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.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game where they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski

Glendening done for year with fractured ankle, may need surgery

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What began as a promising season for Detroit’s Luke Glendening has ended on a sour note.

Glendening — signed in the offseason to a four-year, $7.2 million extension — suffered a fractured ankle in last night’s loss to Carolina, and is done for the year.

Wings GM Ken Holland announced the news on Wednesday, adding that the club wasn’t sure if Glendening would require surgery or not.

Glendening, 27, earned his extension after putting up a career-high 21 points in 81 games during the ’15-16 campaign. This year proved to be a frustrating one, though, at least in terms of offense — Glendening found the back of the net just three times in 74 games, and went nearly three months between tallies during the season.

His ice time also took a hit. After averaging over 14 minutes per night in each of the last two seasons, Glendening received just 12:55 TOI per.

 

Report: Wild land Gophers captain Kloos, in on Hobey Baker finalist Vecchione

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Minnesota could soon have a couple more additions to its impressive prospect pool.

Per the Star-Tribune’s Mike Russo, the club has agreed to terms with University of Minnesota senior Justin Kloos on a two-year, $1.4 million entry-level deal. Kloos — like another prospect that just left school, former first-round pick Luke Kunin — will report to AHL Iowa on an amateur tryout, and his ELC will kick in next year.

Kloos, 23, captained the Gophers to the NCAA championships this year, racking up 43 points in 38 games. Russo reported the undrafted free agent had “a bunch of offers” from NHL clubs including Calgary, Vancouver and San Jose.

And the Wild might not be done there.

In the same report, Russo also notes the Wild are “heavily in” on Union’s Mike Vecchione, widely regarded as one of the top UDFAs available in this year’s collegiate class.

Vecchione, a senior, finished third in the country this year with 62 points in 36 games en route to a Hobey Baker nomination. He’s captained Union in each of the last two seasons and is the reigning ECAC player of the year. The 24-year-old has been tied to the Flyers, given he has some familiarity with the organization and attended the club’s prospect development camp last summer.

These have to be exciting times for the Wild (if you ignore the fact they’re mired in an awful slump). Landing Kloos and the potential of getting Vecchione would, as mentioned above, add to a stable that includes Kunin, Russian Kirill Kaprizov, Sweden’s Joel Eriksson-Ek and Kunin’s U.S. junior teammate, Jordan Greenway, who all showed extremely well at the world juniors.

Speaking of Eriksson Ek, he’s up with the Wild now after being brought over from the Swedish League. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher is hopeful the 20-year-old — taken in the first round of the ’15 draft — can provide Minnesota with “a little shot in the arm.”

Hobbled Penguins hoping to be ‘healed up right around playoff time’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Ron Hainsey arrived in Pittsburgh from Carolina a month ago on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time in his 14-year career.

The durable defenseman found an odd but perhaps apt way to fit in with his new team: He got hurt. Ten games into his tenure with the Penguins, Hainsey went down with an upper-body injury to join an increasingly long line of familiar faces watching in suits from the press box rather than wearing sweaters on the bench.

“Injuries happen,” Hainsey said on Tuesday after skating with his teammates, an important step toward his hopeful return before the postseason begins next month. “Obviously, this team we have a lot of them.”

So many to so many bold-faced names — from Hainsey and fellow defensemen Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Kris Letang to star center Evgeni Malkin and energetic young forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary — that it’s remarkable the defending Stanley Cup champions have been able to hang around in the chase for the Metropolitan Division and the Presidents’ Trophy.

“It’s been crazy around here,” said defenseman Justin Schultz, one of only five players to miss fewer than five games so far. “You see so many guys walking around, it’s wild.”

The wear and tear from trying to keep it together with a threadbare lineup, however, is beginning to show.

Pittsburgh’s hopes of catching first-place Washington took a hit during a third-period implosion on Sunday night at home against Philadelphia as the Flyers poured in four goals over the final 20 minutes of a 6-2 win that left the Penguins three points behind the Capitals with seven games to go.

It was a rare forgettable night in a season that’s showcased both the brilliance of center Sidney Crosby (who’s 42 goals lead the league) and the laser focus preached by coach Mike Sullivan.

There have been few signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. The Penguins have the fewest home losses in the league and they’ve kept Washington and Columbus within arm’s reach despite the kind of health issues their two rivals have largely avoided.

The key now, even with players on the verge of returning, will be keeping it going. While the odds of Pittsburgh emerging from the three-way race – and avoiding a first-round matchup against the other runner-up – are iffy at best, don’t expect the Penguins to ease up in an effort to rest for the playoffs.

“Our experience has been that you just don’t flip a switch and turn it on,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to go into each game with a mindset of trying to win.”

Pittsburgh went 8-2 over its final 10 games of the regular season last spring then rolled to the franchise’s fourth championship. Putting together another surge will be difficult, though there were promising signs during a crowded post-practice dressing room.

Sheary, who left the loss to the Flyers with a lower-body injury, practiced on Tuesday and should play on Wednesday when Chicago visits. Jake Guentzel, who suffered a concussion last week after getting hit illegally by Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, skated but no timetable has been set for his return.

The rookie, who struggled getting off the ice after being leveled by Ristolainen, called the hit “just a hockey play,” though it ended with Ristolainen receiving a three-game suspension.

The line of Guentzel, Sheary and Crosby had almost single-handedly kept Pittsburgh’s offense going with Malkin out. They’re optimistic they’ll get a chance to recreate the mojo before the regular season ends.

“You don’t want to limp into the playoffs, losing a few games,” Sheary said. “I think momentum is a huge thing in this game. If you’re playing well going into the playoffs, I think that carries over big time.”

Getting familiar faces back in the lineup before mid-April is critical.

On that front at least, the Penguins appear to have been spared. It seems everyone has a chance to be in uniform when things get going for real.

“It seems like all the injuries are supposed to be healed up right around playoff time,” Sheary said.

“Hopefully we can get those guys back and use it to our advantage.”