The Capitals actually did it

The Capitals actually did it. Alex Ovechkin finally did it.

For the first time since 1998, the Washington Capitals are going to the Stanley Cup Final, which came via a 4-0 win over the Lightning in Wednesday’s Game 7.

And the Caps did it following the same formula they’ve followed throughout the playoffs. Get out to a quick start – the Capitals came out flying, with Ovechkin scoring 1:02 into the game, stay out of the box while depending upon Braden Holtby for the big saves and the hockey gods for bounces.

The latter two came up big on Wednesday. Holtby made 29 saves and stopped 53 shots without allowing a goal in the final two games of the series as the Caps rallied from 3-2 down to win the series. Puck luck? I mean, it looked at times like a force field was surrounding the Capitals crease. How else can you explain how this Yanni Gourde chance didn’t go in?

The Capitals got the bounces in this game. They got the bounces in this series. They’ve had a majority of the bounces in these playoffs fall in their favor.

Who else had Andre Burakovsky scoring twice on Wednesday night? Exactly.

The crazy thing is Tampa Bay had the upper hand for much of the game. The Lightning finished with the shot advantage for the first time all series in Game 7, outshooting the Capitals 29-23. But they had nothing to show for what was a solid 30 minutes of carrying the play. The first Burakovsky goal, at 8:59 of the second period, seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for the Bolts.

Meanwhile, the Ovechkin goal just over a minute into the game gave the Capitals the fruits of their labor for a quick start to the game.

The win gives us a Capitals-Golden Knights Stanley Cup Final, just like we all predicted at the start of the season. No matter which team wins, it’s a great story.

A Capitals win adds the Alex Ovechkin to the Stanley Cup (a name that has been missing from that trophy for quite some time) while bringing Washington its first championship since the 1991 Redskins. Meanwhile a Vegas win means a city new to pro sports, new to hockey, getting its first championship in its first year. Pretty cool.

Then there’s Golden Knights general manager George McPhee facing the team he was fired by in 2014. Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt faces the team that left him exposed in last year’s expansion draft. And it will be another Marc-Andre Fleury/Alex Ovechkin showdown, this time for the Stanley Cup.

Should be a fun couple of weeks.

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Why the Capitals will win Game 7

The Washington Capitals have made 15 appearances in a Game 7 in the history of their franchise. They’ve emerged victorious just four times.

Look for them to up that total to five on Wednesday night when they take on the Lightning.

The Capitals are 7-2 on the road in these playoffs. They have the best player in this series on their side in Alex Ovechkin while Evgeny Kuznetsov has been nothing short of amazing himself. Braden Holtby, who struggled during the 3-game losing streak that put the Caps backs against the wall going into Game 6, regained his form in a 24-save shutout on Monday night.

Washington has dictated the pace of play all throughout the series. While the Capitals haven’t played a perfect series by any stretch, the least you can say is they’ve been in control for the most part. The Caps have outshot the Lightning in all six games. Washington has put at least 30 shots on net in every game while holding Tampa Bay to 23 or fewer in five of six. The only time the Bolts managed to get more pucks on Holtby was when they had 35 shots in Game 2, a 6-2 Capitals win.

Of the 15 goals the Lightning have scored in this series, six have come via the powerplay. That’s a dangerous way to live. If penalty killing wins championships, teams that rely on the man advantage lose them. Water generally finds its level and calls sometimes stop coming whether that be from opponents smartening up or officials letting more stuff go as the series goes on.

Are the Lightning evidence of that? They could be. Tampa Bay has failed to convert on its last four powerplay opportunities, its last man-advantage tally coming from the stick of Steven Stamkos in the first period of Game 4.

The Capitals killed off both penalties called against them in Game 6. They have put themselves down a man just three times in the last two games after doing so 14 times through the first 4 games. That continued discipline will be the key in Game 7.

Having Ovechkin on their side in Game 7 will be key for the Caps as well. Ovechkin has been the best player in this series and has had as good a postseason as anyone in this year’s tournament. With a chance to reach his first Stanley Cup Final on the line, he’ll be playing like his hair is on fire.

