After ’20 long, dry years,’ Caps are finally back in Stanley Cup Final

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WASHINGTON (AP) Jimmy Patterson was a fresh-faced 22-year-old in the stands at the old Capital Centre in October 1974 when the expansion Washington Capitals won for the first time.

As he was leaving, an elderly man from Brooklyn told Patterson he’d always get to say he saw the Capitals’ first win. The man smiled and added, “You can’t lose ’em all.”

Forty-plus years, more than 3,000 games and 27 unsuccessful playoff runs later, Patterson and legions of longtime Capitals fans finally have a reason to believe that. Many who watched Wednesday night at an arena watch party far from Game 7 in Tampa Bay took to the steps of the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Capitals’ first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998. Game 1 in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights is Monday night.

“It’s been really gratifying,” said Patterson, now 65. “It feels a lot different, and it’s a weird feeling.”

Filling the area, fans chanted, “We want the Cup,” “We want Vegas” and “DC! DC!” in an outpouring of joy decades and crushing losses in the making. Alex Ovechkin‘s Capitals are the first Washington team in the major four professional sports leagues to reach the final in a generation. To get this far, they had to not only outlast the Lightning but survive longtime playoff nemesis Pittsburgh, which has won the last two championships.

“It’s been 20 long, dry years and we are back,” Capitals public address announcer Wes Johnson said. “This is catharsis. Once we beat the Penguins, then you could see that the fan base was like, `Let’s just play hockey.’ As John Walton said, it’s OK to believe. It’s not just OK to believe. Just believe.”

Among markets with teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, only the Twin Cities in Minnesota has a longer championship drought going than Washington. The Redskins won their third Super Bowl title in January 1992 and it’s been mostly grim since then. None of the Redskins, Wizards, Nationals and Capitals even reached a league semifinal from 1998 until this spring.

In that same time, Boston’s teams have made 25 league semifinal appearances and won 10 titles. Maybe success is contagious.

“Last year all of those (other Washington) teams made the playoffs and then it was like, hey we got to do the same too, and we dropped the ball,” Redskins running back Chris Thompson said. “If you see your D.C. teams succeeding and the Capitals now (in) the finals and stuff like that, it’s a little bit of motivation.”

The Capitals got over the hump in their 10th playoff appearance after early exits marred by sudden-death overtime winners, a hot goaltender named Jaroslav Halak, the New York Rangers and – of course – the Penguins.

“It’s just been one nightmare after another,” said Anthony Beverina, who has had season tickets in section 417 since 1997-98. “And it makes you wonder if there’s some inherit either cosmic conspiracy or a core character issue in the core guys.”

The nightmare has slowly felt like a dream on this playoff run, which was unexpected following an offseason of salary-cap casualties in the wake of another crushing second-round loss to Pittsburgh. Players rallied around lower preseason expectations, and even going into the playoffs Washington wasn’t supposed to do this.

“This team is so fun,” said George Christo, a Boston transplant who has had season tickets since 1995-96. “This team is the most fun since that ’98 team primarily because, both of those teams, who on earth expected either of these teams to be able to get this deep and to be that tough?”

After so many early playoff exits, Capitals fans are reluctant to feel too good about things. Christo said even his children have almost gotten sick of going to games -until this year, which has challenged a lot of the old conventions about doomsday D.C. sports.

“There are people sitting in season-ticket-holder seats because they’re home mashing teeth and biting their fingernails,” Patterson said. “A lot of fans around the country when their team is in the playoffs, they like to have get-togethers and parties, viewing parties for the away games and stuff like that. But if you’ve been through some of this stuff, after the second game of a playoff series, there won’t be any of that because you can’t have your friends over and watch a game and then have everybody in that awful mood when it’s over and they’re shaking hands and you’re on the losing side.”

It was the opposite Wednesday night when almost 10,000 people wearing red watched on video screens above a basketball court as Capitals players and coaches were on the winning side of their handshake line with the Lightning. Cheers greeted Ovechkin touching the Prince of Wales Trophy and then the flash of the Stanley Cup Final schedule before the series against former general manager George McPhee’s Vegas Golden Knights begins.

