WASHINGTON Alex Ovechkin | NHL game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals | NHL Alex Ovechkin Photos

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WASHINGTON - There are times, when the house lights are down and the Verizon Center is bathed in red, that Alex Ovechkin seems like much more than a rock star and Charles Barkley's choice as the best athlete in sports (remember, LeBron James and the Chuckster are feuding). Really, it's the closest thing I've seen in an arena to a cult revival, with heavy-metal riffs tearing through the lubed-up, raucous crowd and "ROCK THE RED" stenciled menacingly on the ice.

Imagine Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin rising from their graves to see a Russian hockey star, in the cradle of American freedom, rocking the red to the worship of thousands. Ovechkin has that effect on people, and if you haven't seen him in person, do yourself a favor and pay the money to watch him rip the quickest, hardest shot in the game past baffled goaltenders and then, like a human pinball, skate in a mad rush to the nearest sideboard so he can leap, crash into the glass and chest-butt the red-clad fans. He dyed his hair red for the playoffs, though it's hard to tell on his dark-haired mop with bangs that hang into his eyes. When Capitals fans chant "Hey, you suck!" at Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins to the beat of "Rock 'N Roll Part II," Ovechkin smiles and chants along as any 23-year-old would. Know another superstar who hangs his team's car flags on his Mercedes? Or gets a death threat from a Pennsylvania teenager on a computer?

He is precisely what sports needs amid a recession, baseball's endless steroids scandals and the NBA's latest officiating debacles: an electric, dynamic, fan-embracing whirl who scraps with opponents, scores with his strength as much as speed and gives the NHL -- a league with an ongoing identity problem and dubious television deal -- its first transcendent, for-the-masses icon since Wayne Gretzky. I'm not saying Ovechkin can save the league from its niche-sport status. Nor am I saying he's God and can lead the Capitals to the Eastern Conference finals without much support, a major problem as they head to Pittsburgh for Monday's Game 6 down 3-2. The only thing that can quiet the downtown D.C. din is a stunning loss, and on Saturday, two more Ovechkin goals -- his ninth and 10th of the playoffs, including a game-tying rocket with 4:08 left in regulation -- were wasted in overtime when Capitals defenseman Tom Poti deflected a puck into his own net and gave the Penguins a 4-3 victory. Only minutes earlier, Washington's David Steckel botched an opportunity to win it, sending shivers through Capitals fans who sense their team, for the third time since 1992, could be blowing a 2-0 lead and losing a series to Pittsburgh.

"First shift, Stecks missed an empty net," Ovechkin groaned. "I said, 'Jesus, where is our luck?' The puck was bouncing, and next they got a power play and scored a goal."

Alex Ovechkin Photos

Dave Sandford, Getty ImagesMONTREAL - JANUARY 24: Eastern Conference All-Star Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals competes in the 'Scotiabank NHL Fan Fav Breakaway Challenge' during the Honda NHL Superskills competition as part of the 2009 NHL All-Star weekend on January 24, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images) 37 photos (Note: Please disable your pop-up blocker) Alex Ovechkin Photos MONTREAL - JANUARY 24: Eastern Conference All-Star Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals competes in the 'Scotiabank NHL Fan Fav Breakaway Challenge' during the Honda NHL Superskills competition as part of the 2009 NHL All-Star weekend on January 24, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Dave Sandford, Getty Images

WASHINGTON - MARCH 27: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates his first period goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 27, 2009 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Bruce Bennett, Getty Images WASHINGTON - MARCH 27: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals checks Matt Smaby #32 of the Tampa Bay Lightning into the boards during a NHL hockey game on March 27, 2009 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images) Mitchell Layton, NHLI / Getty Images RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 21:Alexander Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates hard for position during a NHL game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 21, 2009 at RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images) Gregg Forwerck, NHLI / Getty Images PHILADELPHIA - MARCH 12: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates in towards the crease against Danny Briere #48 and Martin Biron #43 of the Philadelphia Flyers on March 12, 2009 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images) Len Redkoles, NHLI / Getty Images PHILADELPHIA - MARCH 12: A young male fan holds up a sign for Alex Ovechkin during the pregame warm ups at a NHL game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals on March 12, 2009 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images) Len Redkoles, NHLI / Getty Images

BOSTON - FEBRUARY 28: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals during warm-up against the Boston Bruins at the TD Banknorth Garden on February 28, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images) Steve Babineau, NHLI / Getty Images SUNRISE, FL - FEBRUARY 15: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals sits on the bench during a break in the action against the Florida Panthers at the Bank Atlantic Center on February 15, 2009 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images) Eliot J. Schechter, NHLI / Getty Images

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 03: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 3, 2009 in Newark, New Jersey. The Capitals defeated the Devils 5-2. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) Jim McIsaac, Getty Images MONTREAL - JANUARY 24: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates during the Honda NHL Superskills competition as part of the 2009 NHL All-Star weekend on January 24, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) Mike Stobe, Getty Images
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