It was the Alex Ovechkin show for Capitals in Game 3

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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.

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• 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.

Hurricanes’ emergency goalie David Ayres beats Maple Leafs

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The Carolina Hurricanes had to turn to 42-year-old emergency backup goalie Dave Ayres on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He not only held his own against one of the NHL’s most powerful offensive teams, he beat them.

Ayres, a Zamboni driver for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and the emergency backup for both teams on Saturday night, was forced into action midway through the second period after Hurricanes goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer had to exit the game due to injury. He ended up stopping eight out of the 10 shots he faced — while also recording a shot on goal of his own — in a 6-3 Hurricanes win.

The fact that an emergency goalie had to enter the game is fascinating enough.

But that he played as well as he did, and managed to get credit for the win makes it one of the most stunning accomplishments in recent NHL memory.

When Scott Foster, an accountant by day, made his emergency appearance for the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago he only had to play 14 minutes against the Winnipeg Jets. He also did not get credit for the win.

Ayres played double that on Saturday, on the road, against what should have been a desperate Toronto team that fighting to make the playoffs and avoid one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. Instead, it was the Hurricanes that found an extra gear and completely dominated the game from the moment Ayres entered.

The Maple Leafs managed just 10 shots on goal against Ayres, and after scoring on two of their first three in the second period, were completely shutout by him in the third period.

For Ayres it adds another fascinating chapter to an already unbelievable story.

He has dressed as a backup for a number of American Hockey League games, and has also filled in at practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He is also a kidney transplant survivor.

The Hurricanes ended up in this situation after Mrazek — who was already filling in for Reimer, the Hurricanes’ starter on Saturday — was leveled in a collision by Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford.

Obviously the big concern for the Hurricanes now is the status of Mrazek and Reimer (there is a report out of Chicago that the Hurricanes already reached out regarding a potential goalie trade), but this is a massive win for the Hurricanes, both in the standings and emotionally. Imagine the boost that has to give them to be facing that situation and not only play the way they did, but also collect two huge points in the standings.

On the other side, well, this is bad.

While the hyperbole around the Maple Leafs can sometimes be way too much, whatever they hear regarding this game is going to be completely justified.

They, too, are in a fight for a playoff spot and not only laid an egg in a huge game, they were thoroughly embarrassed from the time Ayres entered the game until the final horn. They could not generate sustained pressure, they managed just 10 total shots in 28 minutes against a 42-year-old emergency goalie, and they just looked bad. Not only that, but it was also a Hurricanes team that was already playing without one of its top defenseman (Dougie Hamilton) and then lost another one (Brett Pesce) during the game.

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.

 

NHL stars praise Alex Ovechkin as he hits 700 career goals

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There’s a new member of the 700-goal club and his name is Alex Ovechkin. At 4:50 of the third period against the Devils on Saturday, the Capitals captain fired one by Mackenzie Blackwood to reach the historic mark.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

The Washington Capitals captain is now the eighth member of the exclusive NHL club. He joins Mike Gartner (708), Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801), and Wayne Gretzky (894).

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Ovechkin has been doing this since he broke in the league in 2005 and his peers continue to marvel at his goal-scoring exploits.

NBC Sports recently sat down with T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Carlson to talk about Ovechkin’s career and his pursuit of Gretzky’s all-time record.

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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.

Alex Ovechkin scores 700th goal with a blast

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He did it. Alex Ovechkin scored his 700th career goal on Saturday as the Capitals faced the Devils.

Ovechkin scored his historic goal from the opposite faceoff circle from his typical “office.” It was a significant goal, tying Washington 2-2 with New Jersey a few minutes into the third period. Ovechkin reaching his 700th goal with such gusto really adds to the experience.

(Watch video of Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal in the video above.)

Ovechkin makes history with 700th goal

It marks his second goal in as many games after sitting at 698 goals for five agonizing contests. Well, they were agonizing for those anxiously awaiting number 700. Ovechkin’s response was basically “Whatever.” Ovechkin scored 30 of his 700 career goals against the Devils.

Ovechkin joins an illustrious group including Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717) and Mike Gartner (708). Ovechkin became the second player to score 700+ goals with a single team, as Howe scored 786 with the Red Wings before continuing a hockey journey that eventually included playing alongside his sons.

