‘He’s speeding up:’ Ovechkin on verge of eighth 50-goal season

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Alex Ovechkin scores 50 goals a season so often the historical significance of it almost gets overlooked.

The Washington Capitals’ captain is one away from becoming just the third NHL player with eight 50-goal seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy. If and when it happens, it’ll be just the 21st time any player has reached 50 goals in a season since Ovechkin entered the league in 2005-06.

”When you have a chance to score 50, it’s always nice. Unfortunately I didn’t score (50) last year, but if I have a chance to score this year, why not?” said Ovechkin, who finished with 49 last season. ”Fifty, it’s a pretty big number.”

Fifty has become Ovechkin’s number to shoot for, even though it’s an almost-unreachable milestone for everyone else. The Russian superstar owns the past three 50-goal seasons and at 33 years old could become the oldest player to reach that mark since Phil Esposito in 1975.

Ovechkin has led the league in goals seven times, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and captured the Stanley Cup. He’s showing no signs of slowing down.

”I think he’s speeding up,” said Winnipeg Jets winger Patrik Laine, who idolizes Ovechkin and finished second to him in goals last year. ”It’s been fun to watch.”

Current and former teammates and players and coaches around the league can only marvel at Ovechkin’s accomplishments. His 646 goals are tied for 13th all-time and are 212 more than the next-closest player – rival Sidney Crosby – during the past 14 years.

”It’s obviously not too difficult for him,” said Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who owns two of the 50-goal seasons since 2005-06. ”He’s found a way to consistently produce in this league. He’s a horse out there. He’s a big, strong guy. His longevity has been amazing in terms of staying healthy and staying out on the ice and just producing.”

Ovechkin didn’t always produce quite like this. He had 32 goals and 65 points in 2011-12, the lowest outputs of his career in an 82-game season.

Then Ovechkin adjusted his game to how opponents were defending him, scoring 51 in 2013-14. Under coach Barry Trotz from 2014-15 on, he became more of a complete player – while continuing to score.

”His all-around game is night and day, as it is with most young players that come in,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”You’ve got a legend, right? You get to watch him still looking to be in his prime but with the seasoning and maturity of playing the team game now.”

Better team play also helped Ovechkin score more. He plays with skilled playmaking centers like Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and then he adds a seemingly unstoppable one-timer from the left faceoff circle on the power play and a combination of power and strength rarely seen in this generation.

Bruce Boudreau, who coached Ovechkin from 2007-2011, said this goal-scoring pace is more likely to continue unlike others who rely on skating to produce offense.

”He’s going to do it forever,” said Boudreau, who now coaches the Minnesota Wild. ”He, from the blue line in, will be and always will be in my mind the greatest scorer in history.”

Capitals fans serenaded Ovechkin with chants of ”We want 50” after he scored his 49th on Tuesday against Carolina. He had a chance at No. 50 with the puck on his stick, but instead of shooting it into an empty net, he passed it to Backstrom and said afterward, ”Next game.”

The Capitals’ next three games are on the road, giving different crowds the chance to see Ovechkin’s latest piece of history.

”The fans (in Washington) are treated to every time the puck’s on his stick, it has a chance to go in the net,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”Some organizations are blessed that in an era you get to witness the same player every night and marvel at what they do.”

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

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

Golden Knights introduce AHL affiliate: Meet the Henderson Silver Knights

Henderson Silver Knights
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The Vegas Golden Knights revealed their AHL affiliate’s name and logo on Thursday night.

Introducing the Henderson Silver Knights!

“Today is a momentous day for our organization, the City of Henderson and the entire Southern Nevada community. After years of planning and preparation, we finally get to welcome the Henderson Silver Knights home,” said Henderson Silver Knights owner Bill Foley. “When we started our initial ticket drive to bring hockey to Vegas and create the team we now know as the Golden Knights, it was obvious this community had all the makings of a great hockey city. That being said, the passion and enthusiasm our fans have shown us over the past three years is greater than anything we could have imagined. Now our fans can watch more hockey right in their backyard and keep a close eye on our players’ journeys as they advance through our ranks with the intention of achieving the ultimate goal: Becoming a Vegas Golden Knight.”

The Golden Knights purchased the San Antonio Rampage in February in order to move them to Henderson, Nevada. The sale was approved by the AHL Board of Governors later that month.

The Silver Knights will begin play with the 2020-21 AHL season at the Orleans Arena. In August, workers are expected to break ground on an $80 million, 6,000-seat arena set to open with the 2022-23 season. That project was approved earlier this month.

According to Foley, the Silver Knights already have 7,600 season-ticket deposits and jerseys will be revealed in a few months.

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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.

Hurricanes agree to arena lease extension through July 2029

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes have reached a five-year lease extension to remain in PNC Arena through July 2029.

Arena owner Centennial Authority and Hurricanes parent company Gale Force Sports and Entertainment announced the agreement Thursday. The current lease agreement runs through the end of June 2024.

