James O'Brien

Alex Ovechkin

Pressing Playoff Question: Is this finally Alex Ovechkin’s time?

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What a difference a year makes.

Around this time in 2014, Alex Ovechkin experienced a season so rotten his hair literally turned gray. The Caps missed the playoffs, people obsessed over his plus/minus rating and the Russian Olympic hockey team crashed and burned in Sochi.

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Some paint Barry Trotz as the wizard who finally got Ovechkin to play along. Others say No. 8’s scoring stats really aren’t that different from 2013-14. Wherever you land in that specific argument, the tenor is far more positive regarding the Ovechkin this year than it was the last.

Much of sports writing revolves around praising or lambasting a star player when his team wins or loses — yet the dirty secret is that success or failure often boils down to the supporting cast.

So the biggest reason why this might be Ovechkin’s year isn’t because he stopped “gliding.” It’s because the Caps are the most competent and stable they’ve been since the happy days of the Bruce Boudreau era.

“This is a different team compared to the last couple years,” Ovechkin said, per CSN Washington. “A mature team, an experienced team.

“It’s a lot different.”

Simply put, Ovi’s getting a lot more help.

source: AP
Source: AP

 

Braden Holtby’s put together a borderline Vezina season; while Semyon Varlamov showed flashes of brilliance with Washington, the bottom line is that Holtby’s the best net option the Capitals have had since Ovechkin first put on that goofy eagle sweater.

The Capitals also invested big-time in their defense this offseason, and it’s paid off. Matt Niskanen is starting to feel it, with 11 of his 31 points pouring in since March. John Carlson’s enjoying easily the best season of his career, and Mike Green hasn’t been too shabby as he chases a new deal, either.

Washington’s offense isn’t as explosive as it once was, yet there’s reason to think that they can survive a slow night or two from their big guns. Ten different players scored at least 10 goals this year; 17 skaters scored at least 17 points. Marcus Johansson found the back of the net a career-high 20 times, and Troy Brouwer tied a personal best with 43 points.

Caps GM Brian McLellan says the club’s secondary scoring behind Ovechkin (and Nicklas Backstrom) could be vital for a successful Cup run.

“That’s going to be the key, I think, to winning a lot of the games,” he said, per CSN Washington. “Goals scored by third and fourth line guys at the right moment. A rebound goal, a traffic goal. I don’t think it’s total numbers, I think it’s more impact goals than it is anything else for those guys.

“We’re going to need all those guys to chip in – [Jason] Chimera, [Joel] Ward, Brooks Laich, [Curtis] Glencross – we’re going to need big goals from those guys to be successful.”

Overall, the Capitals have the most forward depth, best goalie and best defensive group since Ovechkin came to DC. They also have an experienced head coach in a wide-open Eastern Conference.

Will that be enough for Ovechkin to finally break through at the team level after all those years of frustration? A lot of things can happen in the postseason, obviously, but it’s been a long time since Ovechkin’s outlook was this optimistic.

Maurice describes Jets as huge underdogs vs. Ducks

Winnipeg Jets v Vancouver Canucks
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For some, it may seem obvious to call the Anaheim Ducks the favorites and the Winnipeg Jets the underdogs, as Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice did to the Winnipeg Sun.

Then again, considering the Jets’ strong finish and the Ducks’ recent history of playoff disappointment, it makes sense that Maurice still hast to come out and say it.

“We’re a huge, decided underdog in this series,” Maurice said. “They finished first, best team in the Western Conference. We didn’t. But we have some confidence in our game.”

Maurice praises the Ducks’ skill and size, pointing out that “you don’t finish first in the Western Conference by accident.”

Again, though, there are some who will look at the Jets as serious upset threats.

Beyond the scorching-hot finish for Winnipeg – particularly frequently embattled goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who ended the year on the run of his life – the Jets have been a strong possession team during the entire season and final stretch. They boast an array of quality forwards (especially underrated guys like Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little), a deep defense when healthy, and now possibly the goaltending they’ve been craving.

In other words, those who are paying attention probably think that the Jets shouldn’t sneak up on the Ducks at all, yet it’s understandable why Maurice might want to play that card.

Senators assistant Mark Reeds passes away at 55

Los Angeles Kings v Ottawa Senators
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The Ottawa Senators will enter the playoffs with heavy hearts, as word surfaced on Tuesday that assistant coach Mike Reeds died at the age of 55. Bayshore Broadcasting first reported the sad news that his battle with cancer has ended.

The news has been confirmed by the team.

Reeds had been fighting the disease for years before he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer recently. Bayshore Broadcasting’s report indicates that he was also dealing with pneumonia symptoms when he passed away on Tuesday morning.

Silver Seven Sens notes that he’s survived by his wife Mary and two children.

Reeds played 365 regular season games and 53 postseason contests at the NHL level, spending most of his career with the St. Louis Blues (who drafted him 86th overall in 1979). He also spent parts of two seasons with the Hartford Whalers.

He began his coaching career as an assistant coach with the Peoria Rivermen. Reeds won championships with the Kalamazoo Wings in the AHL and the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL before becoming a Senators assistant beginning in 2011-12.

The hockey world is already outpouring its support for the veteran coach, as you can see below.

PHT Morning Skate: 50 Cent and the Flames, plus 30 games in 30 nights

"Camino Al Concierto" Pre-Concert VIP Screening
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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

A Calgary radio station apparently remixed 50 Cents “In da Club” to celebrate the Calgary Flames’ playoff bid. Timely. (Bardown)

Who should the Buffalo Sabres target in their coaching search? These six choices definitely count as thinking big. (Buffalo News)

Canadian hockey fan Rob Suggitt managed to see 30 NHL games in 30 days, with a charitable twist. (Sportsnet)

Do the Carolina Hurricanes owe Alexander Semin a fresh start? (Canes Country)

This 15-minute feature on Carey Price from The National is a great watch.

In honor of Jamie Benn’s feat, the Dallas Morning News looked back at every Dallas Stars player who’s scored a hat trick. (Dallas Morning News)

(50 Cent photo via Film Magic.)

Bridge built: Oilers hand Yakupov two-year, $5M extension

Edmonton Oilers v Vancouver Canucks
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Nail Yakupov and the Edmonton Oilers are at a crossroads right now, so a “bridge” contract makes some sense. The team announced that they signed the young winger to a two-year deal on Monday.

The contract is worth $5 million overall, which shapes up to be $2.5 million per season. This is an affordable compromise, and maybe the first of at least two with key young players for the Oilers, as Edmonton still must take the next step with polarizing defenseman Justin Schultz.

Yakupov, 21, had just finished the final season of his entry-level contract after being the first pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. It’s been a bumpy development process so far for the Russian forward. Plus/minus is a widely derided stat, yet it might most succinctly tell the story of how tough things have been for him at times: Yakupov is a -72 for his short career, including an all-time low of -35 in 2014-15.

That’s by no means Yakupov’s fault alone, mind you.

The biggest thing is that he’s been streaky (at best) when it comes to scoring, yet the good news is that he’s shown some improvement to close out this past season. He scored 21 points in his last 31 games versus just 12 in the first 50 games.

There’s plenty of time for a breakthrough, and if it happens, the Oilers are getting a nice (short-term) bargain.