Tuesday, September 20, 2005

One young Russian, with the potential to be an NHL superstar, makes his MCI Center debut tonight while it now appears another won’t be playing in North America this season.

Alexander Ovechkin will appear in a Washington Capitals uniform tonight when the Buffalo Sabres visit for a preseason game, the first NHL contest at the downtown rink since April 3, 2004.

Alexander Semin, the talented young left wing who is under contract to the Caps, remains in Russia playing for Super League team Lada Togliatti. The exact reasons for his absence were unclear yesterday. Indeed, it remains a mystery even to Caps officials.

On the plus side, it appears that right wing-center Petr Sykora, who was expected to finally make his way to Washington from the Czech Republic last weekend, likely will arrive sometime this weekend. His saga is nearly as convoluted as the one surrounding Semin but at least it may reach a successful conclusion for the Caps.

Washington, 0-2 in preseason, finished preparations for the Sabres rematch (3-2 overtime loss on Saturday) yesterday with a lengthy practice devoted almost entirely to special teams.

“Just to have hockey in our building is going to be terrific for all of us,” general manager George McPhee said. “The game’s back, it’s better than it was and we’re all looking forward to a full year of hockey.”

The 2004-05 season was wiped out by a 310-day lockout that ended in July when the league and its players’ union signed a six-year collective bargaining agreement.

Ovechkin, the first pick overall in the 2004 draft, has said that playing in the NHL has been his dream for as long as he can remember. The left wing, who turned 20 Saturday, will play in front of his parents and older brother, who flew in from Moscow for a visit.

In halting English, Ovechkin admitted he would be nervous “but not that much.” He said a victory was more important to him than scoring a goal.

“It’s very important because it is my first game in NHL and I must prove to myself I can play in this league,” Ovechkin said.

McPhee, in discussing the two missing Caps, said Semin recently had changed agents, dropping the huge IMG firm and signing on with Mark Gandler. From his body language, it did not appear McPhee viewed that as a good move.

“We’re getting mixed signals regarding Semin,” McPhee said. “He’s in violation of his contract and we’re going to be as aggressive as we can to remedy this. We’re frustrated and disappointed. We feel we’ve done all the right things. This is a real talented player who should be here.”

Semin has been a problem for the Caps almost from the start. He proved to be hard to coach; he seemingly made little or no effort to learn the language; he missed the team plane to the final game of the 2003-04 season (his teammates played short); he was suspended last season when he refused to report to the Caps’ affiliate in the American Hockey League but the Russians refused to honor the punishment.

The Czechs signed the new International Ice Hockey Federation transfer agreement, meaning Sykora, also under contract with Washington, had no choice but report or be unable to play anywhere. The Russians did not sign the agreement, meaning they probably will not honor any new suspension of Semin just as they did not honor the last one.

Early planning had both players on one of the first two lines but that now appears impossible, at least for Semin. That opens the door for one of the 18 forwards still in camp to grab a spot that had been spoken for.

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