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The Globe and Mail

Ovechkin is both class clown and head of the class

Alexander Ovechkin is not only one of the best players in hockey, he's also the greatest showman in the NHL.

Take the Washington Capitals practice at Rogers Arena on Friday, in advance of a Saturday game against the Vancouver Canucks, where Ovechkin spent most of his downtime heckling injured teammate Mike Green, who was in the stands beside general manager George McPhee.

Ovechkin wouldn't let it go as the two men spoke. He wouldn't reveal what the inside joke was about, but it's a good guess he was ribbing Green about sucking up to the boss.

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"Mike Green!" he bellowed for all to hear, drawing so much attention to Green and McPhee that the latter put his arm around the former, and everybody had a good laugh.

Of course, the Capitals have been doing nothing but laughing – and offering gap-toothed smiles – these days, after a spectacular start to the 2011-12 season. Washington won seven consecutive games before falling 2-1 Thursday to the upstart Edmonton Oilers, the Capitals' first loss of the season.

But while Ovechkin and the Caps are off to a flying start, Vancouver has not been kind to No. 8.

Two years ago, in just his second regular-season game at the Canucks' home arena, Ovechkin was held off the scoresheet, not registering a shot on goal until late in the third period. A few months later, playing for Russia at the 2010 Olympics, Ovechkin recorded four points in four games, and delivered a hellacious hit on Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic, but his country went meekly into the night, embarrassed 7-3 by Canada in an elimination game.

"My job is to play hockey," Ovechkin said when asked if Vancouver hockey fans had seen the best of him. "I'm not a clown who makes jokes and [does]funny things. But if I can [entertain]than I'm going to do it, so we'll see what happens."

Neither head coach is anxious is to see what happens in this contest between the defending Western Conference champions and an Eastern Conference heavyweight.

Vancouver's Alain Vigneault spent his news briefing talking about how balanced the Capitals have been this season, using four lines and six defencemen far more than they have in years past.

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He said one way of beating Washington previously was to catch one of its lines – read Ovechkin's – on an extra-long shift and take advantage of tired skaters. Now, Vigneault said, the Capitals are able to play at a frenetic pace that challenges defencemen because they have fresher skaters jumping over the boards.

Vigneault said the marquee value of Saturday's game "got our attention" and predicted that the Canucks would have to play their best game of the season in order to win. The Canucks have had a blasé start to the season, and seemed disinterested in losses to the Oilers and St. Louis Blues this week.

"I think it's good," captain Henrik Sedin said of facing Washington. "It's going to bring everyone up to the level where we need to be. Otherwise, it's going to be embarrassing."

Washington's Bruce Boudreau was equally skittish about facing a team he likened to a wounded animal.

"I hate it when you're playing a great team that has lost two in a row, and that's what we're doing," Boudreau said. "We're nervous, because they're mad. It's going to be a tremendous test."

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