SUNRISE, Fla. | Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have formed one of the most dangerous and productive tandems in the NHL this season, but the player who might be able to make this year a truly special one for the Washington Capitals is the guy known as the “other Alex.”
Whether he is playing alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line or anchoring the second unit, Alexander Semin can alter the potential ceiling for the Caps this postseason. When Semin is at his best, he helps make the Caps an elite contender.
”It makes us a pretty good team,” general manager George McPhee said. “He has the ability to be one of the best in the business. When he is playing consistently well, we're a really good team. Everybody develops at a different rate. Nicky Backstrom comes in and is good from Day 1 and is good defensively. Semin has had to work at being good every night.”
Semin recently put together about a 10-game stretch when he was consistently the team's best player. That run followed his success in the first month of this season, when he was leading the NHL in goals before a cross-check to the back put him out of the lineup for nearly a month.
Getting him to be at his best more consistently - or forecasting when he might be - can be a challenge. In the past couple of games, Semin has not put forth the same type of dominant effort.
”[It is] consistency - I don't know. I wish I had an affirmative answer,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Sometimes it is hard - and not only with [Semin] - to dig into the psyche of everybody and know exactly what they're thinking. I have an idea, but I can't say. When he wants to play, he can be better than anybody.”
Ovechkin and Backstrom have not been dominating games of late like earlier this season, but Semin has been there to take the lead. When Boudreau puts the trio together, it may be the most talented line in the NHL.
But it is when Semin plays on another line, typically with Sergei Fedorov, and both groups are playing well that the Caps are a potential Stanley Cup contender.
”If you're the coach of the other team, you say, 'OK, we're always going to put our best 'D' against Alex O.,' and that leaves Alex Semin to play against their second-best pairing or sometimes their third,” Boudreau said. “Quite frankly, it can sometimes be overwhelming for those guys unless you're one of the elite teams that have four great defensemen like the [New] Jerseys or the Bostons. It is hard to contain them both when they are both going.”
Carolina coach Paul Maurice said of Semin: “He's just exceptionally gifted, and he's the kind of talent in the league that, from the other bench, you never feel safe when a guy like that is on the ice. He may not be explosive all the time, but he can take very little and score from his knees. Even if he has it on the half-wall 60 feet from the net, you're still not feeling right.”
Were it not for the injury, Semin may have challenged Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's duo of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the NHL scoring title. Semin is, in fact, averaging more points a game than his good buddy sitting next to him in the Caps' dressing room.
Semin's recent run of excellence was not just about his offensive production - though he did put up 16 points in a nine-game stretch. He has made large strides this season with his play when his team doesn't have the puck.
While his elite offensive ability is a result of maybe the most gifted set of hands in hockey, Semin also puts them to great use when he is playing defense. He is tied with Backstrom for third in the NHL in takeaways this season (69) despite playing nearly 20 fewer games than the other leaders.
”It is his anticipation, and he has a fantastic stick,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “He has great hands, and a lot of times he can reach in and grab a puck out of a skate or he can lift a stick. With the puck or without it, his hands are terrific.”
There is a downside to Semin's penchant for trying to steal the puck from other players, and it is that if he misses, it can lead to a hooking penalty.
But when Semin does it smartly and is willing to backcheck, he can be one of the team's top defensive players. His all-around performance in a 2-1 win at Nashville last week - eight shots, four takeaways and the primary assist on the game-winning goal in overtime - might have been the best by a Caps player this season.
“I talked to [Predators associate coach] Brent Peterson after the Nashville game,” Caps assistant coach Dean Evason said. “He said, 'Ovechkin is Ovechkin, but Semin was unbelievable. We couldn't get the puck off of him.' ”