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Capitals vs. Maple Leafs Playoffs 2017: Toronto loses key player for Game 1 vs. Caps

Capitals vs. Maple Leafs Playoffs 2017: Toronto loses key player for Game 1 vs. Caps

The Maple Leafs will be without a key player on the blue line when they visit the Caps for Game 1 of the teams’ first round series on Thursday.

Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who finished second on the Leafs in average ice time during the regular season, has been ruled out due to an upper body injury.

Zaitsev got hurt Sunday when he was crunched by Columbus captain Nick Foligno along the boards. The Russian blue liner appeared woozy as he skated to the bench following the hit, but Coach Mike Babcock isn’t specifying what ails Zaitsev.

RELATED: Carlson expected to return Thursday for Game 1

“The great thing about this medical department is I don’t deal with that part,” Babcock told reporters in Toronto. “They just tell me he’s not available to go. He’s got an upper body injury.”

Zaitsev had four goals and 36 points in 82 games in his first NHL season. He also averaged 22:01 per game.

He’ll be replaced in the lineup by Martin Marincin, who has appeared in 25 games this season.

In other injury news, goalie Frederik Andersen (head) will start Thursday after being involved in a scary-looking collision on Saturday. Defenseman Roman Polak, meanwhile, is probable after practicing fully on Wednesday.

MORE CAPITALS: 5 players to watch in Caps vs. Leafs series

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Alex Ovechkin on the death of Kobe Bryant: 'I still can't believe it'

Alex Ovechkin on the death of Kobe Bryant: 'I still can't believe it'

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin was at a loss for words Sunday afternoon when discussing the horrific passing of Lakers' legend Kobe Bryant.

"I was hoping that it was not true," Ovechkin said. "He always treated me well."

Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday morning outside Los Angeles, authorities confirmed on Sunday. He was 41 years old.



Ovi was visibly shaken while talking about his relationship with Bryant, disclosing that he had met him "three or four times", including in March of 2016 while in Los Angeles to play the Kings, when he and tennis star Novak Djokovic took a photo with Bryant.

Ovechkin was just one of many members of the Washington D.C. sports world that was taken aback by the news of Bryant's sudden passing.

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Despite his absence, Alex Ovechkin’s presence still loomed large in St. Louis

Despite his absence, Alex Ovechkin’s presence still loomed large in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS--Alex Ovechkin was not present for the all-star festivities in St. Louis, but his presence was still very much felt by all who were on hand. As players and league officials gathered to celebrate the game and the season, there was no way to do that without Ovechkin’s name being brought up.

From Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi describing “The Goal” in which Ovechkin scored from on his back against the then Phoenix Coyotes as his favorite Ovi moment to Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy comparing Ovechkin's one-timer to a “knuckleball,” Ovechkin’s name seemed to be on the lips of everyone who had gathered for all-star weekend.

“He's obviously one of the best to ever play,” Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes said. “Just breaking records now. He's one of those guys when you get on the ice with them, you kind of stare at him and it's Alex Ovechkin. You don't realize how big he is and how fast he is and stuff like that on TV, but when you get to see him in person that's kind of what you realize. Generational player.”

“I'm going to be looking back to playing against one of the best scorers in the league if not all-time so it's pretty cool,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said.

The fact that Ovechkin was a topic of conversation should come as no surprise. For those who had dared to wonder if Ovechkin was perhaps fading in the goal-scoring race or that his age was finally starting to catch up to him, he silenced all doubters with eight goals in the three games leading into the Capitals’ bye week.

“To be able to see Ovi up close and just see how special of a player he is, how special of a goal-scorer he is, it's truly amazing,” teammate T.J. Oshie said. “He just keeps scoring, he doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down. Since I've been on the team, I think around almost five years now, Ovi hasn't changed. He hasn't lost a step, he hasn't gotten slower, his shot hasn't gotten softer, he hasn't had any less drive. If anything, more drive.”

Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak still leads the league in goals with 37, but that lead shrunk considerably thanks to Ovechkin’s red-hot play of late. He now sits just three goals behind the league lead with 34.

