North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Some thoughts on Ovechkin

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First of an irregular look at the NHL

On Janurary 16, 2006, Alexander Ovechkin was on a fast break, steaking down the ice in Phoenix. Taking the puck at mid ice, he tried to get past defenceman Paul Mara. He moved to make a deke, but Mara got his stick in the way; the two tied up as they moved further into Phoenix’s zone, and Ovechkin managed to fall on his back. With one hand on his stick, he managed – somehow – to side the puck towards the net and past a sprawling Brian Boucher.

It was unlike any other goal scored that day, year or era for the NHL; perhaps no other goal has been scored from that position, in that situation ever. It’s a snapshot at why Alexander Ovechkin is perhaps the best single individual player in the NHL.

Unlike some other greats, Ovechkin is exciting to watch. In a league that is over 75 years old, he is still finding new ways to do things – scoring, passing, celebrating, even wearing his equipment.

His skate laces are yellow; he wears a visor that’s sort of tinted – it’s smoked, as they say. He used to wear a mirrored one, but the NHL quickly outlawed it. He doesn’t tuck his jersey in, except on his back left side, where a pad juts up and over it.

These all seem symbolic of Ovechkin. They, like him, immediately stand out from the rest of the league. Since his rookie campaign in 2005-06, no player has made such an immediate impact on the league – not even fellow wunderkind Sidney Crosby. His league-high 65 goals last year were the most scored by a single player in over a decade.

He’s a vibrant player, one who wears his emotions on his sleeve. The way he streaks down, the way he shoots almost seem secondary, sometimes, to what he does afterward, when he jumps into the glass to celebrate.

That’s what he did on April 11, 2008, seconds after scoring his first NHL playoff goal. After forcing a Flyers pass towards their own net with his forechecking, he stole the puck from Ryan Parent, moved to his right while Flyers goalie Martin Biron slid on the ground, trying to stack his pads on Ovechkin – who waited for Biron to make his move, and then shot the puck over him. That goal put the Capitals up 5-4 with just under five minutes to play and capped a three goal comeback.

He responded like he usually does after a goal: he ran on the ice to the boards, jumped into the glass, then into the arms of his teammates, while the whole of the Verizon Centre crowd lost it.

On some players, celebrations like that would seem contrived or forced, but with Ovechkin, they seem natural; the man seems sometimes like a tightly-coiled ball of energy that explodes in front of the net.

In this way, he’s perfect for the new look NHL, a league that almost seems tailor-made for his skill set. Gone is the two-line pass, which gives him time to speed across. Clutching and grabbing are limited, which give him space to operate. Equipment on goaltenders has been limited in size, giving him room to shoot at. Perhaps more then anybody else, Ovechkin represents what’s right with the NHL at this point in time; he’s the speedy and exciting sniper who loves to score goals.

It can be argued that the NHL’s recent gains in attendance and rating are at least in part because of Ovechkin – Washignton’s ratings are up 140% this year – and that he could actually be saving the league from a neutral-zone trap-aided abyss.

In this way, he’s more then just important to the NHL. He’s essential to its success.

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Written by M.

February 2, 2009 at 1:27 pm

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