As a young player in Russia, Mikhail Sergachev’s eyes would light up as he watched YouTube videos of his idol, Alex Ovechkin. Born in Nizhnekamsk, Sergachev carefully studied the goals, the dekes, the assists. On the ice, Sergachev would try to mimic the moves of his fellow Russian — even though Sergachev was training to be a defenseman and Ovechkin was a forward.
“I was trying to jump in the play and do something like him, shoot the puck … I don’t know,” Sergachev said. “I was never like him, but I tried to be.”
Sergachev, in his rookie season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, finds himself playing opposite Ovechkin in this Eastern Conference final, his team trailing the Capitals after a 4-2 loss in Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Friday.
In a series with a handful of high-profile Russians, Sergachev, 19, represents the country’s next generation of stars. And while he’s been inspired by other Russian players who have come before him — especially teammates Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy — no one has had more influence on his game than Ovechkin.
“Obviously now playing against him, it is one of the best things,” Sergachev said. “I’m very excited to play against him in the playoffs and obviously he is like 100 percent every game [and] he is coming.”
Ovechkin’s shot creativity and the way the 32-year-old star uses his body and controls his stick as he maneuvers around defenders have particularly stood out to the young defenseman, who has added moves from veteran goal scorer to his own arsenal, like shooting between defenders’ legs.
“It helps me on the blue line too,” Sergachev said. “I try to look for a lane and I shoot in between the legs.”
Ovechkin acknowledges Sergachev’s admiration, but says it has no bearing when the two step onto the ice.
“Not in the playoffs,” Ovechkin said after the Capitals’ Friday morning skate. “I don’t care what Sergachev said or who was his idol.”
Sergachev may revere Ovechkin, but his game may more closely resemble another of the Capitals’ Russian players: Dmitry Orlov, an offensive defenseman who is one of the NHL’s best at his position.
“He will come and make some good plays on the line,” Orlov said of Sergachev. “He can beat you one-on-one like a forward and it is not something you see, especially from young defensemen.”
Sergachev made his NHL debut last season with the Montreal Canadiens, playing in four games before returning to the junior-club level for further development. The ninth overall pick in 2016, he was traded to Tampa Bay during the summer in a blockbuster deal involving forward Jonathan Drouin.
At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Sergachev played 79 games and averaged 15:22 minutes of ice time this season. Additionally, he set a franchise record for assists (31) and points (40) by a rookie defenseman and tied the record for goals with nine. But there was a learning curve, one the teenager says are part of the “ups and downs” of playing in the NHL.
“I didn’t care about defense,” Sergachev said of his first tour in the NHL with Montreal. “I mean, I did, but like yeah, I was trying to create offense more than I was playing defense. But after that I went down for like 30-something games and I couldn’t do anything and didn’t feel well. I don’t know, I had to simplify my game.”
That included a renewed focus on his skating, which in turn helped his defense — and offense. Now in his first playoff run, Sergachev has scored two postseason goals — the first coming in Game 5 of the first round against New Jersey after he collected a pass at the top of the circle and sent in a shot through traffic to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead en route to a 3-1 series-clinching victory. The goal made Sergachev the youngest Lightning player to score a playoff goal.
The second was a power-play goal from the high slot in Game 1 of the second round against the Boston Bruins.
Sergachev is one of eight Russian defensemen who played at least half of the regular season. He, Orlov and Winnipeg’s Dmitry Kulikov are the only remaining Russian defensemen in the playoffs. Sergachev explained the lack of Russian defensemen in the NHL stems from coaches in Russia not willing to train defensemen in a forward-centric hockey culture, which has resulted in many young players leaving Russia for the Canadian Junior Hockey League, where they can improve their two-way skills before landing with an NHL team.
But that is changing, according to Sergachev, as more Russian coaches adapt to an evolving NHL game.
“It is kind of not good for the Russian national team … right now it is different hockey,” Orlov said. “Everybody plays five-on-five, zone, so we need to be a two-way player, but you know we will see. We still have some young guys coming up and can show that they have skill.”
That didn’t leave Sergachev with many Russian defenseman to imitate growing up. So instead he landed on a goal-scoring forward, who has been the symbol of what so many young Russian hockey players wanted to become.
Sergachev’s admiration for Ovechkin has forced the young Russian’s own family to say mum about the fact that the two are sharing the same ice in these playoffs. The reasoning? So Sergachev can “stay chill.”
“I don’t want to think about it because I don’t want to get too crazy,” Sergachev said.
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