No Suspension for Ovechkin
In the wake of last night’s emotionally charged game between the Caps and the Sabres, there were a variety of differing opinions flying about as to whether Washington’s Alex Ovechkin would be suspended for his second period boarding infraction on Buffalo’s Daniel Briere. A few of the denizens of the press room were certain that Ovechkin would draw a suspension, but when I moved to make a wager on it, no one wanted any of it.
I maintain that no suspension was warranted, and can provide a litany of reasons for this opinion. I would also note that of the ex-NHLers and veteran broadcasters I polled who saw the play unfold, none believed any suspension should or would be handed down.
First off, I believe (and a few others I talked with concur) that prior to his ejection, Ovechkin was in the midst of what might have been his best all-around game in the NHL. He was simply marvelous at both ends of the ice, a noticeable factor in every shift he took, and he seemed to have jet fuel in his skates. For those of you who TIVOed the tilt, go ahead and re-watch the first period and a quarter. Watch how quickly he closed on the backcheck and applied back pressure. He blocked a shot, drew a penalty, drew another infraction that would have been called had he not scored a goal immediately thereafter.
How often do you see a guy whose night ended with more than half of the game yet to be played end up as the game’s No. 2 star? I think that Ovechkin’s jump and the extra step he seemed to have might have been a bit of a factor in the play. If you watch the play develop, Briere is skating the puck out of his own end of the ice, along the boards closest to the players’ benches. Meanwhile, you can see Ovechkin skating toward Briere from deep in the Buffalo zone. This is completely in character with the way that Ovechkin — and indeed, the entire Caps team — played Buffalo all night. They skated with them stride for stride, and it’s why they won the game. Every time the Caps turned the puck over in the offensive zone, Ovechkin skated back like he had been launched from a cannon. On one such occasion in the first period, he picked Max Afinogenov’s pocket high in the Washington end and quickly turned around and jetted in the opposite direction. He twisted Sabres defenseman Nathan Paetsch around and scored the goal that sent Ryan Miller to the bench for the rest of the night.
Back to the play in question. You can clearly see Ovechkin’s legs churning hard as he attempts to close the gap between himself and Briere. Before the Buffalo pivot even crosses his own blueline, Ovechkin has pulled virtually parallel with him. By the time the two skaters get to the neutral zone, the only gap between them is a lateral one. By the time Ovechkin gets to the red line, he stops moving his feet altogether and is merely coasting. Just after he crosses the red line, Briere slides to puck along wall into the Washington end. At this point, the two players are nearly shoulder to shoulder. Ovechkin moves to bump Briere. His elbows aren’t high, his legs aren’t moving. Just as he does, Briere turns to go to the bench. Ovechkin applies the hit, and rather than a shoulder to shoulder bump that might have been (at worst) an interference minor, Briere goes into the wall and loses his helmet upon impact.
Did Ovechkin hit Briere late? Yes. Was it done maliciously or with a “dirty” intent? Sure didn’t look like it. Could he have stopped, turned or pulled up? Probably. As I mentioned, he was already coasting. Does Ovechkin usually finish his checks? Yes. Is Ovechkin bigger than Briere? Yes. The Caps’ 2006-07 press guide lists Ovechkin at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. The Sabres’ book has Briere at 5-foot-9, 177 pounds. Did Ovechkin hit him as hard as he could have hit him? I’ll bet if you asked Radoslav Suchy, Colin White, Vitaly Vishnevski or countless other, bigger players who have been on the receiving end of previous Ovechkin bodychecks, they would tell you he did not.
Does the rule book state that the puck carrying player bears part of the responsibility to avoid placing himself in a dangerous and vulnerable position? It does (Rule 42, page 92). And as previously stated, Briere’s turning motion made all the difference in the severity of the hit. Does Briere believe he bears part of the blame for the hit? He does.
“There’s physical, and there’s hitting from behind. That’s a pretty gutless play,” said Briere, in Sunday’s edition of The Buffalo News. “But at the same time, I’ve got to take part of the blame, too. You’ve got to protect yourself a little bit better than I did.”
Does Ovechkin have a history of malicious hits? No. The 20 PIM he picked up in Saturday’s game represents nearly a quarter of his career total of 82 in 107 games. The two major penalties he picked up on Saturday night were the first two of his NHL career, and one of them (the fighting major) was a complete joke. The boarding penalty he got against Buffalo was the second of his career. The first was a two-minute minor in Boston exactly two weeks earlier. Saturday’s game marked the first time this season that Ovechkin had picked up more than two minutes worth of penalties in a single game. In his rookie season of 2005-06, Ovechkin pulled more than two minutes worth of penalties four times in 81 games played.
Last season, Ovechkin ranked seventh in the league among forwards with 172 hits. That’s 172 hits without a single boarding violation. This season, he is tied for ninth among NHL forwards with 62 hits. That’s 234 career hits, two boarding penalties. Does that constitute a history of malicious hits? Definitely not.
How badly was Briere hurt? He laid on the ice for a bit, got up, skated to the bench. Sat there for a minute until the Buffalo trainer insisted he go down the runway for a spell. Returned even before the penalties were announced and play had resumed on the ice. Played 21:08 on the night, nearly 10% above his season average of 19:34. It was the 11th time in 26 games that he exceeded the 20-minute mark. Even spent eight full minutes (four of them after the hit from Ovechkin) cooling his heels in the penalty box during the course of the evening, preventing his ice time total from climbing even higher.
Given that preponderance of evidence and circumstance, I didn’t think there was any way he’d draw a suspension and I was glad to find out today that the league agreed.
Are there plenty of irate and irrational Sabres sympathizers out there who still feel differently? Yes. Will I be receiving irate and irrational e-mails and/or blog comments from them in the near future? Probably.
Will they use spellcheck? Remains to be seen.