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AO's performance makes others pale in comparison

by Larry Wigge
Hold the envelope. Recheck the nominees. With careful thought, I'd like to go off the board for my vote for the Oscar.

No Curious Case of Benjamin Button. No Frost/Nixon. No Milk. No to The Reader. Ditto Slumdog Millionaire. None of those performances were even close to the epic I saw the other night. And with all apologies to Richard Jenkins, Frank Langella, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Mickey Rourke, no one caught the attention of the audience better.

My vote for the Oscar goes to Alex Ovechkin for the curious case of upstaging the Montreal Canadiens while frosting Carey Price.

Without a script. No need for dramatic lines from a writer. The setting was D.C. It had a chase scene. Two in fact. And it brought a smile to the face of everyone who saw it. Why wouldn't you give Ovechkin an Oscar?

OK. You could argue that Ovechkin could have saved his backhand pass off the boards to himself to beat one defender, while winning another race to the puck and beating another defender and, while sliding on his back, still had the ability to score at a more dramatic time. Like the third period, with time running out, instead of the first period with his Washington Capitals trailing the Montreal Canadiens, 1-0.

But this effort, this performance, this epic, it came in the middle of a competition. Can you say that about any of the other nominees? Look at how he used the other actors. Have you seen any better chase scenes since ... Dirty Harry?

Impromptu? You bet ... and no stunt man, either.

"It was as amazing a goal as I've ever seen," Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau gushed afterward.

"He's going to score no matter how it goes in -- if it's on his stomach, back, whatever, he’s going to try to score," said Capitals defenseman Mike Green. "I think I was more impressed with the backhand around the defenseman."

This one was all Ovie. And that's enough for me. Give him an Oscar.

"Did you see that?" said an awestruck Carey Price. "I covered the bottom of the net the way I was supposed to ... but somehow he managed to lift the puck when he was on his butt."

Amazing? It left the usually chatty Boudreau, well, beside himself, when asked to describe a better performance by The Great 8 -- like perhaps the one in which he wound up with the stick behind his head and scored against Phoenix on Jan. 16, 2006.

"I've seen that one about 1,000 times on TV," Boudreau said. "But this one ... it was ... as amazing a goal as I've EVER seen."

A plus-plus player now -- Marc Savard always had that vision and knack of a diamond cutter to squeeze a pass into just the right spot to create a scoring opportunity. But before Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien gave him his best defense-first motivational speech, he was considered a one-way player.

Now, his plus-25, which is in the top 10 in the NHL, shows how much of a leader Savard has become on the League-leading Bruins.

Said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, "Everyone knows he's an offensive weapon, with his ability to make plays. But every year he's been getter better and better defensively. He plays against the other team's top lines. He wants to be down low where the action is in key situations. He'll call out instructions to his teammates. He's a pleasure to play with."

Welcome Mats? -- Mats Sundin tried to use his power forward frame to plow through initial sentiments he might feel playing in Toronto for the first time since leaving the Maple Leafs as a free agent last summer after 13 years there.

"We've got a pretty important rivalry game in Calgary to think about first," he shrugged at first.

Then another question. And another came, he finally relented, saying, "I played in Toronto for 13 years and it's always going to be considered home and the Toronto Maple Leafs will always have a place in my heart. I have nothing but great things to say about the city, the organization and the fans. It was outstanding to be part of that for all these years so I look forward to going back and being part of that. It's going to be an emotional day but once the puck drops it'll be like any other game."

Gone fishing? -- Well, maybe not fishing. But when Canadiens GM Bob Gainey told last month's All-Star Game MVP Alex Kovalev he would not be traveling with the team in games this week at Washington and Pittsburgh, there was a not-so-subtle put-up-or-shut-up-message attached after the talented winger blamed the team losing 10 of 13 games since Jan. 20 on too much 100th anniversary of the Canadiens celebrations.

"To score goals and help other people score, you have to do a lot of different things. To stay on task, to do the mundane, small, detail, mandatory things to keep the team afloat is a harder thing for some players than for others," Gainey said in part explaining Kovalev's one goal and five assists in that stretch.

Another learning curve -- For No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos, this has been a not-so-mercurial rookie season in Tampa Bay, until ...

Stamkos scored his first career hat trick against Chicago, making him the youngest player (at 19 years and 10 days) to score a natural hat trick in the NHL since Bobby Carpenter had three straight goals when he was 18 years, 227 days old with Washington on February 25, 1982.

The goals gave Stamkos 11 points in his last 14 games.

On his learning curve that has included being given days off recently, Stamkos said, "My mentality is to play so well they can't take me out of the lineup again."

Coaching 101 -- New York Rangers coach Tom Renney struggled to come to grasp with the motivation he wanted to use on his team recently. Then he remembered something he once heard another coach say.

"Coaching is an interesting art," he explained. "I think it was (former Dallas Cowboys-Miami Dolphins coach) Jimmy Johnson who said, 'The Tin Man needed to be yelled at. The Scarecrow needed to be kicked in the butt. The Cowardly Lion needed to have a new heart or something like that.' "

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

An Oil strike
-- Ales Hemsky has always been a highlight-reel play waiting to happen for the Edmonton Oilers. But this season, he seems more team-oriented, more driven. And if the Oilers are to make the playoffs, his point-per-game numbers and drive may just be the reason for a playoff berth.

