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10 years later, Ovechkin seeking one more trophy

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10 years later, Ovechkin seeking one more trophy

Ten years ago tonight, Alex Ovechkin rumbled his way into the Verizon Center, and by extension the hearts of a new generation of Capitals fans, when he scored a pair of goals and body slammed unsuspecting opponents in his NHL debut, a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Four hundred and seventy-five goals later, the Caps’ 30-year-old captain is still bringing fans out of their seats while silencing critics who wondered how long he could sustain his racing-of-the-bulls style.

Former Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt recalls the hype that surrounded Ovechkin when he entered the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout.

“At the time I know a lot of Russian guys were stereotyped for their (lack of) work ethic and when I met Ovi I saw a really strong guy with a great work ethic,” said Witt, who is now raising Himalayan yaks on a 100-acre farm in Montana.

MORE CAPS: ROSTER GETS FINALIZED BEFORE OPENER 

“Maybe it was because it was his Dad (Mikhail, a professional soccer player) was a really good athlete and his Mom (basketball player) was in the Olympics and they kept him very grounded. You just saw this natural athleticism he had and his pure power. He liked the physical play, he liked scoring goals and he was so energetic.

“We knew he was going to be something special at training camp that year. It was an exciting time because you knew he was the real deal at such an early age.”

Ovechkin turned 20 just before the start of that 2005 training camp, but former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern was not convinced he was meeting a future Hall of Famer when he introduced himself to Ovechkin that summer.

“The first day I met him he looked like the Incredible Hulk, in a bad way,” Halpern recalled. “He had jean shorts that were like Daisy Duke specials, and sandals, and his T-shirt was waaaay too tight on him. He looked like a mess. I was like, 'geez.' Kind of like a Hanson brothers reaction.”

On the ice, Halpern had similar reservations about the Caps’ new franchise player.

“He didn’t skate well. We did some drills and I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s a mess when he skates.' I guess I didn’t notice how powerful his stride was.”

Halpern said he recalls the Capitals holding Ovechkin out of several preseason games that September but recalls one game in which Ovechkin scored a goal against the Flyers, skated past the Philadelphia bench, and winked.

“I was like, ‘You just don’t do that,’” Halpern said.

Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins superstar-in-waiting Sidney Crosby came into the NHL in 2005 with equal fanfare, each charged with reviving disgruntled fan bases and a league that had just gone through a nasty labor dispute.

“They were different types of players,” recalled former NHL defenseman Luke Richardson, who was on the ice for the Columbus Blue Jackets the night Ovechkin played his first game with the Capitals. “It was kind of like (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mario) Lemieux. They were both dominant, but they were very different players because of Lemieux’s physical attributes.

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“But looking back, it was very rare. It was almost like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They almost fed off each other to be better.”

On Oct. 5, 2005, Crosby made his NHL debut, recording one assist and three shots in a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Ovechkin arrived with a much bigger bang.

“We didn’t really know what to expect with the team that we had and him,” Halpern recalled. “But that first shift of the game, when he ran that kid into the end boards and they had to fix the glass and the kid had to peel himself off the ice -- even that hit wasn’t normal. It kind of woke up everyone. It woke myself up for sure.”

That “kid” steamrolled by Ovechkin was actually 29-year-old Czech defenseman Radoslav Suchy and, to this day, Caps play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati says he he’ll never forget the force with which Ovechkin slammed the 6-foot-2, 204-pound defenseman.

Neither will Richardson.

“When he laid out one of our defensemen behind the net, we all looked at each other like, ‘Oh, man,’” Richardson recalled.

The Blue Jackets probably uttered those same words 7:21 into the second period when Ovechkin scored his first of two goals, launching a pass from Dainius Zubrus past Columbus goaltender Pascale Leclaire on his patented one-timer from the high slot.

“We addressed it before the game,” Richardson said. “We said you can’t give him an inch and he still got open for two goals. I guarantee you teams are still saying that before they face the Capitals today and he’s still finding ways to get open.

“It’s unbelievable, really, with the way the game is played today and the attention teams give him, that he can still score 50 goals.”

Ovechkin went on to score 52 goals that rookie season and his 106 points were four more than Crosby, who finished second behind Ovechkin in Rookie of the Year voting.

