WASHINGTON (AP) - His first NHL check was so fierce it dislodged a support beam. He refused to let his team lose, twice answering with goals less than 90 seconds after the opponents took the lead. And when his face appeared on the large scoreboard, he stuck out his tongue and flashed a charismatic smile.
''I feel my dreams come true,'' Alexander Ovechkin said. ''I play in the NHL. First game, we win.''
The 20-year-old Russian, who has often been compared to a young Mario Lemieux, became the first Washington Capitals player to score twice in his NHL debut, leading a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night in the league's first game at the MCI Center in 550 days.
''He was worth the admission tonight,'' Columbus coach Gerard Gallant said. ''He was real good.''
The Capitals welcomed a crowd of 16,325 fans - some still feeling jilted over the lockout that wiped out a season - to the 18,277-seat arena with a pre-game street festival and an opening ceremony that looked like something out of the Olympic Games. The theme intertwined the return of hockey with the creation of the universe, and the players skated onto the ice carrying glowing, plastic torches.
''I am so excited for things to be back - last year was horrible,'' said face-painted fan Amber Turbyne of Waldorf, Md. ''I usually hold a grudge like something awful, but I'm too happy to have hockey back.''
The fans will be more excited now that they've seen what Ovechkin can do.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft wasted no time making his presence known. On his first shift, 40 seconds into the game, he sideswiped Radoslav Suchy into the boards behind the Columbus net with such force that a beam fell to the ice. The game was delayed for a couple of minutes while it was replaced.
''The first check he threw to start the game, I said, 'That's my boy. That's what we want,''' said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who is counting on Ovechkin to help lure fans in a city that had trouble embracing hockey even before the sport's labour troubles began. ''We want our star players to work hard and be a part of the team. Every time we got down, he answered, and that's what superstars do.''
Dainius Zubrus also scored for the Capitals, and new captain Jeff Halpern had three assists in a game that included 18 penalties and plenty of flow with the new offensive-minded rules. All five goals came in a 10-minute span in the second period.
''With the new rules and the speed of the players and the way that the game was officiated tonight, if that's the way it's going to be, then goodness gracious - it's an exciting game out there,'' Washington coach Glen Hanlon said.
Dan Fritsche scored both goals for Columbus, twice as many as he had as a rookie before the lockout. Rich Nash, the Blue Jackets' emerging star, aggravated a sprained ankle and did not play in the third period.
Ovechkin's jarring check was the one and only highlight of a dull first period that made it seem as if hockey should've stayed away, but he and fellow 20-year-old Fritsche brought the game to life in the second period.
Fritsche took advantage of the new rule that allows the two-line pass by getting the puck from Gilbert Brule, then easily beating defenceman Mathieu Biron to the puck to score.
Ovechkin responded 23 seconds later, stroking a one-timer from Halpern that beat goaltender Pascal Leclaire on the stick side. Ovechkin raised both hands and dropped to one knee as he was mugged by teammates.
Fritsche put in a rebound to make it 2-1 with the teams skating four-on-four three minutes later, but Ovechkin then tied the score again, knocking home a cross-crease pass from Halpern on a power play.
Leonsis was sitting with Ovechkin's family. His mother, a former basketball star, muttered something in Russian after the second goal.
''I asked the brother, `What did she say?''' Leonsis said. ''She said `I'm proud of him, but we have to win the game.' I'm like, `That's exactly the way to do it.'''
Halpern threaded another pass for his third assist, slotting the puck between a defenceman's legs for Zubrus on a power play. The goal turned out to be the game-winner, with both teams wasting multiple power-play chances in a scoreless third period.
''We win this game, and I scored the goals,'' Ovechkin said. ''And I'm very happy.''