Ovechkin Providing Some April Fuel
Alex Ovechkin is the best player in the game at the height of his powers. He played in a meaningful April game for the first time in his career at Verizon Center, for years a spring mausoleum but now a decibel-bursting technodrome, replete with sound and belief.
It is why he rightly may become the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1988 to win the Hart Trophy on a team that didn't qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. It is why Ovechkin is about to become the first Washington star in 25 years to win the most valuable player award in a major American team sport.
When he whirled and fired the puck into the right corner of the net with 3 minutes 36 seconds left last night -- scoring his 63rd goal of the season and tying Luc Robitaille for the most goals by a left wing in NHL history -- the chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" rained down, growing in fervor and pitch as Ovechkin headed to the bench after nailing the door shut on Carolina.
Not since Joe Theismann was the NFL MVP in 1983 has any athlete from the District come close. But then, since the NHL expanded to 30 teams, no team ever has come from further back -- from 15th place in the Eastern Conference at the start of the year -- to make such a sprint toward the NHL postseason.
Ovechkin and his comrades continued the run, jumping out early and keeping the pressure on the Carolina Hurricanes in a 4-1 victory before a loud, sellout mob of 18,277, most of whom wore red cotton and hollered passionately, as if they were in Bloomington, Ind.; Columbus, Ohio; Lincoln, Neb.; or some other nook or cranny of the country whose self-esteem is tethered to the local college team.
That's what the Russian kid has done. That's what his rumpled Canadian coach and this young, fast and potent team have accomplished. They've turned an ambivalent hockey town, which has almost no memory of a Stanley Cup finals sweep by Detroit a decade ago, into a virtual puckhead convention.
When Alexander Semin guided a puck that ricocheted off his chest into the net for a power-play goal with about five minutes left in the second period, he ran himself into the glass, a euphoric smile crossing his face as the building exploded with noise.
Slam-dancing against the glass after scoring a goal, of course, was Ovechkin's creation, and his teammate merely was imitating the 22-year-old, playing to a crowd that actually got it.
Semin seemed possessed. He flew around the ice like Scott Stevens, maliciously checking players like the old Capital/Devil. Ovechkin even ended up in the penalty box, punishing a Hurricanes player for poking his goalie with a stick. He didn't behave like a protected and coddled asset; in that moment he was Donald Brashear, a veteran enforcer sent in to mete out justice. Ovechkin had an uneven game by his standards, his deft touch deserting him for most of three periods. But he still wound up with the goal of the game, a spin-and-shoot rocket as powerful as it was pretty.
There were all these bit-part players never seen in the trailers of the Capitals' commercials -- Matt Cooke, Shaone Morrisonn, Tomas Fleischmann -- assisting, checking, caught up in an atmosphere that Ovechkin called "one of the loudest of my career, the loudest I ever hear here."
Bruce Boudreau, toiling in Hershey, Pa., a year ago, last night readied a team for what amounted to playoff hockey at Verizon. "The loudest I ever heard a building," the coach said. "Granted, the buildings I've been in don't hold as many people, but this was the loudest thing I've been in."
Twenty-six call-ups and demotions to his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs later -- 33 years spent at various minor league hockey levels -- the "Slap Shot" extra now is a bona fide NHL coach.