Alex Tanguay, Clarke MacArthur rank among biggest steals from the 2010 free agent crop so far

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After Evgeni Nabokov left for the big bucks in the KHL and potential big-ticket players such as Patrick Marleau re-signed before July 1, last summer’s free agent group seemed like it would begin and end with the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Sure, there were some impact defenseman here and there such as Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis, but for the most part it looked like the season of Kovalchuk.

Of course, you’re probably aware that the Kovalchuk investment has gone more than a little sour. He’s been a bust from an individual standpoint (only 5 goals and 11 points in 26 games with a pitiful -17 rating) while the New Jersey Devils are experiencing a nightmare season as the second worst team in the NHL.

As sports fans, we dream of our teams making splashy signings to reach a whole other level. The fact of the matter is, though, that big free agent acquisitions tend to flame out more often than they succeed. Maybe it’s the change of environment or the increased pressure that comes with those gigantic paychecks, but free agency is just a another type of personnel gambling along with similarly unstable endeavors such as making trades and drafting.

So when we look back to see which teams made the shrewdest moves, it turns out that under-the-radar signings yielded some of the best results. TSN’s Jamie Bell discusses some of the best deals in free agency, which all seem to the similar trait of being less ballyhooed moves. I thought I’d focus on a few of those moves here in this post.

Alex Tanguay

Contract: one-year, $1.7 million cap hit

While Jokinen has just two goals in 25 games so far at the steep price of $3 million per season, Tanguay has been the Flames most consistent forward thus far with 23 points in 28 games, trailing only Jarome Iginla for the team lead. What makes the production all the more valuable is that it comes at the $1.7 million price tag attached to him this year.  Compared to the $6.9 million that the San Jose Sharks are paying Patrick Marleau (a player they paid a premium for before the free agent market opened) to post similar numbers (22 points in 26 games) it appears that the Flames got themselves quite the steal.

Our take: Honestly, I thought the Tampa Bay Lightning would reap big rewards for signing Tanguay to a bargain deal for the 2009-10 season. Instead, such a result took an extra season to come to fruition as the playmaking forward is doing well during his second run with the Calgary Flames.

Clarke MacArthur

Contract: one-year, $1.1 million cap hit.

After sending a third and fourth round draft to the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline to acquire Clarke MacArthur, the Atlanta Thrashers decided that $2.4 million was too high a price to pay to retain him. They chose to walk away from an arbitrator’s decision on his salary, making him an unrestricted free agent. Burke happily swooped in and signed the Alberta native to a one-year, $1.1 million contract and has been reaping the rewards ever since.

Heading in to action Wednesday night, MacArthur leads the Maple Leafs in scoring with 21 points in 26 games and is second only to Kessel in goals. He’s been the club’s most consistent forward so far and has injected a nice mixture of skill and grit playing alongside the likes of Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

Our take: While Tanguay’s nice season has been better than expected yet reasonably foreseeable, I didn’t see MacArthur’s resurgence coming. It seems like his offense has been coming in uneven patches, but at $1.1 million, you cannot complain with 21 points in 26 games.

Other mentions: Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres by the Vancouver Canucks, Colby Armstrong with the Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres’ signing of Jordan Leopold.

Our take: Malhotra’s price tag ($2.5 million) seems a bit steep for a faceoff specialist, although he is bringing a little offense and some solid D to Vancouver. Torres was a big bust in Buffalo but has sporadically sparked the Canucks’ scoring. Armstrong is also a bit pricey ($3 million) but sometimes helps Toronto win games in ways that don’t always show up on the box score.

At least at this point in the season, the big names aren’t producing big results while subtle moves are providing great value. Maybe it’s depressing to consider the fact that the splashy moves can be big mistakes, but it also gives you reason to believe.

Next summer we might just ask this question without a trace of sarcasm: who’s going to sign the next … Clarke MacArthur?

Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round.

Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

“We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

“You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

“We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

“It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

NOTES: Capitals RW Tom Wilson left practice when he took a puck off the left ankle. Trotz called it a stinger and said he was fine. … Ovechkin missed the second half of practice after breaking a skate. … C Lars Eller didn’t skate, with the team calling it a maintenance day.

AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

Karlsson explains how Senators plan on getting to Lundqvist

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.

The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.

“Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.

“I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”

This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency – highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.

He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage – career worsts for the latter two.

However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career postseason shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves – regular season or playoffs – in an overtime loss in Game 2.

Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage – both the best among all goalies. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.

“The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 postseason games.

“It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”

He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec‘s backhand follow attempt in close.

“I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was `don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”

Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).

“They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”

Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenseman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.

“You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”

Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.

“We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”

Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Ducks have better chance to slow McDavid with healthier defensemen

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Trying to stop – or at least inhibitConnor McDavid is likely to be a conundrum for opposing teams for, oh, the next decade or two. Still, it helps matters to at least be near 100 percent.

The Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Calgary Flames (a team with some serious firepower on the blueline and also magician-forward Johnny Gaudreau) in four games despite serious limitations on defense. It seems like they’re getting closer to being their full-fledged selves, as the team website revealed that Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler seem likely to play in Game 1. Also, Sami Vatanen is getting better.

Much has already been made about the Ducks matching up Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano against McDavid, at least when they can.

“We’ll start looking at things and try to come up with some sort of plan,” Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s dynamic. I think with how good he is sometimes you look [past Draisaitl]. Not that he flies under the radar, but he’s a player you have to keep an eye on, too.”

Still, Randy Carlyle faces some interesting choices as far as which blueliners to send out against McDavid.

Fowler is more known for his offensive skills, but his skating ability makes for an intriguing option, at least if he’s close to 100 percent. Lindholm might not get much press just yet, but he’s quietly building a resume as one of the league’s best defenders. It’s a little tricky with them being even somewhat slowed by injuries, though.

For what it’s worth, the Ducks had some success against McDavid in 2016-17, limiting him to zero goals, one assist and just two shots in three regular-season games.

It’s dangerous to put too much weight on such stats, especially considering the small sample size. The bottom line is that Carlyle gets the final change for Games 1 and 2, a potentially key advantage against McDavid and the Oilers.

You know, assuming there’s even an ideal matchup for Anaheim.

Travis Hamonic, Wayne Simmonds are up for Foundation Player Award

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New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic and Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds are skilled players, but they’re the two finalists for the NHL’s Foundation Player Award for their work off the ice.

NHL teams submit their nominations for the award, which is given to the “NHL player who applies the core values of hockey – commitment, perseverance and teamwork – to enrich the lives of people in his community.”

The winner gets $25K to donate to their charity of choice.

Considering all the time players spend giving back, Hamonic and Simmonds both likely deserve recognition.