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.”

————

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: Murray shuts out Leafs; Raanta spoils Crawford’s return

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Three Stars

1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. It has been a tough start to the season for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. When he has been in the lineup, he has not played well. Then he was sidelined with the third concussion of his career and missed three consecutive games. Then he had to return to the lineup, on the road, against the highest scoring team in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. How did that return to the lineup go? He stopped all 38 shots he faced and was sensational in the Penguins’ 3-0 win. He looked like the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie in this game.

2. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were two of the most surprising playoff teams in the NHL a year ago, and were both led by MVP caliber performances from their best players (Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall respectively, with Hall actually winning the award). They faced off in New Jersey on Thursday night and it was the Avalanche coming away with the win, handing the Devils their first loss of the season. MacKinnon and Hall both had big games (Hall had three points; MacKinnon had two) but it was Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog that was the star in this one, recording a hat trick, including two goals in the third period as the Avalanche rallied for the win. His goals in the third period were the game-tying and game-winning goals.

3. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks. The other hat trick of the night belonged to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture in his team’s rout of the Buffalo Sabres. This game was a laugher from the beginning as the Sabres were just completely overmatched against a far superior team. It all started with a Buffalo double-minor in the opening minutes of the game that the Sharks turned into two quick power play goals, including Couture’s first. He added his second goal early in the third period and then completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal. He now has four goals on the season. This was also a big night for the Sharks power play as it scored three goals in the win.

Red Wings remain winless

There are only two winless teams remaining in the NHL — the Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings. The Panthers had Thursday night off. The Red Wings did not. Their season-opening losing streak continued with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, dropping them to 0-5-2 on the season with what is — by far — a league-worst minus-18 goal differential. No other team in the league has a goal differential worse than minus-10. The Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings are tied for second-worst at minus-9. Speaking of the Kings…

The Kings look awful

General manager Rob Blake has not been happy his team’s performance so far this season, and they responded on Thursday night by getting completely dominated by the New York Islanders in what was a completely embarrassing 7-2 loss. They did not have Anze Kopitar as he was sidelined due to illness, and it was goalie Jonathan Quick‘s first game back from injury, but there is no excuse for how bad the rest of the team performed. The Kings cut what was a 3-1 deficit to just a single goal early in the third period, but then completely unraveled in the minutes after that by giving up four consecutive goals in eight minutes. There is nothing positive about this team right now.

Highlights of the Night

The highlight of the night was Anthony Duclair‘s goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. This is just ridiculous, one of the many great goals they scored on the night.

The other highlight of the night: Connor McDavid, doing Connor McDavid things. He is completely unstoppable right now, stealing wins for the Oilers every night.

Factoids

Corey Crawford made his return to the Chicago Blackhawks’ lineup on Thursday night and played pretty well in a 4-1 loss (he played better than the final score would indicate, anyway). It was the Blackhawks’ first regulation loss of the season and it came at the hands of Crawford’s former backup, Antti Raanta, who was absolutely outstanding for the Arizona Coyotes. He also loves playing at the United Center.

Speaking of the Coyotes, their four goals on Thursday night were more goals than the scored (three) in the first five games of the season. Combined. They also scored their first even-strength goals of the season in the win.

More Connor McDavid stats.

 

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 6, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 4, Vancouver Canucks 1

Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Edmonton Oilers 3, Boston Bruins 2 (OT)

San Jose Sharks 5, Buffalo Sabres 1

New York Islanders 7, Los Angeles Kings 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Connor McDavid ruined the Bruins’ overtime

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Two nights ago Connor McDavid single-handedly stole a win for the Edmonton Oilers when he put the team on his back and helped it overcome a three-goal third period deficit against the Winnipeg Jets.

He helped do it all again on Thursday night in the Oilers’ home opener.

McDavid finished with another two-point night in the 3-2 overtime win against the Boston Bruins, assisting on the Oilers’ second goal in regulation and the winner in overtime. That gives him 11 points on the season. An impressive number on its own after only five games, and even more so when you remember the Oilers, even after Thursday’s win, have only scored 13 goals as a team. It was the play that McDavid made in overtime on Thursday that is going to steal the show in this win because he completely ruined the Bruins’ chances at both ends of the ice.

Have a look at the entire sequence that begins with McDavid picking off a stretch pass for Patrice Bergeron, dancing around Brad Marchand at the blue line, and then freezing the lone defender back and the goaltender to set up Leon Draisaitl for the game-winning goal.

Just look at this effort.

That is the best player in the world playing like it.

The Edmonton Oilers are now 3-2-0 on the season and they have McDavid to thank for most of it.

If he does not pick that pass off in the neutral zone, Bergeron walks in alone for a breakaway. Just like that, it was going the other way.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Toronto’s early goalie pull backfires with Kadri own goal

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One of the big early trends in the NHL this season is coaches opting to pull their goalie earlier than usual in an effort to get a late game-tying goal. Traditionally, teams would only go for the extra attacker in the final minute when down by a goal, and maybe go with two minutes if they were down by more.

Now, teams seem to be going for the extra attacker with two to three minutes to play (or more) when down by just a single goal. It is not exactly a new strategy — Patrick Roy used to do it all the time with the Colorado Avalanche — but it is definitely catching on more and more.

On Thursday night in Toronto with the Maple Leafs trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0, coach Mike Babcock elected to pull Frederik Andersen with three minutes to play in search of the equalizer. It did not work. Not only did the Maple Leafs fail to score, but Nazem Kadri accidentally scored an own goal from the neutral zone when this happened.

That is unfortunate. Especially when you consider Kadri is still searching for his first goal of the season.

Well … first goal into the correct net.

The goal ended up being credited to Evgeni Malkin, his second goal of the game, since he was the most recent Penguins player to touch the puck.

Babcock would pull Andersen again right after that, resulting in Kris Letang adding a more traditional empty net goal for the Penguins (the 100th goal of his career) to give them a 3-0 win.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Watch Blue Jackets score two ridiculous highlight reel goals against Flyers

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Say this for the Philadelphia Flyers: Their games are never boring.

Their combination of skilled forwards, young defense, and perpetually shaking goaltending situation can produce some wild, back-and-forth games where you can expect a lot of chances, a lot of goals, and a lot of madness.

Sometimes that means they will do incredible things.

Sometimes that means somebody will do incredible things against them. On Thursday night in Columbus there was a lot of the latter happening.

First, we have Anthony Duclair scoring what might be the best goal of the young season with an incredible individual effort included him falling to the ice, somehow managing to stickhandle through a phone booth, then getting a shot on goal while falling to the ice and beating Flyers goalie Calvin Pickard.

Columbus is the fourth organization that Duclair has played for in his young career as he still tries to find a consistent role. He is obviously a talented player and has shown a lot of potential at different times throughout his career, and this is almost certainly the signature play of his career to this point.

Shortly after that, though, the Blue Jackets allowed Philadelphia to regain the lead on a Sean Couturier goal that was mostly just a giant whiff by Sergei Bobrovsky. His teammates managed to help him a bit in the second period, specifically forward Cam Atkinson, who scored a pair of goals in the first five minutes of the period.

The first one was off a nice looking play set up by Artemi Panarin.

The second one was this, that saw him fly in and dangle around Pickard to give the Blue Jackets their first lead of the game. It looks even better on the replays.

Nick Foligno would add another goal for the Blue Jackets not long after.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.