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Capitals talk about need to ‘loosen up a bit’ heading into Game 5

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If you’re a Washington Capitals fan you have no doubt seen this movie before.

Entering Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night, the team is facing elimination against its long-time arch nemesis and postseason tormenter after what was a wildly successful regular season. It is a scene that has played several times over the years, and if the Capitals are going to flip the script and erase all of those disappointing memories they are going to have to win three consecutive games starting tonight.

Before Saturday’s game several members of the Capitals talked about the need to clear their heads, stay loose, and not grip their sticks too tight heading into what is, at the moment, their biggest game of the season.

Said defenseman Matt Niskanen, via Stephen Whyno of the Associated Press, “you can’t play well if you’re tight. Those sprinters, they’re loose. Your body works better. You have to clear your head.”

Starting goalie Braden Holtby said it is still a confident group and that the team realizes they are “gripping our sticks a bit tight and we just need to loosen up a bit.”

The most interesting comment, though, may have come from defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

“With the history in this locker room, what’s happened in the past, it can cause you to grip your stick a little bit tighter.”

You might be noticing a theme in those comments.

What is so fascinating about Shattenkirk’s comment referencing the past is that he has only been a Capital for a couple of months and never experienced the things that happened to the team in the past. The fact that he’s referencing the past is, if nothing else, interesting and would seem to suggest that all of that stuff is at least on the minds of the players.

It’s also interesting because following the Capitals’ Game 4 loss in Pittsburgh (a game where the Capitals once again seemed to carry the play only to lose thanks to a great goaltending effort from Marc-Andre Fleury and a handful of self inflicted mistakes on the part of the Capitals) coach Barry Trotz was asked if his team’s struggles against the Penguins come down to “something mental.”

“Not really,” said Trotz. “I just think it’s more right now we have to find a way to get an extra goal. We have to get An extra save. I thought our top guys weren’t as good as they needed to be tonight.”

The Capitals have tried pretty much everything in this series to this point to get that extra goal or save. They benched their Vezina Trophy winning goalie in Game 2. They have used seven defensemen. They benched Brett Connolly, a 15-goal scorer during the regular season, for Paul Carey. They are apparently going to play Alex Ovechkin on the third-line on Saturday, most likely in an effort to double-shift him. They have outshot and outchanced the Penguins by a significant margin in just about every game. The results, so far, remain the same.

Panarin trying to ‘find chemistry’ with new teammates in Columbus

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Artemi Panarin faced his old team, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Tuesday.

It was only preseason and Panarin didn’t register a point in just over 22 minutes of ice time, and 8:17 on the power play.

But there was an interesting nugget to come from his media availability following the game — Panarin’s first against his old team following this summer’s blockbuster trade between the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets.

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Panarin was loose and comfortable, occasionally chatting in English and frequently devolving into giggle fits with teammates Vitaly Abramov and Matiss Kivlenieks, who tried in vain to interpret for him. In fact, Panarin said he was ‘‘glad’’ to be with the Blue Jackets, where he’ll have more creative control on the ice. As dynamic as he and Patrick Kane were as linemates, Kane is basically a center playing wing, dominating the puck.

With the Blue Jackets, Panarin can be that guy.

‘‘I can play a little bit more with the puck,’’ Panarin said through the interpreters. ‘‘Just kind of express myself on the ice a little bit more.’’

In two NHL seasons, both with Chicago, Panarin has been a scoring threat, reaching the 30-goal mark twice. Now with Columbus, Panarin is on a two-year contract worth a total of $12 million and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency when this deal concludes, per CapFriendly.

With the Blackhawks, Panarin spent plenty of time alongside Kane and it appears there has been suggestions that his offensive production was inflated as the result of playing on a line with Kane.

That suggestion has annoyed Panarin. Still, he joins a Blue Jackets team already equipped with a strong nucleus of young players that made considerable progress with a franchise-setting regular season in 2016-17.

“We’ll see how the season will go,” Panarin told the Chicago Tribune. “Beginning of the season maybe I’ll need to make some adjustments, but I just try to find chemistry with my new partners. It’s still in progress.”

NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”

 

Report: Up to eight teams have recently expressed interest in Duchene

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Another day, another development in the ongoing, lengthy Matt Duchene trade saga.

“Many teams are interested and many teams have been talking with (general manager) Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche. Up to as many as eight teams over the last stretch of days,” said TSN’s Darren Dreger during Insider Trading.

“But the reality is none of these teams think they’re getting him. If you look at the Ottawa Senators, Pierre Dorion has been among the more aggressive and you look at the need he has with Clarke MacArthur out and Colin White out. But I’m pretty sure Ottawa doesn’t think they’re getting Matt Duchene. And the same applies to Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, the Los Angeles Kings, the Nashville Predators and the Columbus Blue Jackets.”

Yesterday, it was reported in the Ottawa Sun that the Senators were making quite an aggressive push to try to land Duchene, the Avalanche center who has been for months the focus of trade speculation following yet another disastrous season for Colorado’s NHL team. That said, the same report added that the two sides aren’t close.

Duchene has two years remaining on his current contract — five years, $6 million annual cap hit — before he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency.

The Senators are dealing with a list of injuries up front right now, including the aforementioned MacArthur and White, the prospect center who got only a small sample of NHL playing time this past spring after his college season ended and he turned pro. The former did not pass his physical at the beginning of camp and the latter was announced as being out six to eight weeks with a wrist injury.

Last week, Duchene reported for training camp and gave a brief statement to reporters but didn’t take questions. He has since spoken to Mike Chambers of The Denver Post, calling his future with the Avalanche “day to day.”

“I’m not going to predict the future on my longevity here,” Duchene told The Denver Post. “I’m day by day. I’m just enjoying playing hockey. A lot got blown out of proportion. I said what I wanted to say then. Nothing’s changed since Thursday. I’m here to get better, I’m here for those reasons — that I said on Thursday.”

Trocheck’s upper-body injury not believed to be ‘anything serious’

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Vincent Trocheck scored a goal during Tuesday’s exhibition game versus Nashville, however the 24-year-old forward had his night limited by an upper-body injury.

Trocheck recorded 6:49 of ice time — the vast majority of that taking place on the power play — in the first period and missed the second and third periods.

Per reports, Trocheck was to have the injury re-evaluated today.

“He had an upper-body injury, I don’t think it’s anything serious,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner told 560 WQAM Sports Radio on Wednesday. “I expect him back for practice in the next couple days.”

Originally a third-round selection in the 2011 NHL Draft, Trocheck enjoyed a breakout season in 2015-16 with 25 goals and 53 points, emerging as one of Florida’s promising young forwards.

He followed that up with 23 goals and 54 points last season. That point total led the Panthers, a team that was decimated by injuries to a number of key players, particularly Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau.