Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky? ‘The Great One’ rooting for him

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Wayne Gretzky sees a lot of himself in Alex Ovechkin, from the smile on his face each time he steps on the ice to his passion for scoring goals.

There are also differences, like Gretzky’s sole focus on the NHL growing up in Brantford, Ontario, versus Ovechkin’s upbringing in Moscow. ”The Great One” believes the Washington Capitals captain has a good chance of breaking his all-time record of 894 goals that once seemed untouchable, depending on how long Ovechkin plays in the NHL. Gretzky speculated that Ovechkin could go home to Russia and finish his career in the Kontinental Hockey League.

”Maybe one day in his mind he’ll say, ‘Look, I want to go home and play in the KHL when I can still compete at a high level,”’ Gretzky told The Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday. ”We don’t know that. That’s his decision. But I think he loves being in Washington, I think he loves the NHL and I think he’ll do everything he can at any point to chase down the record.”

Ovechkin’s longevity and his pursuit of Gretzky’s record are among the topics they discussed in their first joint interview, which airs Monday on NBC Sports Network. It comes with them 3,000 miles away and hockey on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic but shines a spotlight on the potential of Ovechkin, who has 706 goals, spending the next few years chasing Gretzky.

Ovechkin has 48 goals this season, tied for the league lead with Boston’s David Pastrnak, and if the regular season were to resume, he could match Gretzky and Mike Bossy with nine 50-goal seasons. If not, the time away and focus on the chase could drive Ovechkin to play long enough to break the record.

”You really feel like this record is meaningful,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said in a video interview with The AP. ”I’ve got the feeling that if he’s close, he’s not going to go away so fast.”

When asked how long he’d play, Ovechkin has repeatedly referred to the one year remaining on his contract and said, ”We’ll see.” He answers the same to NBC’s Kathryn Tappen during the hour-long special with Gretzky and adds: ”I’m healthy, thanks God, and I still love this game. As soon as I’m not gonna love this game, I’m not gonna cheat on it because I respect it a lot.”

Gretzky knows that feeling and was even offered a job to play in Russia in 1999 after playing his final NHL game. He respectfully declined.

”All I remember was my mindset was there’s one league and if I’m not good enough for this league, I’m done,” Gretzky said. ”I grew up, I’m an NHL guy and if I can’t play in the NHL, that’s it for me. He’s probably in a different scenario. He grew up in Russia and he’s proud of his country and maybe it’ll be great for him to go home.”

At 35, Ovechkin has already blown past the age where goal-scorers usually slow down and put up numbers not seen in decades. Even at his pace, Ovechkin would likely need to play at least four more seasons to threaten the record, which Gretzky believes would be great for the game.

Gretzky recalls his dad telling him his record will be broken one day and hoping he handles it with the same class and dignity Gordie Howe did when Gretzky surpassed him as the leading goal-scorer.

”I can’t help but cheer and root for him each and every day,” Gretzky said. ”I hope I’m the first guy who’s able to shake his hand when he does break my record.”

That’s a hope for a few years down the line. With a pandemic raging, Ovechkin – whose wife is expecting the couple’s second child – said on a recent video call his focus is on the present, not the future.

”My mind right now is not about 50 goals or catch ‘The Great One’ or somebody else,” Ovechkin said. ”My mind right now (is) to do the best what I can do, and what my family can do to be safe.”

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.