Alex Ovechkin is putting the Capitals on his back

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PITTSBURGH — Thanks to their come-from-behind win on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals find themselves up 2-1 in their second-round series against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins. It is worth keeping in mind that their only loss in this series so far — Game 1 — was a game where they mostly carried the play and only lost because of a five-minute meltdown in the third period that saw the Penguins score three consecutive goals. They are that close to being up 3-0 in the series, and outside of that five-minute stretch have been hands down the better team.

Their penalty kill has shut down the Penguins’ high powered play, and they have had the overall edge in the special teams battle.

Braden Holtby is outplaying Matt Murray in net.

They are feasting on the Penguins’ aggressiveness and getting what seems to be countless odd-man rushes.

Then there is Alex Ovechkin. Oh, man, is he playing great right now.

On Tuesday, he scored what is already his eighth goal of the playoffs, putting him in a three-way tie with Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel for the league lead in these playoffs. It was his fourth consecutive game with a goal and the fifth in the past six games.

This one was especially big because it broke a 3-3 tie with just over a minute to play in regulation, finishing an odd-man rush with Nicklas Backstrom that saw him knock a rebound off the post out of mid-air to put the Capitals back in front.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

He did not end up as a finalist in the Hart Trophy voting this season as league MVP, but he did make my ballot in the top-five for his impact on the Capitals. He not only led the league in goal-scoring for the seventh time in his career (and the fifth time in the past six years), but the Capitals were a completely different team when he was on the ice versus when he was off of it. After losing several players from last year’s Presidents’ Trophy team without really having the salary cap flexibility to replace them, the Capitals obviously took a bit of a step backwards. At times they did not look as good as their record might have indicated, but they were still good enough to win the Metropolitan Division again. A lot of that was because of the way Ovechkin bounced back from what was a “down” year (by his standards).

During 5-on-5 play during the regular season the Capitals outscored teams by a 67-54 margin with Ovechkin on the ice (plus-13) and attempted 51 percent of the total shot attempts. Without him on the ice, they were only a plus-four in the goal department (101-97) and attempted just a paltry 46 percent of the total shot attempts. Forty-six percent is the level lottery teams — bad ones — play at. It was basically a tale of two different teams all season — the  Ovechkin team, and the non-Ovechkin team.

That same storyline has continued over into the playoffs.

Through the Capitals’ first nine playoff games with Ovechkin on the ice at 5-on-5 the Capitals own a 9-6 goal advantage and are attempting more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts. Without him, they are being outscored in those same situations by a 10-11 margin and have attempted just 47 percent of the total shot attempts. If anything, the gap between the Capitals with Ovechkin and the Capitals without him has grown in the playoffs.

The thing about Ovechkin and the playoffs is that he has always produced in these situations. There has never been a postseason series in his career where he has failed to score at least one goal. After Tuesday, he is now up to 54 goals and 103 total points in 106 career playoff games.

[Related: Ovechkin’s heroics have Capitals up 2-1 in series]

As I pointed out after the Capital’s first-round win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he is second among all active players (minimum 40 playoff games played) in postseason goals per game, trailing only Nikita Kucherov, and fifth in points per game, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, and Kucherov.

But because there has always been one reason another for the Capitals being unable to advance beyond the second round, the lack of a championship is always the elephant in the room when it comes to Ovechkin and his legacy.

Sometimes it has been because the Capitals’ goalie — whoever it may have been in past playoff runs, from Jose Theodore, to Semyon Varlamov, to even Braden Holtby in the past two Pittsburgh series’ — forgetting how to stop the puck. Sometimes it has been because the other team’s goalie refuses to give up anything. Sometimes in the playoffs you just fall short to a better team and there is no one really to blame. Sometimes you just lose.

But through it all Ovechkin has always been there producing.

He is doing it again this postseason and, perhaps most importantly for the Capitals, some of the other stuff is starting to go their way.

They may not be playing great when he is off the ice overall, but they are getting the superior goaltending. Some of the breaks that used to work against them in these situations are starting to fall in their favor. That is the type of stuff a team needs to win in the playoffs. It is not just great players playing great. Every winning team needs some breaks. The fact some of it is starting to go the Capitals’ way has to be encouraging for them.

