Alex Ovechkin

Penguins-Capitals Winter Classic rematch looks a bit different this time around

When we last saw the Penguins and Capitals it was on the ice on Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day for the Winter Classic. At the time, both teams were playing well and the Capitals eventually came away the victors that evening with a 3-1 win. Times have changed in the time just over a month since then and when they meet up at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, you might have trouble recognizing each team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out with injuries as is rookie Mark Letestu and the Pens have adopted a more hard-nosed brand of hockey, a style that’s won them five in a row heading into today’s game. The Penguins offense hasn’t been prolific but is instead proving to be timely while their team defense has stiffened up as the Penguins have had shutouts in two of their last five wins. Even though the Penguins are still rolling out there with Jordan Staal, these aren’t the same Penguins we’re accustomed to seeing with the high-flying talents of Crosby and Malkin.

Instead, the goals are coming from the likes of Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, and rookie Dustin Jeffrey. If you had any of these guys penciled in at the start of the year to be offensive leaders for Pittsburgh, perhaps your time would be better spent picking out lottery numbers. The fact that the Penguins have rallied together without their star centers speaks loudly to the ability of coach Dan Bylsma to keep the team focused on the matter at hand and to the rest of the players for knowing when they need to step up the most. It may not be the pretty and highlight-filled hockey we’re accustomed to seeing from the Penguins, but it’s getting the job done as the Penguins are just behind Philadelphia for the top spot not just in the division but also in the Eastern Conference.

The boat the Capitals find themselves in is a different one. They haven’t been felled by significant injuries (Alex Semin’s absence has been tricky for them though) but instead are still searching for their way through doing things differently on defense as well as trying to find ways to get Alex Ovechkin out of his goal-scoring slump this year.

While the goals aren’t as numerous as they have been in the past, the points are still coming and the Caps dominating win over Tampa Bay the other night was one of their best games of the year. In that game, both Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom each tallied four points (Ovechkin with 1 goal, 3 assists; Backstrom with 2 goals and 2 assists). Ovechkin’s game has changed a bit as he’s not quite playing like the slap-shooting, sniping master from the outside and is turning into a bit of a bull on the ice.

Rather than lurking in the perimeter, Ovechkin is rushing the net more and making defenses and goalies alike uncomfortable with his large, fast presence. By making his own space on the ice, his ability to be held off the score sheet will become more difficult to do once again. By proxy, Backstrom’s numbers are improving as long as Ovechkin continues to do things his way rather than taking what opposing defenses give him. That subtle alteration to Ovechkin’s game will take a toll physically, but he’s also a guy that’s never shied away from anyone ever. Letting him loose like that could unleash the inner power forward in him.

That said, it’s not as if both Ovechkin and Backstrom aren’t producing. Ovechkin has 55 points this year (20 g, 35 a) while Backstrom has 50 (14 g, 36 a) but if they’re going to help out their team that is otherwise producing erratically, they need to be the guys that keep putting the puck in the net.

Living off the secondary production takes its toll after a while and in the case of the Capitals they don’t have any excuses for not getting premiere production from their stars. The Penguins, meanwhile, wish they could just have their guys back. The fact that these two teams are each in second place in their division and on the crash course to face each other in the playoffs makes almost too much sense.

Penguins, Sharks discuss bumpy road to Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 29: Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks addresses the media during the NHL Stanley Cup Final Media Day at Consol Energy Center on May 29, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) It wasn’t supposed to take the San Jose Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup Final. It wasn’t supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Pittsburgh Penguins back to a destination many figured they’d become a fixture at after winning it all in 2009.

Not that either side is complaining.

Certainly not the Sharks, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL’s biggest stage will finally end Monday night when the puck drops for Game 1. Certainly not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating Detroit seven years ago but has spent a significant portion of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career and fending off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often failed to translate into regular mid-June parade through the heart of the city.

Maybe the Penguins should have returned to the Cup Final before now. The fact they didn’t makes the bumpy path the franchise and its superstar captain took to get here seem worth it.

“I think I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things,” Crosby said. “I think now having gone through those things I definitely appreciate it more. I think I realize how tough it is to get to this point.”

It’s a sentiment not lost on the Sharks, who became one of the NHL’s most consistent winners shortly after coming into the league in 1991. Yet spring after spring, optimism would morph into disappointment. The nadir came in 2014, when a 3-0 lead over Los Angeles in the first round somehow turned into a 4-3 loss. The collapse sent the Sharks into a spiral that took a full year to recover from, one that in some ways sowed the seeds for a breakthrough more than two decades in the making.

General manager Doug Wilson tweaked the roster around fixtures Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who remained hopeful San Jose’s window for success hadn’t shut completely even as the postseason meltdowns piled up.

“I always believed that next year was going to be the year, I really did,” Thornton said. “I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple pieces away, and here we are.”

The Penguins, like the Sharks, are a study in near instant alchemy. General manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt the team on the fly after taking over in June, 2014 and with the team sleepwalking last December, fired respected-but-hardly-charismatic Mike Johnston and replaced him with the decidedly harder-edged Mike Sullivan. The results were nearly instantaneous.

