players who sued the league and accused it of failing to protect them from head injuries or warning them of the risks involved with playing initially had until the Friday to opt in to the settlement that was reached 75 days ago.

Each player who opts in would receive $22,000 and could be eligible for up to $75,000 in medical treatment. The settlement is significantly less than the billion-dollar agreement reached between the NFL and its former players on the same issue of head injuries.

Charles Zimmerman, a lead attorney for players, said earlier in the day participation is ”very good” so far, adding there were still some players who needed to be contacted for their decisions.

”The vast majority of eligible retired players have agreed to participate in the proposed NHL concussion settlement,” players’ lawyers said in a statement. ”Plaintiffs’ counsel, however, have encountered difficulties reaching some eligible retired players to discuss the settlement. Thus, at the request of plaintiffs’ counsel, the NHL has agreed to extend the participation deadline to allow completion of those communications.”

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly referred the matter to plaintiffs’ lawyers and said the NHL would have no comment.

Daniel Carcillo, a vocal critic of the league and the settlement, said he would not be opting in and knew more 10-12 other former players who also were not. Carcillo said Friday he wanted his day in court with the league but didn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to opt in and take the $22,000.

Carcillo said he has fielded calls from more than 20 heads of individual teams’ alumni associations and that he has tried to tell any player who asks the facts of the lawsuit without injecting his opinion. Carcillo pointed to

”If 22’s enough for you and you need it, then go ahead,” said Carcillo, who played 474 regular-season and playoff games from 2007-2015. ”I won’t judge anybody who takes it. I don’t judge the guys who (played) five games and they saw an opportunity. But I also say this so that people understand why it’s such a disrespectful number because right now (the NHL doesn’t) feel that threatened.”

Reed Larson, who played 936 NHL regular-season and playoff games, said he signed on to be part of the settlement but understood why some players with serious health problems decided not to because the money wouldn’t cut it for them. There is a clause in the settlement that allows the NHL to terminate it if 100 percent of players don’t accept, but Larson said lawyers are not concerned.

”They think everything will go ahead and move ahead and they don’t see any reason why it won’t,” Larson said.

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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Berglund feels at peace after quitting Sabres

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Patrik Berglund tells Sweden’s Hockeypuls.se he feels at peace and has no regrets after abruptly ending his hockey career by walking away from the Buffalo Sabres a little over two months into the season.

”I just knew I had to go home to find myself again,” Berglund told the publication in speaking for the first time since the Sabres terminated the final three-and-a-half years left on his contract last month. The Sabres acted after suspending Berglund on Dec. 15 when he failed to report for the game at Washington.

Berglund was interviewed at his home in Vasteras, Sweden. The story was published in Swedish on Friday and translated by Google.

Berglund says he lost some of his passion for hockey last summer after being traded to Buffalo by St. Louis. Berglund was the Blues first-round draft pick in 2006 and spent 10 seasons in St. Louis.

He says he had difficulty handling the move, and eventually became tired of trying to hide his frustrations.

Berglund says his emotions had nothing to do with playing in Buffalo, and he apologized to the Sabres for betraying them.

Berglund provides no indication regarding his future plans. He added he’s not concerned about walking away from the remainder of his five-year, $19.25 million contract.

”My contract, and all the money I gave up means nothing,” Berglund said. ”I can give up that amount at any time to feel good inside.”

Golden Knights’ second act shaping up to rival first

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LAS VEGAS — Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch had to have faith.

When the Vegas Golden Knights decided to send them to the minors at the start of last season, Theodore and Tuch chose to believe what general manager George McPhee told them.

”The message was that we were part of the future of this team and he definitely saw us in that long-term plan,” Theodore said.

Within weeks, they were back in the NHL as part of the fastest-starting expansion team in history and played significant roles in the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Each player got a long-term contract before he played his first game this season, and they weren’t alone as McPhee went about the process of turning Vegas from a one-year wonder into a perennial title contender.

He locked up 75-point forward Jonathan Marchessault through 2024, signed face-of-the-franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year extension, inked defenseman Nate Schmidt to a six-year contract that begins next season, signed center Paul Stastny as a free agent and acquired big winger Max Pacioretty in a trade with Montreal. Those moves have paid off so far with Vegas five points back of first place in the Pacific Division and looking like its second act could rival its first.

”We have a couple guys signed long term, and it’s fun because it means that we have a core and we’re building something,” Marchessault said. ”You want to be part of a story as a hockey player, and it feels like we’re part of one here.”

The Golden Knights’ story was a fairy tale: A team that looked on paper like it would be among the worst in the league won its division and steamrolled to the final before losing to McPhee’s former team, the Washington Capitals, in five games. Marchessault said he felt in June like this team could be a legitimate threat for years to come.

McPhee’s job was to ensure that. The veteran executive who got to build the Golden Knights from scratch through a wildly successful expansion draft understood he had the benefit of not having to dig out from bad contracts. But he also shouldered the burden of drawing up a whole host of new ones after one season during which seemingly everyone overachieved.

”We did have a lot of work to do because most of the guys that we acquired were either free agents or were on one-year deals and their deals had matured and it was time to negotiate again,” McPhee said. ”And we just thought, we know what they are, we’re comfortable projecting what they will be in the future and we had the cap space, so why not use it now because cap space is like perishable inventory. If you don’t use it, it’s gone at the end of the year. We just wanted some cost certainty moving forward, so it would help us to plan for things better in the future.”

Fleury got $7 million a year, Schmidt, $5.95 million, Theodore, $5.2 million, Marchessault, $5 million and Tuch, $4.75 million. Fleury leads the NHL with 26 wins, Schmidt has played over 23 minutes a game since returning from suspension, Theodore leads Vegas defensemen with 21 points and Tuch and Marchessault are 1-2 on the team in scoring.

Beyond cost certainty, it was money smartly spent to keep morale up, raise expectations and get bang for owner Bill Foley’s buck.

”When you have a guy believe in you like that, sign you to that kind of a term, you don’t want to make him look bad and I think every night you want to go out and you want to play your best,” said Theodore, who is under contract through 2025. ”I think it’s been paying off for us and hopefully will in the future.”

Even though only wingers James Neal and David Perron and defenseman Luca Sbisa aren’t back from the core group that went to the Cup final, McPhee couldn’t stand pat and think success would repeat itself. He consciously added Stastny, Pacioretty and Nick Holden to replace the lost production and provide an influx of talent.

”When you’re a couple games away from winning, I think you’ve got to try and do whatever you can,” Schmidt said. ”You have to add something in order to beat the best teams.”

The way Pacioretty looks at it, McPhee wasn’t scanning the aisles. He was shopping off a specific list. They weren’t part of the playoff run – Stastny was on the Winnipeg Jets team that Vegas beat in the Western Conference final – but brought some more balance.

”They wanted guys like me and Stas to come in and play a little bit of a two-way game,” Pacioretty said. ”That’s how we want to help our team. We know that especially offensively that this team last year had guys who were relied upon every night to create. And we still want to be those guys coming in, but we also know that there’s areas on both sides of the puck that we can help this team.”

Injuries have hampered Pacioretty and Stastny so far, but they and the Golden Knights will really be judged in the playoffs. After falling three victories short of a championship, players feel like they have what it takes to win this time and for years to come.

”As our owner said at the beginning of the year, we just don’t want to be a winning team. We want to have a winning franchise,” Marchessault said. ”Last year we really felt like we have something special, and we have some unfinished business.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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