Photo courtesy of Russian Ice Hockey Federation
Just as he did around this time last year, Andrei Nazarov stopped in to Washington yesterday while on a coast-to-coast scouting trip for the Russian National Team, looking over potential players for the upcoming IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. He attended the Washington-St. Louis game and Sport-Express reporter Slava Malamud was able to catch up with him during and after the game. Here's to hoping the Capitals can be of absolutely no use at all to him.
ANDREI NAZAROV. RUSSIAN TEAM
When Andrei Nazarov arrived in Washington a year ago, having just assumed his current position with the Russian National team, there was a single and modest inscription on his accreditation: "Andrei Nazarov. Russian Hockey". In the opinion of your correspondent, the head coach of Vityaz is the perfect personification of the Russian essence of this red-blooded sport. Besides, on the matter of personification, everyone has their own opinions. Some people feel that a leopard with a washboard is the ideal mascot for Russia at the Olympics, and others prefer a shot glass and a saw. And everyone is right in their own way. By the way, Nazarov and I were also able to discuss the mascot topic. He considered the shot glass brilliant, but he also didn't object to the leopard. Large and powerful people are, as a rule, tolerant.
But in Washington the personification of Russia is still fulfilled by homo sapiens. Unshaven, partially toothless, covered from head to toe in the latest fashion-you know who I'm talking about. And Nazarov came expressly to watch him and another just like him (okay, it also didn't hurt that it was also Alexander Semin's birthday). And this time the inscription on his accreditation was more specific: "Russian National Team".
By the way, at the very outset the coach made it clear that he, of course was gathering information, but Vyacheslav Bykov and Igor Zakharin would be making any decisions. However, after fielding a question about Washington's Russian forwards, the cards were slightly revealed: "These two will be the best players on the national team even seven or eight years from now"
In general, the objectives of the coach are understandable. A visit with Ovechkin and Semin is necessary mainly so that the players feel that they are being remembered and honored. And as for goalkeeper Semyon Varlamov, whom the coach would not mind evaluating, according to Nazarov there is some anxiety at HQ. Semyon is once again injured-something with his knee, and apparently it is serious. Varlamov not only wasn't able to practice, he didn't even come to the game. This caused speculation that the goaltender required serious medical (and possibly even surgical) intervention, but the club still claims that he could return any day.
"I just popped in to Washington for the day" said Nazarov. "I'm terribly tired. This is my third game in three days, and yesterday after the game in Newark I walked for a long time around New York."
Will you only be speaking with Ovechkin and Semin after the game?
How many NHL goaltenders are you looking at right now as potential candidates?
"I'm looking at everyone, including Nabokov, who isn't formally playing, and the injured Khabibulin and Varlamov. As far as I know, all of them want to play on the national team. I just think that right now Bobrovsky doesn't have much chance of falling out of the play-offs in the first round. By the way, I always have said and I say it now that we do not wish anyone bad luck in the playoffs. If the guys play well we will only be happy for them."
The chances for being happy for Ovechkin and Semin right now are steadily increasing. Approaching the playoffs, Alexander the Muscovite is slowly regaining his pace from last season (his goal in the last game was pure classic Ovechkin), and the Siberian has fully recovered from injury. As if specially facilitating the work of his Russian counterpart, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau placed both of them on the same line for this game. And he said (later, as a press conference) that it was good.
ESPECIALLY PLAYFUL OVECHKIN
On the eve of his best friend's birthday and visit from the national team coach, Ovechkin was in an especially playful mood. On the evening of March 2 he suddenly picked up and stepped out onto the Twitter social network, where he hasn't poked his nose in almost two years. He stepped out, looked around the neighborhood, and began a scorched earth campaign across the internet. Previously, people from the press service wrote for Alex on twitter, but here he came blazing into network society like a tank. This was authentic, unpasteurized Ovechkin. Fans of Washington and English grammar suffered a tremendous blow. Grammar is unlikely to recover.
