By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
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.
Remember that corny Disney movie in which the great New York Rangers travel to play some local yokels in Alaska?
Yeah, well, this little frozen pond on F Street is beginning to feel like a made-up Alaskan town.
The Capitals have won nine of their last 10 games, playing a brand of hockey full of grace, elan and force. With two home games remaining -- Tampa Bay tomorrow and Florida on Saturday -- several things need to happen for the Caps to get in the postseason.
A good vibe encircles the franchise at the moment, but the mood could change if they fall short of owner Ted Leonsis's oft-stated playoff goal. After such an uphill climb following their awful 6-14-1 start, it may be there will be no payoff at the end.
But what transpired this season -- Ovechkin supplanting Sidney Crosby as the NHL's marquee player, Boudreau taking his vast minor league coaching roots and planting in the heads of his NHL players that "hockey is hockey," proactive general manager George McPhee pulling aces from the deck when his job was in jeopardy -- overshadows any run to the postseason.
With the 24-and-under crowd (Ovechkin, Semin, the soon-to-be-signed Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom, who my Norwegian neighbor says needs to be more selfish with the puck), the Capitals haven't merely turned the corner this season; they've most likely set themselves up for several Stanley Cup runs the next 10 years, after which Ovechkin will be a mere 32 and still have three years remaining on that 13-year, $124 million deal he signed this season.
The only casualty -- and it's a big one -- most likely will be 37-year-old Olie Kolzig. The player who carried the Capitals in their good and lean years for almost two decades was replaced as the full-time goalie by Cristobal Huet two weeks ago.
Huet, a smaller goaltender with a calming stability and the ability to control rebounds very well, is the future. Kolzig's intimidating size and fire, the Capitals have deemed, are part of the past. Unable to get his head around being a backup goalie, the chances of him returning grow slimmer and slimmer.
And if he goes at season's end, at least let him be remembered as the man who served as a bridge to the new generation. He was not really replaced by Huet as much as by Ovechkin, now the face of the franchise and someone whose fire burns just as hot and bright in April as Kolzig's once did.
In a noisy arena cloaked in red last night, the best player in the game and his streaking teammates have given a long-tolerant fan base hope and promise not just for this week, but also for the next decade.