- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

It was the type of practice a lot of players dream about, especially halfway through a grueling season — 20 minutes of easy skating, no contact, no meetings and no lectures. Most players barely broke into a sweat.

Alex Ovechkin wasn’t particularly pleased. He was ordered not to go out on the ice. Instead, he was forced to go back into the weight-exercise room where he and a few others worked out while listening to music.

Washington coach Glen Hanlon decided that was the best way for Ovechkin to prepare for tonight’s game against Carolina, which possesses an NHL-best 68 points.

“He’s played a lot of hockey,” Hanlon said rather defensively yesterday, referring to his star left wing.

True, Ovechkin did log more than 24 minutes against St. Louis the night before, scoring a goal and assisting on another in regulation before scoring a shootout goal. But he’s only 20, he’s in shape and he loves to play.

“I told Ovie he has to stay off because he doesn’t understand [the system] over here,” Hanlon said. “Over there [in his native Russia], I think they have to skate all the time, at least it seems they’re always out there. That’s just his makeup, wanting to go out. Someone has to help him [decide when it’s time to rest his body]. And when he does go out there, he goes at 100 percent all the time. He doesn’t know how to manage his energy.”

That’s a bonus for Hanlon because right now Ovechkin takes regular shifts on the top scoring line and is spotted on every other line so the Caps can make maximum use of their offensive phenomenon. That is one of the reasons he is on a seven-game point streak (nine goals, 14 points) and five-game goal streak that has produced eight tallies.

Those streaks and the Caps’ season-high three-game winning streak get put to a severe test tonight when the league-leading Hurricanes visit Washington. Despite a series of injuries to their defense that might cripple some clubs, the Hurricanes have climbed to the top of the NHL with solid, disciplined play and the offensive contribution from six players who have at least 14 goals apiece.

Carolina has an emerging young superstar of its own in Eric Staal. The 21-year-old center, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft behind Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, has 30 goals and 31 assists for a team that has won nine consecutive games for the second time this season.

It is the type of game the Caps have raised their play for this season, not always winning but usually playing well. Conversely, the Caps didn’t play particularly well and had to go to sudden death in the shootout to win Thursday night against cellar-dwelling St. Louis.

“We’re really in no position to say we’re better than any other team in the league right now,” goalie Olie Kolzig said. “There are some games that, on paper, you should win but those teams are just as hungry as we are and then they see us, they’re probably thinking the same thing so they also raise their level of play a little.”

Said Hanlon of Carolina: “Where they are in the standings and where we are, we just have to play our absolute best. This is going to be our toughest challenge of the year. I know we’re a better team than we were 30 games ago but I’m sure Carolina is, also. I don’t think you can take a [whole] lot from those games back then [in October].”

Notes — Center Jeff Halpern (groin) “is pretty close,” Hanlon said, and probably will play tonight. Same goes for Matt Bradley, who did not practice while he rested with an undisclosed ailment. Defensemen Jamie Heward and Steve Eminger, both nursing lower body injuries, did not practice and will not play.

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