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Ovechkin has some bigger goals in mind

October 17, 2008|Helene Elliott

All Alexander Ovechkin did last season was lead the NHL with 65 goals and 112 points, win the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player and the Lester Pearson Award from his peers as the most outstanding player, and receive a key to the city of Washington.

The Capitals' left wing believes he can top that this season, and he has a number in mind.

Not 70 goals. Not 75.

"If I score one goal and we go to playoffs I will be happy," he said, during a preseason visit to Southern California. "I just want to win."

Of course, if he scored only one goal the Capitals wouldn't have a prayer of making the playoffs this season, and he already has two goals in Washington's first four games after being blanked in their 4-3 victory over Pittsburgh on Thursday. It's not the math but the sentiment that counts for the 23-year-old Russian, the most electrifying player in the NHL and a notable team player in a sport where selflessness is next to godliness.

"I do everything for the team," he said, "and if they need me to score goals I will try to score goals and win the games."

Ovechkin led the Capitals to the Southeast Division title last season and their first playoff berth since 2002-03. Blessed with great hands, quick moves and fearless physicality, he became the first player to score 60 goals since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96. He also broke Luc Robitaille's single-season record of 63 goals by a left wing, set in 1992-93.

Bruce Boudreau, who replaced Glen Hanlon as coach 22 games into the season, said he was "a little intimidated" when he met his franchise player. He need not have worried.

"He was easy to work with," Boudreau said. "He never came in and said, 'Listen, I need to play more. I need to do this more.'

"Everything he does is pretty genuine. When one of the other guys would score, boy, he would be just as happy for them as he was for himself."

Ovechkin's greatest contributions may be unquantifiable.

Gap-toothed and blue-eyed, given to broad grins and going through a defender as much as going around one, he brings personality and life to a league that dearly needs stars it can market to an increasingly international audience.

A natural athlete -- his father played professional soccer and his mother won two Olympic gold medals with the Soviet women's basketball team -- he distinguishes himself from his helmeted and padded brethren through his ability to strike from anywhere, with his forehand or his backhand.

He also stands out because he doesn't restrain his glee after he scores, sometimes body-slamming himself into the glass as if the rink is too small to contain his excitement.

"It's me, you know. I have good celebration," he said.

"I have lots of emotions when I score goals, so I just try to give my most for everybody, my teammates first. It is a good idea for everybody -- the fans too."

The fans love "Ovie" and he loves them back. He donates tickets to kids and conducts clinics through his Crazy 8s program -- 8 being his uniform number and the gold charm he wears around his neck.

He also appears with half a dozen teammates in a video that is shown before Capitals' games at the Verizon Center. They're dressed as rockers, with Ovechkin -- naturally -- the frontman.

Promoting hockey in a largely puck-resistant country seems to come as easily to him as playing it.

"I think he's doing a tremendous job of selling the sport here. My only worry is that he tries to do too much for too many people," Boudreau said.

"He doesn't turn down too many requests to promote the game, promote the Capitals, to do anything in this area."

Washington has pockets of hockey fanatics but isn't a hockey hotbed. At least it wasn't before Ovechkin and the Capitals last season stormed to 11 victories in their last 12 games and a playoff spot, a joy ride that ended with a seven-game, first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

"Now I think it's a hockey town. We made the playoffs and the whole town was crazy about Washington Capitals this spring," said Ovechkin, who became the NHL's first nine-figure player by signing a 13-year, $124-million contract extension in January.

He sees himself and Pittsburgh Penguins standouts Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a mission "to bring hockey to where it's like in Canada," he said. "Of course, it's not big like baseball or the NBA, but I think it's getting better all the time."

He believes he can be better too. Boudreau loved hearing that.

"He always wants to do more than he did the day before, the shift before, in this case the year before," Boudreau said.

Only Ovechkin can see areas for improvement in his game.

"Defensive zone, neutral zone, offensive," said Ovechkin who will return to Southern California to face the Ducks on Nov. 19 and the Kings on Nov. 20 . "You can't just stand and say to yourself, 'OK, right now I'm the best. That's it. No more working.'

"If you're a good player you have to be working harder and harder. This is not just my goal, it's my team goal. We can improve more and we can probably be even better than last year. My dream is to be the best."

He's not far off now.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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