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.

The things we do for "family"

The Peerless was not at the Sabres game at Verizon Center last Friday night. We were out of town for the Christmas holiday. Why? Well, because this time of year brings families together to celebrate the spiritual and the secular, to rejoice in one another...

...and to endure some things one would never think of doing at any other time of the year.

Case in point -- on Friday, we joined some members of our family to trek to see a hockey game. Sounds okay so far, doesn't it? Oh, did we mention it was the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Philadelphia Phantoms?

We suppose that the consolation in this was being secure in the knowledge that we would get to see a hockey game in one of the most famous venues in the sport -- The Spectrum -- one that would be razed to be replaced by a hotel for an entertainment complex called, "Philly Live!" We're guessing that the exclamation point is needed as proof that Philadelphia is indeed alive.

The Spectrum cannot, given its advanced years (41 -- ancient for a sports arena these days), be said to be a great venue to attend an event. The seats are cramped, the rest rooms require descending a flight of stairs (do search parties have to look for bodies of visiting fans after games?), and it is generally dark and uninviting -- Philly fans adore it.

The teams that took the ice that evening did not have the look of prospect-laden rosters. In fact, both made one appreciative for the sort of relationship the Capitals have with the Hershey Bears -- two teams with talent singing from the same hockey philosophy songbook.

The AHL version of the Penguins looked nothing like their NHL parent, content to spend the evening dumping, chasing, and looking for spare change in front of the Phantom net. They happened to be rather successful at it, scratching out a 4-0 win. You had the feeling watching the Penguins that they were a quick team and even a hard-working one. But you also had the feeling that the franchise's "prospects" were all on the other side of the state.

On the other hand, the Phantoms just couldn't match the skill level of their visitors. We watched the home team go through nine (really) power plays and wondered all along, "who do they have who can actually put a puck in the net?" Given the final score, the answer was, "no one on this roster." It was a team that struggled mightily on offense and just wasn't up to the Penguins' quickness on defense.

But to be honest, there really isn't ever a bad night at a hockey rink. Besides, it was nice to see the Phantoms lose, after all. If the two teams could have gone to a shootout and 30 or so rounds before spontaneously combusting at center ice, it would have been better, fireworks always being a crowd-pleaser. It was especially nice since the two monsters I helped create -- my father (a Penguin fan) and my nephew (an comparatively unenthusiastic Philadelphia fan) becoming hockey fans at my prodding -- were in attendance.

We don't suppose there will be a movie made of our experience. You won't see "Christmas at The Spectrum" or "A Peerless Hockey Christmas" movie marathon on TBS next Christmas. But it was hockey over the holidays, and that can't be all bad...



The Washington Post has undertaken to post a series of columns offering tips and suggestions on resolutions for the new year. There is one with which we heartily agree...

More to the point...find a hockey game!

If you've watched hockey on television, you -- even if you are a long time fan -- might have trouble finding and following the puck. If you have high-definition television, you can see the pores in the players' skin, see the sweat fly when punches are thrown in fights, and see more of the ice, but you don't get that feeling of coming out of your chair (or recliner) when a player like Alex Ovechkin picks up the puck in the neutral zone and heads up ice like a locomotive with malice in its heart.

Nope, there is nothing -- nothing -- like live hockey. What makes things especially nice these days is that greater Washington (and this includes an area reaching into southern Pennsylvania) is enjoying winning teams and enthusiatic crowds. The Caps are among the most entertaining, not to mention successful, teams in the NHL these days. That Verizon Center is rocked with thousands of red-clad fans only adds to the intensity that one gets from seeing hockey in person.

And just a couple of hours up the road, there is one of the most storied franchises in all of minor league hockey, the Hershey Bears. They play in a great facility (Giant Center) that is easy to get to and a great place to watch a game. A trip to Hershey affords the fan a chance to see some of the youngsters who will be playing under the Verizon Center roof one day in a setting that is equal parts exciting and entertaining for families.

If your resolutions turn toward "finding the cheap seats," you'll probably find those at Verizon Center and Giant Center sometimes in scarce supply -- success does that for a team. But it will be worth the effort; you won't find a more entertaining or a more exciting live sporting event anywhere than live hockey.

Being the "coolest sport on earth" isn't just a reference to the surface on which it's played.