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.

Blues face prime opportunity to return to Stanley Cup Final

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When you have your opponent looking down and out in a playoff series you do not want to let them get back up.

You do not even want to give them the chance to get back up.

You want to eliminate them when you have the opportunity and remove all doubt, avoiding what would be an all-or-nothing Game 7 on the road.

That is the position the St. Louis Blues find themselves in heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) when they will host an injury-riddled San Jose Sharks team.

The Blues have won the past two games, including a thoroughly dominant performance on Sunday, they are at home, and they are facing a Sharks team that is without two of its best players and potentially a third that will almost certainly not be 100 percent if he does play.

Everything has fallen in the Blues’ favor for this game, and it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to close out a series than this.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just look at everything that is sitting in the Blues’ corner for this game.

  • Their best player, Vladimir Tarasenko, has gone on a tear and is riding a five-game point streak heading into Tuesday’s game. He was always going to be one of the biggest factors in this series and has found his scoring touch at just the right time.
  • The Sharks will not have Erik Karlsson, one of their most important players and a defender that can single-handedly change a team and a game when he is in the lineup. This series started to shift in the Blues’ favor when Karlsson’s groin injury resurfaced, limiting his ability to make an impact. He was obviously less than 100 percent in the Blues’ Game 4 win and barely played in Game 5 on Sunday. The Blues have outscored the Sharks by a 7-1 margin in those two games. Even though the Sharks still have another Norris Trophy winner (and a Norris Trophy finalist this season) in Brent Burns in their lineup, they are definitely a weaker team when one of them is out of the lineup.
  • The Sharks will also be without Tomas Hertl, currently their second-leading goal-scorer. With Hertl and Karlsson out it means the Sharks will be playing a must-win game without two of the top-six scorers in the playoffs and two players that have been involved in an overwhelming majority of their offense. At least one of Hertl or Karlsson has been on the ice for 39 of the Sharks’ 57 goals, while one of them has scored or assisted on 25 of them. When neither one is on the ice the Sharks have averaged just 2.22 goals per 60 minutes (all situations) in the playoffs. Not a great number.

So, yeah, this is a huge opportunity for the Blues and a game where it would probably be in their best interest to take care of business.

A loss on Tuesday night not only sends them to a Game 7 in San Jose where anything can happen, it also leaves open the possibility that one of those two key Sharks players (or even both of them) could be available. Yes, the Blues have been great on the road in these playoffs, but there is no guarantee that continues, especially in a win-or-go-home situation.

Even without Hertl and Karlsson the Sharks still have plenty of talent on their roster, so this game is far from a cake-walk for the Blues. But this is definitely the weakest lineup they are going to face in this matchup and there is never going to be a better opportunity to end a 49 year Stanley Cup Final drought than this night.

If they are going to do it, this seems like the game for it to happen.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

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If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Canes’ Martinook, de Haan have offseason surgeries

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook and defenseman Calvin de Haan have had offseason surgeries.

General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday that Martinook had a procedure on a core muscle while de Haan’s surgery was on his right shoulder.

Martinook is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks while de Haan will be out 4-6 months.

The 26-year-old Martinook had a career-best 15 goals with five game-winners, and was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to injuries. The 28-year-old de Haan injured his shoulder against Pittsburgh on March 31 but returned for Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against Washington.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NH and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Blues seeking a shot at redemption as they try to close out Sharks

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A lot has happened in the past 49 years.

Cell phones, Instagram, selfies and, for the purposes of this story, a whole lot of hockey. What hasn’t happened in nearly half a century, however, is a St. Louis Blues team opposite another in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues could get with the times if they’re to find a way past the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

Some history…

It was 1970 when St. Louis made their third straight appearance in the Cup Final, their most recent. Having been swept in their previous two attempts, both at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the Blues were now coming up against another Original Six team with Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins.

Different team, different legends, same result.

The Bruins snatched the broom from the Canadiens and repeated the process against the Blues thanks, in part, to one of the most iconic goals in NHL history that Number 4 scored in overtime to clinch the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are one win away from a chance at redemption, nearly 50 years in the making.

“It’s probably tough to put into words,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

The Sharks are treading familiar water heading into the game, something the Blues are acutely aware of.

“We’re close. We’re very close right now,” Blues forward Patrick Maroon said. “I think the guys know that. It’s in the back of their heads, but we know that that’s a good hockey team over there too and they’re not going to give up.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Some, even, won’t talk about it just yet.

“We will talk about it when we get there,” Alexander Steen said.

No team has been to more Stanley Cup Playoffs than the St. Louis Blues and not hoisted hockey’s holy grail at some point in June. Their 42 playoff appearances is far and away the most by any team (Buffalo is second with 29). A win Tuesday would also end the second-longest Cup Final drought in NHL history (behind only Toronto).

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotion and it’s important our players keep it in check,” head coach Craig Berube said. Our players have done a pretty good job of … focusing. I don’t expect anything different. It’s important at the start of the game you’re simple and direct. Keep your emotions in check and not let them get out of control.”

MORE: Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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