Super Eight Alex Ovechkin wasted no time in making his presence felt in his NHL debut on Wednesday. In the game’s first minute, he drove Blue Jackets defenseman Radoslav Suchy into the boards, a thundering check that almost permanently incorporated the rearguard into the advertising signage behind the Columbus goal. It would have made a lucrative sponsorship opportunity for some enterprising local Japanese eatery.
Ovechkin saved his best work for the second period. Just 28 seconds after Dan Fritsche scored to give Columbus a 1-0 lead, Ovechkin fired home a Dainius Zubrus feed on a one-timer from the high slot for his first NHL goal.
Fritsche restored the Blue Jackets’ one- goal lead with his second of the game at 10:22. Just 89 seconds after that strike, the opportunistic Ovechkin saw Jeff Halpern jump on a rebound of a Mathieu Biron point shot in front of Columbus goaltender Pascal Leclaire. Ovechkin cocked his stick and waited for Halpern to slide the puck his way, then blasted another one-timer into the yawning cage.
With the goal, Ovechkin became the first Capital ever to net two goals in his first NHL game. For future reference, only two Capitals rookies have ever netted hat tricks in their first NHL seasons. Tony White accomplished the feat twice in 1975-76 and Yogi Svejkovsky scored four goals for Washington in the final game of the 1996-97 season.
Only two players in NHL history have ever registered a hat trick in their NHL debuts. Montreal’s Alex Smart scored three goals against the Blackhawks on Jan. 14, 1943 and Quebec’s Real Cloutier netted three for Quebec on Oct. 10, 1979. Cloutier’s three goals represented all of the Nordiques’ scoring in a 5-3 loss to Atlanta in the franchise’s first-ever NHL contest.
I’m Your Captain In his first regular season game as the Capitals’ captain, Halpern gave an exemplary performance. He picked up three assists, including two superb plays on the tying and winning goals. He made a diving sweep clear of the zone during a Columbus power play to clear the zone and enable the Caps to get a fresh set of bodies over the boards. And he absorbed Adam Foote’s stick blade across his face midway through the second period, setting the stage for Zubrus’s game- winner. Halpern’s efforts earned him the third star designation.
Big Man’s World Columbus nearly doubled up the Caps in shots on goal, 37-19. Despite losing star winger Rick Nash early in the second period, the Jackets ramped up their shot totals as the game wore on. Columbus mustered eight shots in the first, 12 in the second and 17 in the third. Eight of those third period blasts came in the final 4:13 of the game.
“I’ve said all along that if you give Olie the slightest chance to win a hockey game,” said Caps coach Glen Hanlon after the game, “if you make it a manageable game for the first 20 minutes, he’ll bring it home every single time. He made some huge saves at the end. There is not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful that we have him.”
Working Man Jamie Heward’s last taste of NHL action came in 2001-02 with Columbus. He spent the last three seasons playing in Switzerland. The 34-year-old defenseman wore a satisfied smile after Wednesday’s opener, and with good reason.
Heward led all skaters on both teams with 27:46 in ice time. He logged 8:07 while the Caps were shorthanded; only Brendan Witt (10:09) charted more shorthanded ice time. Among all Capitals skaters, only Ovechkin (6:18) picked up more time on the power play than Heward’s 5:39. Heward also led all skaters with five hits.
Band of Brothers The Capitals are quite obviously more of a team (as opposed to a collection of individuals) than they have been in recent seasons. Protecting a one- goal lead in the third, the Capitals banded together and killed off four Columbus power plays in the final stanza. Washington successfully killed off all nine Columbus power plays on the night, this after being the league’s worst penalty killing club during the preseason.
More evidence of the Caps’ cohesiveness was on display early in the third period. Kolzig stopped a shot by the Blue Jackets’ Nikolai Zherdev but the young Columbus winger made no effort to stop and drove into Kolzig.
All five of the Capitals skaters on the ice at the time collapsed upon Zherdev and let him know in no uncertain terms that free shots on their goaltender would not be permitted.
No Shot Between Brendan Witt’s wrist shot at 6:57 of the first and Petr Sykora’s slap shot at 6:40 of the second, Washington went without a shot on goal for a span of 19:43.
In The Box Caps winger Petr Sykora played his first NHL game since 1998-99 when he was a member of the Nashville Predators. Sykora was in the midst of an odd sequence of events in the first period, starting when he was sent off for hooking at 12:54 of the period. Upon exiting the box, Sykora stayed on the ice, but was called for a second hooking minor just 40 seconds after serving his first sentence. A mere 17 seconds after Sykora was sprung from the box for a second time, Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig was whistled for slashing.
Guess who served Kolzig’s penalty? Yep, Sykora. He wound up spending six minutes in the box over a span of just 6:57 of game time.
Young Man With The Blues Marc Denis has been the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 goaltender for the last three seasons, but rookie Pascal Leclaire got the nod for Columbus in Wednesday night’s opener. Leclaire stopped 16 of 19 shots against the Caps in losing his third decision without a win in his brief NHL career.
Leclaire beat out Martin Prusek for the backup job in training camp; the Jackets signed Prusek as a free agent on Aug. 4. Prusek had compiled an impressive 28-9-4 record and a 2.23 goals against average in three seasons as a backup with Ottawa.
The Jackets used five different netminders in their nine preseason contests, and Leclaire was the most impressive of the three that actually had a chance to crack the roster. He appeared in a team-high five preseason games, posting a 2-1 record to go along with a 2.86 GAA and a .905 save percentage. Denis was 1-2 with a 4.69 GAA and an .859 save percentage in four games. Prusek wrote himself a ticket to AHL Syracuse by going 0-1 with a 7.74 GAA and an .826 save percentage in his two outings.
Leclaire, the Jackets’ first-round choice (eighth overall) in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, made his NHL debut with Columbus in 2003-04. He went 0-2 with a 3.53 GAA in two games.
Ohio Players Twenty-one-year-old Blue Jackets forward Dan Fritsche is a native of Ohio; he was born in Parma. Drafted in the second round (46th overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Fritsche made the Jackets’ roster as an 18- year-old rookie in 2003-04, joining Rick Nash as the second Blue Jacket to accomplish that feat. Fritsche netted one goal in 19 games as a rookie. He doubled that output on Wednesday, accounting for both Columbus goals.
Fritsche’s younger brother Tom plays for Ohio State. Tom Fritsche was also drafted in the second round but was chosen 47th overall by Colorado in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
The Avs obtained the pick used to take the younger Fritsche from Washington as part of the deal in which the Caps obtained Colorado’s first round choice. Washington chose defenseman Joe Finley with that choice, the 27th overall.