Alex Ovechkin ready for first Stanley Cup Final home game

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I want to win the Stanley Cup. I want to be the best, just the best. I must work. I must learn. Help my team. Play hockey, that’s all. Hockey is my life, you know. If I do not play hockey, I do not know what I do.” – Alex Ovechkin, October, 2005, via the Washington Post.

When Alex Ovechkin stepped on to the T-Mobile Arena ice ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, he could feel how much of an atmosphere change it was compared to the previous three rounds of the playoffs. There was a different energy in the air and the stage was even bigger than he had ever experienced.

On Saturday night, Ovechkin will hit the Capital One Arena ice for his first home game ever in a Cup Final. It’s been 20 years since the Capitals have played host to one, which means more of that different atmosphere and energy the Washington captain talked about, but unlike the scene in Vegas, the support will be behind him and his teammates.

“I’m excited. I think everybody’s excited in Washington,” Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be hard — but that’s why we work so hard to be in this spot and be in this moment.”

Even through the numerous playoff disappointments, Ovechkin has always kept a loose mentality. No matter the situation, he’s tried to keep his teammates upbeat, even when times have been bad. He’s taken the losses hard, but that’s because he wants to win so badly.

Jay Beagle is one of the longer-tenured Capitals and has seen that regular season success turn into playoff disappointment. Through it all, he says, Ovechkin has remained the same.

“He’s always had a calming presence because he always keeps it loose and is a lot of fun to be around,” said Beagle, who’s neighbors with Ovechkin in the team’s dressing room. “He’s steps up in the big moments, says things when he needs to, but also keeps it loose when the time is right, too.”

Ovechkin has done his part in helping the Capitals reach the Cup Final. He’s second in the NHL in playoff scoring with 13 goals and 24 points, his most in the postseason since 2009. There’s growth in all players year-to-year, but Beagle says that this year is different.

“All of us grow every year — you grow as a player, you grow as a person,” said Beagle. “He’s been outstanding. Every time we’ve gone into the playoffs, he’s been our best player. But I really think he’s taken over the team. He’s really taken this as his team and he’s stepped his game up even more than he has in the past, which is very hard to do. He’s our leader. We follow him. He’s been unreal. He’s been unreal ever since I’ve been here, but he’s also growing like everyone else is growing, as a player and a person. He’s stepped up huge this playoffs.”

Since Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, he’s wanted to deliver a Stanley Cup to D.C. This is the closest he’s ever been to it, and the Capitals are three more wins away from delivering.

“He’s made a promise to himself to get his game to the next level and bring our team with him. I think he’s done that,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “I think he’s delivering on a lot of aspects. I think he’s grown as a player and our captain.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals’ Lars Eller excels once again with increased responsibility

LAS VEGAS — Nicklas Backstrom stood in front of his stall inside T-Mobile Arena after the Washington Capitals’ 3-2 victory in Game 2 wearing Lars Eller’s team-issued No. 20 top. 

“He was so hot today so I wanted some power from him,” Backstrom joked before admitting he couldn’t find his and just grabbed Eller’s since they’re stall neighbors.

Eller was hot in Game 2 with a goal and two assists, continuing a trend where the Capitals lose a top center and the 29-year-old Dane steps in and admirably fills the role.

With a little more than five minutes to play in the first period and the Vegas Golden Knights holding a 1-0 lead, Evgeny Kuznetsov left the game following a hit from Brayden McNabb. Capitals head coach Barry Trotz had to tinker with his top two lines again, like he’d done when Backstrom was injured in the second round. Eller was handed another promotion and rose to the occasion.

No wonder Alex Ovechkin called him the Capitals’ “secret weapon.”

“Lars is not shy to take on a responsibility,” said Trotz. “He knows that he’s got to fill in big shoes, either Backy or Kuzy, in the playoffs and he knows that he’s got an opportunity. I think he relishes it. He takes that opportunity to showcase what he’s able to do and he knows that we’re relying on him. He’s one of the more popular guys in our room, for sure. He just elevates his game when we need it. That’s been Lars through the playoffs, but that’s been everybody.”

