WASHINGTON, DC – Clad in a towel, Alex Ovechkin sat alone on an equipment crate and waited for a familiar face to emerge from the visitors’ dressing room. About 25 minutes after the Washington Capitals shut down the Hurricanes, 3-0, Alex Semin walked out of the Carolina room in his postgame suit and over to Ovechkin for a short reunion with this former teammate.
“It’s tough,” said Hurricanes Coach Kirk Muller, steps away from the Russian summit.
“Coming back that first time, there’s a lot of build up. I’m sure he’s happy to get the first game over with, whether it went well or bad. He just wants to move on.”
Semin played 469 games with the Capitals from 2004-12. To put that in context: Ovechkin had never played on a Washington team that didn’t have Semin on the roster -- save for 2005-06, when Semin was fulfilling his Russian military duty. Semin signed with the Hurricanes as an unrestricted free agent last summer.
His time in DC was tumultuous – regular seasons in which Semin scored 38, 34 and 40 goals, counterbalanced by ineffective play in the postseason. Dominant efforts for stretches, counterbalanced by stretches of invisibility.
The ‘E’ word – as in “enigma” – is too easily tossed at European players. But it came to define Semin in Washington.
So it was that Capitals fans greeted Semin’s name in the starting lineup with a mix of cheers and boos. But once the game started, he was given the same treatment afforded to former Washington stars like Sergei Gonchar: Jeering whenever he touched the puck, and the traditional “whoop, whoop!” from the cheap seats as he skated with it.
It was a heavily-hyped homecoming for Semin, beyond the reaction from the fans.
On Monday, Troy Brouwer of the Capitals tossed some gas on the fire with comments about Semin’s lack of effort for Washington, saying, “Some nights you didn’t even know if he was gonna come to the rink.”
Semin was ready for his return to DC. “It’s very important for me this game tonight. I wanna win this game,” said the Hurricanes winger to Fox Sports, in an intermission interview that aired during the game.
Semin tallied 4 shots on goal and 5 others that were either blocked or missed the net. He played 21:08 for the game, skating to a minus-1.
But he had an early chance to make an impact.
At 2:55 of the first, the Capitals turned the puck over on the power play to Eric Staal, who fed the puck to a streaking Semin. He went in alone, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby stoned him, and then a follow-up shot went over the net.
“Any skilled player like that, you have to be as patient as you can. I don’t think he shot it where it wanted to,” said Holtby, who said he knew it was Semin with the chance. “He’s not a hard guy to pick out on the ice.”
Said Muller: “That was a pretty classy move by [Staal]. Has the breakaway and lays it up to [Semin] to give him the opportunity to be the hero early in the game.
"That could have been the difference right there.”
Considering his legacy in D.C., there was something appropriate about a hero moment being squandered by Alex Semin in his return to DC. And once Holtby made the stop, Semin’s former teammates fed off that missed opportunity.
“I don’t have any bad blood against him or anything like that. But you don’t want him to come back here and score,” said defenseman John Carlson.
“When he stopped that, I think everyone on the bench felt the same way.”
Ed Note: Updated to reflect Semin's military service.