Ovechkin's Old Friend Is New Rival

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin expects to have conflicting feelings when he sees Dainius Zubrus wearing a Buffalo Sabres uniform.

For the first year and a half of Ovechkin's NHL career, Zubrus was much more than another teammate. He was his center, interpreter, confidant and, for a while, his roommate on the road.

Ovechkin, in fact, never really envisioned a scenario that would find the two of them apart. But that all changed around 2 p.m. on Feb. 27, when Zubrus was dealt to Buffalo after negotiations on a contract extension fell apart. For Ovechkin, it was a rude introduction to the business side of pro hockey.

The old friends will get reacquainted tonight at HSBC Arena, where the Eastern Conference-leading Sabres will host the Capitals, who can win three consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 4-9. Making the meeting more intriguing is that Zubrus could line up as the right wing on the Sabres' checking line, meaning it's possible he'll spend most of the game marking Ovechkin.

"It's going to be weird," Ovechkin said after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "But Zubie is not my teammate anymore. He was on our team months ago and now he's on a different team."

Asked whether Zubrus's familiarity with his game might be prove to be problematic, the Capitals' star joked: "Sometimes I don't know where I go. So he will never know where I'm going. It will be a fun game if he plays against me because I know his moves, his strong side. It will be good -- for me."

He's been inconsistent since Zubrus's departure, registering six goals and four assists. But he's also failed to record a point on five occasions and has gone the past three games without a goal, despite the Capitals racking up a combined 15 during that span. Zubrus has only two goals since joining the Sabres nine games ago.

"It will be different," Zubrus told a reporter in Buffalo. "We know each other pretty well. I can't say it's going to be just another game. . . . When the [Capitals] decided to go through this rebuilding process, I was there from the start. I saw a bunch of young players come in and get better. And I kind of grew with them at the same time."

Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon added, "I think Ovechkin wants to prove to Zubrus that he can get the job done, and conversely, I bet Zubrus wants to show us his best."

Zubrus, however, isn't the only potential hindrance for Ovechkin tonight. Yesterday, he wore a full plastic face shield in practice to protect 16 stitches on the inside of his bottom lip. He was clipped unintentionally by Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Boyle's stick on Sunday and could be forced to wear the cumbersome mask against the Sabres.

"It's not like usual," Ovechkin said, adding that he has difficulty locating the puck when it's in his skates.

But he must get used to looking out of it -- and seeing his old friend wearing blue and gold.

Capitals Note: Left wing Matt Pettinger (broken thumb) skated with his teammates yesterday and could return at Carolina tomorrow or in Montreal on Saturday, Hanlon said.

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