- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Alex Ovechkin, aka Alexander the Great,is well on his way to conquering theNHL in his rookie season. The world, however, will have to wait.

Ovechkin and Russia lost to Finland 4-0 last night in the men’s hockey semifinals at the Winter Olympics. Like the rest of his team, Ovechkin was frustrated by goaltender Antero Niittymaki and the Finns’ defense, which together has allowed just five goals in seven games. Still, the Capitals’ 20-year-old winger made his mark before a global audience throughout the competition, scoring a team-high five goals and giving opponents much to think about.

“You’ve got to keep an eye on him all the time,” said Finn defenseman Teppo Numminen, a 17-year NHL veteran who plays for Buffalo. “You can’t give him any room and you’ve got to be in his face. You’ve got to know where he’s at all the time.”

Finland did a superb job accounting for Ovechkin, and everyone else, but other teams were not as proficient. Because of his youth and inexperience, some wondered how he might handle playing the big room. This is how: the other day, a headline in the Toronto Star wondered, “Ovechkin already the world’s top player?”

He presents a rare combination of speed, strength, creativity and instinct, although he had few chances to display it against the Finns. However, Ovechkin’s speed was a definite factor after the game when he blew by reporters standing in the mix zone, or interview area, without talking.

The subject of Ovechkin’s abilities in a global context will continue to generate debate. Meanwhile, he has earned the Wayne Gretzky stamp of approval. Against Canada earlier this week, Ovechkin broke a scoreless tie, as well as many Canadian hearts, in the quarterfinal game with a pretty goal in the third period. Russia went on to eliminate the gold-medal favorites 2-0, a defeat that brought Gretzky, the executive director of Team Canada, and an entire nation to tears.

“It was one of my important goals in my life and in my career,” Ovechkin said.

Afterward, the Great One, who also is the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, called Ovechkin “the most exciting” player in the world (although not necessarily the best) and referred to him as a “great example,” meaning “he’ll go through the middle, take a hit, take a shot.” During a game against the Coyotes earlier in the season, Gretzky said, Ovechkin blew him a kiss after scoring a goal.

Ovechkin has made it look easy living up to the hype and expectations that were instantly generated when the Capitals took him No. 1 in the 2004 NHL draft. But the Winter Olympics represented a different type of challenge. Not only was he not considered the best player on the team, it was fashionable to suggest he was only the second-best youngster after 19-year-old Evgeni Malkin.

Who knows? We’ll know more next season when Malkin, the second pick in 2004 behind Ovechkin, joins the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is supremely talented, but it is hard to argue that he contributed more during the Olympics than Ovechkin, a leading candidate for NHL rookie of the year.

“You’ve got to be careful when he’s on the ice,” Finland and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Aki Berg said. “He’s so fast and strong. That was the key. You have to play so well defensively. All five guys, not only one or two guys.”

In January, Ovechkin was just the third NHL player since 1983 to be named the top rookie and either offensive or defensive player of the month.

“He’s young, but he’s already a great player,” former NHL star Pavel Bure, the general manager of the Russian team, told reporters the other day. Only a couple of weeks ago, Bure was quoted as saying the same thing, but he added the qualifier, “for his age.”

No need for that now. Olympics competition, especially in the medal round, is considered to be better than that of the NHL and Ovechkin, the final game notwithstanding, proved he could handle it.

“He might be the best,” said Ovechkin’s teammate, Darius Kasparaitis, a 13-year NHL defenseman who plays for the New York Rangers. “He’s getting there. He just doesn’t score. He goes in the corners. He blocks shots. He skates hard. He does a little of everything.”

Like a multitude of other young Russians, Bure was Ovechkin’s hero as a kid. Ovechkin, whose mother, Tatiana, won Olympic gold medals in 1976 and 1980 while playing for the Soviet women’s basketball team, now is Bure’s protege.

“I think he’s going to have a huge future,” Bure said before the Finns ended the Olympic future of Ovechkin and the rest of the Russians.

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