Dmitry Orlov

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.”

WATCH LIVE: Capitals visit Wild on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the first of two meetings between these teams this season, facing each other again in Washington on April 2. The Wild won their last meeting against the Caps in March of last season, having lost eight straight games against Washington prior to that win.

Washington is coming off a 3-0 loss at Winnipeg on Thursday, just the second time the Caps have been shut out in this season (3-0 loss at CBJ on Dec 16). Minnesota has won five of their last six games and are currently riding a three-game winning streak. They have scored five-plus goals in each of their last three wins (17 goals total) and are coming off a 5-0 win at Columbus on Friday night. Their 17 goals scored are tied most in a three-game span in franchise history (April 2009).

While the Capitals have 21 road wins this season (second most in NHL) they have lost four straight on the road, being outscored 12-5 in that span. After starting the season 10-1-1 in their first 12 road games, the Caps have fallen back down to earth, now 11-9-0 in their last 20 on the road.

Kevin Fiala leads the Wild with 47 points this season and has had three straight multi-point games. After scoring just nine goals in his first 46 games this season, Fiala now has 10 goals in his last 13. With 19 goals on the year, Fiala is set to hit the 20-goal mark for just the second time in his career (23 goals for Nashville in 2017-18)

After facing Washington, the Wild host the Predators on Tuesday, who currently sit one point above Minnesota in the West. They then go on a three-game California road trip against the three worst teams in the Western Conference.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at Minnesota Wild
WHERE: Xcel Energy Center
WHEN: Sunday, March 1, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Capitals-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerIlya Kovalchuk
Richard PanikNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Brenden DillonJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMichal Kempny
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

WILD
Gerald Mayhew – Eric Staal – Kevin Fiala
Zach PariseJoel Eriksson EkJordan Greenway
Marcus FolignoAlex GalchenyukMats Zuccarello
Ryan DonatoMikko KoivuRyan Hartman

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba
Brad HuntGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Alex Stalock

Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Kathryn Tappen will host Sunday night’s studio coverage alongside analysts Anson Carter and Mike Johnson.

WATCH LIVE: Ovechkin continues chase for 700 vs. Canadiens on NBCSN

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington hosts Montreal in D.C. tonight in what will be the third and final meeting between the two clubs this season. All eyes will be on Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin as he continues his quest for 700 career goals.

Ovechkin is now goalless in five straight games after registering a hat trick against the Kings on Feb. 4. Of the seven members in the 700-goal club, five players took five games or longer to go from 698 to 700 career goals – Jaromir Jagr (5 games), Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner (6 games), and Brett Hull (12 games).

The Capitals have struggled in the midst of Ovechkin’s trek towards 700 goals. For the first time since mid-October, Washington no longer owns at least a share of the Metro Division lead as Pittsburgh now occupies the top spot.

Tuesday afternoon, the Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks for a 2020 second round pick (originally acquired from Colorado) and a conditional 2021 third round pick.

Montreal lost 4-3 at Detroit on Tuesday night after blowing a two-goal third period lead. The Habs led 3-1 entering the third and gave up three unanswered goals to pick up their fifth straight loss. To make matters worse, the Red Wings swept the Habs in the regular season (four games) for the first time in franchise history. Four of Detroit’s league-worst 15 wins this season have come against Montreal.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Capitals-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhilip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Jonathan DrouinNick SuzukiJoel Armia
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiIlya Kovalchuk
Paul ByronNate ThompsonNick Cousins

Ben ChiarotShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Xavier OuelletChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerRichard Panik
Travis BoydNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Michal KempnyRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

Caps hope trade for Dillon, adjustments solve struggles

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — For the first time since October, the Washington Capitals took the ice for practice as something other than a first-place team.

Defensive lapses and a glaring lack of structure have added up to losses in six of nine games and a .500 record over the past 10. It’s a struggle for the Capitals right now, but they hope a trade for defenseman Brenden Dillon and a few adjustments will shake them out of their midseason doldrums.

”The hard things to do, the defensive things to do, are always kind of the things that go first when you get into these kind of lulls in the season or whatever because they’re not the fun things to do,” goaltender Braden Holtby said Wednesday. ”Bringing a guy like him in, just an energy, a guy that’s been known to do those things – the hard things – and be a leader that way is good.”

Dillon could play as soon as Thursday night against Montreal, but he can’t solve all everything by himself. Even with Holtby finding a groove, the Capitals have allowed almost 3.5 goals per game during this stretch and not looked like a group that led the NHL for much of the year.

General manager Brian MacLellan said he probably would have sought Dillon from San Jose regardless of the recent drop in play, but the level of urgency to turn things around has increased.

