ARLINGTON, Va. –
It was 10:15 Thursday morning at the Washington Capitals
' practice facility. The team wasn't scheduled to be on the ice for another 15 minutes, its final tune-up for Friday's Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series opener against the Philadelphia Flyers
The ice, as expected, was empty -- save for one restless soul.
glided onto the freshly shaved sheet still barren of pucks and goals and gazed helplessly around for something, anything, to keep his mind occupied. Like a kid who just ate too many pixie sticks, the Capitals' Russian superstar couldn't sit still.
One of the Zamboni drivers saw Ovechkin skating aimlessly in circles, so he tossed him a loose puck that lay on the rubber matting at his feet. The driver then hopped back aboard his vehicle and steered it back on the ice for some additional work.
Meanwhile, with the Zamboni revving up, Ovechkin slammed the singular puck off each side of the half boards. He juggled it on his stick. He smiled adoringly at some early arriving fans. Finally, Viktor Kozlov
joined him, a full five minutes later.
Soon after, the rest of his teammates and all the Capitals coaches meandered out of the dressing room and onto the ice. Practice was about to begin, but the symbolism here just can't be ignored.
Roughly 33 hours before the puck drops on his NHL postseason debut, Ovechkin couldn't wait to hit the ice even for a measly practice. If you don't think Washington's wunderkind is ready for hockey's biggest stage, you're dead wrong.
"I haven't been in this situation before, but I'm pretty excited," Ovechkin said. "I can't wait to get on the ice tomorrow."
The sentiment around the hockey world as the Caps were embarking on their journey to the Southeast Division title was the NHL needed Ovechkin in these playoffs. His engaging personality and toothless grin are too addicting to be shelved in the spring -- a time when even the least-knowledgeable hockey fan finds a bandwagon to jump on.
Well, he's here folks, and he's ready for what should be your mother's least favorite NHL playoff series.
"I think this series has a chance to have the most bloodshed of all the series," veteran NBC and TSN analyst Pierre McGuire said.
Ovechkin fully expects the Flyers to hit him high, low and in-between. He knows this Philadelphia squad will try to rattle him so much that he turns into a mere mortal, something he has not been for even one minute during his historic 65-goal, 112-point season.
He'll be a marked man, but that's OK. Ovechkin not only knows how to fight back -- how often do you see a player lead the NHL in goals and points, but also finish ninth in hits? -- he fully plans to do so.
"It doesn't matter who hits, it's a matter of results," Ovechkin said. "I'm ready."
Added McGuire: "The thing that Alex Ovechkin
does is he attacks the people that are trying to attack him. He will not be intimidated. A lot of guys need other players around him, but he can make himself great and make this team win because of the physical nature of his game. You give him a stick and a puck and he doesn't even need gloves. He's virtually indestructible. I would call him a cyborg."
A cyborg on speed, maybe.
A case can be made that Ovechkin is the most unique player in the history of the NHL because of his otherworldly talent, his physical prowess and his lust for fun out of the game he loves.
"He's a unique North American player coming from the Soviet Union, or Russia," teammate Sergei Fedorov
said. "He doesn't shy away from the physical game and he hits hard, but he hits clean. He's an honest player, and he's earned respect that way. It's very unique."
Said rookie Nicklas Backstrom
, Ovechkin's center: "He's amazing."
However, Ovechkin never has been amazing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if only because he's never been there. His postseason career is limited to the 21 games he played as a teenager for Dynamo Moscow from 2001-05. He barely was a factor, but then again, he barely was able to drive.
"I realize every day, every hour, that you're going to be playing for the Stanley Cup soon," Ovechkin said. "It's a great feeling."
As a result, the Potomac region has enveloped Ovechkin and the Capitals in a bear hug.
"This town is crazy right now," Ovechkin said. "Some people just scream at my house now, 'Let's go Caps,' and 'We believe.' They put letters on my door saying, 'Let's go Caps,' and 'We believe.' It's pretty amazing.
It's a good feeling when people realize that Washington is a hockey town. If we play the same way, probably they'll keep doing the same. If you lose like we did two years in a row, nobody will like hockey. Now people are starting to love hockey again. - Alexander Ovechkin
"It's a good feeling when people realize that Washington is a hockey town. If we play the same way, probably they'll keep doing the same. If you lose like we did two years in a row, nobody will like hockey. Now people are starting to love hockey again."
Ovechkin said his parents, Tatiana and Mikhail, will get into the "Rock the Red” spirit expected Friday night inside the Verizon Center.
"My mom never wears jerseys," Ovechkin said, "but they're going to be wearing jerseys and screaming like fans."
As for Ovechkin, his job on the ice won't be as simple as letting his emotions loose. If anything, he'll have to keep them in check because the Flyers most likely will resort to any means possible to get inside his head and force a retaliatory penalty on him.
Philadelphia coach John Stevens
doesn't appear to be the line-matching type, which is good because the Flyers won't have the last change for Games 1 and 2. However, chances are one or two of Philly's reliable defensemen -- Kimmo Timonen
, Braydon Coburn
-- will be tasked with skating with the bull that is Ovechkin.
True to his form, Ovechkin is saying bring it on.
"It's very good," he said. "It gives me more opportunities to give my partners space. If somebody is keeping with me I'll go to the second guy so there will be two guys taking me and that leaves a good opportunity to score goals."
Kind of the how Wayne Gretzky
used to free himself from a lockdown defender?
"I'll probably do the same like Gretzky," Ovechkin said smiling.
OK, let's not go there yet.
Although Washington GM George McPhee
said it's not unjust based on Ovechkin's talent to put him into the conversation when talking about the game's greats, he's still hesitant to draw any comparisons, considering until now Ovechkin has won as many games and scored as many goals in the playoffs as you and I.
"There have been some great players along the way, and he's right up there with them," McPhee said. "I don't know if he's a combination of Mark Messier
, Gordie Howe
, (Maurice) Richard. There have been some great ones and time will tell how great he is, but he's right up there in the pantheon of those guys right now."
Those guys, though, were winners in the postseason. Will Ovechkin be?
He can't wait to find out.
"This series I don't want to prove anything," Ovechkin said. "I just want to win games."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.