Note to Self – Alex the Great

Brian Murphy

I know that with the football season over, a lot of you are lost right now. Sure, you’re feeling alone and scared, but I’m here to tell you – it’s going to be alright.

We’re in the “No Man’s Land” of the sports calendar at the moment. Football’s over and baseball hasn’t started yet. College football is long gone, but it’s not time for March Madness yet. That pretty much leaves the NBA, NHL and NASCAR. I know, I know … that’s not much to choose from. On the one hand you’ve got redneck heaven, which would be acceptable if not for the fact that cheating is accepted (and maybe even encouraged).

This past week, Carl Edwards celebrated like many times before – by back flipping off of his car at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, after winning the third race of the NASCAR season. The problem? His car failed the post-race inspection. NASCAR discovered the lid was off of his oil tank box during the routine inspection and ended up docking him 100 championship points. I just don’t think I can embrace a sport where he still gets credit for winning the race, even though he was caught cheating. If you want people to know cheating isn’t tolerated, then make Edwards forfeit the win and suspend him a race or two. That sends a message that no one is above the rules. Otherwise, why even have the inspection?

And let’s be honest, basketball and I aren’t really on the best of terms these days either – not after Kobe Bryant finally found a new hobby this past offseason. It was bad enough when he was content to bang random groupies in an uncomfortable place a couple years back, but when he started talking trash about his teammates to random kids with video cameras in hopes of being traded I officially swore I’d never cheer for him again. Instead of teaching the bastard a life lesson and trading him to a doormat, Lakers management actually built a better team around him and Los Angeles is now the media darling of the NBA.

Since I firmly believe in karma, I can only hope Andrew Bynum is quietly biding his time until he hits Kobe over the head with a chair in the NBA Finals for all the trash he talked before the season started. Until then, I’ll pass on watching basketball.

That leaves hockey. And believe me, I understand most of you closed that door for good a while ago. But I’m here to tell you – you’re missing out. The most exciting athlete in sports today is single-handedly trying to make the game of hockey relevant in this country again. And no, I’m not talking about Pittsburgh Penguins pretty boy Sidney Crosby (although, with ESPN slurping him every chance they get I can understand why he’s the only name you know). But while they’re busy putting Sid the Kid on the front page because … gasp … he got an assist two nights ago, Washington Captials superstar Alexander Ovechkin is establishing himself as the best goal scorer since Mario Lemieux.

Playing in a market where the Redskins are the only team that matters and on a team with a third of the talent as Crosby’s Pens, Ovechkin is the epitome of a one-man wrecking crew. A quarter through the season, the Capitals were the worst team in the entire league. Now, they’re in the thick of the playoff hunt because the future Hart Trophy winner refuses to lose.

If Ovie has a bad night, then there’s almost zero chance the Capitals can win. Thankfully for them, those nights are few and far between. In 68 games, he’s put up a career-best 54 goals and 38 assists for a league-leading 92 points. He’s got more goals than the next three Capitals combined (Alexander Semin has 20, Mike Green has 17 and Brook Laich has 15). For heaven’s sake, the guy has a league-best 18 powerplay goals. Just counting them would still give him the second-most goals on the Caps.

Maybe it’s because he’s Russian and doesn’t speak the English language as smoothly as James Earl Jones, but mainstream media continues to overlook Ovechkin – even if his opponents do not.

Wednesday night Washington defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-1, a team they’re battling in the middle of the crowded Eastern Conference for a possible playoff spot, because Ovechkin couldn’t be stopped. The Sabres knew that if they could contain Ovie, the rest of the Washington offense was much more manageable. But even with all their attention focused on Alex, he still managed to score two more goals.

“We preached before the game to look over our shoulder and see where Ovechkin is. And we didn’t do so,” said Sabres forward Derek Roy. Don’t feel bad, he’s been doing it all season long. Just ask the Boston Bruins, who faced him two days earlier. They had the same gameplan and faced the same fate. Ovechkin had a hat trick before the first period was over and the Caps left with an easy win.

Everyone started to lose interest in hockey when teams like the New Jersey Devils tried to trap their opponents to death in hopes of winning boring hockey games by 1-0 or 2-1. But Ovechkin is too fast and too skilled to be stymied by that kind of defense. He truly is the first player since Lemieux who opponents have to say, “We can’t stop him, we can only hope to contain him.”

That’s why, at 22 years old, he became the NHL’s first $100 million man. He’s the kind of guy you can comfortably build a team around. And if the NHL is smart, they’ll put the entire league on his shoulders and ride him all the way back to TV channels people actually watch. The fans in Pittsburgh (and Bristol, Conn.) can continue to embrace Crosby as he piles up second assists night after night, but Ovechkin is the one doing the heavy lifting. I just hope the rest of the country starts to realize how truly talented and likeable the gap-toothed Russian is.

Until then, I’ll take pleasure in knowing I’m one of the 15 diehard hockey fans left in America whose witnessing firsthand as Ovechkin goes Michael Jordan on the rest of the league.

Brian Murphy is an award-winning sportswriter, and still doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Contact him at murf@the5holes.com.

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