Nedved’s ‘strange’ life takes him to Sochi

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SOCHI, Russia — Petr Nedved never expected to be back at the Winter Olympics. Not 20 years after his first and only other Games, where he represented a different country no less. But then, Nedved hasn’t exactly lived a typical life. Perhaps he shouldn’t have counted it out.

“My life has been a strange journey,” Nedved conceded, somewhat jokingly, on Friday. The 42-year-old, now with a graying beard, has traveled to Sochi to play for the Czech Republic, undoubtedly to the surprise of many North American hockey fans who thought he’d long since hung up the skates.

The last time Nedved appeared in an NHL uniform was 2007, as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Since then, he’s been playing – and playing rather well, mind you – in the top Czech league. The last six seasons he’s been piling up points for his hometown club in Liberec.

As for that “strange” life of his? Maybe a better word for it is adventurous.

Let’s start in 1989, when it was still communist Czechoslovakia and Nedved was only 17. During a trip to Calgary for a midget tournament, he snuck away from his team, went to the police, and defected to Canada. His parents said they had no knowledge of his plans.

Following a prolific junior season with the Seattle Thunderbirds, he was drafted second overall by the Vancouver Canucks. He would go on to play 982 NHL games for seven different teams. He would win a silver medal representing Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics. He would even marry, and separate from, a supermodel, Veronika Varekova.

No wonder then that Nedved was in a reflective mood following practice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where he held court with a group of reporters, some of whom had covered him all the way throughout his NHL career.

“I knew that you guys didn’t think I was still playing,” he joked. “Here I am.”

He recalled the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, where his Canadian team ended up eliminating the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. He remembered the “mixed feeling” he had while his teammates were celebrating the win over his former compatriots. He lamented losing the gold-medal game to Sweden in a shootout.

Two decades later – as if it wasn’t improbable enough that he’d be back at the Olympics – one of his teammates will be his old friend, Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr, 41, was drafted fifth overall, three spots after Nedved, also in 1990. The pair played together in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We have the same sense of humor,” said Nedved, “so we don’t even have to say anything and we’re laughing.”

Perhaps they’ll share a laugh over the fact one of Nedved’s teammates back in Liberec is 16 years old.

Why is he still playing with kids less than half his age?

“I love the game,” he said. “I love the competition. I still have the drive.”

These Games will be his swansong, however.

“This is it for me,” he said. “This is the last season of my career. It’s time.”

How much of an impact Nedved will have against the top players in the world remains to be seen. He knows he’s not a young man anymore. Not young for Olympic hockey, anyway.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to play every game,” he said.

But former NHL defenseman and current teammate Tomas Kaberle thinks Nedved can still be a difference-maker.

“Sometimes he needs only one shot, and he’ll put it in,” said Kaberle. “Sometimes one chance in a hockey game makes a big difference.”

The Czech Republic open its Olympic tournament Wednesday versus Sweden.

The long Stanley Cup Final wait is finally over for Alex Ovechkin, Capitals

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The celebrations continued around them as Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, the two longest-tenured Washington Capitals, embraced. “One more,” Backstrom said to Ovechkin.

It’s been a journey to this point for the Capitals’ two star players. They’ve experienced the numerous disappointments and been reminded of them every spring. Those three seasons that ended with a Presidents’ Trophy, and an early-round playoff exit. Those six series eliminations at the hands of the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The high expectations that were never met.

But this year was different. This is not the best Capitals team of the Ovechkin/Backstrom era. Even with an eighth division title since 2007-08, there were plenty of other favorites ahead of them on the list of 2018 Stanley Cup favorites. Why? Well, for starters, we’d seen that movie before and we all knew the ending.

So when the Capitals fell behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, it was surprising, but not too surprising. Same old Capitals, we all said. But then head coach Barry Trotz went back to his horse in Braden Holtby beginning with Game 3 and the turnaround began. Holtby would help the Capitals win 12 of his 17 starts, post a .935 even strength save percentage and two shutouts — with both coming in the final two games of the Eastern Conferenece Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was a second consecutive all-around effort for the Capitals after they lost control of the best-of-seven matchup with three straight losses following two wins at AMALIE Arena to begin the series.

“I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Ovechkin. “We understand what it has to take to be in the final. You can see the effort right now. This game was unbelievable. Everybody was all in, and we get the result.”

“It only took us 11 years, but now we’re there,” said Backstrom. “It’s a great feeling, especially the way we did it, too. The way we played the game, I thought it was outstanding from everybody. Right now, I’m just happy. I’m just going to enjoy this for a couple of days.”

[Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final]

The journey continues Monday at T-Mobile Arena for Game 1 of the Final (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) when the Capitals visit the Vegas Golden Knights, who employ Washington’s old general manager, George McPhee, and old defenseman, Nate Schmidt. The series will certainly not be short of storylines.

