- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

Things are turning out fairly well for Washington Capitals center Dainius Zubrus, but it’s safe to say the season did not start as planned.

To begin with, the Caps used one of their few free agent moves to bring in a center with more experience — Andrew Cassels, now long gone.

Then Zubrus had arthroscopic surgery on his knee just before the season, meaning he missed all of training camp. A groin injury less than a month into the season kept him out virtually all of November.

By the time Zubrus was ready to go, Alex Ovechkin was a household name in the hockey world, and Zubrus, the former right wing, was trying to fit into the rookie’s style. Nice try. Nobody, as it turns out, fits into Ovechkin’s style without jets strapped to his back and a mind constantly whirling with creative offensive schemes.

So Zubrus decided to help as much as possible while refining his own game, letting the 20-year-old run like a mustang while he held back. He contributed more on defense, where instinct told him the rookie would have more trouble in his first NHL season.

The results have been gratifying. Zubrus has 44 points for the season, one more than his career high. He has 17 goals, matching his career best. He has nine power-play goals, three more than ever before. And he is a team-high plus-10 defensively, somewhat remarkable on a team that was officially eliminated from the playoffs Sunday night and has won only 23 of 70 games.

“I want Zubie to play exactly the way he’s playing,” coach Glen Hanlon said yesterday, deflecting what he feels is unwarranted criticism of his first-line center from people who say the brilliant Ovechkin could be even more productive with a better pivot. “He’s playing through injuries, pain. He works hard. If he scores another 10 goals in a season and does all the things he does now …”

Hanlon would accept that but not if it meant the big man would be minus-10 instead of a plus player.

“What Zubie is doing right now is exactly how I pictured him playing,” the coach said.

What he is doing is a little bit of everything. He is averaging nearly 20 minutes a game on the ice — 12 at even strength, five on the power play and almost three killing penalties. Ovechkin gets more than a minute more because he double shifts so often.

“He help me a lot on the ice and off the ice,” Ovechkin said of Zubrus.

What does he do specifically?

“He give me the puck,” the rookie said, smiling.

Said Hanlon of the relationship between the pair: “Zubie is firm with him, very, very firm, getting him to do the right thing on the ice. I think it’s a good fit. The dynamics of the two of them playing together, both speaking the same language, I don’t think there could have been anybody here this year that was better for Alexander than Dainius.”

Ovechkin was born and raised in Moscow. Zubrus was born in Lithuania, then a part of the Soviet Union, and speaks fluent Russian. Zubrus has acted as an older brother since the rookie arrived in Washington in September, translating when needed and explaining things that are foreign, including the differences between European and North American hockey.

On the ice, Zubrus is big, a force to be reckoned with should he get riled. But Ovechkin has shown he can exchange bodily contact and bounce right back without needing a lot of assistance.

“Playing with Alex, I try to give him the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants,” Zubrus said.

As if he has any choice in the matter.

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