Things just seem different for the Capitals this postseason. I know ‘Caps Year’ has become a cliche, but let’s be honest here, it kind of seems that way. Things that haven’t gone right for them in past postseasons goes have in these playoffs. Like the Nikita Kucherov breakaway goal that was washed out by a too many men on the ice penalty in Game 1, which would’ve sent things to first intermission with the Lightning having just tied the game with less than 10 seconds to play in the period. Instead, the Bolts go down a man and Ovechkin scores off the ensuing faceoff to put the Capitals up 2-0 going to the locker room.

Then there’s finally getting past Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. The Capitals finally beating the Pens was like the Bruins finally getting past the Canadiens in 1988, the Red Sox finally getting past the Yankees in 2004.

Players have stepped up in big spots. After backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer got the starting nod to start the playoffs, Braden Holtby got his crease back in Game 2 of the First Round and never looked back, helping the Capitals climb out of a 2-0 deficit against the Blue Jackets and win four straight to advance. Or the way Lars Eller slid in perfectly as the second line center after Nicklas Backstrom went down.

Remember when Tom Wilson got suspended three games and Barry Trotz was trying to find a way to fill that void on the right side of the top line, with the Caps down 3-2 to the Penguins going into the third period of Game 5 of the Second Round? Hey, let’s give Jakub Vrana a shot. All Vrana does is assist on the tying goal before scoring the winning goal as the Caps win 6-3 to go up 3-2 in the series. The Capitals finished off the two-time defending champs and their arch-nemesis the next time out.

The Capitals have got it done when they’ve needed to this postseason. And they’ve done it away from Washington, representing a trend that has stretched across the league this postseason. In 78 games played in these playoffs, 41 have been won by the visitors.

The road success will continue in this one. We’ll see you in Vegas on Monday.

The Secret is getting out on Brayden Point

Brayden Point is a stud. After the Lightning center was one of the bright spots of a 2016-17 season where everything seemed to go wrong in Tampa Bay, the 22-year-old exploded on the NHL scene this season. He took on a big role in the Bolts lineup, playing all 82 games and finished with 32 goals and 66 points while serving as the team’s shutdown pivot, and probably could’ve been a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top two-way forward.

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay is absolutely loaded and Point has flown under the radar, cast over by the likes of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and even Tyler Johnson.

But not anymore. People are beginning to see just how good this guy is as the Lightning get set to face the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, Tampa’s third in four years but the first for Point.

Point has 10 points (4-6) this postseason, six of which came in the four straight wins over the Bruins that followed the 6-2 loss to open that Second Round series, in which Point finished with a minus-5. He carried the offensive load for the Bolts with Stamkos and Kucherov having a largely quiet series, while keeping the Bruins top forward line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak at bay. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said after the series that he was the best player in the series. For anyone who watched, it’s hard to disagree.

The Heartbeat of the Lightning,’ as Joe Smith of The Athletic put it in a great feature on Point and his journey to The Show.

This is no fluke here, either. Count it as a coming-out party for one of the most dynamic two-way players in the game. Someone who could win one if not multiple Selke Trophies and will be in the mix for years to come. A player who wasn’t drafted until the third round in 2014 and was overlooked largely because of his 5-10, 166-pound frame and we all know that nobody under six feet has ever done anything in the NHL, especially in the past few years.

At the All-Star Skills Competition in January, Point finished second in the Fastest Skater competition to Connor McDavid. McDavid, who can move pretty quickly himself (if you haven’t heard), beat out Point by just a hair, 13.454-13.579.

The next challenge up for Point and his running-mates Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson is Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, two players that will benefit from the return of Tom Wilson from a 3-game suspension, making Washington’s top line whole once again. If the Lightning want to move on, one of the starting points will be keeping those guys in check. It will likely be on Point’s line to complete that task.

So if we see the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, don’t expect the Point love to die down.

Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Preview: Eastern Conference

Devils vs Lightning

Why the Lightning win: To put it lightly, Tampa Bay has too much firepower for New Jersey to handle. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov put up points in bunches. Jon Cooper employs 200-foot savant Brayden Point to counter Taylor Hall. Victor Hedman logs his usual half-hour of work per night on the back end.

Why the Devils win: New Jersey knocks Tampa back on their heels with their speed and pace. Keith Kinkaid, who finished the season 7-0-1 with a .931 save percentage in his final eight games, continues to hold down the Devils crease and outplays Andrei Vasilevskiy, who of late has been a shell of his early-season self.

Player that proves to be the difference: Brayden Point.. Point has emerged as one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL. Point’s line, flanked by Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, will be the shutdown line for Tampa. And they can score goals too.

Something you might want to know: Andrei Vasilevskiy in his final nine games: 4-5-0, 3.74 GAA, .884 save percentage. Keith Kinkaid in his final eight games: 7-0-1, 2.25 GAA, .931 save percentage.

What happens: Lightning in 6. Tampa Bay’s best players prove to be too much of a handful for New Jersey.

Maple Leafs vs Bruins

Why the Bruins win: Two words and they both start with ‘D’. Depth, and defense. Bruins roll four lines as good as any team in the league and have one of the league’s top shutdown defensive pairings in Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. The top forward line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak might be the best in the league.

Why the Maple Leafs win: Frederik Andersen carries what was one of the best seasons of his career into the postseason, steals a couple games, and outplays Tuukka Rask. Meanwhile, the injury bug that plagued the Bruins for the final month doesn’t just disappear when the playoffs begin.

Player that proves to be the difference: William Nylander.. Auston Matthews is one of the NHL’s best players and Nylander makes him even better. Nylander’s vision, skating, and puck-carrying ability opens up so much extra space for Matthews in the offensive zone, creating prime opportunities for the 20-year-old phenom, who has 78 goals and 137 points through his first 150 NHL games (regular season and playoffs).

Something you might want to know: Maple Leafs record in the 62 games Auston Matthews played this season: 38-19-5. Maple Leafs record in the 20 games Matthews missed: 11-7-2.

What happens: Bruins in 6. Much like their First Round loss to Washington last season, the Maple Leafs will make this a series. Much like their First Round loss to Washington last season, the opponent will prove to be too much for Toronto.

Flyers vs Penguins

Why the Penguins win: You see them up front? They’re loaded. You’ve got Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan (who has exceeded expectations since being acquired from Detroit early in the season). Phil Kessel had the best year of his career. The Penguins powerplay (tops in the league at 26.2 percent this season) is a threat to score in any man-advantage, especially against a Philadelphia unit that was third-worst in the league this season, better than only also-rans Canadiens and Islanders. The Pens, who are 30-9-2 in their own building this season, have home-ice advantage.

Meanwhile Malkin continues to be his usual, filthy self.

Why the Flyers win: You need defense and goaltending to win this time of year. The Philadelphia blue line is better than Pittsburgh’s. Ivan Provorov could be the best defenseman in this series. Matt Murray has had a rough season, both on and off the ice. If the forever-plagued-with-goalieitis Flyers get just enough stops in net, that could mean trouble for Pittsburgh. Up front, the Flyers are capable of matching what the Penguins bring.

Player that proves to be the difference: Matt Murray.. I really think it all comes down to which Matt Murray we see in net. This hasn’t been an easy season for the 23-year-old by any stretch. But he tends to raise his level when the games become bigger.

What happens: Penguins in 7. There’s going to be some ugly hockey played in this series. Probably quite a few high-scoring games, some bad defense, spotty goaltending, knowing the history of these teams I’m sure tempers will boil over at some point. But in the end, Pittsburgh finds a way to pull it out.

Blue Jackets vs Capitals

Why the Capitals win: This Caps team has two things going for them: 1) They enter the playoffs flying under the radar, 2) They enter the postseason playing their best hockey, winning 12 of their final 15 regular season games. All they need is the goaltending to hold up, which is a big if.

