Alex Ovechkin ready for first Stanley Cup Final home game

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I want to win the Stanley Cup. I want to be the best, just the best. I must work. I must learn. Help my team. Play hockey, that’s all. Hockey is my life, you know. If I do not play hockey, I do not know what I do.” – Alex Ovechkin, October, 2005, via the Washington Post.

When Alex Ovechkin stepped on to the T-Mobile Arena ice ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, he could feel how much of an atmosphere change it was compared to the previous three rounds of the playoffs. There was a different energy in the air and the stage was even bigger than he had ever experienced.

On Saturday night, Ovechkin will hit the Capital One Arena ice for his first home game ever in a Cup Final. It’s been 20 years since the Capitals have played host to one, which means more of that different atmosphere and energy the Washington captain talked about, but unlike the scene in Vegas, the support will be behind him and his teammates.

“I’m excited. I think everybody’s excited in Washington,” Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be hard — but that’s why we work so hard to be in this spot and be in this moment.”

Even through the numerous playoff disappointments, Ovechkin has always kept a loose mentality. No matter the situation, he’s tried to keep his teammates upbeat, even when times have been bad. He’s taken the losses hard, but that’s because he wants to win so badly.

Jay Beagle is one of the longer-tenured Capitals and has seen that regular season success turn into playoff disappointment. Through it all, he says, Ovechkin has remained the same.

“He’s always had a calming presence because he always keeps it loose and is a lot of fun to be around,” said Beagle, who’s neighbors with Ovechkin in the team’s dressing room. “He’s steps up in the big moments, says things when he needs to, but also keeps it loose when the time is right, too.”

Ovechkin has done his part in helping the Capitals reach the Cup Final. He’s second in the NHL in playoff scoring with 13 goals and 24 points, his most in the postseason since 2009. There’s growth in all players year-to-year, but Beagle says that this year is different.

“All of us grow every year — you grow as a player, you grow as a person,” said Beagle. “He’s been outstanding. Every time we’ve gone into the playoffs, he’s been our best player. But I really think he’s taken over the team. He’s really taken this as his team and he’s stepped his game up even more than he has in the past, which is very hard to do. He’s our leader. We follow him. He’s been unreal. He’s been unreal ever since I’ve been here, but he’s also growing like everyone else is growing, as a player and a person. He’s stepped up huge this playoffs.”

Since Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, he’s wanted to deliver a Stanley Cup to D.C. This is the closest he’s ever been to it, and the Capitals are three more wins away from delivering.

“He’s made a promise to himself to get his game to the next level and bring our team with him. I think he’s done that,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “I think he’s delivering on a lot of aspects. I think he’s grown as a player and our captain.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Surging Vrana might be capable of even bigger things for Capitals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From Alex Ovechkin for Washington to Artemi Panarin for New York, you’ll see plenty of firepower during Wednesday Night Hockey’s bout between the Capitals and Rangers. Even with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined for the game, I’m here to argue that you still might not see enough of one potential rising star: Jakub Vrana.

When you give Vrana’s 2019-20 stats a quick glance, they’re already impressive.

Not only does Vrana already have 10 goals scored in 23 games, but all 10 of them have come at even-strength, tying him for third in the NHL in that category alongside players like Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vrana’s former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky. His eight assists rounds out his numbers to 18 points in 23 games; over an 82-game pace, Vrana would author 37-goal, 66-point season.

While he’s been riding some hot puck luck since 2018-19 with a 15.1 shooting percentage, the overwhelming message one gets from diving deeper into Vrana’s stats is that the Capitals should strongly consider finding more ways to get him on the ice.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Despite Vrana’s 18 points in 23 games, he’s only averaging 14:15 TOI per game, which is a career-high and slight uptick from last season’s average of 14:02. Beyond getting some bounces, Vrana’s breakthrough in simple counting stats can probably be chalked up to an increasingly itchy trigger finger. After peaking with 1.96 shots on goal per game last season, Vrana’s getting almost one extra puck on net per evening, averaging 2.78 SOG per game (64 SOG in 23 GP).

It’s unclear if you can derive that from playing a more confident game, getting decent reps with a tremendous playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or if perhaps someone in the Capitals organization gave Vrana a directive to shoot more. Either way, it’s working out quite nicely, as he’s a significant part of the Capitals’ early work as the NHL’s most dangerous offense at even-strength.

Again, though, I must ask for more.

Just about every number seems to point a neon flashing arrow at “More Vrana.” His heat map at Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz is, well, almost off the charts:

Wow.

Admittedly, it would be tough for Vrana to crack the Capitals’ top power play unit, and he’s getting some reps on the second unit (1:35 per game), but his all-around game makes me wonder if more PK work would be warranted.

It’s not as though Vrana is getting totally buried in the Capitals’ lineup, yet with Washington in a strong position (few teams enjoy the luxury of “Can we win the division again?” being one of their burning questions in November), I’d be tempted to see if Vrana would thrive in an even larger role.

And, hey, if all of that is boring … the skill is pretty obvious, too. Not everyone can pull off a Datsyukian shootout move, right?

Just saying.

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.

My Favorite Goal: Malik’s stunning shootout winner vs. Capitals

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers and personalities remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Scott Charles remembers Marek Malik’s wild shootout-winning deke against the Capitals in 2005.

14 years ago, the shootout was still a new phenomenon in its first year of existence.

