Is the pressure getting to Alex Ovechkin?

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Ovi4.jpgAside from the story of how Tomas Plekanec actually backed up his big
words — something you don’t see everyday in professional sports — the
story this morning is surrounding Alex Ovechkin and his zero shots on
goal.

The Capitals were foiled by much more than just Ovechkin
being a non-factor for much of the game
, but for their captain — and
someone who is supposedly Hart Trophy worthy — to disappear for long
stretches has to be concerning. It’s much more so than just looking at
the numbers and determining that he didn’t have a good game; anyone
watching could see that Ovechkin had a tough time being his normally
high-energy, dominant self.

Bruce Boudreau pulled no punches,
saying after the game “He didn’t play good. The gapped on real well on
him but I don’t think Alex played very well.”

So what was it? Was
Ovechkin just not good, or did the Canadiens just do one heck of a job
taking away the Capitals’ best player?

Jaroslav Spacek is happy
with how his team played Ovechkin, but had nothing but praise for the
man everyone is asking about today. From
Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Blog
:

“He was playing good,” Spacek said. “His shots didn’t
get through,
that’s the problem, but I think we did a great job against their first
line all night long. We didn’t give them too much space. If he will be
shooting from the blue line, he’s probably not that effective. And we
had the guys to step up on him all the time. So when you see the third
guy, fourth guy coming back, that’s even better for our defensemen.”

It’s
worth noting that Ovechkin wasn’t exactly shotless. He had five blocked
shots and three that missed the net, the most total attempts on the
team aside from Mike Knuble and Alex Semin.

That being said,
there’s no doubt that something just isn’t right. He had the second most
ice time on the team last night (26:26), but it certainly didn’t seem
like he was on the ice for that amount of time while watching the game.
He wasn’t pushing the play, wasn’t aggressively attacking the defense up
the wing like we’ve seen time and time again, and instead seemed intent
on trying to continuously take the puck across the slot as he looked
for an opening. There never was one.

Is Ovechkin hurt, or is this
something mental? He just hasn’t been the same since the Olympics
disappointment, and you have to wonder if the pressure is starting to
get to him. He’s no longer the free wheeling, aggressive, fun-loving
hockey player that has dominated so many games. He was calm, quiet and a
bit off during practice leading up to last night’s game, stating he was
saving his emotions for the game; that emotional side of him never
showed up.

This isn’t to pin the loss on Ovechkin; far from it. As
David Getz of Japers’ Rink noted last night
, Ovechkin, Semin and Mike
Green all had off nights with just eight shots on goal between the
three. The Capitals will need the entire team to step up, but in the end
it’s Ovechkin that can make the difference.

He’s supposedly the
best player in the NHL, one who has the ability to completely take over a
game. If the Capitals are to avoid one hell of an upset, they’ll need
him to find that emotional core that he’s used all season long.

Kulikov returns to increasingly healthy Sabres lineup

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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No one’s going to confuse Dmitry Kulikov with Jack Eichel, but the Buffalo Sabres are likely happy to have him back after a long absence, too.

The Sabres have been on an upward trend lately (5-2-2 in their last nine games), and now they get a key defenseman back against the Washington Capitals on Friday night.

Kulikov last played on Nov. 9 and hasn’t recorded a point in 12 games, making for a tough start to his stint with the Sabres. Maybe he’ll begin to get a little more traction with his new team tonight?

He’s far from the only returning Buffalo player, either, as Josh Gorges and Nicolas Deslauriers are also back in the mix. Kulikov is slated to be on the Sabres’ second pairing with Cody Franson.

Buffalo sent Brendan Guhle to the AHL to make room for these tweaks.

With Foligno out sick, Columbus gives Bjorkstrand another shot

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 13:  Oliver Bjorkstrand #28 of the Columbus Blue Jackets lines up for a face-off during the game against the Boston Bruins on October 13, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets will be without captain Nick Foligno because of an illness on Friday, opening up an opportunity for interesting prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand.

The team tweeted out his linemates as Matt Calvert and Lukas Sedlak as a solid fourth line facing the Detroit Red Wings.

He failed to generate much (zero points, two shots on goal) in three games so far with Columbus this season, receiving about 25 minutes of ice time over that span.

With eight goals and 12 points in 19 AHL games so far in 2016-17, there’s the thought that he could eventually make the next step to becoming a decent contributor for the Blue Jackets.

Perhaps this will constitute his first real step in that direction?

Apparently this is a pretty abrupt situation for the 21-year-old:

Gretzky defends McDavid’s outburst after Manning incident

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - OCTOBER 23: Wayne Gretzky (L) and Dale Hawerchuk drop the puck in a ceremonial face-off between Blake Wheeler #26 and Connor McDavid #97 during the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic hockey game on October 23, 2016 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Fred Greenslade /Getty Images)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

“I guess we can put the whole ‘if he did it’ thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that,” said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers’ loss.

“I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player,” Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. “I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I’m a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that.”

Gretzky didn’t mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

“And Connor, he’s going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him,” Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. “He’s been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he’s always responded and done his part.”

Related: McDavid accuses ‘classless’ Manning of injuring him on purpose

Bishop trying not to let contract situation affect his play

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 06: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on against the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Two of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 6, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)
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Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and that makes it particularly striking to see his numbers a quarter of the way through 2016-17.

After 18 starts, Bishop is 8-10-1 with a .906 save percentage. He got the hook after two periods last night at Amalie Arena, where he surrendered four goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-1 loss.

Last night marked the third time in his last five starts that he’d surrendered at least four goals, and one of the goals he allowed looked like this:

So, do things feel different this season?

“I feel fine,” Bishop said today, per Lightning Insider. “We go back and watch the games and technically it’s all there. There is really no difference from the way I’ve played the last couple of years to now. I don’t like saying this, but it’s been a strange season with goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players. So I think if you took some of those away, the numbers would be pretty similar to years past. I would like to get the wins a little higher.”

Bishop, of course, is a pending unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy appears to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay. On July 1, the 22-year-old re-signed through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy is also 6-2-1 with a .929 save percentage.

So in that regard, it’s a bit like the situation we’re seeing in New York, where Henrik Lundqvist is struggling and Antti Raanta is thriving.

The difference is Lundqvist isn’t going to be looking for a new team anytime soon. Remember that Bishop “was close” to being traded to Calgary in the offseason. He could still end up there in free agency, depending if Brian Elliott bounces back.

Bishop says he’s trying not to let his contract situation affect his state of mind; however, he admits he’d “be lying if I said I never thought about it.”

“It’s definitely there in the back of your head,” he said.

The Lightning host the Penguins on Saturday.

Expect Vasilevskiy to start that one.