Wednesday Night Hockey: Capitals raise Cup banner; Karlsson’s Sharks debut

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season starts with a doubleheader on Wednesday. In the first game, the Washington Capitals host the Boston Bruins at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

For the first time in franchise history, the Capitals will enter the regular season as defending Stanley Cup Champions. It didn’t come easy, but Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby and the rest of the team were able to get it done. So how do they respond after a summer of living it up with Lord Stanley? That’s the biggest question.

The Caps should be fine. Will they win the division? It’s possible. Will they repeat as Stanley Cup champs? You never know. All we know for sure, is that the team doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did a year ago. Outside of a few depth additions, Washington is bringing back all the characters that you know and love. Of course, Tom Wilson won’t be among them in the first few games of the season because of a suspension.

Before tonight’s game against the Bruins, the Caps will get to watch their Stanley Cup banner go up to the rafters. That’ll be an exciting and emotional moment for the team and for its fans.

“It is going to be a very exciting moment, a very special moment,” Ovechkin said, per NHL.com. “The atmosphere is going to be unbelievable. The people are going to be happy. Some might even cry. It’s all about the Cup, it’s all about this team and this organization, how we did it. We share it with all the people who live in Washington.”

As for the Bruins, they seem to be flying under the radar in a division that includes the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. Boston put together a terrific regular season before being bounced by the Lightning in the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Bruins have three of the better players in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak up front. They also have a cast of young players like Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Donato that could take big steps forward in 2018-19.

On defense, veteran Zdeno Chara and youngster Charlie McAvoy will continue to lead the way for a group that’s relatively underrated. And between the pipes, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak should provide the Bruins with a strong one-two punch throughout the season.

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks will host the Anaheim Ducks at 10:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Of all the additions and transactions that were made between the end of the playoffs and start of the regular season, no team made a bigger move than the Sharks, who acquired Erik Karlsson from Ottawa for a less-than-stellar package of players and picks.

Adding Karlsson to a blueline that already includes Brent Burns seems to be unfair. Can you imagine what the what that power play is going to look like? Of course, they’ll have to find a way to get Karlsson to sign a contract extension, but for now they should just enjoy the luxuries they have on that defense. The Sharks will have to find a way to put it all together, but they have so many veterans that they’ll probably be able to make this whole thing work pretty quickly.

Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones will also have a hand in leading this team to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The only major loss they suffered in 2018 was Thornton’s beard.

“My wife’s been wanting this done for a long time and the guys kind of got on it and all of a sudden the shaver came out, and there it was on the plate,” Thornton said, per the Mercury News. “My 5-year old wasn’t happy this morning. When he woke up, he didn’t want to see dad. I’ve got to make it up to him somehow.”

The Ducks are in an interesting position heading into the year. Corey Perry‘s going to miss an extended period of time and Ryan Kesler, Ondrej Kase and Patrick Eaves are all opening the season on IR. They’ll still be able to count on guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Adam Henrique, Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and John Gibson.

Instead of playing that physical brand of hockey that they’re used to playing, the Ducks are going to try play quicker.

“We’re trying to put in a new system and different line combinations, and that takes time,” Henrique said, per the Associated Press. “It takes some time to adjust to everything we’re being asked to do, but we’re already seeing flashes of it, for sure. For us, it’s a matter of just trying to get it into our games.”

Ahhhhhhhh hockey season is back, everybody! Enjoy!

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.