Every year until they actually get over the hurdle we are going to wonder if this year is finally the year. Every year we keep saying it, thinking this really will be it. This time it really is starting to feel like it could be the year. For real. At least a little bit.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

More Penguins-Capitals:
Tom Wilson enrages Penguins with another controversial hit
Penguins coach: At some point we hope the league might do something

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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.

Blues goal disallowed on season’s weirdest play

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The St. Louis Blues are, in their own words, a fragile team at the moment and can not catch a break.

Even when it seems like they may have been able to catch one.

In the first period of Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers, defender Robert Bortuzzo innocently dumped the puck into the offensive zone from just outside the blue line, where it bounced off of referee Tim Peel’s midsection and ended up in the back of the net behind Roberto Luongo.

It was bizarre. It was flukey. It was strange. It was also illegal.

From the NHL’s situation room:

At 5:17 of the first period in the Panthers/Blues game, Robert Bortuzzo’s shot deflected off an official and into the Florida net. Rule 78.5 states that apparent goals shall be disallowed “when the puck has deflected directly into the net off an official.” No goal St. Louis.

Peel was shaken up as a result of the play and had to leave the ice.

To make matters worse? The Blues gave up a goal to Florida’s Evgenii Dadonov later in the period to fall behind. Such is life right now for the Blues.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Red Wings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals and especially Red Wings probably wouldn’t admit this – at least on the record – but both teams should be pretty happy about where they are right now.

For the defending Stanley Cup champions, it’s a familiar place. Through early ups and downs, the Caps have mostly shook off an expected Stanley Cup hangover, finding away to grab the Metropolitan Division lead. Also familiar: Alex Ovechkin keeps lighting the lamp, as the prolific sniper already has 22 goals (to go with 36 points) in just 29 games.

If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Tuesday, the Red Wings would be on the outside looking in. Even so, the Red Wings have 32 standings points coming into their game against the Capitals, placing them 10th in the East. That’s not half-bad when you realize that this team is very much in a rebuilding process, whether they like it (and accept it) or not.

[Speaking of which, is coach Jeff Blashill part of that future?]

Sure, the Red Wings will be underdogs in this contest. They’d already carry that role out of context, but that’s especially clear being that they’re wrapping up a back-to-back set after beating the Kings 3-1 on Monday.

Washington would be foolish to take Detroit lightly, however. The Red Wings are 4-2-1 in their last seven games, enjoying solid seasons from Dylan Larkin (29 points) and Gustav Nyquist (27).

Can the Capitals take business at home? Find out on NBCSN.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Detroit Red Wings at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Tuesday, Dec. 11, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Red Wings – Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RED WINGS

Gustav Nyquist — Dylan Larkin — Justin Abdelkader

Thomas VanekFrans NielsenAndreas Athanasiou

Tyler BertuzziLuke GlendeningMichael Rasmussen

Christoffer EhnJacob De La RoseMartin Frk

Niklas KronwallMike Green

Jonathan EricssonNick Jensen

Trevor DaleyDennis Cholowski

Starting goalie: Jonathan Bernier

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovBrett Connolly

Chandler StephensonLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly

Dmitrij JaskinNic DowdTravis Boyd

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Christian DjoosMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

John Walton (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Which defenseman should Hurricanes trade?

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It’s no secret that Carolina is deep on defense. It’s also no secret that they could use a forward or two to score more goals.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell acknowledged as much on Sportsnet Central at Noon on Tuesday, telling Jeff Marek and Nick Kypreos that a) he’s been receiving a lot of calls about a possible trade for one of those defensemen, b) that the Hurricanes want an immediate return, not futures, and c) they’re looking for a forward. This backs up Pierre LeBrun in last week’s edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, who stated that they’re hoping to land a top-six guy as soon as possible.

Waddell himself admits that trades don’t happen often during this time of year, but it can often be better to be proactive. And, if nothing else, the Hurricanes might want to consider how certain decisions might make certain players more or less “marketable.”

Let’s look at the five defensemen one could (perhaps loosely) deem “premiere,” by Waddell’s words. More realistic movers will receive extra attention, and the defenders are listed in order of their 2018-19 cap hits.