Why the Blue Jackets win: While the Blue Jackets didn’t create any real fireworks at the trade deadline, they did make some savvy, albeit unheralded moves that have paid off in the aftermath, particularly the acquisitions of Thomas Vanek and Ian Cole. Columbus made a strong finishing kick, which included a 10-game winning streak during March.

Player that proves to be the difference: Seth Jones.. One of the NHL’s best defensemen, Jones and D-partner Zach Werenski will be tasked with shutting down Alex Ovechkin. If they’re effective in doing so, it dramatically changes the outlook on this series.

Something you might want to know: The Blue Jackets finished the regular season with 97 points, second-most in franchise history behind last season, when they picked up 108.

What happens: Blue Jackets in 7. This has the potential to be a really good series. Both teams come in playing well. It all comes down to goaltending. I’ll take Sergei Bobrovsky (in spite of his suspect record in the playoffs) over whatever Washington sends out, whether that’s Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer.

The John Tortorella Effect Taking Shape in Columbus

If you’re a general manager of a young, talented, up-and-coming team seeking a coach to get the right message across, John Tortorella should be atop your wish list.

There’s no better proof of that than Tampa Bay, where he took over a fledgling team representing a fledgling franchise in a fledgling hockey market and made it into a Stanley Cup champion. In the process, he kickstarted the careers of longtime stars Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Pavel Kubina, and Dan Boyle.

Should you have a coach in your back pocket should the best laid plans go awry? For sure. The message might wear on the guys in the room as the years go on, as happened later in Tortorella’s Tampa years – which, in fairness, happens to most coaches. It was rinse and repeat, after all, in New York when despite not winning a Cup molded the careers of Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Kreider, Henrik Lundqvist, Michael Del Zotto, and Carl Hagelin, among others. The Rangers didn’t reach the Stanley Cup in his tenure, but did qualify the year after his 2013 Broadway dismissal.

Now he’s doing it again with the Blue Jackets.

After Tortorella’s reputation was torn to shreds in a disastrous 2013-14 season in Vancouver, in which he was a bad fit in a bad situation, he landed in Columbus in October 2015. Taking over a club that was out to an 0-7 start under Todd Richards, the Jackets went 34-33-8 the rest of the way. While Columbus missed the playoffs, things were at least stabilized following the coaching change.

The Blue Jackets have taken off in season two, a full offseason under the lead of the 58-year-old coach (save for a hiatus in September to coach Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey, in which Tortorella didn’t come out looking good, to put it nicely).

Out to a 20-5-4 record, the Jackets’ 44 points are good enough for third place in the Metropolitan Division, a standing that is no indicator of just how strong this team has through one-third of the season. Columbus is the hottest team in hockey with nine straight wins, and sits a point behind Pittsburgh and three behind the Rangers in the Metro. The Jackets have three games in hand on the Penguins, five on New York.

Columbus is a franchise that has seen no success since setting up shop in 2000, with just a pair of playoff appearances scattered among a bevy of disappointing seasons. It’s a situation not dissimilar to what Tortorella walked into in Tampa Bay when he took over the 2001. Only thing is Tortorella finds himself on a bench closer to contention this time.

Few goaltenders have been as good as Sergei Bobrovsky since he was traded to Ohio from Philadelphia in 2012. Among goalies to play 180 games since the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season (in which Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy), Bobrovsky is tied with Cory Schneider and Henrik Lundqvist with a .922 save percentage. Only Carey Price (.927), Tuukka Rask (.924), and Corey Crawford (.923) have stopped pucks at a higher rate over that span. The 28-year-old is playing his best hockey yet, with a .932 save percentage and 1.94 GAA in 26 games.

Columbus is good in front of Bobrovsky as well, much better than in recent years. The Blue Jackets are a combination of quick, strong, and skilled on the back end while being heavy and creative up front. Zach Werenski has been one of the league’s best rookies, while Seth Jones joins him as a budding star on the blue line. Jack Johnson and David Savard are reliable defenseman that aren’t too old but have experience and can play big minutes. Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Sam Gagner, Boone Jenner, Brandon Saad, and Alex Wennberg have brought the blend of brawn and skill to the forward position.

