It’s all finally clicking at the right time for Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — Hockey can be a funny, random game that can make no sense on any given night or throughout any given season. Results are sometimes prone to luck, or one shot, or one bounce, or one mistake, or one play perhaps more than any other major sport. That is just the nature of the game. Sometimes you’re great and you lose. Sometimes you’re just average and you win. That randomness can also make the game extraordinarily frustrating, and no great team — and they have been a great team — has been on the wrong side of that more often over the past decade than the Washington Capitals.

It has almost always happened in the same round (the second) and against the same team (the Pittsburgh Penguins) every year.

On Monday night in Pittsburgh, after years of torment and heartbreak, the Capitals finally — FINALLY — toppled both of those demons and kicked the wall down.

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s goal at the 5:27 mark of overtime lifted the Capitals to a 2-1 win in Game 6, sending them into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 and the first time in the Alex Ovechkin/Barry Trotz era (or any coach that Ovechkin has had).

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

To say there was a sense of relief and elation in the Capitals’ locker room would be an understatement.

It’s not only Ovechkin and Trotz’s first trip to the Conference Final as a duo, it is also Trotz’s first trip in his 19th year as an NHL coach. Not being able to conquer that obstacle has been an obvious thorn in the side of an organization that has been one of the best in the league for more than a decade. Finishing with the best record in the league three times in 10 years is a major accomplishment. Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest players the league has ever seen and has consistently performed in every situation for them. That, too, is worth something (a lot, actually). But because they haven’t had that one season where everything worked together in unison for them at the right time of year the results were always the same.

Disappointment.

When great players and great teams consistently fall short, they can never shake that underachiever label, or choker label, or whatever label you want to throw on it, whether it is fair or not. And it is almost never fair.

“Oh absolutely,” said Trotz when asked if he ever felt some sort of a kinship with his players when it came to meeting the same result in the playoffs at the same point every year, and what it felt like to finally get over that hump.

“It’s so hard to move forward sometimes. It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns. He is a great player in this league. This league is a tough league, I think we’re only the team in the past few years to get to the second round [every year]. Even the Penguins didn’t, and they’ve won a couple of Cups. It’s a hard league to get there. I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it. You just have to stay with it. There is a kinship there, there is no question for that whole group. Backstrom. Ovi. Myself. Everybody.”

What makes all of this so surprising this season is that it is this Capitals team that has taken the next big step for the organization. That it is this Capitals team that might finally end up being the one.

There have probably been better Capitals teams than this one, both in terms of the roster on paper, and the results on the ice during an 82-game season. Any of the recent Presidents’ Trophy teams come to mind, and there were times this very season where it looked like the Capitals, on their way to a third consecutive division title, maybe just were not as good as their record.

But again, sometimes hockey is weird. And where better Capitals teams ran into a hot goalie, or didn’t have a little puck luck on their side, or didn’t have the depth around Ovechkin and Backstrom, this one seems to have all of that finally happening in their favor.

Braden Holtby has been a world-class goalie six years. He has won a Vezina Trophy, was a runner-up in another year, and entered these playoffs with the second best save percentage in NHL playoff history. But for as great as he has been there was always that one goalie, in that one series, that always just seemed to stand on his head a little bit more. Three years ago it was Henrik Lundqvist. Two years ago it was Matt Murray. Last year it was Marc-Andre Fleury when he, quite literally, stole the series from a Capitals team that probably carried the play through the seven game series.

This year it was Holtby that got the best of his counterpart, and it was a big difference in the series. Maybe the difference.

He did that after starting the playoffs on the bench in the first round. Since returning to the lineup he is 8-2 with a .926 save percentage. There were many playoff series in the past where he has posted better numbers and, somehow, still ended up on the wrong side of it.

In previous matchups with Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin would seemingly match each other goal-for-goal and point-for-point only to have the Penguins’ depth players end up being the difference.

This year it was the Capitals’ that had the depth scoring come through.

They managed to do all of that while overcoming a lot of the adversity that has typically sunk them in the past, whether it be the aforementioned goalie drama to open the playoffs, or injuries.

The Stanley Cup playoffs can sometimes be a battle of attrition where it is not just simply the best team that wins, but the healthiest team. The Capitals went into Game 6 on Monday night in Pittsburgh playing without half of their top-six. Tom Wilson was sitting out due to a suspension. Andre Burakovsky has not played since Game 2 of the first round. Then, the most damaging loss of them all came less than an hour before faceoff when it was announced that Nicklas Backstrom would not play due to an upper-body injury.

The stage seemed set for the Penguins to take advantage and send the series back to Washington for yet another Game 7 where anything could have happened.

Then the Capitals came out and completely shut the Penguins down, limiting a back-to-back champion that was facing elimination on home ice to just 22 shots on goal over 65 minutes of hockey.

“I don’t think anybody would have favored us being without him tonight, then with another two top-six forwards not playing,” said forward Lars Eller when asked about the absence of Backstrom.

“Having three top-six guys out, that just makes it so much better. It tells us how deep we are and what this group is all about. It’s great, it just tells how this group fought through this adversity because we faced some adversity without those guys.”

Without Backstrom (and Wilson, and Burakovsky), Eller said the Capitals didn’t really try to do anything different, but just had to make sure they had the right mindset and that everyone was prepared to step up and do a little more.

“You try to keep the same mentality, but just knowing obviously that you might play a few more minutes and stuff like that,” said Eller. “It takes a little bit more from everybody, and if you have the right people and the right mindset and attitude you can get it done, and we got it done. Guys stepped up. Our fourth line guys, [Nathan] Walker coming in, [Alex] Chiasson with a big goal, [Travis] Boyd came in after playing in I don’t know how long, they all did great in the hardest possible environment. Pittsburgh, Game 6, it doesn’t get much bigger and they handled themselves incredibly well. It was just great to be a part of.”

For years the the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau San Jose Sharks were the “so close, but couldn’t get it done” team in the NHL, and they carried that label for more than a decade through years of postseason exits. After everyone seemingly gave up on them ever breaking through and reaching the Stanley Cup Final, they finally did it two years ago. It may not have resulted in a win, but it was still a major accomplishment and huge step for an organization that had yet to take it. After years of premature first-and second-round exits there came a point where everyone wondered if the Penguins in the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era would ever get another Stanley Cup. When it seemed that their window had slammed shut, they won two in a row.

This finally seemed to be the year where the Capitals reached that point where everyone outside of their organization and fan-base had given up on them after years of “this is the year” kept ending with the same result. Now here they are in the Eastern Conference Final after beating their long-time nemesis.

Given what this team has done in previous seasons, and given the way some of their top players have performed in both the regular season and playoffs, you can’t say they don’t deserve it.

Truth is, they probably deserved it long before this season. But that is not the way hockey works.

Sometimes you just never really know when all of the forces are going to align and work in your favor.

After years of “this is the year” proclamations coming up empty, this might actually be the one.

Especially after finally getting through second round and the Penguins the way they did it.

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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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.