SUNRISE, Fla. -- The history is impossible to ignore. For all his greatness, Alexander Ovechkin has never gotten past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The view from here is that this will be the year. In fact, come June, the prediction is the Washington Capitals will go the distance.
With the postseason set to begin on Wednesday, the Caps are this pick to win their first Stanley Cup in a season where they have battled hard with the Penguins and Blue Jackets to finish first overall.
You think about the Capitals and all the attention points to Ovechkin. He got an assist in Wednesday's 2-0 win over the New York Rangers to pass former Sabres star Alexander Mogilny for the second-most points by a Russian in NHL history. Ovechkin has 1,033, behind only Sergi Fedorov (1,179). Mogilny had 473 goals and 1,032 points in his career with Buffalo, Vancouver, New Jersey and Toronto.
But especially with this team, it's far from all Ovechkin all the time. It just doesn't have to be. Ovechkin had scored 50-plus goals in each of the last three seasons and it hasn't mattered come playoff time. At age 31, Ovechkin entered the weekend with 33 goals and 35 assists, his lowest goal output in a full season since 2010-11 and lowest point total since 2011-12.
He's got so much help around him and that can make the difference. That's why this edition of the Caps looks so good.
Braden Holtby had another 40-win season and any conversation about the Vezina Trophy includes Holtby, along with Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky and Montreal's Carey Price. Nicklas Backstrom hit the weekend with 85 points, his best season since 2009-10, and is likely going to finish fourth in the league behind only Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. Only McDavid has more assists.
T.J. Oshie actually entered the weekend tied with Ovechkin for the team lead in goals with 33, and joined Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson in pushing for 60-point seasons as the schedule winds down. Veteran Justin Williams (23-23-46) is around to provide his personal Game Seven magic if the Caps ever need some. And look at that defense. Trade acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk with Brooks Orpik. Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Dmitri Orlov, Karl Alzner. Who else has that kind of depth?
The Capitals pushed through a 10-1-1 stretch to claim the Presidents' Trophy for the second straight year. It also ensured they would play the second wild-card in the first round and not have to deal with Pittsburgh or Columbus for openers.
"You obviously want to not play either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round, but in the end it doesn't matter," Holtby said Wednesday, after his league-leading ninth shutout blanked the Rangers and clinched the Presidents' Trophy. "You've got to go through good teams, and hopefully this just gives us a little bit more of an advantage."
And even if the Caps have to meet the Penguins in the second round for the second straight year under the NHL's patently ridiculous format, they should have the edge this time. The Penguins are trying to nurse their defense back to health but they are not going to have stalwart Kris Letang at all in these playoffs.
Letang, who scored the Cup-winning goal last June in San Jose, is going to be sidelined several months by neck surgery, the team announced last week. It's a blow for the Pens, who were expecting Letang to return for the postseason.
So the thought is the Caps blow through round one, no matter who the opponent. They take out the Penguins in round two and the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final to get to the Cup final for the first time since 1998, when they were swept by Detroit after their six-game win over the Sabres in the East final.
Their top challenges from the West appear to be Chicago, going for a fourth Cup in eight years, and Anaheim, which is damaged by the loss of top defenseman Cam Fowler for several weeks after a scummy knee-on-knee hit last week by Calgary's Mark Giordano.
Huge slumps in recent weeks by Minnesota and San Jose have diminished their odds of a prolonged playoff run and, even though Edmonton has McDavid, it's hard to imagine the Oil going deep in their first playoff appearance since 2006. This is the first step of their building process: Get into the postseason, learn what it takes and be ready for deeper pushes in future years. That's exactly what the Sabres missed out on this year.
Player Safety whiffs again
There's just no use trying to understand the decisions made by the NHL's Department of Player Safety, with Brad Marchand's two-game ban for spearing the latest head-scratcher.
The league's video explanation very succinctly explained how Marchand forcefully and deliberately drove his stick into the groin of Tampa Bay's Jake Dotchin. It explained how Marchand has been fined or suspended seven previous times by the department. Then it announces a suspension of only two games? That's laughable.
Now, it did hurt the Bruins to lose their top goal scorer for the final two games of the season, possibly setting them up to drop into a wild-card and maybe have to play the Caps in the first round. But it certainly would have been much more significant for the ban to extend into the first round of the playoffs for a game or two or three as well.
Then there's the two-game suspension of New Jersey's Dalton Prout for interference with Philadelphia's Radko Gudas and driving into his head in a clear reaction to a previous incident in the game. You may say Gudas has had that coming over the years and you would be right but Prout's suspension was also oddly light.
What it all shows is that the Department plain messed up with Rasmus Ristolainen's three-game suspension. The Sabres defenseman took out Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel with a hockey play that went bad, unlike the predmeditated mayhem of the two examples cited above. Ristolainen had never been fined or suspended either and gets three games out of the gate?
