Alex Ovechkin embraces leadership role in Washington

When Alex Ovechkin was named captain of the Washington Capitals last season, there were many around the league that wondered aloud about whether or not the young Russian phenom was ready for such an important leadership role with the Capitals. After all, the team had just traded then captain Chris Clark to Columbus and Ovechkin was in the middle of a season that would see him ultimately score 50 goals. Ovechkin helped lead the Caps to the Presidents Trophy and the top seed in the East.

When the Caps dreams of making the Stanley Cup finals were dashed in the first round of the playoffs against Montreal, those doubts grew in number and the doubters voices would grow louder. This season, the Capitals rough start to the year, their slump just before the Winter Classic that saw them lose eight straight games, and the seeming lack of offensive production from Ovechkin helped compound the problems.

A funny thing happened though. The Capitals started to get what coach Bruce Boudreau had been stressing all season about defensive responsibility. Washington’s defense tightened up and now that comfort level has been reached there, Ovechkin’s game has shaken off the frets and worries to the point the Caps are on fire now with a seven game win streak of their own. The catalyst behind that streak has been none other than Ovechkin himself.

Since the Winter Classic, Ovechkin has scored 14 goals and added 17 assists. Those 31 points over 29 games may not seem like the Ovechkin numbers of old we’re used to seeing, but with how seemingly lethargic the Caps offense has been this season, Ovechkin has continued to be the best they have.

Over the last seven games alone, Ovechkin has four goals and seven assists good for 11 points. On the season, Ovechkin’s goal numbers are down as he’s got just 28 headed into Sunday’s game. His 45 assists, however, are best on the team and he’s the Caps leading scorer by 18 points ahead of Nicklas Backstrom. Those 73 points also put him in a tie for fifth best in the NHL with Corey Perry of Anaheim. His 45 assists tie him for fifth best in the NHL there and his 28 goals has him in the top 15 in that category.

Those who have stressed out about Ovechkin’s lack of production may have been playing the role of Chicken Little in that regard. While his numbers are astronomically high like we’ve seen in the past, his ability to help set up his teammates and help make the Caps a more well-rounded team have flown under the radar. Only now that Ovechkin is scoring the clutch goals or making the key plays to set his linemates up are people taking notice. Fact is, Ovechkin has been there all along.

With that sort of blue collar work coming from Ovechkin it’s not likely to earn him much favor as far as the major individual awards go. After winning three straight Hart Trophies before giving way to Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin last year, people wondered what Ovechkin could do to find a way to get back into the spotlight. If the Capitals are able to continue building off what they’ve done of late and Ovechkin keeps finding ways to score, perhaps captaining a Stanley Cup champion will be his ultimate feat of strength.

The Buzzer: Monahan the man, torrid Tavares

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Choice PHT Cuts:

Canadiens, Maple Leafs did NOT play nice.

If you didn’t think Alex Ovechkin was tough …

*Rubs eyes* A winning streak … for the Coyotes?

Connor McDavid and Oilers are sad pandas.

Players of the Night

  • Anthony Duclair‘s hat trick is well-covered here, so check that out. Duclair gets one edge on Sean Monahan in that Duclair scored all of his team’s goals on Saturday, but Monahan combined his first career hat trick with an assist, helping his Flames win in OT much like Duclair did for Arizona.

Monahan slightly upstaged Johnny Gaudreau (one goal, two assists) who was pumped to play in front of a crowd in Philly.

  • Paul Stastny collected three assists to help the Blues beat the Canucks in overtime. Check PHT on Sunday morning for an in-depth look at Brayden Schenn, who kept his hot streak going with the OT-clincher.
  • John Tavares just continues to ride high with a goal and two assists. The real stars might be the Islanders as a whole, however, as they beat the Lightning and kept Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov pointless in a 5-3 Isles win.
  • Frederik Andersen has achieved back-to-back shutouts, helping the Leafs make the Habs extra-miserable. He made 33 saves, so you could argue Montreal deserved better than a 6-0 fate.

Heel of the Night?

While Connor McDavid absorbed an odd portion of the Oilers’ blame in defeat despite a three-point night, Antoine Roussel really played up his villain cred. He collected three points of his own and did this:

Highlight of the Night

Going off script a bit here, let’s go with Alex Ovechkin bouncing back from this:

And Corey Crawford being OK despite this bump from Evgeni Malkin.

Both players helped their teams seal up wins as a bonus. (Feel free to share your favorite highlights from tonight, even if they don’t involve near-injuries.)

Factoid of the Night

Congrats, Antti Niemi. Kind of.

Here’s a free joke regarding that situation.

Scores

Flames 5, Flyers 4 (OT)
Stars 6, Oilers 3
Coyotes 3, Senators 2 (OT)
Jets 5, Devils 2
Kings 4, Panthers 0
Hurricanes 3, Sabres 1
Maple Leafs 6, Canadiens 0
Islanders 5, Lightning 3
Blackhawks 2, Penguins 1
Capitals 3, Wild 1
Predators 5, Avalanche 2
Blues 4, Canucks 3 (OT)
Bruins 3, Sharks 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Nasty hits, fights, and a blowout in Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens

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First, the Edmonton Oilers fell 6-3 to the Dallas Stars. Next: the Toronto Maple Leafs absolutely throttled the fledgling Montreal Canadiens in a game that was ugly even beyond the 6-0 score.

