lava Malamud's recent column in Sport-Express:
This translation attempts to, but by no means succeeds in preserving all of the wit and the elegance of the original article. In short, the Russian version is truly awesome!
Я русский бы выучил только за то,
Что им разговаривал Слава!
Only Gretzky and Bossy better than Ovechkin
On Saturday the leader of the Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin had a "double" against Atlanta and became the first in the leage to score 50 goals. The Russian sniper accomplished this feat four times in his first five seasons – a task that had been completed previously just twice by two great Canadian players Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
DO NOT TOUCH!
That very same Saturday Washington's Captain Alexander Ovechkin could raise the Presidents Trophy – awarded for the victory in the NHL regular season. But he did not – out of superstition. Which is not surprising: Ovechkin's affinity for superstitions is obvious even from the way he looks. Untied belt of his hockey pants, yellow skate laces, his reappearing beard, an ever-growing hole on his undershirt – a ritual upon a ritual. And this is a very important superstition!
Just before the start of the game against Atlanta, when deputy comissar of the NHL Bill Daly positioned himself next to the tall-legged bowl placed in the center of the ice, Ovechkin was supposed to approach and receive the trophy. Inside the arena, the last accords of Top of the World by Van Halen just sounded, which was intended to represented the significance of this moment. Ovechkin, however, did not reach for the world's most famous umbrella stand, and didn't even bother to look at it. Meanwhile, Daly, who was standing right there, looked not as much as Santa Claus, but rather as a military comissariate officer serving a draft notice to a conscript.
The fact of the matter is that it is a tradition in the NHL to avoid even touching the secondary trophies, to avoid the wrath of the fickle customer Lord Stanley. Ovechkin, by the way, did not know about the custom, but someone was kind enough to help.
- Bruce warned me that nobody takes this trophy. So I didn't, - said Ovechkin after the game. Meanwhile, Washington's coach Bruce Boudreau nodded in agreement.
- That's not the trophy we have been dreaming about, - said Boudreau. - Of course, we are happy to get it, but... Actually, I am not that superstitious, but if you can't touch it - you can't.
So, you can't touch it. The North American distaste for consolation prizes, "honorable bronze", and everything else that reminds of the word "looser", is, indeed, worthy of respect. Nevertheless, Washington just finished the best regular season in its history, and it does mean something. Forget about the umbrella stand – Capitals have never even finished top of their Conference!
The importance of this event was emphasized by a small statistical quirk. The win over Atlanta was 1,215th regular season victory for Washington. Meanwhile, the Capitals accumulated 1,214 defeats, 303 ties and 71 overtime and shootout losses. So, for the first time in their history, the Capitals have more wins than losses.
The unstoppable rise of this team – from hopeless outsiders to absolute favorites – one of the main events of the post-lockout era. And the broad shoulders of the best player of the Washington Capitals have been the main driving force behind this march.
Against Atlanta, Ovechkin started slowly. Put the puck into his own goal. Made a mistake on the point while on a power play, allowed a breakaway – and there is a goal, 1:2.
But that was just a beginning. Then Ovechkin got up, dusted himself off, looked around, found a place to stand on – ant turned the World – face toward Ovechkin, back toward Atlanta. His two goals not only gave his team a historic victory, but also allowed him to pass Crosby in the race for Richard Trophy and (temporary) Henrik Sedin in the race for Art Ross Trophy. Moreover, he became just the third player in the history of the NHL to score 50 goals in four of his first five seasons. The other two – Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
After the game Ovechkin was not hiding the importance of his achievement.
Of course it is important, - said the Russian. You think about it, feel the pressure – from the media, the fans. It's important to to be the first to score 50 goals.
- In five years, Washington rose from outsiders to the regular season champions. Do you accept that it is mostly because of you?
- No, I think the reason is proper actions of the management. They signed the right players, drafted well. Look, all of the youngsters chosen over the last five years are now playing at very high level.
- And what is the number one factor? What allowed you to become the best team this year?
- Proper selection. Two years ago we made the playoffs with a very young team, with a few veterans added at the end – Fedorov, Cooke and Huet. Next year, the team had more experience, we understood better what we were doing, we stopped playing "hit-and-run" style, we got a certain system. And now, we have even more veterans with experience. Now, we are the masters of our own fate. We should win everything there is to win.
