When the Washington Capitals signed top centre Michael Nylander in July, it was assumed by most that they had finally found their playmaker for star winger Alexander Ovechkin.
They were half right. The Caps indeed found their centre for Ovechkin in July, only it was free agent Viktor Kozlov. Head coach Glen Hanlon has partnered the two Russians since the first day of training camp and it has worked out nicely early in the NHL season, the pair combining for six points (3-3) in three games.
"Everybody looks comfortable playing on the same line as Ovechkin because that guy is unbelievable," Kozlov said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
Ovechkin, 22, has taken the league by storm since being taken first overall by Washington in the 2004 entry draft, scoring 99 goals in 166 games including his first of the new season. The 32-year-old Kozlov has seen Russian greatness before and doesn't flinch when asked which former NHL teammate compares to Ovechkin.
"Everybody has said that Alex and Pavel Bure are kind of the same calibre of player and I think I agree with them," said Kozlov, who played with the Russian Rocket in Florida. "They both scored 50 goals and both are unbelievable."
Kozlov and Ovechkin also were linemates at the 2006 Turin Olympics. So, Kozlov already knew what to look for at camp this season.
"You know, playing with Alex, you know he's a great player," said Kozlov. "So you just give him the puck and stay away from him and give him room to operate. It's that easy."
Keeping the franchise player happy is a good thing.
"Kozzie has good hands and he gets me the puck all the time," Ovechkin said recently. "I feel good right now on our line."
The other winger on the line has changed depending on the situation in the game. Tomas Fleischmann has started each game there but Hanlon has used both Chris Clark or Brooks Laich later in games for defensive purposes.
Meanwhile, Nylander has skated with fellow Swede and prized rookie Nicklas Backstrom, while Russian sniper Alexander Semin will join them when he's healthy. He's expected back next week from an injured right ankle.
Credit Kozlov for being honest when asked why he signed US$5-million, two-year deal with the Caps on July 1.
"Why? Because they gave me the best deal," he said with a chuckle.
Kozlov had a career-high 25 goals last season with the New York Islanders while also adding 26 assists and posting a plus-12 rating. Now, playing with Ovechkin, those numbers could rise. He does have a target in mind but won't share it.
"It's my secret," said Kozlov. "You know hockey players are superstitious, right?
"Last year that was my best season in my career, 25 goals, so hopefully I continue to get better."
Hanlon likes what he's seen so far.
"He's a great player," Hanlon said after practice Wednesday. "He's very focused.
"He's done all the right things. Defensively, he's very, very smart, and what else can you say about the shot he scored on Sunday?"
Kozlov launched a blast from just inside the blue-line that rocketed past the glove of Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro. It was his second goal this season. By the looks of it, there are plenty more to come.