It’s been a bad day for embattled GMs of teams who’ve made polarizing moves in hopes of solidifying Stanley Cup contenders. The Oilers (7-11-2) and Canadiens (8-11-2) even finish the night with nearly identical records, just to really hammer home their parallel pains.

You almost wonder if something is in the air this week (spoilers: not love), as nastiness has really ratcheted up since the Calgary Flames – Detroit Red Wings line brawl. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs boast one of the NHL’s richest and bitterest rivalries, and it showed on Saturday.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Nazem Kadri played a major role in one of the most explosive moments, taking his frustrations out on Shea Weber. Weber and Jordie Benn wasted no time in going after Kadri.

(Criticisms of the hit are totally fair, but it seems strange to go too heavy on “turtling.” Who would be able to stand up to both Weber and Benn? In the heat of the moment, I’d wager most people would go with flight over fight.)

That was the most bombastic moment, but there was also this seemingly unlikely bout between Nikita Zaitsev and Paul Byron:

This absolute dismantling comes after Claude Julien was steaming mad from a 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s tough not to read all of this as an indictment of the moves Marc Bergevin has made, especially considering the fact that their rivals dominated them for their sixth win in a row. If you’re the type to draw big conclusions from about a month of a season, you’d look at it as how to build a contender vs. how to waste Carey Price‘s prime.

That’s a little harsh … but either way, these are tough times for Bergevin.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski passed along an interesting take from Julien, who wishes he could bag skate his bumbling players. OK, then.

Auston Matthews was definitely part of the fun for Toronto in his return from injury, including scoring this goal:

(You almost wonder if Mike Babcock was rolling the dice even having his star players out there amid all that carnage, but that goal was a sweet reward.)

[MORE: Why Toronto needs Matthews back for a tough stretch]

Yes, this is an 82-game season, and we’re only at about the first-quarter-mark. Still, teams like the Oilers and Canadiens came into 2017-18 with big expectations and big questions, and so far fans and management can’t like the answers.

By the way, asking for a well-dressed GM: what’s the opposite of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

Yikes.

Ovechkin returns after being badly bloodied by puck to face

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It’s still relatively early on Saturday night, and both the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals could eventually provide further updates that derail this optimism.

With that out of the way, at the moment, the theme of the night might just be teams dodging big injury bullets, even if the star players in question can’t dodge actual damage.

In the case of Corey Crawford, he bounced back for the Blackhawks after Evgeni Malkin‘s thigh area clipped him in the head. Maybe it looked worse than it was?

Now, any time you see people scrape blood off the ice, you get a reminder of how dangerous – and yeah, occasionally strange – hockey can be. That only becomes more disturbing when that blood is coming from a player as important as Alex Ovechkin:

Remarkably, Ovechkin is returning for the third period of the Capitals’ game against the Minnesota Wild.

So:

  • This is a reminder that Ovechkin is tough, in case you foolishly think he isn’t because … his teams have lost in big games or something? Considering how recklessly he often throws his body around, and how infrequently he misses games due to to injury, you’d think that debate would have died a long time ago. Moments like this make it seem that much sillier.
  • Ovechkin must really want to help the struggling Capitals turn things around.
  • Maybe he wants to hang an L on his old boss Bruce Boudreau?

Anyway, PHT will keep an eye on these situations. Sometimes there are more answers the night of events, and sometimes it takes a little longer.

Right now, it’s reasonable for Capitals fans and Blackhawks fans to feel some relative, even if it’s only in the interim.

Update: The Capitals ended up winning 3-1, thanks in large part to Braden Holtby‘s strong night.

Ovechkin logged 8:18 TOI in the third period, so it seems like he’s OK. This post will be updated if he shares a nasty battle scar.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Crawford avoids injury, helps Blackhawks beat Penguins

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been up-and-down so far in 2017-18, but Corey Crawford has been brilliant almost every night he’s been in net. It’s to the point that he might be a little underrated, as people assume that Chicago will keep finding ways to win, possibly missing how big a part he’s playing in its successes.

Crawford’s been able to clean up a lot of messes, so Saturday brought a scare, as he seemed to take head contact from Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

You can see the contact in the video above. It seemed like quite a collision, as part of Malkin (thigh? middle-boy) seemed to connect with Crawford at a fairly high speed.

The penalty call drew at least some complaints from Penguins fans, but the important thing either way is that the Blackhawks took a look at Crawford before allowing him to return to the game.

Now, we’ve seen players return to action only to miss games in the future, so it’s still worth monitoring Crawford. Considering how important he is to the Blackhawks, they have to hope that it was one of those plays that looked more painful than it actually was.

Also, with some justifiable complaints about players not going through concussion protocol lately, a lot of people are pleased with Chicago for at least assessing Crawford. We’ll see if anything changes, but right now, this seems like a dodged bullet (but not a dodged Malkin).

Update: Not only did Crawford stick with it, he made a big difference in the Blackhawks beating the Penguins 2-1, including making this save:

Chicago sure seems to have an edge on Pittsburgh lately, by the way:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.