Wednesday, October 5, 2005

The calendar said, “Oct. 5, 2005,” but yesterday could have passed for Oct. 15, 1974, for the Washington Capitals. The latter — how quickly we forget — was the date of their first home game, a sparsely attended affair at old Capital Centre that pitted the expansion Caps against the Los Angeles Kings (then owned by a fellow named Jack Kent Cooke).

Last night’s opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets at MCI Center had that kind of feel, a sense of beginning — or at the very least, of starting over — rather than a sense of continuing or resuming. Yes, the Capitals have been around for more than three decades. But they’re coming off an 18-month hiatus and skating into an entirely new world, a world of salary caps and overtime shootouts and more rule changes than you can, well, shake a stick at.

Then, too, the club is billing itself as an expansion team of sorts, with a roster full of youngsters and no dreams of any great success for the immediate future. That’s a tough sell in any market, let alone Washington, which doesn’t exactly lead the league in NHL chitchat around the office water cooler. What owner Ted Leonsis is doing — spending close to the minimum on players and pleading to the fans for patience — is either incredibly courageous or incredibly dumb. We’ll have a better idea which one in April, when the Caps are watching the playoffs on television and Leonsis’ bean counters are totaling the losses.

Even the team mascot, Slapshot, will tell you the next year or three probably won’t be pretty. The Capitals have less talent now than they did in ‘03-04, when they managed a mere 23 wins with a roster than included, for a good portion of the season, Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar and Mike Grier. Name brand players didn’t work out, so Leonsis, for the time being, is trying Brand X players. Most of the current Caps could eat dinner at a food court and not have to worry about being recognized — much less hassled, mid-Whopper, for an autograph.

Something tells me that, as the Capitals’ season goes on, it’s going to turn into “The Truman Show” — with the part of Truman being played by 20-year-old phenom Alexander Ovechkin. Leonsis, you’ve gotta believe, is hoping for that, hoping the fans don’t get too wrapped up in the franchise’s growing pains and just concentrate on The Kid. For Caps Nation, it might be the soundest survival strategy. Especially since the Big O (as I’ve decided to call him) looks every bit as good as advertised, perhaps even better.

Here’s how you know he’s the Genuine Article: A mere 40 seconds into his first NHL game, he almost drove the Blue Jackets’ Radoslav Suchy through the boards with a check reminiscent of Neil Sheehy at his most deranged. The impact was so great that one of the brackets holding the glass in place came loose, causing a brief, buzz-filled delay. What a way to introduce yourself to the home folks — not to mention the rest of the league. It was as if Ovechkin was saying, “In case you hadn’t heard, I play at both ends of the ice.” (Unlike a certain Czechoslovakian who shall remain nameless.)

What else can I tell you about Truman — I mean Alexander? Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: He scored the Capitals’ first two goals of the season. How’s that for an entrance? In the space of 41/2 minutes in the second period, he whipped a one-timer from the slot past Columbus’ Pascal Leclaire, then beat him again with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wrist shot on the power play.

“I’ll be honest with you,” a beaming Leonsis said afterward, “you have a night like this where Alex has a couple of goals, a couple of big hits, and word starts to get out. … We knew there’d be a slight drop [in attendance because of the lockout and the club’s youth movement], but we also knew there’d be a chance to pick up some new fans.”

I’d be surprised if the Big O didn’t spur the purchase of at least a couple of 10-game plans last night, perhaps even a season ticket. As coach Glen Hanlon said, this is no One-Night Wonder. “He’s pretty well been groomed for this. The bigger the moment, the bigger he’s going to play. … He thrives on it — as all the great ones do.”

Game on, Sidney Crosby (you might say). The competition for the Calder Trophy — which goes to the league’s top rookie and has never been won by a Cap — could be more interesting than the MVP battle if Ovechkin keeps pumping in two goals a game.

Am I sounding a bit delirious? Sorry, I haven’t seen a hockey game for a while — and I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed a debut like Ovechkin’s. Two goals, an utterly unexpected 3-2 win (thoroughly enjoyed by the announced 16,325 in attendance) … where do you go from there?

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