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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.

Lightning’s Stamkos ruled out for start of Stanley Cup Final

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Captain Steven Stamkos is out, Brayden Point is hurting and Anthony Cirelli is hobbling, too.

The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars with several key players dealing with injuries the team somehow was able to withstand during an impressive run to the Eastern Conference championship.

Stamkos, a two-time Richard Trophy winner who’s been chasing a NHL title for 12 seasons, has yet to play this postseason because of a lower-body injury.

He finally got on the ice for Game 6 of the East final, but only to celebrate the Lightning advancing to hockey’s biggest stage for the first time since 2015.

”You need a lot of good players to get to this point. And resiliency,” general manager Julien BriseBois said Friday.

”Once you have a good enough team to get into the playoffs, it’s who’s going to find a way,” BriseBois added. ”At this point you have two teams that have found a way to get to the Final, and one of us is going to find a way to lift the big trophy.”

Stamkos has been skating with teammates, however there’s no definitive timetable for his return.

Game 1 is Saturday night.

”He’s still rehabbing. We haven’t ruled him out,” BriseBois said. ”I don’t expect him in the lineup (Saturday).”

Point was injured during Game 2 of East final against the New York Islanders. He missed Games 3 and 5, while playing at less than 100 percent in Games 4 and 6.

Cirelli, meanwhile, scored the series-clinching goal in overtime Thursday night after earlier appearing to injure his right knee in a second-period collision with Islanders captain Anders Lee.

Cirelli returned in the third period and delivered the winner, as coach Jon Cooper described it, while playing ”basically on one leg.”

”Obviously, I was in a little bit of pain there,” Cirelli said, ”but I was fine and was fortunate enough to finish the game.”

Point shrugged off a question about how he’s feeling.

”I think everyone on both sides has something they’re dealing with,” Point said. ”You don’t get here without getting dinged up a little bit. It’s just about competing.”

BISHOP STILL OUT

Injured Stars goaltender Ben Bishop probably isn’t getting the net back even if he’s healthy given the way Anton Khudobin is playing, and the team still doesn’t have an update on him. Bishop skated Thursday, coach Rick Bowness said, and is still rehabbing.

”Ben’s been a big part of our success since he’s come here and unfortunately he’s injured,” general manager Jim Nill said. ”We’re going to take that day by day. But he’s a big part, he’s been in the dressing room with the guys, he’s cheering them on, he’s working hard in practice and that’s where we’re at right now.”

Also out for Dallas are defenseman Stephen Johns and winger Radek Faksa.

CUP CONNECTIONS

Beyond Bowness facing a team he was an assistant for under Jon Cooper for five years, there are plenty of connections between Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Bishop was the starter for the Lightning in 2015 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost to Chicago and was replaced in net by Andrei Vasilevskiy when he got injured. Tampa Bay’s Barclay Goodrow and Dallas’ Joe Pavelski also played together in San Jose and went to the 2016 final. When Pavelski was a free agent in the summer of 2019, the Lightning and Stars were among his final choices, and now he’s facing the team he didn’t pick in another chance to win it all.

”It was one of those moments where if I was going to be leaving San Jose, I wanted to go to a place I was going to have a good chance to win,” Pavelski said. ”One of the things I liked, for me, was just I like the goalies here, I like the structure defensively. … There’s also some high-end talent on this team, as well.”

NICE TO BE BACK

Pavelski and Corey Perry both spent well more than a decade with their original NHL teams, facing each other constantly as division rivals.

Perry’s NHL debut came with the Anaheim Ducks in 2005-06, a year before they won the Stanley Cup. That championship season for Perry came the same year Pavelski was a rookie with the San Jose Sharks.

Both remained with those West Coast teams until last summer, when both signed with the Dallas Stars in free agency. They sat at a podium together Friday, the day before getting to play in another Stanley Cup Final.

”It’s been awesome,” Pavelski said. ”We competed against each other for a long time.”

The Sharks lost in the Stanley Cup Final four years ago, Pavelski’s first season as their captain. This is also Perry’s first time back to a final.

”There’s lots of battles that we’ve gone through,” Perry said. ”There’s been a lot of hockey played between us, and it’s nice to be sitting here beside him right now doing this.”

One other team Pavelski considered last summer was Tampa Bay – the team the Stars are facing now.

”For me, it was one of those moments where if I was going to be leaving San Jose, I wanted to go to a place that was going to have a good chance to win,” he said. ”I identified a few places. There were a few places that had interest, and then we went from there.”

Stanley Cup: Stars and Lightning turn defense into offense

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This was already going to be an unusual Stanley Cup, and it now has a matchup for all of those who like their games to be a bit defensive.

The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, two of the league’s southernmost teams playing for the title in a bubble in the NHL’s northernmost arena in Edmonton, have defensemen who provide plenty of points.

Is that defensive offense or offensive defense? Either way, they’ve done that and also been pretty good at what blueline players are primarily expected to do in shutting down the opponent.

