Hockey

The other Alex

Would it surprise you to learn that a certain Russian forward named Alex with the Washington Capitals currently leads the NHL in scoring?

Alex Semin – and not Alex Ovechkin – is turning heads in Washington

Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, left, laughs with teammate Alexander Semin during a team portrait prior to the 2008 NHL season. ((Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press))

Would it surprise you to learn that a certain Russian forward named Alex with the Washington Capitals currently leads the NHL in scoring?

No, not that Alex, the other one.

Alex Ovechkin is the reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner, but the Washington winger is mired in a six-game goal drought and has only tallied a meagre five points through the first eight games of the season.

Lucky for the Capitals, though, that Alex Semin is scoring in bunches.

Semin, playing in his fourth season, has scored an NHL-best eight goals and leads the league with 16 points. Not bad for a player who missed 19 games due to injury and managed only 42 points all of last season.

So, how does Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau account for Semin's red-hot start to the current NHL campaign?

"I don't know to be honest," Boudreau told CBCSports.ca. "He's healthy for one. Last year at this time he had an ankle injury. He's getting older so he's more mature. Not that he's old by any stretch of the imagination, but it's amazing what another year can do for somebody."

A hero's helping hand

Boudreau believes Semin, 24, has benefited from playing on the same line as his childhood hero, NHL veteran Sergei Fedorov, a late-season acquisition in 2007-08 who re-signed with the Capitals in the summer.

The Washington coach explained that Fedorov, who last weekend passed Alexander Mogilny to become the NHL's all-time leading Russian-born scorer with 475 goals, has taken an active role in helping to mentor Semin both on and off the ice.

"It's not hard [to improve] when your hero, your idol growing up is now your linemate," Boudreau said. "Let's face it, if you get an icon or someone who's a future Hall of Famer talking to you, you're gonna listen and it's gonna pay dividends."

Alex Semin celebrates after scoring a goal against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 13, 2008. The Russian currently leads the league in scoring. ((Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press))

And even though Ovechkin isn't scoring, he is smoothing the path and paving the way for Semin to rack up points, according to Boudreau.

"Ovechkin does so much just by his mere presence. He attracts an awful lot of attention. … If everybody's attention is on Ovechkin, then Semin doesn't always face the No. 1 defensive pairing on the other team," said Boudreau.

But make no mistake about it, says Boudreau — Semin is a talent to behold, and a dangerous goal-scorer in his own right.

"He's got a tremendous shot and he's got tremendous stick-handling ability. I've been in the game, this is my 35th year I think, and I don't know if I've ever seen anybody with as soft hands as his," Boudreau admitted.

"He's pretty amazing with the puck. Sometimes he has the confidence to do anything with it, and sometimes that gets him in trouble, but most times he does anything he wants to do with it."

A first-round pick (13th overall in the 2002 draft), Semin has also impressed his coach with his newfound commitment to playing more defensive hockey, sporting a plus-six rating after nine games this season.

"He was a minus-18 last season in the first 40 games, and so far this year he's taken a total about-face," said Boudreau.

Comparisons are inevitable

Comparisons between Ovechkin and Semin are inevitable, and even though both can put the puck in the net, they play different games — Ovechkin is more physical, Semin more graceful.

"Alex is a bull, and Semin skates like he's on top of the ice, as if you don't even see his skates touch the ice. Ovechkin grinds through the ice out there," Boudreau said.

There's another notable difference between the two: their natural character.

Ovechkin is an outgoing guy who wears his heart on his sleeve while he's on the ice. Semin is more reserved and unlike his Russian teammate, he doesn't speak English very well.

"He hasn't picked up the language as well as Ovechkin," Boudreau admitted. "But other than that, he wants to win.

"He's not outgoing as Alex, but when he scored the winning goal against Dallas Saturday, you could tell he was pretty happy the way he was pumping his fist, and that he is capable of being demonstrative."

The Capitals coach insists communicating with the young Russian has never been a problem.

"We have four Russians on our team, so that makes it easier. If he doesn't understand something I say, I ask Fedorov to translate to make sure he gets it," Boudreau said.

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