A tough question

MONTREAL | In the past three weeks, a pair of captains from rival teams have taken issue with the physical side of Alex Ovechkin’s game.

For Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, his remarks were in reference to the apparent feud between Ovechkin and Crosby’s teammate, Evgeni Malkin, as the teams prepared to meet Jan. 14. Before that, Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers made comments Jan. 6 after a 2-1 shootout loss to the Caps - a game in which Ovechkin narrowly missed an open-ice hit on Richards’ teammate Jeff Carter.

The NHL has reached its midseason break, and most of the league’s best players are here for Sunday night’s All-Star Game. So what do some of them think about Ovechkin’s hard-hitting style: Is last season’s MVP clean with his physical presence or does he sometimes cross the line?

“I think he plays on the edge, but I think that is how he has to play to be who he is,” said Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell, who faced Ovechkin regularly as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. “When you play on the edge and play that many minutes, sometimes you might do some stuff that other guys don’t like or the league doesn’t like or whatever. But if he were my teammate, I wouldn’t want him to change.”

Added Carolina center Eric Staal: “He’s one of those guys who plays hard, but I don’t think you would consider him a dirty player or anything like that. … He likes to play with a physical edge, and any player like that can sometimes get over the edge a little bit, but that’s part of it. Obviously we’d love to have him on our team because he can really change the momentum with his offense or his physical play.”

Ovechkin has become one of the league’s most popular players because of his scoring ability, willingness to display his passion and eagerness for contact. Few players with elite-level talent are also willing to hit, and no player in the league can match Ovechkin’s combination of both.

He has 148 hits this season, which is seventh in the NHL, after finishing ninth last year.

One of Ovechkin’s recent hits gave a concussion to former teammate Jamie Heward, who had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher. There was no question about Ovechkin’s remorse after the play, and the league did not take action against him. The 23-year-old Russian has not been suspended by the NHL for a hit, but he was fined for one against then-Sabres forward Danny Briere during his sophomore season.

“I saw it on a replay [of the hit on Heward] and I didn’t think it was that bad, but obviously the end result was,” said San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle, who used to face the Caps regularly as a member of the Lightning. “Obviously the guy plays with a lot of intensity and he’s bigger and faster than a lot of the guys on the ice, so maybe sometimes that is a recipe for disaster for the other guy.”

Ovechkin has collected 28 minor penalties this season - seven more than any of his teammates and a personal high for a single season. That total is tied for fifth in the league, behind only Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell among forwards.

“The hit he gave me [Nov. 20], the puck wasn’t anywhere near me, but it is hard to say,” said Los Angeles’ Dustin Brown, who has the most hits in the NHL since the beginning of last season. “He got a penalty and I ended up scoring, so I was fine with it. I play the same way, and if you play physical sometimes there are going to be hits that are maybe not the cleanest hits. That’s just the nature of the game - sometimes you might get there a second late. I think he plays the game hard, and if it gets under people’s skin, then that’s probably better for him.”

Ovechkin’s strained relationship with Malkin has reached the level of a soap opera and is a story line every time the teams play. Before the most recent matchup, Crosby told the Associated Press: “They’re intense, physical games and as long as that’s the way they stay, that’s safe. But if there’s deliberate intent to hurt someone, you kind of step outside the line a bit, you have to make sure you stick up for your teammate.”

It was a direct reference to Ovechkin’s zeal for putting Malkin into the boards in previous contests. Ovechkin’s feud with Richards, meanwhile, goes back to an incident in the world junior championships. After Ovechkin nearly crunched Carter in the neutral zone this month, his Flyers teammates were not pleased. After the game, Carter told reporters, “We knew he was going to be running around a bit.”

Carter used the same phrase Saturday when asked about Ovechkin - though he also said he didn’t have a problem with it.

“Maybe they want to do the same but can’t?” Ovechkin said. “Everybody have their own mind. I can’t say nothing about what they say. If they say something, it is their choice of what they think.”

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