Hockey world reacts to Wade Belak’s death

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In the wake of the NHL’s third horrific tragedy this offseason, the hockey world is starting to understand the weight of today’s events and come to terms with the heartbreak. Throughout the afternoon, both current and former players, announcers, agents, and journalists have all shared the sympathy and exchanged their thoughts on Wade Belak’s passing today. The common theme is that Belak was an unbelievably kind man who was quick to share a joke and bring laughter to people’s lives. Once again, the hockey world has lost one of its own way too soon.

Instead of sharing my individual thoughts, here’s a sample of the outpouring for the man who leaves behind a wife and two children. If you have any thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney:

“Such sad news about Wade Belak. Always heard great things about him. Thought go out to his family. RIP.”

Calgary Flames’ statement via James Mirtle (The Globe and Mail):

“We are deeply saddened with the news of Wade’s passing. We are proud that Wade wore the Calgary uniform and we will always remember him as member of the Flames Family. We would like to express our sincere sympathies to the Belak family. This is a terrible loss of a vibrant young man; a man with great character who truly loved the game of hockey.”

Eric Francis from the Calgary Sun and Hockey Night in Canada’s Hotstove

Wade Belak RIP. This one’s tough. As good a guy as you’d meet. He was great for the game and teammates. Sadness and shock hits hockey again.”

St. Louis Blues’ radio play-by-play man Chris Kerber:

“Boogard, Rypien, Belak – Their deaths may be purely coincidental & no similarities but at least a Q of are there similarities must be asked.”

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Commodore:

“I remember skating with Wade 13 years ago at a summer camp when I was 18 and in college. He was a pro, he worked hard, he was funny and he was extremely nice to me and he didn’t have to be. I was just a college kid. I looked up to him ever since then. You’ll be missed Wade.”

Former NHL enforcer Chris Dingman speaking about his own experiences:

“Terrible news about belak. Had many battles with him in junior, tough guy on the ice, great guy off the ice. My heart goes out to his family. People think sports, and most just see a lifestyle. It is really hard mentally and physically. Especially hard when your done. When your done, your left to let ponder, what do I do with, myself now? Tough to ponder… More needs to be done to ease the transition.”

NHL agent Scott Norton:

“Boogard, Rypien and now Belak? Maybe we should spend less time worrying how they play on the ice, and more time helping em cope off?”

“Sports leagues r so proud about war on#steroids, when we gonna wake up + realize that booze, cocaine + pain killers r killing our athletes?”

Newly retired NHLer Dave Scatchard:

“This is the worst summer I’ve ever seen with regards to tragedies in the NHL. I pray this all ends here. #RIPwadebelak. #Iwillmissumyfriend”

Ex-teammate Jordin Tootoo:

“Very sad to loose a great teammate and a better person in Wade Belak. The Tootoo family send his family all our thoughts and prayers.”

Another ex-teammate in Steve Sullivan:

“RIP Wade. Great father, husband, teammate and friend. You leave us way too early. You will be missed. Strength to your family and friends!”

Adrian Dater from the Denver Post and Sports Illustrated:

“Wade Belak death will bring changes to NHL. Good guy, good family, but the life is brutal for a fighter and self esteem is low. I’ve seen it”

Predators beat-writer Joshua Cooper passed along some of GM David Poile’s thoughts:

“Poile: “Everybody knew when Wade Belak was in the room because he was big, he was loud and he was fun.”

But of all the people who have already shared their thoughts, perhaps Bruce Arthur of the National Post said it best:

“But if he was a tortured enforcer, he was also a great actor of the age. I never met a happier-seeming guy in hockey. He always seemed at ease; he was freshly retired, and in town to appear on the CBC’s reality show, where he surely would have been the star. Except he’s dead, and hockey feels sick again, right to its stomach.

Of all the guys who play that increasingly anachronistic role, Belak was the last guy you expected to die young. He apparently told a Calgary radio station last week that he was happy and healthy, and his head wasn’t ringing. When he talked about his retirement with the Post’s Sean Fitz-Gerald last week, he said, “I thought about having a press conference, but I didn’t want to make an ass of myself.”

