THERE IS afabulous Russian winger named Alexander who plays for the Washington Capitals.He stickhandles in a broom closet, skates like his hair is on fire andunleashes a shot heavier than Thanksgiving dinner. "I think he's by far themost talented player in the league," Capitals defenseman Mike Green says."By far." The winger was leading the NHL in goals and points beforestraining a back muscle last month. And though the injury lingered longer thanWashington first anticipated (eight games through Sunday) he remained tied forthird with 13 goals. His nine multipoint matches (more than all but fourplayers) included a five-point game on Nov. 12 in which he stripped theCarolina Hurricanes for parts and abandoned them on the side of the interstate."It's almost like God touched him on the shoulder and said, 'You arewonderfully gifted,'" Capitals center Brooks Laich says. This hockey forceof nature puts pucks through defensemen's feet and retrieves them on the otherside, not beating the blueliners so much as tormenting them. "I remember agame in Ottawa last year when he toe-dragged five guys in a row," saysright wing Matt Bradley, another teammate. "I wouldn't do that against10-year-olds, and he's doing it against one of the good teams in theleague."
AlexanderOvechkin? No, but Ovechkin is really good, too.
The Washingtonteammates are not discussing AO but OA, the Other Alex. He is Alexander Semin.He shares a nationality, a language, a first name, a room on the road and,often, the Capitals' first line with the celebrated Ovechkin. Otherwise, well,sometimes it seems as if they barely share the same planet. There is a gapbetween Ovie and Sasha (their nicknames) that is more profound than theirhallmarks: Ovechkin's power and Semin's guile. Ovechkin, the showman on leftwing, is so exuberant that he makes Joan Rivers look like a wallflower. Semin,the stealth bomber on right wing, is content to operate in the shadows.
Although he hasnever approached 65-goal-scorer Ovechkin in gregariousness oraccomplishment—Semin's best season, 2006--07, produced the quietest 38 goals inmemory—the inability to express himself in English is part of the reason heslouches toward stardom. "The enigma," says former Washington andcurrent Lightning goalie Olaf Kolzig. "Ovie went out of his way to learnthe language. It was kind of a trademark. It added to his personality. Semin,no." Semin has substantially padded his vocabulary from his rookie year,when the only two words he seemed to know were Mountain Dew, a postpracticebeverage of choice. While no longer quite lost in translation, he still needs alinguistic GPS. "You talk to him, and he understands more," Capitalscoach Bruce Boudreau says. "At least he laughs at the right time now."Like his smoking-hot shot, Semin's high-pitched cackle is first-teamall-NHL.
But unless Seminis feeling comfortable, he is reluctant to give voice to that mirth. As hefidgeted through a recent interview in a hotel lobby with an interpreter athand, he looked as if he would prefer shaving with a cheese grater. He almostalways understood the questions but hesitated before responding, conferringwith the interpreter, going back and forth, framing responses until they wereperfect—and perfectly opaque. Early in the interview he said, through theinterpreter, "I don't want to say the wrong thing."
Earlier thisseason Semin might—or might not—have done just that. In Russian.
ON A lightheartedafternoon in Anaheim not long ago, the Alexes and Green huddled in thevisitors' dressing room, speaking the common language of young, wealthy hockeyplayers: bling. Semin showed off a gold necklace with a blocky number 28dangling. As weighty as Semin's tricked-out jewelry may be, something heavierhas hung around him since late October. Chatting with a D.C.-basedcorrespondent for Sovetsky Sport in a question-and-answer session that wouldrun on yahoosports.com, Semin revealed that Miracle on Ice was the last hockeymovie he'd watched and that Washingtonians are swell people. He also gave thisresponse to a question that touched on Penguins star Sidney Crosby: "What'sso special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he doesskate well, has a good head, a good pass [sic].... I think that if you take anyplayer, even if he is 'dead wood,' and start promoting him, you'll get a star.Especially if he scores 100 points."
For someone whoinsists "it doesn't matter if I get the limelight or not," Semin mightas well have been barking through a bullhorn when he expressed his thoughtsabout the NHL's most renowned, and perhaps best, player. Now, through aninterpreter, Semin stresses he was merely voicing a preference for certainstyles—in the interview he lauded Chicago's flashy winger Patrick Kane—notplayers. Splitting hairs? Maybe. In any case Semin says he was not beingdismissive and indicates that he would be the last person to criticize Crosby.(Which, indeed, he was.)
Semin had tuggedon Superman's cape, but his comments also advertised that he hasn't figured outthat winning in the NHL is less about aesthetics than about Crosby's mix ofprowess, passion and commitment. Says Kolzig, "It shows Semin's not allabout hockey, not a student of the game."
"I had twothoughts when I heard [about Semin's comments]," Boudreau says. "Number1: Well, he's finally talking. And number 2: That's his opinion, but it'scertainly not the opinion of the rest of the Washington Capitals, the staff,the players and the rest of the league." However inadvertent, the gauntlethas been tossed down, but expect the Penguins and the Capitals to swerve aroundit when they meet on Jan. 14 in Pittsburgh. Washington center Sergei Fedorovsays some of the Capitals' Russians have had "backdoor communication"with some of the Penguins' Russians and "reestablished professional trust.Everything's cool."
"The Crosbystuff? I like what Sash said," Laich says. "There's a huge rivalrybetween us and Pittsburgh, and he wants to put himself on the map. Everybodytalks about Ovechkin-Crosby-[Pittsburgh's Evgeni] Malkin. Well, Alex Semin canbe mentioned with those guys. It's a good challenge he put out there, and we'regoing to back him. Sash is beginning to feel passionate about this hockeyteam."
