Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 2

Number 2. A Year for the Ages

"Dream as if you'll live forever,
Live as if you'll die today."

-- James Dean

If one looks back at the individual accomplishments of Alex Ovechkin in 2008, you would probably respond to any single one of them with, “wow!”

Put them together, and it was a year for the ages.

Ovechkin started 2008 on the ice having just torched the Ottawa Senators – in Ottawa, no less – for four goals and an assist in an 8-6 win. He accomplished this after having had in his previous game two days earlier his leg sliced open enough to need stiches to close the wound. This would be a difficult act to follow…

…for anyone else. Ovechkin kicked off the new year with a couple of assists against those same Senators, and by the time he finished the 2008 portion of the regular season, he was 35-29-64, +23, with seven game winning goals and ten power play tallies on his way to a 65-47-112, +28 season in which he not only led the league in goal and total scoring but also…

- led the league in power play goals

- led the league in game-winning goals

- led the league in shots on goal

- finished sixth among NHL forwards in total hits

- finished ninth among all NHL forwards in takeaways

- finished tied for fifth among NHL forwards in plus-minus

- finished fourth among NHL forwards in total power play scoring (and was the only one to have done so out of the top ten with more goals than assists)

- put the Caps on his back in the last dozen games, over which the Caps went 11-1-0, by going 11-6-17, +13.

After encountering a speed bump in the first round of the playoffs in which he – for him – had a slow start, Ovechkin finished the first round as the Caps leading scorer (4-5-9 in seven games) and had the game-winning goal in two of the Caps’ three wins in the opening round loss to the Flyers in seven games.

It was the sort of season as awesome in its parts as in its whole. For instance…

-- January 10th…Ovechkin signed the largest contract in NHL history -- $124 million over 13 years. He celebrated by being named to the Eastern Conference all star team the following day and promptly going on a six-game goal-scoring streak.

-- January 21st…After Pittsburgh overcame a 3-2 Capitals lead with a pair of goals less than three minutes apart in the second period, Ovechkin answered right back with one of his own less than two minutes after a score by Evgeni Malkin gave the Penguins the lead. He would finish that game with two goals, an assist, 11 shots on goal, four hits, and would lead the team in ice time (almost 29 minutes) in a 6-5 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

-- January 26th…at the All-Star Game in Atlanta, Ovechkin stole the skills competition with his bounce-the-puck-off-the-stick, spin-o-rama, baseball swing attempt at goalie Chris Osgood. He added the spin-o-rama after trying (and failing) on a more pedestrian baseball swing-only attempt. He didn’t score a goal on either attempt, but he won more style points than on the attempt on which he scored.

-- January 31st…Ovechkin, already sporting a cut on his forehead from a high stick in the previous game, broke his nose and split a lip that required stitches in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. He used the abuse as inspiration to create what might be uniquely the “Ovechkin Hat Trick.” As he put it, “Today was a special day. I broke my nose, have stitches (and) score four goals.” The last of them was the game-winner in overtime to give the Caps a 5-4 win.

-- March 3rd…Ovechkin was “first to 50” in the NHL for the 2007-2008 season in a 10-2 rout of the Boston Bruins. He did it in style, too, getting his 50th as the first goal of a hat trick. It was part of a five-point night, his second in less than five weeks.

-- March 12th… with the Caps entering a phase of the season that looked like a single elimination tournament with respect to their playoff chances, Ovechkin made a statement that he was putting the club on his back. With the Caps down 2-1 to the Calgary Flames in the second period, Ovechkin pounced on a rebound on a power play to tie the game, then he won it with under two minutes to play in the third period blasted a one-timer home to give Olaf Kolzig his 300th win as a Capital.

March 21st…Ovechkin tied a franchise record and became the first player in 12 years to record 60 goals in a season in a 5-3 win in Atlanta over the Thrashers. He scored the game’s first goal, and after the Thrashers put up three in the second period to put a choke hold on the Caps’ playoff chances, Ovechkin started the third period comeback with a goal mid-way through the last frame. Then, he gathered up the puck behind the Atlanta net after a faceoff and spied Nicklas Backstrom sliding into the low slot. Ovechkin put the puck on Backstrom’s tape and its next stop was the back of the Atlanta net for the game-winner.

April 3rd…Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ovechkin set a league record for goals scored by a left wing, netting his 64th and 65th of the season in a 4-1 win over the Lightning. Ovechkin’s power play goal in the third period – his second of the game and last of the regular season – proved to be the game winner. The win put the Caps into the top eight in the Eastern Conference, allowing the team to control its own fate in the season finale against Florida.

April 11th…With the Caps making their first appearance in the playoffs since losing a triple-overtime game to Tampa Bay in 2003, the Caps trailed Philadelphia on home ice, 4-3 in the third period. On a power play, Mike Green sent a slap shot the felled Flyer Patrick Thoresen, sliding to try and block the shot. Ovechkin retrieved the puck and sent it back to Green, who fired it past Martin Biron to tie the game. Ovechkin then took matters into his own hands as the clock dipped below five minutes, breaking up a break-out pass deep in the Flyer end, fleecing Lasse Kukkonen for the puck, and flipping it past Martin Biron for his first career playoff goal – a game winner.

April 21st…with the Caps facing elimination on Flyer ice, down three games to two, the Caps entered the third period tied with the Flyers 2-2. Viktor Kozlov intercepted a pass deep in the Caps end early in the last period and fed Ovechkin up ice for a breakaway. Though he might have had troubles with the shootout portion of the game during the season, he didn’t miss on the chance to skate in alone on Biron, deking the goalie to the ice before lifting the puck over his left pad on the forehand to give the Caps a come-from-behind lead. He added the insurance marker by one-timing a feed from Brooks Laich on a power play for the 4-2 win.

It was a disappointing finish for the Caps, losing game seven to the Flyers, but for Ovechkin, the recognition for his achievements would be soon in coming. The Ross and Richard Trophies were already his by virtue of his having led the league in total points and goals. To that he added the Hart Trophy for league MVP and the Pearson Award for league’s outstanding player.

Before that, however, on May 18th he assisted on the game-winning goal scored by Ilya Kovalchuk in overtime, giving Team Russia the gold medal in the world championships. Ovechkin was 6-6-12, +11 in nine games in the tournament.

Then, on June 13th, he accepted the key to the city in a ceremony honoring him in the District of Columbia. Humbled by the gesture, he announced that he was “president this day in the city. For one day. So everybody have fun -- no speed limit."

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, Ovechkin also launched a line of clothing – “Streetwear.”

Ovechkin has picked up where he left off, as he is tied for second in the NHL in total scoring with one game remaining on the 2008 calendar. He is ahead of where he was last season in goal scoring after 35 games played (25 to 24) and is on a pace to equal his total scoring output of last year – 112 points. Although his season was interrupted for two games as he returned to Moscow to be with his ailing grandfather, Ovechkin has hardly missed a beat on the ice. If he continues on his pace of 55 goals, he will finish the season with 218 career goals and tied with Mike Ridley for third in franchise history, behind only Mike Gartner and Peter Bondra.

Ovechkin is arguably the league’s best player. What isn’t arguable is that he is its most dynamic personality on and off the ice. He is a force of nature unto himself, and his 2008 season (which if it ended tonight would leave him with a record of 60-53-113, +36) is not only one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2008, his is among the top stories in the league as well.

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