“We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final,” Ovechkin said. “I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished, you know what I mean. I don’t know, I’m emotional right now. I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Game 3 on June 2 will be the first Cup Final game in the district since 1998, when the Capitals were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. One more win will make this the most successful season in franchise history, and though superstition and history keeps fans from thinking about the “what if” of four more, they’re no longer afraid to enjoy the ride.

“Now you’re excited by the win, you’re not just dreading how are they going to blow this game,” Beverina said. “It’s been nothing but fun this year.”

That fun extends to the Capitals’ locker room, which looked to have much less talent on paper than in previous seasons. But players feel different about this year, too, and have embraced each other as much as their common goal.

“I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper or whatever. But this team everyone knows their role and everyone wants to pitch in and everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident and confident in each other.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

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Nylander already showing flashes of brilliance for Maple Leafs

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After a contract holdout that extended almost until the last minute on Dec. 1, William Nylander finally signed with the Maple Leafs, yet he was unable to generate a point in his first two games back. One could almost feel the restlessness build in Toronto, but there were breakthrough moments in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Granted, there were also some breakdowns on Nylander’s part, too. Some of that is just the nature of the beast when it comes to NHL hockey, but rust is a factor, as well.

Nylander generated his first two points of 2018-19 in Tuesday’s win, both being assists.

His first didn’t seem like an assist at all, as Morgan Rielly was credited with a goal after it became clear that Dougie Hamilton was guilty of a tragicomic own-goal. Nylander’s second assist came on a brilliant pass to Patrick Marleau, who converted on what was the hockey equivalent of a layup:

Nylander might just deserve that token assist, really, as he made another brilliant pass to Marleau that did not result in a goal.

That’s some great stuff, and the Maple Leafs have the potential to be truly terrifying if Nylander, Marleau, and Nazem Kadri can make for a strong line while Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner also confound defenses at different times. We’ve seen a lot of NHL teams load up with supreme top lines, hoping that the gains would offset any losses. Toronto could score a monumental advantage over most opponents if they can really leverage this depth.

As tantalizing as those thoughts are, it’s not as though Nylander is a finished product.

The 22-year-old experienced some sloppy moments during that same game against Carolina, finishing the night with six penalty minutes. Maybe his high-sticking penalty ranks as one of those things that just happens, but Nylander essentially had to take an interference penalty out of exhaustion, as he was caught out on the ice during a shift that went too long.

After the game, Nylander acknowledged that some shifts went too long, while Mike Babcock had an interesting take on what the winger is going through.

“It’s going to take some time, let’s not get carried away,” Babcock said. “They’re all fine as long as the ice is open. As soon as it is in contact and you’ve got to get your legs going and you can get stuck out on a shift. He took a penalty the one time he got stuck out on a shift … It’s going to take some time. We’ll be patient and he has to be.”

Maple Leafs fans should be heartened by that last sentence: the team will be patient with Nylander. That’s crucial, and it’s especially promising coming from a coach who can sometimes be … hard-driving, like Babcock’s known to be.

Now, about that patience: when should the Maple Leafs expect Nylander to be at full speed?

Ignoring the potential advantages that come with skipping months of bumps and bruises by beginning his season in December instead of October, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Toronto believes that a player gets truly up-and-running about 12 days after training camp.

By the best estimates of the Leafs sports science department, it typically takes a player 12 days after training camp before his heart rate levels out during exertion.

That would put Nylander on schedule to be functioning at his peak sometime in mid-January after hitting the ground running last week and so far playing more games (three) than he’s had full practices (two) with the Leafs.

As much as any other team, the Maple Leafs have the resources to research such sports science issues, so the league should keep an eye on developments like these. If any league could see a franchise exploit “rest versus rust” for, say, gains in the playoffs, it might be someone in the NHL. Plenty of franchises lack that eye for innovation, so those who do might enjoy at least a brief edge.

The thing is, it’s human nature to fixate on mistakes like Nylander’s interference penalty, and lose sight of the big picture (his assists, and strong overall play).

Consider that, according to Natural Stat Trick’s individual rates, Nylander’s Corsi For Percentage was 61.29-percent on Tuesday, the second-best mark of any Maple Leafs player in that game (Igor Ozhiganov topped all at 65.22). Perhaps you can nitpick that a bit being that Nylander didn’t face the toughest Hurricanes competition during much of the contest, but you’d be grasping at straws.