FOLLOWING THREEmiddling-to-good years, Semin's spark emerged late last season after ahigh-ankle sprain healed and after G.M. George McPhee got Fedorov from Columbusat the Feb. 26 trade deadline. McPhee was looking at the 38-year-old simply asa veteran with some tread left on his tires. "I didn't really think aboutSergei's leadership," McPhee says of Fedorov, who has scored more NHL goalsthan any other Russian. "I didn't anticipate his impact on Semin." WithFedorov as a mentor and often a linemate for the final 18 games, Semin scoredseven goals. He had eight points in Washington's seven-game first-round playoffloss to Philadelphia, and a few weeks later he turned in a superb worldchampionship, scoring twice and adding an assist in Russia's gold medal winover Canada.
"He's beenpracticing harder, going out for optionals. The difference this season isnoticeable," Boudreau says. "Sasha's a guy who can stop you fromcoaching. You just watch. He's stickhandling, stickhandling ... oh, wow, lookat that. He's got moves that turn you into a fan."
Semin's signatureis the curl-and-drag, in which he cradles the puck near the tip of his blade,then drags it toward his body, either going around an off-balance defenseman orusing him as a screen. Most players can't shoot as forcefully or accuratelywith the puck close to them, but he can because of the power in his wrists andhands. The 6'2", 205-pound Semin has broad palms and long fingers; Laichcalls them "gorilla hands." Unlike a conventional slap shot or wrister,Semin's shot is "loaded" with a hitch of the wrists, and he almostslingshots the puck, like a jai alai player unleashing the pelota. The shaft onhis Bauer stick is an extra rigid 112 flex—Ovechkin plays with a whippy 80flex—but Semin's stevedore strength creates the torque that has produced whatKolzig says is the best shot he has seen in his 17 NHL seasons.
"When you seea kid who has more talent than the reigning MVP, you want to see more,"Kolzig says of the 13th player taken in the 2002 draft. "He's teasing you.The frustrating thing is he hasn't gotten everything out of his talent. Hedoesn't have the intangibles Ovie has. With Ovie there's accountability. He'shad a bad groin and played through it. Ovie realizes what he has to live up to.So far [Semin] just puts up points."
Of course, he isputting up plenty of them. But other aspects are almost as impressive: his +17rating (first in the NHL), a reversal of his pitiful --18 last year, and hisresponsible play on the penalty kill now that Boudreau trusts him in that role.While benefits accrue from skating on Alex the First's line—"Playing withOvechkin makes him that much better," Carolina right wing Scott Walkersays—Semin, who has also played on Fedorov's line, has scored nine of his goalsthis season without Ovechkin on the ice. And just after his Crosby commentsappeared online and set NHL tongues wagging, Semin rolled off 11 points in fivegames.
The Other Alex, inother words, has put up after he should have shut up.
"WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT [CROSBY]?" Seminasked. He had tugged on Superman's cape.
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Some lesser-known lights have been outshining theirstar teammates this season
THE GUY YOU KNOW
RICK NASH, Blue Jackets LW
Taken first overall in 2002, the captain led the NHL in goals in '04 and wasnamed MVP for Team Canada at the 2007 World Championships. He's a +5 thisyear.*
SCOTT GOMEZ, Rangers C
A two-time All-Star and a two-time Cup winner (as a Devil), Gomez got aseven-year, $51.5 million deal in '07 to bring his slippery moves andphotogenic grin to Broadway.
JOE THORNTON, Sharks C
The top pick of the 1997 draft and the 2005--06 NHL MVP, his trade from Bostonduring that MVP season cemented San Jose's place among the NHL's premierteams.
MARIAN GABORIK, Wild RW
Perhaps the fastest skater in the NHL, his 83 points last season dwarfed anyteammate's. This year he's hurt, as he has often been, and had appeared in justtwo games.
THE GUY YOU DON'T
DERICK BRASSARD, Blue Jackets C
Uh, who? His NHL stint last season netted two points in 17 games. This year hehad points in his first four games. Now he's a +8 and has a mean streak too.
NIKOLAI ZHERDEV, Rangers RW
Lost in Columbus for four uneven NHL seasons, the supple-wristed winger and his$2.5 million salary came in a summer trade. Now he scores and—shock!—evendefends.
DEVIN SETOGUCHI, Sharks RW
After bouncing between the minors and the NHL last season, then havingsurgeries on his shoulder and on a sports hernia, he's won a place onThornton's line.
MIKKO KOIVU, Wild C
Not only does Gaborik eclipse him, so does his big brother—Canadiens captainSaku Koivu. But Mikko's a force on both sides of the puck; he's the Wild'spresent and future leader.
* Point totals are through Sunday
Photograph by Luis M. Alvarez/ap
GLEE CLUB The gregarious Ovechkin (left) may laugh more often, but Semin's piercing cackle is inimitable.
MARK GOLDMAN/ICON SMI
AHEAD OF THE GAME Semin, averaging a robust 1.69 points per match, often leaves defenders gasping and grasping.
MITCHELL LAYTON/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (SEMIN, FEDOROV)
YOU COMPLETE ME Since arriving last season, Fedorov (91) has helped Semin round out his game.
MIKE STOBE/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (NASH)
JAMIE SABAU/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (BRASSARD)
GREG FIUME/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (GOMEZ)
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (ZHERDEV)
DON SMITH/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (THORNTON)
BILL SMITH/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (SETOGUCHI)
JOHN RUSSELL/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (GABORIK)
BRUCE KLUCKHOHN/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KOIVU)