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better defense?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Caps will go into the Stanley Cup Final will the best defenseman on either side. John Carlson has been one of the better defenders in the league throughout the 2017-18 season. He managed to pick up an impressive 68 points in 82 games during the season and he’s added 16 points in 19 games during the playoffs. Not only is he capable of leading the charge offensively, he’s also relied upon to play significant minutes (averages almost 26 minutes during the playoffs). The Golden Knights don’t have anyone like him on their roster. That’s a fact.

Michal Kempny, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline, has been serving as Carlson’s partner during the playoffs. Kempny hasn’t looked out of place, but playing with Carlson has helped make him look good (his overall CF% is 48.04 percent. When Carlson isn’t on the ice with him it drops to 43.84).

Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov round out the top four for the Capitals. Both players have been relatively solid for the Capitals during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. Orlov has eight points in 19 games and he averages 24:32 of ice time, while Niskanen has eight points in 19 contests and he averages 25:31 per game.

Things get a lot more interesting on the third period, which is made up of veteran Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos. The pairing has been a liability for the Caps throughout the playoffs. There’s a decent chance that they’ll be exposed by Vegas’ speed a few times during the series.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

As we mentioned before, Vegas doesn’t have a clear number one blue liner like Carlson, but they have a group of six players that seem to play well as a unit.

The Golden Knights defense is made up of Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Luca Sbisa and Jon Merrill. None of those names really jump off the page when you look at the individually, but they’ve been good enough to help get the Golden Knights to this point.

No hockey fan considers Schmidt and McNabb as a top pairing and most people thought Deryk Engelland’s days in the NHL were done, but all three of those players have played significant roles for their team.

Before you sell the Vegas defense short, keep in mind that they have Marc-Andre Fleury behind them, which will cover up a lot of their shortcomings. Braden Holtby has been good for Washington, but Fleury has been dominant from the start of the playoffs and he hasn’t gone through a prolonged slump at any point.

Advantage: Capitals. 

The Capitals are at a disadvantage when you compare the bottom pairings of both teams, but the fact that they have the best blue liner in the series really helps shift this discussion their way. Even though Kempny is far from being a top-pairing defenseman, the fact that he plays with Carlson helps make him better. Also, the second pairing of Niskanen and Orlov plays a factor in this decision.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

At the start of the season, no one in their right mind would have put the Caps’ forward depth and Golden Knights’ forward depth in the same galaxy, but nine months later, here we are.

So, which of these two teams has the better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

Washington is loaded with so much depth down the middle, it’s scary. Assuming Nicklas Backstrom is healthy, that would give them a dynamic one-two punch of Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is currently riding a 10-game point streak. Both players would clearly be number one centers on most of other teams in the NHL. They both have dynamic offensive ability and they have the ability to make their linemates better.

On the third line, the Caps have the luxury of having a complete player like Lars Eller at their disposal. The 29-year-old scored 18 times during the regular season and he’s amassed five goals and 13 points in 19 postseason games this year. For a third-line player, his touch in the offensive zone is pretty good and he’s fully capable of killing penalties, too.

Jay Beagle continues to serve as the Caps’ fourth line center. He’s not the flashiest player on the roster, but he’s a smart veteran that is capable of playing a sound defensive game. He can also chip in offensively every so often, but that’s not his speciality.

By comparison, the Golden Knights have used a couple of centers that were flying under the radar coming into the season. Not only have William Karlsson and Erik Haula been two of the biggest surprises on the team, they’ve arguably been the biggest surprises in the entire league.

Karlsson has been centering Vegas’ top line with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. That trio has established themselves as one of the best lines in hockey. The chemistry that they formed has been incredible. They were so good that Karlsson ended up scoring 43 goals and 78 points in 2017-18. He’s added six goals and 13 points in 15 playoff games.

As for Haula, he managed to put up 29 goals and 55 points during the regular season. No one saw that coming when he left Minnesota (it probably cost GM Chuck Fletcher his job). Things have been a little more quiet for him in the playoffs, as he’s racked up seven points in 15 games. For the Golden Knights to go all the way, they’ll need him and some of the other secondary scorers to step up.

Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare round out the centers on Vegas’ roster. Both players bring a physical element to the game and they’re both sound when it comes to the defensive side of the puck.

Advantage: Caps. As good as the Golden Knights have been, it seems pretty clear that Washington has the superior centers heading into the Stanley Cup Final. What does that mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. After all, the Winnipeg Jets probably had a better group of centers and they still couldn’t take down Vegas.