”I think our team game is off, and that results in poor defensive efforts,” MacLellan said. ”I don’t think we’re playing the right way. … The forwards contribute to it, defense contributes to it, and we got to get all on the same page here and play a tighter game.”

Defensemen are getting the bulk of criticism and the blue liner certainly haven’t played up to expectations. Beyond John Carlson, who’s on pace for more than 90 points this season, the play of the likes of Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler has been inconsistent at best.

Carlson said the Capitals have been ”a little disjointed.”

”I think some other holes have crept into our details and systems that we all know we are capable of doing,” said Carlson, who could soon be Dillon’s defensive partner. ”Just simple things, whether it is mental or execution or just being out of position a little bit, matters a lot.”

Much of the chatter lately has been helping captain Alex Ovechkin score two more goals to reach 700 for his career. Ovechkin, MacLellan and others don’t think chasing that milestone has been a distraction, but Washington is 1-4-0 since he reached 698.

”We know exactly what we have to do,” Ovechkin said. ”It’s not a panic. It’s just a slump (that) every team goes through all seasons. Some teams go (through it) the beginning of the year. Somebody goes (though it) right now. It’s a good thing it’s happening now than in the playoffs.”

The Capitals are less than two years removed from their run to the Stanley Cup. They got knocked out in the first round last year and have retooled some things to try to win it all again.

Dillon brings the kind of physical play that is valued most in the playoffs. The 29-year-old has plenty of postseason experience and at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds blends right in with Washington’s big, heavy identity.

”When you’re standing in front of the net with him, it’s going to be a battle,” winger Tom Wilson said. ”That’s something we’ve tried to have with our team. When teams come into D.C., you want them to be like, ‘Oh, here we go, it’s going to be a tough game,’ and he’s just another piece that can really add to that.”

Capitals seek consistency as Metro race tightens

WASHINGTON – For the Washington Capitals, Saturday’s game with the Philadelphia Flyers was poised to be a key matchup. While the main attraction was Alex Ovechkin, who remains within two goals of 700, the team had the chance to face off in a potential playoff and improve on what’s been a so-so start to the second half of the season.

In the end, the game lived up to the promise of being significant in result, but it wasn’t in the way Washington hoped.

Entering the second period of Saturday’s game tied 1-1, Washington gave up seven unanswered goals, including three early over a span of 1:45. The night ended in a 7-2 loss and a lackluster effort that’s become something of a pattern of late.

Since the bye week, it’s been a tough stretch for the Capitals, who are 3-3-0 in their last six games, five of which they saw themselves trailing at one point or another. In three of those, Washington faced multi-goal deficits, and all of those – despite comeback efforts – resulted in regulation losses. 

“We’re where we are in the standings, but I’ve said it and said it a number of times that we’re not where we need to be,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “[Saturday’s 7-2 loss] was a really good example of it. So if you’re going to lose in all areas of the game, then you’re not going to pull out wins. We didn’t deserve that win. We deserved what we got.”

The Caps’ inconsistency isn’t exactly something that can be attributed to one issue; in fact, there are several problem areas that need fixing. Offensively, the main issue is the power play, which is 4-for-21 since the break. On the other side of the puck, their defense is struggling, as the team has given up at least three goals in six of their last 10 decisions.

Their woes have led to several changes to the lineup, including shuffled defense pairings and different assignments on the man advantage, from Ovechkin being moved to the right side to defenseman John Carlson being swapped out for Dmitry Orlov.

Washington has even made changes in goal, giving rookie Ilya Samsonov more playing time as Braden Holtby continues to struggle and have a career-worst season in net with a .893 save percentage and 3.21 GAA.

Despite tweaks and changes to their systems, the Capitals continue to fall into the same tendencies, and the main solution is to address the lack of proper execution by putting together a full 60 minutes and simplifying their overall game, according to Carlson.

“I think we’ve had enough dominating efforts from our team like we’re capable or used to. We’re clawing back, we’re showing a lot of fight, a lot of resiliency making some great plays and putting together some great stretches of hockey, but I just don’t think we’re where we need to be in terms of a full effort,” Carlson said. “I think certainly we’ve been talking leading up to this game and meeting and now we’ve just got to continue to find ways to keep ourselves accountable and figure it out.”

Washington still sits among the top teams in the league, their once-comfortable cushion is slipping away; the Bruins have claimed first-place in the league thanks to a six-game winning streak, and the Penguins are just four points out of first in the Metropolitan Division.

The Capitals will look to respond when they face the New York Islanders on Monday, a game they believe will give them the chance to put changes in motion as they brace for the postseason.

“I think [we’re] definitely not panicked, but we would really like to see a better, consistent game out of ourselves,” Carlson said.

You can catch Ovechkin’s pursuit of 700 goals when the Capitals host the Islanders Monday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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Sammi Silber is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @sammisilber.