Tom Wilson

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

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Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

The Buzzer: Hellebuyck earns his bucks; MacKinnon, Isles stay hot

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Three Stars

1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets’ early struggles have kept Hellebuyck’s strong start under the radar (for the most part), but an Oct. 29 showing against the Ducks wasn’t so great, as Hellebuyck allowed five goals on only 19 shots on goal in about a half-game’s worth of action. Hellebuyck made up for that in a big way against Anaheim’s neighbors in San Jose.

The Sharks managed a commanding 53-19(!) SOG advantage on Friday, but they didn’t even get a pity point for their considerable efforts. Hellebuyck basically had a night’s work in the second period alone, allowing just one goal despite a 28-SOG barrage by San Jose.

Hellebuyck ended up making 51 out of 53 stops, so chances are, his strong work is now noticed … if the Sharks, if by no one else.

2. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

Goalies had a tendency to steal games involving California-based teams on Friday.

Despite the Canucks generated a 19-5 SOG advantage through the first period, the Ducks ended the first 20 minutes up 1-0 thanks to a Jakob Silfverberg shorthanded goal. Vancouver went on to generate a 40-29 SOG advantage overall, yet the Ducks won in overtime thanks to all-world goaltending by their all-world goalie.

Perhaps the Ducks are playing a little better under Dallas Eakins as they didn’t under Randy Carlyle, but this team still depends on Gibson as much as just about any NHL team leans on a goalie these days.

3. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Feel free to replace Aho with one of Friday’s other three-point players, if you’d prefer.

You may, for example, be more impressed with Tom Wilson‘s ferocious hit, nifty deflection goal, and overall night (1G, 2A). Wilson’s teammate Michal Kempny made a fantastic keep-in to help set up that deflection goal, and finished the night with three points (all assists) of his own. Anders Lee also managed one goal and two assists, helping the Islanders push their league-leading winning streak to a resounding eight games. And so on.

When in doubt — and there’s usually doubt in such an exciting, skilled league, especially on busy nights — I tend to go with goals over assists, and so one. Two of Aho’s three points were goals, and his assist was a primary one.

It also rarely feels like a bad time to mention Aho, who deserves more mentions as one of the NHL’s great stars.

Highlight of the Night

Since we already covered Sean Couturier pulling “The Forsberg,” enjoy this great overtime goal by the Ducks. Troy Terry makes a highly impressive long-distance bomb of a pass, then Ryan Getzlaf manages to settle it down, avoid an aggressive pokecheck attempt from Jacob Markstrom, and steal that stolen win for the Quack Pack:

Markstrom’s earlier glove save could be an honorable mention.

Bullet dodged?

The early word is that Canucks rookie Quinn Hughes isn’t too badly hurt after this scary-looking tweak. Here’s hoping that early word is accurate, because yikes:

Factoids

  • Speaking of Aho, Nathan MacKinnon is apparently just a little bit hotter to start 2019-20 than Aho was to begin 2018-19:

 

Scores

PHI 4 – NJD 3 (SO)
NYI 5 – TBL 2
WSH 6 – BUF 1
CAR 7 – DET 3
STL 4 – CBJ 3 (OT)
DAL 2 – COL 1
ANA 2 – VAN 1 (OT)
WPG 3 – SJS 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Big night for stars like Crosby, Ovechkin (also Dallas Stars)

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Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Ovechkin provided some potential bulletin board material for the Maple Leafs before the game, but instead he essentially called his shot.

The star sniper generated two goals (including the overtime-winner) and two assists, firing 10 shots on goal. He now has 11 goals and 18 points in 14 games to start the 2019-20 season strong. Oh yeah, he also logged a ridiculous 12:38 TOI on the power play on Tuesday, part of a wild game that included a couple controversial Tom Wilson hits.

Ovi wasn’t the only player who had a strong night in that one. John Carlson scored two goals to reach 23 points. Auston Matthews wasn’t far behind Ovechkin with two goals and one assist. Nicklas Backstrom collected three assists.

2. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars

Dallas came into Tuesday’s game against the Wild with a -10 goal differential in the third period of games. They brought that down to a more respectable -5 on Tuesday as part of a thunderous comeback. Late in the second, the Wild went up 3-0, only for the Stars to score six unanswered goals to stun Minnesota 6-3.

