Evgeny Kuznetsov

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.”

My Favorite Goal: Bobby Ryan borrows Mikko Koivu’s stick

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers, personalities and NHL players remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Corey Abbott, Rotoworld NHL editor, recalls the time when Bobby Ryan scored a goal using Mikko Koivu‘s stick.

There have been numerous highlight-reel goals scored by great moves, outstanding hand-eye coordination or a big shot. We’ve probably seen more between the legs and lacrosse-style goals this season than we ever have before. The skill and creativity of hockey players is expanding at a rapid pace.  However, I found it hard to choose a favorite goal that followed that formula. How do you pick one when we’ve seen so many?

I had a similar problem when I skimmed through all the playoff, overtime or international goals that I have witnessed in my lifetime. Those are obviously important moments that I will carry with me forever, but I found it difficult to pick just one from the crowd. I came very close to picking Sidney Crosby’s “golden goal” from the 2010 Winter Olympics, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. I decided to take a different route.

Bobby Ryan scored a very unique goal against Minnesota on Dec. 12, 2010 when he was a member of the Ducks. Wild center Mikko Koivu lost his stick in the corner of his own zone late in the second period. He snatched the stick out of the hands of Ryan, who was in front of the net, and proceeded to play with it. Ryan was looking for a call, but didn’t get one from the referee, so he continued to battle for the puck in the corner until he spotted Koivu’s abandoned twig laying at his feet. Ryan, who shoots right-handed, picked up Koivu’s left-handed stick and positioned himself to the right of Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom. Of course, the puck came right to him and he one-timed into the net. It’s worth noting that Dylan Strome scored with an opponent’s stick while playing in the OHL, but he didn’t accomplish the feat with the wrong hand.

Ryan celebrated by defiantly holding up the stick to show it to Koivu. The Wild captain tried to get the goal called back, but he wasn’t successful in his attempt to get the play overturned. “As far as we were aware, there was no rule (against it), so you can’t take it back, I guess,” Ryan said after the game. “(Koivu) was complaining about it, and I just told him: ‘You took mine right out of my hands in the corner, so finder’s keepers, I guess.’ It’s been a while, so I’ll take them any way they can come right now. I was even thinking about getting a couple of left-handed sticks and finish it out.”

However, Koivu was correct and it wasn’t a goal that should have counted. It was missed by the officials because the strange sequence of events happened so fast and Koivu’s pickpocket of Ryan’s stick managed to avoid detection. According to Rule 10.3 under Broken Sticks: “A player who has lost or broken his stick may receive a replacement stick by having one handed to him from his own players’ bench; by having one handed to him by a teammate on the ice; or, by picking up his own unbroken stick or that of a teammate’s from the ice. A player will be penalized if he throws, tosses, slides or shoots a stick to a teammate on the ice, or if he picks up and plays with an opponent’s stick.”

This rule has come into play since Ryan scored. Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang was penalized in 2016 for using an illegal stick when he stole it from Tampa’s Cedric Paquette and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov spent two minutes in the sin bin in 2018 after he picked up the twig of Vegas blueliner Nick Holden, which had become lodged in the glass.

Ryan was fortunate that the play went his way and it instantly became a goal that I will always remember. He has scored some fantastic goals during his 13-year career. He even scored one that earned a family a puppy, which was in turn named after him.

The latest great moment for Ryan came last week when he scored a hat trick in his first home game back from a three-month absence from the Senators after entering the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program.  He sought help because of an ongoing battle with alcohol abuse and now he’s over 100 days sober.  The crowd chanted “Bobby, Bobby!” as Ryan fought back tears on the bench.

Ryan’s redemption arc likely makes him the favorite for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which goes annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.

Ryan has provided some great memories and I wish him all the best. Hopefully, he continues to get all the help he needs to live happily and to continue playing hockey.

You check out previous “My Favorite Goal” entries here.

The Buzzer: Werenski, Gaudreau, and Ovechkin all shine in big wins

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Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He recorded his league-leading 12th multi-goal game of the season in the Capitals’ 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild, scoring two goals from his signature spot on the ice. He is now at 45 goals for the season and is just two back of Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the league lead. You can read more about Ovechkin’s big game and the Capitals’ big win right here.

2. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames. Gaudreau found out on Saturday that his grandfather passed away before their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He came back on Sunday with a huge performance for one of his biggest supporters. Gaudreau was dominant for the Flames in a 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers, scoring a goal, recording an assist, and even drawing a penalty shot in the first period. After a slow start to the season offensively Gaudreau’s production has really started to pick up in recent weeks, averaging a point per game (25 points in 25 games) since the start of January.

3. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets. Werenski was a beast for the Blue Jackets in their come-from-behind win against the Vancouver Canucks, playing 25 minutes, scoring the game-tying goal (his 20th of the season) in the third period, picking up an assist, and finishing the night as a plus-two. The Blue Jackets desperately needed this win and it is not a stretch to call it a potential season saver. With Seth Jones sidelined due to injury a lot of the Blue Jackets’ workload on defense is going to fall on Werenski, and he has been brilliant this season. You can read more about their big win on Sunday night here.

