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Pheonix Copley prepares to justify the Caps’ faith in him as backup goalie

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Pheonix Copley prepares to justify the Caps’ faith in him as backup goalie

There is a lot of buzz over prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov and his first season in North America, but there’s another netminder in the system who is expected to get more NHL playing time in 2018-19 and that is Pheonix Copley.

Copley, 26, will enter training camp as the frontrunner to replace Philipp Grubauer as Braden Holtby’s backup in the NHL.

“I'm really excited,” Copley told NBC Sports Washington after an informal skate at MedStar Iceplex. “Obviously, that's the opportunity you want.”

Copley’s numbers in Hershey were not great last season (.896 save percentage, 2.91 GAA) as he had still not recovered from the groin injury that had ended his prior season. Before the injury, however, Copley has managed an impressive AHL career.

Copley told NBC Sports Washington that he feels good physically for the start of this season, which is good news for the Caps considering he has big skates to fill.

Grubauer established himself as a starting caliber goalie with his strong play as Holtby’s backup. In 2017-18, the German netminder managed a .923 save percentage and 2.35 GAA. He proved critical to the team’s success as Holtby struggled in the back half of the season due in large part to fatigue. Having a goalie as good as Grubauer to back him up allowed the team some flexibility in net.

After playing in 24 postseason games and with a shorter offseason to recover, the pressure is on for Copley to show he can be as dependable a backup as Grubauer was.

“Grubi's a great goalie and a great guy and I spent a lot of time with him,” Copley said. “But anytime you go into a season and in training camp, there's a spot you want. As a goalie, it's naturally a pressure position so it's really no different than any other year, just a different league.”

The transition from AHL to NHL can be a difficult one not just because of the quality of play, but because of the workload.

In Hershey, Copley could expect to play in around 40 games. In the NHL, he will get closer to 20.

“My first-year pro, I kind of went through that in the American League. It's the same kind of situations as you face elsewhere in pro hockey, it's just a different league this time. I'm sure the pressure and the speed, everything amps up, but really it's no different, the challenges. It's just, you've got to be that much more mentally strong and that much more ready to face your challenges.”

Adjusting to fewer games is the challenge Washington wants to avoid with Samsonov and is ultimately why the backup job is Copley’s for the taking.

In his first season in North America, the most important thing for Samsonov is to get as much playing time as possible. That will help both his transition to the North American game and his development as a goalie. Playing in 40 to 50 games in the AHL will ultimately be much better for him than riding the bench behind Holtby and getting only 15-20 games of experience, even if it is at the NHL level.

But Copley is not just a placeholder, he will have to perform.

The Capitals are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they have their sights set on a repeat. Grubauer was critical in helping Washington win the Metropolitan Division and getting Holtby rest for the playoffs. The Caps will need a similar contribution from Copley if they hope to repeat.

The backup job looks like Copley’s to win heading into training camp, but it is also his to lose.

“There's good goalies here,” Copley said, “So I'm just going to come and work hard every day and do my best and every time I get a chance, try and give the team a chance to win every time I'm out there.”

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Can Ovechkin really catch Wayne Gretzky?

Can Ovechkin really catch Wayne Gretzky?

Alex Ovechkin joined the elite 700 club on Saturday and further cemented his legacy as one of the greatest players to play the game.

For most, the 700-goal milestone represented the pinnacle of their career. Only seven players before Ovechkin have reached 700 and only two of those players have made it to 800. Reaching 700 goals was more of a lifetime achievement for the other five players, something reflective of the kind of goal-scorer they used to be.

Ovechkin, however, is different.

Saturday was a day to celebrate and reflect on a milestone reached only seven times before. But with Ovechkin’s continued goal-scoring prowess and remarkable durability, 700 hardly feels like a journey nearing its end. Instead, it has made the impossible seem reachable. Suddenly, Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894, long thought to be untouchable, seems not only possible for Ovechkin but realistic.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 700 in career game No. 1,144, the second-fastest in NHL history. Only Gretzky did it faster in just 886 games. Gretzky, however, only had one 40-goal season once he turned 30. He scored 41 goals in 1990-91 at the age of 30 and that would be the last time he would hit that mark.

Ovechkin is 34. He already has 42 this season and is on pace for 56. If he gets there, it will be the most goals scored by a player over the age of 33 ever.

Gretzky played nine more seasons after he hit 30 from the 1990-91 season to 1998-99. In that time, he scored 217 goals. Since turning 30, Ovechkin already has 225 goals. It should then come as no surprise that no one has ever gone from 600 to 700 goals faster in history. It took Ovechkin just 154 games to do it. Not only is that the fastest ever, but it’s also faster than he went from 500 to 600 (189 games). In fact, only once has Ovechkin gone from one milestone to the other faster in his career, when he went from 100 to 200 goals in just 129 games.

Those are the kind of numbers that begin to make you believe that catching Gretzky is a real possibility. What Ovechkin is doing at his age is unprecedented.

With every goal Ovechkin scores, the math for catching Gretzky becomes more and more realistic. If he continues on his current pace for 56 goals, he will finish the season with 714. If he plays four more seasons, he would need to average 45 goals per season to tie Gretzky. Again, that’s just if he plays four seasons. If he plays five seasons, then he would only need to average 36 goals. Even with a moderate drop off, a 36-goal average hardly seems outside of the realm of possibility for the Great 8.

At 34 years old, Ovechkin is still the best goal scorer in the game and is showing no signs of slowing down. Gretzky’s record does not seem impossible for him to reach because Ovechkin is already doing the impossible.

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Alex Ovechkin on goal 700: 'Without my teammates I couldn't do it.'

Alex Ovechkin on goal 700: 'Without my teammates I couldn't do it.'

While scoring goals can often be looked at as an individual achievement, Alex Ovechkin made sure to credit his teammates for the success he's had as one of the all-time best goal scorers in NHL history.

"All of my teammates over the years have treated me like family," Ovechkin said while reflecting on goal 700. "Without them, I would never be able to reach this milestone." 

Ovi finally eclipsed the 700 goal mark in the Capitals' 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon.

"Seven hundred means a lot to me," Ovechkin said. "Not a lot of players have done it in the history of the game so it's nice to be in that company." 

Ovechkin was certainly grateful for the achievement, but the fact of the matter is that this Capitals team has dropped eight of their last 11 games. An ecstatic Ovi is the one who wins games, not just scores goals. 

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