Kovalchuk finds home with Capitals after whirlwind journey

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Ilya Kovalchuk and Brenden Dillon broke bread in a Northern Virginia restaurant, leaving their temporary home away from home hotel and swapping stories.

The Washington Capitals’ two newcomers bonded over their shared experience of playing in the NHL and adjusting to a new life. That’s just about where the similarities end because Kovalchuk’s journey has taken him to the ends of the earth and back.

Kovalchuk’s trade to the Capitals marked another twist in a career ranging from national hero to aging reclamation project. A gold medal winner and Olympic MVP in 2018, the once-feared Russian sniper was a disappointment in Los Angeles, a revelation in Montreal and is now just one of the guys with the Capitals in his pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

”It’s no more trade deadlines,” the 36-year-old winger said with a wry smile. ”It’s always new. You come, you meet the new people. For me it was easier because I knew the coach, I knew a lot of guys on the team. But still to learn the system and get used to the way the guys play and all the routine, it’s a lot. But it’s OK. I love it.”

Kovalchuk is loving the sport again on a team with good friend Alex Ovechkin and their fellow countrymen, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Ilya Samsonov. He also knows coach Todd Reirden because the two played together with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2001-02 and became fast friends.

A homesick Kovalchuk left the NHL in 2013 and played five seasons back home in the Kontinental Hockey League. Once he decided to return, the road back wasn’t smooth.

Kovalchuk didn’t play up to the expectations of an $18.75 million, three-year contract signed with L.A in the summer of 2018; he put up just 43 points in 81 games while struggling under two coaches. He agreed to mutually terminate his contract in December after it was clear the fit with the Kings wasn’t a good one.

”It just didn’t work,” Kings general manager Rob Blake said. ”You’ve got to be able to cut a tie and move on.”

Kovalchuk signed with the Canadiens for a pro-rated league minimum $700,000 salary and thrived. He saw more ice time, scored three game-winning goals and recouped his reputation in NHL circles.

Montreal coach Claude Julien called Kovalchuk ”the ultimate pro” and ”an easy guy to like.” A pre-trade deadline game at Washington gave Capitals brass a chance to see what Kovalchuk could do and ponder what he might bring to a title contender.

It was clear this wasn’t the same Kovalchuk who languished in a limited role in L.A.

”To completely turn it around the way he did, to be as productive and to have as much impact as he had on the Montreal team both on and off the ice, their manager (Marc) Bergevin, he couldn’t say enough good things about the character of the guy and the way he handled himself,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”So many good things have been said about him on and off the ice in Montreal that we basically thought it was a no-brainer to add him.”

Kovalchuk also had to make a decision. Montreal had deals worked out to trade him to Boston or Washington, and he chose the Capitals over the NHL-leading Bruins.

Kovalchuk said he liked the way the Capitals played. It also didn’t hurt that he’d be the team’s fifth Russian player and has talked with Ovechkin about being teammates from the time they were teenagers.

”You never know what’s gonna happen, but yeah sometime in the summer (we said) it would be nice like if you’re gonna be one day on Washington Capitals team,” said Ovechkin, who MacLellan consulted before trading a third-round pick for Kovalchuk. ”I said: ‘Yeah, let’s do it. If we can take him, why not?”’

Reirden, who learned all his Russian from Kovalchuk (and helped teach his friend English), has already experimented with a line of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Kovalchuk at times, and the trio combined to produce a goal in a win at Minnesota.

What better way to make Kovalchuk comfortable?

”He may be old for hockey player, but inside it doesn’t seem like he’s much older than us,” said Kuznetsov, who is nine years younger than Kovalchuk. ”We feel like we’re same age and that’s always easy to find a way and it’s always translate on the ice. If you can find out how to communicate with a guy off the ice, then it will be much easier on the ice.”