”In today’s NHL you need that for your team to be successful,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Friday. ”You need that second wave of players joining the rush. … It’s something that we stress.”

Game 1 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup is Saturday night, two days after Tampa Bay won the Eastern Conference in Game 6 against the New York Islanders. The Stars eliminated Western Conference top seed Vegas in Game 5 on Monday.

Tampa Bay veteran Victor Hedman, a fourth-time finalist for the Norris Trophy that goes to the league’s best all-around defenseman, is scoring postseason goals at a record pace. The Stars have Miro Heiskanen, who at barely 21 is already the highest-scoring defenseman ever in a postseason for his franchise.

”We’re not surprised,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said. ”Let Miro be Miro, and he’s going to take over games.”

Only Lightning forwards Nikita Kucherov (26 points) and Brayden Point (25 points), and Colorado center Nathan McKinnon (25 points in 15 games), have more postseason points than the 22 (five goals, 17 assists) by Heiskanen, the third overall pick in the 2017 draft.

Heiskanen and Klingberg (three goals, 13 assists), who has two game-winning goals, have outpointed some standout teammates: Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, who are primarily on the top line with captain Jamie Benn, and playoff veteran Joe Pavelski, who is in his first season with Dallas.

”It’s way easier to play with with five guys on the ice than three or two,” said Heiskanen, whose birthday was during the NHL’s 4 1/2-month pause because of the pandemic. ”So it’s great to have the good D core, and let’s try to use it as much as we can, and just keep going there.”

Dallas defensemen have combined for 53 points (13 goals, 40 assists), the most during a postseason in history of the franchise in its first Stanley Cup Final since 2000. The previous mark was 47 (nine goals, 38 assists) in 1981 when the Minnesota North Stars lost in the final.

”Modern hockey, you create a lot of offense from the back end as well and you want to be able to have your Ds join the rush,” Klingberg said.

Tampa Bay defensemen have 46 points, and helped the Lighting go 10-2 in one-goal games this postseason. Since falling behind 1-0 in Game 4 against New York, they have allowed only three goals in more than 195 minutes.

”They have some big D, guys that can move and score,” Pavelski said. ”You see what Hedman’s doing right now.”

The Stars are 1-0 in one-goal games, and held Vegas to two goals or fewer in each of their wins in the West final. They scored five goals in each of their four wins against Colorado.

Hedman, the 6-foot-6 Swede who was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, had the only goal in regulation for the Lightning in their East-clinching 2-1 victory over the Islanders.

It was Hedman’s sixth goal in eight games and part of his NHL-best plus-19 rating since the season resumed. His nine goals are the most ever in a postseason for a Tampa Bay defenseman, the most in the NHL since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers had 11 in 1994 and only three shy of the league record 12 by Edmonton’s Paul Coffey in 1985.

”I think any time he gets the puck, in his mind, he’s shooting it because he knows the kind of run that he’s on,” said fellow defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. ”Whenever I get the puck at the blue line, I’m trying to find him as often as possible. … He’s doing it all right now.”

The Stars signed 14-year veteran Andrej Sekera as a free agent last summer, and he is finally in his first Stanley Cup Final with his fifth team. Their other defensemen who have played 20 games this postseason – Heiskanen, Klingberg, 2014 first-rounder Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell – were all drafted by the Stars.

Shattenkirk, a free agency addition last offseason who is a plus-11 this postseason, and McDonagh are among four Lightning defensemen with at least 10 seasons of NHL experience now in their first Stanley Cup Final. The others are Zach Bogosian, the 12-year veteran who became available in February when Buffalo terminated his contract, and Luke Schenn.

”Everyone is obviously very hungry to go all of the way,” said Hedman, part of Tampa Bay’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final five years ago. ”They’ve been in the league for a long time, and they haven’t been in this situation before. They’re super excited and played a huge part in why we’re here.”

How Tampa Bay Lightning put together a Stanley Cup contender

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As we await Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC: livestream), let’s reflect on how the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning put together playoff rosters.

Earlier on Friday, we broke down how the Dallas Stars were built by GM of the Yeafinalist Jim Nill.

Now let’s consider the Tampa Bay Lightning, built by another GM of the Year finalist, Julien BriseBois. (With ample credit also going to Steve Yzerman, of course.)

How the Tampa Bay Lightning built a roster that reached the 2020 Stanley Cup Final

Two huge first-round stars, but a sneaky-high number of misses

The Lightning’s reputation for shrewd drafting is well-earned. When it comes to the first round, though, they didn’t always find the mark.

That said, they did when it mattered the most. Landing Steven Stamkos (first overall in 2008) and Victor Hedman (second in 2009) was instrumental in turning the Lightning around.

Of course, the Lightning got this far with Stamkos on the shelf, so they didn’t only live off of being in the right place, at the right time.

Again, though, the Lightning can feel the Stars’ pain in biffing a few first-rounders.