In other words, there’s already a lot to like about Nylander three games into his latest season, even if there are signs of growing pains. He could be a boon to the Maple Leafs in his current form, and chances are, he’ll get up to game speed and shake off all the rust, possibly quite soon.

Long story short, Nylander’s showing that he’s worth the wait.

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.

Penguins heavy NHL odds favorite against beleaguered Blackhawks on Wednesday

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It is rare for a road team in the NHL to go as deep into minus money as the Pittsburgh Penguins are for their game against the reeling Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m ET; NBCSN), meaning a trend could be shrugged off due to small sample size.

The Penguins are -195 road favorites on the NHL odds for Wednesday night with the host Blackhawks coming back at +155, while there is a 6.0-goals total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Penguins are only 1-5 in their last six road games as a favorite of -190 or greater on the moneyline, as well as 3-7 in their last 10 road games, but are 4-1 in five road games this season against Western Conference teams.

The Blackhawks’ trends are even more abject; they have surrendered the first goal in 11 consecutive games and are also 2-6 in their last eight home games at the United Center. Chicago also played Tuesday night, losing 6-3 against the Winnipeg Jets, and is 4-16 in its last 20 games when it played the previous day.

Pittsburgh is 13-10-6 on the season, including a 6-2-2 mark over its last 10 games. The Penguins are well off of their Stanley Cup form of two seasons ago, but still have a strong first two lines centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both Pittsburgh special teams units are in the top 10 of the NHL, with the power play ranking ninth (23.2 percent) and the penalty killing unit ranking sixth (83.5).

With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray (lower body) close to a return to health, the Penguins could have a choice between him and Casey DeSmith, who is 3-1-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in five starts so far in December.

Chicago is 9-18-5, including 1-9 in its last 10 games, and there is little to suggest much in the way of an immediate turnaround. Captain Jonathan Toews‘ line is one of the least proficient first lines in the NHL and the next waves of attack, which include right wing Patrick Kane, have been just ok, which is why the Blackhawks have not scored more than three goals during any of their last eight home games.

The Blackhawks are also 31st, or dead last, in power play efficiency (11.6 percent) and 28th in penalty killing (74.4 percent).

Cam Ward played in the Winnipeg game, which would suggest the Blackhawks will start goalie Corey Crawford, who is winless in his last eight starts. Crawford is 5-14-1 with a 3.21 goals-against average and .901 save percentage, but his rate stats improve to 2.39 and .925 on home ice, which might provide a glimmer of hope for upset-minded bettors.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Pittsburgh’s last 10 road games against the Central Division, according to the OddsShark NHL Database. The total has gone UNDER in eight of Chicago’s last 10 home games.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Rangers’ Shattenkirk out 2-4 weeks with shoulder injury

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Rangers say defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk will be sidelined two to four weeks with a shoulder injury.

Shattenkirk left in the second period of Monday night’s game in Tampa. He took a check around the left shoulder and had a sling on his arm postgame.

The 29-year-old was checked out on Tuesday. General manager Jeff Gorton announced Wednesday that Shattenkirk had a separated shoulder.

Shattenkirk has one goal, seven assists and zero penalty minutes in 29 games this season. He suffered a knee injury last January that ended his season.

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

Bruins’ David Backes takes skate to face, returns

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BOSTON (AP) Boston Bruins forward David Backes rushed himself off the ice Tuesday night after taking a skate blade to the face late in the first period but returned at the start of the second and finished the game.

Backes pushed Oliver Ekman-Larsson near the side of the net and the Arizona defenseman went to the ice, kicking up his left skate on the way down. It caught Backes in the face, and he went down before skating on his own quickly to the bench and out the tunnel.

Backes returned and won the faceoff to start the second period. He did not speak to reporters during the open locker room period but told The Boston Globe as he left the building he had a cut on the side of his nose that required a few stitches and some ointment.

“It’s always scary when your teammate takes a skate to the face, or really anywhere,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said after scoring twice and adding an assist in the 4-3 victory. “He’s a little prettier now and no worse for wear.”

Backes required 18 stitches to close a cut on his leg after a game against Tampa Bay in March.

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