Kovalchuk is trying to blend in and stay out of the way. He has connected with Dillon in large part because his Russian friends already have established lives in the D.C. area. Kovalchuk doesn’t want to interfere with that and is biding time until his family, still living in California, visits over spring break.

Playing mostly on the third line with Carl Hagelin and Lars Eller, Kovalchuk is making a bigger impact that he perhaps realizes.The Caps’ 23-year-old rookie goaltender, Samsonov, needs to only observe Kovalchuk to learn more about how he conducts himself.

”It’s important for me because I see how he get practice or warmup, how he’s ready in the game,” Samsonov said. ”He’s very good for our team.”

Only 22 active players have played more regular-season games than Kovalchuk without winning the Cup, and that’s a hunger Reirden sees in his former teammate. That experience is something Capitals players remember before winning it all two years ago.

”He’s experienced, so it make us better, make us deeper and stronger,” Orlov said. ”It’s only gonna help us.”

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Sunday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After back-to-back overtime games on Thursday and Friday night, both which saw the winning team overcome a three-goal deficit, the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs will meet Sunday night in a win or go home scenario. This is the only Qualifying Round series to go to Game 5.

The winner of this game will play the Lightning in the First Round.

A win in this game would give Columbus a postseason series wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Last year, the Blue Jackets won their first-ever playoff series by becoming the first team in NHL history to sweep the Presidents’ Trophy winners (Tampa) in the opening round.

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Sunday, August 9, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT) (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)

West NHL playoff matchups set after Stars finish third, Blues slip to fourth

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With the Stars beating the Blues 2-1 via a shootout, the West NHL matchups are all set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues joined the Bruins as teams that finished the regular season at the top of their conferences but sank to the fourth seed thanks to rough round-robin showings, while the Stars rose a spot to third. In case you missed it, the Golden Knights took first by beating the Avalanche, who settled for second in the West.

Meanwhile, three of the four East NHL matchups are set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Lightning await the winner of Game 5 of Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs (on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET; livestream).

The Blues held a 1-0 lead for much of the round-robin game. Joe Pavelski then tied things up 1-1 in the dying seconds, however, setting the stage for the Stars to snatch the third seed via a shootout. It all felt … fitting.

Jeff Vinnick of Getty Images got an exclusive shot of fans who will miss the round-robin games:

G-get it? (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

NHL Return to Play: Final Round-robin standings

nhl round robin standings
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The NHL round-robin schedule has wrapped up and know the final standings. The Flyers and Golden Knights went undefeated through three games and have clinched the top seeds in their respective conferences.

The Bruins may have been a 100-point, Presidents’ Trophy winning team during the regular season, but they went winless and will have to settled with the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Below is a look at the final NHL round-robin standings and the First Round matchups.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Final standings

Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
: Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (recap)

First Round matchups
• Flyers vs. Canadiens
• Capitals vs. Islanders
• Bruins vs. Hurricanes
• Lightning will play the winner of Toronto/Columbus series.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Final standings

Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights 4, Avalanche 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars 2, Blues 1 (SO)

First Round matchups
• Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks
• Avalanche vs. Coyotes
• Stars vs. Flames
• Blues vs. Canucks

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Three of four East playoff matchups set after Capitals take third, Bruins land fourth

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After the Capitals beat the Bruins 2-1 to take the East’s third spot, three of that conference’s four playoff matchups are now set. The 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers proved to be unpredictable with the Flyers in first, Lightning in second, Capitals third, and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins fourth.

This concludes the East portion of round-robin games. The West side is complete, too, after the Stars beat the Blues in a shootout. We’ll get a totally complete playoff picture league-wide after Game 5 of Maple Leafs – Blue Jackets.

Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET; livestream

T.J. Oshie opened the scoring, while Tom Wilson reminded people of amusing David Pastrnak tweets by nabbing the 2-0 goal that became the game-winner. Once again, the Bruins’ top line didn’t find the net, although David Pastrnak looked spry. It’s also fair to wonder about John Carlson‘s health heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.