Alex Ovechkin

With Washington resting Alex Ovechkin, should other top teams offer stars breaks too?

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Although this year was the exception, the Indianapolis Colts typically created annual debates when they would rest starters once their playoff spot was confirmed. For many sports writers, there would be a basic reaction if the Colts faltered. They would blame the accumulated rust for the loss rather than the more likely (but less stimulating) explanation that the Colts just lost to a better team.

You would think that an 82-game season would create more instances in which NHL teams give their best players unofficial “bye weeks,” but that isn’t often the case. Of course, the reasoning is usually simple: the gap between playoff teams and playoff hopefuls is often quite small.

Yet after a few years of pushing the pedal to the metal all season long and then possibly being unable to find another gear once the playoffs began, the Washington Capitals have taken an interestingly measured approach this season. While they clearly are facing some growing pains as they transition from a run-and-gun offense to a more balanced approach, there’s also a sense that the team is learning how to save its best for last.

As you may already know, Alex Ovechkin will miss about a week with an undisclosed injury. When asked what exactly is bothering him, Ovechkin had an amusing response: “Guess.” He didn’t provide any more information other than that the mystery ailment has been troubling him for months.

Well, here’s my guess, then: maybe the Capitals are just being smart by allowing their biggest star to get a rare break.

It’s true that Bruce Boudreau allowed certain Washington players to grab a mini-rest last season, but that was just for a game or two at the very end. Getting a more extensive break could be a subtle boost for Ovechkin, a player who tends to go 100 mph in every game. The fact that he could then shake off whatever imaginary rust he builds up by playing a handful of other contests before the playoffs makes the idea seem that much brighter.

It also makes me wonder: why aren’t other contenders following their lead?

The Vancouver Canucks are showing great moxie in beating desperate teams in games they don’t need to win, but with Manny Malhotra gone for the rest of the season and playoffs, shouldn’t they start to rest the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and other players who will deal with greater burdens? The Philadelphia Flyers are already playing without Chris Pronger, but with the Atlantic Division more or less wrapped up, maybe they should give Mike Richards and other forwards a little siesta? A health-oriented approach might be especially wise for the Detroit Red Wings, being that they have an ample Central Division lead and next to no chance of passing the Canucks for the top seed after losing to them in regulation tonight.

Yes, home ice advantage is important, but going into the playoffs as close to full-strength as possible might be just as vital.

This is not to say that every high-end player should receive a 7-10 mini-vacation, but with a lengthy playoff grind ahead, every little bit of rest could be huge – even if the benefits might not be obvious to the naked eye.

Video: So, Joe Thornton is pretty stoked about playing in the Stanley Cup Final

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‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton is off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career. The San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

And yeah, the 36-year-old Thornton, a veteran of 1,367 regular season games with 1,341 career regular season points, is pretty excited for both himself and his team when it comes to this feat.

It hasn’t been easy in San Jose. It hasn’t been easy for the franchise, for the fans, for the players, for Thornton or for Patrick Marleau, who is also 36 years old and has played his entire career (1,411 regular season games) in San Jose.

There have been playoff failures and a regular season disappointment last year. There has been a coaching change and harsh words exchanged between Thornton and management — more specifically, GM Doug Wilson — and an organizational decision to remove the captaincy from Thornton.

After all that, however, the Sharks are four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Did we mention Joe Thornton is excited about the final?

Franchise history: The Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final

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For the first time in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final.

This, after a monumental and historical collapse in the first round to the L.A. Kings two years ago. This, after they failed to make the playoffs a year ago, resulting in a coaching change. There have been other post-season disappointments along the way before that, too.

Those difficult times may never be forgotten. But the Sharks have rebounded, and it culminated with a 5-2 victory over the visiting St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday. Fans at SAP Center could feel it, too, especially after Joel Ward scored his second goal of the night, giving San Jose a three-goal lead early in the third period.

The Blues attempted a furious comeback but couldn’t quite complete it.

The Sharks this year have eliminated the Kings, Nashville Predators and now the Blues in that order. They await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

The Sharks got off to the perfect start in the series clincher versus St. Louis. Joe Pavelski recorded his 13th goal, which leads all players in this post-season, and the Sharks continued to roll from there.

Ward increased the lead in the second period and again in the third. His second of the night proved to be the winner. Joonas Donskoi‘s goal, making it 4-0 San Jose before the midway point of the third period, proved critical as the Blues tried to spark a desperation comeback.