Since then Ovechkin has won three Hart Trophies as league MVP, five Rocket Richard Trophies as the NHL’s leading goal scorer and one Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leader in points. Crosby has won two Hart Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, one Rocket Richard Trophy and one Stanley Cup.

Both players faced their share of challenges in recent seasons, with Crosby missing parts of two seasons because of concussions and Ovechkin seeing his goal totals dip into the 30s from 2010-12 and his plus-minus plummet to a career-worst minus-35 in 2013-14.

But while Crosby became a sympathetic figure, Ovechkin became a lightning rod for criticism.

“I think that’s sports in general,” Witt said. “When a high profile player isn’t having a good year everyone takes pot shots at him. He knows that and he’s had to learn to deal with it the best way he can and silent the naysayers when he has a good night.

“Last year he worked on his defensive play and it showed a lot. I know he got a lot of criticism about his plus-minus and that he didn’t care. At the end of the day, if you know Ovi personally, he cares a lot. And now that he’s gotten older he wants to achieve that goal of winning the Stanley Cup for the franchise.”

Halpern said he believes Ovechkin uses his critics as a quiet motivation.

“It’s not Ovi’s mission statement in life to get back at those guys,” Halpern said, “but I think he takes a quiet note of things and when he produces and shines the way he so often does, he’s pretty quick to let those people know.”

Kind of like winking at the bench of the Philadelphia Flyers.

But to those who have followed Ovechkin’s career, there is complete agreement that he is playing with a different purpose than he did 10 years ago. And for that reason, many believe he is poised to lead the Capitals somewhere they have never been before.

Now, the question that lies in front of Ovechkin is not whether he can continue to score 50 goals, but whether he can lead the Caps to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

“When you get those singular awards, you’re celebrating them by yourself,” said Richardson, now the head coach of the AHL Binghamton Senators. “I think that’s what drives players (like Ovechkin). They might have a scoring championship but they realize they don’t have the real crown.

“I think Barry Trotz has done a great job with him. Last year you saw that resurgence. He’s really become a leader and I think he’s driven to not only score 50 goals but to lead his team to something greater. He wants to win and that’s the difference.

“I think you saw it with Steve Yzerman. There was a change in his game when Scott Bowman talked to him about maybe not being a 50-goal scorer and a 100-point guy, but being a little better in areas away from the puck and defensively, and all of a sudden he’s the captain of a Stanley Cup winner, blocking shots and playing with a bum knee and grinding it out. Those type of players who elevate their game because they’re leaders and they’re winners. And that’s what you see Ovechkin turning into.”

Halpern agrees, saying that with 475 goals and 895 points in 760 games, Ovechkin already has met the great expectations that escorted him into the NHL 10 years ago tonight.

“Clearly,” Halpern said. “I don’t think anybody could have expected him to produce the amount of goals and had the impact on the ice that he’s had. He’s a generational player. No one has even come close to scoring as consistently as Ovi has over the last 10 years. In that sense, he’s met expectations.

“With that, everybody expects a player like that to bring 10 championships to a city. That’s a big expectation to put on one person. I think he’s exceeded what anybody has expected him to do. I think if you asked him, until they win, maybe it hasn’t been fulfilled. But individually, I don’t think you can ask anything more of a player.”

Asked about the 10-year anniversary of his first NHL game, Ovechkin smiled, then turned serious.

“It’s been 10 years,” he said. “This is my second home. Obviously, I feel really good here. I love this place. But we didn’t do lots of stuff with team success, so we have to do a good job this year.”

It is fulfilling that unfinished business that Witt believes will cement Ovechkin’s place in NHL history.

“I think now in his career he’d rather win a Stanley Cup than get 50 goals,” Witt said. “I think now that he’s older it’s about team leadership and winning a Stanley Cup. That’s what will ingrain him forever.

“We all remember 50-goal scorers, but if he can win a Stanley Cup with the Caps he’ll never be forgotten -- ever.”

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With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

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With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

With Andre Burakovsky out for the remainder of the first round at least, someone will have to replace him in the top six. Originally, it looked like Jakub Vrana was the man for the job. Based on Game 4, however, it now looks like Chandler Stephenson is the "next man up" for the Caps.

While Vrana may have top-six skill and a high ceiling, it was Stephenson who stepped into the second-line role on Thursday playing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Stephenson finished with two shots on goal in 17:28 of ice time. Vrana, meanwhile, played for only 6:40.

On Friday, Barry Trotz praised Stephenson's hockey IQ for allowing him to adjust to the top-six in a complementary role.

"[Stephenson's] an intelligent player," Trotz said. "He played with [Backstrom] a lot [Thursday]. If you talk with the real top-end guys, he has the ability to think like a top-end guy in terms of play with them. He’s a very intelligent player. He skates extremely well. He’s got some strength to his game. He can complement people. I think his ability to play those different roles and his hockey IQ when you play with those skill guys, he plays more of a give-and-go game than an individual game. When you play with those high skill guys, you’re able to compliment them very well."

Stephenson has spent the majority of the season on the fourth line. He was drafted as a natural center, but has played primarily wing since coming to the NHL. The ability to play both positions gives Stephenson more versatility than most forwards which Trotz credits for helping him see the game so well.

"The great thing about Chandler is he’s played multiple positions over the years. I think it’s allowed him to play a fourth-line role and with high-skill guys. At center-ice, you distribute the puck a little more.  He’s turning into a well-rounded player for us."

On the surface, having Stephenson on the fourth line over Vrana makes little sense. Vrana is highly skilled and has great speed, but he is also prone to giving up turnovers and his production can be inconsistent. Trotz has clearly put a premium on responsible play this postseason which gives Stephenson the edge.

But Game 4 was only one game. If you are going to get top-six minutes, Stephenson will be expected to produce offensively as well. Despite the limited ice time he has gotten, Vrana has shown he can have a major impact on games. In Game 1, he set up the team's only 5-on-5 goal and drew a penalty. In Game 3, he drew two penalties in less than two minutes, giving Washington a two-man advantage.

Stephenson had a fantastic game in Game 4 when he was given the chance to play in the top-six. The next step will be finding a way to have a bigger impact on the game.

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Game 5 Capitals vs. Blue Jackets Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

Game 5 Capitals vs. Blue Jackets Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

Alex Ovechkin said the Caps would return to Washington with a tied series. The Caps captain is a man of his word as the Caps won both Game 3 and Game 4 to even up the series at two games apiece.

John Tortorella had no answers after seeing his Columbus Blue Jackets fall in Game 4, but he will have to figure things out quickly as the series shifts back to Washington for a pivotal Game 5.

The Caps return home with two straight wins and all the momentum. There's just one problem: No one seemingly can win at home.

What: Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, Round 1, Game 5

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 3:00 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 will be broadcast on NBC.

Live Stream: You can watch Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 on NBC Sports' live stream page.

WHEN IS THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME?

The Capitals take on the Blue Jackets in Game 5 on Saturday, April 21 at 3:00 p.m. ET in Washington. The series is tied 2-2.

WHAT CHANNEL IS THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME ON?

Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 will be broadcast on NBC. Coverage kicks off on NBC Sports Washington with Capitals FaceOff at 2:00 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 2:30 p.m. Tune back to NBC Sports Washington after the game for Caps Extra and Caps Overtime at 6:00 p.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

2:00 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
2:30 p.m. — Caps GameTime
3:00 p.m. — Capitals vs. Blue Jackets on NBC
5:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
6:00 p.m. — Caps Overtime

WHERE CAN I STREAM THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME?

Capitals-Blue Jackets Game 5 is available to stream live here through the NBC Sports live stream page.

WHAT ARE THE PROJECTED LINES FOR THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME?

Here are the Caps' projected lines:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Chandler Stephenson - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly- Lars Eller - Devante Smith-Pelly
Jakub Vrana -  Jay Beagle - Alex Chiasson

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Christian Djoos

Braden Holtby with Philipp Grubauer as backup.

Scratches: Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky (upper-body), Shane Gerisch, Madison Bowey, Jakub Jerabek

CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals correspondent JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.

SEE THE CAPITALS VS. BLUE JACKETS FULL SERIES SCHEDULE HERE

CAPITALS SCHEDULE