Alex Ovechkin finally enjoying playoff run after hurdling second-round hump

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It wasn’t enough that the dragon was finally slayed. The elation pouring out of Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals after eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins wasn’t a sign that a second-round escape was their version of a Stanley Cup victory.

Through two games and two victories against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, Ovechkin and the Capitals have shown that their mission isn’t complete. You could have excused them if they came out flat in Game 1, but it was clear from the start that they came ready to play, unlike their opponents.

And for Ovechkin, who has 10 goals and 19 points this postseason, he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, even as he approaches game No. 97 of the season Tuesday night in D.C. (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream).

The Capitals had made the playoffs 10 times in the Ovechkin era. Each year has ended in disappointment, with the Penguins and New York Rangers the authors of a combined six exits. Aside from 2013 when he was held to two points in seven games, the captain has been a key contributor in those attempts to win a Stanley Cup, and through 111 career playoff games, he has recorded 109 points, including 56 goals.

He’s obviously, he’s having fun. He’s producing. He’s all in,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “We asked our group to, if you’re going to have success, you have to have all-in contribution, and he has. I think he’s enjoying the run, the playoffs maybe for the first time in a long time. He’s the face of the franchise, and as I said, as the face of the franchise you get a lot of the credit and you also get a lot of the blame. Because of that I think at times it’s taken some of the joy out of it too.”

[Plenty to figure out for Lightning ahead of massive Game 3]

You can tell by watching when he wins and when he loses just how much the game means to Ovechkin. The losses have been crushing over the years, but the goals — oh, so many goals — elicit joy from the 32-year-old that makes it difficult to not enjoy this run he and his teammates are on — unless you’re from Pittsburgh, of course.

A lot of the focus of Ovechkin’s postseason career has been on the lack of success, and rightly so. But while the Capitals as a team have failed numerous times, he’s been driving the ship as usual. Since 2005-06, Ovechkin has averaged 0.98 points per game in the playoffs, tied for fourth with Nikita Kucherov among all players with at least 50 games played.

While a lot of attention during the regular season was thrown the way of the Penguins, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals were there humming along towards an eighth division title since ’05-06 and a fourth straight 100-plus point season. Why didn’t the they garner more love, even while Ovechkin was threatening to hit the 50-goal mark for an eighth time? Probably because we had seen that movie before. A strong regular season, one marked with a division title and maybe a Presidents’ Trophy, and then things coming to a crashing end, thanks to the Penguins or Rangers or that spring’s hot goaltender. The approach from the outside has continually been “Show us what you got in April,” and with the expectations and pressure seemingly absent entering this postseason, success is happening.

“I think we’re just enjoying the time right now,” Ovechkin said before Game 2. “I don’t think we take the pressure too much right now and it’s helped us a lot.”

“I think the guys that have been here a while, and [Ovechkin] as well, he hasn’t talked about it,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I’m just guessing here, knowing him. He’s a competitive guy, and he’s taken some past failures pretty hard, and he’s not going to let this opportunity go to waste. He’s bringing it. So good for him. He’s leading the way.”

Back to that joy… It could have been an ugly off-season in Washington had the Capitals not found their way out of either of the first two rounds. Trotz is still without a contract beyond this season and general manager Brian MacLellan could have chosen to try and carve up his roster looking for different results next season. But Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Matt Murray on that breakaway in Game 6, thanks to an assist from Ovechkin.

Now in the conference final, it was the Lightning who carried the pressure of being favored in the series. Through two games, they’ve fumbled and the Capitals have taken advantage. Ovechkin has done his part with a goal and an assist in both Games 1 and 2.

“I think he’s taken 14 years of frustration out in one playoffs — not just on us, like this whole playoffs season,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “He’s taking it out on that, and he’s — there’s a reason he has 600 goals and he’s done all these wonderful things in the League. In the past he’s not had playoff success, and when you do get to taste a little bit of it, it really tastes good.”

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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.

Day at Ovechkin’s office: Capitals edge Rangers in OT

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The Washington Capitals outlasted the New York Rangers in what was largely a game of inches and lethal power-play units.

Matt Niskanen ultimately notched the difference-maker in Washington’s 4-3 overtime win as the Capitals ended a losing streak at two games. The rebuilding Rangers provided a pretty spirited showing, holding their own as the Capitals generated a modest 38-32 shots on goal advantage.