WINGERS

Comparing the wingers on these two teams is pretty interesting.

Most people would agree that Alex Ovechkin is the best forward on either side (stop being friends with whoever disagrees). The 32-year-old is second on the team in points (22) behind Kuznetsov and he racked up 49 goals during the regular season. The Golden Knights don’t have anyone that can compare. Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t win the series, it just means that they’ll likely have to do it by committee.

As you’d imagine, there’s a significant drop off on Washington’s depth chart after Ovechkin. They have everyone’s favorite player, Tom Wilson, and they have skilled wingers like T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Game 7 hero Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly. That’s far from a terrible group of forwards, but there’s an argument to be made that after Ovechkin, the Golden Knights have more quality wingers than the Caps.

Marchessault might just be the second best winger in the series after Ovechkin. After a disappointing performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, the 27-year-old stepped up and led his team to a berth in the final. Through 15 playoff games, he’s racked up an impressive 18 points.

Smith has just two goals this postseason, but he’s been the set up guy for his team. The 27-year-old has piled up 14 helpers this postseason and he does a lot of the heavy-lifting defensively for his line.

David Perron has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries, so that could be one of the reasons why he has no goals this postseason. Maybe the extra time off before the start of the final will help him recover from whatever’s bothering him.

James Neal is another forward capable of putting up offensive numbers for Vegas. The pending unrestricted free agent nine points in 15 games while playing on his team’s second line.

Vegas also has Tomas Tatar, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, Alex Tuch and Ryan Carpenter that can also contribute to varying degrees.

On the wing, it’s advantage: Golden Knights.

OVERALL

When you look at both groups of forwards as a whole, there isn’t a huge gap between the two sides. But the fact that Washington arguably has the three best forwards in Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin has to separate them from Vegas.

That’s not meant to disrespect the Golden Knights in any way, but giving them an advantage in this department just isn’t possible. Not only are the Capitals better down the middle, which is crucial, they also have the best winger in the series.

Advantage: Capitals. 

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

After ’20 long, dry years,’ Caps are finally back in Stanley Cup Final

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WASHINGTON (AP) Jimmy Patterson was a fresh-faced 22-year-old in the stands at the old Capital Centre in October 1974 when the expansion Washington Capitals won for the first time.

As he was leaving, an elderly man from Brooklyn told Patterson he’d always get to say he saw the Capitals’ first win. The man smiled and added, “You can’t lose ’em all.”

Forty-plus years, more than 3,000 games and 27 unsuccessful playoff runs later, Patterson and legions of longtime Capitals fans finally have a reason to believe that. Many who watched Wednesday night at an arena watch party far from Game 7 in Tampa Bay took to the steps of the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Capitals’ first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998. Game 1 in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights is Monday night.

“It’s been really gratifying,” said Patterson, now 65. “It feels a lot different, and it’s a weird feeling.”

Filling the area, fans chanted, “We want the Cup,” “We want Vegas” and “DC! DC!” in an outpouring of joy decades and crushing losses in the making. Alex Ovechkin‘s Capitals are the first Washington team in the major four professional sports leagues to reach the final in a generation. To get this far, they had to not only outlast the Lightning but survive longtime playoff nemesis Pittsburgh, which has won the last two championships.

“It’s been 20 long, dry years and we are back,” Capitals public address announcer Wes Johnson said. “This is catharsis. Once we beat the Penguins, then you could see that the fan base was like, `Let’s just play hockey.’ As John Walton said, it’s OK to believe. It’s not just OK to believe. Just believe.”

Among markets with teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, only the Twin Cities in Minnesota has a longer championship drought going than Washington. The Redskins won their third Super Bowl title in January 1992 and it’s been mostly grim since then. None of the Redskins, Wizards, Nationals and Capitals even reached a league semifinal from 1998 until this spring.

In that same time, Boston’s teams have made 25 league semifinal appearances and won 10 titles. Maybe success is contagious.

“Last year all of those (other Washington) teams made the playoffs and then it was like, hey we got to do the same too, and we dropped the ball,” Redskins running back Chris Thompson said. “If you see your D.C. teams succeeding and the Capitals now (in) the finals and stuff like that, it’s a little bit of motivation.”

