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Russian stars shine bright in Caps-Pens series

by Dan Rosen
WASHINGTON -- The Russian star is shining brightly in the NHL these days with three countrymen nominated for the Hart Trophy, two of whom are participating in arguably the most hyped second-round Stanley Cup Playoff series in recent memory.

However, even the country's sharpest defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, can see that Washington left wing Alex Ovechkin is the face of hockey in the Motherland these days because of his personality and the raw emotion he plays with.

"He's an outgoing guy," Gonchar told Friday at the Pittsburgh Penguins team hotel. "His personality is so different than the rest of the guys (Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk), so that is why those great goals and great plays boost him up there."

Because of Ovechkin, Gonchar said, "hockey is more recognizable back home in Russia. Obviously he plays great, but he does a good job promoting hockey, too."

Ovechkin doesn't have to do anything to promote the Penguins-Capitals series that begins Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center. He's one of seven key players in the series who call Russia home -- the others are Gonchar, Malkin, Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Alexander Semin and Simeon Varlamov.

Together, that's five top-six forwards, a star defenseman and a No. 1 goalie.

Gonchar said he's already received enough phone calls from people telling they can't wait to watch Saturday's game, which starts at 9 p.m. in Moscow. The rest of the games begin at 3 a.m. there, but Gonchar said people will be watching them live.

"Back home it's going to be huge," he said. "I'm sure a lot of people all over Europe will watch these games, too. Obviously there are the World Championship going on, but when you have a series like this I'm sure there will be a lot of fans all over Europe watching it."

As for the so-called heated rivalry between Malkin and Ovechkin, one that appeared to cool off some in Montreal at NHL All-Star Weekend, Gonchar said nothing like that exists between the fans back home.

"I do believe that people are proud that they're both Russians," Gonchar said. "They play a different style of hockey and because of that they have a different group of fans. Some people like Alex and maybe others like Evgeni more, but they're all Russians and they represent the country."

Russian hockey hasn't been at the epicenter of the sport since the late 1990s, when the Detroit Red Wings employed the Russian Five (Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov) on their Cup-winning team in 1997.

The difference between then and now is no matter the outcome of this seminal series between the Penguins and Capitals, Russian hockey fans will still have a reason to stay up late to watch the Eastern Conference Final. Either Ovechkin and his band of countrymen or Malkin and Gonchar will be moving on.

"Somebody is going on, and hopefully it's going to be us," Gonchar said. "For our country it's one of those series where it's a win-win situation. That's what makes this a special series, not just for people around the NHL but people back home, too."

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