Here’s that Niskanen game-winner:

Each power-play unit went 2-for-4 on Wednesday, with the Capitals taking advantage of the “Death and Taxes” certainty of Alex Ovechkin scoring from “his office.” Both of Ovechkin’s power-play goals came from almost the exact same spot, with the main difference being that the second one caught Henrik Lundqvist a bit more by surprise (in part because he shot low).

John Carlson ranked as one of the Capitals’ standout performers in this win, generating one goal and two assists.

The Rangers enjoyed strong nights from their own first line, as both Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider authored one-goal, one-assist performances while creating plenty of other chances. (Jesper Fast was also busy, although he failed to generate any points.)

Circling back to that “game of inches” point, consider that Washington barely avoided a goal, as Christian Djoos saved the day early on:

While Ovechkin was close to nabbing yet another hat trick:

The Rangers and Capitals approach the 2018-19 season with very different expectations, yet each team saw their veteran goalies manage some nice stops, enjoyed strong nights from their top guns, and generally put on a nice show on NBCSN.

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.

Will NHL reduce Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension?

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Tom Wilson will get a chance to state his case to reduce his 20-game suspension via an appeal hearing with the NHL on Thursday, a process Bob McKenzie discusses in the video above this post’s headline.

To catch you up to speed, note that this is part of the appeal process where Wilson brings his case to Gary Bettman. After that, Wilson also has the option to bring his case to an independent arbitrator.

Wednesday’s New York Rangers – Washington Capitals game represents the sixth of 20 games. Note that Wilson loses more than $60K for every game he’s suspended for, so a reduction in his sentence could mean a lot of dough for the polarizing hitter.

What are his chances of getting a lighter punishment, then? As McKenzie notes, they aren’t great, particularly when it comes to Bettman cutting down a suspension.

That said, there are two cases worth noting:

  • Raffi Torres’ hit on Marian HossaIn July 2012, Wilson-like hitter Torres saw a 25-game suspension fall to 21 games for his check on Marian Hossa. This is probably the most directly comparable situation, at least when you consider the types of hits and the rap sheet for the players involved.
  • In June 2014, Dan Carcillo saw an “abuse of official” suspension reduced from 10 games to six.

Now, a neutral arbitrator might be more likely to ease the duration of Wilson’s suspension. Consider these two cases, which aren’t necessarily directly comparable:

All things considered, it’s easy to see why Wilson would go through this process. It’s quite plausible that he’ll get back into the lineup sooner and lose less money from the suspension, even if it’s not fair to call the possibility “likely.”

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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins visit Flames on NBCSN

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The NBCSN Wednesday night doubleheader continues with the Calgary Flames hosting the Boston Bruins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Two hot teams face off to wrap up tonight’s NBCSN games, as the Bruins carry a four-game winning streak into Calgary (facing a Flames squad that’s won three of four).

This contest shouldn’t be short on star power, as these squads pit two of the best top lines in the NHL against each other, while each team also has some nice complimentary pieces. If that wasn’t enough, Brad Marchand and Matthew Tkachuk are almost certain to ruffle feathers with their obnoxious, antagonistic ways.

The Flames and Bruins don’t meet all that often, so it should be a treat to watch these two interesting teams on Wednesday.

What: Boston Bruins at Calgary Flames
Where: Scotiabank Saddledome
When: Wednesday, October 17th, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Bruins-Flames stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Projected Lineups

Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand — Patrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Joakim NordstromDavid KrejciJake DeBrusk

Ryan DonatoDavid BackesAnders Bjork

Chris WagnerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

John MooreBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask

[WATCH LIVE – 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Calgary Flames

Johnny GaudreauSean MonahanElias Lindholm

Matthew Tkachuk — Mikael BacklundMichael Frolik

Sam BennettMark JankowskiJames Neal

Garnet HathawayDerek RyanAustin Czarnik

Mark GiordanoTJ Brodie

Noah Hanifin — Rasmus Andersson

Juuso ValimakiMichael Stone

Starting goalie: Mike Smith

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.

Contract talks: Nylander and Leafs meet; Rinne’s future with Predators

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Update: The Ducks announced a three-year contract for Nick Ritchie tonight, so scratch one name off the list.