The News and Observer of Raleigh reported that deal provisions include an agreement by the Hurricanes not to relocate during the current lease, as well as eliminating rent payments following the 2020 fiscal year.

In a news conference, team president and general manager Don Waddell said the new deal comes after more than a year of discussions along with talks about about facility upgrades and more development in the surrounding property.

”The authority believes that the Hurricanes are very important to the community, and that’s why we worked really hard to try to keep them here,” said Tom McCormick, Centennial Authority board chairman.

The Hurricanes have played in the arena since its 1999 opening and shares it with the North Carolina State men’s basketball team.

”This extension gives us the flexibility and time to make sure we make the best long-term decision for the Hurricanes and the Triangle – whether that means a major renovation, development around this arena or a new arena,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in a statement. ”We have a great place to play, but there are things we need to address based on the age of the facility, the arena’s amenities and the area around the building.”

PHT Morning Skate: Neely on Return to Play; NHLers on extended downtime

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bruins president Cam Neely on the Return to Play format: “With what the team was able to accomplish in the first 70 games and then the point spread we had — not only with the teams in the league, but also with the teams in our division and conference — to kind of have three games dictate where we fall in the conference standings is somewhat disappointing.” [NBC Sports Boston]

• Why did St. Louis fail to land on the NHL’s list of potential hub cities? [Post-Dispatch]

• The NHL and NHLPA will be pushing back the June 1 signing date for players whose contracts begin next season. [TSN]

• NHL players look to manage uncertain injury risks after extended downtime. [Sporting News]

• This playoff will allow the Avalanche a real good chance to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL.com]

• Columbus’ strong defensive DNA will be important to slow the Maple Leafs’ offense. [Sportsnet]

• The expanded playoff format will only be “a one-time thing.” [The Hockey News]

• How USA Hockey hopes to bring kids back to the ice after the pandemic. [ESPN]

• When free agency opens, the Coyotes should be bold in improving their roster. [Five for Howling]

• Finally, here are the five worst players in EA Sports’ NHL series, according to Operation Sports:

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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.

Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel

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While 24 NHL teams aim to return to play, the Buffalo Sabres will not. Despite seeing a league-leading playoff drought extend to nine consecutive seasons, the Sabres confirmed that GM Jason Botterill will be back. This all translates to deeply frustrating times for Sabres fans — not to mention star Jack Eichel.

And both Eichel and those Sabres fans made some waves with the way they aired their grievances.

Eichel and other Sabres are “fed up with losing”

Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other Sabres vented during recent days. In Eichel’s case, he admitted that he’s “fed up with losing.” When you listen to Eichel, you can hear that mixture of fatigue and anger.

Eichel carries a lot of the burden as the Sabres’ biggest star. Yet, as much as Eichel’s suffered through five years of failures, Rasmus Ristolainen absorbed even more over seven. Rumors circulated that Ristolainen wanted out last summer, and he only (kind of) calmed things down later on.

Maybe that sets the stage for some eyebrow-raising comments? Ristolainen told reporters that he realizes that if someone gets traded, he might be the first to go. The defenseman also acknowledged how comments about building toward the future must make everyone sound like a broken record.

No doubt, missing the postseason in such an embarrassing way has to sting Sabres players like Eichel and Ristolainen. The angst also makes it more awkward for Botterill to try to say all the right things.

With cap space opening up and huge needs still lingering, this is a huge offseason for the Sabres. It also could be a long one in a more literal way, if the 2020-21 season starts in, say, December. Clearly, plenty of Sabres players won’t be feeling very patient if the team suffers through another stretch of setbacks.

Fans share discontent — sometimes creatively

It’s clear — and it’s been clear for a while — that Sabres fans are out of patience, too. (Remember Duane?)

Sabres fan Jill Thompson put the team “up for sale” on Craigslist. While the listing was not very surprisingly removed, Thompson shared a screenshot of it on Twitter:

Thompson wrote this in the listing:

For Sale: NHL Hockey Franchise
Team: Buffalo Sabres
Available: ASAP

*Lost team with diehard fanbase looking for wealthy owner who actually understands hockey*

Organization on the cheap. Could be flipped. Major structural damage but few core pieces still in tact.

Non-Negotiable Terms:
-Franchise must stay in current city and is ineligible for relocation.
-Immediate family (i.e. wife) is not eligible for internal position within the organization
-Must provide “team puppy”

Not crazy about the “immediate family” barb personally, but otherwise? Pretty good. Really, all 31 NHL teams should have at least one puppy.

Thompson explained the listing to the Buffalo News, and capturing the mood of many Sabres fans in the process:

“When I post about the Sabres on Twitter, it’s sadly in a negative light and that is because I am upset for the level of disrespect/lack of accountability/neglect of everything down to the smallest details that we are shown from the owners,” Thompson wrote to the Buffalo News. “As one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports, we deserve better.”

With serious questions lingering regarding goaltending, defense, and forward depth, the Sabres have a long way to go to turn things around. And they might not have a ton of time to win back fans like Thompson.

More on the Sabres

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.