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Ovechkin, on verge of 1,000 points, has been well worth the money for Caps

When the Washington Capitals signed Alex Ovechkin to a $124 million, 13-year contract eight years ago, the long-term commitment and first nine-digit deal in NHL history represented a significant risk.

Owner Ted Leonsis and former general manager George McPhee’s concerns were about possible injury. But now that Ovechkin is one point away from 1,000 for his career, he has eased their concerns.

Few players over the past decade have been as durable or productive as the rough-and-tumble 6-foot-3, 245-pound superstar, who hits almost as much as he scores.

“I never had any issues about whether the fire would die,” McPhee said by phone Tuesday. “I never, ever thought he would cheat us on effort because he was such a hard-working kid on the ice. … The only concern was, `What if he gets hurt?’ And that’s everybody’s fear with long-term deals. But in terms of ability and desire, I never worried about that.”

A year ago Ovechkin became the fifth-fastest player to 500 goals, and if he reaches 1,000 in his 880th game Wednesday against longtime rival Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, he’d be the second-fastest active player to that milestone behind Jaromir Jagr, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Crosby, who’s at 982 points in just 740 games, could bump him to down the list very soon.

While concussions interrupted Crosby’s prime, the 31-year-old Ovechkin has never missed more than 10 games in 12 NHL seasons despite countless bumps, bruises and assorted other injuries. He played through a broken foot in the 2013 playoffs, came back with no ill effects from a knee injury in 2014 and battled a back injury on the way to scoring 50 goals (again) last season.

As McPhee put it, Ovechkin “plays through everything.” The now-Vegas Golden Knights GM remembers Ovechkin needing several stitches to close a bad skate cut on the inseam of his leg during a game in Pittsburgh in December 2007 and then surprisingly playing two nights later in Ottawa and scoring four goals.

Former coach Glen Hanlon said Ovechkin at 80 percent is still great, which is why his scoring prowess has continued into his 30s against the trend of most goal-scorers.

“When we signed Alex to the 13-year deal, did we anticipate that he would remain an elite goal-scorer now going into his 30s, and the answer’s obviously yes,” Leonsis said before this season. “We had great confidence in him. What I’ve been surprised at is that he’s continued his physical play and still has remained a great goal-scorer. His durability has really positioned him as a really historic player.”

Ovechkin will become the 84th player to reach 1,000 points, a mark that he said means he’s “getting older.”

“I remember my first year, my first game, like it was five minutes ago,” Ovechkin told The Canadian Press after a three-point night Monday in Montreal that helped the Capitals win their sixth consecutive game. “Time move forward and time move quick, so you just have to enjoy every second and every moment and when you have an opportunity, try to do something special.”

Coach Barry Trotz said it would fitting if Ovechkin would hit 1,000 at home since Washington is on a three-game home stand against the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. It would be even more fitting if Ovechkin gets No. 1,000 on an overtime goal to pass Jagr for sole possession of the most in history.

Ovechkin has 19 OT goals among his 544 and his production at such a high level for so long has defied convention, especially with the reckless abandon the Russian winger has played with his entire career. McPhee said Ovechkin among maybe only 10 players in the history of the game with the blend of toughness and scoring – like Gordie Howe, Cam Neely and Eric Lindros.

“When Ovi is best on his game, he’s got the unique ability to play a physical game like no other star in the league can,” Trotz said. “He has the ability to shoot the puck as good as anybody who’s ever played the game, and he can be a force. He has those two elements.

“When he’s imposing his will, he’s skating, he’s using his big frame to be a hard guy to handle. When he’s got all those things going, he’s very, very unique. There’s not too many guys in the league that have all those elements.”

 

Panthers coach Tom Rowe wishes he didn’t play Aaron Ekblad this week

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A miserable season for the Florida Panthers got a little bit worse earlier this month when defenseman Aaron Ekblad was sidelined with another concussion on what coach and general manager Tom Rowe called “a real cheap shot from behind.”

After missing a few games, he was cleared to play by the team’s medical staff and returned to the lineup on Tuesday, 10 days after the injury, and played 18 minutes in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Based on what happened in the aftermath of that game, it seems pretty obvious he may not have been completely ready to return to the ice.

Ekblad will not play in Saturday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks and will not accompany the team on its upcoming road trip after he complained of a sore neck following Tuesday’s game. He was also dealing with headaches on Friday that were attributed to a neck injury and not the concussion.

On Saturday, Rowe was asked if he regretted playing Ekblad earlier this week and he was quite honest in his assessment.

“I’m not going to lie, I wish we didn’t,” Said Rowe, via George Richards of the Miami Herald. “That’s on me. The doctors cleared him, our medical staff cleared him but I had some reservations and I wish I stayed with my gut. That’s no one’s fault but my own.

Ekblad wanted to play in Tuesday’s game but Rowe insisted he should have used his experience to hold his top defenseman out of the lineup.