Slater Koekkoek (10th, 2012), Jonathan Drouin (third, 2013), and Tony DeAngelo (19th, 2014) all ended up on other teams, with only Drouin netting the Lightning a big-time return in potential star defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

But the Lightning are where they are today because of what they did outside of the first round, and sometimes outside of the draft altogether.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Lightning made huge draft (and undrafted) gains, largely with small players

Old-school types feasted on a perceived lack of toughness when the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning. Yet, you kind of wonder if there’s a defensiveness there. After all, the Lightning feasted on old-school obsessions with size over skill and production.

From Nikita Kucherov (58th in 2011) to Brayden Point (79th in 2014), the Lightning unearthed its top stars by looking below the 6-foot-mark. Ignoring height when it came to Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson allowed the Bolts to unearth undrafted gems.

Not every Lightning draft steal boiled down to different cover songs of finding Martin St. Louis, mind you.

But either way, the Bolts paralleled the Red Wings dynasty era by finding diamonds in the rough.

Potential future Selke winner Anthony Cirelli slipped to 72nd in 2015. If you want a seventh-rounder, consider Ondrej Palat (208th in 2011). From Alex Killorn to Mathieu Joseph to Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay outfitted its roster with draft picks.

Like Brayden Point dangling around helpless defensemen, sometimes the Lightning made their peers look silly in the process.

[MORE: How the Dallas Stars were built.]

Building around Vasi

If you want to follow some of the most interesting Lightning-related team-building debates, follow the career of Andrei Vasilevskiy.

During a time when teams were timid about picking goalies in the first round, the Lightning snatched Vasilevskiy at 19th overall. Generally speaking, the “smart money” is not on picking a goalie in the first round, but it worked out in a big way for Tampa Bay.

That’s because, if you get it right and that goalie develops reasonably quickly, you can save money. The Lightning really only started paying Vasilevskiy big money ($9.5M cap hit) this season. Before, he was making just $3.5M per year.

Paying a goalie that much also flies in the face of “smart money,” yet Vasilevskiy’s been an ace for the Lightning. At 26, his prime years are ahead of him — although goalies are voodoo, so that $9.5M could still end up looking bad.

Overall, Vasilevskiy looms large as a huge part of the Lightning’s foundation.

Free agency: scraps, and mainly trying to avoid losses

As brilliant as the Lightning are in many team-building areas, they aren’t immune to the salary cap crunch that confounds contenders. (Even if they’ve basically been wizards at convincing stars to take less money. They must love to jet ski.)

But, either way, free agency for the Lightning mainly boils down to finding scraps, and trying not to lose too many important players.

This leaves the Lightning with the amusing distinction of having two Atlanta Thrashers high first-round picks in Zach Bogosian (third in 2008) and Braydon Coburn (eighth in 2003).

Yet, for every marginal depth defenseman (Luke Schenn, who went fifth in 2008), the Lightning sometimes convince quality veterans to accept pocket change to chase a Stanley Cup. Warts and all, Kevin Shattenkirk has been a great value for Tampa Bay. And, now that he’s healthy, Patrick Maroon has been useful during the playoffs.

Again, though: free agency is more an area of desperation than aspiration for GM Julien BriseBois.

Lightning are busy traders

While the Stars are light with trading but heavier on free agency, the Lightning are generally the reverse.

At the very top, this team is built around draft picks such as Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Point, and Vasilevskiy. Even so, the supporting cast features significant trade additions, often at significant costs.

Consider Ryan McDonagh the result of the more blockbuster-quality trades Tampa Bay sought as it was growing. As mentioned before, Sergachev for Drouin was another tide-turning trade, and we’re still waiting to see the full impact.

After being swept, and with the salary cap closing in, the Lightning have been selling off picks and prospects in pursuit of that Stanley Cup. That’s meant saying goodbye to J.T. Miller in a trade that, for all its pain, was still pretty brilliant considering the Lightning’s desperation. That also meant paying expensive premiums to land quality depth in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

Factoring in all the Lightning’s bumps and bruises — not to mention the Stars’ stingy, exacting style — it wouldn’t be surprising if Tampa Bay leans on Coleman and Goodrow quite a bit during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning shine as one of the league’s most aggressive, and creative traders. They make things fun even when they’re not on the ice.

Final thoughts on how Lightning built their Stanley Cup-contending roster

To criticize the Lightning blueprint, you really have to nitpick about some first-round misses. Otherwise, they’re lapping all but the quickest of their peers.

They’ve found a great mix of skill and sandpaper, and oh yeah, they also employ one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper. For all of the hysteria over that Blue Jackets sweep, the Lightning put together deep playoff run after deep playoff run for a reason.

Still, with the salary cap shackles clamping on, this team was also built to win now, and it remains to be seen if this strong foundation turns into a wobbly Jenga tower.

Then again, we thought it would topple multiple times before, yet BriseBois & Co. keep finding answers.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)