PITTSBURGH — “I am not a dirty player!”
That was the strong message once again delivered by Alex Ovechkin here Tuesday as he walked through the bowels of the antiquated Mellon Arena toward the Washington Capitals team bus after attending a morning team meeting.
Ovechkin’s statement isn’t new. Since the controversial incident in which he shoved Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brian Campbell into the unforgiving United Center Boards last month, Ovechkin constantly has been forced to deflect accusations that he often crosses the line of fair play.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau has been Ovechkin’s strongest defender, telling anyone who will listen that any suggestions insinuating The Great Eight is a cheap shot artist are way off base.
But even Boudreau has noticed a change in Ovechkin’s play since the Campbell incident, which earned the Caps superstar a two-game suspension.
During the March 14 Hawks-Caps game, an off-balance Campbell had just got rid of the puck when Ovechkin gave him a strong push, causing the Chicago defenceman to slam into the end wall.
Campbell fractured his clavicle, a rib and suffered a concussion on the play, causing critics to claim Ovechkin at times goes overboard with his aggressive style.
Neither Boudreau, GM David Poile nor Ovechkin himself agreed with NHL VP Colin Campbell’s decision to hand out supplemental discipline. Nor did they feel that there is anything wrong with the take-no-prisoners attitude Ovechkin displays out on the ice.
At the same time, it was clearly evident to Boudreau that this post-suspension version of Ovechkin was more passive and less effective, an alarming sign for the Caps with the post-season just around the corner.
The numbers backed up Boudreau’s suspicions.
In the seven games since Ovechkin returned from his two-game banishment to the press box, the defending Hart Trophy winner had mustered just six points. Very un-Ovechkin-like, to be sure.
As a result, Boudreau decided to take matters into his own hands.
During the Caps morning skate Monday, with his team preparing to face the Boston Bruins that night at the Verizon Center, Boudreau pulled Ovechkin aside and had a heart-to-heart chat with his franchise player.
The message: We want the old Ovie back.
“I just had a discussion with Ovie about the way he needed to play,” Boudreau said Tuesday.
“He needs to play the way he has the past four years. Competitively. With passion. Aggressively.
“He’s not a dirty hockey player. I said that before and I will keep saying that. But there is no doubt he’s been a bit passive.
“Sometimes you get caught waiting for someone to get you the puck, especially when you are a goal scorer. That’s not Alex’s game.”
Maybe constantly hearing all those outside accusations that he was a dirty player started to subconsciously get to him. It’s a concept he does not necessarily reject.
“I think yeah, mentally, it might have (effected me) a little bit,” Ovechkin said.
“At the same time, like I said, I do not think I am a dirty player. I play my style. And when I don’t play my way, well, it’s a most difficult thing for me.”
Boudreau’s pep talk seemed to have sunk in.
Just eight hours after their discussion Monday morning, Ovechkin collected a pair of assists against the Bruins in a 3-2 overtime victory by the Caps.
The energy with which he played reminded many in the sold-out arena of the Ovechkin who has pretty much dominated the league the past few seasons.
On Tuesday, Ovechkin and the Caps met their arch-rivals, Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, at the Mellon Arena.
And, if the first period is any indication, Ovechkin was back to his ornery self, causing havoc all over the ice and taking a slashing penalty, the only minor called in the game’s first 20 minutes.
Boo him if you like. There are plenty around the league who do.
Just don’t call him “dirty.” He and his coach don’t like that.