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.”

***

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.

The Buzzer: Campbell steals Tkachuk – Doughty show; Four for Tavares

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Three Stars

1. John Tavares

For the first time in his NHL career, Tavares scored four goals in one game. His four tallies were a mix of luck and skill, with all of them coming from very close in on net.

You can rank Tavares with the likes of Sidney Crosby as a star who tends to score a lot of his goals like grinders: in the dirty areas of the ice, cashing in on rebounds and quick reactions. None of this is to say that Tavares lacks skill, just that he sometimes applies those skills in subtler, more grinding ways.

This post goes into great detail on his great night in specific, and his fantastic first season with Toronto in general.

2. Jack Campbell

There were plenty of bitter moments involving Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk, sometimes sniping and swiping each other, sometimes with just one of those players involved. But this was the closest they got to a fight, which is kind of a bummer:

Instead, Campbell basically stole the show, pitching a 42-save shutout to help the Kings upset the Flames.

This is the second shutout of Campbell’s career, and it’s increasingly looking like the former (mostly disappointing) first-rounder might just find his niche as a backup goalie. Nice story developing here, even if it’s in relative anonymity considering the low quality of this Kings team.

3. Steven Stamkos

Tavares was the free agent who left for Toronto after Steven Stamkos didn’t, so there’s a fun symmetry to the two high-scoring number 91’s generating four points during the same night.

In the case of Stamkos, he got to those four points with two goals and two assists. Stamkos is now tied for fourth in the NHL with Patrick Kane with 41 goals on the season, leaving him four behind Tavares. Stamkos has the edge in total points, however, as his 93 ranks seventh overall.

Highlights of the Night

Mark Scheifele is known for being a “student of the game,” so maybe he’s studied the best ways to sweep would-be goals out of his own net? Does he moonlight as a goalie?

Starting with a great save by Andrei Vasilevskiy, this is a fun watch (unless you’re a Bruins fan), as Nikita Kucherov tied things up for the Lightning. They eventually stunned the B’s in regulation, reminding the hockey world that they’re way, way ahead of everyone else.

Factoids

  • Four players have scored at least 30+ goals in three seasons before reaching age 21: Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson, Dale Hawerchuk, and now Patrik Laine.
  • As tough as this season has been, and as embarrassing as that center-ice goal was, Cory Schneider had a fantastic overall game on Monday. You can make an argument that stopping 45 out of 46 saves ranks as three stars material. Schneider became the second goalie in Devils franchise history to earn multiple wins of at least 45 saves. Glenn “Chico” Resch was the other goalie to do it.
  • This post details the Predators clinching a playoff spot for the fifth season in a row, and perhaps most importantly, Devan Dubnyk, 32, having the same throat guard since he was 17.
  • The Flames hadn’t been shut out at home since March 21, 2018.
  • The Sharks lost in regulation to the Red Wings, which marks San Jose’s sixth consecutive loss. Cause for concern? Cause to gently nudge Erik Karlsson to get back in the lineup?

Scores

TOR 7 – FLA 5
NJD 3 – BUF 1
PIT 5 – NYR 2
TBL 5 – BOS 4
STL 3 – VGK 1
NSH 1 – MIN 0
DAL 5 – WPG 2
LAK 3 – CGY 0
DET 3 – SJS 2

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.

Predators clinch spot, deal major blow to Wild’s playoff hopes

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The Minnesota Wild’s offense is starting to stink almost as much as Devan Dubnyk‘s teenaged throat guard.

The Nashville Predators only needed Ryan Johansen‘s shorthanded goal to beat the Wild 1-0 on Monday, as Juuse Saros collected a 29-save shutout. With that, the Predators clinched a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Wild’s postseason hopes look that much grimmer.

With Zach Parise and others out of the lineup of a team that’s already lacking in firepower, it’s easy to understand Bruce Boudreau going for a “clog everything up” strategy. It almost worked, too, as the Wild generated a 29-19 shots on goal advantage, giving the Predators very little room to work with. This wasn’t an easy win for the Predators.

Minnesota simply wasn’t able to generate any margin for error, however, so that Johansen shorthanded goal just 4:32 into the game ended up being the decisive tally.

With the game turning into a grind that felt like a more skilled version of a slugfest from “The Dead Puck Era,” there was time to focus on other things … such as Devan Dubnyk’s throat guard, which might qualify as a biological weapon at this point:

Yes, gross.

The Wild struggled so badly to create offense, Dubnyk seemed to go over his teammates’ heads by trying to earn the equivalent to a delayed penalty advantage … that resulted in Minnesota taking a late penalty.

The Predators failed to score on the ensuing power play, yet the Wild had to kill that penalty fairly late in the game, rather than continuing to push to the same level of aggression for that tying goal.

While the Predators gave themselves a better chance to earn home-ice advantage for the first round (and maybe a shot at the division title), the Wild are at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races. Take a quick look at how things look as of this writing:

WC 2: Avalanche: 81 points in 76 games, 33 regulation/OT wins

9: Coyotes: 79 points in 76 games, 32 ROW
10: Wild: 79 points in 77 games, 34 ROW
11: Blackhawks: 76 points in 75 games, 31 ROW

Not good.

If Monday’s efforts serve as any indication, the Wild seem likely to keep putting forth a dogged effort to try to earn a playoff berth. They just have to hope they don’t fall painfully short in these races like they did during this 1-0 loss to the Predators.

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.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

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.

Center-ice goal is latest low moment for Devils’ Schneider

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The lows have been far, far more frequent for Cory Schneider during the last few seasons, to the point that it was fair to wonder if he’d ever restore his NHL career. Monday represented one of the lowest lows, even if center-ice goals happen to just about all goalies – from the elite to the going obsolete.

Schneider could do little but shake his head after Sam Reinhart‘s bouncing attempt beat him from center ice. You can watch that unfortunate moment in the video above this post’s headline.

That lucky/sneaky goal marks the 20th of the season for Reinhart, who’s quietly been one of the more promising stories of a disappointing finish for the Buffalo Sabres.

It isn’t lost on Hockey Twitter that the New Jersey Devils are probably better off losing, so at least there’s that?

This unfortunate gaffe actually does inspire a look at Schneider’s recent stats, and that’s where there’s at least some muted optimism.

Heading into Monday’s game, Schneider’s managed a promising .920 save percentage in his last 14 games. That’s quite an improvement considering Schneider only played in nine games before February, slogging through a miserable .852 save percentage.

A couple promising months don’t erase a couple very discouraging years for Schneider, but it’s telling that, despite all of these tough recent times, Schneider’s career save percentage is still stellar at .919. The 33-year-old hasn’t been that goalie since 2015-16, but if he could even become a decent 1A/1B goalie, that could give the Devils a considerable boost.

He’ll need to shake off moments like these, though.

Update: That ended up being the only goal Schneider allowed, as he stopped 45 shots in New Jersey’s 3-1 win against Buffalo.

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.