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Hockey insider Bob McKenzie swung by the NBCSN studio on Wednesday, covering multiple bases. As you can see in the video above this headline, McKenzie provided an array of contract-related updates from around the NHL, so let’s dive in:

William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are scoring goals like a glutton piling a plate high at a buffet, yet they’re missing quality top-six winger William Nylander. It’s far from a simple situation for either side. From Nylander’s perspective, he doesn’t want to leave too much money on the table, considering that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner may raise the bar with their own second contracts. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs must worry about maintaining enough cap space beyond those three young forwards and John Tavares‘ new deal, plus a big investment in Nylander is especially risky since he doesn’t have the largest sample size of work at the NHL level.

Phew.

As much as Kasperi Kapanen‘s strong early work has eased some of the burden of Nylander’s absence, the bottom line is that the two sides want to get something done. With that in mind, McKenzie and others report that Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas met with Nylander in Switzerland.

It remains to be seen if the two sides made any real progress in these high-stakes contract negotiations, although if nothing else, McKenzie notes that Dubas’ visit could at least ease some of the tensions that come with (literal and figurative) games of telephone.

Plenty of people believe that a “bridge” deal would ultimately be the most likely route for a compromise, but that could change with time, for all we know.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Dec. 1 deadline: That’s the NHL deadline for an RFA to sign a contract. If a deal isn’t reached, that player cannot play in the NHL during the 2018-19 season. It’s tough to imagine that being the outcome, although Nylander could conceivably play in the KHL or another league if things get truly nasty.
  • Nylander would be eligible for salary arbitration in the unlikely event that the Maple Leafs only sign him for 2018-19.
  • Nylander, 22, is five seasons away from being eligible for UFA status. That’s worth considering when you ponder how long a “bridge” deal might be.
  • The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun discusses the circumstances (sub required) that could make a trade more likely. (Personally, it’s tough to imagine, but it’s also surprising that the situation keeps dragging on.)

It’s a tough situation – with a lot of ins and outs – yet if the two sides can hammer something out, it could also be worth the headaches.

Nick Ritchie and the Anaheim Ducks

McKenzie provides an update to a far-less-pressing RFA situation, with the tone being optimistic about a deal being struck.

It’s been interesting to see how the beginning of the 2018-19 season could conceivably provide more leverage for both sides. On one hand, the Anaheim Ducks have been able to manufacture wins and standings points with Ritchie on the shelf. On the other, injuries have really left Anaheim with a pretty threadbare group of forwards.

Again, the stakes are profoundly lower there, as Ritchie’s been merely a modest scorer at the NHL level.

Key situations for the Nashville Predators

There were two fascinating situations for Nashville discussed in the video, with two players essentially in opposite phases of their careers.

Pekka Rinne: Some might expect the Predators to accelerate the “passing of the torch” in net from Rinne to Juuse Saros. After all, Saros is 23, has shown serious promise so far in the NHL, and is dirt-cheap at $1.5M per year through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could provide the Predators with a quality starter at a backup cost, possibly opening up room to keep Nashville’s depth intact. That’s not a terrible concept considering that Roman Josi‘s due a big raise from $4M (which expires after 2019-20), Kevin Fiala‘s rookie deal ends after this season, and Ryan Ellis‘ extension kicks in starting next season.

Reasonable ideas all around, but that might not be Nashville’s path.

McKenzie reports that the Predators hope to get an extension done, and interestingly, it might even be a long-term deal.

The numbers matter, then, from both a financial and years standpoint. Rinne is already 35, so it would be a 35+ deal, making an already risky proposition that much riskier. Such a commitment could really make you sweat if Rinne’s extension carries a cap hit anywhere near his current $7M.

Bringing Rinne back seems fair enough, but we’ll see if the Predators make a shaky gamble.

Eeli Tolvanen: From an established 35-year-old goalie to a still-quite-raw first-rounder from 2017, we have 19-year-old Eeli Tolvanen.

As PHT discussed when Tolvanen was demoted, the Predators prospect has a clause that would allow him to escape to Europe (KHL or otherwise) after he plays in 10 AHL games. McKenzie notes that Tolvanen is playing in his fifth AHL game tonight.

Read more here about the conundrum Nashville faces. Should they bite the bullet and just keep him with the big club, even with some work to be done? If he goes to the KHL, he wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL again this season, according to McKenzie.

***

Again, you can get that rundown in the video above this post’s headline, while this article aims to provide additional insight. McKenzie also discussed Jake Dotchin’s situation with Anaheim (and Tampa Bay), so it’s worth your time to check it out.

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.