How Alex Ovechkin should play hockey for the Washington Capitals has become a white-hot topic of discussion in recent days.
The focus of the conversation seems to be centered on whether Ovechkin needs to change his ways, but maybe it should be on him making sure he has the ability to make such a decision. Ovechkin's coach and teammates don't want him to alter his aggressive, hard-hitting style - but they do want him on the ice, and his most recent incident left him injured and suspended.
"I don't want him to change the way he plays at all," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "When I said 'reckless' [on Tuesday], I was using the term in fear of him getting hurt, not him hurting anyone else. He's got to be him. I don't want him to change. That's what makes him one of the three things - one of the best players in the world, one of the best personalities in sports and the reason you pay to watch."
Added forward Mike Knuble: "When you play close to the edge, things kind of just happen. A lot of times things happen quickly, and I guess as a teammate your concern is with him that he's putting himself in compromising positions. You don't want him to get hurt and don't want him to get suspended, but at the same time what makes him such a great player is he plays at such an intense level."
Ovechkin was in a sour mood Wednesday, the day after being suspended for two games after a knee-on-knee hit against Carolina's Tim Gleason. His answers to reporters were short, but he made it clear he's not about to alter the way he plays.
"I'm not going to change," he said. "Maybe [the suspension] just get me more angry."
Those comments came after he went through a full practice at the team's facility in Arlington. Concerns about a serious knee injury as a result of his collision with Gleason are gone, and he may be ready to play Monday in the first game he's eligible to return from suspension.
That hasn't necessarily quelled the concerns about Ovechkin's long-term ability to stay healthy. In years past, he and other members of the organization have brushed aside questions about his physical play because they could point to his durability - two games missed because of injury in four seasons.
Well, he missed six games with a shoulder injury last month, and the prognosis of "day-to-day with a sore right knee" is considerably more fortunate than what could have come from his fender bender in Raleigh, N.C.
"Anytime you get your leg out, you are making yourself vulnerable as well as the guy you are hitting," Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said. "It is a dangerous thing to do, especially for a player of that caliber. You don't like to see players like him missing time. I don't think it would be to his benefit, though, to keep putting himself in positions like that."
The general consensus is Ovechkin has no intent to injure other players and is not a dirty player. The line that separates being a fearless, intimidating presence and a dangerous or reckless one can be incredibly thin.
For most of Ovechkin's five-year NHL career, he has been on the right side of that argument. However, in the past 25 games he has played dating to last postseason, there have been four high-profile incidents involving Ovechkin:
- His knee-on-knee collision with Sergei Gonchar in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.
- His slew-footing of Atlanta's Rich Peverley on Oct. 22, which drew a $2,500 fine.
- His hit Nov. 25 on Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta, which yielded a five-minute major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct.
- 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."