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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Matt Cullen is well-versed in the
electricity that creeps into a locker room when the games dwindle down to a
precious few and the playoffs loom. It’s one of the main reasons the veteran
Pittsburgh Penguins center — at 42 the NHL’s oldest player — keeps coming back
for more.When Cullen arrived at work Sunday for Pittsburgh’s pivotal showdown
with Carolina Minnesota Wild
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 , the vibe was unmistakable and familiar. So was
the result.Cullen scored a goal and added an assist and the Penguins took a
major step toward locking up a postseason spot for a 13th consecutive year with
a 3-1 victory over the Hurricanes.“We had a real playoff feel in here which is
good and the energy in the building was great,” Cullen said. “It was a big game
for our team. Obviously it’s a huge two points.”Pittsburgh sits at 97 points
with three games left in the regular season. The Penguins need two points — be
it a victory in any fashion, a pair of overtime losses or any single loss by
Montreal — to extend the NHL’s longest active postseason streak.“I think we
still have some really good opportunities in front of us,” Pittsburgh coach Mike
Sullivan said. “Until that regular season is over, we’ve got to continue to grab
points. We’ve got to make the playoffs first and foremost. Then we can look at
the opportunities beyond. This was a big opportunity tonight.”Carolina’s bid to
reach the postseason for the first time in a decade took a hit. The loss
combined with Columbus’ win in Buffalo dropped the Hurricanes to the second
wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Carolina has 93 points, just one ahead
of the Canadiens with a week to go.Jaccob Slavin’s power-play goal with just
under eight minutes to go spoiled Murray’s bid for a shutout but by then the
Penguins were firmly in control. Curtis McElhinney finished with 25 saves while
losing for the third time in four starts. A day removed from a lopsided win in
Philadelphia, the Hurricanes spent the first two periods running in place
against Pittsburgh.“Just didn’t have any jump, I guess,” Carolina defenseman
Justin Faulk said. “We were pretty flat. We didn’t make smart decisions. It cost
us, I think.”Playing without injured stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the
Penguins relied on their depth and the kind of defensive grit they’ve lacked at
times their at times wildly uneven season. Carolina came in leading the NHL in
shots per game (34.5) and while it did manage to eventually get 38 on Murray,
Pittsburgh blocked 23 others and clogged the ice in front of its goaltender.“We
didn’t really get to our game until about halfway through and then it’s pretty
much you’re just chasing it and it’s tough,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour
said.Cullen and fourth-line mates Garrett Wilson and Adam Johnson provided the
Penguins an early jolt. Wilson put the Penguins in front just past the midway
point of the first period, crashing the net following a feed by Cullen from the
corner and then jabbing at the puck until it emerged from the pile of bodies
surrounding McElhinney and slid across the goal line.Cullen, playing in his
1,513th career game — one shy of tying Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman for 19th on
the NHL’s all-time list — doubled Pittsburgh’s advantage late in the first
period when he and Olli Maatta broke in on McElhinney 2-on-1. Cullen looked at
Maatta Minnesota Wild
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 , but opted to zip a wrist shot from the right
circle that sailed over McElhinney’s right arm and into the net for his seventh
of the season.Patric Hornqvist, who left briefly in the first period when his
head hit the boards while getting checked by Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton, earned
a measure of revenge 46 seconds into the third period when he collected a blind
backhanded drop pass from Dominik Simon and beat McElhinney from the bottom of
the right circle. The goal was Hornqvist’s 18th of the year and his first
non-power play tally since Jan. 6.Carolina mustered little in response.The
Hurricanes didn’t reach double digits on the shot counter until the middle of
the second period. When Carolina did find space, Murray either came up with the
stop or the Hurricanes couldn’t get the bounce they needed.NOTES: Hurricanes D
Calvin de Haan exited with an upper-body injury after getting pushed to the ice
by Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel. De Haan will return to Carolina for tests. …
Letang, Malkin, F Zach Aston-Reese and D Chad Ruhwedel all skated Sunday
morning, but remain out with injuries. … The Hurricanes went 1 for 2 on the
power play. The Penguins were 0 for 1. … The teams split the season series 2-2.