This team has been among the more talented, young squads in the NHL for some time. The Jackets have been no stranger to the trendy ‘breakout pick’ in recent falls.

That breakout appears to be happening, and it’s all coming together under Tortorella. Just as it did in Tampa Bay. Just as it did in New York.

When Tortorella won his 500th game by way of the Jackets 4-3 overtime win at Vancouver on Sunday night, he entered unchartered territory among American-born coaches. He joined a fraternity that includes just 24 of the 362 coaches (per hockey-reference.com) to command an NHL bench. He joins a group of 10 active coaches in Joel Quenneville (823), Ken Hitchcock (774), Lindy Ruff (715), Barry Trotz (677), Darryl Sutter (611), Alain Vigneault (589), Paul Maurice (571), Mike Babcock (568), Dave Tippett (534), and Claude Julien (529). Not bad company. And it comes as no fluke.

Steven Stamkos Injury Adds to Troubling Trend for the Forward

You can call them freak injuries. You can call them isolated incidents. Give the recent injury history of Steven Stamkos any label, spin, whatever have you. But at what point does it become a concern?

Stamkos, according to Bob McKenzie, is headed to Colorado to get arthroscopic surgery to repair the lateral meniscus tear he suffered in Tampa Bay’s 4-3 win over Detroit on Tuesday night. The expect timetable for recovery is four to six months.

The news is a blow to the Tampa Bay Lightning, as it would be any team given Stamkos is world-class talent. The Bolts are in the first season of the eight-year, $68 million pact the franchise signed with the 26-year-old sniper this past summer. Stamkos had nine goals and 20 points in 17 games this season for Tampa, who drafted him first overall in the 2008 draft.

The minimum four-month timetable suggests a best-case scenario return of mid-March for Stamkos.

The lengthy absence makes this season the third of four seasons Stamkos has been either wiped out – or at the very least interrupted – by an injury.

Now granted, the blood clots that hindered Stamkos last season cost him just the final five games of the regular season, but it also caused him to miss 16 of the 17 postseason games Tampa Bay played, his only action coming in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals, in which the Lightning fell, 2-1, to eventual Stanley Cup winner Pittsburgh. Stamkos played 11:55 over 20 shifts in the loss, finishing as a minus-one and winning just three of the eight faceoffs he took.

The leg injury he suffered in 2013-14 limited him to 37 games. Again, on the play, which happened in a November 2013 matinee game in Boston, he gets tangled up with then-Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton and loses an edge, his leg turning just the right that resulted in his tibia snapping in half. Freak play? For sure. And let the record show he’d played in 362 consecutive games (playoffs included) prior to that, having not missed a game since January 2009. The injury cost him 45 games that year, as well as a chance to win a gold medal for Canada in Sochi.

It should also be pointed out that in his one healthy year in this four-year stretch, he played all 82 for the Bolts, scoring 43 goals in the regular season before playing all 26 postseason games en route to Tampa Bay’s second Stanley Cup final appearance.

What’s in Stamkos’ favor is he’ll be just 27 years old when he returns (his birthday falls in February, about a month before the four-month timetable closes). Nobody doubts how good he is when healthy. The Lightning, barring further injuries (Jonathan Drouin is currently out with a concussion, Anton Stralman is day-to-day with an upper-body injury), will be in contention when Stamkos returns. Teams as good as Tampa Bay don’t fold with one injury.

But looking long-term, the recent injury history of Stamkos suggests a negative trend, one that isn’t unreasonable to have concern over.

Bruins Face Canadiens for First Time, Scott Stevens Returns to New Jersey, Brian Elliot Faces Blues

Quite a bit to watch on Saturday night as 12 NHL games are being played, including the first game between Boston and Montreal, Flames goaltender Brian Elliot facing the Blues, who traded him over the offseason. Zach Parise and Scott Stevens will make their returns to New Jersey as the Wild face the Devils; Parise, of course, as a player, and Stevens as an assistant coach to Bruce Boudreau.

