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This might be Alex Ovechkin’s most impressive goal scoring season yet

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It is the middle of December and Alex Ovechkin is in a familiar spot at the top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard.

After scoring in each of the Capitals’ past two games, he finds himself tied with Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot with 23 goals.

He is trying to win what would be his seventh goal scoring crown (something only Bobby Hull has done) and is on pace to top the 50-goal mark for the eighth time.

Only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy (nine each) have more.

Even for Ovechkin, a player that has made a habit out of scoring 50 goals and winning goal scoring crowns, it is a standout performance for two big reasons.

The first being that he is rebounding from what was (by Ovechkin’s standards) a “down” year in 2016-17 when he finished with the second lowest goal output of his career (33) and the lowest even-strength goal performance (16). Remember the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons when his goal-scoring slumped to a more human level and everyone freaked out that he was done as an elite player or goal-scorer? Same thing kind of happened a season ago, even if to a lesser extent. He rebounded then, and he is rebounding now.

The second is that he is defying age and not only besting the rest of the league when it comes to scoring goals, but also father time.

So far this season Ovechkin has already topped his even-strength goal total from a season ago (17 as of Monday) and is on a pace to score 55 goals.

[Is Alex Ovechkin clutch?]

The second number is the big one because if he is able to maintain that pace (do you want to bet against him maintaining it? I don’t) it would be a pretty historic performance for no other reason than the fact almost nobody scores goals at this level at this age.

Ovechkin turned 32 years old just before the start of the 2017-18 season and is still the most dominant goal scorer in the league.

This is almost unheard of in an era of the NHL.

A few things to consider, just for historical context here

• Only four players in league history have scored at least 50 goals in a season in their age 32 season or older. John Bucyk (51) did it during the 1970-71 season at age 35. Bobby Hull (51) did it during the 1971-72 season at age 33. Phil Esposito (61)  did it during the 1974-75 season at age 32. Jaromir Jagr (54) did it during the 2005-06 season at age 33. That is it. Esposito is the only one to score at least 55.

• Going back to the start of the league (1917-18) the average age of the NHL’s goal-scoring leaders in each season is 26.1. That number lines up with when players typically hit their peak performance as goal scorers (usuallybetween the ages of 22 and 26). Ovechkin is currently on a pace to do it (or at least share it) at age 32.

• If he is able to win the goal-scoring crown this season he would be just the eighth player in league history to lead the league (or share the lead) in goal scoring at age 32 or older. Only one of them has done it in the post-Original Six era. The other six: Cy Denney did it at age 32 during the 1923-24 season. Bill Cook did it at ages 35 and 36 during the 1931-32 and 1932-33 seasons. Maurice Richard did it at ages 32 and 33 during the 1953-54 and 1954-55 seasons. Gordie Howe did it at age 34 during the 1962-63 season. Esposito did it during the 1974-75 season.

• Aside from potentially leading the league at an age when most players do not accomplish that, let’s also not lose sight of the fact he is currently on pace for the third best goal scoring season of his career. Let’s just, for comparisons sake, look at the top-10 goal scorers in league history and how old they were during the top-three goal-scoring seasons in their careers.

Wayne Gretzky: 21, 23, 24
Gordie Howe: 24, 23, 28
Jaromir Jagr: 23, 33, 28
Brett Hull: 26, 25, 27
Marcell Dione: 27, 29, 31
Phil Esposito: 28, 31, 29
Mike Gartner: 25, 31, 21
Mark Messier: 21, 22, 35
Steve Yzerman: 23, 24, 27
Mario Lemieux: 23, 22, 27

There are only five seasons out of that group where one of them was over the age of 30, and only two (Jaromir Jagr at 33 and Mark Messier at 35) where they were over the age of 32.

Obviously a lot of this for this season is based on projections.

He would not only have to remain healthy (something that has not been an issue for him in his career) but also maintain his current pace to make the history he is chasing here. Obviously we can not project injuries, but as long as he stays healthy this season there is no reason to believe that he can not maintain the pace he is currently on. His shots per game numbers have increased by more than a full shot per game versus a year ago. His shooting percentage has rebounded a little. He is scoring more regularly during even-strength play. Put it all together and you have one of the NHL’s all-time greatest goal-scorers putting together one of his most impressive seasons yet.

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.

The Buzzer: Bolts send Devils packing, Caps jump ahead, Leafs extend series

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Three games on Saturday

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning win series 4-1)

The Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, but their 2017-18 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday. They’ll be disappointed, but this season was a success for the group. As for the Bolts, they’ve punched their ticket to the second round after a terrific regular season. The Lightning received point-per-game production from Nikita Kucherov (1o points), Steven Stamkos (6 points) and Alex Killorn (5 points), but they also had 14 different players pick up a point during the series.

 Washington Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (Capitals lead series 3-2)

Four of the five games in the series have gone to overtime. Game 5 was a typical back and forth affair, as the Jackets scored first before the Capitals went up 2-1. Columbus tied the game, Washington went ahead, again, 3-2, but a dominant third period led to the Blue Jackets forcing overtime. Nicklas Backstrom tipped-home the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Capitals the first home win of the series. This has clearly been the best first-round series of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (Bruins lead series 3-2)

The Maple Leafs jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads, but the Bruins managed to make things interesting in the third period. Boston had a number of power play opportunities, but they couldn’t cash in. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ll have to go back on the road to try to put the Leafs to bed. The Leafs managed to keep Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet on Saturday. Replicating that two more times won’t be easy.

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom scored two goals, including the overtime winner against the Blue Jackets in Game 5. He also added an assist on T.J. Oshie‘s go-ahead goal late in the second frame. The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The 30-year-old has two goals and eight points in five games this postseason.

2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals had a one-goal lead heading into the third frame, but they were badly outplayed in the third period. Holtby is the biggest reason why Washington was able to make it to overtime at all. The Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 16-1 in the third frame. Holtby had a rough season, but his play in Game 5 was very encouraging.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs had to kill a number of penalties during their Game 5 win over the Bruins, and Andersen was one of the key reasons they were able to do so. The Leafs netminder faced at least 40 shots for the third time in five games (he’s 2-1 in those contests). If Toronto wants to force a seventh game, they’ll need him to turn in another fantastic performance on Monday night.

Factoid of the Night

Sunday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 7:00 p.m. ET

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.

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

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.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck