- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

ATLANTA — There was a bus full of Eastern Conference All-Stars that left Philips Arena for the team hotel Saturday after the morning practice and media availability.

Alex Ovechkin wasn’t on it.

The Washington Capitals’ All-Star representative was absent because he had lingered on the Atlanta Hawks’ practice court doing interviews and ended up missing the bus. Without Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby around this weekend, the NHL needed a new center of attention, and Ovechkin was happy to oblige.

Ovechkin had two first-period goals in the Eastern Conference’s 8-7 victory. Boston’s Marc Savard had the game-winner with 20.9 seconds left. Carolina’s Eric Staal had two goals and assisted on Savard’s goal to earn MVP honors.

“It is always a great time,” Ovechkin said. “[Linemate Jason] Spezza is great passer, and it was pretty fun.”

Ovechkin was everywhere this weekend, cracking jokes with members of the media from around the world and discussing how his team has risen from the bottom of the NHL standings to the verge of the Southeast Division lead in barely more than two months.

At some point during the weekend, every major news organization associated with hockey both in the United States (NBC and Versus) and Canada (TSN, CBC, Rogers SportsNet) interviewed Ovechkin. There were also some less traditional ones, such as MTV, and a chat with a female reporter from Page Six, the gossip section of the New York Post.

If there needed to be more proof that no player in the NHL (not named Crosby) can match Ovechkin’s popularity, plenty of it surfaced this weekend. Each time the All-Stars were announced to the crowd, Ovechkin easily drew the loudest cheer for out-of-town players.

“There’s no question he is great player,” Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov said. “He’s only going to get better and better. It is nice to play on the same team because it is so hard to play against him.”

And Ovechkin was content to bask in the spotlight. He was the last player left in the Eastern Conference dressing room Saturday night after the skills competition, answering questions about his “hockey-baseball” moves he had just attempted in the shootout challenge.

He found plenty of ways to keep himself busy when he wasn’t talking to the media. Ovechkin spent part of yesterday morning having his face scanned for a new action figure from McFarlane Toys. He also had dinner at a sushi restaurant with fellow Russian and shootout coach Ilya Kovalchuk.

One topic of conversation during the meal might have been the duo’s race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy. Ovechkin pulled in front of Kovalchuk for the league lead in goals in the days leading up to the All-Star break, and both are on pace to have a 60-goal season, something that hasn’t happened since Mario Lemieux had 69 in 1995-96.

Both players also are among the first names that come up in the Hart Trophy conversation.

Kovalchuk and Ovechkin are 1-2 in the percentage of their team’s goals scored, and should either Atlanta or Washington win the division and make the playoffs, their star left wing likely would be a league MVP finalist.

Before the game last night, Ovechkin shuffled through the two dressing rooms collecting sticks from other All-Stars. He brought 10 with him to trade, and he was carrying one around and having other players sign it. The stick will be auctioned off, and the proceeds will go to Athletes Against Autism — the charity Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig co-founded.

Ovechkin’s three career All-Star goals are the most in team history, and he is the first Washington player to have a multigoal game.

Eastern Conference coach John Paddock put Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin between Ovechkin and Kovalchuk for two shifts in the third period.

Markov and Sergei Gonchar joined them for an all-Russian unit, but they were scored on 41 seconds in and again midway through the period — though Buffalo’s Brian Campbell was on the ice instead of Markov.

“I am sure it was a special moment for Russian people back home,” Gonchar said.

Added Kovalchuk: “Don’t ask about that. Two shifts and minus-two — unbelievable.”

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