- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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With the Washington Capitals on their only western road swing of the season, the upside for the NHL is that it can feel as if the circus has come to town for a rare visit to a settlement not on the regular circuit.
Come to think of it, the seven Ringling Brothers (with Charles' renowned blast from the point), P.T. Barnum, James Bailey and the animal trainers could have at least fielded a decent lineup -- with a few clowns on the fourth line.
And on this swing, Alexander Ovechkin is the center-ring star.
Is he aware of that?
"I don't know, you must ask them," Ovechkin said with a smile after the Capitals' 5-3 win in Denver on Wednesday night. "If you ask me, I don't know."
Well, the answer is a resounding yes, and that is both a boon and a problem, depending on whether you're looking at it from the perspective of a selfish Atlantic Division executive who would love to have 20 games against each intradivisional rival and nothing else, and from perspective of the league office (or from the perspective from virtually anywhere else).
Honest, this wasn't, and still isn't, intended to be another rant about the schedule format that the NHL will stick with, at least through next season.
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt and the e-mails.
But the point is, this is one of the reasons the system stinks.
After playing in Denver, the Caps move on to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, and then, as incredible as this seems, don't have another game outside of the Eastern time zone the rest of the 2006-07 season.
They never have to change their watches, but the fans, and especially the season-ticket holders who pay the freight in this league, are being short-changed.
Watching Ovechkin on Wednesday night, whether from the Pepsi Center seats or the press box or even from the Colorado bench, drove home, or should have driven home, the point that there's nothing quite like seeing a superstar in person.
That's going to be the case in Western Canada over the next few days. Fans are going to walk into General Motors Place, Rexall Place and the Pengrowth Saddledome, knowing that this almost certainly is going to be their only opportunity in a three-season cycle to see Ovechkin.
The sense of anticipation and excitement is palpable.
"That's good for me," Ovechkin said. "When fans say that, you feel it's very important to you, when you know that the fans want to see what you can do. When fans say that about me, I'm happy, I'm glad."
You read, you watch television, you see the incredible one-handed, no-look, sliding goal against Phoenix last season, you know this just-turned-21 Russian is that good.
Wayne Gretzky recently brought up Mike Bossy's scoring touch and Mark Messier's passion when discussing Ovechkin, which should be taken both as a ringing endorsement and cause for even more anger in both Edmonton and Phoenix. At 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, Ovechkin is big enough, and he plays "big" in the physical sense, unlike some of his Russian predecessors. It could also make some hope that Ted Leonsis tires of trying to make a go of it in downtown Washington and moves the franchise to the other Washington. (No way is that happening, but )
That is not meant to imply that Ovechkin puts on a mouth-dropping performance every night the puck is dropped, but you have the opportunity to focus on him, to follow him, to take him in amid a bigger picture, and to walk away knowing more than ever, "That's one of the Greatest Shows in the game." Even if he hasn't been amazing that night, you understand the phenomenon better than you did when you parked the car in the arena lot.
In Denver, he got a power-play goal, beating Peter Budaj to the short side from the left circle. In the opening seconds of the third period, he checked Colorado defenseman Karlis Skrastins, and the impact shattered the penalty box glass, leading to a cleanup delay.
What was more exciting, scoring the goal or breaking the glass?
"Breaking the glass, I think," he said. "First time. I was surprised. 'Wow, I'm stronger!'"
He did a lot more than that, including giving the Capitals palpitations when he took a shot to the leg in the final seconds and had to be helped off the ice. But he was walking fine after the game, so unless it swelled up or otherwise became a problem overnight, it won't be an issue.
"He's OK," said Capitals coach Glen Hanlon. Smiling, he added, "Unfortunately for him, he has no choice."
That drew laughter, because all around him knew exactly what he meant: Ovechkin is a true headliner.
"I thought he did great," Hanlon said of Ovechkin's night. "He scored one, had a couple of really good scoring chances, and you don't normally see 50-goal scorers blocking shots. He does so many things well, and as you can see, he's a real physical presence with the hit that he threw at the start of the third period. He's just a great, great person for our franchise."
Did Hanlon understand why fans, including some walking into the Pepsi Center's Blue Sky Grill a few feet away for a postgame cocktail and conversation about Ovechkin, might be steamed that this was their only chance to see the Capitals in at least one 123-game cycle?
"It's a good point," Hanlon said. "I was speaking with [Caps GM] George McPhee today [about drawing] up the pros and cons of the divisional schedules and playing in your own division eight times. Being a family guy, I certainly enjoy the days at home instead of traveling the extra 30 days. But as a hockey fan, I don't think it's fair that some cities don't get to see a couple of our players. I don't really know what the answer is."
"There are only so many players like that who come along every so often," said Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who actually is 25 days younger than Ovechkin. "I guess it's frustrating, especially for Canadian fans. They love their hockey. They'll get a chance to see him here. I don't know, make sure you get your tickets!"
Kolzig said he "totally" understands the frustration over seeing Ovechkin only once every three seasons.
"It's the same for us," he said. "It's always a nice change of pace to get away from the East Coast and come out to some great cities like Denver and Phoenix and L.A. and Vancouver. When you're only doing that once every three years, and Raleigh [four] times and Sunrise, Florida, players can get stale, so I can understand their frustration. I hope they go back to the old format."
And the fans in the West are missing a rare combination of maturity and talent.
"You see so many young kids come in the league, and the skill is there, but it's the maturity level that takes a while to develop," Kolzig said. "Alex, from day one last year, just wanted to fit in with the team so badly. He wanted to room with a North American guy, wanted to learn the language, wanted to learn the culture. He was part of the dressing room from day one. There was no sitting off in the corner by yourself and taking everything in. He dove right in and became part of the team, and I think that contributed to how he played last year. He felt comfortable on the ice."
But at least, at this point, the West is getting the short end of the stick.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
Jordan. Elway. There's nothing like watching a star in person. So, Terry Frei asks, why bottle up Alex Ovechkin?