“I don't even know what to say anymore. It's amazing,” Pastrnak said. “He's unbelievable goal-scorer. He's proving it year after year.”

Pastrnak has virtually led the goal-scoring race for the entire season, but Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals the two straight seasons and in six of the last seven. The Bruins forward said he expects Ovechkin will be able to catch him and make it three in a row.

“My guess would be he's going to finish in front of me anyway so I'm just not even bothering myself with anything like that,” Pastrnak said.

But it’s not just the recent success that has everyone talking.

Ovechkin’s recent goal surge now has him tied for ninth all-time in goals scored and just eight goals shy of reaching 700 in his career.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who was victimized for goal No. 600, is hoping Ovechkin will make history against someone else this time.

“I hope I'm not there for the 700th,” he said. “A lot of video on that 600.”

Reaching 700 goals is a prestigious achievement in and of itself, and one that only seven other players have reached in the history of the NHL. But the excitement surrounding Ovechkin nearing another milestone centers around what this means for his quest to break Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record.

Gretzky’s record for most career goals stands at 894. That mark has long been thought of as untouchable.

“Until now,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

“It's incredible,” he continued. “It's exciting. It's a testament both to Wayne's record that it seems to have been unapproachable until now and it's a testament to Alex Ovechkin and his amazing career so far and one that we hope continues for a number of years. Obviously his longevity, and he seems to be in great shape, will be a factor as to whether or not he can ultimately achieve that record.”

“I hope he can get close, just how exciting it is,” Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “I think he'll score 50 until he's 50 years old it seems like. That one-timer is not going away. Ovi's awesome for the game. It's so cool to see him get close.”

But with all the excitement that Ovechkin brings and all the talk of how his chase of Gretzky is good for the game comes the inevitable question: Should he have come to St. Louis to be a part of the All-Star Game?

While he may not be playing like it, Ovechkin is 34 years old which is not young for an NHL player. He has his sights set on another Stanley Cup run and the extra rest could be very beneficial for him. He has also participated in the All-Star Game seven times in the past so one could certainly argue that he has done enough to promote the game in the past.

On the other hand, Ovechkin was voted a captain by the fans and this is the second straight season he has elected not to go. This season, that decision is not coming off the heels of a long championship run and a short summer. His absence also means that Washington will be without him for the first game back from the break as he is required to serve a one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game.

Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is 31 years old and this year’s game in St. Louis his ninth appearance. When asked about Ovechkin’s decision, he said that he understood why Ovechkin would choose not to go, but explained why he still felt it was important.

“I think everyone's got to make their own decision, you can respect his,” Kane said. “I mean, his team's in a good position. He feels he needs to rest for them to go on a long playoff run, that's his decision. I guess you can respect that too, but you look at his team, his team's first in their division, they'll make the playoffs, it's probably not that big of a deal for him to miss a game, right? For us, we're fighting for a playoff spot. I think it's an honor to be here. I think it's pretty special to create some memories here. Also, for me, I feel like I wouldn't want to miss a regular season game especially given the spot our team is in.”

Head coach Todd Reirden, who will be tasked with developing a game plan for Montreal without his star player, came to Ovechkin’s defense.

“Obviously it's a difficult decision and something that he spends a lot of time with,” Reirden said. “I think at this time of his career, he understands what he needs to do to make himself the best player he can for the second half of the year. In particular, to go on the run that we had two years ago. He felt like this was the last thing and it's obviously difficult to be missing him for a game. But his ultimate goal, 700's going to be great for him, but he wants to win another Stanley Cup and he feels like this gives him the best chance to do it, then I'm all in.”

With the decision made, fans will have to wait until Wednesday’s game against the Nashville Predators to watch Ovechkin take the ice again. But after passing Mario Lemieux and tying Steve Yzerman on the all-time goals list in the last game before the break, his proximity to 700 goals guarantees that Ovechkin will remain one of the big stories around the hockey world until then.

Said Oshie, “It's going to be fun to watch his career and see how many people he can climb on that all-time goals ladder.

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