- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

When Alex Ovechkin was growing up in Moscow, one of his favorite players was Mario Lemieux. Ovechkin has traded autographed sticks with many players during his three years in the NHL, and his favorite remains the one he received from Lemieux during his rookie season.

“He was one of the best players and the way he overcame his cancer,” Ovechkin said. “I think he was best goal scorer in the league.”

Ovechkin is having a fantastic third season in the NHL for the Washington Capitals, and he has a chance to put his name beside one his childhood heroes. Lemieux is one of eight players in league history to score 70 goals in a season. He, along with Pittsburgh teammate Jaromir Jagr, was also the last to reach the 60-goal plateau 12 years ago.

Provided his health remains sound, the 23-year-old Ovechkin will notch his second 50-goal season and surpass Jonathan Cheechoo’s 56 from two years ago as the most since the 2004-05 lockout. But Ovechkin has the opportunity to go beyond great and enter the realm of historic.

Sixty-one goals would set a franchise record and be the second most scored by a Russian-born player. Sixty-three would be more than any player besides Lemieux in the past 15 years.

And if he can average a goal a game over the final 22 games of the season, Ovechkin can reach 70.

“If I could score 70, I will be very happy,” Ovechkin said. “It is good when you score lots of goals, but it is hard. We will see at the end of the year. Right now I have two more to score 50, and 50 is big deal. Not many score 50 either.”

Added goaltender Olie Kolzig: “Twenty-two in 22 might be a bit much because teams are going to start — well, they already have started to bear down and tighten up defensively. I don’t see that happening, but then again anything is possible with that kid.”

While it might be unlikely, he could certainly make a run at it. Since Bruce Boudreau became coach on Thanksgiving, Ovechkin has 34 goals in 39 games despite not scoring any in the past two while battling the flu. He has scored 22 goals in 22 games before, during a span from Dec. 12 to Jan. 31.

Ovechkin’s pursuit could net him some premium hardware at season’s end. He has a significant lead on Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk for the Maurice Richard Trophy, but the accolades might not end there. Injuries to other elite players have put him in position to also grab the Art Ross Trophy for most points, though his toughest competition might come from countryman Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins star who has collected them en masse in the past month.

Should the Caps complete their improbable turnaround from last place in the Eastern Conference at season’s midpoint to a spot in the playoffs, Ovechkin will be a finalist and a favorite to win both MVP awards — the Hart (voted on by writers) and Pearson (voted on by players) trophies.

“He has to be the favorite, right?” Caps defenseman Mike Green said. “I mean, who else does that much for his team? I think he definitely deserves to be recognized for it. He has been amazing.”

Ovechkin’s place among the game’s elite is not tied exclusively to goal scoring. His physical presence in games continues to make him a wonder to watch, even for opposing players. His willingness to improve at the defensive end has been well-chronicled this season.

Another step in Ovechkin’s evolution has been his ability to help make teammates better. Although Chris Clark reached career highs in goals while he played with Ovechkin the past two seasons, part of that also can be attributed to a significant increase in opportunities.

This season Ovechkin has been more willing to share the puck with his teammates. His trust in Nicklas Backstrom to also carry the puck has helped the rookie center blossom since their pairing.

When Viktor Kozlov spent some time on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, his season-long goal scoring slump ended. After getting just four goals in the first 46 games, Kozlov has eight in the past 14.

Kozlov has moved to the second line to help generate more secondary scoring, while his replacement, Tomas Fleischmann, also has been jump-started. Fleischmann scored zero goals in 10 games and six for the season before joining Ovechkin and Backstrom. He has scored a goal in each of his two games on the top line.

“[Making teammates better] wasn’t said about him in the past, and that was always said about [Pittsburgh’s Sidney] Crosby,” Kolzig said. “I think Ovie is starting to dismiss that now. He is making everybody on our team better.”

Added defenseman Tom Poti: “His passing is definitely underrated. When a guy has a shot like that, everyone talks about that first and forgets about his passing and anything else.”

If Ovechkin’s stretch run has a huge impact on Washington’s postseason hopes, it also could be a boon for the NHL. Crosby’s sophomore season ended with the Hart, Pearson and Ross trophies, and it generated a buzz large enough to creep into the mainstream sports conscious.

When Crosby was injured last month, some predicted doom for the league as it tries to regain its foothold on the American sports landscape. Instead, Ovechkin has moved to the forefront and provided the league with another marquee talent to sell.

“If you look back to the late 1990s with baseball, the Sosa-McGwire home run race kind of brought baseball back for everyone,” Poti said. “If we have a guy up there with 65 or 70 goals, obviously it won’t have that kind of magnitude, but it will get us on ‘SportsCenter’ and ESPN more often. Just to get more awareness about hockey out there would be huge for the game.”

Today’s game

NEW YORK ISLANDERS AT WASHINGTON CAPITALS

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/Radio: CSN, FM-107.7, AM-1500, AM-820

Goalies: Islanders ” Rick DiPietro (23-21-7, 2.69). Capitals ” Olie Kolzig (21-18-5, 2.99).

Injuries: Islanders ” Out: D Andy Sutton (torn hamstring), D Brendan Witt (sprained knee), D Chris Campoli (shoulder), D Bruno Gervais (strained oblique), C Mike Sillinger (hip), Shawn Bates (hip), LW Jon Sim (knee surgery). Capitals ” Out: C Michael Nylander (torn rotator cuff), RW Chris Clark (groin), D Brian Pothier (concussion). Probable: D Tom Poti (bruised thigh), C David Steckel (illness).


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