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Original Issue

A New Goal Standard

Capitals wing Alexander Ovechkin conjured up a score that left even the Great One awestruck and lifted the league with his gung-ho spirit

Goal: AlexanderOvechkin. Assists: Penn and Teller. ¶ This is a halting attempt to describe thenearly indescribable six seconds of astonishing, mind-stretching hockey thatwill always live in online video and highlight reels: the Impossible Goal.Midway through the third period last Jan. 16 in Phoenix, Ovechkin, the blessedCapitals left wing, gathered the puck at the red line and burst down the rightflank. Four strides over the blue line, retreating Coyotes defenseman Paul Marachecked him, but Ovechkin made an inside move that took him partway around Maraand pitched Ovechkin at a 45-degree angle toward the left corner of the rink.Stumbling because of Mara's persistent checking, Ovechkin, now perhaps 10 feetfrom goaltender Brian Boucher's net, at the lower edge of the left face-offcircle, corkscrewed himself onto his back, took his left hand off his stick,cradled the puck with the hook of his blade and then, over his shoulder, like atwirler manipulating her baton on homecoming day, shoved the puck into theshort side of the net past a stunned Boucher. So in summary, Ovechkin's 32ndgoal, one of 52 he scored during his rookie season, was a prone, one-handed,upside-down, over-the-shoulder shot. And if all that fails to capture theImpossible Goal, try this: abracadabra.

"I don't knowwhat was more amazing," says Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky, who, likeOvechkin, could not resist glancing up at the Glendale Arena video board foranother look that afternoon. "That goal or him blowing a kiss to me thatday.... That goal was one of the prettiest I've ever seen. Guy Lafleur mighthave scored a few in the 1970s that were pretty remarkable, and maybe I scoreda few nice ones, but not like that."

This was the yearthat the NHL, fresh off the lockout, fell through a rabbit hole and mysticallycame out the other side: Alex in Wonderland. Ovechkin and Penguins rookieSidney Crosby, the would-be Magic and Bird of the missing-teeth set, took theirmarginalized sport and varnished it with a thick layer of conspicuous cool. Inanother era their simultaneous arrival might have laid the foundation for atwo-decade Rocket Richard versus Gordie Howe or Gretzky versus MarioLemieux--type rivalry, but Ovechkin and Crosby are as much allies as foes,cornerstones of a revitalized league that is trying to escape its niche. Theegalitarian, salary-capped world that has replaced the era of star-laden circusteams might have damaged the NHL on a metaphysical level--as The GrandInquisitor notes in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers: When everyone issomebody, then no one's anybody--but Ovechkin and Crosby proved idealcounterweights in 2006, incandescent players for a game that had sloggedthrough a decade of drudgery.

"Know what Ilike about them?" says Gretzky. "These guys only talk about how greatit is to play in the NHL. You never hear them saying, 'Ah, this is no good,'or, 'Ah, I don't like that.' This league did go through a little time wheresome guys were like, 'Why am I here? [The NHL is] lucky to have me.' That'skind of been weeded out, especially with these kids. They strike me as two kidswho feel lucky to be here. That's their attitude, and if these guys are themainstays, everybody else will follow their lead. I love watching them becausethey play hard every game."

The NHL, like aproud parent bursting to brag about its precocious children, will be happy totell you how much better its league is now. Got a minute? Or, better yet, gotsix seconds and Internet access? When the clip of the Impossible Goal windsdown and you've witnessed the first minor miracle of your lifetime, the onlything you can do is genuflect and click again and again--world without endboards, amen.

Predictions 2007

Sidney Crosby will live up to the hype as the Next One. By the middle ofFebruary--if not sooner--the fascination with the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkinwill fade and the praise for the Thrashers' Marian Hossa as the top all-aroundplayer will wane and the Penguins' Crosby (left) will be recognized as the bestplayer in the NHL. For the next 15 seasons or so.

The Dominik Hasek era in Detroit will end badly. Aftervirtually quitting on the Red Wings in '03--04 and practically blowing up theSenators last season when he injured his groin at the Olympics, Hasek (below),41, can complete a hat trick. How will it go down? No idea. But it's alwayssomething with the erstwhile Dominator.

The lowly Blue Jackets will be in the playoff huntuntil the final weekend. New coach Ken Hitchcock (left), a world-class scold,brings structure and accountability to a franchise poised to win the hearts offans in Columbus--after the Ohio State football season ends.

The NHL will get comfortable with the idea of puttinga franchise in Las Vegas. The league will overcome its aversion to eitherexpansion or relocation in order to gain a foothold in one of the nation'sfastest growing cities before other pro sports do.

The Best ...

Shot, off ice
On the 18th tee at Winged Foot, during the Ice Hockey in Harlem benefit golftournament in August, Stars goalie Marty Turco borrowed a lefthanded driver,inverted the face and drove the ball 300 yards, dead center.

Tank job
Looking for a cushier draw in the knockout round, eventual Olympic goldmedalist Sweden lay down 3--0 to Slovakia. During a five-on-three power play,Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Fredrik Modin, Daniel Alfredsson and NicklasLidstrom did not take a shot on goal.

Imitation of a pylon
Canadiens defenseman Sheldon Souray made highlight films after being beaten onsome of the most spectacular goals of the year. Souray noted, though, that ifyou took away those SportsCenter moments, he didn't have a bad 2005--06season.

With five games left in the season and Hurricanes backup goalie Cam Ward(right) upset over his irregular play, teammate Eric Staal told him to keep hischin up, that things might improve. Ward became the starter three games intothe playoffs and went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

During Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger's first game back in Edmonton after herequested, and received, an off-season trade without much explanation, anOilers fan wrote, THE GAP IN YOUR STORY IS BIGGER THAN THE GAP IN YOURTEETH.

Celebrity turn
After attending Game 1 of the Hurricanes-Sabres Eastern Conference final, KidRock (right) went to a Raleigh steak house where a group of about 30 highschool kids was having a preprom dinner and picked up their check.

Uniform innovation
The Sabres' new logo has been compared to a slug, but Buffalo had the foresightto put numbers on the front of the sweaters for easier identification.

Seizing of opportunity
Rangers rookie Petr Prucha scored 30 goals in 68 games last season despiteaveraging just 13:42 of ice time.

Anze Kopitar, who's also the only Slovenian. The powerful Kings center (left)had 28 points in his first 34 games this season and will push Penguins centerEvgeni Malkin for rookie of the year.

Anaheim comeback, on ice
Teemu Selanne scored 40 goals for the Ducks in '05--06, after signing aone-year, $1 million deal; he re-signed a one-year, $3.75 million contract lastJune and had 19 goals in his first 35 games this year.

Anaheim comeback, off ice
Ducks broadcaster and former goalie Brian Hayward, responding to Kings forwardSean Avery's assertion that Hayward had been a "horses---" player:"How would you know? When I played, you were in your third year of eighthgrade."


Photograph by LOU CAPOZZOLA

DANDY ALEXANDER Want to see a miracle? Cue up Ovechkin's prone, one-handed, upside-down, over-the-shoulder shot.