Alex Ovechkin overcame plenty of heartbreak to become a Stanley Cup champion

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LAS VEGAS — During Alex Ovechkin’s first year in the NHL he was swimming at the house of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. As the boss and his newly-drafted future superstar hung out, Leonsis told Ovechkin that one day they would be celebrating a Stanley Cup together. 

Ovechkin was still new to the league, didn’t quite know the entire organization just yet, but he shared that dream with Leonsis. Little did they know it would take nearly 15 years from Ovechkin’s draft day for it to finally become a reality.

“I knew he wants it so bad and this organization wants it so bad. It’s nice to be part of it,” Ovechkin said. “It’s nice to be in this organization, all 13 years or 14, whatever. It was a tough time, but we fight through it and we get results.”

[Capitals end DC championship drought with first Stanley Cup win]

From 2007, when Ovechkin’s Capitals first made the playoffs, through 2017, they won three Presidents’ Trophies and seven division titles. But the most important number was zero, as in the number of times they advanced beyond the second round. Six times they were ousted by either the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins. Twice they blew 3-1 series leads. It became an inevitability: Regular season success would lead to crushing playoff defeat.

The lack of success and the burden to carry the Capitals to a championship would fall on Ovechkin’s shoulders. He was the superstar. He was the one making the most money. The team’s biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, won three Cups since 2005-06, when Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entered the league. As the expectations soared, the disappointments kept piling up until this season when many gave up hope of them ever winning.

This was a different season, for sure. The Capitals cruised to another division title. Ovechkin scored 49 goals. But the pressure wasn’t there entering the postseason. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and even the surprising Vegas Golden Knights were the sexy picks out of the Western Conference, while some backed the Penguins for a three-peat or even the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The only expectation some had with the Capitals was that they would fail again. When they fell behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, a familiar feeling was creeping in. But this team didn’t wilt facing the task of regrouping and pulling off a comeback. Ovechkin, with help from Evgeny Kuznetsov, helped carry the team offensively and change a lot of narratives.

“I think there were a lot of series where maybe Washington got eliminated, [Ovechkin] had great series,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who joined the Capitals from the Penguins in 2014. “He probably took the brunt of the criticism just because he’s the captain and the highest paid guy. I think a lot of guys feel for him in that situation. If you watched the reaction of his teammates when he got the Cup, that speaks volumes about how guys feel about him. He’s a very unique captain — probably never find a guy like him. But he’s a guy who leads in a very unique way, but he definitely pulls guys into the fight.”

The desire to do everything possible to win was evident in every Ovechkin shift this postseason. When he wasn’t scoring one of his 15 goals, he was playing a committed defensive game, even dropping down to block shots. Whatever it took. Every goal, even if it didn’t come off his stick, resulted in a release of emotion never seen before — emotions that grew stronger and stronger as the win totals moved toward that special No. 16.

“When your captain is doing everything it takes, guys follow the leader. He’s not the only one,” said defenseman John Carlson. “There’s plenty of others that have stepped up and done amazing things at big points in time. But when your leaders does those things, it gives a huge morale boost to the rest of us and we all want to win for each other.”

“It’s a huge statement by him. This is one of his better years that he’s played overall,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “I think he’s played a better team game the whole year. He’s been more of a leader the whole year. You see him in the playoffs this year, he’s our best player — blocking shots, playing good in the D-zone, playing good in the neutral zone. When he’s doing them it makes everyone else want to do them, too.”

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Now the NHL story of Alex Ovechkin is now complete. He has a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup to go along with his three Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards and seven Rocket Richard Trophies. There’s no more He’s a great player, but… to follow him around for the rest of his career, one that will see plenty of records shattered and maybe even another title.

Ovechkin wanted this victory for himself and for his team. It’s been a long road to get there and it showed each time he raised the Cup over his head and showed off that big, toothless smile.

The weight is off his shoulders. He’s a Stanley Cup champion.

“It’s even better. It’s just like a dream,” said Ovechkin. “It was a hard, long season. We fight through it. We worked so hard through all the years and we were together. It was a whole one team, stick with the system and it doesn’t matter what happened, even after the [second] period, we knew we just have to push it and get the result done. That’s it.

“I can’t explain the way I feel. It’s unbelievable.”

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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.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.