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The Big Twenty: Ovechkin draft kicks off the Rock the Red era in DC

The Big Twenty: Ovechkin draft kicks off the Rock the Red era in DC

NBC Sports Washington is rolling out the 20 biggest stories in DMV sports in the past 20 years. Here is No. 9.

Alex Ovechkin was so good as a teenager in Russia that an NHL tried to draft him long before the Capitals won the draft lottery that gave them the best scorer of this generation. 
The Rock the Red era doesn’t exist in Washington if somehow the Florida Panthers had been able to convince the NHL that Ovechkin was eligible for the 2003 draft. 

He was born on Sept. 17, 1985. The cutoff date for that draft was Sept. 15, 1985. The Panthers tried to argue that because of leap years in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Ovechkin was actually eligible.
It was a nice try. The NHL told the Panthers it wasn’t happening. Ovechkin would have to wait a while longer. After a miserable 2003-04 season, where the Capitals traded away franchise legend Peter Bondra, star winger Jaromir Jagr and other veteran players, they hoped to get a good player at the top of the draft. 
But one afternoon in early April 2004, owner Ted Leonsis was in the middle of a meeting when his assistant burst into the room to interrupt with an important message. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on the phone. He had some news. The Capitals, who had the NHL’s third-worst record that year, had actually jumped Pittsburgh and Chicago in the draft lottery and would pick first overall. It was a shock, but there was never a question about who they’d take. 
A few months later in Raleigh, on June 26, the Capitals made the no-brainer decision to select Ovechkin with the top pick and gave the franchise immediate hope. No one in Washington would see him for another 15 months. The 2004-05 season – what would have been Ovechkin’s first – was delayed and then ultimately canceled because of a lockout. He spent his age-19 season playing in Russia. It took until the fall of 2005 for Ovechkin to arrive in the United States for good. 
That’s so long ago now that the Capitals still practiced at Piney Orchard. MedStar Iceplex wasn’t yet built as the team’s headquarters. Ovechkin had a huge hit on the first shift of his first game on Oct. 5, 2005. He knocked one Columbus Blue Jackets player into the board so hard a stanchion had to be replaced. He scored two goals, too. 
It still took a while for the Capitals to build on Ovechkin’s selection. Interest in the team spiked, but attendance remained flat as frustration built over two losing seasons. Ovechkin had 52 goals and 54 assists to win rookie of the year in 2005-06 and had 46 goals and 46 assists the next season. But it wasn’t until halfway through his third season, as the Capitals caught fire under interim coach Bruce Boudreau, that Capital One Arena really began to fill for hockey. That was the first year with Ovechkin that the Capitals made the Stanley Cup playoffs. They have missed just one time since.  
But it all began that summer night in Raleigh when Ovechkin sat in the stands at PNC Arena and waited stone-faced with his parents Mikhail and Tatiana to see if Washington would take him or make a blockbuster trade instead. Former Capitals general manager George McPhee had plenty of offers and an almost barren roster. He could have gone in another direction. Almost 700 goals later, it’s clear they made the right call. 

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Red Penguins: The story you've never heard about the Penguins' partnership with Russia's Red Army hockey team

Red Penguins: The story you've never heard about the Penguins' partnership with Russia's Red Army hockey team

It may be the greatest hockey story you've never heard of and it's almost too crazy to believe.

The upcoming Universal documentary Red Penguins tells the story of how the Pittsburgh Penguins developed a partnership with a Russian hockey team. But it wasn't just any hockey team, it was CSKA Moscow, the government-run Red Army hockey team, the most storied hockey team in Russia. They had no idea what they were in for.

Barely three minutes into the movie produced by Gabe Polsky - whose 2014 documentary "Red Army" covered the four decades of dominance by the Russian national hockey team from the 1950s to the 1990s - and you are quickly caught up in a wild ride with Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta, Pittsburgh's owners at the time, talking about how crazy the idea of getting involved with CSKA really was.

It's never really clear who had the idea and who approached them to form the partnership so you are left wondering why exactly the organization decided to take this gamble. Weirder still: The tangential involvement of celebrity investors like actor Michael J. Fox. 