Jagr was the most recent player to reach 700 on March 1, 2014.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

Ovechkin, 34, became the second youngest and fastest player (1144 games) to score 700 goals, trailing Gretzky who was 29 years old (886 games) when he scored his 700th in January 1991 as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

Earlier this month, Ovi also became only the second player to score 40 goals in 11 seasons, trailing Gretzky’s record of 12. Ovechkin now has 42 goals in 60 games this season, giving himself a shot at another Maurice Richard Trophy.

The Devils ended up beating the Capitals 3-2. Maybe Washington can get back on track now that Ovechkin got this 700th goal out of the way? Their struggles aren’t on Ovechkin, but the Caps are struggling as a team nonetheless. (They have to be pleased with Pittsburgh losing to the Sabres on Saturday, though.)

Ovechkin’s quest for 700th goal:

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.

Islanders honor John Tonelli by retiring his No. 27

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John Tonelli’s No. 27 has been raised to the rafters at Nassau Coliseum, joining some of his former teammates from the New York Islanders’ Stanley Cup dynasty.

Tonelli, known as a gritty player who worked to get the puck in the corners, became the seventh player to have his number retired by the team when he was honored before Friday night’s 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings.

“Tonight is not about me,” Tonelli said. “It’s all about giving thanks to my extended family, each and every one of you here and at home tonight. All of you have played a starring role in the journey that has brought this extremely honored and humbled man before you. Tonight is about my teammates, some of whom are standing with me. … I feel incredibly honored to have skated alongside each of you and to be part of the success that we achieved as a team.”

Tonelli is the first Islander to get his number retired since Bryan Trottier (19) in 2001. Dennis Potvin (5), Clark Gillies (9), Mike Bossy (22), Bobby Nystrom (23) and Billy Smith (31) had their numbers retired previously. They were all part of the teams that won four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83.

Five of the six were in attendance for Tonelli’s big night. Bossy was unable to make it, but a congratulatory video message was played in the arena.

The 62-year-old Tonelli also was joined by his wife, Lauren, sons Jordan and Zach, and his mother, Joy. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was in attendance as well.

Tonelli, who had 206 goals and 338 assists in 594 games over eight seasons with the Islanders, was shown a bronze plaque that will be displayed in the team’s Hall of Fame. Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin presented him with a framed No. 27 jersey and painted portrait by Tony Capparelli among other gifts.

In a speech that lasted about 15 minutes, Tonelli thanked coaches from his WHA and juniors days, as well as former teammates for sharing in his success. He also praised Al Arbour, the late longtime coach of the Islanders, who has a banner with 1,500 – the number of games he coached the team – also hanging in the rafters.

“Thank you Al for believing in all of us,” Tonelli said. “Thank you for making us all feel important, to be proud of our roles, for knocking us down when were too cocky and for picking us up when we were down.”

Tonelli referenced the goal in overtime of Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers that gave the Islanders their first championship, when he sent a pass through two defenders to a streaking Nystrom for the win.

“Bob, that magical moment on May 24, 1980, will live with me forever,” he said.

He also spoke glowingly about Butch Goring, who will have his No. 91 retired on Feb. 29 before the Islanders’ game against Boston.

“Prior to his arrival, we were a pretty good hockey team but we were missing something,” Tonelli said. “Butch you were an inspiration to play with and I’m truly looking forward to standing at ice level next Saturday and watching this tremendous honor bestowed upon you.”

Tonelli had a frosty relationship with the Islanders after he was traded to Calgary on March 11, 1986. It began to thaw the last few years after Malkin and Ledecky took over control as majority owners and began actively honoring former players. It’s part of the buildup to the team’s planned move to a new arena at Belmont Park for the 2021-22 season.

“Jon and Scott, thanks for bringing me back home,” Tonelli said. “This barn is the place where I came prepared to play the game with the responsibility to play it hard for my family, my teammates, my coaches, the training staff and most of all my extended family – all of you, the fans.”

Tonelli said he had “trust” in general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, and thanked the current Islanders – all of whom watched the ceremony wearing No. 27 Tonelli jerseys on the bench – for “the pride you bring to us alumni.”

He also singled out team captain Anders Lee, who currently wears the number that was retired for Tonelli.

“I am so proud and so honored you will continue to wear our No. 27,” Tonelli said. “I also look forward to the day we can share it all the way to the top of the rafters.”