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Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round. (Thursday at 7:30 pm on NBCSN or the NBC Sports app)

Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

“We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

“You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

“We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

“It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

Game 7, and the next career-defining moment for Tuukka Rask

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One of my favorite NHL things to watch from a distance right now is the way the city of Boston collectively eats itself alive arguing about whether or not Tuukka Rask is a good big game goalie, or a good goalie, or a bad goalie, or a bad big game goalie, or just some kind of a goalie.

Just doing a quick browse around the city’s sports hub to get a vibe for what the mindset is heading into Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live streamand you see him described as “divisive.” You see references to his poor (and to be fair, they are not great) numbers when the Bruins are facing elimination on home ice. And it even goes back before this game, like when he “again” left “a lot to be desired in a big game in Tampa.”

All of this matters, of course, because Rask hasn’t yet won a championship, and if a player hasn’t yet won a championship all of their postseason and big game shortcomings get magnified because, you know, they just can’t get it done when it matters, or something. Win one or two and nobody ever forgets it no matter how little you do after it.

You also had Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards taking the other side and calling out the Rask critics for not going to games and needing somebody to throw under the bus in a city that has had an embarrassment of riches in recent years when it comes to winning.

All of this makes Game 7 on Wednesday one of the defining moments of Rask’s career.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

At least until the next big game that will be the next defining moment of his career, with the result from that game — no matter what it is — making us forget about the result from this defining moment — no matter what it is.

If he wins, he came through in the clutch with a big game and rewrites the narrative of his career. At least temporarily.

If he loses, it is just another game where Rask came up small.

As an uninterested third party observer, it is all tremendous theatre, especially when you consider the reality that over the past 10 years Rask has been one of the best and most productive goalies in the NHL.

A goalie that probably 25 or 26 general managers and coaches in the NHL would have sold their souls to get.

That production is not just limited to regular season success, either. Among goalies with at least 50 playoff games played, Rask has the third-best postseason save percentage in NHL history.

That is worth something.

Every playoff game is a big game. And while the critics are not necessarily wrong to point out his record and struggles in games (the numbers are what they are,  you can not hide from them), there is also something to be said for the fact he has only had to play in six games in his career where the Bruins were even facing elimination. They’ve won five series in his career where they never once had to face elimination, including two on their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.

Comebacks make for compelling viewing and high drama, but there’s a lot to be said for blowing a team away early and not needing to rely on a comeback.

In one of those postseason series wins — a Conference Final, no less — he allowed just two goals in a four-game sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Are those not big games, too? Of course they are. Did he not come through for the Bruins against a team that had lit up the rest of the Eastern Conference before running into him and the Bruins? Of course he did. But because he and the Bruins lost to a buzzsaw of mini-dynasty in the Cup Final it gets forgotten (as does the fact he had a .931 save percentage it that series — maybe the guys in front of him should have scored more than a combined three goals in Games 5 and 6).

But this isn’t necessarily about just Tuukka Rask.

This is about the way we watch and analyze sports. We selectively pick and choose what is important based on what our preconceived ideas of a player or team are. We also observe these things from a bubble that is limited to what is happening in our immediate area. And that’s where Edwards kind of touched on something important when he remarked about Boston’s “embarrassment of riches” in recent years and needing to find something to be controversial.

Cities whose teams win a lot of championships — Boston and Pittsburgh come to mind here immediately — lose all perspective for how rare championships actually are. And they get greedy. They get spoiled. They get an unquenchable thirst for more and a belief that they deserve that next championship more than the other city because they’ve experienced it and winning is what they do. When the local teams inevitably fall short — and they always do eventually — somebody has to be the fall guy. Somebody has to take the blame for the missed opportunity. The city needs its pound of flesh to make itself feel better for losing.

Sometimes that pound of flesh comes from the best player for not scoring in the big game that the team happened to lose. Other times it is the goalie. But we always come for it.

Has Rask struggled in games where the Bruins are facing elimination? The numbers are what they are. But here’s the thing we lose sight of: Most goalies end up with poor records in elimination games because most teams end their season with a loss. Only one team ends its postseason with a win. This is true in every sport. There are 123 professional sports teams in the four major North American men’s sports leagues. Do you know how many of them have won a championship — just one — over the past 15 years? Only 37 of them. Roughly 30 percent. That means over the past 15 years 70 percent of the sports watching population has had their season end with bitter disappointment.

