Photo credit: Greg Fiume
Google “enigmatic hockey player,” and your search results will likely be dominated by references to a certain Russian winger of the Washington Capitals –- not the team captain and perennial All-Star Alex Ovechkin, but rather his compatriot Alexander Semin.
Nobody ever accused The Other Alex of lacking the talent to play the game at the highest level, but he does have a reputation for running hot and cold. It’s no wonder no one ever knows exactly what to expect from the twenty-eight-year-old Sibiryak — even though he is currently the longest-serving member of the Capitals. It certainly doesn’t help that the last time you read an interview with Alexander Semin was– well… let’s just say a long time ago.
In an attempt to make a small dent in the shroud of mystery surrounding the Capitals winger, RMNB caught up with Semin at Kettler shortly after Capitals practice on Sunday. Sasha talked to us about playing the new defensive system, compared the two All-Star goalies the Caps have faced in this year Stanley Cup playoffs, and shared his thoughts on the upcoming 10th anniversary of being drafted by the Capitals.
And did he ever want to be an astronaut, just like Ilya Bryzgalov? Read on!
Igor Kleyner: How do you compare this series with the 1st round?
Alex Semin: It’s quite a bit different from the series we played with Boston. That one had a lot of physical play, in every area of the ice. Against the Rangers, to me, it feels that there is a bit more space out there to make plays. But overall, as you can see, all the games are very tight. Every game we have played so far has been very close; we have had what – 11 games so far, and pretty much every single one of them was a one goal game… except for the first one we lost to Rangers 1-3. But in the playoffs – it’s always unpredictable.
Igor Kleyner: Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist have very different styles – which one is tougher to beat, and do you change anything in your game based on which goalie you are facing?
Alex Semin: Thomas is a very active and mobile goalie; he always plays far out of the net. Lundqvist is very different, his style is to stay on the line; no matter what you do, you can’t pull him out of there. He is very patient, has great reflexes and always in the right position, so the puck always finds him. Very hard to score against him – I have had my chances, but so far no luck in scoring against Lundqvist. For me personally, I think he is a tougher goalie to score on, at least right now. Against Thomas, it is important to take your time, to have a pause to wait for him to make the first move – but when it’s Lundqvist, he will stick to his position deep in the crease, so it is pretty much pointless to try to fake him out. You have to rely on your shot to score against him.
Semin has so far been unsuccessful in his attempts to get one past King Henrik , which is surprising considering Sasha’s scoring rate against the Vezina nominee during previous playoffs meetings. Between the 2009 and 2011 1st round matchups against the Rangers, he recorded 8 goals in 12 games. In fact, Semin scored more playoff goals against Lundqvist than against all other NHL goalies combined. Does Sasha has have an explanation for this sudden change of fortune?
Alex Semin: I am not doing anything differently – but I think my shots are getting blocked more. There were a few moments – it looked like the puck was going in, but it was blocked. It feels like they are playing differently against me, with all this shots being blocked, I don’t think I am getting as much space as I used to. And I don’t think it’s so much about goaltending – it’s not on my mind. Doesn’t matter who is in goal – I have to go out there and score.
Igor Kleyner: How hard was the triple-OT game – both to play and to recover from afterwards?
Alex Semin: Frankly, this was the first [3OT] game for me – but I didn’t feel overly tired, maybe because I did not get that much ice time [Ed note – 34 shifts, 25.38 TOI] – so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I think I have had tougher three period games! Of course, staying in uniform for over five hours – you have to get some food in, bananas, energy bars. And the next day – you feel it of course, but it’s just better not to think about it too much.
Igor Kleyner: We often hear from hockey analysts and even your opponents that it is harder to play against the Capitals this year than it used to be. But is it more difficult for you personally to play for the Capitals considering the changes in the team’s style of play?
Alex Semin: I don’t think my style of playing hockey changed much. I play the way I play. Of course I have to pay more attention to the defense… not even more attention, it was always a part of my game, but we now play a more simple game, and we make fewer mistakes because of that. Sometimes, especially if it’s a tight one goal game, in the neutral zone – it’s just unacceptable to make risky plays; you have to make choices that are 100%.
