Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates with Nicklas Backstrom #19 after Nicklas scored the team's third goal against the Edmonton Oilers during an NHL game at Rexall Place on October 24, 2013 in Edmonton.
Photograph by: Derek Leung, Getty Images
VANCOUVER — The New Age number-crunchers will tell you that plus-minus is a bogus statistic, so Alex Ovechkin’s minus-4 rating, as the NHL’s goal scoring co-leader came to Vancouver with the Washington Capitals to face the Canucks on Monday — and minus-6, by night’s end — is not to be held against him.
Probably all it means is that the Capitals have started the season 5-7, given up four more goals than they’ve scored, and Ovechkin has been like a lot of the leadership group on Adam Oates’s squad: a little bit guilty.
And yet, there is always something with The Great 8, some little piece of total reverence that is withheld when a coach or a teammate or an opponent speaks of him, as if unconditional praise would be not quite appropriate. Why?
Because he scores a lot on the power play, and 5-on-5 he’s not as dominant? Or because of that career nadir he hit in 2010-11 and 2011-12, when his merely mortal numbers (32 and 38 goals, respectively) -- with a Russian train wreck at the Vancouver Olympics thrown in — had the whole world on his case about bacchanalian excesses and conditioning and lack of team success, and general ... well, Russian-ness?
Or because he beat out the North American darling, Sidney Crosby, for the Hart Trophy (his third) last spring, when Ovechkin seemed to single-handedly lift Washington into the playoffs with a ridiculous 22 goals in the team’s final 21 games — leading some to wonder where he’d been hiding for the first half of the season when the Caps could have used him?
Whatever it is, the tenor of the conversation Monday was ever-so slightly restrained, even as Ovechkin entered the game on an otherworldly 32-goals-in-32-games regular season streak. It’s 32 in 33 now, as he was blanked Monday. Still, those are the kinds of numbers no other NHL player had reached since Pavel Bure did it (also spanning parts of two seasons) in Florida, 12 years ago.
Given that the No. 10 jersey Bure wore with the Canucks is to be raised to the rafters Saturday night — a move not unanimously lauded by those who remember his ambivalent feelings for the franchise, and vice versa — it is a curious coincidence of timing that two such great players, each with that invisible asterisk, would be on the ice at Rogers Arena in the same week.
For his part, Ovechkin has no such reservations about Bure.
“Tremendous speed. Loved to score goals,” said the 28-year-old star. “He was a big player when I was growing up. Lot of young guys, he was their idol.
“He’s still one of the best players in Russian hockey (history). Those guys, Fedorov, Bure, Larionov, they opened the NHL for us. They showed you guys how good Russian players are. And you can see the appreciation now, his number’s going to be (retired) for all life here, his name’s going to be here for all life. He deserves it.”
For Oates, who scored twice including the game-winner the last time the Capitals won in Vancouver, 12 years ago, there is only one incontestable comparable between the two Russian superstars.
“They’re different hockey players. Ovi’s got a physical aspect to his game that Pavel didn’t have. You know, it’s a different generation of hockey, as well. But they’re both goal scorers, and very few guys have that ability.”
Ovechkin’s resurgence since last March, when he began his goal-scoring tear, has been eye-popping. Career-wise, his scoring resume is so gaudy, cavilling at whatever other qualities he may or may not lack seems almost absurd. And yet, there are nights when he leaves you wondering.
Canucks coach John Tortorella, who’s nothing if not consistent, didn’t want to talk about either Ovechkin or the Capitals on Monday, other than to say that there’s more than one good player on Washington’s squad.
“We don’t spend much time talking about the other team, we’re just concerned about our club,” he said.
That may be true in the coaches’ room, but in the team’s sanctum, they know who the superstars are. The dates may not be circled on the calendar, but there is a different vibe on nights like Monday, when there’s a luminary in the house.
“It gives an extra little bit of jump to the game,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “I think it gets the team up, especially the defence.”
How dangerous is he, compared to the league’s other snipers?
“You sound like my dad right now: ‘Who’s the most dangerous guy?’,” Bieksa laughed. “I’m not good at blowing smoke at other guys, all I know is he’s a really good player. Where he ranks among the elite, that’s a personal thing. Every guy has different things he finds tough to defend. But take nothing away from him, he’s a great one-on-one player.”
“There’s a lot of buzz in the dressing room before the game, and you know something could happen every time he’s on the ice, so it’s fun for us as well,” said Henrik Sedin, whose assist on brother Daniel’s game-winner Monday put the Canuck captain two points up on Ovechkin (17-15) in scoring, but with seven fewer goals, which is kind of what each player is all about.
The Sedins were magic in the 3-2 win. Ovechkin? He put in a full six-minute shift with the media in the dressing room after the morning skate, trading a few mild shots with reporters about his pursuit of records (“Of course I want to break the records and all that kind of stuff, but you know, if you do it, you do it, and if you don’t ... it’s OK”), his weight (“Lighter? I don’t know about that”), and reflected on the Vancouver Olympic experience: “It was long time ago, I already forgot about it, you just reminded me so I have to remember it.”
Canuck goalie Roberto Luongo, who’s had the Caps’ number dating back to his Florida days and evidently still has it, said in the morning that he looks forward to the showdowns with big-time scorers, although he added, grinning: “I don’t think excited’s the right word.
“I like to play (Ovechkin) a little bit different than a regular player, I’m not going to get into specifics about it — I can’t give my secrets away.”
He meant it as a joke, and Ovechkin took it that way.
“He say that? Ha. We’ll see tonight,” said The Great 8.
And they did. It took 79 seconds for Ovechkin to rocket in on the right wing, leave Alex Edler jockstrapless, get hauled down, and be awarded a penalty shot. With the Canadian Olympic team brass looking down from the press box, Luongo stoned him.
It wasn’t quite the last the world saw of Ovechkin Monday night — he hit the post on a rare chance in the second period — but it was close.
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