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From The Point: Road to respectability

Rookie goal machine Alex Ovechkin is getting all the attention - and deservedly so - for the fact the Washington Capitals are not utterly horrible this season.

And that's not a backhanded compliment. That's a straight-up compliment aimed at a team that many observers - certainly this one - thought would be one bad bunch of NHL hockey players in 2005-06.

Washington entered the season hopeful that Ovechkin's performance would be somewhere in the neighborhood of his hype. It has.

The Capitals also hoped veteran goalie Olaf Kolzig could lead the team through the tough times. He has.

Beyond that, Washington had youth and hope; two valuable assets if you're building a civilization, but not the most realistic way to win hockey games. (Experience and talent are much more proven).

Here we are, though, 50 games into the season and Washington is not last in the NHL. (They're 26th.) They're not even last in the Eastern Conference. (Hello, Pittsburgh.)

They are last in the Southeast Division, but they've won 18 times and are 5-4-1 in their past 10 games. That's respectable, especially when it looked for a while like the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, famed for their all-time ineptitude, might be able to beat the current Caps in a D.C. hockey challenge. That's no longer a consideration. Pittsburgh and St. Louis, meanwhile, have won 12 games so far in 2005-06.

Beyond Ovechkin and Kolzig, coach Glen Hanlon deserves credit for icing a competitive, feisty team every night.

And even when Washington loses by a lopsided score - which is going to happen to a team that is young and overmatched - the Capitals have responded with better efforts the following game.

Washington won't make the playoffs this year, and probably not next year or even the year after that. But when all their barely-20-year-olds hit 25 or 26, the Caps will be an upper-case team once again.

The Goal-Scorer

If you saw that falling-down, flailing-around, turning-upside-down goal scored by Ovechkin a couple weeks ago, you know why they're still cheering in Washington.

Ovechkin has scored 34 of the team's 142 goals - about 25 per cent - and is seventh in NHL scoring with 65 points.

Yes, that's amazing. And even more so when you consider Washington's second-leading scorer, Dainius Zubrus (12 goals, 27 points), trails Ovechkin by 38 points.

To compare, the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr - the league's top scorer with 75 points - and Florida's Olli Jokinen (56 points) are 24 points ahead of their next-closest teammate.

So, let's review: Ovechkin has no NHL experience and very little offensive help in Washington. Oh yeah, and he's only 20. And he's looking like a contender for the Calder, Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Hart Trophies this year. Not bad, rookie. Not bad at all.

Freshman Class

As you're surely aware, Ovechkin isn't the only rookie turning heads this season. Sidney Crosby, for example, is a name with which you're probably familiar.

In no particular order, here are some other first-year players to get used to:

Marek Svatos, Colorado: Winger has scored 30 goals, 45 points in 51 games and only sees about 13 minutes of ice each night.

Dion Phaneuf, Calgary: Coach Darryl Sutter said the young defenseman is Calgary's best player this season.

Henrik Lundqvist, N.Y. Rangers: Has taken over No. 1 job, thanks to 2.12 GAA and .926 save percentage (both marks are among league leaders).

Petr Prucha, N.Y. Rangers: Bantam-sized player is the most unlikely 25-goal scorer in the NHL, due to his willingness to veer into danger zones.

Thomas Vanek, Buffalo: When all is said and done, he might turn out to be best pure sniper in the 2005-06 rookie class. (OK, except for Ovechkin).

Brad Boyes, Boston: Bounced from Toronto to San Jose to Boston, but still a rookie. Quietly, he's fourth among first-year scorers.

Hannu Toivonen, Boston: The latest in a wave of fine Finnish goalies was having himself a splendid rookie year, but a sprained right knee in early January took him out of the net and opened the door for unheralded Tim Thomas to step into Boston's crease.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo: A thumb injury shelved him for two months, costing him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team - and likely the rookie team All-Star berth to Lundqvist. But when Miller has been healthy, he's been as good as any rookie goalie - or any goalie, period - this season.

Jussi Jokinen, Dallas: He's eighth in rookie scoring, with 11 goals and 32 points (on barely 13 minutes per game). His most amazing accomplishment, though, is a perfect eight-for-eight mark in shootout attempts. He has two moves, both deadly.

Alex Steen, Toronto: An offensively capable rookie who also has a keen defensive awareness? Yes, they exist. Steen has all the tools to be a complete, two-way star.

Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta: One of the many Thrashers goalies to get bitten by the injury bug this season. His future is as bright as any rookies'.

Keith Ballard, Phoenix: His minus-12 rating won't win many votes, but you try playing defense in Phoenix. However, what might win a few votes is his top three standing in rookie assists (22 in 53 games).

Final Thought

Congratulations to Teemu Selanne, the latest NHLer to hit 1,000 points.

Selanne scored twice against Los Angeles on Monday night to hit the millennium mark. He's seventh overall in scoring among players born and trained in Europe. Selanne's Finnish countryman, Jari Kurri, leads all Euro scorers with 1,398 career points.

Jaromir Jagr is closing fast on Kurri's mark. Jagr had 1,385 points heading into a game against Pittsburgh tonight, just 13 shy of the former Oilers sniper.

Sam McCaig's From the Point appears every Tuesday only on thehockeynews.com. Have a point to make with Sam McCaig? You can reach him at smccaig@thehockeynews.com.

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