Thomas Boswell: Led by Alex Ovechkin, Capitals Are Creating a Monster

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Alex Ovechkin bobblehead dolls distributed at Verizon Center this week were encased in so many layers of boxing, bubble and foam that you felt like Humphrey Bogart unwrapping the jewel-encrusted Maltese Falcon. In one way, Ovechkin resembles that famous detective-story bird: The Great Eight really is "the stuff that dreams are made of." But unlike the fake statue in the movie, Ovechkin is the real thing -- a treasure for the hockey ages.

"There has never been a player like him in this league. He showed up four years ago and just took over everything -- in a good way," General Manager George McPhee said after watching Ovechkin score a goal, start a ruckus to protect a teammate and obliterate several Blues with big hits as the Capitals won their fifth straight game Thursday.

"Ovie just lights up every room he's in. You hear him laughing, joking, having fun," McPhee said of the NHL's reigning most valuable player, who has 20 goals and 23 assists in 31 games, a slightly better scoring clip than when he had 112 points last season. "You run out of things to say."

Everything about the current Caps stretches the vocabulary of local fans because they've never before seen such a thrilling, unpredictable style of NHL hockey. Long ago, the Caps had fine teams built on defense, checking and boredom. Some of us stayed awake long enough to enjoy their 100-point seasons, their various coaches always named Murray and their thrill-a-month 2-1 shootouts.

The current Caps aren't better, yet, than those rugged teams or the lone Washington club to visit the Stanley Cup finals under Ron Wilson in 1998. But these Caps certainly are vastly more fun. If the score is 4-2 in the third period, bet on overtime. Unfortunately, that applies whether the Caps are ahead or behind.

"That's us," McPhee said. "We can drive us crazy.

"We want to be exciting. This is the style we prefer. And it's the style Bruce [Boudreau] wants to coach. You can teach people to defend. You can't teach them to score. It's a gift."

Nobody has the gift like Ovechkin. His performance in the final minute of overtime against the Islanders on Tuesday was at the intuitive, breathtaking level of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky at their best.

With 15 seconds left, both teams were resigned to a tie. New York killed time behind its goal, no Cap in sight. Then Ovechkin appeared, challenging the puck on the boards in the corner. An Islander panicked, flipping the puck to a teammate to prevent Ovechkin from performing a miracle. Yet that's just what happened. The hasty pass was intercepted by Nicklas Backstrom, who passed to Ovechkin, who had sliced into the slot.

In the blink of an eye, Ovechkin took his time. Simultaneously, he can seem to be moving faster, yet more deliberately, than anyone else. He twisted at nearly full speed, reached backward and around his defender, and waited for an instant of daylight -- which had not quite come yet, but would soon appear -- over the goalie's shoulder.

Into that tiny opening, which did not exist as he shot and which closed a microsecond afterward, Ovechkin fired his signature shot. What is that shot? The wrist shot that is fired so quickly and with such force that it might as well be a slap shot. Except the goalie doesn't have the edge of seeing the slap-shot windup.

"That's why he is so good," fellow Russian Viktor Kozlov said. "He has the most unbelievable shot I have ever seen. So quick, so short, but so hard.

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