As Capitals surge, Backstrom off to best start of career

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With eight wins in their past 10 games the Washington Capitals are back in their customary spot at the top of the Metropolitan Division.

Alex Ovechkin is one of the league’s leading goal scorers, Tom Wilson suddenly can not be stopped offensively, and they are continuing to pile up wins even though they have been hit by some injuries to key players in recent weeks that have sidelined Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie.

That is a lot of business as usual, especially as it relates to Ovechkin and the team’s place in the standings.

Also business as usual is the fact Nicklas Backstrom is dominating and not getting much attention for it.

His goal in Sunday’s 6-5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks was his 10th of the season and gives him 33 points through the team’s first 26 games. That includes 20 points in the past 15 games alone.

This is not only the best start to a season offensively for Backstrom in his career, it is one of the best starts any Capitals player has had over the past 30 years.

Going as far back as the 1987-88 season, only one Capitals player — Ovechkin with 34 during the 2008-09 season —  has ever recorded more points than Backstrom’s 33 through the first 26 games of a season (via the Hockey-Reference database).

His current point-per-game pace puts him on a 104-point pace over 82 games and would exceed his previous career high of 101 during the 2009-10 season. Just for comparison, he only had 24 points through the first 26 games of that season. Given that goal-scoring is on the rise again throughout the league, and that Backstrom is playing sensational hockey in all phases it is not out of the question to think he could maintain that pace and set a new personal best.

It is also another reminder as to how consistently great Backstrom has been throughout his career.

He is one of just two players (Sidney Crosby and Tyler Seguin being the others) to record at least 70 points in each of the previous five seasons, while no one has more assists than his 613 since he entered the league at the start of the 2007-08 season (he is just behind Connor McDavid and Crosby on a per-game basis, but still at an elite level).

It wouldn’t be fair to say he’s been completely overlooked throughout his career, because he is a very highly regarded player and a true star in the league. But it is still probably true that he hasn’t always received the recognition he has fully deserved for being one of the 10 best offensive players in the league with an outstanding defensive game to match it.

He is one of those players that will always be underappreciated in his time — probably because he just so happens to be teammates with a legend — and then 10 or 15 years after he retires we’ll look back and say, “wow, that guy was pretty damn great.” 

So with him off to one of the best starts of his career for the defending Stanley Cup champs, let’s just say it now.

 

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.

Blues face prime opportunity to return to Stanley Cup Final

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When you have your opponent looking down and out in a playoff series you do not want to let them get back up.

You do not even want to give them the chance to get back up.

You want to eliminate them when you have the opportunity and remove all doubt, avoiding what would be an all-or-nothing Game 7 on the road.

That is the position the St. Louis Blues find themselves in heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) when they will host an injury-riddled San Jose Sharks team.

The Blues have won the past two games, including a thoroughly dominant performance on Sunday, they are at home, and they are facing a Sharks team that is without two of its best players and potentially a third that will almost certainly not be 100 percent if he does play.

Everything has fallen in the Blues’ favor for this game, and it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to close out a series than this.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just look at everything that is sitting in the Blues’ corner for this game.

  • Their best player, Vladimir Tarasenko, has gone on a tear and is riding a five-game point streak heading into Tuesday’s game. He was always going to be one of the biggest factors in this series and has found his scoring touch at just the right time.
  • The Sharks will not have Erik Karlsson, one of their most important players and a defender that can single-handedly change a team and a game when he is in the lineup. This series started to shift in the Blues’ favor when Karlsson’s groin injury resurfaced, limiting his ability to make an impact. He was obviously less than 100 percent in the Blues’ Game 4 win and barely played in Game 5 on Sunday. The Blues have outscored the Sharks by a 7-1 margin in those two games. Even though the Sharks still have another Norris Trophy winner (and a Norris Trophy finalist this season) in Brent Burns in their lineup, they are definitely a weaker team when one of them is out of the lineup.
  • The Sharks will also be without Tomas Hertl, currently their second-leading goal-scorer. With Hertl and Karlsson out it means the Sharks will be playing a must-win game without two of the top-six scorers in the playoffs and two players that have been involved in an overwhelming majority of their offense. At least one of Hertl or Karlsson has been on the ice for 39 of the Sharks’ 57 goals, while one of them has scored or assisted on 25 of them. When neither one is on the ice the Sharks have averaged just 2.22 goals per 60 minutes (all situations) in the playoffs. Not a great number.

So, yeah, this is a huge opportunity for the Blues and a game where it would probably be in their best interest to take care of business.

A loss on Tuesday night not only sends them to a Game 7 in San Jose where anything can happen, it also leaves open the possibility that one of those two key Sharks players (or even both of them) could be available. Yes, the Blues have been great on the road in these playoffs, but there is no guarantee that continues, especially in a win-or-go-home situation.

Even without Hertl and Karlsson the Sharks still have plenty of talent on their roster, so this game is far from a cake-walk for the Blues. But this is definitely the weakest lineup they are going to face in this matchup and there is never going to be a better opportunity to end a 49 year Stanley Cup Final drought than this night.

If they are going to do it, this seems like the game for it to happen.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

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If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Canes’ Martinook, de Haan have offseason surgeries

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook and defenseman Calvin de Haan have had offseason surgeries.

General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday that Martinook had a procedure on a core muscle while de Haan’s surgery was on his right shoulder.

Martinook is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks while de Haan will be out 4-6 months.

The 26-year-old Martinook had a career-best 15 goals with five game-winners, and was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to injuries. The 28-year-old de Haan injured his shoulder against Pittsburgh on March 31 but returned for Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against Washington.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NH and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Blues seeking a shot at redemption as they try to close out Sharks

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A lot has happened in the past 49 years.

Cell phones, Instagram, selfies and, for the purposes of this story, a whole lot of hockey. What hasn’t happened in nearly half a century, however, is a St. Louis Blues team opposite another in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues could get with the times if they’re to find a way past the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

Some history…

It was 1970 when St. Louis made their third straight appearance in the Cup Final, their most recent. Having been swept in their previous two attempts, both at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the Blues were now coming up against another Original Six team with Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins.

Different team, different legends, same result.

The Bruins snatched the broom from the Canadiens and repeated the process against the Blues thanks, in part, to one of the most iconic goals in NHL history that Number 4 scored in overtime to clinch the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are one win away from a chance at redemption, nearly 50 years in the making.

“It’s probably tough to put into words,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

The Sharks are treading familiar water heading into the game, something the Blues are acutely aware of.

“We’re close. We’re very close right now,” Blues forward Patrick Maroon said. “I think the guys know that. It’s in the back of their heads, but we know that that’s a good hockey team over there too and they’re not going to give up.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Some, even, won’t talk about it just yet.

“We will talk about it when we get there,” Alexander Steen said.

No team has been to more Stanley Cup Playoffs than the St. Louis Blues and not hoisted hockey’s holy grail at some point in June. Their 42 playoff appearances is far and away the most by any team (Buffalo is second with 29). A win Tuesday would also end the second-longest Cup Final drought in NHL history (behind only Toronto).

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotion and it’s important our players keep it in check,” head coach Craig Berube said. Our players have done a pretty good job of … focusing. I don’t expect anything different. It’s important at the start of the game you’re simple and direct. Keep your emotions in check and not let them get out of control.”

MORE: Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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