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The Big Twenty: Ovechkin draft kicks off the Rock the Red era in DC

The Big Twenty: Ovechkin draft kicks off the Rock the Red era in DC

NBC Sports Washington is rolling out the 20 biggest stories in DMV sports in the past 20 years. Here is No. 9.

Alex Ovechkin was so good as a teenager in Russia that an NHL tried to draft him long before the Capitals won the draft lottery that gave them the best scorer of this generation. 
 
The Rock the Red era doesn’t exist in Washington if somehow the Florida Panthers had been able to convince the NHL that Ovechkin was eligible for the 2003 draft. 

He was born on Sept. 17, 1985. The cutoff date for that draft was Sept. 15, 1985. The Panthers tried to argue that because of leap years in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Ovechkin was actually eligible.
 
It was a nice try. The NHL told the Panthers it wasn’t happening. Ovechkin would have to wait a while longer. After a miserable 2003-04 season, where the Capitals traded away franchise legend Peter Bondra, star winger Jaromir Jagr and other veteran players, they hoped to get a good player at the top of the draft. 
 
But one afternoon in early April 2004, owner Ted Leonsis was in the middle of a meeting when his assistant burst into the room to interrupt with an important message. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on the phone. He had some news. The Capitals, who had the NHL’s third-worst record that year, had actually jumped Pittsburgh and Chicago in the draft lottery and would pick first overall. It was a shock, but there was never a question about who they’d take. 
 
A few months later in Raleigh, on June 26, the Capitals made the no-brainer decision to select Ovechkin with the top pick and gave the franchise immediate hope. No one in Washington would see him for another 15 months. The 2004-05 season – what would have been Ovechkin’s first – was delayed and then ultimately canceled because of a lockout. He spent his age-19 season playing in Russia. It took until the fall of 2005 for Ovechkin to arrive in the United States for good. 
 
That’s so long ago now that the Capitals still practiced at Piney Orchard. MedStar Iceplex wasn’t yet built as the team’s headquarters. Ovechkin had a huge hit on the first shift of his first game on Oct. 5, 2005. He knocked one Columbus Blue Jackets player into the board so hard a stanchion had to be replaced. He scored two goals, too. 
 
It still took a while for the Capitals to build on Ovechkin’s selection. Interest in the team spiked, but attendance remained flat as frustration built over two losing seasons. Ovechkin had 52 goals and 54 assists to win rookie of the year in 2005-06 and had 46 goals and 46 assists the next season. But it wasn’t until halfway through his third season, as the Capitals caught fire under interim coach Bruce Boudreau, that Capital One Arena really began to fill for hockey. That was the first year with Ovechkin that the Capitals made the Stanley Cup playoffs. They have missed just one time since.  
 
But it all began that summer night in Raleigh when Ovechkin sat in the stands at PNC Arena and waited stone-faced with his parents Mikhail and Tatiana to see if Washington would take him or make a blockbuster trade instead. Former Capitals general manager George McPhee had plenty of offers and an almost barren roster. He could have gone in another direction. Almost 700 goals later, it’s clear they made the right call. 

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Capitals add to their scoring depth in trade for Ilya Kovalchuk

Capitals add to their scoring depth in trade for Ilya Kovalchuk

With the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m., Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is not waiting until the last minute to get his business done. Washington acquired forward Ilya Kovalchuk from the Montreal Canadiens for their 2020 third-round draft pick. The move was first announced via Twitter.

As part of the deal, Montreal will retain 50-percent of Kovalchuk’s salary meaning he will bring a cap hit of only $350,000 to Washington.

Kovalchuk, who will turn 37 in April, has scored nine goals and 13 assists this season in 39 games. Thirteen of those points, however, have come in 22 games with the Canadiens. He began the season with the Los Angeles Kings, who he signed a three-year contract with in 2018. His contract was bought out by Los Angeles in December making him a free agent which is how he ended up in Montreal.

So which Kovalchuk will the Caps be getting?

Los Angeles brought in Kovalchuk expecting him to be a key piece on an offense management felt was close to competing. He never seemed to fit in with the Kings, however, and as the team plummeted in the standings, Kovalchuk very much became an odd-man-out. There won’t be as much pressure on Kovalchuk in Washington which has an established top-six, but he also will not see as big a role with the Caps as he had with the Canadiens.

Kovalchuk was playing 18:54 per game for Montreal, up from 15:25 in Los Angeles. Kovalchuk likely will get far less playing time in Washington and will likely slide into a third-line role as the team has not had as much offensive production from that line as hoped this year. That would have the added benefit of pushing Carl Hagelin or Richard Panik to a fourth line whose offensive production has completely dried up. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway have combined for three points since the calendar changed to 2020.

Kovalchuk’s upside is such that the team could potentially plug him into the top six at times when the offense needs a shakeup. In recent weeks when the offense had gone stale, options were limited for what head coach Todd Reirden could do because the top six is pretty much established. There is no Brett Connolly or Andre Burakovsky to carry the third line’s production or who Reirden could plug in to shake up the offense. Now a Capitals offense that already ranks third in the NHL in goals per game has more offensive depth.

“Ilya is a talented offensive player who we feel will provide us with additional depth and flexibility up front,” said MacLellan via the team’s press release. “He is a skilled forward who can make plays and contribute to our offensive game.”