This year’s edition of the Washington Capitals is not exactly what we’re used to. No longer do we see a free flowing run-and-gun offensive juggernaut with porous defense. Some expected Alexander Semin to be the Capital who was least-prepared for such a change of style, but as he told Dmitry Chesnokov of Sovetsky Sport a couple of weeks ago, playing Hunter Hockey is not really new to him. So who is the man who taught Sasha to play Hunter Hockey long before we knew what Hunter Hockey means?
His name is Pyotr Ilich Vorobiev. The comparison should give you some reference — the “Russian Ken Hitchcock” is most known for his affinity for a stifling defensive system often referred to as the trap. When Alex Semin went back to Russia during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, he joined Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League (predecessor of the KHL), coached at the time by Pyotr Vorobiev. Tough as nails, Vorobiev was a pretty good hockey player himself in the 70s, playing for a famous Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov most of his career, and then learning the coaching trade under the tutelage of another Soviet coaching legend Vladimir Yurzinov.
Alex Semin: Yes, [when I played for Vorobiev] it was a very similar style. Everybody must play defense, all five guys play as a unit, must come back, get in the way of shots, prevent and block shots, minimize the other team’s chances in the slot. In the corners – let them skate there, let them shoot from the corners, that’s a low scoring chance, not even one out of ten shots like that will make its way into our goal. So [playing this style] is nothing new to me.
Lada Togliatti 2004-2005 Official Team Photo: Semin is the third from the right in the front row, Vorobiev is 8th from right. Click to enlarge.
When 20 year old Semin arrived in Togliatti, Pyotr Vorobiev took him under his wing, and the two developed a personal bond that is still strong. Star players can often name one coach who holds that special place in their hearts. But you just wouldn’t expect that for Alexander Semin, a player known for his offensive flair, his special mentor would be a quintessential blue-collar, no-nonsense, trap specialist.
Alex Semin: When I just came into adult hockey, he was my first coach. I owe him a lot. There were a lot of people who didn’t believe in me, who were saying “Why are you babysitting him? What do you need him for? He has no talent!” But it’s always like that with young players, when they just start. The most important thing is to get the young kid going on the right track, and then it’s up to him to make it. He came to visit me a few years ago – I think that was when we also were playing the Rangers. He is trying again to come this year, but there have been some problems with his visa, hopefully it’s getting resolved so he can come here again
Of course, this wouldn’t be a RMNB interview if we didn’t ask at least one question on the lighter side.
Igor Kleyner: A few of your fellow Russian NHL stars recently talked about what their alternative career choice would be. For example, Ilya Bryzgalov recently talked about becoming an astronaut, Kovalchuk mentioned taxi cab driving…
Alex Semin: Yeah, (laughing) Bryzgalov, he is always into his space exploration stuff. Me, ever since childhood, there were three things for me – hockey, bandy and soccer. I always thought I would end up doing one of those three. Bandy is very popular in Krasnoyarsk, we always have a very strong team there. For a while, I played both bandy and hockey in parallel.
[Ed note: Bandy is very popular sport in Scandinavia and Russia. Think of it as a mixture of ice and field hockey played on a soccer-size ice sheet. Outdoors. In the middle of winter, with the average high temperature in Krasnoyarsk in January being about 12 °F. Talking point for the next “Russian hockey players aren’t tough” conversation.]
We’re approaching the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Entry Draft, when the Washington Capitals selected Alexander Semin with their 1st round pick. I asked Sasha to take a quick look back at the decade.
“Time flies,” he said after a moment of hesitation. “Especially the recent years, time goes by real fast. When you are young, not so much, but lately, it’s just incredible how quickly time flies. It feels like we started the season just yesterday – but look [where we are] now… You don’t even notice… I remember the time, when Vitya Kozlov came here, he told me ‘You won’t even notice how quickly 10 years in the NHL will fly by.’ And I was like, ‘Oh come on! What are you talking about?’ And now, what has it been for me, eight, seven years already? So, yeah, it’s better not to think about it!”