Championships are rare. Extremely rare. They are extraordinarily hard to win and there is never any one particular thing or player that is responsible for why a team won or lost one. More often than not your team is going to lose the next big game. That is just the nature of the beast that is professional sports.

So, back to Rask and Wednesday’s Game 7 against Boston.

What’s going to happen? No idea. He might play great and win. He might play so-s0 and lose. He might get pulled in the first period. He might play really well and lose to a goalie that just so happens to be a little bit better at the other end of the ice (which is exactly what happened in Game 6 in Toronto).

No matter what happens Rask is going to be the same goalie — one of the best in the league over the past decade — that he was coming into the game. We’ll just use this one game to largely define him and his career.

Until the next one.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins will be without Malkin, Hagelin for Game 1 vs. Capitals

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins open their second-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night they will be doing so without two of their top forwards.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced on Wednesday that even though both players skated on their own before practice, neither player will be available for the series opener. It is possible that Malkin will be ready for Game 2, but Hagelin will not even travel with the team to Washington.

Malkin was injured in Game 5 of the Penguins’ opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers when he was involved in a collision with Jakub Voracek. He returned to the game but did not play in the team’s Game 6 series-clinching win.

It was in that game that Hagelin was injured when he was hit by Flyers forward Claude Giroux.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with the two injuries the Penguins were still able to score six goals over the final 25 minutes of regulation, including four from Jake Guentzel, to leave Philadelphia with an 8-5 win, winning the series in six games.

Still, this is not a great way for the Penguins to be starting the second round against a better team. One of the big advantages the Penguins have had over the Capitals in the past two years has been their depth as the second-and third-lines did a lot of the damage in each series. Without Malkin and Hagelin, even if it is just for one or two games, they lose a lot of that advantage.

In Malkin’s absence on Sunday the Penguins elevated Riley Sheahan to the second line so they could keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together. That line has been excellent for them since it was put together.

Based on their practice lines from Wednesday that seems to be the way the Penguins will be approaching Game 1 as Sheahan and Dominik Simon skated on the second line next to Phil Kessel, while the Brassard-Rust-Sheary line remained together. Sidney Crosby will continue to center the top line between Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist, while Zach Aston-Reese, Carter Rowney, and Tom Kuhnhackl made up the fourth line.

Related: NHL announces second round opening games.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Heinen over Wingels right choice for Bruins in Game 7

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The Boston Bruins will make one change to their lineup heading into Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.

Danton Heinen, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6, will be back in the lineup, while Tommy Wingels, who’s played in three of the six games during the series, will watch from the press box again on Wednesday. On paper, this doesn’t seem to be a significant change, but head coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t just making changes for the sake of making changes.

Neither player has made an offensive impact in the series. Wingels has no points and a plus-1 rating in three games, while Heinen has no points and a minus-1 rating in five contests. Even though neither player has popped up on the scoresheet, there’s a significant gap when it comes to their advanced stats. Heinen has a CF% of 49.49, which doesn’t jump off the page, but when you compare it to Wingels’ CF% (39.34), you realize that there’s a significant difference. To further point the arrow in Heinen’s direction, the 22-year-old has zone starts in the offensive zone just 37.5 percent of the time compared to 47.62 percent for Wingels.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

So, in terms of offense, neither player has really contributed, but it appears to be pretty clear that the odds are on Heinen’s side when it comes to the way they’ve played this postseason.

If we take a look at the standard numbers during the regular season, it’s obvious that Heinen was the more productive player. The rookie had 16 goals and 47 points in 77 games, which is far from terrible for his first year in the NHL. Wingels, 30, had nine goals and 18 points in 75 games with the ‘Hawks and Bruins.

Getting an extra night off during the series could help Heinen find his game. And based on his comments after Tuesday’s practice, it sounds like the coaching staff made their instructions clear. Heinen mentioned that he needs to be more assertive, stronger on the puck and he needs to win puck battles so that he can have the puck on his stick a little more often.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

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Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.