- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

It certainly was the most talked-about goal of the season, perhaps of the decade. It has been replayed thousands of times, and every day there still are hits on the Washington Capitals’ Web site from those who want to see it again.

On Jan. 16, Capitals budding star Alex Ovechkin scored the final goal of a 6-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes while sliding across the ice on his back, reaching behind and over his head to sweep the puck into the net.

Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, who knows plenty about great plays and great players, was more than impressed by what he had seen from Ovechkin.

“He’s a phenomenal player, and he’s been a tremendous influence in the game. It’s great to see, because he is that good,” Gretzky said.

That goal was just one small moment — granted, a jaw-dropping one — in a season of tremendous accomplishments for the rookie, who jitterbugged his way through NHL defenses to become only the second rookie in the 89-year history of the league to score more than 50 goals and 100 points.

Ovechkin was chosen by the Caps with the top pick in the 2004 entry draft, and he came into this season advertised as one of the best rookies ever to enter the league. He lived up to that ambitious billing, leaving opponents grasping for parallels.

“I always felt [he] was a little bit like Gordie Howe,” Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He can beat you physically, and he can beat you with his skill. I always thought that Gordie was the player that he reminded [me] of.”

Ovechkin and his teammates, many of whom he has helped to career seasons, play their final home game tonight against an Atlanta Thrashers team that must win to keep its flickering playoff hopes alive.

Ovechkin will try tonight and in the season finale tomorrow to climb a little higher in the team and league record books, but there aren’t many rungs left in either category. The left wing wiped out all the Caps’ rookie records weeks ago, leaving him in the exclusive company of players who for decades have held their places on the statistical ladder of single-season club and league records.

Ovechkin ranks third all-time among rookies in both goals and points. He has produced more points (103) in one season than any player in Caps history except Dennis Maruk, who had 136 in the 1981-82 season. He has scored more goals in one season than all but three players in franchise history.

“Obviously, he’s one of the very best” who has played the game, Caps general manager George McPhee said. “What he’s accomplished this year considering the coverage he’s gotten from other teams is incredible. Literally, whenever he steps onto the ice, the other team puts its best pair of defensemen out there as well as its top checking forward. And still he has put up these numbers. Amazing.”

The Caps are in the early stages of a rebuilding program, and if opponents are able to shut down Ovechkin, they also can turn off nearly 50 percent of the team’s weak offense. Center Dainius Zubrus and right wing Chris Clark are having career seasons playing with Ovechkin, but they also are paying a physical price just being on the ice with the one-man gang.

“[Ovechkin] is a punishing, physical guy,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said. “Everything he says in the media, everything he says to his teammates is about winning, about the team. He gets the puck, goes hard. And when he doesn’t have the puck, he’s forechecking — bang, crash. He’s come to us as close to perfect as there is.”

On his first shift in the NHL, Ovechkin caught Carolina’s Aaron Ward with his head down behind the Hurricanes’ cage. Ovechkin stapled Ward to the rear boards, leaving him flattened. That tactic doesn’t always work, though. Against the Ottawa Senators, Ovechkin tried to check defenseman Zdeno Chara, who is 6-foot-9 and 265 pounds. Chara never flinched, and Ovechkin bounced off and landed on his rump.

His emotional, carefree style of play immediately caught on with long-suffering Caps fans. Ovechkin reminded them of another fan favorite, Peter Bondra, the longtime Caps star who now plays for the Thrashers.

For years, Bondra merchandise were staple items along the Verizon Center concourse. In one season, Ovechkin changed that, too. Management had tremendous difficulty keeping up with demand. At one point, a team spokesman said, there was a six-week backorder on Ovechkin jerseys, which do not go cheap. Ovechkin jerseys have been visible in every building in which the team has played the past few months.

“He has great charisma and charm,” said Ted Leonsis, the team’s majority owner. “He is a new age and breed of great talent. He has size and skill. He gets results, he makes his teammates better. He loves playing hockey and is living his dream in the NHL.”

Ovechkin is on a rookie contract and will be for two more seasons. His base salary is just short of $1million, but bonuses will push that to almost $4million, not including endorsements. The Caps can retain his rights as a restricted free agent until he turns 27 (he’ll be 21 in September). Ovechkin could be the subject of a huge bidding war when he becomes an unrestricted free agent if he continues to improve.

“He’s a darn good player now who will probably continue to improve in all areas of the game,” McPhee said. “When our time comes and we’re in the playoffs, he’ll be one of those guys who’s even better in postseason than he is during the regular season because he’s so physical and he plays better in that kind of game.

“You can see now just how much he’s learned in this one season over here. He’s learned how to buy himself time, learned how to distribute the puck when he’s being double-teamed, learned how different goalies and defensemen play. He’s only going to get better.”

Around the dressing room he is just one of the guys, just another player — only one with a lot more traffic to his stall from the press. Even that is fodder for laughter and self-depreciating humor. He is the picture of a carefree young man playing a little boy’s game, not a sulking superstar moping in a corner because some little thing wasn’t done to his liking.

He appears to be as popular around the league as he is with his own teammates. His open, friendly style makes it hard for him not to carry on little conversations with opposing players during stoppages in play. Players, like Carolina’s Ward, occasionally can be seen doubled over in laughter while trying to fathom what Ovechkin is muttering in broken English. Or maybe it’s Russian, or maybe half and half.

“It’s just amazing that this guy is so entertaining. I hear more and more players kind of talking about the guy like they are fans of his,” the Red Wings’ Brendan Shanahan said.

“He’s a star, no question,” Senators (and former Caps) coach Bryan Murray said. “He’s quick, he’s dangerous. … He’s an exciting player. There should be more people coming to the building to watch this guy play because he is a star.”

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