Freed to play to its strengths instead of guarding against its weaknesses, Pittsburgh rocketed through the second half of the season and showed the resilience it has sometimes lacked during Crosby’s tenure by rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, dominating Games 6 and 7 to finally earn a shot at bookending the Cup that was supposed to give birth to a dynasty but instead led to years of frustration.

True catharsis for one side is four wins away. Some things to look for over the next two weeks of what promises to be an entertaining final.

FRESH FACES: When the season began, Matt Murray was in the minor leagues. Now the 22-year-old who was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s goalie of the future is now very much the goalie of the present. Pressed into action when veteran Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, Murray held onto the job even after Fleury returned by playing with the steady hand of a guy in his 10th postseason, not his first. San Jose counterpart Martin Jones served as Jonathan Quick‘s backup when the Kings won it all in 2014 and has thrived while playing behind a defense that sometimes doesn’t give him much to do. Jones has faced over 30 shots just four times during the playoffs.

“HBK” IS H-O-T: Pittsburgh’s best line during the playoffs isn’t the one centered by Crosby or Malkin but Nick Bonino, who has teamed with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to produce 17 goals and 28 assists in 18 games. Put together when Malkin missed six weeks with an elbow injury, the trio has given the Penguins the balance they desperately needed after years of being too reliant on their stars for production.

POWERFUL SHARKS: San Jose’s brilliant run to the Finals has been spearheaded by a power play that is converting on 27 percent (17 of 63) of its chances during the playoffs. The Sharks are 9-2 when they score with the man advantage and just 3-4 when it does not.

OLD MEN AND THE C(UP): Both teams have relied heavily on players who began their NHL careers in another millennium. Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, who turns 40 in November, has four goals during the playoffs. Thornton and Marleau, both 36, were taken with the top two picks in the 1997 draft that was held in Pittsburgh while 37-year-old Dainius Zubrus draws stares from younger teammates when he tells them he used to play against Hall of Famer (and current Penguins owner) Mario Lemieux.

“When I say ‘Twenty years ago I was playing against Lemieux, they say ‘I was 2-years-old,'” Zubrus said.

Top prospects Tkachuk, Mitchell power London to 2016 Memorial Cup

RED DEER, AB - MAY 29:  JJ Piccinich #84 of the London Knights (OHL) collides with Jean-Christophe Beaudin #16 of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL) during the Memorial Cup Final on May 29, 2016 at the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The London Knights feature a line full of players with interesting NHL futures, and all three of those forwards came up big on Sunday.

Matthew Tkachuk, Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak combined forces to pull London to a 3-2 overtime win against the Rouyn-Naranda Huskies, winning the 2016 Memorial Cup.

Things looked pretty shaky for London; its winning streak looked like it was in danger with Rouyn-Naranda taking a late 2-1 lead. The Knights failed on what seemed like a golden 5-on-3 opportunity, but they didn’t let that deter them.

Tkachuk scored two goals, Dvorak generated a goal and an assist and Marner was named tournament MVP as the Knights’ 17th consecutive win wrapped up the Memorial Cup for that special group.

Tkachuk (a high-end prospect for the upcoming draft) and Marner (the fourth pick to Toronto back in 2015) are the bigger names, but Dvorak – the 58th pick back in 2014 – came up big, too.

Yes, Thornton and Marleau have been dreaming of a run like this

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 07:  Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after Patrick Marleau (not pictured) scored the game winning goal against Kevin Bieksa #3 (L) and the Vancouver Canucks in overtime of Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 7, 2013 in San Jose, California. The Sharks defeated the Canucks 4-3 to sweep the series 4 games to 0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After seeing them suffer some ignominious playoff defeats, plenty of people are happy for Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton as they enter their first Stanley Cup Final.

The two veteran San Jose Sharks forwards aren’t playing coy about it, either; they’ve been picturing such scenarios for ages.

Both Thornton and Marleau seemingly uttered the same things as Game 1 approaches against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.

“This is everything I’ve been dreaming about for a long, long time,” Marleau said.

It’s hard to believe that we are months removed from a time when it seemed like one or both of these longtime Sharks were in the thick of seemingly legitimate trade rumors. Marleau, in particular, sounded like he might be on the verge of moving on.

Instead, they’re as deep in the postseason as they have ever been and Thornton is talking about his beard.

Life is good.

Joel Ward believes NHL should retire No. 22 in honor of Willie O’Ree

RALEIGH, NC - MAY 15:  NHL ambassador Willie O'Ree talks with the Capital City Crew and the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association during a clinic, Hockey is for Everyone, sponsored by the NHL and the Carolina Hurricanes at the Cary Ice House on May 15, 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina.   (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images for NHL)
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Sometimes players wear a jersey number as a tribute to a childhood favorite. Sometimes it’s merely to mark their birth year and other times it’s merely what was handed to them.

For Joel Ward, his 42 has a lot of meaning, and it brings to mind black athletes who were pioneers in their respective sports.

Yes, indeed, Ward wears No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. As the San Jose Sharks forward told ESPN, he’d love it if the NHL discussed retiring No. 22 in honor of its first black hockey player, Willie O’Ree.

“I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure,” Ward said. “The league obviously does that with task force but I do think that Willie should definitely be a big part of the league for sure for what he did. It’s a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this.”

Sounds like a great idea, one that would echo the MLB doing the same with Robinson’s No. 42.

For more, check out that great ESPN story.