More Standout Performances From Sunday

  • Cory Schneider recorded his first shutout in more than a year for the New Jersey Devils in a 3-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Anze Kopitar scored two goals and Cal Petersen was a wall for the Los Angeles Kings by stopping 42 out of 43 shots to help them put a stop to the Vegas Golden Knights’ winning streak. Read more about the Kings’ win here.

Highlights of the Night

Trevor Lewis helped the Kings pull the upset over the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday night with this beautiful spin-o-rama goal to beat Marc-Andre Fleury.

Derek Grant had a huge game for the Philadelphia Flyers with an assist on Michael Raffl‘s shorthanded goal, and this beautiful goal for himself. Read more about the Flyers’ big win here.

Ovechkin’s second goal of the night came on this beautiful passing play between him, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Blooper of the Night

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson absolutely levels Devils forward Kevin Rooney behind the net and earns himself a two-minute minor for interference.

Factoids

  • Werenski is the first Blue Jackets defensemen to ever score 20 goals in a single season. [NHL PR]
  • Artemi Panarin extended his point streak for the New York Rangers. [NHL PR]
  • Ovechkin now has 144 multi-goal games in his career, putting him into fifth place in NHL history. [NHL PR]

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, New York Rangers 2
Calgary Flames 3, Florida Panthers 0
New Jersey Devils 3, Anaheim Ducks 0
Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Vancouver Canucks 3
Washington Capitals 4, Minnesota Wild 3
Los Angeles Kings 4, Vegas Golden Knights 1

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.

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.

What will Capitals do before trade deadline?

It looked like the Washington Capitals were going to run away with the Metropolitan Division again this year, but that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. As of right now, they’re no longer in the top spot. What can they do to get the division crown back?

The team that’s now slightly ahead of them, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have been aggressive over the last few weeks. Pens GM Jim Rutherford swung a deal for winger Jason Zucker and that seems to have helped improve their roster. And it sounds like they’d be open to making another move or two before Monday’s trade deadline.

The Capitals sacrificed a second-round pick in 2020 and a conditional third-rounder in 2021 to land Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks this week. That’s a smart move by general manager Brian MacLellan, but is it enough to get the Caps out of the rut they’re currently in?

Washington has dropped three games in a row and they have just one win in their last six games. Since the start of February, they have a 2-5-1 record.

In fairness, they were without center Evgeny Kuznetsov for three games against Colorado, Arizona and Vegas. He managed to return to the lineup against Montreal on Thursday, but the Caps still dropped an OT decision on home ice to the struggling Canadiens.

“We’re going to pursue anything that we think can make us better,” MacLellan said. “We’ll continue to talk to teams. We’ve had conversations. We’ll keep doing it and see if we can make our team better.”

When asked about his team’s defense’s struggles, MacLellan added that he felt it wasn’t just his blue liners that were were having a hard time in that area. He pointed out that the forwards make life difficult for themselves when they don’t have the puck. In short, his point was that the team’s overall play has slipped of late.

The Caps know they can keep up offensively with every team in the league. The question is whether or not they can keep the puck out of their own net. They’ve already added a defender, so it’s entirely possible that they’d be looking to add a two-way depth forward between now and Monday.

Options may or may not include:

Nate Thompson – C – Montreal Canadiens: Thompson is responsible defensively, capable of killing penalties and he’s also great in the face-off circle. He could probably be had for a mid-round pick this year or in 2021.

Jesper Fast – W – New York Rangers: Fast could be a perfect fit on Washington’s bottom two lines and he could move up in the lineup if ever they suffer a short-term injury.

Derek Grant – C – Anaheim Ducks: Grant is having a heck of a year, as he’s scored 14 goals in 48 games (he’s on pace to score 20). He’s also chipped in three shorthanded markers in 2019-20. He’s also not making much money this year, so the Caps could fit him under the cap.

Again, those are just some of the options that could be available to MacLellan before Monday. Will any one of the players mentioned above help the Capitals keep the puck out of their own net? Sure, they may help a little bit. But the entire roster needs to figure out how to play defensively as a team.

If they can find a team that’s willing to take salary back or retain salary in a trade, they may be able to get a better player. Washington’s window to win is open right now. If that means they have to trade draft collateral and a top prospect or two to land a big fish on the market, they should do that. But with the clock ticking, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to make a splash of that magnitude. Would they love to get a Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Ottawa? Probably. That won’t be an easy trade for them to make right now.

Here’s the most important thing the Caps need to realize: Once you get into the playoffs, scoring tends to dry up a little bit. Once you have a lead, you need to know how to protect it. That’s what they need to figure out if they’re going to make a long run into June, again.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.