Radulov began that rally with Dallas’ first goal, and ended up generating a hat trick plus an assist. He simply wouldn’t be denied, firing 10 SOG. If this was about Minnesota sitting on a lead in any way, Dallas showed that it’s probably not the best way to put them away.

Ovechkin gets the slight nod because Radulov’s third goal came on an empty-netter. Radulov’s second was the GWG, so they had clinchers in common on Tuesday.

3. Nick Bonino, Nashville Predators

The Predators scored three goals on Tuesday, and Bonino generated all of them for a natural hat trick. No Bones about it, that’s an impressive night.

(Sorry … ish.)

Other players like Sidney Crosby deserve a mention (more on that in a moment), but a natural hatty is really something. Considering that Bonino and Crosby were teammates, and Bonino’s goals came from the “dirty areas” of the ice, so 87 probably wouldn’t be so unhappy.

Bonino wasn’t far from the other top two in SOG, either, with nine on his way to that hat trick. This continues a strong start to 2019-20 for Bonino, who now has 10 points in 12 games.

Honorable mentions

  • Crosby and the Penguins absolutely feasted on an overmatched Flyers team, and that meant filling up the scoresheet. Crosby scored a goal and two assists for three points, matched by Dominik Simon and Dominik Kahun. Bonus points to Kahun, who managed his goal and two assists in just 8:49 TOI.
  • Again, Matthews and Backstrom had three-point nights of their own.
  • Rocco Grimaldi got assists on all three of Bonino’s goal. Bones and Grimaldi sounds like it could be a buddy cop show. Just a lot to like, folks.
  • Josh Mahura of the Ducks collected three assists as the Ducks won a high-scoring game against the Jets 7-4. Mahura’s the second Ducks rookie to generate three points in a game, and notched quite a few other milestones.

Highlight of the Night

How could it be anything but Andrei Svechnikov scoring a lacrosse-style goal? More on that here.

Another Storm Surge

A Halloween-themed one. Maybe they’d be called nerds instead of jerks this time, to get a candy theme going?

Factoids

  • Cam Fowler scored his 61st goal, passing Scott Niedermayer for the most of any defenseman in Ducks history.
  • Ovechkin finished the night with 669 career regular-season goals. According to NHL PR, that puts Ovechkin ahead of Luc Robitaille for most as a player listed as a LW. He’s also now ranked 12th all-time in goals scored, in general. Depending upon how his season goes, Ovechkin could really climb the ranks in 2019-20, or soon after.

8. Mark Messier – 694
9. Steve Yzerman – 692
10. Mario Lemieux – 690
11. Teemu Selanne – 684
12. Ovechkin – 669

  • Ovechkin’s teammate Carlson scored two goals to finish the night with 23 points on the season, and in October. Only one defenseman’s had a better October in NHL history: Al MacInnis in 1990, according to NHL PR.
  • The Red Wings ended an eight-game losing streak by beating the Oilers.

Scores

BOS 5 – SJS 1
WSH 4 – TOR 3 (OT)
PIT 7 – PHI 1
CAR 2 – CGY 1
NYR 4 – TBL 1
DET 3 – EDM 1
NSH 3 – CHI 0
DAL 6 – MIN 3
ANA 7 – WPG 4

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ovechkin walks the walk; Tom Wilson wreaks havoc as Caps beat Leafs

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Alex Ovechkin was the one ruffling feathers heading into Tuesday’s Capitals – Maple Leafs game, yet Tom Wilson created the most controversy.

Overall, Washington’s 4-3 overtime win against Toronto was brimming with storylines:

Alex vs. Auston (and some Carlsson)

It was quite a duel between Ovechkin and Auston Matthews. Matthews started strong by assisting on an Andreas Johnsson goal just 40 seconds into the game, and finished with a goal and two assists. Ovechkin got the last laugh, however, with the overtime winner, finishing the night with a tremendous four-point performance (2G, 2A).

John Carlsson also continued his molten-hot start to 2019-20, scoring Washington’s first two goals. Carlsson now has an absurd 23 points in 14 games.

If you dream up a Capitals – Maple Leafs game from a marketing standpoint, you want stars to deliver, and that’s exactly what Ovechkin, Carlson, Matthews, and Nicklas Backstrom (three assists) did.