“I’ve have a lot more experience in this business than he does,” said Rowe, again via the Herald. “I have had a ton of experience with those types of injuries. I usually give those guys two or three days of practice and I wish I had done that. It’s no one’s fault but my own.”

Ekblad has had some significant head and neck injuries over the past couple of years. This is the second time in the past two seasons he has missed time due to a concussion, and he was also sent home from the World Cup of Hockey earlier this year with what was said to be “whiplash.”

The 21-year-old Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, has 10 goals and 11 assists in 68 games for the Panthers this season. With only four games remaining following the team’s upcoming four-game road trip it is not out of the question to think that Ekblad’s season could be over.

The Panthers are only 4-10-1 in their past 15 games and have pretty  much fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Ryan O’Reilly comments on Sidney Crosby spearing incident: ‘It happens’

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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has made some headlines this week for a couple of stick infractions that were overlooked by the on-ice officials during his games.

They were not overlooked by everybody else.

On Thursday, he caught Marc Methot with a slash to the hand that ended up busting the defenseman’s finger on a play that made Senators owner Eugene Melnyk go berserk on Ottawa radio the next day. On its own it would have been an incident that received a ton of attention, if for no other reason than the gruesome image of Methot’s finger dangling around. But what added to it was the fact that two days before that incident there was the spearing incident involving Buffalo Sabres forward Ryan O'Reilly that you see in the video above.

On Saturday, O’Reilly was asked for his thoughts on the play after everything that has happened with Crosby over the past couple of games.  He does not seem to have any hard feelings regarding the play, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

“It was a weird thing,” said O’Reilly. “You know, it happens. I didn’t expect it and he apologized after the play and it was understood. It just threw me off. I wasn’t expecting anything and then something happens, but he’s a good guy and he is just playing hard and he takes a beating every night too so it happens.”

He was then asked if he knew who initially hit him, and O’Reilly said he did not until Crosby apologized later in the game.

“No, I didn’t,” said O’Reilly. I was watching the puck and the next thing I know I had a stick right to the crotch and it threw me off for sure. I got up slowly and turned around to see who it was, and then off the won faceoff he comes up as we’re skating down the ice and says, ‘yeah, sorry about that, I was kind of going for your stick.’ I go, ‘meh, it happens, I guess. Would’ve been nice to have a penalty, but it happens.”

Crosby was not penalized for either play and received no supplemental discipline from the league. The latter part is not a surprise, and it is not because of some sort of preferential treatment from the league. Since the NHL’s department of player safety has been put into place it has never suspended a player for spearing (it has fined seven players) and suspended only two players for slashing (it has fined six).

Bruins will not have Tuukka Rask for massive game against Islanders tonight

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Massive game in Brooklyn on Saturday night when the New York Islanders will be hosting the Boston Bruins in a key game in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

The day is already off to a bad start for the Bruins, losers of four in a row, when coach Bruce Cassidy announced that starting goaltender Tuukka Rask did not make the trip with the team and will not be available for the game. Anthon Khudobin will get the start in his place, while Zane McIntyre has been recalled from the American Hockey League on an emergency basis.

Cassidy said that Rask is dealing with a lower body injury and is considered day-to-day.

Rask did not practice with the team on Friday.

It is a massive game as both teams enter the night tied in the standings with 82 points. But because the Islanders have played one fewer game, they currently occupy the second wild card spot. They are both just one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in what is now pretty much a three-team race for that spot. It is the last meeting of the season between the two teams (Boston does play Tampa Bay once more).

Overall it has been another frustrating season for Rask, whose .910 save percentage is currently the worst of his career. He has really struggled during the Bruins’ current four-game losing streak, giving up 15 goals during that stretch.

Khudobin, meanwhile, has been on a bit of a roll for the Bruins in his recent starts following a terrible start to the season. He has won each of his past four starts, allowing just eight goals.

The Islanders are coming off of a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh on Friday night against the Penguins with Jaroslav Halak making his return to the team and picking up the win.

Brock Boeser will make NHL debut for Canucks today after signing entry level deal

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After a deal appeared imminent on Friday night the Vancouver Canucks made it official on Saturday morning and announced the signing of 2015 first-round draft pick Brock Boeser to an entry level contract.

Not only is he under contract with the Canucks, but he will also make his NHL debut on Saturday afternoon against his hometown team when the Canucks visit the Minnesota Wild.

The Canucks selected Boeser with the No. 23 overall pick in 2015.

He played his collegiate hockey at North Dakota where he put up some massive numbers, recording 94 points in 74 games over two seasons. That includes 16 goals and 18 assists in 32 games this season.

His addition to the Canucks lineup over the remaining nine games of the 2016-17 season will burn one of those years of his entry level contract, but it will give Canucks fans a glimpse of their future and maybe a reason for optimism in what has become a lost season. The Canucks enter the game having lost seven of their past eight.