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Rookie Ovechkin wows league // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By JOHN MANASSO
WASHINGTON — Since it became apparent that Russia's Alexander Ovechkin would be selected first overall in the 2004 NHL draft, comparisons to Ilya Kovalchuk were inevitable.
The two also play the same position, left wing. Kovalchuk is listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds; Ovechkin at 6-2, 216.
Ovechkin's mother won two Olympic gold medals in basketball for the Soviet Union. Kovalchuk's father played the sport professionally in that country's league.
Kovalchuk, now 22, lit up the NHL in his rookie season, scoring 29 goals in 65 games despite missing the final 16 games of the season with a shoulder injury.
For the Washington Capitals, the Thrashers' opponent Sunday at the MCI Center, Ovechkin, 20, similarly has enthralled the league as he duels with the much-heralded Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh for the Calder Trophy, given to the league's top rookie.
In 36 games, Ovechkin has 23 goals and 20 assists and enters today's game with goals in five straight games. No player on his team has more than eight goals.
Said Kovalchuk, "He's going to be one of the best players in this league."
Yet ask both players about the other and you will receive a similar answer.
"I don't know," Kovalchuk said. "Nobody's the same in the NHL. . . . We came into the league in a pretty similar situation. He's not on the best team. He plays a lot. Very similar."
Said Ovechkin: "No one can compare two players. Everyone is different. Everyone has different styles. I don't know why people compare me and him."
Well, ask Ovechkin's goaltender, Olaf Kolzig, if Ovechkin reminds him of any player.
Surprise, surprise, Kovalchuk comes to mind.
"I think he's a more physical Kovalchuk," Kolzig said. "I don't know Ilya at all, so I can't speak for what he's like in the dressing room. I know Alex is a superstar but he doesn't act like one."
Certainly, Ovechkin is being recognized as a budding superstar. After a recent practice at the Bowie (Md.) Ice Arena, he stood about 10 minutes signing autographs. He does all of his interviews in English and requested an English-speaking roommate on the road.
On the ice, it's not just his numbers that are awe-inspiring, but his skills, as well. Perhaps the single area where he has shown the most flash is in the shootout.
While many shootouts — which involve a minimum of five chances — are decided 1-0, Ovechkin has converted 5 of 6 attempts, giving him the most shootout goals in the league. Ovechkin has beaten the Thrashers twice in 1-0 shootouts.
On a Washington team that is 4-2 in shootouts (second best in the league) and has only 27 points, subtract four points for shootouts and the Capitals would be only one point away from the worst record in the league.
"Obviously, our team's getting recognition because of him," Kolzig said. "Going into the season we had a very young and inexperienced team, and had he not been on our team I don't know how much TV time we would get and I don't know if people would think the Washington Capitals were still in the league."
Thrashers left wing Slava Kozlov played against Ovechkin during the lockout in Russia. Ovechkin's Dynamo Moscow team won the league title and Ovechkin was an integral player, but Kozlov thinks he is even better in the NHL.
"I think he grows up a little bit," Kozlov said. "In the Russian league, you have four lines [receiving equal ice time] and everyone plays power play. In Washington, the kid gets lots of power play time all the time. He's a pretty good player, very skilled. He can pass. What surprises you is he can body check. He's pretty strong.
"I think he's better than he was in the Russian league. I think he's going to improve every year. He's a potential 50-goal scorer."
Ovechkin tries to deflect all of the accolades and comparisons — no matter to whom they are made.
"Right now I don't think about rookie of the year, who is going to be on top, me or Crosby, [the New York Rangers' Peter] Prucha," Ovechkin said.
"I must improve all the time. If we win, we'll see at the end of the season."
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