The Capitals got over the hump in their 10th playoff appearance after early exits marred by sudden-death overtime winners, a hot goaltender named Jaroslav Halak, the New York Rangers and – of course – the Penguins.

“It’s just been one nightmare after another,” said Anthony Beverina, who has had season tickets in section 417 since 1997-98. “And it makes you wonder if there’s some inherit either cosmic conspiracy or a core character issue in the core guys.”

The nightmare has slowly felt like a dream on this playoff run, which was unexpected following an offseason of salary-cap casualties in the wake of another crushing second-round loss to Pittsburgh. Players rallied around lower preseason expectations, and even going into the playoffs Washington wasn’t supposed to do this.

“This team is so fun,” said George Christo, a Boston transplant who has had season tickets since 1995-96. “This team is the most fun since that ’98 team primarily because, both of those teams, who on earth expected either of these teams to be able to get this deep and to be that tough?”

After so many early playoff exits, Capitals fans are reluctant to feel too good about things. Christo said even his children have almost gotten sick of going to games -until this year, which has challenged a lot of the old conventions about doomsday D.C. sports.

“There are people sitting in season-ticket-holder seats because they’re home mashing teeth and biting their fingernails,” Patterson said. “A lot of fans around the country when their team is in the playoffs, they like to have get-togethers and parties, viewing parties for the away games and stuff like that. But if you’ve been through some of this stuff, after the second game of a playoff series, there won’t be any of that because you can’t have your friends over and watch a game and then have everybody in that awful mood when it’s over and they’re shaking hands and you’re on the losing side.”

It was the opposite Wednesday night when almost 10,000 people wearing red watched on video screens above a basketball court as Capitals players and coaches were on the winning side of their handshake line with the Lightning. Cheers greeted Ovechkin touching the Prince of Wales Trophy and then the flash of the Stanley Cup Final schedule before the series against former general manager George McPhee’s Vegas Golden Knights begins.

“We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final,” Ovechkin said. “I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished, you know what I mean. I don’t know, I’m emotional right now. I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Game 3 on June 2 will be the first Cup Final game in the district since 1998, when the Capitals were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. One more win will make this the most successful season in franchise history, and though superstition and history keeps fans from thinking about the “what if” of four more, they’re no longer afraid to enjoy the ride.

“Now you’re excited by the win, you’re not just dreading how are they going to blow this game,” Beverina said. “It’s been nothing but fun this year.”

That fun extends to the Capitals’ locker room, which looked to have much less talent on paper than in previous seasons. But players feel different about this year, too, and have embraced each other as much as their common goal.

“I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper or whatever. But this team everyone knows their role and everyone wants to pitch in and everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident and confident in each other.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
Stanley Cup Final Schedule

PHT Morning Skate: Caps are officially underdogs; What went wrong with ‘Hawks, Rangers?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• TSN’s Scott Cullen continues his off-season game plan previews by taking a deeper look at what Dallas has to do to make it back to the playoffs. (TSN.ca)

• Rotoworld’s Corey Abbott looks back at what went wrong for the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers in 2017-18. (Rotoworld)

• Down Goes Brown breaks down how the Golden Knights shattered conventional wisdom in the NHL. Their story is fascinating. (Sportsnet)

Alex Galchenyuk has played six seasons in the NHL, but where does he stand with the Montreal Canadiens? Is he a center, is he a winger? (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Believe it or not, the Washington Capitals will be the underdogs heading into the Stanley Cup Final. (CSN Washington)

• Flyers prospect Samuel Morin tore his ACL during an AHL game. He won’t be available until next February. (Broad Street Hockey)

• The Maple Leafs have promoted assistant to the general manager Brandon Pridham to assistant general manager. Somewhere, Dwight Schrute is smiling. (Toronto Sun)

• The fact that Rangers head coach David Quinn has known Jeff Gorten and Chris Drury for many years led him to his new job. (New York Daily News)

• Los Angeles Kings senior advisor Jack Ferreira will not have his contract renewed by the organization. He was around for the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Championships. (LA Kings Insider)

• The Tennessee Titans will be hosting the 2019 NFL Draft and they have the Nashville Predators to thank for that. (Predlines)

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.