ANAHEIM - The top professional athlete who will visit Orange County in 2008 was practicing at Honda Center on Tuesday with his Washington Capitals.
Afterward, he was hiding around the corner in the locker room, a bag in his hand with a cake inside it, as he waited to ambush birthday boy and team masseur Shawn Reid.
The icing flew all over the training room and Alexander Ovechkin emerged with the smile that is re-launching a sport.
"Pressure? I don't think that word means anything to him," said Sergei Federov, his Capitals teammate and the only other Russian to win the Most Valuable Player award.
"Hockey is supposed to be fun. I watch him and it's made me change a little bit."
Hockey is indeed fun when you score 65 goals, as Ovechkin did last year, most in the NHL since '96.
Ovechkin's total of 163 goals in his three seasons is 17 more than anyone else in the NHL, and he's the first player in 55 years to make the first All-Star team in each of his first three tries.
Ovechkin brings all of that, and a cold and hard shoulder, when the Capitals face the Ducks tonight.
Three years ago Ovechkin came here and took everything but the foghorn. The rookie got his first career hat trick and beat the Ducks, 3-2, in overtime. The highlights were Ovechkin's fly-by past Ruslan Salei on the way to one goal, and his wipeout of tough guy Vitaly Visnevski, who was lining up Ovechkin for a hit of his own.
"At times we stood around and were in awe of him," Coach Randy Carlyle said that night.
The line of witnesses now spans two continents. On Saturday night Ovechkin got 12 shots on goal against New Jersey and tied the score with a second left in regulation.
"But before that he was so excited when Nicklas Backstrom scored, he nearly took him out," Coach Bruce Boudreau said Tuesday. "And then when he scored the last one he did the same thing. It's just fun to watch him. At no time am I surprised by something he does."
Ovechkin's mad, post-goal rushes into the glass — Lambeau Leaps, with a ricochet — have become his trademark. "Just something I like to do," he said with a shrug. "I love hockey."
But through eight games, hockey wasn't loving him back. Ovechkin had only two goals, both in the same game, and three assists. Then he flew to Moscow to visit his sick grandfather, Nikolay. He was there for a week and missed two games. When he came back for his first practice, Boudreau told the Washington Post it was "like having your big brother come back."
"Things have been better since then," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "I wanted to make sure I saw him. It's one of those things that happens in life."
Cleansed, Ovechkin has five goals and eight assists since then. Even with the absence, he ranks third in the league in shots, and he has seven goals, 18 points, and a plus-17, which ties teammate Alexander Semin for the league lead.
"I enjoy a lot of things about him," Fedorov said. "He's got great speed, he's got a crazy, crazy shot. He kills penalties, he's on the power play. And he likes to play physical. There haven't been any players who score that way and yet are so physical. At least not from Russia."
"Brendan Shanahan and Cam Neely were two guys who were top scorers and big hitters, too," Boudreau said. "But neither one of them ever scored 65 goals."
The legend has it that Ovechkin grabbed a hockey stick in a Moscow store when he was 2 years old and wouldn't let go. His mother, Tatiana, led the Soviet women's basketball team to two gold medals and is regarded as the best guard in the nation's history. She negotiated the 13-year, $124 million contract that pays her son $9 million a year through 2014 and $10 million a year through 2021, although scientists warn there won't be any ice left by then.
At 23 he has already been in three Junior Worlds, five Worlds and an Olympics, and earlier this year he took Russia to a World Championship gold medal.
Ovechkin bears all burdens, including the sport's ambassadorship. The Capitals sold out seven of their past 11 games last year as they drove for the playoffs, and had their best crowds in five seasons. This year they've lured 17,000-plus for every home game but one.
"I like to help the league as much as I can," Ovechkin said. "It's good. Anything I can do for the game."
But where does he get the energy?
At last the mischief returned to his face.
"From Russia," he said.
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