Eller, who earned the mysterious nickname of “Tiger” following a team-building event last season, was forced into the second-line center spot in the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins after Backstrom missed four games with a hand injury. With a new and bigger role, he contributed two goals and five points and helped Washington to three wins.

“The more I’m out there, the better I feel on the puck,” Eller said. “Better flow in my game. I knew from the Tampa series that I had really good chemistry with [Jakub] Vrana and [T.J.] Oshie, so it wasn’t a surprise for me when we did some good things when we were put back together. Just playing on instincts.”

The Capitals gave Eller a five-year, $17.5 million extension in February and he’s doing a good job of living up to it. Through 21 playoff games, he has career highs in goals (six) and points (16). Clearly a tougher assignment isn’t something that overwhelms him, as he’s seamlessly transitioned up and down the lineup when called upon.

“I think some people have ways of digging down deeper,” said Oshie. “I think some people have ways of staying calm when the moment gets bigger. I’m not in his head, I can’t tell you exactly why that is. I can tell you he gets his work done every day he comes to the rink. So maybe he’s prepared for that when he gets that shot.”

Trotz had no update on Kuznetsov and with two full off days before Game 3 Saturday in D.C., it might be a game-time decision if he’ll be back or if Eller will once again need to answer the call.

“Stanley Cup Final, you want to be on the ice not the bench,” Eller said. “I enjoy every single moment of it and it’s been a great atmosphere here. I can’t wait to go back to D.C. and see what the fans are going to bring. 

“I don’t know if Kuzy’s going to play next or not, but if he isn’t I’m going to be ready, we’re going to be ready.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Rangers go college route, hire David Quinn as new head coach

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David Quinn will be leaving his post with the Boston University men’s hockey team to replace Alain Vigneault as the new head coach of the New York Rangers.

“We are excited to announce that David will become the next Head Coach of the New York Rangers,” said Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton in a statement. “In a coaching career that has spanned over two decades at the collegiate, pro, and international level, David has helped his teams achieve success while simultaneously teaching the game and helping his players develop on and off the ice. He is the ideal choice to bring our loyal and passionate fans the winning hockey they deserve.”

Gorton had pursued Jim Montgomery after firing Vigneault on April 7, but the former Denver University head coach decided to take the open job with the Dallas Stars. According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Gorton was looking for someone who could communicate well with young players and possessed strong team-building skills. None of the bigger names on the free agent coaching market like Dave Tippett, Dan Bylsma and Darryl Sutter, were on his radar. 

In five years behind the bench with the Terriers, Quinn, who replaced Jack Parker in 2013, had a 105-68-21 record, which included four trips to the NCAA tournament and a national title game appearance in 2015. He becomes the sixth head coach — following Ned Harkness, Herb Brooks, Bob Johnson, Dave Hakstol and Montgomery — to jump from the college ranks to the NHL.

(The hiring of Quinn also means that USA Hockey will have to look for a new head coach for its World Junior team after announcing in April he would take that job.)

Quinn’s deal is reportedly for five years and worth in the neighborhood of $12 million. Per College Hockey News’ Mike McMahon, the Rangers original offer of four years, $8 million was rejected before they added a year and bumped up the salary per season.

At BU, Quinn helped develop current NHLers like Jack Eichel, Charlie McAvoy, Clayton Keller and one of the top prospects in next month’s entry draft, Brady Tkachuk.

Quinn is no stranger to the NHL. Before arriving at BU, he spent the 2012-13 season as an assistant with the Colorado Avalanche, three years after taking over the head coaching duties with their AHL affiliate in Lake Erie.

