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Author: Damien Cox (Toronto Star)Date: 09/06/2004
Russia's Ovechkin is worth the long wait (Teenager scores and belts with best)

Free Alexander Ovechkin.

After 12 round-robin World Cup games that haven't meant a whole lot or produced a great deal in the way of tangible developments, Ovechkin's long-anticipated insertion into the Russian lineup last night probably stands as the most interesting individual story of the tournament since Brett Hull was asked to catch his breath while Team U.S.A. played on.

Less of Hull is okay. But now we'd all like to see more of Ovechkin.

One can understand why head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov might have been reluctant to give the prize youngster too much ice time right away and Ovechkin looked like your typical over-eager teenager when he fell flat on his keester while twisting to receive a pass in the first period.

But by the third he was one of his team's most dangerous-looking attackers against the curiously detached Slovaks, offering a north-south element to the dipsy-doodle Russian offence that was sorely missed in their desultory loss to Canada Saturday night.

He scored a terrific goal, nearly added another, and meted out several heavy bodychecks to Slovak players who have probably already had quite enough of this World Cup without having to play Canada one more time Wednesday night.

In sum, the No.1 pick in last June's NHL draft did more in a handful of shifts than either bird-flipper Andrei Kovalenko or towering Oleg Kvasha, both of whom were granted an unscheduled game off, accomplished in the first two Russian World Cup outings.

So now we'll see whether Bilyaletdinov, affectionately known as "Coach Bill" by North Americans unable to get their tongue around his surname, has the inclination to give Ovechkin another game and a little more rope for the loser-goes-home playoff contest tomorrow night against the U.S.

A few more glimpses of Ovechkin last night would surely have enlivened a contest that thankfully ended the participation badge portion of World Cup '04.

Seven minutes into the third period, with Russia already leading 4-2, Ovechkin hit the ice with fellow fourth liners Artem Chubarov and Dmitry Afanasenkov. Afanasenkov carried the puck halfway into the Slovak zone and then spun clockwise, flipping a blind pass into the slot.

Ovechkin got there first, easily ahead of snoozing Slovak centre Pavol Demitra, and gathered the puck in a slightly awkward position, seemingly too close to his body with not enough real estate left to create a dangerous shot.

In an instant, he shifted slightly to his left and then whipped a backhander past the left shoulder of Slovak goalie Jan Lasak just under the crossbar. Replays of the goal on the giant video screen elicited oohs and aahs from the otherwise sedate crowd.

On various occasions, Ovechkin also showed an inclination to hustle back on defence, something the Atlanta Thrashers are still hoping to one day see from Ovechkin's Russian teammate Ilya Kovalchuk more than once a game.

Ovechkin turns 19 in nine days, which makes him about six months older than Eric Lindros was when he made a similar debut at the 1991 Canada Cup.

Lindros ended up sixth on the champion Canadian team in scoring, but for much of the tournament he was used as a human battering ram by head coach Mike Keenan. His most memorable moment was a bodycheck that separated the shoulder of Sweden's Ulf Samuelsson during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Lindros had to wait longer than expected to play his first NHL game because of his refusal to skate for the Quebec Nordiques. The combination of the likely NHL lockout and the absence of a new transfer agreement between the NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation will probably delay Ovechkin's NHL arrival until the 2005-06 season at the earliest.

But the future Washington Capital is clearly ready to roll, as ready as Lindros was in '91.

Maybe even the Russians know that now.

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