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Capitals parade a welcome chance to cheer for DC sports fans

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Nicklas Backstrom dreamed about the road less traveled.

Driving down Constitution Avenue on his way to each home game since his NHL debut in 2007, he imagined the street lined with overjoyed Washington Capitals fans.

”It always popped up in my head that one time we’re going to have a parade here, and finally that day is here,” Backstrom said.

It all becomes reality Tuesday when Backstrom and the Stanley Cup-champion Capitals give the city its first parade for a major pro sports team since the NFL’s Redskins in 1992. The parade is 26 years in the making for Washington sports fans who endured long, lean years of heartbreak.

”I don’t think anyone doubted what this city would do,” longtime Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman said. ”It’s just a matter of getting there and having the ability to do it. They definitely held up their end of the bargain.”

Tens of thousands gathered for viewing parties of road playoff games on the way to the Capitals’ first championship since beginning play in 1974. They camped out on the streets to watch on giant video screens – the kinds of scenes more germane to presidential inaugurations in this town than sporting events.

”I thought it was really cool when we were even at home and everyone was outside and going nuts and they would show that right after we would score a goal,” defenseman John Carlson said. ”I think that was probably one of the coolest moments of the playoffs for me and just seeing the support. … I think we deserve it, and so do the fans.”

It has been a long time coming. Since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in January 1992, the 1998 Capitals were the only Washington team in the NHL, NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball to reach a league semifinal until this spring, a drought of 74 combined seasons without a championship.

When the Capitals took the Cup into the Nationals’ clubhouse on Saturday, coach Barry Trotz wanted players to know: ”There’s no curse or anything. It’s all gone.” All they had to do to know that was look around the past two months to see the doubt being chipped away.

Nationals manager Davey Martinez, who texted with Trotz throughout the run, got his first real taste of Washington sports in the playoffs with the Chicago Cubs last year when he came out of the dugout seeing 50,000 fans in red and couldn’t hear himself think because it was so loud.

”Right then and there I said, ‘Hey, these people, they’re in, they love it,”’ Martinez recalled. ”This is exciting. And the city then rallied this year around the Caps. I get it. It was awesome. It was good for the city. Good for us. I know our boys were all in, they were excited about everything. I told them yesterday, ‘Let’s just keep it rolling. The city’s all-in.”’

Washington isn’t a city accustomed to being all-in because of the scars of so many playoff failures over the years. Longtime Capitals season-ticket holder Jimmy Patterson said fans became reluctant to get together to watch games because the mood at the end of the night wasn’t something anyone wanted to endure in a group setting.

That’s part of what made the public gatherings for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final and throughout the Stanley Cup Final so remarkable. Exorcising franchise-long demons by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round seemed to free fans to actually enjoy themselves.

”It showed what they were capable of and shows if you get to that level, they’re going to match it or even step it up a little bit more than the actual players,” Zimmerman said.

Fans celebrating the Capitals beating the Penguins led ESPN’s Michael Wilbon – a former Washington Post columnist – to call D.C. a ”minor league sports town.” It’s not the first knock on Washington, though 14 years of playing baseball in the city has given Zimmerman some clarity on explaining that it’s not Boston, Chicago, New York or Philadelphia, and he doesn’t think it has to be.

”This is such an interesting city because not many people are from here, so it’s hard to be a Boston or a Chicago,” Zimmerman said. ”That’s a generational sports town. So it’s nothing against (Washington). They shouldn’t be like that. They have no reason to be like that.

”A lot of these people move here for work in their early to mid-20s or come here even later than that and they adopt a team. This is what happens nowadays: Everyone compares everything. Just let it be. Let it be what it is. We have great fans and obviously if you make the playoffs and get to a Stanley Cup finals, you have really great fans just like any city would.”

Thousands of fans are expected to watch the parade, from 17th to 7th on Constitution. Trotz has been thinking about something like this since he arrived in 2014.

