SUN Hockey Pool

Flames blueliners prepare

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

Everybody admires Alexander Ovechkin's highlight-reel skill and zest for the game.

Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf admires the Washington Capitals star for his competitive nature.

"What makes him so good is that he competes," Phaneuf said. "And he's a guy who's gonna hit you and hit you hard. I've enjoyed playing against him just because of the challenge he brings as a player, not only skill-wise but because he likes to battle."

Phaneuf hasn't often squared off against Ovechkin over the years, but he has enough times -- and in big situations -- to know enough about the face of the franchise that will face the Flames tonight at the Saddledome.

They've met twice at the NHL level but also at the World Juniors and the under-18 tournament.

And the battles have been memorable. Last season, Ovechkin scored twice to lead his team to a crucial 3-2 win over the Flames that led to the Capitals' Southeast Division title.

And Phaneuf clobbered Ovechkin with a check in the final of the 2005 World Junior tournament.

"He's got me, and I've got him," Phaneuf said. "I've played against him since I was 17, and every game, there is definitely a physical run-in."

A big key to tonight's clash will be to prevent Ovechkin from using his all-world talent to run the show.

Cory Sarich spent a couple of seasons in Tampa Bay and faced Ovechkin and the Capitals 16 times, so he has a big book on the reigning MVP.

"He's got all the tools -- that's the thing that makes him so effective out there," Sarich said. "He's not afraid to go right through you, and he's not afraid to go around you, so as a defenceman, it makes it tough.

"You don't know what you're going to get. There are certain guys you can pinpoint what they'll do. But with him, that changes from shift to shift, and it makes him really tough."

Funny, but what comes to Sarich's mind more than Ovechkin's skill is his physical play.

"We've had our share of run-ins. I've popped him -- he's popped me. There's been a lot of exchanges, especially with him playing the left side," Sarich said. "When he decides to go through you, he's going through you. Then you brace for a hit, and all of a sudden he takes the puck and makes a move. Or you think you'll poke-check him, but as you're reaching, he goes through you."

So what's the secret?

"You still have to be physical with him," Sarich said. "It takes a team effort and a lot of awareness on the ice. It's best to neutralize his speed at his blueline, not yours."

Once again, everything around the Flames comes back to team defence, which has been the rallying cry the past couple of days for a Flames team that has blown leads all too often this young season.

"That's something we can correct," captain Jarome Iginla said. "As bad as the record is, our confidence is still there. We know we're a good team, and we can start with one game."


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