Wednesday, October 5, 2005

The crowd watching the Washington Capitals’ season opener last night was not sparse, at least not like the disappointingly small crowds that turned out for the team’s three exhibition games at MCI Center.

There was no full house, not by a long shot. But this morning a lot more people than were actually present will claim to have been there to see sensational rookie Alexander Ovechkin score twice in his NHL debut as the Caps rallied to beat Columbus 3-2. Montgomery County product Jeff Halpern assisted on all three goals.

The first NHL game in Washington in nearly 18 months drew 16,325, the Caps said, but that doesn’t mean that many people bought tickets to the game. That figure, in NHL terms, is the number of tickets distributed by all means, not the number in which cash changed hands. MCI holds 18,277 for hockey.

Among those in attendance last night, for instance, were an unknown number who had bought tickets at a considerable discount because one very large Virginia-based Internet firm — AOL — was running a promotion.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” said general manager George McPhee. “This is a midweek game, there are baseball playoffs on TV and we’re coming off a yearlong lockout.”

The upper level of the arena was fairly full, the more expensive lower level seats were about two-thirds occupied. It was the club level, in the middle, that was virtually empty. That portion of MCI is handled by Washington Sports & Entertainment, not the Caps. Tickets for that section were on sale yesterday at $90 per seat but generally are not on sale to the public unless other portions of the rink are already sold. Yesterday’s sale was not announced.

But sellouts for Caps’ home openers are the exception, not the rule. The last time Washington played before a full house to open a season was on Oct. 6, 2001, Jaromir Jagr’s debut in the nation’s capital. But the Caps paid a stiff price — and continue to do so — for that acquisition.

It appeared the crowd showed up to see if everything it had heard about Ovechkin was true. He put on a dazzling display, starting with a heavy-duty hit in the game’s first minute that seemed to set his tone. By the end, the fans were on their feet, cheering and applauding.

The very broad grin across Ovechkin’s face spoke volumes about a young man who came from Russia to fulfill his dream — to play in the NHL.

“I feel excellent,” he said in the jammed dressing room after the game, that in itself a rarity for the Caps. “We win game, [my] first game in NHL and we win. So I feel very good. When I go out to ice for first time, I was a little bit nervous, all people screaming, it’s amazing.”

Ovechkin’s parents and brother Mikael were in the stands helping cheer the 20-year-old. When he scored 7:21 into the second period, Washington’s first goal of the season, he leaped into the air, raised his stick with his right hand and pumped air with his left while going down on his left knee. He then immediately searched the stands for his family.

“I find them and I said, ‘This is my parents’ first goal in NHL,’ ” he said.

All the scoring in the game came within a 10-minute span in the second period. Ovechkin scored twice and his center, Dainius Zubrus, scored the winner at 16:51.

Notes — It was the Caps’ fourth straight home-opening victory. … Goalie Brent Johnson arrived yesterday via red-eye from Vancouver but he was not dressed for last night’s game. He did, however, pass his physical. … The two scratches last night were right wing Stephen Peat and defenseman Nolan Yonkman.

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