- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

His nose was swollen, broken by a hit along the boards. His bottom lip was puffy and discolored with stitches inside because of a puck that glanced off his glove and caught him in the mouth. There also was the lingering scar below his left eye from a cut in the game two nights before.

Alex Ovechkin looked like he had just endured a grueling prize fight while sitting in his corner stall in the Washington Capitals’ dressing room last night. He hadn’t, but he had just played the best game of his career — one that certainly will be remembered years from now regardless of how many extraordinary accomplishments the 22-year-old Russian superstar continues to compile.

Ovechkin had his second career four-goal game and an assist to lead the Caps to a 5-4 overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens in front of 14,390 at Verizon Center. His transcendent effort helped the Caps preserve two important points despite squandering a three-goal advantage and helped extract some revenge after the Canadiens dealt the Caps a 4-0 drubbing two nights prior.

“Today was a special day,” Ovechkin said. “I just want to help the team win. If I score goals and we win, I am happy. … Today was pretty cool game for me.”

Several of the players were unhappy with how Tuesday’s loss ended — the Canadiens scored with 47 seconds left and pushed for another in the waning seconds. Not only did Ovechkin factor in every goal last night, he was a dominant physical force. He was only credited with five hits, but general manager George McPhee said he thought the number was closer to eight, and a couple of them were huge open-ice shots.

“Ovie plays with an edge, and you know the saying don’t wake a sleeping giant?” Caps netminder Olie Kolzig said. “[I’m] not saying Ovie sleeps every night, but he threw it into an extra gear.”

With the four goals, he extended his league-leading total to 43. With the five points, he now has 70 for the season and a two-point cushion on Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson and Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier.

It is the first time in his three-year career Ovechkin has been the NHL scoring leader. That, coupled with this iconic performance, may have propelled him to the forefront of the race for the Hart Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s MVP.

“The kid, he never ceases to amaze me,” Kolzig said. “He keeps putting our team further and further up in the standings. Really, I think we just need to make the playoffs for him to get [the Hart].”

The overtime winner came with 1:26 left on a pass from defenseman Jeff Schultz as Ovechkin crashed the net. He whiffed on a one-timer but connected on the second effort.

When Ovechkin notched his third of the night with 7:30 left in the third period — a wicked wrist shot through defenseman Mark Streit’s legs and over goaltender Cristobal Huet’s shoulder — the Caps had a 4-2 lead. But Guillaume Latendresse answered 1:17 later to make it a one-goal game.

Latendresse struck again with 32.6 seconds left to force overtime. Kolzig — who had just made what looked like a game-saving save with 2:26 left on Tomas Plekanec — was prone on his stomach and frantically trying to cover up the puck, but it trickled to the middle of the crease, and Latendresse stuffed it in the net for his 13th of the year.

“I thought [Kolzig] played really good,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It was unfair he that he had four goals scored against him tonight.”

Ovechkin’s first goal of the night came on a diagonal give-and-go with defenseman Milan Jurcina in a 4-on-4 situation. Viktor Kozlov fed him a beautiful pass on the second one, slithering it through defenseman Roman Hamrlik’s legs before Ovechkin lifted a shot over Huet despite being only inches away.

Boudreau said he thought the assist might have been his best play of the night. Ovechkin decided to forego a one-timer from along the left wall, sending a pass to the front of the crease instead. Kozlov — who also assisted on two of Ovechkin’s tallies — was there waiting to tap it in for his 10th of the season.

“The way Ovie scored the goals today is pretty amazing,” said Kozlov, who also played with former Russian great Pavel Bure when he had 60 goals in a season. “He is stronger than Pavel. He hits pretty hard.”

All of this came on a night when Ovechkin was battered pretty well. Fifty seconds into the game Alex Kovalev caught his face with a stick, but that proved to be tame. He tried to keep the puck in the zone on a power play, and it glanced off his glove and hit his bottom lip. A hit by defenseman Francois Bouillon 7:48 into the second period broke Ovechkin’s nose.

“Everything go to my face,” Ovechkin said. “It is fifth time I break my nose, so it’s OK. I get use to it.”

Last night at Verizon Center

QUOTABLE

“I thought he was much better than anybody had anticipated when he came from France. The Kings thought he would be a good [NHL] backup the next year, and he was. I don’t think anybody anticipated his growth to be this good since he didn’t come over until he was 27.”

— Caps coach Bruce Boudreau on Cristobal Huet, whom he coached while with Manchester of the American Hockey League in the 2002-03 season

By the numbers

2 Milestones reached Tuesday night in Montreal — forward Viktor Kozlov played in his 800th career game and defenseman John Erskine suited up for his 200th career contest.

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