Golden Knights, Capitals quietly on another crash course for Stanley Cup Final

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Everyone is talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their record-pace. The Boston Bruins are riding high with an 18-game point streak. The St. Louis Blues started from the bottom and are now in third in the Central. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames are all battling for their respective divisional supremacy.

Meanwhile, quietly in the nation’s capital, the Washington Capitals have won five consecutive games and are tied with the New York Islanders in points atop the Metropolitan Division. Even more quietly out in the desert, the Vegas Golden Knights have also won five straight. Does anybody remember that these were the last two teams standing last season? Because that’s what could very well happen again.

The Caps won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, only to lose in the second round of the playoffs both years to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Last season, they won the Metropolitan again but finished third in the East before going on to win their first Cup in franchise history. They’re in a similar position this year, just two points behind Toronto for third in the conference. Perhaps being a bit under the radar is where they thrive.

Washington has also shown the ability to flip a switch and turn back into the defending champions at a moment’s notice. Take last week’s game against Ottawa for example. The Capitals found themselves down 2-0 before they could blink against the lowly Senators early in the first period. But by the time the period was over, the score was tied. By the final buzzer, Washington had won 7-2.

With a league-leading 46 goals, Alex Ovechkin is carrying the offensive load for Washington once again this season. But the Capitals’ recent 5-game winning streak has been a demonstration of the depth that carried them to the Cup last year, as 13 different players have scored a goal and 18 players have registered a point in that span. At the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan did well to bolster that depth by adding defenseman Nick Jensen and forward Carl Hagelin, who have both already made contributions during their brief time in D.C.

Of course, the biggest difference between this Washington team and the one that hoisted the Cup is behind the bench. At the moment, former Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his Islanders seem to be the only thing standing between Todd Reirden and the franchise winning a fourth straight division title.

Out west, while Calgary and San Jose jockey for first place in the Pacific, Vegas has a stranglehold on third in the division. That means they’ll play whichever team finishes second between the Flames and the Sharks in the First Round, a tough match up for whichever team comes up short. Vegas has not lost since the trade deadline, Mark Stone seems to be gelling nicely with the now-healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, and Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like the Fleury of last postseason, stopping 109 of the 111 shots he faced during his four straight wins.

Very few expected last year’s expansion Vegas team to make a run to the Cup Final, if not for their lack of star power, then certainly for their lack of postseason experience. Well, they now have that star power and after coming three wins away from the Cup last season, there is no lack of playoff wisdom on this Golden Knights roster. Even their new pieces like Stone (2017 with Ottawa), Pacioretty (2014 with Montreal) and Stastny (2016 with St. Louis & 2018 with Winnipeg) have all played in a Conference Final.

Given the Capitals’ previous failures in the playoffs and the Golden Knights’ infancy as a franchise, it was a bit of a shock to see them both facing off for the Stanley Cup last season. Don’t be so surprised if it happens again this year.

Capitals’ Ovechkin to play Wednesday, sit first game after All-Star break

Alex Ovechkin will serve his punishment for missing the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in the Washington Capitals first game back after the break.

Ovechkin, who could have chosen to sit Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, is choosing to play instead as the Capitals look to end a six-game losing streak before an extended weekend off.

Ovi will now miss the team’s Feb. 1 meeting with the Calgary Flames.

The move appears to be purely based on where the Capitals are at the moment, and that’s in a rut. The six-game losing streak has a seen them fall out of first place with just three wins in their past 10 games.

Despite the back-to-back nature of Wednesday’s game — the Caps blew a two-goal third-period lead in a 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday — Ovechkin and the Caps will host a Toronto team that’s lost three straight and seven out of their past 10. The game, then, is a better opportunity to snap the winless skid. There isn’t a team hotter than the Calgary Flames, so it makes sense.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Ovechkin’s big hit dumps Chara into Capitals bench

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File this under things you won’t see every day.

Or month.

Or year.

Zdeno Chara is a big man. Like pretty much seven-feet-tall big with his skates on. And here’s Alex Ovechkin, dumping one of hockey’s largest players into the Washington Capitals bench on a hit that looked more like a shoulder press.

If you watch it close enough, it sure looks like Chara has a bit of a smirk on his face as he looks back at Ovechkin.

There’s not many in the NHL who have the strength to move Chara off the puck, never mind off the ice.

Ovechkin can do a lot of things, and he’s been known to throw some big hits around. This one wasn’t bone-jarring, but it was impressive nonetheless.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Ovechkin chooses rest over 2019 All-Star Game, will have to sit one game

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The Metropolitan Division will need a new captain for the NHL All-Star Game later this month in San Jose. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has announced that he will not be participating in the festivities the weekend of Jan. 25-26 and intends to stay home and rest for the second half of the season.

Ovechkin, who currently leads the NHL with 29 goals, was named as one of the 2019 All-Star Game captains last week, along with Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews.

Because Ovechkin is pulling out of All-Star Weekend, he will be suspended for one game, which will either be for Washington’s final game before the break or their first one back, which will take place following their bye week. That would be a good week and a a half for the 33-year-old forward to rest up for what he hopes is another deep playoff run.

This is the second time Ovechkin’s received a one-game ban for pulling out of the All-Star Game.  In 2016 he was named Metro Division captain and couldn’t play due to a lower-body injury. Back in 2012 he skipped the Game because he was in the middle of serving a three-game suspension for a hit on Zbynek Michalek. “My heart is not there. I [got] suspended, so why I have to go there?” he said at the time, despite still being eligible to participate in the event.

What will this mean for the All-Star Game going forward? If a player of Ovechkin’s stature is fine with sitting one game to rest up, will we see other veteran players do the same? He isn’t the first player to pull out of the game and take a suspension. Will more follow suit in the future?

So who replaces Ovechkin? He was likely going to get selected by the NHL’s Hockey Operation department anyway, but it sure looks like it could be Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who leads all Metro Division players with 50 points.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE: How do we improve the NHL All-Star Game?

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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.

Matthews, MacKinnon, McDavid, Ovechkin voted 2019 NHL All-Star Game captains

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Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have been voted captains of the 2019 NHL All-Star Game.

Matthews (Atlantic), Ovechkin (Metropolitan), MacKinnon (Central), and McDavid (Pacific) will represent their divisions during the annual three-game, 3-on-3 tournament to be held at SAP Center in San Jose, Jan. 25-26. This will be the second All-Star Game appearance for Matthews, the third for both MacKinnon and McDavid, and the seventh for Ovechkin.

The four teams will be comprised of 11 players — six forwards, three defensemen and two goalies. The NHL’s Hockey Operations Department will fill out the rest of the rosters at a later date, which will likely then be followed the injury replacement announcements.

Fans elected the four players in during the Dec. 1-23 voting period. How many votes did each earn? Who else was in the running? We don’t know as the NHL did not release totals or a weekly leaderboard as they have in previous years.

The head coach with the highest points percentage in each division at the halfway point of the NHL regular season will get to work the bench in San Jose.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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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.