The NHL implemented the game-deciding method after a lockout to add a unique level of excitement and create a stand-alone moment within the game for players to showcase their individual skills. Fans have seen plenty of breakaway attempts and penalty shots throughout the years, but the concept of a singular moment with the game on the line created a buzz.

Many NHL stars struggled to adapt to the one-on-one event while several unknown players became heroes overnight.

Marek Malik of the New York Rangers used his opportunity to cement his legacy in the organization’s history.

Rangers coach Tom Renney elected to send Malik over the boards in the 15th round on November 26, 2005 when New York squared off against the Washington Capitals.

Renney had few options at the time because shooters are not allowed to shoot twice unlike international competitions. But when the six-foot six-inch offensively challenged defenseman took the ice, a moment about to be etched into NHL history.

The big fellow skated to the right, majestically slid the puck between his legs and released a wrist shot that sent Madison Square Garden into a frenzy for the second time that day!

“I was expecting to see a shot,” Renney remembered. “I certainly was not expecting, as was no one else in the building expecting to see what he did. It was completely out there and maybe that was the right approach. Maybe Malik was having just enough fun watching all of this as I think we all did. It kind of didn’t matter so go try something. He did and it worked.”

The Rangers and the NBA’s Knicks often play the same day at MSG, but on this Saturday both teams left the venue with thrilling victories. Nate Robinson drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer to propel the Knicks to an overtime win against the Philadelphia 76ers prior to Malik’s beauty.

Malik had the chance to become a fan favorite because Jason Strudwick answered the bell in the round prior.

Bryan Muir of the Capitals scored and Renney had to make a very difficult decision; he needed to find someone to respond. The three remaining players who hadn’t shot yet were Strudwick, Darius Kasparaitis and Malik.

“He (Kasparaitis) kept looking at me every time I looked toward that end of the bench,” Renney said. “I was doing everything I could to not make eye contact with him. Kasparaitis was doing everything he could to make eye contact with me and Strudwick was doing everything he could to not make eye contact with me. There was a certain irony in all of that.”

Even though Strudwick lacked confidence Renney selected him anyway.

“I was thinking there was no way I was going to score,” Strudwick said while chuckling. “I remember Tom calling my name I pretended I did not hear him. He looked over and I was like ‘Oh God.’ Over my career I wasn’t really an offensive type guy. Part of me was praying someone would have scored earlier to just end it, but part of me was thinking I actually want a chance at this.”

Malik’s shootout goal encapsulates the spirit of the unlikely hero. A reminder of the underdog moments of triumph hockey can create.

Depth defensemen and bottom-six forwards are often overlooked and viewed as replaceable players, but the ‘Malik Deke’ was another reminder how talented each NHL player is despite their role on any team.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final
Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Senators’ Bobby Ryan to enter NHL/NHLPA player assistance program

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The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Wednesday morning that Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan will be stepping away from the team indefinitely while he enters the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program.

The league and union said in a release there “will be no further comment at this time.” The Senators are in Montreal to face the Canadiens Wednesday night.

Ryan did not play Tuesday night in Detroit, one day after he left practice early. Senators head coach D.J. Smith said the forward wasn’t feeling well, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

“Bobby is an important member of the Ottawa Senators family and he has our full support as he tends to this matter,” said Senators GM Pierre Dorion.

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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Panarin continuing to deliver for Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

A strong offensive season for Artemi Panarin in his first year on Broadway may go to waste if the Rangers don’t find a way to get themselves into the playoffs. But this year is a transition one for the franchise, as they incorporate new faces and plenty of youth in hopes of making big strides in the future.

Panarin’s done all he’s been ask to do through 18 games. He leads the Rangers with nine goals and 23 points and has continued to produce in the absence of Mika Zibanejad, who will miss his 10th straight game Wednesday against the Capitals but is expected to return to the lineup soon.

Helping Panarin deliver the bread has been Ryan Strome, who’s second on the team in scoring with six goals and 18 points. The duo have worked together so well that head coach David Quinn isn’t sure he’ll remove Strome from the top line once Zibanejad is healthy.

“Stromer’s a smart player, I think they complement each other well,” Quinn said. “[Panarin] enjoys playing with him. [Jesper] Fast has given that line a little bit of honesty, a little bit of a straight-line approach to the game where those two guys might be a little more East-West. I think the line in general has a good balance to it.”

When the Rangers went free agent shopping in the summer, they had already added to their blue line with the additions of Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox. General manager Jeff Gorton was looking for a difference-maker and Panarin fit that mold perfectly.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“I think the past couple years we’ve been looking for a guy to lean on a little bit,” said Fast, the third part of New York’s top line. “You have a guy who’s always like creating and always is a threat in the offensive zone every time he gets the puck. That’s what we’re getting from him right now.”

Entering Wednesday, Panarin is riding an 11-game point streak (5-12–17) and has gone pointless in only three games this season. He’s been an offensive dynamo for his entire career, hitting at least 74 points in each of his four NHL seasons. His talent makes those around him better, and that’s all the Rangers can ask as they look to develop a lineup that can turn into a consistent winner.

“He challenges you to be better based on how skilled he is,” Strome said. “You want to keep up to him and make plays. It’s been really fun, honestly.”

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Rangers from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN following Wednesday Night Hockey. Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league. You can watch it live here.

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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.