Alexander Semin is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a set of pads and a Capitals jersey. And that's exactly how he likes it.
Semin allows only glimpses of his personality to get out, mostly spending his time scoring goals and picking up the occasional offensive-zone hooking penalty.
"I'm just an ordinary person just like everybody else," Semin said through an interpreter this week. "The only difference is I'm out there on the ice and that's it."
There's more to Semin than 28 goals and 26 assists this season, but it doesn't matter much to him that Caps fans understand him personally, as he says repeatedly, "I'd just rather talk about hockey." With the playoffs beginning Wednesday night, his focus is on the New York Rangers and trying to score his first postseason goal in two years.
But Semin does sometimes let flashes of an off-ice personality shine through a seemingly cold exterior.
"At times he shows his personality. He's a guy that likes to have fun and stuff like that," defenseman Jeff Schultz said. "Around the teammates he's joking around, he's very personable and he's just one of the guys."
Fans got to see one of those atypical public moments April 2. After the Caps' overtime victory over the Sabres, Semin picked up 5-year-old William Shannon and held him during the shirts-off-their-backs ceremony. William, who is suffering from leukemia, practiced with the team earlier in the week, and Semin just wanted to do something nice.
"Doing something small like that just to make him happy, why not?" Semin said. "I like kids, and I always like kids because all the kids are our future."
Speaking outside the locker room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex after an hourlong practice preparing for New York, Semin didn't want anything to do with discussing his life outside the rink. But that's nothing new; his teammates say Semin is at times guarded and quiet when not with fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Semyon Varlamov.
"I think the language thing's a little bit difficult for him at times," veteran winger Mike Knuble said. "To be honest, I haven't been to dinner with him much."
As far as communicating with teammates in English, Semin said he has "absolutely no problem with that." Naturally, he means communicating about hockey - the universal language that allows him to fulfill a major role with the Caps despite not feeling comfortable enough with English to talk to reporters without an interpreter.
But Semin is fluent in the language of hockey, having watched Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov growing up - "When I was young I could never dream that I could play with [Fedorov] on the same line," he said. And while the 27-year-old winger often looks disinterested, he's hardly that.
"I like the excitement, I like scoring goals, the fans, everything," Semin said. "I've been living hockey my entire life."
With hockey being much of Semin's life, lack of success in the playoffs has drawn criticism. He has gone 14 postseason games without a goal, but if he's feeling the pressure, he's not letting anyone see it - as usual.
"He's pretty quiet. He handles pressure in his own way and doesn't really reveal it," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "If there is, then it'll make him more determined. If there's not, hopefully he's relaxed and can score a few."
At the tail end of the regular season, Semin looked more determined - something that has at least a little to do with Jason Arnott joining the Caps at the trade deadline. The chemistry the two have developed has grown even after the veteran center criticized Semin for needing more "discipline" in his game.
"I talk to him a lot," Arnott said recently. "In certain situations, yeah, you gotta help him out and correct things, but just communication a lot and kinda just enjoying to play with each other. ... He's one of the most talented players I've ever seen and played with. He just sometimes needs that extra push and just a little talking-to to help him out."
Semin didn't react poorly to Arnott busting in and calling him out right away.
"I wouldn't say he called me out," Semin said. "He just told me some suggestions. He said, 'Hey, the playoffs are coming, we gotta start keeping pucks in the middle zone, you better not lose it, and when you're going against one-on-three, don't do that.' It was more of a suggestion than a calling-out. I never thought of it as being called out - just good advice."
Teammates who have been asked about Semin seem not to know what to say. They like Semin - but most can't have full conversations with him.
"I know him a little bit," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "I think if you know him, he's probably a good guy."
The thing is, not many get to know him. But that's just how Semin wants it.
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