WASHINGTON DC, DC - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
In an excerpt from his new book, "Red Rising," SB Nation DC Capitals editor Ted Starkey recounts the road trip that stamped Alex Ovechkin as a bona fide NHL star.
Despite his relative anonymity in Washington, Ovechkin quickly had become a known quantity around the league, and he did his best to connect with his fans when he could. "When I see a little boy, I remember when I was little and I used to stand and wait for some guy I would go to after a game," he told the Washington Times' Dave Fay.
"Right now I feel I must sign because I am like this. When I was little, I had signatures from players on Spartak. I had a stick from Alexei Zhamnov. I have a signature picture of [Slava] Fetisov. I was crazy about him. I was a fan of everybody."
A two-game trip to the West put the rookie on the NHL map.
On January 13, 2006, Ovechkin recorded his first-ever hat trick, scoring all three of Washington's goals in a 3-2 overtime win in Anaheim. After beating Mighty Ducks netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere with a wrist shot for his 30th goal of his rookie season to end the contest, he celebrated by "swimming" on the ice at Arrowhead Pond.
"That road trip was one for the ages," former teammate Brent Johnson recalled. "Him getting a hat trick - I know he'll have many more in his career, hopefully not against me [laughing] - it's something to see. When you go on the road out West, those aren't really easy games out there with the travel and the time difference and whatnot. He had a fantastic game [in Anaheim], and it kept going that whole trip."
Three days later, he scored what simply became known as "The Goal." With Washington holding a 5-1 lead over the Coyotes in the third period, Ovechkin broke in one-on-one on Phoenix defenseman Paul Mara, being brought down in the process. Despite twisting downward with his back hitting the ice, Ovechkin managed to get his stick, which was extended over his head, on the puck and put enough mustard on it to slide it past Coyotes netminder Brian Boucher for an improbable goal from an impossible angle.
"The Caps played a beautiful game that night cover-to-cover, I do remember that, and I do remember where ‘The Goal' fell in the run of it," said Joe Beninati, who called the game that night for Comcast SportsNet. "Any time Ovechkin touches the puck, you always had to focus, because there is something special that could happen. But was I anticipating what he did that night? No. Nobody could. I don't think I'll ever see anything like that again.
"Knowing the circumstances in a 5-1 game, I was pleased I was able to take that call up-ice and he's the star in that situation, and what he does is so extraordinary, and to this day, it's simply sensational. It really is."
It was a goal that even left the legendary Wayne Gretzky in awe, as cameras caught the Coyotes coach checking out the replay in disbelief on the Jobing.com Arena video board.
"I remember fans hitting themselves in the forehead, slapping themselves, not believing their eyes," Beninati recalled. "I remember Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player of all time, behind the Coyotes bench, taking at least two or three crooked-neck looks at the scoreboard - sort of like a dog hearing a whistle. This is Wayne Gretzky going, ‘How in the world did he do that?' Those are the images I remember:the shocked looks and dismay of the defenders for Phoenix that couldn't believe that this had occurred.
"I don't know how he contorted himself that way and I think I will never see anything like that again. His entire rookie year was just jaw-dropping."
As Washington's netminder that night, Brent Johnson had a unique vantage point for the tally, standing in the opposite crease as Boucher became forever linked with the improbable tally. "Everybody was just in shock," Johnson recalled years later. "I couldn't show it too much since we still had a game to play, but it was one of those things where everyone afterward was like, ‘Are you kidding me?' One of those kind of deals.
"How did he have the presence of mind to flip that behind his back, on the ice, and then you can see with the goalie, and Brian Boucher and the defensemen saying, ‘Are you kidding me?' No fault to Brian Boucher, he's thinking the puck's going in the corner with the body, thinking the play's dead, and the next thing you know the puck's in the back of the net."
Asked if that kind of play is a goalie's worst nightmare, Johnson replied simply, "Yeah, it definitely is. You never want to see something like that happen against you. Things like that happen in hockey, and when they do, for a goalie, you just have to put your hands together for him and say good job."
"That was pretty sweet," Gretzky told reporters after the game. "You know, he's a phenomenal player, and he's been a tremendous influence in the game. It's great to see, because he is that good."
"The best goal I ever scored," Ovechkin told the Associated Press afterward. "I just went down and shot."
With the emergence of new media - and in this case, especially YouTube - the highlight quickly went viral and became one of the hottest topics of the sports world.
"The phenomenon of that goal really cemented his national status in terms of hockey," former Capitals Director of Media Relations Nate Ewell recalled. "He was already looking like the guy who would win the Calder, but that really locked it in. I think it had a big effect in D.C. as well, in terms of getting people interested.
"I think there was a sense of here is something special that we really ought to be keeping an eye on. It was two weeks after the Redskins were done and he'd already had enough of a body of work that showed he was something good, and that [play] showed he was something special."
While hockey interest in Washington traditionally picks up once the Redskins' season ends, the highlight certainly helped bring attention to a team that badly needed a boost.