"How popular he is here!" delightfully exclaimed Nazarov, still in the dark about Alexander's killing of Twitter. "No matter where you look-everywhere there are shirts with the number 8. All around the city. It seems like he must be the most popular person in the city. And this is the capital of the USA! Imagine what that does for the prestige of a country!"
The game against St. Louis was totally predictable. Washington, despite the difference in class, played conservatively from a defensive posture. As a result they had to come from behind.
"This is some straight-line hockey they are playing now in the NHL" commented Nazarov. "They basically aren't doing anything in the neutral zone- just dumping in the puck as fast as possible. This is what the coach has told them to do so that they make fewer mistakes."
For Washington, this type of game is a conscious choice. The team is preparing themselves for Cup hockey. However, this doesn't particularly bother the Russians. In the first period Ovechkin had a great opportunity while on the power play. After a far shot by Wideman he put his stick in front of the net and the puck squirted through the goaltender's pad but didn't cross the line.
Ovechkin did help get a goal in the second period, when the national team coach started to discuss the phenomenon known as "Nazarov's Curse". The phenomenon is based on the belief that teams which Nazarov goes to watch usually end up losing. More precisely, I started discussing this, and the curse-caster smiled even more and joked that if the Capitals lose, he wouldn't be allowed to come to America any more.
At about this time Ovechkin made a pass from behind the net to Hannan, who shot from a lethal distance and tied it up at 1:1.
"Well, we'll go according to the New Jersey plan" Nazarov said cheerfully, referring to his most recently attended game, when the curse was removed by Ilya Kovalchuk. Ovechkin just has to score a goal and there will be a new trend the other way.
Ovechkin didn't stay down long. Alexander made a pass from the neutral zone to Knuble, who made a backhand pass to Backstrom, and the Swede batted it from the air, right at waist level. The puck recoiled into the net, handball-style.
During the intermission at Verizon Center, injured soldiers of the US armed forces took to the ice. They not only took to the ice, but they were in full hockey uniforms, as players of the "USA Warriors" team. One skated on two prostheses, another on one, and there were two more without legs on special sleds for disabled hockey players. All of them took shots. Now this is a salute to my beloved sport. Hockey is hockey and fun is fun, but things like this really make an impression. Nazarov stood and applauded, saying "Outstanding!"
I DON'T HAVE ANY BLACK SPOTS
In the third period it was Semin's turn to please national team HQ. Penetrating the zone on the right wing, the birthday boy faked a shot up high and then immediately made a stunning pass to Arnott. Recently acquired from New Jersey, the veteran completed the combination in a single shot-3:2!
"Now you see. I don't have any black spots" said the author of Nazarov's Curse as he was leaving the press box. "Some of them are red."
Ted Leonsis, the owner of the team, came up to Ovechkin in the locker room and introduced him to one of his numerous friends. The friend asked Alexander which vodka is the best. Alexander answered that he doesn't drink vodka. He could have explained to the lover of stereotypes that in Russia this drink isn't valued for its taste quality and aromatic bouquet. At the very least he could have recommended the well-known (in Phoenix) Nazarov brand of Vodka...
"I'm trying to gradually get myself in optimum form" explained Ovechkin to me. "There are only 17 games left, and it's time to wake up and play on our level."
And that is why you are once again playing in your style? You've found some real Ovechkin goals, you've made a lot of hard hits..
"Yeah, I always play in this style. It's you guys in the press who have made something up.
Now you are meeting with Andrei Nazarov. How do you feel about these visits?
"It's very nice that they are following me in Russia, so they don't forget me. That is the very best feeling."
Are there any reasons why you might refuse to play for the national team?
"Only injury. But to be honest, I really hope to play as long as possible in the play-offs."
The conversation between Nazarov and Ovechkin and Semin did turn out to be a short one, but extremely friendly. Apparently no doubts about their usefulness to the Russian national team were raised.
At the end Nazarov asked for Alexander's help in finding contact information for Vancouver forward Sergei Shirokov, who is also on the radar of the national team. Ovechkin immediately set the press attaché for the team on the search for Shirokov. However, Sergei, if you read this note first, keep that in mind.