By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Alex Ovechkin has accumulated one of the game's greatest collections of highlights and already owns a trophy case full of major awards. But even he was at a loss when asked to explain such a sublime start to his fifth professional season.
"Thank God, I've had a little bit luck," the Washington Capitals' star left winger said. "And when I score goals, guys give me nice assists."
After notching two goals and an assist in Tuesday's 6-5 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, Ovechkin became the first player in 27 years to score at least three points in the first three games of the season, joining Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur and Peter Stastny. It also marked the first time in Ovechkin's career that he has scored three points in three straight games.
"It's funny, after the first period [in Philly], the coaches said, 'Jeez, it just doesn't look like Alex has it tonight,' " Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I said, he's got six points in the first two games. He can't do this forever. Then he goes and gets three. He surprises you every day."
On Thursday, Ovechkin can become the first player to score at least three points in the first four games of the season when the Capitals host all-star goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. But the milestone on everyone's mind is much bigger: Can the 24-year-old Russian break the 70-goal plateau, something no one has done in 17 years?
Teemu Selanne and Alex Mogilny both scored 76 goals in 1992-93. Since then, only Mario Lemieux's 69 in 1995-96 and Ovechkin's 65 in 2007-08 have come close.
"Last year he got off to a slow start, but after that he was on fire for the rest of the season," goaltender José Theodore said. "And he's pretty much picked up right where he left off. It's early, but if someone can reach 70, he's the guy to do it. He's the most natural and best goal scorer I've ever seen."
And he only seems to be getting better. Through Tuesday's games, Ovechkin led the league in points (nine), plus-minus (plus-6) and shots (17) and shared the lead in goals (five). His point total is more than double his previous best through three games (he had four points as a rookie), as are his five goals (he has had two three times).
Ovechkin's hot start contrasts sharply with the difficult October he endured last season. Distracted by his grandfather's failing health -- he missed two games to visit him in Russia -- he scored only two goals in the Capitals' first 13 games and didn't record his fifth until Nov. 14 (team game No. 16) before finishing the season with 56 goals and a second straight Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy.
"Last year, it was personal situation," he said. "My mind was not about hockey. My mind was about my grandpa, my mind was in Moscow. But right now I just concentrate on my game. I have more time than every forward; I have to use these chances. If I have that kind of trust and respect, I have to use it."
Ovechkin also has found that playing on the same line as game-breakers Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin has forced opposing teams to back off in the offensive zone and think twice about focusing solely on him.
"It creates for me open space," Ovechkin said. "They are great at puck handling. So when they see me open in offensive zone, they just give me puck and shoot the puck or move a little forward and find the space to shoot."
Boudreau has used the line in past seasons when down by a goal or when the offense needed a jump-start. But he usually ended up splitting apart the three because they have the tendency to over-pass and neglect their responsibilities at the defensive end. Neither one of those issues, however, has popped up yet.
"They're being more responsible," Boudreau said of the line. "And I told them, if they want to play together, this is what they have to do. Evidently, they took it to heart."
The line is certainly capable of dominating games. But can it stay together and help Ovechkin make history?
"We've said it ad nauseam that he's a special individual," Boudreau said. "People don't get tired of hearing about how special he is. We should just enjoy it while he's doing it."
Capitals Notes: Boyd Kane was reassigned to the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears, opening a spot on the left side of the fourth line. That void could be filled by defenseman Tyler Sloan, who practiced at forward and has played there in spot duty in the past. . . .
One day after dropping a shot from the point that resulted in a rebound goal, goaltender Semyon Varlamov spent several minutes working with goaltending coach Arturs Irbe on closing his glove on long shots. . . .
Mike Knuble needed 10 stitches on his left ankle after taking a shot there in Philadelphia. When it was pointed out that his bloody sock was reminiscent of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's, Knuble shot back, "Yeah, but my sock is not going in the Hall of Fame."