Skipping Olympics the right call
The players all want to play in the Olympics in South Korea next February and most of the big names in the North American hockey media are bemoaning the league's decision not to go as a major misstep by Gary Bettman and friends. Call me an outlier but I say it's the right call.
The NHL's business is to play its season. Of course, top players want to play in the Olympics -- and everybody else is all for a three-week vacation in February. But especially when the games are not in North America, it has never made sense to me to shut the season down in February at the prime time when the NFL season is over and baseball has yet to start.
Growing the game? How much has being in the Olympics grown the game? It's obviously produced great moments like Dominik Hasek's shootout win in Nagano, Sidney Crosby's Golden Goal in Vancouver and T.J. Oshie's shootout streak in Sochi but hockey then returns to what hockey is when the Games are over. It's a national sport in Canada and an intensely regional one in the U.S.
The idea of 6 a.m. hockey games from Korea, no matter how great, isn't that appealing from this view. Nor is again ruining the schedule for the entire season with terrible compression to sneak in the Olympic tournament. There's the injury concern. And the fatigue concern when players return.
General managers and owners are not fond of the Olympics at all. I'm surprised the league actually said no to the International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee but this is the right move for now. Everyone knows the NHL wants in for Beijing in 2022 and even though the feeling was that the IOC/IIHF would make that a package deal with South Korea, you get the feeling if the NHL wants in for those Games, it will be there.
The NHL's pullout, by the way, makes next year's World Junior Championships in Buffalo even more appealing. How many of those players might go from Buffalo to South Korea? Bet more than a few get the chance?
Boyle on Leafs' kids
When the Leafs were in town last week, I asked veteran Brian Boyle his impression of their cadre of rookies and he was blown away by them, as you might expect. Boyle has appeared in 95 playoff games for the Rangers and Tampa Bay over the last five seasons, including back-to-back trips to the Cup final with New York in 2014 and the Lightning in 2015. He's a solid addition to a very young dressing room.
"These guys are mature beyond their years and it's an impressive thing to watch and it's exciting for me," Boyle said. "You see a guy like Auston Matthews and the puck is on and off his stick so quick. He understands the game to an extent where veteran goalies may not him expect him to be doing what he's doing and he gives himself chances to score. When he's in traffic fighting for a loose puck and he comes out with it and goes away, it really impresses you."
Boyle admitted he's been asked to tell some tales of playoffs past.
"I find myself telling stories about different playoff runs, how they've gone," he said. "You're sitting around a table eating a meal and you can just reminisce for a while. It's great for me. There were great times but it's tough too because you lost in the end and you do talk about what happened and what might have gone wrong. It happened with me when I was younger too and I would be the one asking.
"It was good to hear how a series went, how you prepared off the ice, how you dealt with family if there were a little overbearing with tickets or whatever. But it's all worth it. Playoffs are about winning."
Around the boards
---No Rochester Amerks on the AHL's first or second All-Star teams announced Friday. The lack of performance in Rochester, both individually and team-wise, continues to be a major issue for the Sabres organization. Lake Erie won the Calder Cup last year with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey all contenders. Toronto has had many good prospects. No coincidence where teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, Columbus and Toronto are in the standings this year. It would be nice for the fans in Rochester and the organization as a whole if the Amerks could do anything of substance at some point.
The Sabres have simply either been forced to keep players in junior (Brendan Guhle and Sam Reinhart), graduated them directly to the NHL (Jack Eichel) or didn't get a lot out of them in their stint in Rochester (Alex Nylander).
---A non-NHLer who's a good possibility for Team Canada in South Korea? Try old friend Derek Roy, who will be 34 when the Games open. After leaving the NHL following a stop in Edmonton in 2015, Roy played in Switzerland last season and is in the KHL this year. Much like Thomas Vanek, Roy has been well-traveled after his long stint in Buffalo. He's played with five other NHL teams since 2012 (Dallas, Vancouver, St. Louis, Nashville and Edmonton).
---Honda Center fans bellowed a Reilly Center-like chant of "You can't win here" as the Ducks completed Tuesday's 3-1 win over the Flames, their 25th straight at home over Calgary. It extended their NHL record for the most consecutive home wins over one opponent.
---All of Ottawa’s 16 playoff appearances have come in the past 20 seasons. According to Elias Sports, only Detroit (19) and San Jose (17) have appeared more. The Senators have made just one trip to the Stanley Cup final, losing in five games to Anaheim in 2007 after beating the Sabres in five in the East final.
---Another Elias nugget: At 20 years and 86 days on Sunday, Connor McDavid would be the third-youngest player to win a scoring title in the modern era, trailing only Sidney Crosby in 2007 (19-244) and Wayne Gretzky in 1981 (20-69).