Obviously, the new captain of Washington does not call himself the principal creator of the newly found success, but it is obvious that the glorious current epoch in club's history begins and ends with him. No wonder Ovechkin is expected to be one of the main candidates for the Hart Trophy. Only Gretzky and Bobby Orr have ever won this prize three times in a row.
It is possible that the writers will decide not to dilute this exclusive company of two Canadian legends and give the Hart to someone else, especially since Ovechkin's goal-scoring stats this year are, by his standards, unremarkable. Nevertheless, this has been Alexander's best season ever. In spite of suspensions, injuries, small decreas in time on ice and fewer shots on goal. This season, he is not just a loose canon and a natural disaster, he also developed into a real leader. He started doing what the great players do – raise the level of play of his teammates. And the regular season champion became something they weren't fully in the past – Ovechkin's Team. The team now fits its leader.
- Darn, why didn't I score?! - Alexander Semin greeted me with a question. And then promptly proceeded to elaborate on this thought with a long tirade, which was themed mostly in urological and gynecological terms. The Siberian really wanted to reach the 40 goal mark.
As for the request to point out the main reason for success, Semin replied: - I think it is all about the coach. He established the right tactics, and it worked.
When I relayed these words to Boudreau, he frightfully stepped back, and on his honest face of a collective farm chairman appeared an expression that may be called "The sow gave birth to... WHAT?!"
Semin said that? - asked Boudreau having caught his breath. Well, he hit the bull's eye. I don't know what to say. This is the first quote from Alex I have ever heard. Nevertheless, I am touched.
Washington had another hero that day as well - Nicklas Backstrom. Young center had an assist on Ovechkin's third period goal, and the Russian's 50th goal became the Swede's 100th point. Both posed with the puck and even threatened to cut it in half. Those two set another team record: for the first time ever two Capitals registered 100 point seasons.
Backstrom is another draft success of Washington's General Manager George McPhee. Capitals' Éminence grise did not accomplish any miracles, since a lot simple fell in his lap. The first pick in 2004 (Ovechkin), and the fourth one two years later (Backstrom) were products of Washington horrendous play in preceding seasons. Nevertheless, during the same 2004 draft Mcphee had two more first round choices and he used them to select Schultz and Green (the only other 2004 pick to have made the NHL First All Star Team).
In the end, seven years after the supporters were calling for the General Manager to be fired, he became the hero of the nation's capital. To be fair, McPhee was not the principal architect of the past woes: the team owner Ted Leonsis claimed all responsibility for the disaster that acquisition of Jagr and all that followed became. The idea to start from scratch and built the team around its youngsters. Mcphee was simply implementing the owners Napoleonic plans with great diligence.
We did something unusual - breaking up a team that made playoffs, - said McPhee. A month after being bounced from the postseason in 2003 we started tearing down the roster. That does not happen often with playoff teams. And when it happens, you always have to live through three or four tough years. And it doesn't always work. It was a serious risk. If we did not succeed, I would be finished as a GM in the NHL.
When you got Ovechkin, exactly how did you intend to build the team around him?
Character means a lot to me. I want to have good people on my team, not just good players. That's first. Second - I needed a team that can score. After the lockout, offense is what the League wants. That's why I don't understand why some teams still play defensive hockey.
- Would you consider not winning the Stanley Cup a failure?
- A failure - no, a disappointment - yes. My goal is to build a team that will knock on that "door" every year. If I can build such a team, eventually we will succeed. We had a realistic chance to win the Cup last two seasons. Maybe this year, finally, we win. If not - we have a chance next year. My goal is consistency.
- Does the course of the Presidents' Trophy not scare you?
- Not at all. I think a third of all regular season champions went on to win the Stanly Cup. If I was told in the beginning of this season that we have a 30% chance to win the Cup, I would say: "Not Bad!"
Not bad is a good slogan for the pragmatic and quiet General Manager of the Capitals. It does not, of course, fit Ovechkin. If anything, the Russian star certainly does not lack American-style maximalism. That is exactly why the pretty umbrella stand called the Presidents' Trophy will go back to the Hall of Fame without Ovechkin's fingerprints on it.