Evaluating Alex Ovechkin after another hard hit and more punishment

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; D01

If Alex Ovechkin listens to no one else, he needs to listen to Mike Knuble. If the NHL's most breathtaking player tunes out everyone but Knuble, he might actually be around for another decade or so.

If not, enjoy Ovie while you can. Savor his fire and flair now. Soak up the rivalry with Sidney Crosby while it lasts.

Because if Ovechkin keeps throwing his body around at warp speed on every shift, no matter the score -- if his reputation as the most predatory superstar in the game keeps growing -- he isn't going to enjoy the fruits of a long and prosperous career.

And that's provided some genuine goon doesn't take a run at him or Ovechkin doesn't wind up on the wrong side of a knee-on-knee hit before then.

Puckville is of course dropping its gloves on this one. The fight is over whether Ovechkin's two-game suspension for shoving Chicago's Brian Campbell into the boards from behind on NBC Sunday afternoon -- a hit that broke Campbell's clavicle and ended at least his regular season -- warranted further discipline than the game misconduct penalty he already received. Or whether the hit should have received any punishment at all. How the league metes out justice and to who is frothily debated by the most passionate on both sides.

Back here in the real world, the debate is straightforward: Is the most potent force in the game also the most reckless and dangerous?

Is Ovie dirty?

Unless I hear otherwise, I don't believe there is real malice behind Ovechkin's tough, physical play, which reminds many of a young Mark Messier. I also believe what Knuble said to The Post's Tarik El-Bashir in the last paragraph of Monday's story about Ovie's suspension.

Dial it back, kid. Not every play is Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series.

Referring to a blowout game earlier this season when Knuble himself was the victim of an ugly hit, the veteran Capitals right wing said: "There was something in the corner with maybe five minutes left. Alex kind of went at a guy. [The score] was 6-1. I was kind of like, 'Slow down a bit.' Just for your own sake. You don't need to accidentally catch your knee on somebody. There are some times, when as a player, you can save yourself a little bit."

That's not a jingoistic Canadian talking, sick to his stomach that a Russian is dominating the game his country invented. That's not an agent telling his client to save his bones and ligaments for one more $100 million deal.

It's a 37-year-old physical teammate who has been around long enough to know that there is a time and a place for every monster check on the ice.

"Knuble's point is, 'You don't have make every play search-and-destroy,' " said Al Koken, the Comcast SportsNet analyst who's been covering the Caps for a quarter century. "I don't think Ovie should change his style of play. But be more judicious with your moments.

"There are times when you don't have to make the blow-up hit all the time. You don't always have to be a B-52 bomber. Sometimes it's okay to be one of those stealth drones."

This isn't about a two-game suspension. It's about preserving the best marketing machine Gary Bettman and the NHL have at the moment. Ovie is emerging from this incident scarred by perception more than reality, having been ejected from three games and suspended for two games already this season.

Inside the Beltway, Washington is privileged to have the most thrill-seeking, otherworldly player in hockey.

Outside of Washington, we have Darth Vader.

We have the bad guy. The bully. The opposing player everybody loves to hate.

Ovie always drew comparisons to Wayne Gretzky or Rocket Richard.

Now the hype machine is moving in a different direction, toward every rotten stereotype about a cold, unfeeling Russian, who would rather hurt somebody than score.

Beware Alex the Horrible.

Part of this reputation is laughable, given anyone that has spent time around the playful and 24-going-on-14 Ovechkin. Part of it is actually empowering, especially for a Washington sports fan lately used to having other teams inflict pain upon the Wizards, Nationals and Redskins.

In a warped way, it's not a reach to envision Ovie paying everyone back, one hip-and-shoulder check at a time.

But the more he takes runs at people who are nowhere near the puck, the more taking another player out from behind becomes acceptable and palatable -- frankly, the more enablers who want him to mix it up more because they live vicariously through his hits -- the more chance that Alex Ovechkin isn't going to be around as long as anyone thinks.

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