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Where will Vitek Vanecek play next season?

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Where will Vitek Vanecek play next season?

Goaltending prospect Vitek Vanecek, taken by the Capitals in the second round of the 2014 NHL draft (39th overall), likely will be leaving the Czech Republic to play for the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL next season, Caps goaltending coach Mitch Korn said Thursday.

“There was a discussion of leaving him there, but I think the majority of us felt that the sooner we can acclimate him to North America and he becomes able to communicate, the sooner we can start to make more progress,” Korn said, “and I’d rather start that now than later.”

Vanecek, 19, spent most of last season with Benalky of the Czech Republic’s second-tier league, where he had a 2.24 GAA and .925 save percentage in 20 games. He also played two games with Liberec Bill Tygri of the top Czech League and represented his country in the World Junior Championships.

“I think (South Carolina) is the best place for him to start as a 19-year-old,” Korn said. “We want guys to have success at every level they play at. We don’t want them treading water; we want them swimming ahead.”

Vanecek speaks little English and Korn found the best way to communicate with him last season was through Czech League goaltending partner Jan Lasak, a Slovakian netminder who was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 1999 and worked with Korn in the Predators organization.

“Jan has kept me informed throughout the season,” Korn said. “It’s nice to have spies throughout the world. It’s hard to communicate with Vitek because his English has been an issue. It is getting better.”

Korn said the improvements he’s seen in Vanecek’s game over a calendar year have been dramatic.

“He’s way better,” Korn said. “Last year when he came over here the proverbial deer-in-headlights probably comes to mind. I can just imagine picking myself up and dropping myself into a country that speaks no English and having to perform being that young.”

Korn said Vanecek is now exhibiting better balance, better rebound placement and better quickness in the crease than he showed at last year’s development camp.

“I often joke that when you take the SATs the second time you’re no smarter, but you’re results are better and they should be because we all have a learning curve.”

Following his season in the Czech Republic, the Capitals flew Vanecek to Hershey to spend 12 days working out with the Bears and taking English lessons. He is also taking English lessons this week.

Meanwhile, the Capitals’ 2015 first-round draft pick, Ilya Samsonov, is working out with his KHL team, Mettalurg Magnitogorsk, which is why he is not at development camp. Samsonov stands 6-foot-3, 201 pounds and was the first goalie taken in this year’s draft. Korn said he has only seen Samsonov on video, but likes what he sees.

“He’s an ominous body and for a big man he moves exceptionally well,” Korn said. “And there’s a thing that we call goalie sense. It’s not where the puck is, it’s where the puck’s going, and the guys that are really good know where the puck’s going, whether it’s off the stick to the net or off the stick to another option.

“He seems to have really solid goalie sense. The speed of the game requires great processing and he seems to possess that. But you never really know I until you own  it, and until I get to know him first-hand I’m projecting.”

Speaking of goaltending, Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann said he is preparing to lose goalie Philipp Grubauer to the Capitals and accept veterans Justin Peters and Dan Ellis as his two goalies in Hershey next season.  

“From a coaching perspective I don’t think (Grubauer) has anything left to prove at the American Hockey League level,” Mann said.

As for Peters and Ellis, Mann said both are quality goalies and quality people.

“We’ll see how we have to handle it,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a challenge for (goaltending instructor) Scott Murray with potentially two older, veteran type of goalies. It’ll be a bit of a balancing act there. If you can’t be in the NHL I would think Hershey’s a pretty good spot with what I would consider an NHL atmosphere in the building.”

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The goal that no one wanted: Alex Ovechkin gives up hat trick to set up T.J. Oshie

The goal that no one wanted: Alex Ovechkin gives up hat trick to set up T.J. Oshie

Alex Ovechkin had two goals, the puck on his stick and an empty-net yawning. The Caps held a 4-2 lead on Monday against the Vancouver Canucks late in the third period and the win looked all but secured. The only thing still up for grabs was the exclamation point empty-net goal.

Ovechkin took the puck in the defensive zone and weaved his way through the neutral zone. Once he hit center ice, there was only one player between him and the net. The hat trick looked all but certain…until he passed the puck away.

He easily could have taken the puck himself and fired it into the empty yet, but instead he chose to pass it off to T.J. Oshie on the wing.

Oshie delayed, but with the trailing Vancouver players skating into the passing lane, there was no way for Oshie to try to pass it back to Ovechkin and he very reluctantly shot the puck into the net.

When the players returned to the bench, the disappointment on Oshie’s face was clear to see. He wanted Ovechkin to get the hat trick, but Ovechkin wasn’t having it.

After the game, head coach Todd Reirden praised Ovechkin for his leadership.

“He could have easily got in the red and tried to score himself and it wasn’t even a thought,” Reirden said. “He passed right to Osh and Osh couldn’t go back to him and that’s the way it worked out. It doesn’t bother him one bit and I think that’s where you see a different player than maybe you saw three or four years ago that is not focused on individual stuff. He’s doing the right thing and he feels if you do the right thing for long enough, you’re going to get rewarded.

“We were benefactors of that last season with being able to win out at the end. He’s really got a lot of buy-in right now for doing the right thing. I think his leadership is really in the last probably year, year and a half has really gone to a new level.”
 
Reirden saw leadership on the play. Oshie saw disappointment.
 
Ovechkin offered his own explanation for giving up the shot as he said, “Save it for next time.”

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Nicklas Backstrom passes 600 career assists with a three-point night vs. Canucks

Nicklas Backstrom passes 600 career assists with a three-point night vs. Canucks

Nicklas Backstrom can so often be overlooked thanks to his superstar teammates. But on a night in which Alex Ovechkin scored two goals and four points and John Carlson had a goal and three points, Backstrom was the man of the hour on Monday in Vancouver.

With his three assists on the night, Backstrom tallied assists No. 599, 600 and 601 of his career. He is just the 87th player in the history of the NHL to reach the 600-assist mark.

“It means that I’ve been playing in this league a long time I think now,” Backstrom told NBC Sports Washington’s Alan May after the game. “It's a nice milestone, of course, but we’re not going to stop here. We’re just going to keep going.”

Very fittingly, Backstrom’s 600th assist came on a power play goal to Ovechkin. Per NHL Stats, 235 of Backstrom’s 601 assists have been to Ovechkin. T.J. Oshie comes in at a very, very distant second as Backstrom has set up the veteran winger 49 times.

Ovechkin and Backstrom’s careers will be forever linked given the success they have had together in Washington. While that has caused many to overlook the soft-spoken Swede, it is foolish to continue to underrate him and his ability.

Backstrom is an absolute superstar who just so happens to play on the same team as one of the best players in the world and one of the biggest personalities in the sport.

But make no mistake, Backstrom is an elite talent in his own right.

Backstrom is now the first player from the 2006 draft class to reach 600 assists. The next closest is Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux with 471.

The level of success Backstrom has managed to find while in the league has been surprising even to him.

“I wasn’t really sure what I expected out of myself,” he said. “I was just trying to enjoy it. Luckily this organization believed in me and played me a lot after a couple games there and then it just took off. It’s been going fast, but I’ve had so much fun.”

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