It was the Alex Ovechkin show for Capitals in Game 3

5 Comments

WASHINGTON — Watching Alex Ovechkin play in person is a completely different experience compared to watching any other player in the NHL. It is not just that he is better than just about everybody else on the ice on any given night. It is all just … different. Every single part of it.

The way he skates. The way he attacks the play with a consistent ferocity that almost seems impossible to maintain (yet he almost always does it anyway). The way the crowd inches toward the edge of their seats and a roar begins to build throughout the building as he carries the puck, almost as if there is anticipation that they know they are going to see something spectacular. The way the puck comes off of his stick and the sound that it makes.

It is all unlike any other player in the league today.

It is unlike almost any other player we have ever seen in the NHL. It has always been this way from the moment he arrived in the NHL during the 2005-06 season.

On some nights you can tell right away when you are in for one of those nights.

The kind of night where a world-class, generational player is just going to take the game over and make it his.

The Washington Capitals’ 3-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night was one of those nights, and it became obvious it was going to be one of those nights in first period when he helped set the tone for what would go on to be a dominating Capitals win.

[Related: Capitals dominate Golden Knights for Game 3 win

In those opening 20 minutes he attempted eight shots of his own (Vegas’ entire top-line, just for comparison, had six total attempts in the first period), blocked two shots, nearly scored a goal on an odd-man rush only to be turned aside by a sprawling Marc-Andre Fleury who was just barely able to get a piece of shot, and fired a precision cross-ice pass to a wide open Tom Wilson that could have been a goal had Wilson been able to control it. He did just about everything you could expect him to do on the ice except for actually putting the puck in the net.

He ended up doing that just 1:10 into the second period when he scored his 14th goal of the playoffs, tying the franchise playoff record set by John Druce during the 1990 playoffs, capping off a wild scramble around the net.

He finished the game with a game-high 10 total shot attempts, the goal, two hits, and two blocked shots. Was it the best stat line of his career? No. But it could have easily been more than that had it not been for spectacular goaltending from Fleury to rob on him a couple of open looks.

But he was still the best player on the ice and helped drive his team to a 2-1 lead in the series.

He also seemed to take as much joy in celebrating the goals by scored by teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Devante Smith-Pelly as he did in his own goal.

“I was emotional when [Smith-Pelly] scored too,” Ovechkin said when asked about his scream toward the heavens when Kuznetsov scored to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead. “It doesn’t matter who scores It’s important, it gives confidence, it gives belief.”

“I think right now it’s just automatic. You just get excited, when [Holtby] makes a huge save you can see all the bench just get excited. It’s the same as if [Kuznetsov] scores, or [Smith-Pelly] scores, it’s huge moments for us. You just want to give emotion to your teammates and to yourself as well.”

There was also a lot of talk post-game about his willingness to step into shooting lanes in the defensive zones (as he did twice in that opening period) and play a complete, 200-foot game and the type of message that sends to the rest of the team.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, you have to do it your best,” said Ovechkin. “If you block a shot, if you get a hit, you just give energy to your teammates.”

All of this brings us to the situation we have now where Ovechkin and the Capitals are just two wins away from finally — finally! — bringing a Stanley Cup to Washington, and what that is going to do for the story of his career. After years of being the team that couldn’t get it done, and the player that couldn’t get it done, the Capitals and Ovechkin are now within striking distance of changing all of that.

It is certainly going to change the narrative of Ovechkin’s career and how he is perceived as a player.

If the Capitals pull this off we are going to hear about how he became a more complete player. How he did something to “change” the way he played for the betterment of the team. Heck, even if the Capitals don’t win we are still probably going to hear that story simply because the Capitals were finally able to get this close.

To a point, it is understandable.

When a team that has come up short so often finally gets over that hump we have to find a reason or an explanation for why it finally happened. It is almost always a culture change, or an attitude change, or getting the right glue guy in the locker room to bring everyone together. Simply acknowledging that a team’s luck finally changed, or things finally fell into place at the right time, or the goaltending was better, or they did not run into a hot goalie for once is not quite as interesting as rebuilding a narrative. But sometimes that is all it is. A change in fortune or luck.

By trying to make it anything else we are short-changing and not really fully appreciating one of the game’s all-time greatest players for just how dominant he has been for as long as he has been. If you look at Ovechkin’s career postseason performance — where he is one of the most productive players in the league, even in defeat — he has consistently brought it for the Capitals.

He has consistently helped put his team in a position to win (and at times has been even more productive than he has been this postseason).

He is doing all of that again and getting the right help and luck around him.

If the Capitals can win two more games in this series we are going to look at him like he did something different to get here.

He really has not.

He has always been this great. He has always been one of the NHL’s must-see players, the type of player that stands out as soon as he hits the ices.

Now that his team is finally winning and on the threshold of finally winning hockey’s ultimate prize he is finally starting to be fully appreciated for it.

MORE:

• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
3 Comments

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
Getty Images
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.