UNIONDALE, NY- Alex Ovechkin usually makes highlight films thanks to offensive rushes that formulate into memorable plays. Yet the NHL’s reigning MVP and scoring champion is also capable of destroying teams with subtle actions.
Before centerman Nicklas Backstrom takes an offensive zone faceoff, Ovechkin deftly lines up directly behind the circle, waiting to unleash a lightning-fast snapshot off a clean draw. But Ovechkin can also score any place on the ice, evidenced by his two-goal performance, including the overtime game-winning tally, in Washington’s 2-1 victory over the Islanders earlier in the week.
Ovechkin is just in his fourth season but will likely reach 200 career goals in the next month. The 23-year-old winger has the potential to threaten some of the league’s most heralded scoring record. Against the Isles, he notched goals No. 30 and 31 to move past Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter for the top mark. It was the first time all season the Art Ross winner sat alone atop the leader board, though Ovechkin said he didn’t mind giving the competition a chance 47 games into the season.
“It’s happened,” he deadpanned. “I give a chance to a different guy.”
Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby are the NHL’s two most marketable stars. The Islanders can also take some solace in the fact that the Capitals finished 23-46-10 for a dismal 49 points in 2003-04. Washington won the No. 1 overall pick and selected Ovechkin, and the 6-2, 212-pound forward galvanized the franchise and led the Capitals to the playoffs last season.
His goal totals in the first three seasons: 52, 46 and 65. Ovechkin is on pace to surpass the 50-goal mark at a time when there have been just 10 50-goal seasons after the lockout (including two from Ovechkin). One player can turn a lackluster club with no direction into a must-see event and contender in the conference.
“I don’t want to put myself on top of anybody,” Ovechkin said. “I just try and do the best that I can and try to help the team to win. I play hard all the time. No matter what happens, I just try, try, try and never give up.”
The Islanders have a chance to potentially select a player like that this spring in John Tavares. If the Isles, which enter the All-Star break 13-29-5 and eight points away from the second-worst team, win the draft lottery, the reeling team could finally have an impact scorer to put people in the seats and possibly even keep the Islanders in Uniondale.
While it takes more than adding one great player to morph into a championship contender, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said a player like Ovechkin makes everyone else better.
“He raises the bar in that he wants everyone else to play as hard as him,” Boudreau said. “You watch how hard he plays, how can you
not want to play with that intensity and passion every night when he’s doing that?”
Yann Danis began the season as the top netminder for Bridgeport in the AHL. He then stepped into the starting role following injuries to Rick DiPietro and Joey MacDonald and was burned twice by Ovechkin. The first goal was a laser from the left point and the second was an easy one-timer off Alexander Semin’s centering pass during an overtime power play.
Danis was making just his 14th career appearance, though more experienced goalies have talked about the need to account for impact players like Ovechkin every second they are on the ice. That type of dominant player can open up room for other scorers and add a different dimension to the offense.
“You can definitely see why he scores a lot of goals,” Danis said. “He’s got a good shot, quick release and very skilled. You have to steady ready when he’s on the ice, that’s for sure.”
Capitals goaltender Jose Theodore saw the Hart Trophy winner score an overtime goal to beat the Islanders at the Coliseum Dec. 16. When asked if Ovechkin has a comfort level playing a hapless opponent in an old arena, the netminder didn’t hesitate to respond.
“There are a lot of buildings he likes to play in,” said Theodore, who posted 27 saves for his 200th career victory.
Ovechkin is still two years away from being able to rent a car at a reasonable price. Yet he already joined Hall of Famer Mike Gartner and perennial All-Star Peter Bondra as the only Capitals with four-straight 30-goal seasons.
Once timid and unsure of himself as a rookie off the ice, Ovechkin now speaks fluent English. Standing inside the visiting dressing room at Nassau Coliseum, Ovechkin spoke with a gold chain of his uniform No. 8 around his neck. He will play in his third All-Star game this weekend in Montreal and has the Capitals in contention for a second straight Southeast Division crown.
It seems everything is coming easy for Ovechkin, who unlike DiPietro, is living up to his huge contract. Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract that is shorter than DiPietro’s 15-year pact but nearly twice the size in salary. Consider he has a whopping 194 goals, 175 points and 369 points in just 291 games, and so far the Capitals seem to be getting a bargain.
“Sometimes I have lucky bounces and luck goals,” Ovechkin said. “But you know, goals are goals. Sometimes my teammates give me great passes.”