Dougie Hamilton, RD, 25 years old, $5.75 million cap hit through 2020-21

Yes, it would be a bit odd if the Hurricanes traded Hamilton mere months after that big trade during the weekend of the 2018 NHL Draft. They’d also be selling low, as Hamilton’s off to a mediocre offensive start (three goals, 10 points in 28 games) and is averaging one fewer minute per game (20:32 TOI average) than he did during his final year with Calgary.

Yet, for a savvy team, Hamilton remains enticing.

Just about every sign points to him being more useful in a different situation, especially if you sprinkle in better luck. Hamilton is a strong possession player even relative to teammates on a dominant puck possession team, and a low on-ice percentage indicates that he’s not getting bounces.

PHT’s been beating this drum for some time now, but the situation is practically screaming for Hamilton to be the Hurricanes’ top power-play defenseman. The logic wouldn’t just revolve around restoring trade value, as he simply seems to be the most explosive scoring option on that blueline. Much like with Calgary, it’s maddening that the Hurricanes aren’t finding more time for Hamilton in these situations. The Hurricanes want more goals, and while you’re best served having forwards take most of the shots on the power play, it’s not outrageous to wonder if Hamilton could provide added punch if better optimized.

Maybe there’s just an impasse with Rod Brind’Amour? If so, the Hurricanes may be wise to cut their losses, and Hamilton could very well be worth the cost of a decent top-six forward. While his contract has some term on it, that affordable rate – at least for a rehabilitated Hamilton – could make for a bargain, and some helpful cost certainty.

Jaccob Slavin, LD, 24, $5.3M through 2024-25

It’s tough to imagine the Hurricanes trading away their biggest minute-eating defenseman (23:22 per game). Slavin is young, and his contract looks solid now, but could grow to outright-fantastic as the cap rises.

Then again, those reasons might prop him up as the sort of player who could land a truly outstanding return. During that TSN Insider Trading segment, Darren Dreger mentioned that Hurricanes’ left-handed defensemen were being looked at – not just righties, where they’re most overloaded – so Slavin’s worth at least mentioning.

Again, I wouldn’t count on it, though.

Justin Faulk, RD, 26, $4.833M through 2019-20

Honestly, when the Hurricanes landed Hamilton, I figured that Faulk’s days were numbered … to the point that he might not have even begun the season with Carolina. That’s obviously not the case, and Faulk continues to be the QB of a power play that’s been disappointing at best, and his pedestrian scoring numbers (just eight points in 28 games despite that plum job) factor into the bewilderment over Hamilton’s light usage.

Faulk’s possession stats are pretty strong, although they’re actually a little behind relative to his teammates (again, Carolina’s quite gawdy when it comes to “heating up their Corsi”).

It made some sense to trot out Faulk on the top power play unit earlier this season, as the Hurricanes might have viewed pumping up Faulk’s trade value as the tiebreaker against giving Hamilton that role. That course really isn’t doing anyone favors at this point – especially the Hurricanes, who could be dangerous with at least an adequate power play – but it’s not all bad news.

While his standing in the league isn’t what it once was (anyone else forget that Faulk is a three-time All-Star?) Faulk is on an affordable contract that expires after next season. Good right-handed defensemen are hard to find, so it’s conceivable that a team might give up some decent pieces for Faulk.

Calvin de Haan, LD, $4.55M through 2021-22

It was a touch surprising that the Hurricanes made their defense even deeper by signing the former Islanders defenseman this summer, yet it was also lauded as an analytics-friendly move. By those measures, De Haan is mostly living up to those standards.

Like other Carolina blueliners, he’s not getting the scoring stats that are easiest to market, however, as De Haan has just four points.

Considering the significant term of his contract, middling scoring stats, and the notion that he’s sneaky-good, a De Haan trade feels quite unlikely. And that’s perfectly fine for Carolina.

Brett Pesce, RD, $4.025M through 2023-24

The logjam of quality right-handed defensemen dealt the harshest blow to Pesce. His possession stats are troubling relative to his teammates, he’s not scoring much (four points in 19 games), and his ice time has dropped by almost two minutes per game to 19:04.

Take a look at this visualization via Bill Comeau’s SKATR tool, and you’ll see the glaring drop from 2017-18 to 2018-19:

via Bill Comeau

Yikes. Hamilton and Faulk are both in spots where their market value would likely be depressed, but it’s especially glaring with Pesce. Considering his talent (again, those possession stats are still promising) and contract, it’s really tough to imagine Carolina moving him. That said, it’s also likely that plenty of NHL people still hold him in high regard, so he’s listed.

