ARLINGTON, Va. - Good as Alex Ovechkin is, he isn't scoring much. At the moment, the NHL's reigning MVP isn't even playing, because he's in Russia with his ill grandfather.
And yet the Washington Capitals are doing just fine, thank you, because of another left wing from that country: Alexander Semin.
With eight goals and 16 points through nine games, Semin is not only leading the Capitals in scoring - he entered Thursday atop the entire NHL, tied for the most goals and one point ahead of Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in that category.
"Right now," Capitals forward David Steckel said, "he's carrying this team."
It's the sort of output many expected to see from Semin ever since Washington picked him in the first round of the 2002 draft. He netted 38 goals in 2006-07, then dropped off to 26 last season, when he had an ankle injury and missed 19 games.
Why is the player some call "The Other Alex" off to such a great start?
"I have no idea, really. I just go out there and play. It's impossible to describe why it's going the right way," he said through a Russian reporter who informally serves as Semin's interpreter. "I don't think this question should be directed to me."
In truth, Semin prefers not to deal with reporters much at all, which might be one reason he isn't particularly well-known outside NHL circles. He steadfastly turns down requests to do interviews in English, professing not to be able to communicate well enough.
Approached by an AP reporter after a recent practice, Semin winked and grinned and said clearly, "I don't speak English."
Later, his English also seemed fine as he rebuffed a member of the Capitals' PR staff who tried to persuade Semin to talk.
"He understands more than he lets on," said Capitals general manager George McPhee, who signed Semin to a US$9.2-million, two-year contract extension that runs through next season. "Every once in a while, he'll blurt out a sentence in English. Like yesterday, he's the one who yelled down the hall to the rest of the players, 'We have a meeting in two minutes!' He knows what's going on."
Still, Semin leaves it to others to explain his progress.
McPhee, coach Bruce Boudreau and teammates point to two main factors: Semin is healthy, and, at 24, he is growing up.
"It's maturation. That's the big key, right there," Boudreau said. "His responsibility on the ice. His work ethic. All of those things."
Semin now shows up for optional skating sessions, for example.
"That wouldn't have happened a year ago, I don't think," Boudreau said.
It's not merely that Semin tied a franchise record for points through nine games, which is a good thing for the Capitals, considering Ovechkin put the puck in the net in only one game this season.
It's also that Semin is cutting down on no-excuse penalties, with only four minutes in the box so far. And he's making a real effort to help out at the defensive end.
In Tuesday night's game against the Nashville Predators - which Ovechkin missed - Semin was on the ice for nearly seven minutes during penalty kills, more than all but one teammate. On each of Nashville's first three power plays, Semin helped eat time by making a steal, converting one into a pretty pass that set up a short-handed goal by Steckel.
"Phenomenal," Steckel said. "When you play with him, you get a lot of good passes."
Then, eight seconds into a Capitals power play in the third period, Semin took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and powered a wrister over goalie Dan Ellis' left shoulder and just under the crossbar with such velocity that the puck snapped right back onto the ice.
Semin stood there, motionless, staring at the puck. Only when his teammates skated over to hug him and smack him on the back did he smile.
"It's kind of depressing," Washington forward Matt Bradley said good-naturedly, "knowing I'll never be able to do half the moves he does."
Semin came through again in the shootout, flipping a backhander past Ellis to help Washington win and enter Thursday in first place in the Southeast Division at 5-3-1.
"Semin's a world-class player. I don't think you can put him in the category of an Ovechkin and a (Sidney) Crosby, but he's not too far behind," Ellis said. "He's got a world-class shot, he's got a great set of hands, he works really well, he's got teammates that play well with him, and he's in a system he can exploit."
By all accounts, Semin's teammates like him, even if he isn't the loudest member of the locker room.
"He doesn't talk much. But you can see he's a funny guy," Capitals goalie Jose Theodore said.
And Semin's skills?
"When he has the puck," Theodore said, "he's a little bit like the other Alex - every time they shoot the puck, they shoot hard, and they know where to shoot to score."
See? At the rate things are going, Semin is managing to turn Ovechkin into "The Other Alex."