Rambler's Top100

24 2006 . 
Ovechkin gets defensive // Toronto Star

Heeds his coach's wish to work both ends of the ice `His energy level, his enthusiasm has never changed'


WASHINGTONFlashy Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin is adding another move to his repertoire: defence.

"My coach told me if you want to be a complete player, you have to play offensively and defensively," Ovechkin said. "I check more defensively. If I have a chance, I try to score goals. Sometimes if I don't play D they have a great chance to score on us."

And so, dutifully, one of the NHL's most gifted offensive talents has started contributing in his own zone. He reads rushes well, gets into passing lanes, stays in his own end a tad longer and makes better decisions with and without the puck.

"It's subtle little things (that are) hard to pick up on until you're watching it on tape," said coach Glen Hanlon, heaping praise upon the reigning rookie of the year for adding defensive substance to the offensive flair that has made Ovechkin a star.

"We've seen a maturity in his game," Hanlon added. "He's still a young kid. We hope he doesn't mature as a person because we like the way he is right now.

"But, as a player, his all-round game is solid, way better defensively. He's not going to get higher, higher, higher points every year. But he is getting better as a player."

By any measure, Ovechkin is the Washington Capitals, whom the Leafs play tonight at the Verizon Center. With 13 goals and 10 assists, the left winger leads the Caps in offence, slightly off the 106-point pace he set last season when he won the Calder Trophy, but still a danger to NHL goalies.

"Obviously, he's a special player," Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft said. "Obviously, you want to know when he's on the ice."

Some believe Ovechkin is more dangerous now, learning to use his linemates more rather than trying to do it all himself with those magical, mystical dekes that undress defencemen and embarrass goalies.

"It's too good a league to do it all by yourself," said Danius Zubrus, who has 12 goals and six assists playing as Ovechkin's centre and on track for a career season. Right winger Chris Clark has five goals and 11 assists.

"He's becoming a more complete player," Zubrus said. "I think he understands now everybody knows who Alex is and a lot of people know what the strong parts of his game are. Especially when we play on the road, we're going to face their best defencemen and their best checking lines. We have to face the music and go out there and beat them."

Zubrus is Ovechkin's roommate and closest friend on the team. He thinks the sky is the limit for the 21-year-old Russian. "I saw him the whole year (last season). In the first half, I saw him do things I haven't seen anybody do in 10 years in the league.

"Nothing about him really surprises me any more. He's quick. His release is crazy. His energy level, his enthusiasm has never changed. He's just an all-around better player."

Don't get the impression that Ovechkin is going to turn into a defence-first Mike Peca clone. The pure joy of scoring a goal will always be foremost.

"My goal is to score goals," Ovechkin said. "I'm a forward. I know when I go to the ice, if we play in our zone, I have to improve my game. When I go to the offensive zone, I have freedom. I can do what I want."

" "


"¨ " @ c 1997