Caps’ Ovechkin a breath of fresh air for NHL

With 10 goals in less than three weeks of the NHL, it seems no one can stop Alexander Ovechkin.

The hockey dressing room is full of boring Canadian guys who will go to absurd lengths so as not to be seen as putting themselves before “The Team.”

The goal, when you are Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews, is to somehow try to convince the interviewer that your hat trick was in fact due more to the fine work of stellar linemates.

“Really, all I had to do was put it in the net,” they say, as if they were simply the last man on a goal-assembly line.

There are no Terrell Owenses in the National Hockey League. Chad Ochocinco would have had the self-aggrandizement wrung out of him at his first training camp, and likely, the name bar would never have changed in hockey, as it did in the NFL. The closest thing hockey does have, however, is Alex Ovechkin, whose celebrations when he scores—or displays of public anguish when he doesn’t—are as natural as it comes.

Ovechkin wasn’t exactly self-promoting after sniping the opening goal of a 4–1 win Thursday in Edmonton when he quipped, “We score first, and it gives us a little bit freedom.” In fact, what we would have preferred to hear is this: “You just can’t get a puck more top-corner than that goal. I mean, wow! I’m not sure if it glanced off the crossbar, the post—or both!”

But if Ovechkin is not as eloquent in the postgame dressing room while conversing in his second language, it is on the ice where he speaks in his primary tongue—the language of hockey. There, he breathes life into a sport and a league mired in rules that forbid the tucking in of a jersey.

“Inside, everybody is excited. Everybody gets emotional. But some players are really good at blocking out the highs and lows,” said Oilers captain Andrew Ference, who saw a lot of Ovechkin during his time as a Bruin. “I’ve played with a lot of great players who keep their emotions in check. Externally, they’re not bubbly personalities. But once the game is over, they’re fully appreciative of what they’ve done.

“[Ovechkin’s] just different in the fact he’s very raw. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, which a lot of us don’t do. Simply because we don’t want that roller coaster.”

In some ways Ovechkin is the roller coaster. When things go poorly, you can see it in his slumping shoulders. When things go well, you don’t see his shoulders at all—because his hands are high in the air after a goal.

As the hottest player in the game today, he’s been raising his hands a lot lately. He has 32 goals in his last 31 regular-season games dating back to last season. The last player to record 30 or more goals in a 30-game span was Pavel Bure, who had 30 goals in 30 games for Florida back in 2001.

“He loves to score goals, and you can probably tell that. He shows a lot of emotions. That’s who he is,” said linemate Nicklas Backstrom. “He just finds a way to get the puck behind the goalie. He has a terrific shot, probably the best in the league. It’s very hard for the goalies to read.”

Ovechkin shrugs at the topic. “I’m offensive guy,” he says. “I like to play offence.”

Never before in the Capitals’ exceedingly average history has a player reached double digits in goals through the team’s first 10 games of a season. Ovechkin has 10 goals and 15 points through his first 10 games, trailing only his nemesis, Sidney Crosby, who has 17 points in nine games. And it’s all the more amazing considering where he was just a couple of years ago.

It was the switch to right wing by coach Adam Oates last season that is being credited for setting Ovechkin free offensively, after paltry totals of 32 and 38 goals in 2010–11 and 2011–12.

“A couple of years ago I didn’t play well, I had all the time pressure,” Ovechkin said. “The system was not my favorite system. But whatever it takes, you have to do your best. Right now, I feel good. My linemates feel good.”

Though the move was questioned at the time, Oates was perhaps the perfect hire for this franchise. Only three centres in the history of the game — Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis, Mark Messier—have more assists than Oates’s career total of 1,079. Even more tellingly, he averaged more than an assist per game while playing three seasons with Brett Hull in St. Louis. Three seasons in which Hull had 72-, 86- and 70-goal seasons.

“When I played with Brett we would talk about it all the time,” Oates said. “How to create shots, how to get open, what he’s looking for, what I’m trying to do… Just talking it through.”

It only stands to reason then that Oates could have a similar relationship with Ovechkin — and a similar effect on his goal totals. “They are very similar in the way they play. Ovi is a lot more physical… but in terms of shooting, very similar.”

The similarities don’t end there, and that’s incredibly good for the game. Hull averaged 0.58 goals per game during his career. Ovechkin currently stands at 0.62. Both shot first, and answered questions later. And both gave the game the personality it so dearly needs.