- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

They made quite the quintet — five guys in full body armor moving at exhilarating speeds in tight quarters.

For Alex Ovechkin and four of his Washington Capitals buddies, this was not a typical day at the office. Instead of skates and sticks, Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Staffan Kronwall and Karl Alzner wanted a thrill away from the hockey rink. They found it — on a Go-Kart track.

“It was so much fun,” said Green, one of the organizers of the off-day excursion to Allsports Grand Prix in Dulles last month. “They were FAST — like racing ones. It was sick. It was like real racing — we weren’t just putzing around out there.”

What was interesting wasn’t five professional hockey players hanging out and driving Go-Karts at 35 mph, but rather the composition of the group: two Swedes, two Canadians and one of the most famous Russians in the sporting world.

The Caps’ roster is a smorgasbord of countries, a group fit for a United Nations summit with players from, at times, seven or eight different global outposts.

At the epicenter is a contingent of Russians that will go five deep on a team that will dress 20 players for each game in the playoffs. That figure is remarkable in itself: The number of Russians in the NHL in recent years has fallen to half of what it was at the beginning of the decade. There have, in fact, been fewer than 30 in the entire league at times this season.

The decline certainly isn’t apparent in Washington. The Caps field more Russians than any other team, and they all play a critical role in the team’s remarkable, newfound success.

Quick rise to the top

The Capitals made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, but by the 2003-04 season were one of the worst teams in the league.

That began to change when the team drafted Ovechkin with the first overall pick in the 2004 draft. Ovechkin quickly established himself as hockey’s most exciting player — and perhaps its best, too. Last season, Ovechkin scored more goals than any player had in 12 years, won both league MVP trophies and signed a 13-year, $124 million contract — all before the age of 23.

Led by Ovechkin, the Caps left behind three straight last-place finishes in the Southeast Division last season and surged to first. This season will bring another division crown — and a legitimate shot at hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.

Along the way, the Caps became the “it” team in a town whose sports conversations usually begin and end with the Washington Redskins. The Caps routinely sell out Verizon Center, drawing fans to F Street to see one of the NHL’s youngest and most talented teams.

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