”You start thinking about, ‘Well, what would it mean?’ and then you think about a possible parade on one of the most famous streets in all the world, really, and it’s sort of now coming into play,” Trotz said. ”It’s going to come true.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Blackhawks keep slim playoff hopes alive; Grubauer gets Avs a point

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It only made sense that Philipp Grubauer finished the weekend laying down, and exhausted.

After leading the Avalanche to their fourth consecutive win on Saturday, Grubauer was asked to beat the Blackhawks again on Sunday. He fell just short of accomplishing that task, too, but Chicago eventually won 2-1 in overtime.

Blackhawks overcome Grubauer

The winning play was really something. First, Duncan Keith was able to thwart Nathan MacKinnon as the two found each other in a one-on-one situation in three-on-three overtime. Keith then looked far younger than a 35-year-old, as he was able to overcome a 23-year-old speedster in MacKinnon and score a thrilling overtime game-winner.

The effort left Grubauer on his belly, on the ice, and you could forgive him if he took an extra breather after going all-out in willing his team to crucial points.

With both Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog out of the lineup, the Avs have been asking a lot of Grubauer, and he’s mostly delivered. The Blackhawks generated a 42-20 shots on goal advantage, including a 15-3 third period, yet Grubauer was often brilliant, basically dragging the game to overtime.

Grubauer has now allowed two goals or fewer in every appearance since Feb. 12. While his personal four-game winning streak ended with Colorado’s own run, he’s shown why the Avs believed in his ability to become a No. 1 goalie in the first place. That’s refreshing, especially since he’s been a bit up-and-down during his first year with Colorado.

Big win for Blackhawks, almost a win for Colorado

Really, both goalies were great, as the regulation goals came via power-play goals that involved deflections. Corey Crawford had a comparatively breezy night, but he was still sharp in stopping 19 out of 20 shots to help Chicago keep its slim playoff hopes alive.

This win leaves the Blackhawks (76 points in 75 games played, 31 regulation/overtime wins) five points behind the Avalanche for the West’s second wild-card spot.

Grubauer can keep his held high, because this all feels close to a win for Colorado. They’ve strengthened their playoff lead with 81 points in 76 GP (33 ROW), giving them two points of cushion. Now, sure, they might wonder “What if?” in falling short again during an overtime period, but when you consider the back-to-back set and injuries, credit the Avs for gutting this one point out.

The Coyotes were blanked 2-0 against the Islanders on Sunday, leaving them with 79 points in 76 games played, with 32 regulation/OT wins. Meanwhile, the Wild (79 points, 76 GP, 34 ROW) were idle after falling 5-1 to the maddening Hurricanes on Saturday.

So, again, this was mostly a great weekend for the Avalanche, while the Blackhawks can at least daydream about an unlikely run. It’s all a fitting reward, considering how grinding and exhausting this affair seemed at times.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks face Avalanche on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Avalanche head into Sunday in a solid position, as they hold a one-point lead and game in hand on the closest teams behind them vying for the West’s second wild-card spot. That rosy outlook can change in a big way if the Avs can’t beat the Blackhawks, though.

Looking at The Push for the Playoffs, things don’t look very good — at all — for Chicago, but this proud team likely isn’t waving the white flag on the 2018-19 season just yet. Beating the Avalanche (particularly in regulation) would certainly improve their odds of making an unlikely run, too.

With the stakes in mind – not to mention the star power in Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews – this should be a fun one at the United Center.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Colorado Avalanche at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Sunday, March 24, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Avs-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

AVALANCHE

Derick Brassard — Nathan MacKinnon — J.T. Compher

Colin WilsonCarl SoderbergAndrew Agozzino

Alexander KerfootTyson JostMatt Calvert

Gabriel BourqueSven Andrighetto

Samuel GirardErik Johnson

Ian ColeTyson Barrie

Nikita ZadorovPatrik Nemeth

Ryan Graves

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

[More: check out this preview for Sunday’s game.]

BLACKHAWKS

Dylan Sikura — Jonathan Toews — Patrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeBrendan Perlini

Brandon SaadArtem AnisimovDominik Kahun

Chris KunitzDavid KampfMarcus Kruger

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook

Carl DahlstromErik Gustafsson

Gustav ForslingConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.

