Reporting David Elfin
Maybe Alex Ovechkin pumped home his first hat trick on home ice in more than three years this past Saturday as a welcome back present to his buddy Sasha.
That’s right Caps fans, Alexander Semin, the player who gave you plenty of joy and more angst than anyone on the roster the past six years, returns to Washington tonight for the first time as an opponent.
Semin, the regular season sniper turned playoff dud, will be wearing his familiar No. 28 for Carolina as the first-place Hurricanes arrive on F Street six points ahead of the fifth-place Caps in the tight Southeast Division race.
While Semin has just four goals in 17 games this season, he has 10 assists, including one against Winnipeg last Thursday that left his teammates and coaches gushing.
“That one you can’t teach,” said Carolina coach Kirk Muller, who called the 28-year-old Russian “one of the elite few” who could make such a no-look, between the legs pass.
“[It] has to definitely be in the top 10 in NHL history,” Canes goalie Dan Ellis told the Raleigh News & Observer about Semin’s unbelievable dish to Jiri Tlusty from the right side of the Jets’ net. “The fact that he was able to spin and put it through the D-man’s feet and past the backside defender was … outstanding.”
Adjectives like outstanding describing Semin were so rare during his past three postseasons in Washington – seven goals, five assists, minus-2 rating in 30 games — and his enthusiasm for being a Cap had waned so significantly that the team let him depart as a free agent in June.
Before last season, former Cap Matt Bradley spoke for more than a few teammates of the enigmatic Russian when he said. “He has so much talent, he could easily be the best player in the league and for whatever reason just doesn’t care.”
After the Caps opted to bid Semin farewell, former NHL coaches Marc Crawford and Pierre McGuire chimed in. The former called Semin “a complete loser” with “no character” while the latter dubbed him “the ultimate coach killer.”
However, six weeks into the lockout-shortened season, Carolina couldn’t be happier with Semin, who has a plus-10 rating – Joel Ward is the only Cap better than plus-3 — and has been one of its best players after receiving a $300,000 raise to sign a one-year, $7 million show us what you can do deal.
“I didn’t realize how smart a hockey player he is,” Muller told the News & Observer about Semin, who averaged 31 goals for the Caps the past six seasons. “I know no why he’s a plus player. His puck strength … and he understands the game and he reads it well enough to put himself in the right position a lot of times. He out-thinks his opponent.”
Of course, few people in North America know what Semin thinks. He declined to talk to the News & Observer after his breathtaking assist as he almost always has done with reporters during his eight NHL seasons.
Mike Ribeiro, whom Washington acquired from Dallas to replace Semin as one of its top six forwards, leads the Caps with 21 points, making him the only member of the home team with more than their former teammate.
Carolina (9-7-1) has 50 goals in 17 games while allowing 51. Washington (6-10-1) has 48 goals in 17 games while allowing 55. So to say that the Caps miss Semin would be overstating the situation. But there’s no doubt that the Canes are happy that they have the 6-foot-2, 209-pound right wing as he tries to show that he deserves the type of lucrative, multi-year contract that he never received in Washington.
I’m sure that if one of the NHL’s most skilled players puts on a show tonight against the team that let him skate away without compensation, he’ll be very pleased. But we’ll never know because Semin won’t talk.
Unlike tennis or golf, hockey is a team sport, and part of being a teammate is embracing being part of a group, not a solo operator, something that Semin never understood here and probably never will.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin