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With Beagle sidelined, should Caps pursue Richards?


With Beagle sidelined, should Caps pursue Richards?

With third-line Jay Beagle awaiting surgery and expected to be sidelined “an extended period of time” with an upper body injury, is it time for the Capitals to consider signing free-agent center and two-time Stanley Cup champion Mike Richards?

Richards, 30, has been in his own personal purgatory since the Los Angeles Kings terminated his contract on June 29, twelve days after he was stopped at the Canadian border, allegedly trying to enter Manitoba while in possession of a controlled substance, reportedly OxyContin pills.

On Oct. 9 the Kings and NHL Players’ Association reached a settlement in which Richards will receive about $10.5 million of the $22 million remaining on his contract. Richards has spent the past few months skating with his former junior team on Kitchener, Ontario, waiting and hoping for an NHL team to sign him.   

"My goal is to get back into the NHL and I'm working out hard to do that," Richards told the Waterloo Region Record back in November.

Capitals veteran right wing Justin Williams, who won a pair of Stanley Cups with Richards while the two were teammates in Los Angeles, said he’s recently talked with Richards.

“We didn’t talk very much about hockey,” Williams said, “but it would be a great redemption story. Any time your ego takes a hit, which his did, as a proud guy you want to shove it up somebody’s (expletive deleted) and prove something to somebody, even if it’s just yourself.

“He’s not old and I’m sure he’s still capable of playing,” Williams said. “It all depends on his mental fortitude and where he is.”

Others around the NHL agree.  In his prime, Richards was the proto-typical checking-line center, capable of winning faceoffs, killing penalties and shutting down some of the NHL’s top forwards. But after winning the Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2014, when he recorded 10 points in 26 playoff games, Richards’ on-ice effectiveness dipped dramatically.

He had five goals and 11 assists and was a minus-10 in 53 games for the Kings last season, prompting them to send him to the AHL Manchester Monarchs, where Richards managed 14 points in 16 games.     

“On the ice, we all know Richie’s hockey instincts are off the charts and he’s only 30, so I think he can still play,” said long-time Philadelphia Flyers pro scout Dave Brown, who saw the Flyers select Richards 24th  overall in the 2001 draft. “But I think mentally, everyone is wondering where his head is.”

Those questions came to the forefront on Oct. 9 when, following the settlement with the NHLPA, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi provided the Los Angeles Times with a written summation of what he described as a betrayal by Richards, calling it the most “traumatic episode” of Lombardi’s career.

“I tried everything with Mike -- meeting with him constantly, sending him to concussion specialists, traveling in the off-season to visit with him at his summer home — and everything failed,” Lombardi wrote. “I heard the rumors that Mike might have some off-ice issues, but I refused to believe that they were true despite some obvious signs.

"The reality is that I was ‘played.’ My only regret, though, is that I wish Mike had been able to come to me with his problem — and that was the last message I left for him on his cellphone when I learned of the incident (at the Canadian border) and all the history leading up to the incident.

“I believe that what happened to Mike Richards is a tragedy and I cannot let it go. My short-term goal is to win championships; my long-term goal is to eventually become more involved with groups studying the changing values that are becoming increasingly evident in sport and their root causes.

“I certainly believe that Mike Richards must be held accountable for his actions — but when a player who at one time symbolized everything that was special about the sport can become caught in such a destructive spiral, then I believe the institution of sport must begin to examine its level of culpability."

Richards had a December court hearing postponed until late January and any NHL team interested in signing him (the San Jose Sharks reportedly have shown interest) may wait for the legal process to play out before taking steps toward signing him.

Former Capitals enforcer Craig Berube, who worked as an assistant coach in Philadelphia when Richards was the team’s captain, said he would suspect that if an NHL team signs Richards, he would need to play in the AHL for a stretch of games before joining an NHL roster.

“You can’t just step in after you’ve been working out with a junior team,” Berube said. “He would definitely need some (AHL) games.”

