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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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.