Zaitsev Goes Up Against His Idol, Ovechkin, Tonight

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When you grew up playing sports, which professional athlete did you like to imitate? In basketball, you see kids imitating Steph Curry and Lebron James. In baseball there’s Bryce Harper. Hockey? Several players come to mind, but if you ask any youth hockey player from Russia the answer could very likely be Alex Ovechkin. 

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Photo: USA Today

For Nikita Zaitsev of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he will get to play against his biggest hero for the first time tonight as his Leafs welcome Ovechkin and the Capitals.

Zaitsev wondered if he would be better off staying in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) or going to the NHL. While representing Russia in the World Cup of Hockey, he talked to Ovechkin and Ovi told him all about life in the NHL..

“Before I came here, he gave me some good advice and he’s a big help to the Russian guys in Washington,” said Zaitsev. “It makes them feel more comfortable.”

It is clear Ovechkin has helped young Russians Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov adjust to not only the North American version of hockey but also life in DC.

As for Zaitsev, he has transitioned well. He is third among rookies in ice time. Ovechkin has also inspired Zaitsev’s teammate, forward Nikita Soshnikov to leave the KHL and join the NHL. Zaitsev signed a one-year entry level deal with the Leafs in May. Soshnikov signed a three-year deal prior to the 2015-16 season.

It is clear that Ovechkin has set the standard among hockey players from Russia. He already has 983 points, ranked fourth, and could certainly catch leader Sergei Fedorov (1,179) before he retires.

By Michael Marzzacco

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