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.

PHT Morning Skate: McDavid or Matthews?; Goalie concussion concern

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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 best player in the NHL debate rages on. (NHL.com)

Corey Crawford‘s lengthy absence due to a concussion has the NHL worried. (TSN.ca)

• Power play goals are up (as is scoring) in the NHL season. Here’s an analysis as to why. (Sportsnet)

• Your team might have one. Here’s a list of the NHL’s underperforming stars. (ESPN)

• Matt and Ashley Duchene brought out the creativity to announce their pregnancy. (Daily Hive)

• Like arena food? Here are some tasty looking options coming to a rink near you. (Business Wire)

• An excellent story here on the biggest “tells” in hockey. (The Athletic)

• The NHL paid USA Hockey to support the US Women’s National Team. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A story on the wonderful art of fly-by stick replacement in the NHL. (Sports Illustrated)

• The search for Seattle’s AHL affiliate is on. (Sonics Rising)

• Tomas Hyka’s NHL odyssey lands him on the Golden Knights second line. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• On Duncan Keith and his unfinished legacy. (The Hockey Writers)

• Ken Holland isn’t looking over his shoulder with Steve Yzerman on the horizon. (Sportsnet)


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

The Buzzer: Murray shuts out Leafs; Raanta spoils Crawford’s return

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Three Stars

1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. It has been a tough start to the season for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. When he has been in the lineup, he has not played well. Then he was sidelined with the third concussion of his career and missed three consecutive games. Then he had to return to the lineup, on the road, against the highest scoring team in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. How did that return to the lineup go? He stopped all 38 shots he faced and was sensational in the Penguins’ 3-0 win. He looked like the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie in this game.

2. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were two of the most surprising playoff teams in the NHL a year ago, and were both led by MVP caliber performances from their best players (Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall respectively, with Hall actually winning the award). They faced off in New Jersey on Thursday night and it was the Avalanche coming away with the win, handing the Devils their first loss of the season. MacKinnon and Hall both had big games (Hall had three points; MacKinnon had two) but it was Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog that was the star in this one, recording a hat trick, including two goals in the third period as the Avalanche rallied for the win. His goals in the third period were the game-tying and game-winning goals.

3. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks. The other hat trick of the night belonged to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture in his team’s rout of the Buffalo Sabres. This game was a laugher from the beginning as the Sabres were just completely overmatched against a far superior team. It all started with a Buffalo double-minor in the opening minutes of the game that the Sharks turned into two quick power play goals, including Couture’s first. He added his second goal early in the third period and then completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal. He now has four goals on the season. This was also a big night for the Sharks power play as it scored three goals in the win.

Red Wings remain winless

There are only two winless teams remaining in the NHL — the Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings. The Panthers had Thursday night off. The Red Wings did not. Their season-opening losing streak continued with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, dropping them to 0-5-2 on the season with what is — by far — a league-worst minus-18 goal differential. No other team in the league has a goal differential worse than minus-10. The Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings are tied for second-worst at minus-9. Speaking of the Kings…

The Kings look awful

General manager Rob Blake has not been happy his team’s performance so far this season, and they responded on Thursday night by getting completely dominated by the New York Islanders in what was a completely embarrassing 7-2 loss. They did not have Anze Kopitar as he was sidelined due to illness, and it was goalie Jonathan Quick‘s first game back from injury, but there is no excuse for how bad the rest of the team performed. The Kings cut what was a 3-1 deficit to just a single goal early in the third period, but then completely unraveled in the minutes after that by giving up four consecutive goals in eight minutes. There is nothing positive about this team right now.

Highlights of the Night

The highlight of the night was Anthony Duclair‘s goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. This is just ridiculous, one of the many great goals they scored on the night.

The other highlight of the night: Connor McDavid, doing Connor McDavid things. He is completely unstoppable right now, stealing wins for the Oilers every night.

Factoids

Corey Crawford made his return to the Chicago Blackhawks’ lineup on Thursday night and played pretty well in a 4-1 loss (he played better than the final score would indicate, anyway). It was the Blackhawks’ first regulation loss of the season and it came at the hands of Crawford’s former backup, Antti Raanta, who was absolutely outstanding for the Arizona Coyotes. He also loves playing at the United Center.

Speaking of the Coyotes, their four goals on Thursday night were more goals than the scored (three) in the first five games of the season. Combined. They also scored their first even-strength goals of the season in the win.

More Connor McDavid stats.

 

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 6, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 4, Vancouver Canucks 1

Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Edmonton Oilers 3, Boston Bruins 2 (OT)

San Jose Sharks 5, Buffalo Sabres 1

New York Islanders 7, Los Angeles Kings 2

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.

Connor McDavid ruined the Bruins’ overtime

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Two nights ago Connor McDavid single-handedly stole a win for the Edmonton Oilers when he put the team on his back and helped it overcome a three-goal third period deficit against the Winnipeg Jets.

He helped do it all again on Thursday night in the Oilers’ home opener.

McDavid finished with another two-point night in the 3-2 overtime win against the Boston Bruins, assisting on the Oilers’ second goal in regulation and the winner in overtime. That gives him 11 points on the season. An impressive number on its own after only five games, and even more so when you remember the Oilers, even after Thursday’s win, have only scored 13 goals as a team. It was the play that McDavid made in overtime on Thursday that is going to steal the show in this win because he completely ruined the Bruins’ chances at both ends of the ice.

Have a look at the entire sequence that begins with McDavid picking off a stretch pass for Patrice Bergeron, dancing around Brad Marchand at the blue line, and then freezing the lone defender back and the goaltender to set up Leon Draisaitl for the game-winning goal.

Just look at this effort.

That is the best player in the world playing like it.

The Edmonton Oilers are now 3-2-0 on the season and they have McDavid to thank for most of it.

If he does not pick that pass off in the neutral zone, Bergeron walks in alone for a breakaway. Just like that, it was going the other way.

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.

Toronto’s early goalie pull backfires with Kadri own goal

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One of the big early trends in the NHL this season is coaches opting to pull their goalie earlier than usual in an effort to get a late game-tying goal. Traditionally, teams would only go for the extra attacker in the final minute when down by a goal, and maybe go with two minutes if they were down by more.

Now, teams seem to be going for the extra attacker with two to three minutes to play (or more) when down by just a single goal. It is not exactly a new strategy — Patrick Roy used to do it all the time with the Colorado Avalanche — but it is definitely catching on more and more.

On Thursday night in Toronto with the Maple Leafs trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0, coach Mike Babcock elected to pull Frederik Andersen with three minutes to play in search of the equalizer. It did not work. Not only did the Maple Leafs fail to score, but Nazem Kadri accidentally scored an own goal from the neutral zone when this happened.

That is unfortunate. Especially when you consider Kadri is still searching for his first goal of the season.

Well … first goal into the correct net.

The goal ended up being credited to Evgeni Malkin, his second goal of the game, since he was the most recent Penguins player to touch the puck.

Babcock would pull Andersen again right after that, resulting in Kris Letang adding a more traditional empty net goal for the Penguins (the 100th goal of his career) to give them a 3-0 win.

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.