RALEIGH — Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals arguably is the best player in the NHL.
But is he a dirty player? Or just a recklessly aggressive player?
Ovechkin has been thrown out of three games this season, the latest Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks. The hard-charging forward was ejected after boarding defenseman Brian Campbell, who went shoulder-first into the end boards.
Campbell was said to have a broken collarbone and will miss the rest of the season, a big blow for a team deemed a Stanley Cup contender. Ovechkin, after a disciplinary hearing with the league Monday, was suspended for two games and will not play in Thursday's matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes at the RBC Center.
Canes defenseman Brian Pothier was Ovechkin's teammate until March 3, when he was traded to Carolina. He played for the Caps when Ovechkin was ejected after a knee-on-knee hit on Canes defenseman Tim Gleason in the Nov. 30 game at the RBC Center, later drawing a two-game suspension.
"He's not even close to being a dirty player," Pothier said Monday. "He's a physical player and finishes every check he can but is far from being a dirty player.
"Ovie is most effective when he's right on the edge of chaos, when he pushes the envelope. When he's hitting and aggressive and getting on the forecheck and skating, that's when he's great. He can overpower people.
"Sometimes, he's going so hard at the guys, it's hard to stop and pull up. Like I said, it's flirting with the edge. He's full-speed ahead. It's not a dirty hit, but it is borderline reckless."
Pothier said he had seen replays of Ovechkin's hit on Campbell. His take:
"Again, right on the edge. [Ovechkin] pushes him from the side. I think Campbell has to know he's going to be hit and knows he's coming.
"I personally think [Campbell] got his foot caught in a rut and fell awkwardly. I didn't think it was a dirty play or anything. It's unfortunate he got hurt, but I don't think it was all Ovechkin's fault."
But what about the Gleason kneeing incident? The Canes were left steaming about a play that could have knocked Gleason out of the lineup.
And Ovechkin's ejection for the Gleason hit came five days after he was tossed for boarding Patrick Kaleta of the Buffalo Sabres.
"Again, [Ovechkin] is coming hard at a guy and trying to finish his check, and he's doing everything he can to make contact," Pothier said. "Gleason did a good job of kind of sidestepping him, and then Ovie 'railroad tracks' and kind of puts his leg into his leg.
"I don't think it was like he's coming down to intentionally knee someone or injure somebody. But again, in those situations, he has to learn how to pull up and not throw a knee out."
Regardless of opinions on Oveckin's hit, there's the larger question of what exactly is "over the line" in the NHL and an inconsistency in how the league handles such plays.
"They don't have anything that seems to be clear-cut, in my opinion," Canes forward Erik Cole said Monday. "There's nothing clear-cut in terms of defining different situations. Every one is up for a new interpretation.
"Maybe that's why the suspensions are so sporadic and don't always coincide with another hit you may think is similar. I don't know exactly what their formula is at the NHL offices, and I'm not sure anyone knows what the formula is. So it's tough to try and understand what they want from us when they don't have anything that's drawn out for you."
Cole suffered a broken neck during the 2005-06 season when he was hit from behind by Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Cole did not return until Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals; Orpik was suspended for three games.
"There's not a whole lot of consistency," Cole said.
The Hurricanes face the Boston Bruins tonight at the RBC Center, then host the Caps on Thursday. Center Brandon Sutter, who missed Saturday's game against Phoenix with a leg injury, practiced Monday, and coach Paul Maurice said he may return tonight.
While all the attention is on the Bruins, Maurice had to wonder Monday - before the NHL reached a decision on Ovechkin - if the Canes would be dealing with the league's top scorer three days later.
"This isn't something the league just pulls out of the hat," Maurice said. "I think the league is trying to be careful with it. I don't think these things are as cut and dried as people think they are.
"When you look at that hit, it happens so much faster in real time. ... This is a fast, physical, full-contact sport, and players are going to be hurt.
"If the league feels at any time a player is intentional in what they do, I think we all feel the same way: We'd like to see the player get suspended for a long period of time. But I don't think all the criteria is satisfied for knowing that every time. I don't think it's as easy as people think."
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