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Ovechkin excited to bask in Montreal's spotlight

by Dan Rosen
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin's favorite teams to play are the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and, of course, the Montreal Canadiens.

This is not a coincidence.

Ovechkin has played in three Stanley Cup Playoff series' since he shot himself into the NHL like a cannonball in 2005. The first was against the Flyers two years ago. Last season he faced the Rangers and Penguins. And, Thursday night at Verizon Center (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN), he and his Washington teammates will open a first-round series against the Habs.

Montreal provides his biggest stage yet.

"It's a great, historic team with lots of attention and everybody is watching those games, so you want to show up," Ovechkin said early Wednesday afternoon from Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "You don't want to just skate and play, you want to show your best stuff."

Ovechkin not only loves to play the Canadiens, he usually thrives in these games against the 24-time champions. He had 4 points in four games against them this season and 11 goals and 13 assists in 20 career games against the Habs.

The Capitals are banking on Ovechkin's enthusiasm for the playoffs and his love of shining on the biggest stages in the game to propel them.

"We have other guys, but if it's going to going to goose him a little bit more to play better and if he'll feel that extra hop in his step and feel that much stronger (because it's the Canadiens) than we're all going to benefit," said Mike Knuble, Ovechkin's linemate on the right wing. "That's what you want from your captain. If he's going to go out and, for lack of a better term, bust his hump out there, than you're going to follow suit."

Ovechkin's affinity for the Habs (and for dominating the Habs) is a relatively new thing. While most hockey players grow up with the knowledge of Montreal's legacy, Ovechkin said he didn't know much of any of it growing up in downtown Moscow.

"My favorite team was San Jose. I liked the logo, not the players," Ovechkin said. "We didn't have lots of chances to watch the games. We didn't have internet over there or cable. We just knew through the newspaper the teams and some of the players."

Ovechkin didn't experience immediate success against the Habs either. He had 8 points over his first eight career games against them, but only 2 goals.

The seminal moment of Ovechkin's career against the Canadiens took place at Verizon Center on Jan. 31, 2008. He broke his nose and needed stitches in his lip after getting hit with a puck, but still scored 4 goals, including the overtime winner, and had an assist.

"It's something like, I don't know how to explain, but you just play hockey and that kind of (amped up) atmosphere is here in D.C. and I can't imagine what's going to happen in Montreal when we're going to play over there," Ovechkin said. "It's going to be nice. It's always nice to play against a great team, especially in a great building with a great atmosphere. When you go off the ice people are just crazy about hockey and that's what I appreciate. It's going to be fun."

The opponent aside, Ovechkin seems a bit different heading into this postseason than he was the previous two. He's more philosophical and, dare we say, careful.

No, we're not saying he'll play a careful game Thursday (still reckless, still determined), but he talked a lot Wednesday about taking care of himself when he's not in a game and concentrating on the next game, not the Stanley Cup or anything else.

Two years ago, Ovechkin was eager man, the first guy on the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on the eve of his first playoff series. Wednesday, he was among the first group of Capitals to hit the ice, but he was skating at what appeared to be half speed.

"It's something like, I don't know how to explain, but you just play hockey and that kind of (amped up) atmosphere is here in D.C. and I can't imagine what's going to happen in Montreal when we're going to play over there."
-- Alex Ovechkin

He insists he's healthy, so that's not a concern. He just wants to make sure he's prepared for a long run.

"I don't want to give my emotion in practice. I just want to be calm and concentrate," Ovechkin said. "Last year when we just started the playoffs we were not healthy. Greenie (Mike Green) was sick, I had a (wrist) problem, Sasha (Alexander Semin) had a problem and different guys played with broken legs and bad groins. Right now we're all healthy and I think this is going to help us a lot."

The Caps put themselves in position to be healthy by having everything -- the Southeast Division, top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Presidents' Trophy -- wrapped up early.

"The last month and a half we don't play our hardest game," Ovechkin added. "We don't check, make some hits or block the shots because we know the biggest game is coming soon. We just try to be in shape and be ready for the playoffs."

Ovechkin is in shape and he's ready. He can't wait.

La Belle Province better look out.

"Every year we have a chance to step forward and get closer to a Cup," Ovechkin said. "I hope this is going to be our year to bring Stanley Cup home. We all want it, but just because you want it you don't get it. You have to work."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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