Here’s the games being played: Toronto at Chicago, 7; N.Y. Rangers at Washington, 7; Montreal at Boston, 7; Carolina at Philadelphia, 7; Tampa Bay at Ottawa, 7; Colorado at Florida, 7; San Jose at Detroit, 7; Minnesota at New Jersey, 7; Pittsburgh at Nashville, 8; Columbus at Dallas, 8; Vancouver at Los Angeles, 10; St. Louis at Calgary, 10.

Players to Watch

Chicago: Richard Panik; Don’t look now but Panik is leading the Hawks with five goals in five games. Patrick who?

Toronto: James van Reimsdyk; Will not be playing against his brother, Trevor, as its being reported the younger van Reimsdyk will miss 5-6 weeks with an upper-body injury, as it’s being reported by Scott Powers of The Athletic. The two have played each other just once.

N.Y. Rangers: Mike Zibanejad; Off to a nice start with five points in four games.

Washington: Zach Sanford; The rookie expected to play Saturday after being out of the lineup on Thursday. Will face fellow ex-BC big forward Chris Kreider for the first time.

Montreal: Tomas Plekanec; The 33-year-old center seems to like playing the Bruins, his 46 points against the archrival is the most he’s scored against any NHL opponent.

Boston: David Backes; First game in the rivalry. In 11 games against Montreal, he has four goals and eight points.

Carolina: Victor Rask; The Swedish center leads the Hurricanes with five goals in four games. He had 48 last season, up from 33 his rookie season.

Philadelphia: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare; The French centerman is leading the Flyers with a 54 percent faceoff percentage. He’s won 24 of 44 draws.

Tampa Bay: Ben Bishop; The Lightning netminder played 23 games in Ottawa from 2011-13 before being traded to Tampa, where his career has since blossomed. He is 117-53-17 since that deal, with a .921 save percentage and 2.26 GAA. Bishop has twice finished in the top three of the Vezina Trophy voting in a Lightning uniform.

Ottawa: Guy Boucher; Yeah, yeah, I know. He’s a coach. But the Senators first-year bench boss spent three seasons as the head man in Tampa Bay, going 97-79-20. He led the Bolts to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2011, his first season behind the bench.

Colorado: Patrick Wiercioch; The defenseman has four points in four games.

Florida: Jaromir Jagr; Jagr coming off his 750th goal of the season.

San Jose: Brent Burns; The defenseman has points in five consecutive games to begin the season.

Detroit: Thomas Vanek; Still second on the team with six points.

Minnesota: Zach Parise; Still hanging on 299. How fitting would it be to get 300 in New Jersey, where he spent the first seven years of his career?

New Jersey: Cory Schneider; Has a .938 save percentage and 2.00 GAA in four games. Going to need to keep it up; the Devils have six goals in four games.

Pittsburgh: Patric Hornqvist; He has four points in five games, second on the team behind Evgeni Malkin, who has five.

Nashville: James Neal; Played in Pittsburgh from 2011-14, had 89 goals and 184 points in 199 games.

Columbus: Zach Werenski; The rookie leads the Jackets in scoring.

Dallas: Devin Shore; The 22-year-old tied with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for the team lead with four goals.

Vancouver: Jacob Markstrom; He’s stopped 68 of 73 shots that have come his way in three games.

Los Angeles: Jeff Carter; His 58.8 faceoff percentage ninth in the league.

St. Louis: Jay Bouwmeester; The defenseman played four seasons in Calgary. His 25:52 average time on ice was the highest among the three teams he played for (Florida 2002-09, St. Louis 2013-present).

Calgary: Brian Elliot; Played five seasons in St. Louis, had a 2.01 GAA and .925 save percentage in 181 games.

#HatTrickChallenge

James Neal: Hasn’t found the net in four games. Breaks out against his former team.

Game of the Night

Montreal at Boston: It’s never a dull one when these two teams face each other.

Lock to Win

Minnesota: Zach Parise gets his 300th goal against the team that drafted him and the Wild continue to roll.