Alex Kovalev

Around the rink – February 25; Kovalev debuts for Pittsburgh, Caps and Rangers face off

7:00 p.m.

Washington @ NY Rangers

New York gets Ruslan Fedotenko back in the lineup tonight while Mike Green appears to still be out. Nicklas Backstrom will also play as he’s got a broken tip of his thumb. The Caps have won two in a row while the Rangers are hoping their shootout win over Carolina is the stepping stone they need to pull away from the gathering mob at the bottom of the Eastern playoff race. The Caps need a win to keep pace with the Lightning in the Southeast.

Pittsburgh @ Carolina

Welcome back Alex Kovalev. Kovalev will make his re-debut with the Penguins tonight, his first game with Pittsburgh since the 2002-2003 season. After acquiring the Russian star from Ottawa, the Penguins are showing that they’re going to keep trying with or without Sidney Crosby in the lineup. The bigger problem immediately for Pittsburgh will be playing without Brooks Orpik for the next month. For Carolina a win, any win, would be huge for them as they’re caught in a mosh in the eighth spot in the East with Buffalo, Toronto, and Atlanta all right there waiting for them to fall. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has lost three in a row. With the injuries mounting it’s getting tougher to keep up with Philadelphia for the Penguins.

Phoenix @ Columbus

The Coyotes look to rebound from their 8-3 humbling at the hands of Tampa Bay with a game against the reinvigorated Blue Jackets in Columbus. Columbus has won seven of their last nine and are just four points out of the cluster of five teams vying for the last four spots in the West. Phoenix is locked into a battle with the Sharks for control of the Pacific Division and the only way for them to keep at it is to keep winning as the Sharks seem set to keep doing the same.

7:30 p.m.

New Jersey @ Tampa Bay

If Tampa Bay wants to prove something to themselves, beating the red hot Devils would be a good way to go about it. The Devils have beaten Tampa Bay in 12 of their last 13 games in Tampa. Such things are always startling to read but after the Lightning humbled Phoenix who had been playing great hockey up to that point, it’s tough to deny the Lightning the shot at getting off the schneid. The Devils coincidentally come into their game with Tampa Bay also on an eight game win streak, similar to the one Phoenix had before their date in Tampa. For the Lightning, this game marks the final one of their 12-game home stand. During that record stretch, the Lightning are 6-3-2.

Ottawa @ Buffalo

Buffalo is just three points behind Carolina for eighth and they’ve got the Maple Leafs catching up to them fast. A win over lowly Ottawa would be huge for the Sabres. Doing it against a re-motivated Craig Anderson might prove to be the hard part. Ottawa has won two in a row with Anderson’s help so perhaps the doormat Sens are gone for now. We’ll see how badly Buffalo wants back in the playoff race with how they handle the Senators.

Florida @ Atlanta

Is this the last stand of the Florida Panthers as we know them? With tonight’s game against Atlanta and Sunday’s against New Jersey, whether or not we’ll see the likes of David Booth, Stephen Weiss, or Tomas Vokoun after the weekend is through is up in the air with the trade deadline on the way on Monday afternoon. Atlanta hopes they can just get a win, period, as they’ve slipped further back in the race for the playoffs in the East.

9:00 p.m.

San Jose @ Calgary

A pair of teams that have been playing well of late square off. The Sharks have taken control of the Pacific Division by a point over Phoenix but they’ll be without Dan Boyle tonight. Boyle’s a difference maker on the blue line for them and how that effects Antti Niemi in goal will be curious to see. After a tough loss to Boston on Tuesday, getting back on top of things for Calgary would be huge. To do it against a rival like San Jose would make it sweeter.

St. Louis @ Edmonton

Times are tough for St. Louis right now. They’re virtually on the edge of being out of the playoff discussion and after three straight losses, including last night’s to Vancouver, things aren’t getting any easier. Sure they’re playing harder but without wins they’re going nowhere fast. Dealing with the NHL’s worst team in Edmonton should be the elixir they’re looking for to fix things up but Edmonton is hot winners of four of their last five games. If you’re afraid of giant goalies, be afraid. St. Louis will start 6’8″ Ben Bishop while Edmonton counters with 6’6″ Devan Dubnyk.

10:00 p.m.

Minnesota @ Anaheim

Dan Ellis will make his first start as a  Duck tonight as the Wild look to put their tough loss to the Kings last night behind them. Minnesota sits in a logjam for sixth place in the West while the Ducks look to get back into the mix themselves after getting hammered in their last four games by a combined 24-12 score all while going 0-4-0 in that span. The Wild could help their own cause by stringing some wins together rather than alternating wins and losses.

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.