The Blues’ leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko (40 goals, 74 points in the regular season) was held off the score sheet through the first five games of this series, before finally striking for both St. Louis goals in Game 6.

Penguins, Lightning prepare for the ‘roller coaster’ of Game 7

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning checks Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby is in no mood to get caught up in his own personal narrative, the one eager to attach whatever happens to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday against Tampa Bay to the superstar’s legacy.

Forget that Crosby has the game-winning goal in each of Pittsburgh’s victories in its entertaining back-and-forth with the resilient Lightning. Forget that he hasn’t been on the winning side of a post-series handshake line this deep into the playoffs since his glorious night in Detroit seven years ago, which ended with him hoisting the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

Yes, he’s playing well. Yes, his dazzling, imminently GIF-able sprint through the Tampa Bay zone late in the second period of Game 6 added another signature moment to a career full of them. Yet lifting Pittsburgh back to the Cup final for the first time since 2009 does not rely solely on him so much as the collective effort of all 20 guys in his team’s retro black and Vegas gold uniforms.

Related: Vasilevskiy ‘is the big reason we’re in Game 7,’ says Bolts coach Cooper

Depth has carried the Penguins this far. Crosby insists Game 7 will be about the team, not him.

“You give yourself the best chance of winning by keeping it simple and not putting too much emphasis on kind of the story line around it,” Crosby said.

Even if it’s easy to get lost in those story lines. The Lightning are on the verge of a second straight berth in the final despite playing the entire postseason without captain Steven Stamkos and losing Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in the first period of the conference finals when he twisted his left leg awkwardly while scrambling to get into position.

Yet Tampa Bay has stuck around, ceding the ice to the Penguins for significant stretches but using their speed to counterattack brilliantly while relying on 21-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevski. The Lightning are hardly intimidated by having to go on the road in a series decider. They did it a year ago in the Eastern final against New York, beating the Rangers 2-0 in Madison Square Garden.

“You’ve got to go back to a tough environment, just like the Garden was last year,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “And you’ve got to have your A-game.”

The Lightning hoped to avoid revisiting this spot. They could have closed out Pittsburgh at home but fell behind by three goals and didn’t recover, fitting for a series that appears to be a coin flip as a whole but not so much night to night. The team that’s scored first is 5-1 and there’s only been a single lead change in 18-plus periods spread out over nearly two weeks: Tyler Johnson‘s deflection in overtime that gave Tampa Bay Game 5.

“You always want to play with the lead, and always the first goal is big,” said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-0 in Game 7s. “But, again, we were down 2-0 in Game 5 and came back from that. So it’s not cut in stone, the outcome of the game, no matter if you’re down a goal or two.”

Maybe, but it’d be cutting it pretty close. Tampa Bay’s rally in Game 5 was Pittsburgh’s first loss when leading after two periods all year. The Penguins responded by going back to rookie goaltender Matt Murray – who turned 22 on Wednesday – and putting together perhaps their finest hockey of the postseason. Their stars played like stars while Murray performed like a guy a decade older with his name already etched on the Cup a few times.

The Penguins will need to rely on Murray’s precocious maturity if it wants to buck a curious trend that started well before Murray was born. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a Game 7 on home ice since Mario Lemieux and company beat New Jersey in the opening round of the 1991 playoffs to escape from a 3-2 series deficit and propel the Penguins to their first championship. The Penguins have dropped five straight winner-take-all matchups since then, including a loss to Tampa Bay in the first round in 2011, a series Pittsburgh played without either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, who sat out with injuries.

They’re healthy now and showing extended flashes of the form that seemed to have the Penguins on the brink of a dynasty when they toppled Detroit. And the Lightning, who are 5-1 in Game 7s, are hardly comfortable but hardly intimidated as they play on the road.

“I think it’s a roller coaster,” Cooper said. “But Game 7 is Game 7. There’s no two better words than that.”

Video: Pavelski gives Sharks the lead as they look to clinch berth in Stanley Cup Final

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Perseverance paid off for the San Jose Sharks.

Joe Pavelski gave the Sharks the lead in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, pushing home a loose puck on Brian Elliott after Joe Thornton was unable to convert on the breakaway seconds before.

For Pavelski, that’s his league-leading 13th goal of these playoffs.

The Sharks can clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history with a win tonight.

San Jose increased its lead to two goals, as Joel Ward capitalized early in the second period.