Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Ovechkin


(Update, 5:41 p.m. ET: Ovechkin has been suspended two games. Appropriate. The questions are, will Ovechkin miss any games with an injury, and will the suspension include those games or take effect after any potential time missed because of injury?)

As a Penguins fan, my views on Alex Ovechkin are probably going to be taken in the worst possible light. Pittsburgh and Washington have long been rivals, well before Ovechkin even sniffed the possibility of playing in the NHL. The playoff history is rich between the two teams - though distinctly lopsided (which I'm sure will even out at some point) - and repeated postseason series can do a lot to build up that kind of hatred.

It doesn't help that one of the players Ovechkin has repeatedly targeted is Evgeni Malkin, a player who I routinely hope achieves success.

I'm not going to call for a suspension or not; there's plenty of other articles and blog posts out there discussing the situation. Whether the opinion is a Capitals supporter ("he just plays the game hard, it was Gleason's [the victim's] fault"), a diehard Ovechkin hater ("this is just the latest in his long history of dirty hits, he's going to kill someone one day"), or someone whose biggest angst is with the NHL's Wheel of Justice ("if he wore a different number, he'd be suspended without a doubt"), that debate is all the rage today.

I do not believe that Ovechkin is the best player in hockey, but I do believe he has the most powerful shot and is the most unstoppable. Does that make him the best overall? If so, then fine, but I think there should be a little more criteria. But that's not the point. If I need one goal to win a series or save my life, chances are I'll take Ovechkin, because he can score from anywhere on the ice at any time.

He can do it with a three-quarters slapshot - he scored on a slapper from the point against the Rangers in a game earlier that went in and out of the net so fast that I almost missed it - or he can score from the same spot with a wrist shot using a defenseman as a screen. His first instinct is to shoot, and he does it often.

Whether some people want to call him a puck hog is their affair; my take is that he knows for his team to win, he needs to score, so he does whatever it takes to get a goal. I admire that aspect of his game.

What separates Ovechkin from other premier goal scorers like Dany Heatley, Marian Gaborik or Patrick Marleau is Ovechkin's physical play. He's nearly as dominant a force in that regard as he is when trying to score goals. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with that, and it's something that makes him even more unstoppable.

Everyone loves having a big hitter on their team - Cal Clutterbuck has achieved cult status in Minnesota for his hits; Colby Armstrong in Pittsburgh did the same, to the point that, two years after his trade, Penguins fans still want him back. Ovechkin brings the best of both worlds, someone to keep your head on a swivel not just because you might get knocked out but because you also might get scored upon.

So this recent string of questionable - or downright dirty - behavior is sad, really. Ovechkin may be immune to the charging violation of the rule book, but he also throws plenty of clean, by-the-book hits. There's no reason for him to act in the manner he has, whether it's slew-footing Rich Peverley, boarding Jamie Heward, Danny Briere or Patrick Kaleta, or kneeing Sergei Gonchar or Tim Gleason, or launching himself at Malkin's head.

Ovechkin knows how to play by the book. He knows how to be a physical force without causing serious injury. He says he's not going to change the way he plays, even though his coach even came out and called him reckless.

No one's saying Ovechkin should stop hitting people. But, Alex, don't stick out your knee or your elbow to hit someone, and if you see the player's numbers, don't hit him. Oh, and don't target the other player's head.

Is that too much to ask? Are those guidelines too much for him?

At this point, isn't he becoming the same as Matt Cooke? The differences are Cooke isn't going to ever approach scoring 60 goals in a season, nor will he avoid suspensions. I had no real problem with Ovechkin escaping suspension for the hit on Kaleta; I thought a suspension should come, but more for the body of work than that one incident. No suspension brought no surprise nor any outrage from me.

What's worse for the league, suspending one of its marquee stars for a handful of games that aren't going to be on national (in the U.S.) television anyway, or having media and fans hold discussion after discussion about how stars get away with bush league behavior?

Give Ovechkin a two-game ban (once healthy) and let's see if he acts up again. If he does, harsher penalties should come. Let's see if he can learn to control himself, and if he can't, the league better step in before Ovechkin does kill someone.

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