Mighty Ducks of Anaheim right wing Teemu Selanne is enjoying his best season since 1998-99 when he totaled 47 goals and 107 points for the Mighty Ducks. He is currently closing in on the 500-goal (he has 471) and 1,000-point (he has 988) plateaus for his NHL career. When the Capitals were in town to face the Ducks on Friday, Selanne was unable to play because of a groin injury he sustained in practice on Thursday.
Washington defeated the Ducks 3-2 in overtime on the strength of Alex Ovechkin's first NHL hat trick. With 30 goals on the season, Ovechkin is having one of the NHL's best rookie season since Selanne burst onto the scene with 76 goals and 132 points - both NHL rookie records - in 84 games as a freshman in 1992-93.
When we asked Selanne to recall the magic of his rookie season, he paused and then his face lit up in a wide smile.
"It was very special for me," he recalled. "It is hard to describe the feeling. You are so hungry to do well and prove you can play so well. It is like a snowball going down the hill, you just want more and more and more. You are so excited. Every city you go to is new. It's an unbelievable feeling. You just try to take all the enjoyment out of it that you can. It was an incredible feeling. It was an unbelievable year."
As Ovechkin makes his way into and out of NHL cities for the first time, the effect is similar. Even in a 4-1 loss to the Stars in Dallas on Thursday night, the 20-year-old Washington rookie still had hardened hockey writers exchanging surprised glances over his ability on the ice. In Anaheim on Friday, the glances were more apparent and more frequent. They were accompanied by exclamations, shakes of heads and various other expressions of wonder and amazement.
Count Selanne among the impressed.
"I watched him on TV and on the highlights," says The Finnish Flash when asked about Ovechkin. "He is an incredible talent. And I saw him at the World Championships. It's great to see when a guy comes into the league and is so excited about everything, [you can see it] in his body language, 'I want to score and I want to play well.' He reminds me of when I played in my first year."
Selanne played on a veteran-laden Winnipeg Jets club that season. The Jets finished three games above .500, totaled 87 points and made the playoffs, but were bounced in the first round. Selanne netted 76 of the team's 322 goals; Keith Tkachuk and Evgeny Davydov tied for second on the team with 28 goals each.
"I played sometimes with [Alexei] Zhamnov and Keith Tkachuk," Selanne remembered. "I also played a lot with Darrin Shannon and Thomas Steen."
None of those players had more than 50 assists, but defenseman Phil Housley had 79 helpers and a career-high 97 points for Winnipeg that season. In his prime, Housley was the master of the home-run pass. He and Selanne had a special chemistry and it only improved as the season wore on. Selanne ended the season with a 17-game point streak in which he recorded 20 goals and 34 points. Selanne's first hat trick came on Oct. 14 of that season; he added four more - including one against Washington - during the regular season and later notched the first playoff hat trick in Jets' history that spring.
"I got two or three breakaways every game," Selanne recollected. "We had an unbelievable defense there. [Anaheim head coach] Randy [Carlyle] was there, Phil Housley, Freddie Olausson, Teppo Numminen. I knew if I could get open, the pass was going to come. I think Housley had 98 points or something that year. It was just incredible. We had an unbelievable connection. In the month of March, I scored 20 goals. That's unbelievable."
Selanne acknowledges that he played with a more talented group of players in his rookie season.
"Right now the team over there is a young team," he said, nodding in the direction of the Washington locker room. "It's a little different situation, but the hockey is a lot different, too. At that time the mindset was that you had to score more than the other team if you wanted to win. Now, it's different. You want to keep the goals down if you want to win."
Just as teams did 13 years ago with Selanne, NHL clubs are finding that it's difficult to keep the goals down when Ovechkin is on the ice. Washington's splendid Russian rookie has a long way to go to match Selanne's rookie exploits, but like the silky smooth Anaheim right wing, Ovechkin is rapidly improving as the season wears on. Although he is two years younger than Selanne was as a rookie, there seems to be no limit to what he is capable of accomplishing.