By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005
For the first time in 550 days, the Washington Capitals played a game that mattered at MCI Center. And it began with a bang, thanks to Alexander Ovechkin.
On his first shift, the future star of the Capitals threw a body check so hard it dislodged the support between two pieces of plexiglass along the end boards, causing a three-minute stoppage of play -- not that the fans minded.
Ovechkin set the tone with that crushing check, then scored two goals in Washington's 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Capitals' first regular season home game since April 3, 2004.
"It feel very good," said Ovechkin, who became the first Washington player to score two goals in his NHL debut. "I must thank my [teammates] for giving me two excellent passes. It was just a shot. I must only shoot and I score two goals.
"It's my first game in the NHL, we win and I score two goals. It's a nice start."
Jeff Halpern recorded three assists while goaltender Olie Kolzig was spectacular for the Capitals. Dainius Zubrus, a linemate of Ovechkin and Halpern, had a goal and an assist.
Columbus dynamo Rick Nash, meantime, left the game after his second shift of the second period with a sprained ankle. Despite his absence, the Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 37-19.
Almost as important to Washington's management as getting the victory was last night's attendance. The Capitals announced 16,325 spectators (which accounts for tickets distributed), and although the actual number appeared to be slightly fewer, it was more than triple the amount that had shown for the team's three preseason contests. MCI Center's capacity is 18,277.
"The crowd was great," Halpern said. "To be able to have more people and feed off that energy was great, especially for a young team. When the crowds are like that, it makes it easier for us to play."
Ted Leonsis, the team's majority owner, was also pleased with the turnout.
"This was a good crowd," he said. "We sold almost 500 tickets in walk-up. I don't think we've ever done that. So there was pent-up demand for hockey."
While crowd size may shrink as the luster of hockey's return from a season-long layoff caused by a labor dispute diminishes, one Capital might be worth the price of admission for some fans. Ovechkin is the Capitals' No. 1 overall draft pick in 2004 and the cornerstone of the franchise's rebuilding hopes.
His opening-shift smash came about 20 seconds into the game and sent Blue Jackets defenseman Radoslav Suchy hurtling into the boards behind the Columbus goal. The metal divider went tumbling.
Ovechkin's hit inspired the crowd, and Kolzig kept the game scoreless into the second period. But Kolzig's shutout didn't last.
Center Dan Fritsche scored the first of his two goals at 6 minutes 53 seconds of the second to put the Blue Jackets ahead 1-0. Fritsche skated in after receiving a long flip pass from Gilbert Brule. The play would have been whistled dead in previous seasons because the pass crossed two lines. But such passes are permitted now as part of a package of rule changes aimed at increasing scoring.
Ovechkin tied the game at 1 seconds later with his first regular season NHL goal. Fritsche's second tally came midway through the second period and restored the Blue Jackets' lead, 2-1.
But less than two minutes later, Ovechkin tied the game with a power-play goal. It came on another one-timer, but on this one the rookie left winger fired from the slot after Halpern put the puck onto Ovechkin's stick blade with an excellent pass.
"Alexander puts a lot of pressure on himself to play like that," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said.
Zubrus gave the Capitals their first lead, 3-2, with 3:09 remaining in the second period when he ripped a shot from point-blank range. Halpern set up that goal, too.
In the third period, Kolzig fended off two power plays in the final 5:32. The first penalty was on Ovechkin, who, after being thwarted on a breakaway, was whistled for hooking.
He almost made up for his miscue as he left the penalty box. He received a long pass and skated in alone, but the bouncing puck skipped off his stick before he could line up a shot.
"I've said all along, if you just give Olie the slightest chance to win a hockey game," Hanlon said, "he'll bring it home every single time."