Alex Ovechkin leads the league in scoring by three points (96) despite playing eight fewer games than second-place Henrik Sedin. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
He knew it as soon as he did it. As Alex Ovechkin rolled up on to his feet while Chicago’s Brian Campbell lay prone on the ice, the Washington Capitals superstar knew his shove to the opposing defenseman into the end boards wasn’t cool. Ovie even visibly indicated it to Campbell.
‘Dirty’ is too strong a word for what happened Sunday afternoon in Chicago; ‘dangerous’ works much better.
Of course, the combined elements of power, chaos and unpredictability are what drew so many fans to Ovechkin in the first place and I don’t see that changing even with the up-and-down season he’s had so far.
On the upshot, his 96 points lead the NHL and he easily has a shot at cracking the 50-goal barrier once again, with 44 tallies already and 13 games to play. His Caps clinched the Southeast Division with a month to play in the regular season and did so with Ovie wearing the captain’s ‘C’ for the first time.
On the downside, he leads the NHL in game misconducts with three, was the face of Russia’s Olympic disappointment in Vancouver and has been suspended for two games on two seperate occasions this season.
But I believe the Cult of Ovie is alive and well.
If anything, Ovechkin’s dizzying highs and worrisome lows only serve to maintain the anti-hero persona that has arisen around him. Whereas the battle for the hearts and minds of hockey fans between Ovie and Sidney Crosby originally came down to who would be the better player, there’s a very intriguing theatrical element to the storyline that has organically evolved.
This isn’t meant as an indictment, but it’s all very pro wrestling. Think about it: Last season, Ovie was becoming a bit of a heel, taking runs at Evgeni Malkin and raising the question of whether the two could even play on the same Olympic team together. Then, with some fine behind-the-scenes politicking by Ilya Kovalchuk, Ovie and Geno came together, shocking everyone at the All-Star Game in Montreal when Malkin helped Ovechkin don sunglasses and quaff water right before his two-stick shootout move at the skills competition.
As someone who was there in person, it was a moment of pure shock and elation – two seemingly bitter rivals teaming up for a common good. OK, it was just some teenager in net, but you get the idea. Once again, Ovechkin was the hero.
I can understand why Chicago fans wanted Ovie suspended, but I think the refs at the game handed out the perfect justice (though as a side note, I think I heard a couple NBC execs shriek when the marquee player in their Game of the Week was booted midway through the first period).
We know when Ovechkin does wrong and we know he’s fallible. But for every knee he throws at Sergei Gonchar, there’s a stupendous goal where he goes through every member of the New York Rangers in the playoffs. For every shoving of an Olympic fan with a camera, there’s a dazzling hit on Jaromir Jagr.
Ask young hockey players who they want to be when they get older and many of them still say Ovechkin, because he has fun with the game and plays with physicality and sublime skill.
Fans want to see Ovechkin succeed because of the unbridled joy he brought in to the league in 2005-06. He brought basketball-style jump-bump celebrations to the Verizon Center and doesn’t mind telling reporters how fast he likes to drive his expensive cars. He’s not perfect, but he is fun – and he certainly hasn’t hurt the NHL’s profile.
Hopefully the game misconducts will stop soon and Ovie will learn from his mistakes. It goes without saying the public is largely still rooting for him.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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