Friday, September 16, 2005

Washington is saving Alexander Ovechkin’s Capitals debut for the home fans Wednesday night against Buffalo.

The team said yesterday that the much heralded left wing, the No.1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, would not appear in either of the club’s first two preseason games, tonight against Carolina in Raleigh, N.C., and tomorrow night against the Sabres in Buffalo, N.Y.

Coach Glen Hanlon said this was an opportunity to see other players in game conditions because Ovechkin obviously would make the final roster.

“We went through the lineup, and we know the players who are going to be here, and obviously he’s in that group,” the coach said. “We have some tough decisions to make, and this will give him a couple more days to get adjusted to Washington, get himself situated and do the things he’s got to do.”

Both Hanlon and general manager George McPhee have pointed out repeatedly that there are more opportunities for outsiders to make this team than perhaps at any time in the Caps’ history. One of those players trying to make a good impression is defenseman J.F. Fortin, who has played 71 NHL games and half the season in the American Hockey League last season after being re-signed.

“This is my last chance for the NHL because I’m not going to be patient any more,” Fortin said after a good performance in a pair of 40-minute scrimmages yesterday. “It’s the NHL this year or Europe next year, that’s all. Everybody knows it: This is my last year in North America if I don’t play in the NHL.”

Fortin was a second-round pick by the Caps in 1997 but has had an up-and-down career, mostly because of conditioning problems. He was called up in 2001-02 and played good hockey for 36 games, prompting people to question why he had been relegated to the minors. But the following season he was a shadow of the previous season and found himself demoted. A year later, he played just a few games before taking a season off.

“I thought he was the best defenseman out there,” Hanlon said of the 26-year-old. “He’s likely playing for a job. He’s desperate. There’s some room and time in your game to develop, I don’t care who you are. If you didn’t make the NHL in a certain time frame, then you go from a prospect to you-have-to-do-it-now, and that’s where J.F.’s at. Some people recognize it, and some people recognize it too late. It’s obvious J.F. recognized it with time to spare.”

Fortin looks like an All-Star one night and can’t get out of his own way the next. He knows making the team will be tough but appears to be confident.

“I have to beat out everybody. I know that,” he said. “This is my last chance, I have nothing to lose. I know I can have a spot in the top six on this team. I did it before. I know overall I’m a better defenseman that all these other guys. My goal is to play regular in the NHL.”

Notes — The first cuts came yesterday, with goalie Daren Machesney being returned to his junior team in Brampton, Ontario, and promising defenseman Clayton Barthel being sent back to Seattle in the Western Hockey League. … There’s still no sign of forwards Alexander Semin and Petr Sykora. Both are in Europe, and the season starts in 20 days. … Highly touted defenseman Steve Eminger was used as a center yesterday and didn’t do badly.

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