Ovechkin, Marleau, Crosby closing in on NHL milestones

The milestone is a significant part of any NHL player’s career and can be marked in a variety of ways. In one instance, a player’s puck will be collected from the twine and handed to the trainer, who will tape the puck and cement the record in thick black Sharpie. In others, teammates will chip in for a commemorative watch or ownership will reward a player with a silver stick. And even on the road, teams will pay tribute to visiting players for their achievements on the jumbotron.

Despite the shortened season and several protocols, COVID-19 hasn’t put an end to tributes and significant strides for players. From the all-time goal-scoring record to the most games played in the NHL and beyond, there are several records to be broken this season.

Here are the top NHL milestones to watch for in 2020-21.

Alex Ovechkin

The Great 8 is still in pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record of 894 and currently sits at 719. He passed Phil Esposito for sixth on the NHL’s all-time goals list with a tally in the Caps’ March 15 victory over New York. In the bigger picture, he’s 177 tallies from passing Gretzky.

“Obviously it’s history,” Ovechkin said of passing Esposito. “It’s great numbers. I’m happy to be in that category.”

The 35-year-old captain picked up another milestone on the same night, hitting 1,300 points with an assist on a T.J. Oshie goal. He ranks second in points among active players, trailing only Joe Thornton with 1,520 points) and continues to inspire his teammates as he continues to check off several NHL milestones.

“He took me under his wing and then when we got older, I took him under my wing,” Backstrom joked about his bond with the Russian winger, adding, “There’s never a boring day around that guy.”

Patrick Marleau

One of the NHL’s iron men, Marleau has cemented his legacy in San Jose. The 41-year-old is the franchise’s all-time leader in goals (563), points (1,193), and most importantly, games played (1,750).

“I still love playing,” Marleau told reporters in October. “I still love the competition. Still going after my dream of winning the Stanley Cup, and still able to get out there and play and have fun, and I think that’s the thing that gets me going.”

Beyond being seven points away from 1,200, there is something even more remarkable about his stat line. He sits just 17 games behind Gordie Howe as the NHL’s all-time leader in games played and is set to become the league’s longest-tenured player this year, considering he dresses for the majority of games to close out the regular season.

Sidney Crosby

The three-time Stanley Cup champion recently celebrated 1,000 games in the league and continues to make history year after year. Crosby also has another NHL milestone waiting for him a he is just eight points from joining fellow No. 1 overall pick Alex Ovechkin in the 1,300-point club.

Pittsburgh’s captain continues to shine through several injuries and setbacks, producing at an exponential rate of 1.28 points per game. As he continues to pursue another title, he’s also just 19 goals shy of 500 in his career and has 29 points in 28 games this season.

“He sets the example each and every day,” head coach Mike Sullivan told reporters of No. 87. “The accountability starts with him and then trickles down through our organization. He’s the standard… Sid is the standard that everyone holds themselves accountable to.”

Anze Kopitar

Despite the Kings’ struggles in recent years, Kopitar’s been a constant. The Slovenian center skated in his 1,100th career NHL game on Sunday and eyes an even bigger NHL milestone to finish 2020-21: 1,000 career points.

Kopitar has seven goals and 25 assists through 27 games this season and currently sits at 982 career points. He’s on pace to hit 66 points this season, which puts him on track to easily pass the 1,000-point plateau. Not to mention, he’s making a strong case for the Hart.

“I keep working on my game,” Kopitar said of his play. “I’m trying to study it and I’m having fun, most importantly.”

“He’s about as consistent a player as I’ve been around in my 20, 25 years of pro hockey,” head coach Todd McLellan added. “Credit to him and everybody else seems to follow.”

Victor Hedman

Hedman has made his presence known from the first day he entered the league as not only a force to be reckoned with on the backcheck but a major catalyst on offense to boot. The 6-6 blueliner joined the 500-point club with an assist in Tampa’s 4-2 victory over Detroit on March 18, where he also added a goal for 501 total career points.

The 2020 Conn Smythe winner leads the league in scoring among defensemen (29 points) and will join fellow defenseman John Carlson as the second blueliner to join the 500 club this season. Hedman is arguably the favorite for the Norris and is tied with Ondrej Palat as the Bolts’ leading scorer.

“I want to be at the top of my career… I put the pressure on myself to go out there and try to be as good as I can every night to help my team win,” Hedman said of his play this season.

[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Tuukka Rask

Boston’s netminder celebrated hitting the 50-shutout mark last season, and is ready to add another impressive NHL milestone to his resume. Rask currently has 299 career wins and when he returns from injury, he’s poised to capture his 300th victory.

“Tuukka’s is one of the best goalies in the league,” Brad Marchand said. “He’s the backbone of our team. Every great team has a great goalie. That’s what we need out of him if we want to go all the way this year.”

Through 14 games this season, the Finnish netminder is 8-4-2 with a 2.46 GAA and .906 save percentage. He also gave us one of the league’s best bloopers of 2021.