Many believe Richards would settle for the NHL minimum salary of $575,000, which would be prorated for however many games he plays in the regular season. With the Capitals expected to place Beagle on long-term injury (carrying a minimum of 10 missed games or 24 days) his annual $1.75 million salary would become available in cap space during his absence.      

For his part, Richards seems anxious to end his hockey exile and play for a team that will give him a chance to feel good about hockey again.

"I don't think it's about having anything to prove but more that burning desire to continue to have success," he told the Waterloo Region Record. "Winning those Stanley Cups were probably the best times of my life. I think that's what pushes me and keeps me going … to try and do that again.

"Obviously, (the past few months) has been stressful," he said. "Everyone says different things but I know who my family and friends are and that's all that really matters, having their support.

"You can't do anything about it now but push forward and look toward the future and try to learn from your mistakes."


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George McPhee's Vegas Golden Knights advance to Stanley Cup Final


George McPhee's Vegas Golden Knights advance to Stanley Cup Final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Ryan Reaves scored the winning goal, Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights pushed their remarkable expansion season into the Stanley Cup Final, beating the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.

Alex Tuch also scored for the Knights. They lost Game 1 in Winnipeg before winning four straight to become the first expansion team since the 1968 St. Louis Blues -- when the six initial expansion teams were put alone in the West -- to get to the final.

Vegas will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the final. Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference final 3-2, with Game 6 set for Monday night in Washington.

Josh Morrissey scored for the Jets, and Connor Hellebuyck made 30 saves.

Reaves, the bruising Winnipeg native acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins before to the trade deadline in February, snapped a 1-1 tie with 6:39 left in the second period when he tipped Luca Sbisa's point shot past Hellebuyck for his first goal of the playoffs.

Winnipeg got a power play early in the third, but couldn't muster much of anything. The Knights smothered much of the Jets' attack for the next 10 minutes, with Hellebuyck having to come up with big stops on William Karlsson and Eric Haula to keep his team within one.

The Jets pressed with under 4 minutes to go, with Fleury stopping captain Blake Wheeler on the doorstep, but it wasn't nearly enough as the Knights closed out their third straight series on the road.

The Jets beat the Knights 4-2 in Game 1, but Vegas snatched home ice with a 3-1 victory in Game 2 before picking up 4-2 and 3-2 wins at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights, whose jaw-dropping inaugural 109-point campaign included a Pacific Division crown, swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and knocked out the San Jose Sharks in six games.

The Jets had the NHL's second-best record with 114 points in the regular season. They advanced to the first conference final in city's history with a five-game victory over the Minnesota Wild in the opening round before topping the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7 on the road.

The usual raucous, white-clad crowd at Bell MTS Place -- not to mention the thousands of fans outside the arena attending a street party on a sun-drenched spring afternoon -- were silenced just 5:11 into Game 5 when Tuch jumped on Morrissey's turnover and fired his sixth past Hellebuyck.

The Jets were tentative to start and it got worse after the opener as Vegas dominated the next couple of shifts, forcing some good saves from Hellebuyck before Winnipeg got its feet moving.

After being outshot 7-1 in the first 7 minutes, the Jets finally pushed back and turned the tide with the next nine attempts on goal, culminating with Morrissey making amends for his early gaffe with 2:46 left in the period.

Bryan Little won a faceoff in the offensive zone straight back to second-year defenseman, who blasted his first career playoff goal past Fleury's glove.

One of Winnipeg's downfalls in the series through four games was an inability to maintain momentum. The Knights scored within 1:28 of a Jets' goal in each of the first four games -- a crushing 12 seconds after Winnipeg tied Game 3, and an equally gut-wrenching 43 seconds after the Jets knotted Game 4 -- but they managed to take the game to the locker rooms tied 1-1.

Both teams had chances in the second period before Reaves made it 2-1, with Jets center Mathieu Perrault just missing on a pass from Little that had too much speed.

Right after Reaves scored the second playoff goal of his career -- and first since 2015 with St. Louis -- Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers rang a shot off the post on Fleury.


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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.