The Rangers missed the playoffs this season for the first time since 2010. Gorton threw in the towel in February, signaling to the fan base he was ready to re-tool on the fly and look toward next season. The roster is littered with a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents to deal with this summer, per CapFriendly, and with nearly $25 million in cap space to play with this summer, it’s not hard to imagine them being back in the postseason next spring.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canada town’s arena focus of mourning after crash kills 15

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HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan (AP) — The people of this small town grieved at their hockey arena Sunday, laying flowers and jerseys in a makeshift memorial at the entrance and later gathering inside to mourn the deaths of 15 people when a semi-trailer slammed into the bus carrying the local youth hockey team.

The 14 others on the bus were injured, some critically, in Friday night’s collision, which has Canada, its national sport and the hockey-obsessed town of Humboldt reeling. Among the dead are Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, team captain Logan Schatz and radio announcer Tyler Bieber.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the injured at the hospital Sunday and then attended the vigil held in the town’s arena Sunday night. Trudeau sat among the crowd with his 11-year-old son, Xavier, a hockey player

Team President Kevin Garinger choked back tears as he read out the names of the 15 dead. People embraced each other, crying. Boxes of Kleenex were passed down rows.

Behind them, flowers ringed the team logo at center ice. In front of them, there were pictures of the dead and injured.

Humboldt pastor Sean Brandow, the team chaplain, said he was on his way to the Broncos game Friday and arrived at the scene right after the collision. He described hearing the cries and holding the hand of a lifeless body.

”I walked up and saw a scene I never want to see again, heard sounds I never want to hear again,” Brandow said.

Nick Shumlanski, an injured player who was released from the hospital, attended the vigil wearing his white, green and yellow team jersey, with a bruise under his left eye.

Residents of this town of less than 6,000 people earlier left flowers, jerseys and personal tributes on the steps of the arena’s entrance. One tribute included a Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner box, which was a favorite meal of deceased forward Evan Thomas. A bouquet of pink roses adorned the box, which read: ”to Evan, game day special, love your billet brother and sister Colten and Shelby.”

While most of the players were from elsewhere in western Canada, they were put up by families in the small town of Humboldt. Billeting families are a large part of junior hockey, with players spending years with host families.

Dennis Locke, his wife and three young children came to the arena to hang posters of forward Jaxon Joseph, who was the son of former NHL player Chris Joseph. The Locke family hosted Joseph and treated him like a son.

”Best person ever,” Locke said. ”Down to earth, loved playing with the kids.”

His wife wiped away tears from swollen eyes.

Forwards Jacob Leicht, Logan Hunter and Conner Lukan and defensemen Stephen Wack, Adam Herold, Logan Boulet and Xavier Labelle were also among the dead, according to family members and others. Assistant coach Mark Cross, bus driver Glen Doerksen and stats keeper Brody Hinz, who was 18, were also killed.

Herold, who would have turned 17 Thursday, played for the Regina Pat Canadians hockey team until just weeks ago, but was sent to join the Broncos for their playoff round when the Pat Canadians’ season wrapped up, said John Smith, the Pat Canadians’ manager.

As the names of the dead emerge, ”it’s getting harder and harder,” Humboldt Mayor�Rob Muench said. ”This is going to be a long haul for us.”

Norman Mattock, a longtime season ticket holder, said his neighbor housed player Morgan Gobeil. The defenseman was severely injured and remains in serious but stable condition, Mattock said.

He said players become part of the community fabric, doing volunteer work or serving in restaurants. Three players who stayed with the same family all died in the crash, he added.

”They lost them all,” Mattock said.

The Broncos were a close-knit team who dyed their hair blond for the playoffs. The bus was driving the team to a crucial playoff game Friday against the Nipawin Hawks. Garinger said the team will continue next year and won’t disband.

The home page of the team’s website was replaced with a silhouette of a man praying beneath the Broncos’ logo of a mustang.

The pews were full Sunday at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Humboldt, where the Rev. Joseph Salish told parishioners that if they felt like crying, they should cry.

Between Masses, streams of people – many of them red-eyed from crying – hugged each other.

