Netting Capital gains

The Baltimore Sun

The reckless abandon with which Alex Ovechkin dominates the NHL has turned Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau into a praying man.

But as Ovechkin finishes one of the most remarkable seasons in a decade -- and as his team closes in on a playoff berth -- Boudreau is setting aside concerns that the 22-year-old Russian's bruising brand of hockey will lead to serious injury.

Rein him in? Not a chance.

"We pray," Boudreau said of how his coaching staff reacts to Ovechkin's risky, all-out style. "I'll be the last one to change the way he plays. To take away some of the passion he plays with would be taking away a lot of his game."

Ovechkin is starring in what has turned out to be one of the NHL's best story lines this season. Through Tuesday, he led the league in points (107) and goals (61), making him a contender for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.

He became the first player in more than a decade to hit the 60-goal plateau (the last players to do it were Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, both in 1995-96). On Tuesday, he broke the Caps' single-season goal-scoring record with his 61st, passing Dennis Maruk's 60 goals in 1981-82.

He is the primary reason the once-dreadful Caps (38-31-8) rebounded from one of the worst starts in team history and find themselves on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in five years.

And he's proving to be one of the league's biggest draws.

"You better believe the NHL is foaming at the mouth, hoping they make the playoffs," said Bill Patrick, a hockey analyst for Versus network. "He's having a remarkable season, arguably one of the best in the last 12 or 13. With the exception of [Pittsburgh Penguins center] Sidney Crosby, he's the biggest draw in the NHL."

Fans in Washington are taking notice. The team is averaging more than 17,000 fans since February, with four sellouts in the past eight games. That average is 25 percent higher than the average through the first 20 games of the season.

At this pace, average attendance for the season will be its highest since 2002-03.

No one expected the Caps to be at this point four months ago. The team was injured and mistake-prone, and there was a sense that players had stopped responding to then-coach Glen Hanlon.

With the Caps owning a league-worst 6-14-1 record, general manager George McPhee fired Hanlon on Nov. 22.

In came Boudreau, then the coach of Washington's American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa. He has brought a strict, no-nonsense style, players say, while encouraging them to open up offensively and attack the net.

"We expect to win every night now, when in the past it was playing not to lose," 22-year-old defenseman Mike Green said.

Green is part of a cadre of young, star players that includes 20-year-old center Nicklas Backstrom, a Rookie of the Year candidate, and 24-year-old wing Alexander Semin.

Ovechkin is the centerpiece.

In his third season, he is on pace to become the first Russian to lead the league in scoring.

At 6 feet 2 and 217 pounds, he's not the biggest player on the ice. But uses an unorthodox style that combines finesse, a laser of a shot and bruising body checks.

Al Koken, a longtime member of the Comcast SportsNet broadcast team that covers the Caps, said more and more casual fans are sending e-mails about Ovechkin to his sports-talk radio show in Washington.

"He plays the game in a way even a casual hockey fan can appreciate," Koken said. "That's why Canadians love him. He plays the game the North American way -- physical."

Ovechkin said he is not concerned with individual accomplishments.

"I just tell myself: 'Don't think about goals. Just do what you can,' " Ovechkin said after scoring three goals in a 10-2 win over the Boston Bruins this month.

"I don't think about trophies," he added.

He could be here to stay. In January, the Caps signed Ovechkin to a 13-year, $124 million contract.

For Caps majority owner Ted Leonsis, the goal is not just to win the team's first Stanley Cup, but to bring in new fans in a town that has traditionally not been a strong supporter of hockey.

The team has begun advertising reduced-price tickets on Baltimore-oriented Web sites to reach fans in Maryland's suburbs. About 10 percent of the team's season-ticket base comes from Baltimore and surrounding counties.

"I didn't want to build a good team. I wanted to build a great team," Leonsis said. "You have to believe in the plan. I'm an optimist. We can lose a game, 10-1. But you can see this team knows it's good, and it's going to get better."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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