Ovechkin, who is probably still holding on to the Prince of Wales Trophy as you read this, called Game 7 “probably” the biggest game of his life and of the franchise’s. He delivered by scoring 62 seconds into the game, and after the final buzzer went off the emotions of the moment rendered him unable to finish thoughts during his post-game press conference.

Years of disappointment are being wiped away with each series victories. The Capitals exorcised the ghosts of the Pittsburgh Penguins that had haunted them for years and finally got over the hump of advancing to the conference final. Now, for the first time since 1998, they’ll be playing in a series with the Stanley Cup on the line.

“Every series is tough. We just played our game, stick to the system and we deserved to win,” Ovechkin told NBCSN after Game 7. “[There] were hard moments in all series, against Tampa, against [Pittsburgh], against Columbus. but we fight through it and we’re right now four wins away from [being] Stanley Cup champions.”

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Best and worst of Garth Snow; Is Hossa a Hall of Famer?

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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.

• The Toronto Maple Leafs have a new assistant general manager in Laurence Gilman, who has been hired one day after Brandon Pridham received a promotion to the same role. [Maple Leafs]

• What do the Calgary Flames have to do to make it back to the playoffs next season? TSN’s Scott Cullen looks at their strengths, weaknesses and needs heading into the summer. (TSN.ca)

• Rotoworld’s Ryan Dadoun looks at what went wrong with the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks this season. (Rotoworld)

• Plenty of different teams have shocked the sporting world, but where do the Golden Knights rank in that department? They’re probably the biggest surprise in modern American sports history. (ESPN)

• The Golden Knights have been incredibly consistent throughout their inaugural season, so there’s no reason for anyone to be overlooking them at this point. (SinBin.Vegas)

• Is Marian Hossa a hall-of-famer? Apparently, this is a debate. (The Hockey Writers)

• The city of Abbotsford hasn’t had professional hockey since the AHL’s Heat left in 2014. But now that the Canucks are looking to move their farm team, Abbotsford might be back on the hockey map. (Abby News)

• Even though he’ll never play in a major tournament again, former NHLer Daniel Alfredsson is loving life as a hockey dad. (Canadian Press)

David Backes hasn’t lived up to the dollar amount of his contract, but he continues to be a useful asset for the Bruins. (CBS Boston)

• Garth Snow has been the GM of the Islanders for a while, so Newsday breaks down all of his good and bad moves. (Newsday)

• Rangers head coach David Quinn made a name for himself after his bold strategy in the 2009 National Championship Game resulted in Boston University overcoming a late two-goal deficit to win in overtime. (New York Post)

• Up top, check out the highlights from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final between the Lightning and Capitals.

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.

Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set and it will be the Washington Capitals against the Vegas Golden Knights.

So many different storylines to consider. George McPhee vs. his old team. Alex Ovechkin going for his first ever Cup ring. Former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury against the Capitals. And the obvious one with the Golden Knights and their inaugural season success. It should be a fun one.

Here’s the full schedule:

Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph

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Alex Ovechkin will get his chance.

The Great 8 will contest for the Stanley Cup after his Washington Capitals defeated their past demons and the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.

Yes, the Capitals — a team that had to overcome a horrific playoff record against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and then had to deal the disappointment of beginning the Conference Final with wins in Games 1 and 2 only to drop three straight to trail 3-2.

They took care of business in Game 6, and that train kept chugging along into Game 7.

Ovi put his stamp on Game 7 just 62 seconds in as he wired a one-timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The first period was a wild affair, filled with scuffles, a fight and stolen jersey.

And then Andre Burakovsky arrived.

Burakovsky missed the first 12 games of the plays because of injury and then followed that up with seven games without a point.

He revealed earlier in the series that he lays a mental beating on himself too often. So Game 7 must have felt pretty good.

Burakovsky scored on two separate breakaways in the second period.

The first came off a brutal giveaway from Dan Girardi in his own zone. His second came after the Lightning got caught on a bad change.

Tampa looked like a shell of their former selves. They dusted themselves off after dropping the first two at home, but simply stopped scoring after the 33-second mark in the second period of Game 5.

[PHT’s Three Stars]

Braden Holtby showed up at precisely the right moment in the series, posting consecutive shutouts to close out the series.

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, meanwhile, were far from brilliant. No one over the last seven periods and change was on the Lightning.

The Lightning went 159:33 without scoring. Ouch.

You can’t win games when you don’t score, something the Lightning will have all summer to ponder. They led the NHL with 296 goals this season, all of which means sweet nothing now.

And now the attention turns to one of the more intriguing Cup Finals in a long time.

One of the greatest players of all-time with a chance to win his first Cup silence his critics after years of disappointment against the best story in sports, period.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final begins Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

In the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait.”

MORE:
NHL Playoffs 2018: Stanley Cup Final TV Schedule

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