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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The Buzzer: Silfverberg plays OT hero; Donato helps Wild

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Three Stars

1. Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks

Silfverberg was involved in three of Anaheim’s four goals during their 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks. After helping set up the Ducks’ first two goals, Silfverberg put the game to bed 38 seconds into overtime to clinch the victory for Anaheim.

2. Ryan Donato, Minnesota Wild

One-third of Minnesota’s “Kid Line” set up both Wild goals during a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals. The two points earned helped move Minnesota back into Western Conference wild card spot with seven games to go. Donato now has 13 points in 14 games since being dealt to the Wild.

3. Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks

Rakell tallied twice and assisted on the OT winner, helping the Ducks to go two-for-three on the power play. The goals were Rakell’s first in seven games. He now has 13 on the season.

Highlights of the Night

• Silfverberg has five multi-point games this season and four in his last 18 games:

Jordan Greenway powered his way to the net for his 12th of the season and finished off with some nice stick handling:

Factoids of the Night

• Donato’s assist on Greenway’s goal was the 10,000th point in Wild franchise history.

Scores
Wild 2, Capitals 1
Ducks 4, Sharks 3 (OT)

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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.

Lightning’s Gourde suspended two games for illegal check to the head

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Yanni Gourde has been suspended two games by the NHL Department of Player Safety for his hit to the head of Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning forward went to lay a hit on Staal and ended up getting his head, leading to a match penalty and an ejection. Staal, who missed 32 games this season while dealing with a concussion, left the game before returning and scoring Carolina’s second goal in a 6-3 loss.

“I haven’t really watched or seen it but, you know, it’s a fast game, things happen,” Staal said afterward. “Obviously, you never want to see those hits. I was fortunate enough to come out of it feeling all right.”

DoPS head George Parros said the head check was avoidable in the department’s suspension video.

“While we acknowledge Gourde’s argument that Staal is bent low and stumbling as he plays the puck, this hit does not meet any of the criteria for unavoidable head contact,” Parros said.

Gourde, who has no history with the DoPS in his 179-game career, will miss the Lightning’s games against St. Louis on Saturday and Boston on Monday. He is eligible to return next Saturday vs. Washington.

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Gourde forfeits $10,752.68 — money that goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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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.

Ducks give discouraging update on Eaves, Kesler

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Back in 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler was wrapping up the first year of a six-year, $41.2 million contract extension and still looking like one of the league’s best shutdown centers.

He finished with 22 goals and 58 points for a Ducks team that reached the Western Conference Final, and was also the runner-up for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

The two years that have followed, including the 2018-19 season, have not been kind to him.

After appearing in only 44 games a season ago due to injury, the 34-year-old Kesler has been limited to just 60 games this season and has missed each of the past seven due to a hip injury. In the two years he has combined for just 13 goals and 22 points, and it sounds like the Ducks do not expect to see him on the ice again this season, while there should be some serious doubt as to what his future might hold.

“We’re going to meet with the doctors tonight, [Kesler] and I,” general manager and interim head coach Bob Murray said on Friday, via the Ducks’ website. “[Kesler] has to get everything in his life in order as to what he has to do in order to play. It’s not exactly good for his body, the things he puts himself through. We need to take full inventory of where he is in his life and go forward from there. The agent and I have talked a bunch.”

Kesler still has three years remaining on his contract after this one at a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season. Between him, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry the Ducks have more than $23 million per season tied up in three players all age 33 or older over the next two full seasons (plus a third season for Kesler).

With the Ducks badly struggling on the ice this season with one of the league’s worst records it does not leave them in an ideal situation. 

Kesler’s status is not the only troubling one that Murray addressed on Friday.

He also mentioned that forward Patrick Eaves is dealing with a lot of the same issues that he dealt with a year ago when a post-viral syndrome limited him to just two games.

He has only appeared in seven NHL games this season.

“He’s had a setback,” said Murray. “Texted with him yesterday. There is no new diagnosis or anything. This is a very troubling situation, and everybody is doing the best they can with it. There is no diagnosis, and he’s just struggling again with everything. Like [Kesler], we hope he gets better so he can have a normal life. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s just struggling. It’s more like what he had last year. He’s experiencing some of the same issues as last year. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Eaves joined the Ducks in the middle of the 2016-17 NHL season and has scored 132 goals in 633 career games with the Ducks, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators.

Related: After year away, Eaves had a blast in return to NHL

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.

Truck driver involved in Humboldt Broncos bus crash sentenced to eight years

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MELFORT, Saskatchewan — The driver whose transport truck crashed into a hockey team bus in Canada, killing 16 people, has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Thirteen others were injured when Jaskirat Singh Sidhu’s semitrailer loaded with peat moss collided with the Humboldt Broncos’ bus in rural Saskatchewan. Sidhu had pleaded guilty earlier this year to 29 counts of dangerous driving

The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

Judge Inez Cardinal said Friday that Sidhu’s remorse and guilty plea were mitigating factors, but added she had to consider the number of people who died or were severely injured and face lifelong challenges.

Sidhu’s truck ran through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team’s bus at an intersection last April.

Cardinal said the collision was avoidable.

“Mr. Sidhu had ample time to react … had he been paying attention,” she said. “Somehow we must stop this carnage on our highways.”

The prosecution wanted the 30-year-old Sidhu to be sent to prison for 10 years, while his lawyers said other cases suggested a range of 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years.

Cardinal began her decision by reading aloud each victim’s name. She said the nearly 100 victim impact statements from families were staggering.

The judge said the hockey players who died were gifted athletes, while others on the bus were dreaming about families or had already started them.

“Families have been torn apart because of the loss,” Cardinal said. “They are prone to depression, anxiety or outbursts.”

She also spoke of the survivors, who she suggested “are putting on a brave face in an attempt to be strong.”

Sidhu’s lawyers had said he was remorseful and is likely to face deportation to his home country of India after he serves time.

At a sentencing hearing in January, it was made known that Sidhu was going between 86 and 96 kph (53 and 60 mph) when he passed four signs warning him about the upcoming intersection and approached an oversized stop sign with a flashing light.

Prosecutor Thomas Healey said Sidhu should have seen the busy highway in front of him or a car that was stopped across the road and waiting for the Broncos’ bus to pass.

Healey described the semitrailer as a rocket that barreled into the intersection, which gave the bus driver no time to avoid the crash.

Defense lawyer Mark Brayford said Sidhu was hired by a small Calgary trucking company three weeks earlier. He had spent two weeks with another truck driver before heading out on his own for the first time.

Brayford suggested Sidhu was distracted by a flapping tarp on the back of his load of peat moss.