By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2008
SUNRISE, Fla., March 28 -- On the day Sergei Fedorov was acquired last month, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee said he hoped the three-time Stanley Cup champion had "one good fight left in him."
Fourteen games later, there's no doubt about it. Fedorov has plenty of fight left. Whether it's setting up a goal, winning a key faceoff or dispensing knowledge gained through nearly 17 stellar seasons in the NHL, the 38-year-old center has been one of the Capitals' most important players in recent weeks as the race for the playoffs has intensified.
In Thursday's come-from-behind 4-3 overtime victory in Tampa, Fedorov's biggest contributions came in the clutch. He set up a shorthanded goal with a precise pass in the first period, then won a faceoff that led to the tying goal late in regulation.
"You know who was the happiest guy after we won?" Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Fedorov."
The reason for that can be summed up in a single word: playoffs. Fedorov hasn't been there since the 2002-03 season with the Detroit Red Wings, and beating the Lightning kept alive Washington's hope of reaching the postseason for the first time in five years.
"I'm possessed about it," Fedorov said. "I'll do anything that will take us there. That's the most important thing I keep on my mind. Hopefully, we can reach the real event."
With four games remaining, Washington's playoff push picks up here Saturday night against the Florida Panthers, who have been all but eliminated from contention.
For Fedorov, helping the Capitals reach the playoffs would be the perfect way to return a favor to the team that's helped him rediscover his zeal for the game, he said.
When Fedorov was traded to Washington on Feb. 26 for a prospect, he didn't know what to make of the sudden upheaval. One moment he was a Blue Jacket, the next he had been shipped off an unfamiliar city and a team he knew little about after spending his entire career in the Western Conference.
But now Fedorov is grateful for the change. He's having more fun than he's had in years, he said, reinvigorated by Boudreau's up-tempo system and a roster filled with young and talented players that remind Fedorov of himself 15 years ago.
"Just getting the chance to play hockey the way it's supposed to be played, which is using hockey sense, not robotic," Fedorov said, referring to the Blue Jackets' defense-first strategy. In Columbus "you had to do things that didn't require much skill. It's much, much different here. That's why it's exciting and refreshing."
Fedorov is no longer the player who amassed 56 goals and 64 assists en route to earning MVP honors in 1993-94. But, Boudreau said, the six-time all-star's contributions cannot be measured in points alone. He's been the team's best faceoff man, rising to ninth in the league (55.6 percent). He's defensively responsible and, most importantly, he's mentored many of the young players, particularly fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
"What a pro," Boudreau of Fedorov. "He could have no points. I'm so lucky to get to know him. He's constantly teaching his other teammates. He just talks, reminding guys what they need to do."
Fedorov has embraced the role of elder statesman and frequently pulls aside his young teammates to talk strategy. They have almost no choice but to listen. After all, the advice is coming from Sergei Fedorov, No. 10 on the NHL's active scoring list with 1,141 points.
"If they listen and do it, that's perfect," he said. "But when you say too much, or too many things at once, that's not good. I came here to add something, not to interrupt."
Said Ovechkin: "It's not one thing. It's lots of things. I can just watch him. How he thinks about the game. How he [prepares]. How he controls the game. He's unbelievable in the locker room. His experience helps us. We're lucky we get him. He's a good teacher."
Nicklas Backstrom agreed, adding: "We talk about the power play a lot. He tells me where I should go and little things like that."
How much longer Fedorov remains a Capital is uncertain. He's an unrestricted free agent at season's end, meaning he'll be available to the highest bidder. Last month, he acknowledged that he would consider all of his options, including retirement.
"I told my friends and family, 'Listen guys, let me finish whatever we can here,' " he said Friday. "We'll all get together in the summer over a barbecue and talk about it. Everyone will get a chance to voice their opinion -- my mom, my dad, my brother, my agent and some teammates I just met on this team. It's always good to step back before you step forward."