Cam Tucker

Capitals ‘entitled to nothing’ as NHL’s top regular season team entering playoffs

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Once again, the Washington Capitals are atop the NHL as the best regular-season team. Once again, the pressure’s on them as the favorite to win the Stanley Cup and prove this year won’t bring another early playoff exit.

Expectations have never been higher for Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, six years after their first Presidents’ Trophy and with their window drawing to a close. Being the best team over 82 games was worth nothing to Washington in 2010 when it lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, but this team isn’t running from the notion that it’s Stanley Cup or bust.

“We’re here to win a championship,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Anything less than that is unsuccessful in my mind.”

MacLellan isn’t the only one who holds that belief. The Capitals finished 11 points ahead of the field and boast the top goal-scorer in Ovechkin, arguably the best goaltender in Braden Holtby and one of the deepest defenses around.

With the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks looking not nearly as formidable as years past and no other dominant team in either the East or the West, this looks like the Capitals’ year. Ovechkin has heard that so much and yet hasn’t made it past the second round in seven previous tries.

“Every year you ask me the same question, `This is the year, this is the year?”‘ Ovechkin said. “You never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. It’s a total different thing.”

The unpredictability of playoff hockey is the biggest obstacle standing in the Capitals’ way. So much has to go right, from health to matchups to goaltending, and only eight of 29 Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.

Coach Barry Trotz brushes off the idea that winning the Presidents’ Trophy is a disadvantage. He’ll take the home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which is especially valuable to a team that won 29 of 41 games in its own rink.

“I can’t go to the bank and they’re going to give me anything,” Trotz said. “Other than (home ice), we’re entitled to nothing.”

The Capitals’ playoff shirts boast the slogan, “Entitled to Nothing,” to drive that point home. Their playoff hats read “XVI,” Roman numerals signifying the 16 wins needed to win the Cup.

“That’s our mentality, and it’s a good thing,” Ovechkin said.

Center Nicklas Backstrom remembers that empty feeling from six years ago when hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak ended the Capitals’ season in seven games. When they were on the verge of winning the Presidents’ Trophy last month with seven games to spare, Backstrom deadpanned that “it doesn’t mean anything.”

That loss is still an open wound in Washington.

Five players remain who took part in that series, and defenseman Karl Alzner said this group is wiser and less arrogant than in 2010 when there was a noticeable “strut” in their step entering the playoffs. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alzner, defenseman John Carlson and forward Jason Chimera are still around, but they’ve been joined by veteran defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Cup-winning forward Justin Williams and blossoming star center Evgeny Kuznetsov – players who don’t bear those scars.

“I think that you have a mental block sometimes against teams, players, whatever it is – goalies,” Alzner said. “Bringing in new players, new faces that don’t have that mental block helps you get over it.”

Trotz is also fresh, in his second season with the Capitals after 15 years with the Nashville Predators. But this is also uncharted territory for Trotz, who said he’s never gone into a playoff series as the prohibitive favorite, something Washington will be when it opens against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The regular-season success made the Capitals justifiable Cup favorites. Ovechkin said this team is much stronger mentally than in years past, and former coach Bruce Boudreau sees a group more prepared for Presidents’ Trophy expectations than when he was behind the bench in 2010.

“When we won the Presidents’ Trophy, they were young,” said Boudreau, now coach of the Anaheim Ducks. “Sometimes when you’re young, you think you’ve got the world by the tail and everything is going to happen great. These guys have gone through some rough times since that time, and so they know what they’re doing. … They’re ready to have their turn.”

And not just the Capitals’ turn to make the conference final for the first time since 1998. That would be a step forward and a sign of progress, but with Ovechkin nearing the end of his prime and so much going for them, the Capitals have a bigger opportunity to seize.

“We’re here to win it all,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know that if we get to the third round, does it make us feel any better? No. The only thing that makes you feel better is you win. … We recognize where we’re at and we want to win a championship.”

‘It’s not the highlight-film position’: Kings GM believes Doughty should win Norris Trophy

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File this under ‘What else would you expect?’

L.A. Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has firmly entrenched himself in the camp of Drew Doughty for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, and, based on the reports, he made an impassioned pitch as to why he is so steadfast in this belief.

Of course, the 26-year-old Doughty is up against a host of good blue liners in the NHL. None better than Senators star Erik Karlsson. All Karlsson, the reigning Norris winner and front runner for the award in 2016, did this season was lead the league in assists with 66 and was tied for fourth in league scoring with 82 points, playing just under 29 minutes a game to lead the NHL.

Doughty was third in the league in ice time, at 28:01, during the regular season. He had 51 points in 82 games, and almost half of his points were on the power play.

Both Karlsson and Doughty were strong possession players at five-on-five, with Doughty posting a 58.9 per cent Corsi For rating, as per War-on-Ice, on a Kings team that dominates in this element of the game.

Doughty’s had a rating of 0.6 points per 60 minutes, while Karlsson hit a staggering 1.6 points per 60 minutes.

Lombardi’s main message was to look beyond the statistics.

“It’s not the highlight-film position. It’s not supposed to be, and then we turned it (into one) because (of) Paul Coffey,” Lombardi said, as per L.A. Daily News. “I guess, he pulled it off. But at least Paul Coffey was in the playoffs. And this stuff that (Doughty) plays for a better team?

“How good do you think we are without him? How about the other way around?”

