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New centre, new expectations have Capitals star Alex Ovechkin geared up

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Alex Ovechkin will have a new centre with the Washington Capitals this season and, for a change, a legitimate second line to go with more depth across the roster to help carry the load.

Even better, there are expectations his team will actually challenge for a playoff berth and make some noise in the Southeast Division - all reasons why the always-eager Russian winger is particularly geared up for the new campaign.

"We finally got more experienced guys like (Viktor) Kozlov, (Michael) Nylander, (Tom) Poti and we the young guys have more experience," the 22-year-old said on a conference call Monday.

"My goal is to make the playoffs."

A bevy of off-season moves were made with exactly that in mind.

The Capitals were 29-41-12 in 2005-06, Ovechkin's rookie season, and remained at the same level last season when they finished 28-40-14. Much of that time was spent identifying which young players would join Ovechkin in forming the nucleus of a contender.

Alexander Semin, another slick Russian winger, and defenceman Steve Eminger were two other key players to emerge while veteran Chris Clark elevated his game and took over as captain.

With the ever-reliable Olaf Kolzig still in goal, it's now up to the new guys like Nylander and Kozlov, who will centre the two top lines, and Poti, who will help anchor the blue-line, to push the team up another level.

"I think everybody understands we have to move forward," said Ovechkin. "That's why we signed good players."

Of course adding new players to the mix is one thing, while successfully integrating them is another and that's been one of the most closely watched issues so far at the Capitals training camp.

Some assumed that Nylander and Ovechkin would naturally be paired together but so far that hasn't been the case. Ovechkin has been skating with Kozlov and a variety of wingers while Nylander has been between Semin and 2006 first-round pick Nicklas Backstrom.

"Kozzie has good hands and he gets me the puck all the time," said Ovechkin. "I feel good right now on our line."

Ovechkin and Kozlov have some history together, skating on the same line at the 2006 Turin Olympics and training together in St. Petersburg, Russia over the summer with Semin, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Alexander Radulov, among others.

"I feel comfortable with everybody, but Kozlov is like Zubie (Dainius Zubrus) in my first year," said Ovechkin. "(Zubrus) was my centre and it's a big difference when you can understand each other in the Russian language. Like right now Nylander is playing with Backstrom and they talk in Swedish and sometimes it can make a difference."

Any centre who plays with Ovechkin needs to be smart enough to give him the puck and then help create a seam for him to exploit his outstanding acceleration and dazzling puck-handling ability. Just two seasons into his career, the first overall pick in 2004 already boasts too many highlight reel goals to count.

Ovechkin scored 52 goals with 54 assists in his rookie season and followed that up with 46 goals and 46 assists last year. That slight dip has caused him to identify an area of his game that needs improvement.

"I have to concentrate on my shot," he said. "I have lots of shots in the games, I have great moments to shoot but my shot's not perfect. I have to practice more."

That's bad news for NHL goalies but good news for fans used to watching his electrifying play. That will include more fans in the Western Conference next season once the NHL adopts a new schedule format with teams facing each other at least once, a move Ovechkin approves of.

"I like travelling, I like to go to different cities, I like to see different cities, different people, different teams," he said. "It's an experience."

One city he'd like to go back to is Vancouver.

"Oh yeah," he said. "Great sushi over there."

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