Alexander Semin stood at his locker on Tuesday night quietly answering questions in Russian through an interpreter, surrounded by the sort of media horde typically reserved for his Washington Capitals teammate Alexander Ovechkin.
He had completed another in a string of brilliant performances this season -- an assist on David Steckel's shorthanded goal in the first period against the Nashville Predators, a power-play goal in the third, another goal in the shootout and a team-high five shots -- but this night was different. Because it was a night without Ovechkin owning the spotlight on the ice.
The Hart Trophy winner was back in Russia with an ailing relative, leaving the Capitals in Semin's hands. Then again, one can argue they've been there all season: The 24-year-old winger from Krasjonarsk has points in eight of his nine games and is currently tied with Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the NHL lead in scoring with 16 points. Like the reporters crowded his locker, the attention on Semin around the NHL has also exponentially increased this season.
"I really believe he's coming of age now. Coming out of his shell a little bit," said Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau. "You guys have been around him long enough: He's a quiet guy. But on the ice he's coming out of his shell and leading this team."
But he's still a bit of a mystery off the ice -- a stark contrast with the boisterous personality of Ovechkin and the professional candor of fellow Capital Sergei Fedorov. Heck, in the Capitals' yearbook, all it says under "Personal" is "last name is pronounced SEH-mihn."
We wanted to find out more about this breakthrough star. So Puck Daddy's official Russian comrade Dmitry Chesnokov of Sovetsky Sport sat down with Semin at a local sushi joint this week to discuss his offensive success, playing in Ovechkin's shadow, Malkin, the best Russian player of all-time, movies, adult beverages and a ton of other topics.
Including the fact that he doesn't feel there's really anything special about that Sidney Crosby fellow.
Here's Semin, as interviewed and translated by Dmitry Chesnokov of Sovetsky Sport:
PD: Right now, you're on pace for at least 128 points this season -- more than Ovechkin, Crosby or Malkin have ever scored in the NHL. Why is this year so different for you? Is part of it the checking assignments Ovechkin's line is getting?
SEMIN: I think the season when I scored 38 goals was also good for me. Although I did have an injury and missed a few games. But the main difference between that season and this season is that I was not getting as much playing time as I am now. This would be the main difference for any player. If I get 25 minutes per game, there is a 100 percent certainty that I will get at least one great scoring chance. The most difficult part is capitalizing on that chance. Once you do, you're good.
What do you think Ovie's reaction will be if you finish with more goals and points than he has?
I don't think there's anything special about it. This is sport. If Ovechkin and I had a one-on-one competition and I won, then yes, maybe he'd feel something. But we're playing for the same team and hockey is the team sport, and if a player is only thinking about his own statistics, then that's just selfish, and it's their business.
My philosophy is that it doesn't matter how many points I get as long as the team wins. That's the right way.
Many people believe the Crosby/Malkin/Ovechkin rivalry is now the Crosby/Malkin/Ovechkin/Semin rivalry. Do you believe you're on that level of hockey stardom at this point in your career?
What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago ... [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb.
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. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let's say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals; everyone will say "Wow!" and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That's what they like here.
And in Russia people like beautiful hockey, and not dump and chase. I just don't get it, why when a player is skating up the ice and no one is attacking him, he dumps the puck into the offensive zone and then chases it? Why would you do this if there is no one forechecking you? I understand that if there is someone coming at you and you don't know whether you can get past that player, then you can dump the puck, pass it or shoot. But if not, then hold on to the puck, skate forward, create a chance.
Why would you want to dump the puck and then chase after it and crash into the boards? I don't know. But that's just my opinion.
If there was one attribute that either Malkin or Ovechkin has that you could steal, what would it be? Maybe physical play?
Physical play? There's Alex Ovechkin. I would like to have deking and shooting skill like Datsyuk or Jagr.
What did you learn from the playoff run for the Capitals last season?
There is only one lesson I learned: Character. You have got to have character in the playoffs. The rest is the same. Every game is not just a game, but a real battle. You don't come out to play, you come out to fight.
You're signed here through 2011. Have you given any thought to returning to Russia or playing in the KHL when your contract is up?
I haven't talked to the Caps about my future yet. It's too early. Everything will depend on the offers I will receive. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. I hear all these things about the financial crisis here, people even say that owners of some teams are going to lose money and there will be teams that go broke. No one knows what's going to happen tomorrow, what's going to happen to the US politics and policies.
One assumes you will represent Russia in the 2010 Olympics. How disappointed will you be if the NHL decided not to participate in the 2014 Sochi games?
I don't think it will get to that. What would be the point to have the Olympic hockey tournament? And it doesn't matter that Russia doesn't want to sign the transfer agreement. This is the Olympic Games, the World games, and not the Russia games. This is not about Russia, this is about the Olympic games. The NHL won't only let us, Russians, go, but the league won't let players from other countries go. What kind of the Olympics will that be? Russia is going to win it all easily then.
Of course I want to be there! Winter, Sochi, warm weather ... what else would one need to have great games?
Rank these Russian players at their best: Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny, Alexander Ovechkin.
I really like the way Mogilny played. But Bure will have to be the No. 1. Then Mogilny. And then Fedorov and Ovechkin. Or Ovechkin and then Fedorov. I don't know.
What has surprised you the most about American culture, and about playing hockey in Washington DC?
It's about the overall culture: On the roads, in stores, basically everywhere everyone is very considerate and nice. There is virtually no "I don't care" attitude.
Have you forgiven the United States for stealing Russia's gold medal in the 1980 Olympics?
[Loud laughter] Why would I still be mad at them? Their team is weak now. The Canadians are our main rivals.
What was the last hockey movie you watched?
"Miracle On Ice."
What do you typically do on your off-day from games?
Just relax. I go shopping, sometimes I go to the gym, I go to the sauna. It all depends on the mood I am in.
Do you have any pre-game rituals or superstitions?
Have you ever talked to a player who told you what theirs were? I am not going to say.
Do you watch your own goals on the Internet? And what is the most memorable goal you've ever scored?
Of course, sometimes. But there aren't a lot of my goals on the Internet. I don't know why they are not posted there.
As for goals, there were so many. But the most memorable is the one against Sweden on Euro Hockey Tour when I was playing in Russia.
Your beer or adult beverage of choice, sir?
I am not really a beer lover. I can drink one or two, but I am not a fan. To be honest, lately I don't even feel like drinking anything. I used to like whiskey though. But now, it's better to have a shot of vodka, you'll feel better afterwards, than whiskey. But I am not a drinker. I don't like it.
What are you driving these days? What do you wish you could drive?
I am driving a Mercedes CLS55. As for a dream car? I don't really have one. I like mine.
The fastest I ever drove? About 160. Ovechkin and I were actually driving together on a highway at around 1 a.m. He was in his car, and I was in mine.
Who has the larger house: Ted Leonsis or Vladimir Putin?
I think that has to be Putin.
Finally, what do you enjoy most about hockey?
The atmosphere in the arena, on the ice, that feeling when you score, when the team wins. It's so good.
Dmitry Chesnokov is a writer for Sovetsky Sport. His exclusive interviews with NHL players will appear throughout the season on Puck Daddy.