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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.

Capuano firing puts focus on Snow

BETHPAGE, NY - SEPTEMBER 09:  (L-R) Head coach Jack Capuano, John Tavares, and General Manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders pose for a photo during a press conference naming John Tavares the New York Islanders team captain at Carlyle on the Green on September 9, 2013 in Bethpage, New York.  (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
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A coaching change is rarely made without management shouldering some, or much, of the blame.

Case in point, last year, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford admitted that he was partly to blame for his team’s struggles, “because I didn’t get the defensemen that were necessary to have more movement from the back end.”

But Rutherford fired Mike Johnston anyway, and we all know where Mike Sullivan led the Pens, with some help from his GM.

Today, Jack Capuano was fired after a lengthy run as the head coach of the New York Islanders. And while there was certainly a case to be made for the move, GM Garth Snow will not, and should not, escape blame. The Isles’ roster is littered with underperformers, and it starts with Andrew Ladd, the team’s big offseason acquisition.

Halfway through the season, Ladd has just eight goals and four assists. He also turned 31 in December and is signed through 2022-23 for a cap hit of $5.5 million. 

Nikolay Kulemin is another aging, overpaid winger. So is 37-year-old Jason Chimera. For some reason, Cal Clutterbuck got a five-year, $17.5 million extension. He hits a lot, sure, but he only has three goals in 40 games.

And we haven’t even mentioned the goaltending situation, which remains in flux. Thomas Greiss has been the Isles’ only good netminder this season. Greiss is also a 30-year-old pending unrestricted free agent who will undoubtedly be looking for a raise.

Now, do the Isles have some good, young prospects? Yes, they do. Mathew Barzal, Kieffer Bellows, Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle, and Josh Ho-Sang all have real potential.

But management and ownership have a major task ahead of them in re-signing John Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018. So far, the captain has said he wants to stay. But with just 24 playoff games on his NHL resume, he’s also said he wants to have success.

“I think for myself, I’ve always shown and talked about my commitment here,” Tavares said recently. “Wanting to have success here and keep building on some of the good things we’ve done. Obviously, this [low] point’s been disappointing.”

It was reported back in December that the club’s new owners, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, had been searching for a “big name” to run the team. The Isles denied the report, but it immediately set off speculation about Snow’s future.

Don’t expect that speculation to die down now that Capuano has been shown the door. Snow was actually asked today if he thought his job was safe.

“I don’t even worry about that,” he told reporters.

It’s beyond his control anyway. All he can do now is hope for a miraculous turnaround. The Isles start a six-game home stand Thursday. They’re currently dead last in the Eastern Conference, eight points back of the second wild-card spot.

“We need to turn this ship around,” said Snow, “and I really have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and in our players.”

Of course, he’s said that before.

Goalie nods: Interesting times in St. Louis, as Hutton makes third straight start

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 01: Carter Hutton #40 of the St. Louis Blues stops a shot by Vincent Hinostroza #48 of the Chicago Blackhawks during a preseason game at the United Center on October 1, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Jake Allen‘s had trouble adjusting to life as the Blues’ No. 1 netminder — see here, here, here and here — and now, he’s getting an awfully long look at St. Louis’ No. 2.

Tonight, Carter Hutton will make his third consecutive start when the Blues host the Sens at Scottrade. The decision to stick with Hutton comes after he stopped 55 of 56 shots in back-to-back wins over the Sharks and Ducks — on the road, no less — and posted a 23-save shutout in San Jose on Saturday.

Allen, meanwhile, hasn’t played since a 5-1 loss to Los Angeles last Thursday in which he was hooked in favor of Hutton. That was, somewhat infamously, when Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock dropped some pretty frank talk on his beleaguered No. 1.

“This is really on the athlete. There’s times in your young career where you just said you’ve had enough and then you’ve got to go turn it around the other way,” Hitchcock said of Allen’s struggles. “He’s in a position where he’s the guy that has to really take charge here.

“He’s got to man-up and get better.”

Allen, 26, was tasked with carrying the load this season after the Blues dealt Brian Elliott to Calgary at the draft. His status as the club’s No. 1 was cemented with a four-year, $17.4 million deal signed not long after. But things haven’t gone to plan since — Allen’s struggled all year, and is currently saddled with a .900 save percentage and 2.76 GAA.

This latest development is really compelling. For most of the year, Hitch has adhered to the “he’s our guy, we gotta stick with him” philosophy with Allen — until now. Perhaps Hitch is tired of waiting. Or perhaps he sees Nashville in the rear view — the Preds have won three straight, and are now just four points back of St. Louis in the Central.

For the Sens, Mike Condon starts in goal.

Elsewhere…

— More of the same for the red-hot ‘Canes, who will give Cam Ward his 20th consecutive start. No word yet on who goes for the host Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky has been dealing with an illness.