More fodder for Tom Wilson debates

The league probably wouldn’t be as excited to mull over more polarizing hits by the Patron Saint of Polarizing Hits, Tom Wilson. Jake Muzzin left Tuesday’s game and did not return following this one:

The more questionable of the two hits was probably this late one on Tyson Barrie:

Wilson was only penalized for the hit on Barrie (charging and roughing), but we’ll see if there is any supplemental discipline. Whether either of those hits were truly bad or just part of the game, Wilson’s made a few more enemies after Tuesday.

TSN’s Mark Masters reports that Mike Babcock said Muzzin’s injury is a charley horse, rather than something knee related, which could end up being a relief. There’s no timeline on his issue, though, so we’ll see.

Work to do

Via The Athletic’s James Mirtle, Babcock remarked, “Holy God there was a lot of penalties.”

Washington ended up going 2-for-7 on the night, with Ovechkin’s OT-winner being one of those PP goals. Toronto ended up 1-for-8.

Babcock aims to clean up the sort of play that Ovechkin criticized, but as he told Masters and others, it’s not something that will happen overnight.

“Well, I don’t know if he’s wrong. He knows because he lived it,” Babcock said. “If you look at Steve Yzerman, he lived it. A lot of the guys live it until they’re 30. You’ve got to decide whether you wait until you’re 30 or do you want to figure it out now …”

Babcock admitted that those comments probably hurt players’ (and his) feelings, they might be part of the learning experience that gets them to where they need to go.

Of course, one can debate how much the Maple Leafs need to change, or how they should change. Would there be success by clamping down — even leaning on the “Yzerman learned to play defense”* bit that’s almost a trope at this point — or, on the other hand, finding ways to fully embrace your offensive-minded talent?

Ovechkin’s experienced that experiment first hand, although it’s easy to forget how much the Capitals went through in getting from the Bruce Boudreau era to the stage where they finally won the Stanley Cup. Washington arguably swung to too much of an extreme, particularly under Dale Hunter, before finding a better mix lately. It also didn’t hurt that they found some other nice players to help make life easier for Ovechkin, Backstrom, and others.

So … basically, the debate about finding the sweet spot between stingy defense and aggressive offense is just about as polarizing as arguments over the latest Tom Wilson hit.

What we do know for sure: Ovechkin and Matthews scored a lot on Tuesday, and the Capitals won 4-3 in OT.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Takeaways from Capitals’ OT win over Blues

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The St. Louis Blues raised their 2019 Stanley Cup banner on Wednesday, but it was the Washington Capitals who ended up raising their hands in victory. The Capitals charged back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Blues 3-2 in OT to begin their season on Wednesday.

Here are a few quick observations from Washington’s 3-2 (OT) win over St. Louis:

Big season for Jakub Vrana?

As usual, the combination of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson provided big problems for the opposition.

The Capitals could be downright scarier if they find other lines that work almost as well, and Wednesday provided some optimism there. Via Natural Stat Trick, the line of Jakub Vrana, T.J. Oshie, and Lars Eller generated a dominant 73.33 Corsi For Percentage in that game. That puck possession translated to success on the scoreboard, as Vrana scored the OT game-winner (assisted by Oshie), while Eller generated two assists.

Ed Olczyk singled out Vrana multiple times during the NBCSN telecast, and it seems like he did so with good reason.

Alex Pietrangelo is going to be rich(er)

Pietrangelo didn’t begin the night as the defenseman on the Blues’ top power play unit — that honor went to Vince Dunn, rather than Justin Faulk or Colton Parayko — but that might be a look St. Louis would be wise to consider. He absolutely walloped the puck on the Blues’ second goal of the night:

Then again, with Ryan O'Reilly joining Pietrangelo on the second unit, maybe the Blues can just spread the wealth?

Alex Ovechkin: still a quick-strike threat

Ovechkin might be someone you can’t leave alone in the slot — or allow access to in the slot — when he’s 50. He remains that way at age 34, as he befuddled Jay Bouwmeester and others on his latest goal:

After the Blues generated a 7-5 shot advantage in the first period, the Capitals managed a 29-15 edge through the rest of the game. They looked like a hungry team, and possibly well-rested after that tough Round 1 loss to the Hurricanes last season.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.