For new Cap, it's hats off


If Alex Ovechkin is cognizant that the rehabilitation of an entire franchise rests squarely on his broad shoulders, he's doing a good job of masking it.

The 20-year-old Moscow native - the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NHL entry draft by the Washington Capitals prior to the league's year-long shutdown - contends that he's content to skate his wing and simply be a team guy.

"One player cannot win games," the rookie left wing said. "You win games with all players, [the] whole team."

But so far, the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Ovechkin has been the whole team. With 15 goals and 10 assists in his first 24 games, he's not only the leading scorer for the 8-14-2 Capitals but is also among the top 10 goal-scorers in the league.

He has been in a neck-and-neck race with the other NHL wunderkind, Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby, who has 12 goals and 16 assists in 25 games for the 7-12-6 Penguins. Crosby was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.

Ovechkin and Crosby represent a substantial portion of the new foundation on which the battered league hopes to rebuild its credibility. And in Washington, where attendance has been chronically low, some sort of jump-start is critical.

"There are always two things at play on a superstar," said Capitals center Jeff Halpern, who grew up in the Washington area. "One is trying to prove himself, prove his worth not only to his team but around the league.

"But also when you are in Alex's position, it's important to remember that the team you're involved with, those are the guys that you become their identity. So everything he does is a reflection on this team. That's a lot of pressure to put on a young kid."

So far, Ovechkin has been universally praised for how he has handled his introduction to North American hockey.

He turned down what would have been more guaranteed money to continue playing in Russia in order to pursue his childhood ambition of playing in the NHL. Ovechkin would have received about $1.9 million, after taxes, to play in his homeland. Instead, he opted for $984,000 in guaranteed money to play for Washington, but can earn an additional $2.8 million in incentives.

"He has size, strength, vision and speed - and he shoots the puck dead-on," Flyers general manager Bob Clarke said. "He's only 20 years old and he's a major force. When he matures, he'll be dominating."

When Ovechkin first arrived in the United States before the season, his single-mindedness was evident.

"When I get here, I wait for the moment when I meet my new team, when I meet my new fans ... and first game," he said. "I wait for this moment."

In post-glasnost Russia, Ovechkin's boyhood reveries were no different from those of a rink rat growing up in Boston or Duluth or Saskatoon. He collected trading cards of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and dreamed of winning a Stanley Cup.

But he also had an advantage of strong athletic bloodlines. Ovechkin's mother, Tatiana, won two Olympic gold medals in basketball, and his father, Mikhail, was a professional soccer player. The mother and father accompanied Ovechkin to America to help him settle in and his older brother remained in Washington.

But unlike some Russian players, who tend to be insular and exclusively seek out their countrymen for companions, Ovechkin made efforts to learn English and asked to room with a North American on the road.

While the relative openness of Russian 21st-century society makes it less a contrast from America than say, 30 or 40 years ago, there are still plenty of significant differences.

"It's a very good country and people believe in the rules," Ovechkin said of America. "You must always obey the rules."

Any rules in particular?

"You see, for example, on the road it says you can't go [more than] 50," said Ovechkin, who drives a Cadillac Escalade. "In Russia, I could go whatever [speed] I wanted wherever I wanted."

The threat of speeding citations isn't the only thing Ovechkin finds different so far. This is the first time he has played on a losing team. In Russia, he spearheaded gold- and silver-medal teams in the World Junior Championships and helped Dynamo Moscow win a league title.

Meanwhile, Washington disassembled a veteran, underachieving team before the league shutdown and is in a rebuilding mode in the reborn NHL. Chief among the young Capitals' problems is a habit of taking penalties in a league that has clamped down on certain infractions to encourage scoring.

Washington averages 20 penalty minutes a game - an entire period's worth.

Still, Ovechkin frequently has been brilliant. He reached 14 goals in fewer games than any NHL player since the 1992-93 season. He averages five shots on goal a game. And even in a 6-4 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto, he was named the first star after scoring twice.

"We didn't expect him to be this good this early," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "We were hoping he could ... play as much as the veterans but he has carried this team on offense."

Statistics tell only part of the story, though. It's the sudden bursts of speed and power that have begun to define the type of player Ovechkin is and will likely become.

On Saturday night, he committed an error on a power play against the Rangers when he gave up the puck to a New York player at the blue line. Although the Ranger took the puck while heading toward the Washington end, Ovechkin was able to wheel, chase down the attacker, and cleanly poke-check the puck to save a breakaway shot.

The incredible recovery helped send the game into overtime, where the Capitals lost after a marathon 15 shootout rounds.

Still it remains to be seen whether even Ovechkin can revive hockey in Washington. The Capitals distributed an average of a league-low 12,240 tickets a game through the first 12 games, but actual fans at MCI Center are far fewer.

"If the fans don't come out to see a kid like this play, who will they come to see?" the Flyers' Clarke said. "There are a number of young, good players in the league this year, certainly including Crosby - but it doesn't get any better than this."

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