Is Ovechkin dirty or just aggressive?

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- His hit Monday on Gleason, which led to a second major penalty and ejection in three games and the two-game ban.

This string of events has opened Ovechkin up for criticism that was previously easier to deflect. His past transgressions (an ejection and one-game suspension at the 2007 world championships, a hit from behind on then-Buffalo star Danny Briere during his sophomore season) were far enough apart to be classified as random, but four in 25 games could be construed as a pattern.

“If you look at how he hits, it’s all or nothing,” Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “He takes 10 strides before he hits guys. I don’t know if he goes over the line, but I think the way he does it, he’s setting himself up to go over the line. When you take a straight line at people like that, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Added Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier: “Yeah, if you start getting major penalties and guys are getting injured on plays, people are going to start thinking certain ways about you - there is no question about that. [Ovechkin] puts himself in situations to make hits, and he’s good enough at it to make big hits that can be game-changing hits. Along with that comes some situations where guys try to side-step you and you are exposed.”

Ovechkin’s place at the very top of the elite players in the NHL is unquestioned. His popularity has soared during his two-year reign as the league’s MVP. Provided he can stay healthy, Ovechkin will be in the mix for a third straight Hart Trophy, something only Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr have achieved before him.

But he also has to be in the lineup to continue to have the impact he does. Further suspensions would prevent that, and injuries could take a toll on his career. Just as playing on the edge vs. going over is a delicate balance, asking Ovechkin to alter his mindset could take a similarly fine tact.

“I would hate to see him change the way he plays,” Pothier said. “Obviously you don’t want to lose him, and you want him to be smart in those situations and let up. If a guy is exposed, just let up - there will be an opportunity to make eight other hits in that game.

“I think he is smart enough and adaptive enough to figure that out. I’m pretty sure you won’t see him taking any more major penalties anytime soon.”

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