Others: Trevor van Riemsdyk (RD) and Haydin Fleury (LD).

These two aren’t really in that “premiere” tier (in Fleury’s case, at least not yet?). Theoretically, one could be moved if a lower-cost swap would happen, though.

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One can only speculate about what other NHL GMs would take, and what they would give up, so there are a ton of scenarios that could play out.

Personally, the most realistic ones would involve moving Faulk or Hamilton. To an extent, they both have redundant skills/roles, right-handed shots, and contracts that are fairly movable.

The notion that a trade would likely come later, rather than sooner, points in two very different directions. On one hand, the Hurricanes don’t get to clear that logjam. They lose extra games to integrate a new player into the system after a hypothetical move. Conversely, the Hurricanes could get hotter offensively, which could restore/drive up trade value for the likes of Hamilton or Faulk.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes have a better chance of taking that next, crucial step to the playoffs if they strike a balance. There’s a lot to like about this team right now, but moving an excess defenseman for that elusive additional forward could provide that extra oomph.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Ducks’ injury problems could derail hot streak

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The Anaheim Ducks have really been heating up lately, grabbing six wins in their last seven games. A painfully familiar problem could derail all of that promise, however, as injuries are once again mounting.

The Ducks provided two unfortunate updates on Tuesday:

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Ryan Miller: The superb backup suffered an MCL sprain during Sunday’s wild 6-5 shootout win against the Devils. His recovery window is estimated at six weeks, while they’ll evaluate the veteran goalie once more in two weeks.

As you can note from this breakdown from Anaheim’s five-game winning streak, much of the Ducks’ success came from an impeccable goalie duo of Miller and John Gibson. Gibson is the Vezina-level workhorse, but don’t count out Miller’s contributions. He’s continued a so-far-phenomenal run with the Ducks, managing a .922 save percentage in 10 games this season (with four goals allowed against New Jersey hurting his numbers more than a bit).

Anaheim did get at least one bit of good luck here, relatively speaking. The Ducks were able to pluck an experienced goalie in Chad Johnson off of waivers, as they took him off of the St. Louis Blues’ hands. His former Bengals WR namesake celebrated the occasion:

Johnson’s off to a lousy start in 2018-19 (.884 save percentage in 10 games), and really struggled with the Calgary Flames last season. Even so, his .909 career save percentage is still pretty good for a journeyman backup, especially since the Ducks didn’t need to cough up any assets to give him a try.

None of this makes Miller’s loss good news, yet there’s at least a chance that Johnson could hold down the fort whenever Gibson needs a breather.

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Rickard Rakell: the Ducks didn’t provide a timetable for the winger’s return, labeling his injury as a sprained ankle.

The Athletic’s Eric Stephens reports that Rakell was wearing a protective boot this weekend:

Despite being out since Dec. 5, Rakell stands as the Ducks’ second-highest scorer (20 points in 30 games), trailing only Ryan Getzlaf.

While that 6-5 shootout win against the Devils shows that Anaheim can fill the net from time to time (pauses for own-goal jokes), they’ve generally been scoring just enough to win lately. With that in mind, Rakell’s injury really stings, especially if Nick Ritchie and Pontus Aberg start to cool off.

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To review, Miller and Rakell join a growing list of injured Ducks. Corey Perry and Cam Fowler are recovering from significant issues that required surgeries. Patrick Eaves is also dealing with injury/health issues, and it’s fair to wonder how often Ryan Kesler is truly at full-strength.

At the moment, the Ducks are ranked third in the Pacific Division with 37 points in 32 games, as the Sharks have the same 16-11-5 record but own an edge in ROW (16 to 13). They’ll close their current homestand out on Wednesday, then head out on the road for six straight away games, mostly against Eastern Conference teams:

Wed, Dec. 12: vs. Dallas
Sat, Dec. 15: @ Columbus
Mon, Dec. 17: @ Pittsburgh
Tue, Dec. 18: @ Rangers
Thu, Dec. 20: @ Boston
Sat, Dec. 22: @ Buffalo
Thu, Dec. 27: @ San Jose

It hasn’t always been pretty for the Ducks, but credit them for fighting through injuries. Unfortunately, it looks like they’ll need to keep doing so.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.