Stanley Cup Finalists Capitals, Golden Knights are heating up

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Following up a run to the Stanley Cup Final is never really easy, but it seemed like an especially big challenge for the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights.

After all, the Capitals partied enough to kill a small town’s worth of brain cells, while the Golden Knights went on the sort of run we’ve never really seen for a contemporary expansion team in professional sports.

Yet, as we enjoy the final leftovers of Thanksgiving weekend, the two 2018 Stanley Cup Finalists seem to be rounding into form.

A familiar spot

By beating the New York Rangers 5-3 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the Capitals rattled off their fifth consecutive win. With that, the Capitals regained what almost feels like their rightful place atop the Metropolitan Division by way of nabbing 29 points in 23 games.

It’s not a huge lead, mind you. The persistent Columbus Blue Jackets are a mere standings point (28) behind the Capitals in the same number (23) of games played.

As far as what’s working, it also feels like much of the familiar. The Capitals’ 80 goals leads the Metro Division, helping them generate a +7 goal differential. Perhaps the least surprising element of all is Washington’s dangerous power play, as the Capitals’ 27.8-percent success rate slightly leads the Lightning for fourth-best in the NHL.

Capitals’ success and a keyed-in Braden Holtby tend to go together, too. Holtby’s now on a three-game winning streak, only allowing three goals overall during that span. After a tough October, Holtby generated an impressive .934 save percentage over eight November games.

It’s unclear if the Capitals will be able to finish ahead of the Blue Jackets and other rivals to win another division title, but overall, you can file this start under “so far, so good.” And you can mostly dismiss notions about a Stanley Cup hangover.

Digging the Golden Knights

Vegas isn’t in the same cushy spot that Washington is, at least not yet.

If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began as of this writing, the Golden Knights would not be in the mix. They’re currently ranked ninth in the West, as their 12-12-1 record for 25 points leaves them just behind the Anaheim Ducks for third (the Ducks have 25 points too, but in one fewer game played) in the paltry Pacific.

Sure, it’s been a slightly disappointing start through a quarter-and-change of this second season in the NHL, particularly since Vegas made some significant investments in free agency.

But the good news is that the Golden Knights clearly aren’t very far out of the playoffs, and they’re finally starting to get the sort of bounces that were (amusingly, from afar) weren’t there in 2018-19 after very much being there in 2017-18.

After battering the San Jose Sharks by a sobering score of 6-0 on Saturday, the Golden Knights have won three games in a row, with all of those victories coming against Pacific rivals. This small winning streak isn’t the only thing that’s promising, either; the Golden Knights can be especially heartened by who is heating up.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury is looking a whole lot more like the guy who stood on his head basically all of last season (until he ran into the Capitals in that 2018 Stanley Cup Final). After stopping 33 shots against the Sharks, “MAF” has now rattled off consecutive shutouts. Fleury’s won four straight games overall, only allowing five goals during his hot streak.

As Vegas’ starting goalie (and taking into account Malcolm Subban‘s considerable struggles), Fleury is the most important single element of the Golden Knights’ rise. Even so, it’s almost as refreshing to see Max Pacioretty seemingly shaking off his slow start.

“Patches” generated two goals in that rout of the Sharks, extending his point streak to five games (six goals, one assist for seven points). Pacioretty also has nine points in his last seven contests. That’s an enormous burst of energy when you consider that Pacioretty staggered through his first few weeks with the Golden Knights, starting off his stay with a troubling two points through his first 12 games.

Rattling off three straight wins won’t transform an 82-game season, but it’s worth noting because the Golden Knights have actually been arguing for their legitimacy with their work on the ice, only to not exactly reap the rewards.

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights rank third in shot-share numbers like Corsi For and Fenwick For Percentage (not to mention actual shots for percentage). They only trail the puck-hogging Carolina Hurricanes as far as hogging the greatest number of scoring chances, and have had similar success in creating more high-danger chances than they’ve allowed.

They simply hadn’t been getting those precious, precious bounces. Their 6.8 even-strength shooting percentage ranks sixth-worst in the NHL, and their team save percentage (90.08) is third-worst at even-strength.

In other words, the underlying stats have argued for a while that the Golden Knights have actually been quite good in 2018-19, but they weren’t getting the saves and the luck.

It stands to reason, then, that the Golden Knights could be a very tough opponent if they merely enjoy league-average luck. With that in mind, Fleury heating up is a very good sign, unless you’re a West team trying to grind out a playoff spot.

***

Does all of this point to a rematch for the Capitals and Golden Knights in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final?

It would be foolish even to call that the league’s most likely matchup. With teams like the Jets, Predators, Lightning, and Maple Leafs standing in the way, both Washington and Vegas would face huge barriers in making deep runs once again.

That said, there were fears that both the Capitals and Golden Knights would stumble badly in attempting encores to their rousing performance last season. While there have indeed been challenges – and almost certainly will be more during what often feels like marathon NHL campaigns – both teams are bolstering arguments that they must be taken seriously once again.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.