- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When Alex Ovechkin was 14 years old, he received an autographed stick from Alexei Zhamnov, one of the top NHL players from his native Russia.

Since then Ovechkin has collected about a dozen sticks from players like mammoth Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara to his favorite, former Capitals antagonist Mario Lemieux.

“When I was a little boy, it was my dream to play in the NHL, and I watched the great players,” Ovechkin said. “Right now I play against them, and I like collecting sticks.”

Ovechkin’s sublime talent will be on display for the entire hockey world tonight when he joins forces with fellow anointed savior of the sport Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference starting lineup for the first NHL All-Star Game in three seasons.

A year after Ovechkin bested Crosby for the Calder Memorial Trophy for the league’s top rookie, the pair of precocious stars will play together for what should be the first of many times unless the league returns to the North America vs. the World format. Both players have carried their teams from the bottom of the NHL into the thick of the playoff race.

The 19-year-old Crosby’s numbers have soared this season. He leads the NHL with 72 points (through 46 games), and with help from this year’s Calder favorite, Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are tied for eighth place in the conference. Last season Crosby had 51 points in his team’s first 46 games.

Ovechkin’s offensive numbers do not bear the same type of improvement. He has 65 points, which is two more than he had last season at this point but good for a tie for third in the league behind Crosby and Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis. His goal scoring is down (from 33 to 29) but his assists are up (from 29 to 35), which is at least partially because of the arrival of Alexander Semin, who has scored 13 of his 27 goals while playing on the team’s top power-play unit with Ovechkin.

“We talked about this [last Wednesday] — just sort of hot stove stuff with the coaches, going over everybody and how are we impacting the players,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said. “We all talked about Ovie and where he has improved. We feel he shares the puck better and he plays the give-and-go game a lot better.”

Certainly Semin’s goal production — he ranks seventh in the NHL — is helped by playing with Ovechkin for a portion of each game. His even-strength linemates, Chris Clark and Dainius Zubrus, also can attest to the virtues of skating with Ovechkin. Both Zubrus and Clark set career highs last season playing on the Caps’ No. 1 line, and both are easily on pace to best those numbers this year.

Clark needs only one goal and three points to match his totals from last season, while Zubrus is six goals and 16 points away with 38 games to play.

“We have great players,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter if I score or Alex score or Zubie or Clarkie. It doesn’t matter. I want to win the game, and if we lose I am disappointed.”

The Caps have improved in the winning department as well.

Washington has won 20 of its first 48 games a year after needing 57 contests to secure that many victories. The Caps have 47 points (20-21-7) and are only three behind the Penguins for the final playoff spot but also are only one point ahead of 14th-place Florida.

Ovechkin’s biggest room for improvement remains at the defensive end of the ice. He always will be an offense-first sniper, but his coaches, and even teammates, continue to stress defense first.

Last season all three members of the Caps’ top line finished the season with a positive number in the plus-minus category. This year both Ovechkin (-6) and Zubrus (-7) have some work to do to replicate last season.

“Alex is Alex,” Zubrus said. “Whatever he does offensively, obviously he is one of the best. To be complete and for our team to be better, as a line we have to play better in our own end and our half of the ice. That is for sure.

“Our problem is not scoring goals. We know if we go hard we can score goals. It is about us playing the system and playing better without the puck.”

For one night at least, Ovechkin can forget about focusing on his defensive responsibilities. The wide-open play tonight at American Airlines Center in Dallas will be a perfect showcase for the two talented sophomores and for a league still trying to rebuild its fan base in its post-lockout existence.

And it is a perfect opportunity for Ovechkin to add to his stick collection while he mingles with the rest of the sport’s top players.

“I’ll check over there [in Dallas],” Ovechkin said with a sheepish smile as if he were trying unsuccessfully to contain his excitement. “Maybe I will trade a couple.”

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