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A New Goal Standard
MICHAEL FARBER
December 25, 2006
Capitals wing Alexander Ovechkin conjured up a score that left even the Great One awestruck and lifted the league with his gung-ho spirit
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December 25, 2006

A New Goal Standard

Capitals wing Alexander Ovechkin conjured up a score that left even the Great One awestruck and lifted the league with his gung-ho spirit

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Goal: Alexander Ovechkin. Assists: Penn and Teller. � This is a halting attempt to describe the nearly indescribable six seconds of astonishing, mind-stretching hockey that will always live in online video and highlight reels: the Impossible Goal. Midway through the third period last Jan. 16 in Phoenix, Ovechkin, the blessed Capitals left wing, gathered the puck at the red line and burst down the right flank. Four strides over the blue line, retreating Coyotes defenseman Paul Mara checked him, but Ovechkin made an inside move that took him partway around Mara and pitched Ovechkin at a 45-degree angle toward the left corner of the rink. Stumbling because of Mara's persistent checking, Ovechkin, now perhaps 10 feet from goaltender Brian Boucher's net, at the lower edge of the left face-off circle, corkscrewed himself onto his back, took his left hand off his stick, cradled the puck with the hook of his blade and then, over his shoulder, like a twirler manipulating her baton on homecoming day, shoved the puck into the short side of the net past a stunned Boucher. So in summary, Ovechkin's 32nd goal, one of 52 he scored during his rookie season, was a prone, one-handed, upside-down, over-the-shoulder shot. And if all that fails to capture the Impossible Goal, try this: abracadabra.

"I don't know what was more amazing," says Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky, who, like Ovechkin, could not resist glancing up at the Glendale Arena video board for another look that afternoon. "That goal or him blowing a kiss to me that day.... That goal was one of the prettiest I've ever seen. Guy Lafleur might have scored a few in the 1970s that were pretty remarkable, and maybe I scored a few nice ones, but not like that."

This was the year that the NHL, fresh off the lockout, fell through a rabbit hole and mystically came out the other side: Alex in Wonderland. Ovechkin and Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby, the would-be Magic and Bird of the missing-teeth set, took their marginalized sport and varnished it with a thick layer of conspicuous cool. In another era their simultaneous arrival might have laid the foundation for a two-decade Rocket Richard versus Gordie Howe or Gretzky versus Mario Lemieux--type rivalry, but Ovechkin and Crosby are as much allies as foes, cornerstones of a revitalized league that is trying to escape its niche. The egalitarian, salary-capped world that has replaced the era of star-laden circus teams might have damaged the NHL on a metaphysical level--as The Grand Inquisitor notes in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers: When everyone is somebody, then no one's anybody--but Ovechkin and Crosby proved ideal counterweights in 2006, incandescent players for a game that had slogged through a decade of drudgery.

"Know what I like about them?" says Gretzky. "These guys only talk about how great it is to play in the NHL. You never hear them saying, 'Ah, this is no good,' or, 'Ah, I don't like that.' This league did go through a little time where some guys were like, 'Why am I here? [The NHL is] lucky to have me.' That's kind of been weeded out, especially with these kids. They strike me as two kids who feel lucky to be here. That's their attitude, and if these guys are the mainstays, everybody else will follow their lead. I love watching them because they play hard every game."

The NHL, like a proud parent bursting to brag about its precocious children, will be happy to tell you how much better its league is now. Got a minute? Or, better yet, got six seconds and Internet access? When the clip of the Impossible Goal winds down and you've witnessed the first minor miracle of your lifetime, the only thing you can do is genuflect and click again and again--world without end boards, amen.

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