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Does Ovechkin compare with the Rocket?

by John McGourty
There was only one Maurice "The Rocket" Richard, a player so strong, so determined, so skilled and so passionate the NHL named its annual goal-scoring championship award after him.

Richard was the first NHL player to score 50 goals in 50 games (1944-45) and the first to score 500 goals in his career. He retired in 1960 after 19 seasons with 544 goals and 421 assists for 965 points in 978 games.

Richard led the Canadiens to eight Stanley Cups and was their captain in their unparalleled five straight Stanley Cups from 1956-60. He retired a champion and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961, the usual three-year waiting period waived.

Today, Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Ovechkin is the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy holder after scoring 65 goals in 2007-08. Ovechkin also added 47 assists for 112 points, earning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer. Ovechkin has 212 goals and 187 assists for 399 points in 312 NHL games.

By comparison, Richard had 195 goals and 131 assists for 326 points in his first 312 games; impressive totals for both men.

With one goal tonight against the Thrashers (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, RIS, TSN2), Ovechkin, a fourth-year player, will have his third 50-goal season. He had 52 goals in 2005-06 when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. Ovechkin's only season under 50 was 46 in 2006-07. He has missed only four games in four seasons and three of them were earlier this season when he went home to Russia to see his ailing grandfather.

There never has been another Rocket Richard, a fiery blend of speed and strength, a stocky body with overwhelming strength, plus a wild look in his eyes as he bore down on goalies. A product of Montreal who played for the Canadiens, Richard also embodied Gallic pride and wore his ethnicity as a chip on his shoulder. It's doubtful the city and all of Quebec ever will embrace an athlete as it did "The Rocket," who died May 27, 2000, at age 79.

By the same token, there hasn't been a player since Richard that so closely resembles him in size, strength, skating, shooting and scoring as Ovechkin, whose passion for winning closely rivals Richard.

"I think that's a great comparison and as good a comparison as I've heard in a long time," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "The only thing Alex doesn't have is the temper that Rocket had, where he would blow up and go nuts. Alex is the same fiery type of guy with the same physical attributes that Rocket had in his day that Alex has in this day."

Ovechkin handled the comparison with a blend of humility and pride.

"It's a big honor for me," Ovechkin said. "He was the first player to score 50 goals in a season. It's a big honor for me when they compare me, but I don't want to be like Richard or somebody else; I want to be myself. I want to be the best and I try to be the best."

Fair enough; Richard wasn't trying to be the second coming of Howie Morenz, either. So would it be a heresy in Quebec to compare Ovechkin to Richard?

"No, not at all. You are right," said Rejean Houle, a Canadiens star in the 1970s and the team's former general manager. "Ovechkin is going for the net all the time. He wants to shoot and score, like the Rocket. Ovechkin is an unbelievable player. It's true, the Rocket was unique, one of a kind, but you can at least see some things about Ovechkin that are like the Rocket."

The Capitals were in Philadelphia last week and the Flyers surprisingly were unguarded in their praise for Ovechkin.

Scott Hartnell said Ovechkin is more than a goal scorer, saying he's one of, if not the most competitive players in the NHL, and a coil of power.

"He's just a specimen," Hartnell said, shaking his head. "I don't know what kind of workout he does in the summer or during the year, but he's just so physically strong in the corner. He's so quick. His first few strides he's up to full speed and he hangs on to the puck. Trying to bump him off the puck is almost impossible. He sounds almost like a hockey god the way I'm talking about him, but he's almost that good. His snap shot's harder than most guys' slap shots. I'd love having him on my team, but you face him maybe four times a year and probably in the playoffs.

"He's one of the guys you key on, you try to be physical with and try to wear him down, but it seems like he always wants to come back for more. I think he's the hardest guy in the League to play against. He's so physical, he gets in on the forecheck, he's hitting our defense, he's penalty killing, he's out there almost the full two minutes of a power play, and obviously, five-on-five, he's surely dangerous. He's right up there for tops with me."

He's tops with goalie Antero Niittymaki, too.

"I think that's a great comparison and as good a comparison as I've heard in a long time. The only thing Alex doesn't have is the temper that Rocket had, where he would blow up and go nuts. Alex is the same fiery type of guy with the same physical attributes that Rocket had in his day that Alex has in this day."
-- Bruce Boudreau

"He comes in so fast every time and every part of his body is moving so fast, it's tough to say if he's actually looking for a spot or if he's just trying to get it anywhere in the net," Niittymaki said. "He shoots a different spot every time. There're a lot of guys who score a lot of goals and they have their favorite spot. Ovechkin seems to find a way to put it in the net. It's off to the side, or low, high, glove side, five-hole sometimes, so you have to be aware of everything. I think that makes him a little special.

Thanks to Ovechkin, the Capitals have led the Southeast Division all season and are poised for Stanley Cup Playoff success. His teammates believe he can lead them to the Stanley Cup.

"Yes, he proved it last year in the World Championship," Caps forward Tomas Fleischmann said. "No doubt about it."
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