"With the Capitals, there's a buzz not just at the rink, but even at our meetings throughout the week and obviously much of that has to do with Ovechkin. He's just so dynamic visually that you're debating how much time you're going to have one of your isolation cameras on him, or how many graphics you'll have for him, keeping in mind that it will be more than most other players in a typical week, so there really is a buzz and a lot of focus on him, but it's not often that he disappoints." -- Hockey Night in Canada producer Doug Walton
"We used to watch the Leafs game in our household all the time," said the Wawota, Sask., native. "My dad was a Leafs fan, I grew up a Leafs fan, and I was just like any other kid watching Hockey Night in Canada, dreaming about playing on that stage with the whole nation watching."
Fifteen years later, that dream is now a reality for Laich and his Capitals teammates who by next Saturday will have been featured on the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada four times in a five-week stretch (Nov. 21-Dec. 19). That's more HNIC appearances during that period than the Canadiens, Senators, Flames, Oilers or Canucks. Only the Maple Leafs match the Caps' four HNIC games in the month.
"When the schedule came out," HNIC producer Doug Walton said in a phone interview, "we certainly saw that (stretch) and said, 'Wow that will be great.' Any time you get the schedule, you look for the all-Canadian matchups, and you look for Pittsburgh and Washington, so we recognized this pretty early."
With the exception of a pair of all-Canadian matchups (Toronto-Vancouver, Oct. 24 and Toronto-Montreal, Oct. 31) the Caps' Nov. 21 visit to Toronto drew the largest HNIC audience of the season, with 2.1 million viewers. That's slightly above HNIC's average audience this season of 1.9 million viewers, and more than the CBC drew for both the Penguins' Oct. 10 visit to Toronto and the Canadiens' 100th anniversary game against Boston Dec. 4.
The Capitals' five HNIC appearances throughout the season are one more than the Penguins' four and equal to the rest of the Southeast Division combined.
"It's obviously exciting for the Canadian guys," said Capitals forward and Ottawa native Matt Bradley. "It's a real tradition for everybody to watch on Saturdays, so you want to have a good game because you know all your buddies and family will be watching back home, and you can't sneak under the radar on those nights."
In recent years, the Caps have made the most of the HNIC stage, going 6-2-1 under coach Bruce Boudreau.
"The excitement in Canada," Boudreau says, "is so crazy on a Saturday night with everybody watching that it's pretty easy to get all jacked up."
Just ask the man Boudreau calls "the best hockey player on the planet."
"In this building," Ovechkin said in Montreal two Saturdays ago, "with this crowd, it's an amazing building to play hockey. You don't have to drink Red Bull to play here."
"With the Capitals," Walton said, "there's a buzz not just at the rink, but even at our meetings throughout the week and obviously much of that has to do with Ovechkin. He's just so dynamic visually that you're debating how much time you're going to have one of your isolation cameras on him, or how many graphics you'll have for him, keeping in mind that it will be more than most other players in a typical week, so there really is a buzz and a lot of focus on him, but it's not often that he disappoints."
It should come as no surprise that in the Caps' nine HNIC dates under Boudreau, Ovechkin leads the team with 10 goals and 16 points. Highlighted among those 10 goals in his last nine HNIC games was a 4-goal, 5-point effort in a wild 8-6 win in Ottawa in December 2007. It was Ovechkin's first-career 4-goal game and it remains a career-high.
"Ovi just loves the game," Bradley said, "and he understands the traditions of hockey, too. He loves the challenge of going up against storied franchises like Toronto or Montreal and playing in Canada in front of all those fans, whether in person or even on TV."
Walton will be HNIC's lead producer for Saturday's Caps game in Toronto, and said he expects to have one of his three isolation cameras focused on Ovechkin for "most of, if not the entire night.
"Oftentimes, we'll even be watching him on the bench, because he can give you something from there, too, whether it's talking to his coaches or teammates or just (capturing) his intensity level. Plus, you never know when he's just going to jump off the bench and score a goal, which he's done before and is great to have (footage of). He just gives you so much from a TV standpoint and if you leave him, you run the risk of missing something special.
"You can definitely over do it as far as Ovechkin-mania, but you'd have to go a long way to get there."
The HNIC stage also has been to kind to a pair of Capitals prospects. In Toronto last season, then-rookie Karl Alzner scored his first career NHL goal in a 2-1 Caps' win. One week later in Montreal, 20-year-old Semyon Varlamov made his NHL debut before a sold-out Bell Centre and a national audience on HNIC. He made 32 saves as the Caps beat the Canadiens, 3-2.
The Caps are 2-0-1 on HNIC this season heading into this weekend's game in Toronto and next Saturday's in Edmonton.