THERE IS a fabulous Russian winger named Alexander who plays for the Washington Capitals. He stickhandles in a broom closet, skates like his hair is on fire and unleashes a shot heavier than Thanksgiving dinner. "I think he's by far the most talented player in the league," Capitals defenseman Mike Green says. "By far." The winger was leading the NHL in goals and points before straining a back muscle last month. And though the injury lingered longer than Washington first anticipated (eight games through Sunday) he remained tied for third with 13 goals. His nine multipoint matches (more than all but four players) included a five-point game on Nov. 12 in which he stripped the Carolina Hurricanes for parts and abandoned them on the side of the interstate. "It's almost like God touched him on the shoulder and said, 'You are wonderfully gifted,'" Capitals center Brooks Laich says. This hockey force of nature puts pucks through defensemen's feet and retrieves them on the other side, not beating the blueliners so much as tormenting them. "I remember a game in Ottawa last year when he toe-dragged five guys in a row," says right wing Matt Bradley, another teammate. "I wouldn't do that against 10-year-olds, and he's doing it against one of the good teams in the league."
Alexander Ovechkin? No, but Ovechkin is really good, too.
The Washington teammates are not discussing AO but OA, the Other Alex. He is Alexander Semin. He shares a nationality, a language, a first name, a room on the road and, often, the Capitals' first line with the celebrated Ovechkin. Otherwise, well, sometimes it seems as if they barely share the same planet. There is a gap between Ovie and Sasha (their nicknames) that is more profound than their hallmarks: Ovechkin's power and Semin's guile. Ovechkin, the showman on left wing, is so exuberant that he makes Joan Rivers look like a wallflower. Semin, the stealth bomber on right wing, is content to operate in the shadows.
Although he has never approached 65-goal-scorer Ovechkin in gregariousness or accomplishment—Semin's best season, 2006--07, produced the quietest 38 goals in memory—the inability to express himself in English is part of the reason he slouches toward stardom. "The enigma," says former Washington and current Lightning goalie Olaf Kolzig. "Ovie went out of his way to learn the language. It was kind of a trademark. It added to his personality. Semin, no." Semin has substantially padded his vocabulary from his rookie year, when the only two words he seemed to know were Mountain Dew, a postpractice beverage of choice. While no longer quite lost in translation, he still needs a linguistic GPS. "You talk to him, and he understands more," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau says. "At least he laughs at the right time now." Like his smoking-hot shot, Semin's high-pitched cackle is first-team all-NHL.
But unless Semin is feeling comfortable, he is reluctant to give voice to that mirth. As he fidgeted through a recent interview in a hotel lobby with an interpreter at hand, he looked as if he would prefer shaving with a cheese grater. He almost always understood the questions but hesitated before responding, conferring with the interpreter, going back and forth, framing responses until they were perfect—and perfectly opaque. Early in the interview he said, through the interpreter, "I don't want to say the wrong thing."
Earlier this season Semin might—or might not—have done just that. In Russian.
ON A lighthearted afternoon in Anaheim not long ago, the Alexes and Green huddled in the visitors' dressing room, speaking the common language of young, wealthy hockey players: bling. Semin showed off a gold necklace with a blocky number 28 dangling. As weighty as Semin's tricked-out jewelry may be, something heavier has hung around him since late October. Chatting with a D.C.-based correspondent for Sovetsky Sport in a question-and-answer session that would run on yahoosports.com, Semin revealed that Miracle on Ice was the last hockey movie he'd watched and that Washingtonians are swell people. He also gave this response to a question that touched on Penguins star Sidney Crosby: "What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, a good pass [sic].... I think that if you take any player, even if he is 'dead wood,' and start promoting him, you'll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points."
For someone who insists "it doesn't matter if I get the limelight or not," Semin might as well have been barking through a bullhorn when he expressed his thoughts about the NHL's most renowned, and perhaps best, player. Now, through an interpreter, Semin stresses he was merely voicing a preference for certain styles—in the interview he lauded Chicago's flashy winger Patrick Kane—not players. Splitting hairs? Maybe. In any case Semin says he was not being dismissive and indicates that he would be the last person to criticize Crosby. (Which, indeed, he was.)
Semin had tugged on Superman's cape, but his comments also advertised that he hasn't figured out that winning in the NHL is less about aesthetics than about Crosby's mix of prowess, passion and commitment. Says Kolzig, "It shows Semin's not all about hockey, not a student of the game."
"I had two thoughts when I heard [about Semin's comments]," Boudreau says. "Number 1: Well, he's finally talking. And number 2: That's his opinion, but it's certainly not the opinion of the rest of the Washington Capitals, the staff, the players and the rest of the league." However inadvertent, the gauntlet has been tossed down, but expect the Penguins and the Capitals to swerve around it when they meet on Jan. 14 in Pittsburgh. Washington center Sergei Fedorov says some of the Capitals' Russians have had "backdoor communication" with some of the Penguins' Russians and "reestablished professional trust. Everything's cool."