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Always learning, Capitals' Ovechkin looks forward to Year II

Plop, into the water. Thwack, off the cart path. Then Ovechkin asked for "a bigger club." His very next shot settled on the green. A few hours - and dozens of balls, all aimed at the same flag stick - later, Ovechkin aced the 160-yard, par-3 hole. That's right: He made a hole-in-one on Day 1 as a golfer.

Ovechkin loves to learn, and he sure is a quick study, whether it's swinging a golf club, picking up English or excelling in the NHL.

"We have this world-class, once-in-a-generation player whose personality is becoming the personality of the team," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said, "which is: 'I can try anything. I can do anything."'

Sure seems that way.

Having outpolled the more-ballyhooed Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins for top rookie honours, Ovechkin quickly established himself as a superstar, a winger gifted with speed and strength, with deft moves and a love of the game, someone the Capitals are building around and banking on.

"I'll try to do things like I did last year, play like I played last year - hard. Hit. Score goals. Pass. And be a good teammate," Ovechkin said, twirling a golf club in his hands during an interview with The Associated Press. "I don't think about whether it will be tougher or easier."

All eyes will be on Ovechkin in Year II of his career and of hockey's post-lockout era. The NHL season opens Wednesday with three games; the Capitals play their first game Thursday at the New York Rangers.

"Your second year is always your toughest year. You go in the first year with no expectations, and what he did last year was phenomenal. He set the bar pretty high," veteran goalie Olie Kolzig said. "It's going to be tough no matter how good a season he has to accomplish what he did last year. We've been telling him: Don't feel you have to put this organization on your shoulders."

Right. And moments later, Capitals coach Glen Hanlon goes and places Ovechkin's name and Wayne Gretzky's in the same sentence.

Still, Ovechkin certainly doesn't seem to feel one ounce of pressure. If anything, he's adding to the expectations by speaking about reaching the post-season, heady talk when one considers Washington finished 27th out of 30 teams in 2005-06.

After the home finale of his rookie year, the Russian stood in the locker-room surrounded by reporters, with Leonsis a few feet away, and proclaimed: "I think next season we'll go to the playoffs."

Asked Monday whether he still feels that way, Ovechkin responded: "For sure. . . . I feel we have a great chance for the playoffs."

For that to happen, the Capitals probably need another spectacular showing from a player who produced 52 goals and 106 points as a rookie, including the most talked-about goal of the season, a sliding-on-his-back, stick-over-his-head moment of brilliance.

His skill on skates is undeniable, yet ask other Capitals what they like best about the guy they call "Ovie" or "AO," and the first answer usually is his exuberance.

"The thing he brings into our locker-room is kind of a youthful love of the game," new Capitals captain Chris Clark said. "Sometimes you think of the game as a job - because it is our job - but you look at him and he's always having fun, he's always bringing that to the room. You need guys like that, always having fun. It's infectious."

Ovechkin is, after all, still a kid in many ways, only two weeks beyond his 21st birthday. That's what fuels his animated goal celebrations, sliding across the ice on one knee and pumping a fist. And explains the ripped jeans and flip-flops he wore to the annual media day Tuesday, while teammates were in dark slacks and laced shoes. It might also be the reason his favourite movie is "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," starring his favourite actress, Kate Hudson.

Truth be told, watching such films is part of Ovechkin's effort to improve his English, which he also does by listening to the radio, watching TV, reading and simply hanging out with other Capitals.

He even asked the team's PR staff not to learn Russian, so he'd be forced to speak his new language. Nowadays, he describes his new car as "sick."

When Ovechkin first arrived in Washington, he relied a lot on Dainius Zubrus, a fellow forward who's from Lithuania and acted as his translator and surrogate brother. Ovechkin would phone his pal four or five times a day early last season; the frequency of those calls keeps decreasing.

"He likes it here, and he enjoys the States and enjoys the NHL and loves coming to the rink and playing. Hockey for him obviously is No. 1," Zubrus said. "At his age, it's kind of easy to get distracted with all the other stuff, but he's concentrated on hockey, and at the same time he has fun with it."

Indeed, challenged to come up with a criticism of his star, Capitals general manager George McPhee said Ovechkin's worst quality is an inability to say "No" to requests for his time. Some, of course, come from a team hoping to sell tickets and replica jerseys. One of Ovechkin's recent appearances was to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and take batting practice with teammates at a Washington Nationals game. Before getting into the cage with a bat, Ovechkin listened intently to tips offered by Nationals hitting coach Mitchell Page.

Always learning.

Which raises the question: When it comes to hockey, is there an aspect of his game he'd like to improve?

"Yes," Ovechkin said.


"It's a secret," he said, breaking into a wide smile.

He acknowledges he's a different person than he was 12 months ago, on the verge of his first NHL season.

"I have more experience. I feel more comfortable," Ovechkin said. "And I'm not nervous. I can just go and play."

So, he was nervous before his NHL debut, a game in which he scored twice? How long did it take for that uneasiness to fade away?

"One shift," he said, flashing that smile again.



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