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.

Capitals extend Metro lead by beating Flyers

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The Washington Capitals can enjoy the rest of their Sunday knowing that they won’t have to be worried about being overtaken in the race for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

A 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on NBC ensured they’ll have at least a one-point lead on the division. For the time being, it’s a three-point advantage, with the New York Islanders facing the Arizona Coyotes later on Sunday.

Washington had lost two straight coming into this one, including a 5-4 overtime defeat against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday Night Hockey. That game was one of the best of the season between two powerhouses and the Capitals showed they could still run with the dominant Lightning.

Washington then dropped a 2-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild on Friday.

So stopping the bleeding in Sunday’s matinee was paramount.

Tom Wilson‘s deflection put the Capitals ahead 1-0 in the first period, a lead that was padded in the second by Travis Boyd on another re-directed shot.

The Flyers, with their playoff hopes all but mathematically gone, battled back to 2-1 through Jakub Voracek on the power play to keep things interesting into the third. The Flyers put up 20 shots in the second period but Braden Holtby was up to the task, finishing with 35 saves in the game

A breakaway goal nearing the mid-way point of the third period by Jakub Vrana sealed it for Washington.

The pursuit of another 50-goal season for Alex Ovechkin will have to wait, meanwhile.

Ovi has hit a bit of a dry spell as of late, now having gone four games without a marker. With six games remaining, it’s unlikely The Great 8 will be held at bay for the rest of the regular season.

He nearly had an empty netter, but it was defended well by the Flyers and Ovechkin ultimately chose to pass the puck and the play never materialized into anything.

Washington now gears up for a home and home with the Carolina Hurricanes before another test against the Tampa Bay Lightning next Saturday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Surging Avalanche look to keep hold of playoff spot

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

No Gabriel Landeskog. No Mikko Rantanen. And, apparently, no problem for the Colorado Avalanche.

It seems kind of crazy that the Avalanche have strung together four straight wins and put themselves into the second wildcard in the Western Conference without two of the leading scorers. But it’s true.

Already without Landeskog because of an upper-body injury, the Avalanche compiled three Ws and then found a fourth on Saturday against the Blackhawks without Rantanen, who missed his first game of the season with his own UBI after a crushing hit earlier in the week. That’s a combined 64 goals and 157 points removed from the lineup and yet in the first game of a home-and-home, back-to-back mini-series with Chicago, the Avalanche produced a 4-2 courtesy of four different goal scorers.

Talk about stepping up at the right time.

The Avalanche have allowed just four goals across their current winning stretch thanks to Philipp Grubauer‘s play, which includes a .970 save percentage and a shutout in that span. And they’ve found scoring from the likes of Colin Wilson, who’s on a three-game point streak and Tyson Barrie, who has four goals in his past four games.

A win Saturday will keep Colorado in the playoff spot they’ve been chasing for a while now. The Arizona Coyotes, hot on their heels, are also in action on Sunday.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Two points, then, will be vital, especially when you look at what lies ahead.

The Avs will host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday and then Arizona comes to town for what could be a pivotal game for both teams. Colorado then closes the regular season with games against St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose.

It’s a tough slog.

With the way this turtle derby has gone in the Western Conference, a loss along the line probably won’t sting that much. But there’s certainly an opportunity for a team like Colorado, who’ve found another gear, to take control of their own destiny.

Chicago, meanwhile, needs a win and then needs more wins and then needs all the help in the world if they want to qualify.

March started off so well for the Blackhawks after a five-game winning streak, but when you follow that up with three straight losses, it erases most of the good work. Chicago is six points back and a win would make things interesting, for sure.

A loss, however, likely ensures they’ll miss the playoffs for the second straight season. It’s kind of a shame, too. On Jan. 20, the Blackhawks were dead last in the NHL with 41 points. It would have been quite a story, after firing Joel Quenneville, to see them emerge from the rubble.

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck