By David Betancourt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006
Alexander Ovechkin received one of sports' hot honors when EA Sports put him on the cover of its latest hockey game, NHL 07. He's the first Washington area pro athlete to be on the cover of any EA Sports game.
But despite his highlight-reel goals, the awards and the fact that Ovechkin has people talking about hockey in the football-crazed District, one question remained: Is he any good at the game? And was he up for a little competition?
The folks at EA Sports told me that Ovechkin got the hang of NHL 07 pretty quickly, even with changes in the controls that require more use of the two thumb sticks and not the controller's buttons. The Capitals' public relations department said the same thing.
"Alex says he's getting really good at the game," said Nate Ewell, who works for the PR department. "I told him there was a guy from The Post who wanted to play him in the game, and he says he's all for it."
When I arrive at Verizon Center to face off with him, Ovechkin is in a team meeting, which gives me time to hook up my Xbox 360 and, more important, get in more practice. While practicing, many spectators comment in amazement on the graphics in the game, which brings up conversations about the original "Blades of Steel" title (a classic) for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Visually, NHL 07 is one of the best next-generation console sports games out. From players' facial features to stick and puck movement to the lines made in the ice by the skates, the graphics and gameplay are extremely realistic.
As I continue to practice, Ovechkin walks in. After a handshake and a quick chat, I ask him what he thinks of NHL 07.
"Great game. I like it a lot," he says. But then, what else could he say?
We agree on a best-of-three format. The first two games he will play as himself and the Capitals, and I will play with the Phoenix Coyotes. The third game will be for national pride as I'll play with the U.S. national team and Ovechkin will take the Russian national team.
"Why Phoenix?" he asks.
I explain that the Coyotes were the team he scored his famous behind-the-back, no-look goal on in January and that I want to see if he had any more magic against them. That gets a laugh.
Before the game starts, he gives me some advice/trash talk.
"After faceoff, when I get the puck, you have to stop me," he says.
I try to think of some trash talk of my own. I had a list of Russian phrases (Ovechkin's native language) that I'd left at home, but I doubt that "hello," "how are you," "thank you" and "goodbye" are that intimidating. The urge to say "I must break you" keeps creeping into my head, but I decide against it.
The first game is competitive from the get-go. He scores the first goal on a shot that seems like it was from mid-ice. I'm surprised the official didn't raise his arms and give him three points for it. I even the score with a goal, but he comes right back, scoring off a rebound my goalie couldn't grab. It's 2-1 and he's feeling confident. In the final period of the first game, Ovechkin sends a message by taking control of himself, lining up about 10 feet from my goalie and crushing a slap shot into the net for a 3-1 lead. I struggle the whole game to score and wonder if the people at EA made goalie Olie Kolzig invulnerable. Ovechkin seconds that thought.
"Olie," he says, "he's good."
Actually, I know EA does an excellent job of replicating specific attributes for each player in the game. Kolzig is a great goalie in real life, and in the game, but the truth is my passing stinks and I'm blowing my one-on-one opportunities during breakaways.
I get a garbage goal with 20 seconds left in the game to make it a respectable 3-2 loss, much to the dismay of Ovechkin.
"Twenty seconds," he says. "Unbelievable."
I'm in serious trouble. If I lose the second game, he will win the series without even needing a third game, forever staining the reputation of video game journalists. I need a win. Badly.
I come out firing, taking an early 1-0 lead. Ovechkin ties the game, but then I score three unanswered goals while stepping up my defense -- making sure I put a hit on whomever Ovechkin is skating. Moves on offense and defense are easier than in previous games because the thumb sticks control movement. The left thumb stick is your skates, while the right is your hockey stick on offense. On defense the right thumb stick becomes your defensive checking option. This provides a feel of total control when playing. I finish with a 4-1 victory. Ovechkin shows that he has one part of American sports video-gaming down with an impressive array of English profanity, especially after Caps PR guy Corey Masse tells Alex his video game counterpart needs to work on his defense, "just like in real life."
Now comes the deciding third game. The United States vs. Russia. Ovechkin scores first on a goal by Sergei Fedorov. What happens next is a shock to me and everyone in the room watching as I score five unanswered goals, the last a rocket slap shot by Mike Modano that bounces off Ovechkin's goalie's shoulder and into the net.
Witnesses in the room call it a modern-day miracle on ice. Ovechkin gets up.
"In this game, 5-1 is okay," he says. "In real life" -- he pauses -- "doesn't happen."
NHL 07 Everyone 10+; PlayStation 2, Xbox, Windows XP ($29.99); PSP ($39.95); Xbox 360 ($59.95) EA Sports