Bull's-eye focused on Ovechkin

 

He would not say that he gets scared. It is not the correct term. Intimidated? Well, that is closer, perhaps, though still not quite right.

 
 
 
 
 

He would not say that he gets scared. It is not the correct term. Intimidated? Well, that is closer, perhaps, though still not quite right.

Garnet Exelby has thrown enough body checks and dropped his gloves enough times that no one player is capable of striking terror in his heart. But a fleeting sense of trepidation, yes, Exelby can relate to that feeling. Especially when the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman finds himself all alone, in front of an arena full of people, with Alexander Ovechkin heading his way in full flight.

"Arguably the best player in the world coming down on you, one-on-one, is not the ideal situation," Exelby says. "But it happens. It is part of the game, and that's why I love playing this game -- and this league -- because you get to play against the best. It is the competition."

Few players take up the battle with a more obvious sense of glee than Ovechkin. Every goal the Washington Capitals superstar scores inspires an ecstatic celebration and elicits that famous smile: Big. Wide. Mischievous. Goofy.

Ovechkin is a character to behold, and a sniper to be feared, since part of the havoc he specializes in involves flying around the ice and picking off opponents with thunderous hits -- occasionally of dubious legality.

"He plays hard and reckless," Leafs coach Ron Wilson says. "He has done a few things. He slew-foots people. He has stuck his knee out on a bunch of people. So there is a body of evidence to indicate that he does play a little bit reckless and on the edge. But that's what makes him a great hockey player. He is fearless."

And controversial , and arguably the dirtiest marquee player the NHL has seen since Gordie Howe -- and his sharp elbows --left the scene. Indeed, not even the wattage generated by the Ovechkin grin can blind his admirers from the 2008 and 2009 NHL MVP's lengthening rap sheet.

The most recent addition to the case file was the knee-on-knee hit on Carolina's Tim Gleason. The Russian stuck out his leg to get his man, wound up injuring himself, and was suspended for two games. The hit came a few days after Ovechkin was ejected from another contest for attempting to drive Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta through the boards.

In the 2009 playoffs, a flying Ovechkin knee cut down Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar would miss two games, and limp through the remainder of the post-season with a torn MCL. Several months before the ligament-wrecker on Gonchar, Ovechkin levelled Tampa Bay Lightning defender Jamie Heward from behind. Heward left the ice strapped to a stretcher.

With all his sins, Ovechkin is a repentant soul. He often apologizes for his crimes. But what he will not do is change the way he plays or listen to the critics, or for that matter, to the whispers among his fellow players suggesting he should rein it in or risk being targeted for some Old Testament, knee-for-a-knee style hockey retribution.

"Why do I have to listen to somebody who say, 'Hey, you have to change your game, and somebody going to kill you,"' Ovechkin told reporters after the Gleason hit. "Well, nobody going to kill me. I just play my game and I just enjoy my time and I enjoy my life. It's me, and it is what it is.

"I play risky ...I won't try and hit and make some people get hurt, but people sometimes turn right away and I don't have time to realize and stop. What can you do? You can do nothing."

Wilson's Leafs host Ovechkin and the Capitals at the Air Canada Centre tonight. The coach admires the Russian and believes he is "easily the most dominant player" in the game. He also feels Ovechkin is the same as every other superstar in the league. They all have targets on their back.

But Ovechkin's bull's-eye, like his smile, is bigger than most. He is not the same as the other stars. He is utterly unique, a Russian wrecking ball who looks for hits, and goals. A loaded gun with two barrels waiting to blast away, or blast his shoulder into an opponent's chest.

Exelby, for one, is not afraid of Ovechkin. Afraid is not the right word. He has been run over by him before, and has always gotten up. Not everybody does, though, and that is a reputation that could lead to a day of reckoning for Ovechkin.

"If most of us could catch him, he would be a target," Exelby cracks. "But in reality, he is getting away with it, and you're right -- you live by the sword -- you die by the sword. Eventually guys are going to have enough of that type of player."

joconnor@nationalpost.com

 
 
 
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