Even if the movie initially feels rushed to start, however, you soon find out why: Because the real story is what happens when ownership sends eccentric lawyer Steven Warshaw to Russia to manage business there. That's when things get truly crazy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a hockey team that never had to wonder where its resources would come from suddenly had to think about how to make money. Meanwhile, the American investors had no idea what they were stepping into. The Iron Curtain may have fallen, but what Russia was really like behind it was still largely a mystery to everyone. 

"I expected that the country would be somewhat functioning," Warshaw said. "It turned out I was wrong."


A strip club in the arena, strippers on the ice, the Russian mob, bears, stolen money and even an alleged relationship with Disney all followed. Russia was a country in which there were few rules in the post-Cold War era and Warshaw and the Penguins found this out very quickly.

As the team grew in popularity, so did the interest of the Russian mob. Interestingly enough, the ownership group always expected their Russian counterparts to steal from them, but this only became a problem when they began stealing too much.

A plea for help from the Russian Army to combat the influence of the mob led to this telling quote from a Russian general: "I never had any problems with the criminals. If they paid on time then the arrangement worked.”

It wasn't until people involved with the team began to die that the ownership group realized they needed to end their partnership and get Warshaw out.

It's a story too crazy to be fiction and you'll have to see it to believe it.

Red Penguins will be available to stream via iTunes, Amazon and on demand on cable systems across the country on Aug. 4.

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T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

The Capitals opened round-robin play with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, putting them in third place of the round-robin standings. Washington rallied from a 2-0 deficit and was the better team in the third period and overtime, but they walk away with only the single point.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

It’s still early

The team that played the first half of this game wasn’t very good, but the team that played the second half was much better. A lot of that was just getting back into game rhythm so it’s still too soon to tell how good this team really is yet. Are they the team that blew through the first half of the season or the team that looked like they couldn’t beat anyone from January to March?


Physical play is key to this team’s identity

When the Caps began to get more physical, the game turned around. At its core, Washington is a physical team. A 2-0 game turned around because of a fight in the second period (more on that later). This is how they are successful and this is how they will need to continue to play.

Holtby looks completely different

Braden Holtby looks like a completely new goalie from the one that could not even manage a .900 save percentage in the regular season. He made a number of difficult saves and, critically, he made a number of those saves without giving up any rebounds. Rebound control has always been a strength of Holtby’s so to see him swallow up shots without giving up any second or third chance opportunities is a good sign.

Holtby was always going to be key to the team’s playoff success, but that is even more true without the safety net of Ilya Samsonov as a backup. This was a good game for Holtby and a good sign for Washington.

What to make of the power play

Not counting the nine-second power play the Caps had at the end of overtime, Washington had three opportunities with the extra man. The first two looked about as bad as any we have seen this season. The third looked very good and resulted in a goal. I hope the third power play was the result of adjustments made on the first two efforts and not just a result of a talented team getting a token goal.


Turning point

The Caps were down 2-0 and looked like they were headed for a lackadaisical loss until T.J. Oshie dropped the gloves with Yanni Gourde.

Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at two and the Caps were the better team from then until the shootout.

Play of the game

Midway through the first period, Lars Eller turned the puck over to Brayden Point in the neutral zone. He took it into the offensive zone and handed it off to Nikita Kucherov. Michal Kempny forced him wide, but Kucherov let off an incredible shot to the far corner to beat Holtby. When the defense does its job, the goalie is ready and you are still able to pick your spot and score, that’s a dangerous sniper.

Stat of the game

Richard Panik scored Washington’s first goal of the game. He has been on a roll even before the pause.

Also an important stat: the Caps did not give up a single power play to Tampa Bay.

Quote of the game

Brenden Dillon on physical play:

“Yeah, I think that’s what we pride ourselves on. When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical. When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well. Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game. We know when we’re at our best and playing Caps hockey. We’re finishing our checks, we’re hard on the forecheck and playing hard in the D zone. I think altogether tonight, we were pretty happy with our performance, but at the end of the day we’ve got to find a way to get an extra win and keep pushing forward for the next game.”

Runner up goes to Pat Maroon who was asked how his legs felt in overtime.

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