… Johnson picked up the first two assists of his career for Pittsburgh.UP
NEXTHurricanes: Visit Toronto on Tuesday.Penguins: Begin a home-and-home series
with the Red Wings on Tuesday in Detroit. GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona
Coyotes lost four of their first five games, three by shutout.Another lost
season in the desert apparently on the way.The thing about those early games,
though, is they were close, unlike the start of last season. The Coyotes played
well, just couldn’t seem to catch the right break or get pucks to find the
net.Once the pucks started going in, the Coyotes couldn’t seem to miss.Behind a
scoring flurry that would have been unthinkable on previous teams, Arizona is
off to its best 11-game start (6-5-0) since 2013-14.“I really like all our
games; we played well in all of them, we competed well Minnesota Wild Hats
 ,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan said. “Yeah, we made some
mistakes that cost us some goals early on, but we’re learning quickly.”It’s been
a long-arching curve.The Coyotes have struggled since reaching the 2012 Western
Conference finals, seeming to be in perpetual rebuilding mode. Arizona got last
season off to a miserable start, needing 12 games to win for the first time to
fall out of playoff contention before the season’s first month was over.The
Coyotes played better the last two months of the 2017-18 season and hoped it
would carry over into this season.It did not, at least early.Arizona opened the
season with a pair of shutout losses and had four goals its first five games —
three of those in its lone win.Then something clicked.The Coyotes beat the
Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 on the road on Oct. 18 and, after a 5-3 loss at Winnipeg,
have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams.With Tuesday night’s 5-1 home win over
Ottawa, the Coyotes have outscored opponents 20-4 during a four-game winning
streak. Arizona has 27 goals over a six-game span, a first for the franchise
since 2006-07.“The guys were sticking with it and practicing like the goals
would come,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “You have to have that mentality
in this league. We’ve got good mojo right now and we don’t want to wreck
it.”Arizona has been among the league leaders in shots per game since the start
of the season and the shooting percentage has dramatically increased since the
minuscule 1.6 to start the season.The Coyotes seemed to get some bad breaks on
shots early in the season, hitting posts and crossbars, having pucks squirt out
of their reach in the offensive zone. They also didn’t seem to create their own
luck by getting traffic in front of the crease and putting shots in spots where
goalies could make easy saves.The breaks have been coming the past few games,
such as Stepan’s blue line, short-handed goal that skittered off the ice and
through Ottawa goalie Mike Condon’s pads .Arizona also has been creating some of
that luck with hard, smart play Custom Minnesota
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 , getting traffic in front of opposing goaltenders and
more precise shooting.“You earn your bounces,” Stepan said. “We had some bounces
going the other way early on in the year, now they’re starting to go our way and
in a few weeks, they’re going to come back the other way. Good teams find ways
to win any given night regardless of the bounces.”With the scoring boost, the
Coyotes have continued to play stingy defense, the one area that helped them get
through the difficult times in the past.Arizona has limited good chances against
and its goalies, Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, have been superb, combining to
give the Coyotes the NHL’s best goals-against average at 1.91. Raanta, healthy
after an injury-filled first season in the desert, is fourth in the NHL with a
1.99 goals-against average.The Coyotes also have the NHL’s second-best penalty
kill at 90.6 percent and have a league-high six short-handed goals to three
power-play goals allowed. Stepan’s goal against Ottawa gave Arizona short-handed
goals in three straight games for the second time in franchise history (1985).
The Coyotes are 11th NHL team since 1933 to have five short-handed goals in
three games.“When we’re sticking with our game plan and everybody is dialed in,
we’re a really good team,” Raanta said. “As a goalie, it’s a dream to play
behind that team.”Especially when they’re scoring goals, as they are now.

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