Alex Ovechkin received his longest suspension to date Monday when the Washington Capitals’ captain was banned three games without pay for his illegal hit on the Penguins’ Zbynek Michalek, a blow the NHL ruled “recklessly” made contact with the Pittsburgh defenseman’s head.
It is the third time in the past three seasons Ovechkin has been suspended by the league for hits the league deemed dangerous. The hard-hitting left wing has also been fined twice.
The latest ban will force Ovechkin to miss Tuesday’s game against defending Stanley Cup champion Boston at Verizon Center — the team’s last game before the all-star break — as well as road games at Tampa Bay and Florida. It will cost him $154,677.75 in fines.
Sunday’s incident occurred early in the second period of Sunday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins, with the Capitals trailing 2-0 and a split second after Michalek moved the puck along the corner boards in the Pittsburgh end. As Michalek braced himself for impact, a forechecking Ovechkin launched himself into the Penguins defenseman.
Although Ovechkin’s skates left the ice, he did not receive a penalty.
Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s vice president of player safety, announced the suspension in a strongly worded video explanation posted on the league’s Web site.
“He launches himself to deliver the hit on Michalek. This is a violation of the charging rule,” Shanahan said. “Although Michalek’s shoulder might be the initial point of contact for this hit, the act of launching causes contact to Michalek’s head.
“Ovechkin drives up, launching himself and recklessly making contact with Michalek’s head,” he added.
Shanahan said he took into account Ovechkin’s previous suspensions and fines when levying the suspension. The league also considered the fact that Michalek was not injured.
After Sunday’s game, Michalek blasted Ovechkin and implied the NHL has a caste system. Michalek missed 10 games earlier this season with a concussion.
“To me, when the play happened, he just went for my head,” he told reporters. “I’ve been told that he left his feet.”
Four minutes later, Michalek delivered a blow to the back of Matt Hendricks’s helmet, crunching the winger’s head against the glass. Although Michalek had a hearing with Shanahan, he did not face discipline for the hit and has never been suspended.
Ovechkin, however, is intimately familiar with the NHL’s judicial system.
During the 2009-10 season, he was suspended two games for a knee-on-knee hit against Carolina’s Tim Gleason in December. Then in March, Ovechkin was banned for two games after hitting then-Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell. Campbell suffered a broken collarbone and did not return until the playoffs.
It was not immediately clear whether Ovechkin would attend Sunday’s All-Star Game in Ottawa, though he is still permitted by the league to do so. A Capitals spokesman would not comment when asked if Ovechkin planned to participate.
Ovechkin and Coach Dale Hunter declined to address the hit following Monday’s practice, which concluded about an hour before the 26-year-old’s hearing with Shanahan. General Manager George McPhee was not made available to comment.
The ban couldn’t come at a worse time for the Capitals, who are clinging to a playoff berth and are already ravaged by injuries to key players. Without Ovechkin, Washington now must face the Bruins, Lightning and Panthers without their leader in points (Nicklas Backstrom), top defenseman (Mike Green) and top goal scorer (Ovechkin). Washington entered Monday’s games eighth in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of Toronto.
If there is a long-term concern for the Capitals, it is that the punishment could affect Ovechkin’s play. The winger notched his first three-point game of the season Sunday, scoring a goal and adding a pair of assists in the loss.
“We were down and he was trying to rally our group,” veteran Mike Knuble said of Ovechkin’s hit on Michalek. “That is a big part of his game. You would hate to see that go away. . . . You don’t want that to disappear, not for any length of time, that’s for sure.”
Asked if playing physically ignites the offensive side of his game, Ovechkin said: “When you skate without hits, you’re just skating around. You’re not in the game.”
Around the Capitals’ dressing room, the consensus was that the league’s crackdown on hits from behind and headshots has caused players to think twice when lining up opponents for a check.
“A lot of guys hesitate going into the corners, especially on the forecheck,” Hendricks said. “As a forward, especially my role on this team, I have slowed down a lot. We’re holding each other up a little bit more trying to keep from getting suspended.”
The suspension comes amid a second straight season in which Ovechkin has, at times, struggled to recapture his two-time MVP form. With 20 goals and 19 assists he’s on pace for 67 points, which would be a career low.