"His first NHL check was so fierce it dislodged a support beam. He refused to let his team lose, twice answering with goals less than 90 seconds after the opponents took the lead. And when his face appeared on the large scoreboard, he stuck out his tongue and flashed a charismatic smile."
Back on October 5, 2005, Alexander Ovechkin made quite the impact in his NHL regular season debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets and has been "worth the admission," as then-Jackets coach Gerard Gallant said, ever since.
Much has changed in the D.C. hockey world in the twenty-eight months since then - that night the bronze and black-clad Caps got points from Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus, Jeff Halpern, Mathieu Biron and Steve Eminger before an MCI Center crowd - but at least one thing has remained the same: Alexander Ovechkin is still the best player on the ice almost every time he laces up his skates.
The Caps have come a long way since then. Gone are guys like Andrew Cassels, Jeff Friesen and Bryan Muir (seriously, look at the team they put out there that night, but be careful doing so on a full stomach), replaced in the lineup by the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. And, to be sure, there is still a long way to go for this team before they reach their goals both small and large. But with a win tonight in Columbus, the 2007-08 Caps will be within four wins of the 2005-06 team (and within three wins of the 2006-07 squad). Given where they've come from, when they surpass those two teams it will be a bit of an accomplishment, but one that you could have seen coming from the very first shift on Opening Night, 2005.
Interestingly, the Blue Jackets goalie that night was the same one the Caps are likely to face tonight, Pascal Leclaire, who is having a breakout season in C'bus. Leclaire (who is not only leading the NHL.com 3 Stars race, but also has one of the worst headshots in the history of Earth) sports a 19-11-3 record with a 2.11 goals against average (fourth in the League), .925 save percentage (fifth in the NHL) and a League-high eight shutouts - not exactly what the doctor ordered for a Caps team that has been shutout in two of its last three games.
But Leclaire's emergence isn't the only positive story for Ken Hitchcock's Jackets, who are on pace to end up with the first winning record in team history. Rick Nash is establishing himself as a clutch goal-scorer (though he's pointless in four games), the enigmatic Nikolai Zherdev (think Alex Semin without as many bad penalties - check out his TSN.ca scouting report) leads the team in scoring and is within six goals and nine points of a career high, and the team's top four defensemen in ice time all have positive plus-minus ratings. Oh, and former Cap Jiri Novotny already has career highs in goals and points.
Simply put, these Blue Jackets aren't the easy two points that teams have grown accustomed to over the years. Though they're just 26th in the League in scoring, they're sixth in goals against, third in penalty killing and have a sparkling 16-8-4 at home record (only Detroit and Colorado have more points at home).
The Jax have lost three in a row and five of seven (having scored just 12 times in those seven games), but two points will still be tough to come by for the visiting Caps, who will get no breaks as they have to play in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. These two points are huge for both teams, and as it will likely be a low-scoring affair (C'bus has scored two or fewer goals in a staggering 31 of their 54 games), the opportunity will be there for a single individual to be great and snag the win for his team. In such situations, is there a player on the planet that you'd rather have than the Caps' Number Eight?
Why The Blue Jackets Will Win:
"We will win because our goalie was an All Star...and yours wasn't...wait ours wasn't either...crap." - Bethany's Hockey RantsElsewhere 'Round the Rinks:
"The Jackets are a team that's seen the post All-Star break games transform them from a team on a roll to one where desperation lurks around the next corner. With a few days off to recover, the Jackets will get back to what's been successful for them so far: smart, hard checking defense, aggressive forecheck, and good goaltending in the Capitals' first visit to Nationwide since prior to the strike." - End of the Bench
Today's a big day, historically, for Caps goal scorers. First, on this date back in 1991, Dino Ciccarelli became the 33rd player in NHL history to score 400 goals as he tallied in a 5-3 Caps win over Vancouver (he would score another 208 before hanging 'em up). Then, eight years later, Peter Bondra would notch a hat trick in a second straight game (he actually had four two days earlier against the Bolts) with three goals in a home win over the 'Canes. Whaddya got, Alex?... Know what's impressive? Being one of the 30 most improved players in the League (merely from a point production perspective) after scoring 92 points the season before. Just another reason pundits and fans alike think AO is Hart-worthy.... Or maybe it's because he was the most clutch player in the League in January. By a mile.
Hart: Zach Parise (OT game-winning goal, 2A, 3 SOG, 3 hits)
Ross: Zach Parise, Patrick Elias (3 points each)
Norris: Steve Staios (G, +1, 4 SOG, 2 BkS)
Vezina: Mathieu Garon (24-save shutout win)
Richard: Radim Vrbata, T.J. Hensick (2G each)
Calder: T.J. Hensick (2G, 75% faceoffs won)
Aiken: Curtis Joseph (L, 5 goals allowed on 28 shots against)