In last year’s playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington got only five goals from its bottom six in seven games. The offense was even more top-heavy this season so the addition of Kovalchuk could prove vital both in the team’s hope to stay atop the Metropolitan Division in the regular season and also in the playoffs.

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Dillon fits right in, Carlson hits a milestone and is it problem solved for Brian MacLellan?

Dillon fits right in, Carlson hits a milestone and is it problem solved for Brian MacLellan?

Boy did they need that. The Capitals snapped a four-game losing streak on Sunday with a 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins to reclaim first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

He's kind of a big Dill

This was Brenden Dillon's best game thus far with the Capitals and it's not just because of his fight with Evgeni Malkin, though that helped. He played less than 14 minutes in Saturday's game against New Jersey and did not play at all on the penalty kill. On Sunday, he played 20:38 and 3:34 on the penalty kill. He was very physical, played the body well. There was one goal where he was caught too high, but that was because he joined the offensive rush which defensemen are allowed to do in the team's system. That goal wasn't on him, the team was just caught on the counter-attack with him in the offensive zone.

"I thought he had a really strong game," coach Todd Reirden said. "We've been kind of easing him into it, his minutes weren't as high as we would've liked yesterday and then today I thought it was really noticeable, his play. Just settles things down and obviously penalty kill, using him more in that situation today. You could see his experience and then, when he has a chance to play against the other team's top players, he's not going to be fun to play against."

Dillon is a very good defensive player with a lot of snarl to his game. This was the best reflection of what the Caps really got when they acquired him.

Kempny-Gudas wasn't a disaster

Michal Kempny and Radko Gudas were paired together in Thursday's game against the Montreal Canadiens and there is no way to sugarcoat it: They were awful together. Surprisingly, the pair was reunited for this game and it actually wasn't the disaster I anticipated it to be. At 5-on-5 play, Kempny and Gudas had a 54.55 Corsi-For percentage. Well, they must have played sheltered minutes, right? They actually didn't. They had zero on-the-fly offensive zone starts and only 16.67-percent offensive zone faceoff starts. They were being played primarily in defensive situations.

Perhaps, in a way, that actually was sheltered for them considering they have been responsible for several of the breakaway chances the team has given up the past few games. Maybe the best way to shelter Kempny-Gudas is to keep them out of a position in which the offense can get behind them.

Wearing down the Penguins?

The Caps have outscored Pittsburgh 6-2 in the third period this season. Clearly Washington is trying to wear down the Penguins physically and that seems to be working in the third, though Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan isn't buying it.

When asked if he was concerned that the Caps were physically wearing down his team, Sullivan responded bluntly, "No."

Problem solved?

Had Washington gotten crushed this game, I don't see how Brian MacLellan could have justified standing pat on Monday. Clearly a change would have been needed. It's just one game, but did Sunday's win change MacLellan's approach to the trade deadline?

Let's consider what we saw. The Caps had almost zero offensive net-front presence on Saturday. Tom Wilson got a power play goal from providing maybe the only screen of the entire day. That was very different on Sunday where the goals by Carl Hagelin and T.J. Oshie came on plays the team seemed incapable of making on Saturday.

Defensively, while the team may have given up three goals, this was actually one of the better defensive performances we have seen from the Caps in quite some time. We did not see the type of egregious mistakes and turnovers that have been killing them of late.

So of the issues the team has been dealing with of late, Sunday's game showed they are indeed correctable. In that sense, perhaps MacLellan won't feel compelled to make any further moves or, if he does, just some minor tweaks to the roster.

The question MacLellan has to ask himself is whether Sunday's win is the beginning of the turnaround or if it was just the team getting up for a big game and a big opponent? Sunday's win will mean nothing if they revert back to how they have been playing lately. How much will MacLellan regret not trying to do something on Monday if the Caps walk away with one point against Winnipeg and Minnesota over the next three games?

Turning point

With the way things have gone for Washington of late, it had every reason to collapse after Pittsburgh took a 2-1 lead in just 26 seconds in the second period. The first two periods were not good and the Penguins were in complete control. But a different team took the ice in the third period and took back the game with three goals. Tom Wilson scored less than two minutes into the third on a 4-on-4 breakaway opportunity. The goal was a great play by both Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom.

Wilson first forced the neutral zone turnover by defenseman Marcus Pettersson. Backstrom hit the loose puck up to Wilson and then quickly turned his body into the path of Pettersson, holding him up slightly to allow Wilson to get the breakaway. Wilson did the rest, deftly deking Murray and tucking the puck into the back of the net.

Play of the game

It's not really a play, but Dillon beat the snot out of Malkin.

And here's a bonus Caps fans will enjoy.

Stat of the game

With one assist, John Carlson passed Calle Johnasson for the most points by a defenseman in franchise history with 475. Carlson tied that mark on Saturday and was honored earlier in the game with a video tribute.

"Yeah, it's not my favorite thing," he said of the tribute, which is very in-tune with his personality.

Quote of the game

It didn't take long for Dillon to adjust to the Caps-Penguins rivalry.

"I like to play hard, especially against those top-end guys. Malkin's a heck of a player. He plays a physical game, too, sometimes. With these rivalry-type games, tempers run high and it was great."

Fan predictions

Just had to include this one because I love that it came from "Cautiously Optimistic."

The defense was much more sound in this game, though Sidney Crosby got a short breakaway goal in the second.

Could be, but so far so good!

Maryland was leading at the time of writing.  I feel your pain. I have only one kid and sleep is limited. Mine broke my toe though.

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