Marc-Andre Fleury

At the start of the season, questions surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury’s role in Vegas and if his time with the Golden Knights was coming to an end with Robin Lehner ready to take over the crease. However, an injury to Lehner in mid-February, combined with Fleury’s dominance between the posts of late, has helped him win back that starting spot as he sits just 21 victories away from 500 career wins.

Through 19 games this season, Fleury is 15-5-0 and leads the league with a 1.77 GAA and .936 save percentage. He’s tied with Philipp Grubauer for first in shutouts (4) and is just five away from 70 in his career. Additionally, the future Hall of Famer recently hit the NHL milestone of 50,000 minutes in the NHL and leads all active goaltenders in victories.

“Every game I try to do my best, try to keep my team in the game. It doesn’t matter if my legs are tired or not, I just try to find a way to keep the game close,” Fleury said of his increased workload this season. “The guys in front of me help a lot.”

Additional NHL milestones to watch

• “Jumbo” Joe Thornton is two assists shy of 1,100 in his career.

Phil Kessel is seven games away from playing in his 1,100th career game and is one assist shy of 500 in his career.

Zdeno Chara (1,581 GP) will reach 1,600 games if he plays consistently through the regular season.

Ryan Suter (596 points) and Keith Yandle (591 points) are closing in on 600 in their respective careers. Yandle recently skated in his 1,000th career NHL game. Mark Giordano (496) is also closing in on the 500-point mark.

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    Flyers trade Pride-night boycott defenseman Provorov in 3-team deal

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    Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports
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    PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers have traded Ivan Provorov, sending away the defenseman who boycotted the team’s Pride night as part of a three-team trade that included the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Los Angeles Kings.

    The seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft, the 26-year-old Provorov lands in Columbus and is set to enter the fifth season of a $40.5 million, six-year contract. He was the centerpiece Tuesday of the first major move under new Flyers’ leadership.

    There were plenty of moving parts in the three-team deal.

    — Philadelphia traded Provorov and forward Hayden Hodgson to Los Angeles in exchange for goalie Cal Petersen, defenseman Sean Walker, defenseman Helge Grans and the Kings’ 2024 second-round pick. The Kings lost in the first round of the playoffs.

    — Columbus acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Philadelphia in exchange for a 2023 first-round pick (22nd overall) and a conditional second-round pick in either the 2024 or 2025 NHL Draft. Columbus acquired Provorov from Los Angeles in exchange for Connauton.

    The Flyers already hold the No. 7 pick in this season’s draft and now also have the 23rd pick as they start accumulating key assets for long-range success in what is expected to be a deep draft.

    Flyers general manager Danny Briere had said no player was untouchable after the Flyers missed the playoffs for the third straight season and went to work with the Stanley Cup Final still underway. The Flyers named broadcaster Keith Jones team president last month and he is still working the Final for TNT. But it’s clear the overdue rebuild is underway for a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 48 years.

    “We felt that the picks and the direction that we wanted to go in, it was really enticing, very exciting,” Briere said. “We have a chance to really start building the team the way we wanted. The right way.”

    Briere said the Flyers are “open for business” this summer and that included potentially listening to offers for No. 1 goalie Carter Hart. Coach John Tortorella, Briere and Jones have all tempered offseason expectations for any fan looking for a quick fix. The trio all insist the Flyers have a cohesive plan for the future.

    Provorov had 65 goals and 217 points in 532 career games with the Flyers. The Russian was widely criticized in January when he cited his Russian Orthodox religion as the reason he did not participate in pregame warmups when the Flyers wore Pride-themed jerseys and used sticks wrapped in rainbow Pride tape.

    “I respect everybody’s choices,” Provorov said after the game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.”

    Now, he’s traded during Pride month.

    Briere said the backlash over Pride night had nothing to do with trading Provorov.

    The Blue Jackets, who missed the playoffs this season, were ready to take a flier on a defenseman seemingly with many productive years ahead.

    “Improving our blue line has been a priority for us and acquiring Ivan gives us an established left-shot defenseman who is still a young player with his best seasons in front of him,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “He immediately improves our group on defense as he is durable, has great skill, skates well, is an excellent passer with an accurate shot and can effectively play at both ends of the ice.”

    Provorov said at the end of the season he wasn’t necessarily happy the Flyers planned to rebuild but understood the decision. Briere declined to say if Provorov wanted out of Philadelphia.

    “I wouldn’t say it’s the most positive news you can hear, but there’s a bright future here, and there’s a lot of great players that can keep growing,” Provorov said in April. “Obviously, it depends on how quick everybody gets better and how quickly the team game gets better. I think that’s what determines the length of the rebuild.”

    Turns out, the potential success out of the haul the Flyers got for Provorov just may determine the length of the rebuild.

    Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

    They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

    It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

    Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

    “I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

    Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

    Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

    “They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

    Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

    It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

    Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

    “We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

    Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

    Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

    “He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

    A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

    “It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

    The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

    The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

    That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

    Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

    “We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.