”We’re devastated,” said hockey club Vice President Randolph MacLEAN. ”At the center of this, we have 15 souls who’ll never go home again. We have 29 lives that will never be the same.”

MacLEAN said the community comes together at the arena on game nights that draw 800 to 1,000 people to the stands.

”It’s an energy that spreads through the town with road signs saying ‘Game tonight,’ tickets for sale everywhere,” he said.

As is the case with small town hockey across Canada, he said, the arena is not just a recreation facility, but a focus of community life with the hockey team at its center.

With players staying with local families, working in city businesses and attending local schools, the tragedy touches every corner of Humboldt, MacLEAN said.

Canadian police said the truck driver, who was not hurt, was initially detained but later released and provided with mental health assistance. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said it was too early to state a cause for the crash. Police have not said whether or not the driver was impaired.

Photographs of the wreckage showed the twisted trailer with most of its wheels in the air and the bus on its side with a portion destroyed. The force of the crash sent both vehicles into the ditch at the northwest corner of the intersection.

Police said a lot of issues remained to be investigated in the bus crash, including weather conditions at the time and any mechanical issues with the vehicles.

Associated Press writer Jeremy Hainsworth reported this story in Humboldt and AP writer Rob Gillies reported from Toronto.

GoFundMe campaign for Humboldt Broncos surpasses $2 million

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There are now 15 people dead following a bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos, a Saskatchewan junior hockey team, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said on Saturday.

The bus, which was carrying 29 players and coaches, along with the driver, was hit by a semi-trailer as the team was on its way to Nipawin for a playoff game Friday night. Fourteen people were injured.

Among the dead are Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, team captain Logan Schatz, 20, Adam Herold, 16, Jaxon Joseph, 20,  and radio announcer Tyler Bieber.

“Our thoughts are with the players, families, coaches, team management and all those throughout the community who have been affected by the tragedy involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “The NHL mourns the passing of those who perished and offers strength and comfort to those injured while traveling to play and be part of a game they all love.”

Via the CBC:

Speaking at the news conference on Saturday, RCMP Saskatchewan Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki revealed new details about the crash and the investigation.

He said the male driver of the semi-trailer was not injured and, although he was detained temporarily after the collision, he has now been released.

Zablocki said it was too early to comment on the cause of the collision, but he confirmed the semi-trailer was travelling westbound on Highway 335 when it collided with the bus travelling northbound on Highway 35.

The tragedy hit close to home for many around the hockey world.

“All the best stories are told on the busses, in the locker rooms, in the private areas where it’s just them. It’s contained,” said Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “It’s where the friendships are born, the anticipation builds, the quietness of a bus after a tough loss — all things that you go through when you’re playing a sport. It’s so much a part of sporting life, hockey life, especially at that age. To have it end like that, to have it be a part of all of the survivor’s lives now, it’s just an incredibly difficult thing.”

“It’s huge. You look at all the small towns across Saskatchewan, everyone knows everybody, everyone comes to the games. You look at the support the community has to make sure those teams survive. You’re impacted by some of those victims, whether you billeted them, served them at the restaurants, coached them. Everything is so interconnected there. It’s crazy. It’s a huge loss to the community,” said Jets forward Adam Lowry, an alum of the Swift Current Broncos, who lost four players in a 1986 bus crash, including Brent Ruff, brother of long-time NHL head coach Lindy Ruff.

Moments of silence were held around NHL rinks on Saturday night, including in Winnipeg where players from the Jets and Chicago Blackhawks gathered at center ice while wearing jerseys with BRONCOS on the backs.

Sylvie Kellington, a resident of Humboldt, started a GoFundMe page on Friday night to support the families of the victims and the players and staff who were injured as a result of the crash. Support quickly poured in and as of Saturday night there has been close to $3 million given, which includes donations from the Blackhawks, Jets, Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens, among others.

With files from Scott Billeck and the AP

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.