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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Cup dreams still alive for veterans facing closing windows

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From Ernie Banks to Dan Marino to Stockton and Malone and on and on and on, all sports have many all-time great players who seemed destined to win a championship, yet whose teams never quite got there. The current NHL is certainly not void of big names that fit this category. Only one player who is in this elite category is still playing, but there are several players on the remaining three teams who are over 30 and facing a rapidly closing window. Here’s a quick look at the players who are probably a little hungrier than most as they search for the Holy Grail of hockey, Lord Stanley’s Cup.

#10 Jay Beagle (age 32) – For a decade, the Washington Capitals have been relevant. Superstars have come and gone, but as we know, to win it all, the contribution of role players is paramount. Beagle has been a steady two-way player for 10 seasons and with 78 playoff games under his belt, chances are he is feeling the angst of that one missing piece.

#9 Anton Stralman (31) – Quiet and steady, this “defense first” defenseman has logged 102 playoff games and is a rock on the Tampa Bay Lightning blue line. Not a lot of fanfare and not a lot of flash, but his sound fundamentals make him invaluable for playoff hockey. He is certainly a player who warrants a championship ring.

#8 Ryan Callahan (32) – As a player who plays more physical than someone his size (5’10, 187 lbs) should, the oft injured Lightning right wing has poured a lot of heart and soul into a 13 year career that includes nine postseasons and 117 games. Amidst his high energy and grit, it sometimes gets lost that Callahan is a solid offensive player as well.

#7 TJ Oshie (31) – This former St. Louis Blue seemed like a perfect fit when the Capitals landed him via trade on July 2, 2015. With ten seasons in the books, time is suddenly of the essence for this solid two-way player. Despite going further in the playoffs than he ever has, anything short of a championship would certainly be a bitter pill to swallow.

#6 Braydon Coburn (33) – A 13 season veteran, this former Flyer provides a big, rugged presence on the Lightning blue line. In his ninth playoff season, he has logged 130 playoff games in his career and he’s gotta be chomping at the bit to finally get over the hump.

#5 Matt Niskanen (31) – It’s hard to believe this 11 year veteran never won a ring. He played four seasons in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won three of the last nine Cups, but none during his tenure. His move to the Capitals in 2014 seemed to be the missing piece, but three empty seasons later, there may be a “now or never” feel for him and the Caps as they embark on a must win game six in the Eastern Conference finals.

#4 James Neal (30) – Like Niskanen, Neal spent four seasons in Pittsburgh during their non-cup years. Now part of the miracle Vegas Golden Knights team, Neal has a chance to put a stamp on a solid ten year career that includes 263 career goals and 495 points.

#3 Dan Girardi (34) – The epitome of heart and soul, Girardi went undrafted in 2003, yet has put together a terrific 12 year career including 11 playoff runs. His 137 postseason games are more than anyone on this list. His willingness to play through pain and injury caused late season breakdowns that ultimately led to his dismissal by the NY Rangers. The Lightning seized the opportunity to add the stay at home defenseman and he is now on the verge of playing for perhaps one last shot to skate around with the Stanley Cup.

#2 Nicklas Backstrom (30) – With 11 seasons of excellence under his belt, this extraordinary playmaker has compiled 590 assists to go with 209 goals, plus 84 points (29 G, 55 A) in 109 playoff games. His much celebrated teammate, Alexander Ovechkin (more on him to follow) overshadows the accomplishments of this steady Capital, but it’s hard to mention one without the other as they seek to remove themselves from that list of greats without a championship.

#1 Alexander Ovechkin (32) – The face of the franchise since his 2005 arrival in Washington, clearly he is the best active NHL player who has never won a Stanley Cup. The Great 8 is closer than he’s ever been but close will never be good enough at this stage of his certain Hall-of-Fame career. His career numbers are all world, but his outstanding post season numbers in 114 games (57 G, 54 A) are also more than deserving of at least one championship. Since the arrival of Coach Barry Trotz, he has also become a much better defensive player. History is not always kind to all-time greats without a championship. For Ovechkin’s sake lets hope that history gets delayed at least one more round and the window closes slow enough to allow him at least one final chance to climb through.

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