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Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

WASHINGTON — It had been nine years since Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom last had a four-point game in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That was a different time, an era when Backstrom and his teammates too often faltered under the weight of enormous expectations.  That’s all gone now. There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena to prove it. Now they can all just play. 

With teammate T.J. Oshie hurt and likely out for the season, Backstrom continued to raise his own game in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had two goals and two assists in a 6-0 thrashing as Washington took a 3-2 series lead and pushed the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination. Alex Ovechkin added a goal and two assists.  

Backstrom’s last four-point playoff games was April 17, 2010. He had a hat trick that night and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. 

“That was probably Montreal, right?” Backstrom said before confessing. “Yeah, Ovi told me. He remembers everything.”

Those were darker days. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal that year and maybe the best team of the Ovechkin era went out in the first round despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy. No wonder Backstrom needed help remembering. 

There is no such issue this season. The 31-year-old Swede is carrying the Capitals, who are one game away from advancing. It was his second two-goal game of the series. He has five total, which matches his career high for one playoff series set in 2010 against the Canadiens. He and Ovechkin, who has seven points in the series (three goals, four assists) set a tone and their teammates followed. 

"In all areas, too,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “Obviously they got on the point sheet, but their play away from the puck, on the forecheck, supporting each other, they're real tough to play against when they play like that and I thought they've been doing a great job all playoffs, too.”

Backstrom’s five goals matched what he had all last postseason when the Caps won the Cup. He missed games because of a broken finger, but still played in 20 and had five goals and 18 assists. He matched his total output of eight points in 2009 against Pittsburgh and 2018 against Columbus. His career best is again that Montreal series when he had nine points. Not that he cares about that now. None of the Caps do. If the production leads to wins and advancing to the second round, that’s all that matters.  

“It’s good for the confidence I think. But it’s going to be a different game in Carolina,” Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to regroup here and move forward. That was just a 3-2 lead. Toughest one is the last one. We haven’t been happy with the way we’ve played in Carolina so far. Let’s change that.”

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The Stanley Cup Final is set and the Capitals will hand the Stanley Cup off to Boston or St. Louis

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The Stanley Cup Final is set and the Capitals will hand the Stanley Cup off to Boston or St. Louis

With the St. Louis Blues’ victory on Tuesday, the Stanley Cup Final has officially been set. The Blues will face the Boston Bruins as both teams will battle to supplant the Capitals as the Stanley Cup champions.

St. Louis finished off the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday with a 5-1 Game 6 win and will now look to win its first ever Stanley Cup. One has to wonder whether that game was the last time we will see the 39-year-old Sharks forward Joe Thornton on the ice. For the Blues, this is the first time they have reached the final since 1970, snapping a 49-year drought. They made the final in each of their first three seasons as the NHL grouped all of its expansion franchises into a single division.

St. Louis is now the first team in league history to go from last place in the league in January to the Stanley Cup Final.

This season will be a rematch of the 1970 final in which the Blues were swept by the Bruins. That series gave us the iconic moment of Boston great Bobby Orr soaring through the air after scoring the Cup-clinching goal in overtime of Game 4.

The Bruins have been waiting since Thursday to learn who their opponent would be after sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to win the East. Boston will be going for its seventh Cup and first since 2011. Goalie Tuukka Rask was brilliant in that series with a .956 save percentage and a 1.25 GAA. The long layoff, however, could potentially cool off Rask and the red-hot Bruins.

The New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets both swept their first-round opponents and both lost in the second round. The Hurricanes swept the Islanders in the second round and were then swept by Boston. The Bruins will have to shake off the rust as quickly as possible as the final begins.

Boston will have home ice in the final and will host Games 1 and 2 before the series shifts back to St. Louis.

Here is the final schedule:

  • Game 1 in Boston, Mon. May 27
  • Game 2 in Boston, Wed. May 29
  • Game 3 in St. Louis, Sat. June 1
  • Game 4 in St. Louis, Mon. June 3
  • Game 5 (if necessary) in Boston, Thurs. June 6
  • Game 6 (if necessary) in St. Louis, Sun. June 9
  • Game 7 (if necessary) in Boston, Wed. June 12

 

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Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

The Capitals’ season ended a month ago, but Alex Ovechkin has yet to take his break.

That will happen soon enough, but for now Washington’s captain is leading Russia at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. After that, he gets his first real rest since the end of the 2016-17 season. He has played in 194 NHL games, including the postseason, in 18 months.  

Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17 and the questions now start in earnest: How long can one of the world’s greatest goal scorers keep up his pace? Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season this past season. And while it ended in disappointment with a first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin deserved little blame after adding four goals and five assists in the series.

“As a captain and as a leader, I thought he took another step this year from how he showed up to training camp to how he played all year long two-way hockey, commitment and when the games mattered the most,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said last month. “He scored big goals and showed fantastic playmaking ability. A physical force. I'm excited to see what he comes back with now after a little extended time away because he was tremendous this year.”

Washington won the Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas last year and after a hectic summer of celebrating and, eventually, training, players were back less than three months later for another grind of a season that ended after 89 more regular-season and playoff games. Ovechkin missed just one of them. 

Next year could be another one filled with milestones for Ovechkin. He doesn’t even need 50 to reach them. With 42 goals he reaches 700 for his career. Only seven players have ever hit that mark.  

Ovechkin passes Mario Lemieux (690) with 32 goals and moves into the top 10 all time. He has a reasonable chance to catch Brett Hull for second-most power-play goals (265) in NHL history. Ovechkin has 247 right now and has averaged 17 per year each of the past four seasons.     

At some point, even for Ovechkin, scoring 50 goals will be too much. Only Johnny Bucyk (36) and Jaromir Jagr (34) have ever topped 50 goals at an older age. But if he could just do it one more time he would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons ever (nine). We’re at the point where nothing should surprise, but we’ve gone off the known map. 

“That's the best I've seen him play in my three years here,” teammate Lars Eller said. “He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there and when he decides to do that, he's almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see."

Almost everything Ovechkin does now is unprecedented. In the past 20 NHL seasons dating to 1998-99, there have been 28 different 50-goal seasons as scoring has become harder thanks to better goalie play, equipment and more tactical defensive systems. And yet Ovechkin owns 29 percent of those 50-goal seasons. His 89 points (51 goals, 38 assists) were his most since 2009-10.  

For now, Ovechkin will settle for another IIHF World Championship. He has helped Russia win gold at the event three times (2008, 2010 and 2014). 

Russia finished group play undefeated on Tuesday night after a 7-4 win against Sweden. Ovechkin scored his second goal of the tournament in the victory. Despite just three points from Ovechkin through seven games, the Russians have out-scored their opponents 36-7 overall. 

They advanced to the quarterfinals on Thursday where they will play the United States. Given its play so far, Russia is favored to win gold but nothing is guaranteed. The semifinals would be Saturday if they win and the gold-medal game is set for Sunday. Then, finally, Ovechkin can rest before preparing for his 15th NHL season with two years left on his contract with the Capitals. 

“[Ovechkin] elevated his game in the first round. He's just got a hunger to him to contribute and to score goals,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “You could tell that he was committed and that he was going to give everything he had to win it again. He was great last year and arguably even better this year….This fan base is very lucky to watch what he does on a consistent basis. You're not going to see that ever again. So, enjoy it while it's here.” 

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