Henrik Lundqvist‘s trusty backup, Antti Raanta, is out until the All-Star break with a lower-body injury, so it’s King Henrik in goal for the foreseeable future. No word yet on who Dallas will start, though Kari Lehtonen did play in yesterday’s loss to Buffalo.

Robin Lehner, fresh off a 31-save win over Dallas on Monday, is back in for the Sabres. He’ll be up against Frederik Andersen in Toronto.

— The Devils will stick with Cory Schneider after he beat the Canucks in Vancouver on Sunday. The host Wild are going with Devan Dubnyk, who continues to be lights-out this season.

— It’s Roberto Luongo versus Chad Johnson as the Panthers take on the Flames in Calgary.

Semyon Varlamov, who’s lost his first two games since returning from a groin injury, will get the start in Colorado as the Avs host the Blackhawks. Chicago counters with Corey Crawford.

Jonathan Bernier took advantage of a rare start on the weekend, shutting out the Coyotes, but the Ducks will go back to John Gibson when the host the Bolts. Tampa Bay has yet to announce a starter, but Ben Bishop did play (and win) yesterday in L.A.

Ryan Miller gets back in goal for Vancouver after Jacob Markstrom played against New Jersey on Sunday. Looks like Miller will face off against Pekka Rinne, who starts for the visiting Preds.

BREAKING: Isles fire Capuano

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders leaves the ice following a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on April 24, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Islanders won the game 2-1 to win the series four games to two. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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After a disappointing campaign that’s seen numerous calls for his job, Jack Capuano has been fired by the Islanders.

Assistant GM Doug Weight, who also served as a bench coach on Capuano’s staff, will take over the gig on an interim basis.

Capuano’s dismissal come with the Isles sitting dead last in the Eastern Conference, with a 17-17-8 record and just 42 points. They’re eight back of Philly for the final wild card spot, though the club did just put forth one of its best efforts of the season in Monday’s 4-0 win over the Bruins at TD Garden.

Despite that, the Isles are still a far cry from where they were last season, when they qualified for their second straight playoff appearance and won a round for the first time since 1993.

The team underwent some significant changes this offseason — Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin left in free agency, while Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera came aboard — and never seemed to gel. Ladd and Chimera have disappointed, the defense and goaltending have been suspect (24th in GAA) and special teams have been a constant problem (26th-ranked PP, 21st-ranked PK).

There was hope former first-round pick Ryan Strome would take another step forward in his progression, but it hasn’t happened. And the club’s talented prospects — Mathew Barzal, Michael Dal Colle, Josh Ho-Sang — were deemed too young and inexperienced to play this season.

As a result, Capuano openly questioned how the club would compensate for the offseason departures.

“Where are we going to get point production?” Capuano asked reporters earlier this month. “One hundred and thirty-four points out of our lineup that we lost. Now we have to find a way. Like everything gets magnified, I get it. You guys are talking about the (losses) lately…but we have to find a way to get some balanced offense in our hockey team.”

There was also a constant issue with the club’s three-goalie setup, only recently alleviated with the waiving and AHL demotion of Jaroslav Halak — which came after Caupano called Halak out for his poor play.

It’s worth noting that, earlier this season, Isles GM Garth Snow had given Capuano a vote of confidence. But time and patience apparently ran out. As a result, the NHL’s fourth longest-tenured head coach is no longer.

Tough day in Vancouver: Hutton out 3-6 weeks with fractured hand

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 23:  Ben Hutton #27 of the Vancouver Canucks trips Ryan Garbutt #16 of the Anaheim Ducks during the first period of a game at Honda Center on October 23, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Just a short while ago, the Canucks announced they were shutting down Anton Rodin — the Swedish Hockey League’s reigning MVP — with a troublesome knee injury that isn’t getting better.

Now, more bad news.

Sophomore defenseman Ben Hutton, just weeks removed from signing a two-year contract extension, has suffered a fractured hand and will miss the next 3-6 weeks of action.

Hutton hasn’t dressed since Jan. 6, when he played nearly 22 minutes in a win over Calgary. He sat out the next night’s game — and did so on late notice, forcing the Canucks to play with just five d-men — and now joins fellow blueliners Erik Gudbranson and Philip Larsen on the shelf.

The University of Maine product is a big piece of Vancouver’s defense. Prior to getting hurt, he had four goals and seven assists in 41 games while averaging 20:59 of ice time.

The 23-year-old burst onto the scene last year, and surprised many last year after making the team out of training camp and putting together an impressive campaign. A fifth-round pick in 2012, Hutton finished tied for second with Colton Parayko in rookie d-men in assists (24), trailing only Flyers standout Shayne Gostisbehere.

Hutton was then named to Team Canada’s gold-medal winning side at the 2016 World Hockey Championships.

Looking ahead, the Canucks project to ice a blueline featuring Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Luca Sbisa, Nikita Tryamkin, Troy Stecher and Alex Biega tonight when they host the Predators.