WASHINGTON (AP) -- His first NHL check was so fierce it dislodged
a support beam. He refused to let his team lose, twice answering
with goals less than 90 seconds after the opponents took the lead.
And when his face appeared on the large scoreboard, he stuck out
his tongue and flashed a charismatic smile.
"I feel my dreams come true," Alexander Ovechkin said. "I
play in the NHL. First game, we win."
The 20-year-old Russian, who has often been compared to a young
Mario Lemieux, became the first Washington Capitals player to score
twice in his NHL debut, leading a 3-2 victory over the Columbus
Blue Jackets on Wednesday night in the league's first game at the
MCI Center in 550 days.
"He was worth the admission tonight," Columbus coach Gerard
Gallant said. "He was real good."
The Capitals welcomed 16,325 fans -- some still feeling jilted
over the lockout that wiped out a season -- to the 18,277-seat arena
with a pregame street festival and an opening ceremony that looked
like something out of the Olympic Games. The theme intertwined the
return of hockey with the creation of the universe, and the players
skated onto the ice carrying glowing, plastic torches.
"I am so excited for things to be back -- last year was
horrible," said face-painted fan Amber Turbyne of Waldorf, Md. "I
usually hold a grudge like something awful, but I'm too happy to
have hockey back."
The fans will be more excited now that they've seen what
Ovechkin can do.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft wasted no time making
his presence known. On his first shift, 40 seconds into the game,
he sideswiped Radoslav Suchy into the boards behind the Columbus
net with such force that a beam fell to the ice. The game was
delayed for a couple of minutes while it was replaced.
"The first check he threw to start the game, I said, 'That's my
boy. That's what we want," said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who
is counting on Ovechkin to help lure fans in a city that had
trouble embracing hockey even before the sport's labor troubles
began. "We want our star players to work hard and be a part of the
team. Every time we got down, he answered, and that's what
Dainius Zubrus also scored for the Capitals, and new captain
Jeff Halpern had three assists in a game that included 18 penalties
and plenty of flow with the new offensive-minded rules. All five
goals came in a 10-minute span in the second period.
"With the new rules and the speed of the players and the way
that the game was officiated tonight, if that's the way it's going
to be, then goodness gracious -- it's an exciting game out there,"
Washington coach Glen Hanlon said.
Dan Fritsche scored both goals for Columbus, twice as many as he
had as a rookie before the lockout. Rich Nash, the Blue Jackets'
emerging star, aggravated a sprained ankle and did not play in the
Ovechkin's jarring check was the one and only highlight of a
dull first period that made it seems as if hockey should've stayed
away, but he and fellow 20-year-old Fritsche brought the game to
life in the second period.
Fritsche took advantage of the new rule that allows the two-line
pass by getting the puck from Gilbert Brule, then easily beating
defenseman Matthew Biron to the puck to score.
Ovechkin responded 23 seconds later, stroking a one-timer from
Halpern that beat goaltender Pascal Leclaire on the stick side.
Ovechkin raised both hands and dropped to one knee as he was mugged
Fritsche put in a rebound to make it 2-1 with the teams skating
four-on-four three minutes later, but Ovechkin then tied the score
again, knocking home a cross-crease pass from Halpern on a power
Leonsis was sitting with Ovechkin's family. His mother, a former
basketball star, muttered something in Russian after the second
"I asked the brother, 'What did she say?" Leonsis said. "She
said 'I'm proud of him, but we have to win the game.' I'm like,
'That's exactly the way to do it."
Halpern threaded another pass for his third assist, slotting the
puck between a defenseman's legs for Zubrus on a power play. The
goal turned out to be the game-winner, with both teams wasting
multiple power-play chances in a scoreless third period.
"We win this game, and I scored the goals," Ovechkin said.
"And I'm very happy."
Gallant said Nash is "touch and go" for the team's next
game, Friday at home against Calgary. ... Counting the preseason,
Ovechkin has six goals and three assists in his last three games.
... Columbus defenseman Adam Foote played in his 800th NHL game.