"He's one of the unique players in the game," Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky observed. "There are few guys in the League who can pass the puck better and see the ice as well as Hemsky and (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg. The difference I see in (Hemsky's) game now is that no matter how good you are as skilled as you are, if you don't take a hit to make a play, you're not going to produce. Guys continue to try to be physical on him, but he keeps coming back."

Numbers in need of a shrink -- In 19 playoff games last spring, Chris Osgood had a 1.55 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in leading Detroit to the Stanley Cup. Now ...

"You go home ... and after a loss you can't sleep," he said recently. "Even when you win and give us four or five goals, you think numbers. Things pile up in your head.

"Listen, I know that's asking too much to compare to my numbers in the playoffs. I was in a zone. It's unexplainable. I've just got to get back to that frame of mind I have when I have fun stopping pucks."

Things that make you go hmm -- Columbus' 4-3 victory against St. Louis put the Blue Jackets six games over .500 for the first time in team history. ... The Anaheim Ducks are now 14-18-2 overall since Dec. 1 and out of a playoff spot. ... Pity all of those fantasy-league types who dropped the Kings' Anze Kopitar earlier this season when his statistics dropped off while new coach Terry Murray was making him into a better all-round player. Now look at him: Six points in two games, 7 goals and 11 points in seven games and 8 goals and 15 points in his last 12 games. ... That famous elbow that Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom rested during the All-Star weekend that cost him a one-game suspension seems to be feeling better now. How else can you explain a pair two-goal games for Nick -- the first time he's had two two-goal games in a span of 30 days ever? ... Why does it not come as a surprise that Mike Babcock's 200th win in 304 games behind the Detroit bench is the fastest 200 wins for one team by any coach in history (Scotty Bowman previously won 200 games in Montreal in his first 328 games)? ... Rangers winger Nigel Dawes really, really hates his closest rivals -- the Devils and Islanders. Ten of his 24 regular-season goals have come against the Devils and Islanders (five against each opponent), while he's had only 14 goals in 93 games against the rest of the NHL. ... After playing in 619 of his first 629 regular-season NHL games, Dallas center Brad Richards now has to watch for 6-8 weeks while his broken right wrist heals. He says watching captain Brenden Morrow rehab his knee like a madman for a return sometime in the playoffs is ample reason to follow the team's leader and make the most of lost time. ... You can tell Marty Brodeur will be ready for what appears to be his first start (Feb. 26 against Colorado) when he says this about his surgically repaired biceps, "Maybe with that new arm, I'll be able to shoot it harder." ... Isn't it interesting how a good coach like Joel Quenneville can switch a player like Troy Brouwer from center to left wing on a line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and the threesome can seamlessly look as good if not better than it did before Patrick Sharp injured his knee (an injury that is expected to keep him out three weeks)? ... Now that Calgary center Matthew Lombardi is gaining confidence offensively, look out. With his speed and the speed of other second-tier scorers Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross, the Calgary Flames figure to be an even greater offensive threat down the stretch. ... Is it me or doesn't it seem strange that the Minnesota Wild have yet to get free-agent-to-be goaltender Nicklas Backstrom re-signed? Every save has shown Nick is clearly the Wild's MVP -- and each save rings like a cash register to me. ... With 10 home games in February, wouldn't you think the Nashville Predators would be jumping with enthusiasm for the chance to get back into the top eight in the Western Conference? They went 2-2-0 in their first four home games this month and needed shootouts to win those two. ... Chris Mason says he will only look at being No. 1 goaltender for the St. Louis Blues from game to game, not a permanent title, because replacing Tomas Vokoun in Nashville last season didn't go exactly the way he wanted. Regardless of his superstition, Mason had a 7-2-3 record, 1.56 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in his first 12 games after wrestling the share of the goaltending load away from Manny Legace. ... You do the math: Colorado is 2-0 in overtime and 8-1 in shootouts, an astonishing accomplishment for a team that is 27-30-1. ... It must be like working on a Masters degree for Florida forwards Stephen Weiss and Gregory Campbell. Both learned their trade in junior hockey player for Peter DeBoer. Now that DeBoer is behind the Panthers bench both are playing even better. ... Seeing Travis Zajac's breakout year for the Devils this season might make some wonder about another former North Dakota University first-round pick -- Buffalo's Drew Stafford. Don't worry about Drew, he's had 9 goals and 9 assists in 21 games since the turn of the new year. His 17 goals are a career-high that will someday approach 30. ... You've got to feel for Carolina winger Justin Williams, who scored 31 and 33 goals in 2005-06 and '06-07 but injuries limited him to 37 games last season and he won't get in that many games this season because of another injury. ... It's nice to see Ryan Shannon getting another chance at the NHL. Isn't it interesting how minor-league coaches elevated to the bigs sometimes know players better than the NHL team? Shannon netted two goals playing the point on the Senators' power play for his former Binghamton coach Cory Clouston against Colorado on Feb. 17. ... You don't have to look further than the Josh Bailey-Kyle Okposo-Blake Comeau line to see some brightness in the future of the New York Islanders. ... With the trade of Mathieu Schneider to Montreal, Zach Bogosian and Nathan Oystrick are the young defensemen who figure to get the first opportunity to show off their offensive abilities on the Atlanta Thrashers power play.

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