Yes, the Senators did not make the playoffs and, as a result, the fallout has been swift. The Kings are Stanley Cup contenders, though getting out of the first round against the San Jose Sharks will be quite a challenge.

Although, it really is hard to look past the season that Karlsson put together.

From the CBC:

It’s the first time a defenceman has finished in the top five of league scoring in 30 years, since Edmonton’s Paul Coffey was third with 138 points in the 1985-86 season. Karlsson is only the fifth blue-liner in league history to achieve the feat.

No blue-liner had reached 80 points since Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom racked up that many with the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06, while Brian Leetch recorded 85 points with the 1995-96 New York Rangers.

 

 

‘We’re not handing anything to them’: Sens hope to ruin Bruins playoff hopes

Boston Bruins left wing Matt Beleskey (39) slams Ottawa Senators left wing Mike Hoffman (68) against the board during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo
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The Ottawa Senators aren’t going to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not a single Canadian team is, but that’s old news.

They do, however, have the chance to ruin the playoff hopes of the Boston Bruins in their regular season finale on Saturday. And the Senators are hoping to play that role of spoiler.

Should the Senators beat the Bruins in regulation, and the Philadelphia Flyers defeat the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in any fashion later in the day, Boston is eliminated from post-season contention in a late-season collapse highlighted by a five-game losing streak in late-March.

“We’re not handing anything to them,” Senators forward Zack Smith told the Ottawa Sun. “We’ve had enough battles with them. There is a little bit of a rivalry there, too. We don’t owe anything to them, we have to go in there and win the game.

“Everyone has to find motivation from somewhere, whether it’s personal goals or just wanting to prove some things to different people that we’re not giving up, that we do have something to play for.”

Even though the Senators are out of it, they could present a challenge for the Bruins. At least, that’s what the Bruins are expecting.

“There’s no pressure on them, there’s no doubt,” said Boston’s coach Claude Julien, as per the club’s website. “They played a very solid game last night against Florida [in a 3-1 victory]. Just goes to show us that no matter what the situations are at this time of the year, there are no easy games.

“There’s a lot of pride. There’s a lot of players playing for jobs. There’s a lot of reasons for every team to want to win hockey games. And no doubt, if I was in their shoes, I’d say, ‘let’s finish on a winning note here.’”

Vlasic will ‘be ready for playoffs, which is good news’ for Sharks

Marc-Edouard Vlasic
AP Photo

It’s possible Marc-Edouard Vlasic plays Saturday for the San Jose Sharks in their regular season finale. That hasn’t been ruled out.

But they could also choose to give him one more night of rest, as the steady defenseman closes in on a return from a lower-body injury that has kept him out since March 17.

According to Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area, it’s believed Vlasic is dealing with a sprained MCL.

The Sharks play the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday, but they’ll finish third in the Pacific Division no matter what. If Vlasic doesn’t play versus the Coyotes, it appears he’ll be fine to return to the San Jose lineup when the post-season begins next week.

“He looks good,” said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer, as per CSN Bay Area.

“We’ll make some decisions on tomorrow’s lineup, but I know for a fact he’ll be ready for the playoffs, which is good news.”

That would be a big boost to the Sharks.

Vlasic isn’t flashy by any means. But he was putting together another solid season, with eight goals and 39 points in 67 games. He also had a 52.8 per cent Corsi For rating and a career-best 1.2 points-per-60-minutes at five on five, as per War-on-Ice.

Struggling Flyers believe they control their playoff destiny

There are numerous clinching and elimination scenarios for Saturday. For the Philadelphia Flyers, their inclusion in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs as an Eastern Conference Wild Card team may come down to winning both games this weekend.

Win both of those and they would reach 96 points.

The highest point total both the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins — the only other teams that haven’t clinched a post-season berth — can achieve is 95. Both of those teams have one game remaining on their respective schedules, and they’ll close those out during a busy Saturday around the NHL.

The Bruins host the Ottawa Senators. The Red Wings are on the road versus Antti Raanta, instead of Henrik Lundqvist, and the New York Rangers.

The Flyers have lost three straight, with one of a possible six points in that time. Those losses have come against the rival Penguins, a Red Wings team still looking to lock up its 25th straight playoff appearance, and the Maple Leafs, who have been in the running for Auston Matthews for months now.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

If either Boston or Detroit loses in regulation, the Flyers just need one win in their final two games to secure a playoff spot.

“Two months ago, if you would have told us we’d be in this position, we would take it,” captain Claude Giroux said.

But their position would be less precarious if they didn’t lose in succession to Pittsburgh, Detroit and Toronto by a combined 13-5 margin. The Flyers have not led at any point in those three games, and their power play has been a combined 0 for 10.

On Saturday, the Flyers host the Penguins. In their last meeting, Pittsburgh crushed Philly by four goals, which started this inopportune downturn for the Flyers.

By the time the Flyers hit the ice tomorrow versus the Penguins, the results could start rolling in from Boston and New York. If the Bruins and Red Wings are victorious, Philly would need a win versus red-hot Pittsburgh plus another win Sunday against the New York Islanders in their finale.

But if either the Red Wings or Bruins lose in regulation, the Flyers can clinch with a win.

The Flyers would be eliminated from playoff contention if they lose in regulation, and the Bruins and Red Wings both earn at least a single point in their respective games, or if the Flyers lose in overtime or the shootout and the Red Wings and Bruins both win in any fashion.

Will the Flyers have a playoff spot locked up before Sunday? Will they be eliminated by then? Or will their post-season fate rest on Game 82?