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Giving a Devil his due, responding to the Ovechkin backlash

This week, a nod to the greatness (and gamesmanship) of New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur and a dip into a Santa-sized bag of mail from angry Washington Capitals fans. First, let's give the Devil his due.

Records, even the ones that Alexander Ovechkin will eventually set, truly are made to be broken. But when one stands for 45 seasons, tying it is an accomplishment that deserves hearty recognition. Brodeur reached just such a landmark earlier this week, besting the Buffalo Sabres, 3-0, on Monday to match the shutout record established -- and once thought to be unassailable -- by the late great Hall of Fame netminder Terry Sawchuk.

It wouldn't bother me if Brodeur never got another shutout. Just sharing Sawchuk's mark seems to me to be at least as satisfying as breaking it (which he will surely do). Erasing Sawchuk from his place in history is a shame in some ways. No athlete ever suffered more for his art and accomplishments. But this is pro sports we're talking about, and Brodeur not only did the job in his own inimitable style, he's likely to push the mark to a point where perhaps his total will stand as long or longer than Sawchuk's.

Consider:

At the moment that Brodeur logged No. 103, his closest competition -- Detroit's Chris Osgood -- had but 50 shutouts. It's fair to say that Osgood is nearing the end of a very fine career. Two relatively young goalies, San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, each have 49, but that's not even halfway to Sawchuk and Brodeur. And Brodeur doesn't appear headed for retirement -- or even a major falloff in his game -- anytime soon.

Brodeur has benefitted from the fact that he plays for a team that puts a premium on defensive play. He's also had the advantage of having played a significant portion of his career in the so-called "dead puck" era when goals were exceptionally hard to come by. But other goalies enjoyed similar circumstances and most don't have half the shutouts that Brodeur has accumulated. This is a record that he has earned and one that likely will stand the same test of time as Sawchuk's.

Two other items regarding Brodeur:

1) Technically, he broke Patrick Roy's all-time wins mark of 551 last season, but had the advantage of logging some 33 in the postgame skills competition known as the shootout. He's now closing in on Roy in purely regulation or overtime wins, and that mark too will fall. It won't end the argument as to who was better, but it will allow Brodeur-backers to eliminate that shootout argument once the New Jersey netminder snags 10 more wins in 60- or 65-minute games.

2) Brodeur is not nearly as famous (or infamous) as the supremely confident and confrontational Roy, but it appears he's not above playing a few mind games of his own.

Just prior to coming to Buffalo for last Monday's match, Brodeur made a point of noting that Sabres netminder Ryan Miller was playing superbly and the clear cut favorite to be between the pipes for Team USA at the upcoming Olympics. Whether that remark was intentional, it put some pressure on Miller to beat the Devils, a team that has, at times, given him trouble. It didn't happen, largely because Brodeur and the Devils played brilliantly and, seemingly with the record in mind, to make a statement while the Sabres fell woefully short in front of Miller -- so short that Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff had them riding the training bikes after the game, and stated to the media that if they weren't going to make the effort on the ice, they were going to do it on the bikes.

Ruff's nobody's fool. The Devils last season ended Buffalo's belated run for a playoff berth in a late-season game in which Miller wasn't at his best and neither were his teammates. The coach clearly wanted it understood that he wasn't blaming his goalie for that most recent poor outing against the Devils. He was also trying to reinforce the point that while Miller is clearly Buffalo's best player, he can't beat the best in the game all by himself. The sooner Miller's teammates realize that (and that they can't allow the Devils in general, and Brodeur in particular, to get inside Miller's head), the better off they will be.

Brodeur deserves some credit for that. In years past, he would often throw praise in the direction of former Sabres great Dominik Hasek, only to go out and beat him in games that truly mattered. One can't help but suspect that Brodeur is testing Miller's mental toughness in much the same way he did with Hasek. It's an offshoot of the "challenge strength" theory that is a staple in pro sports, the idea being that if you do it and you're successful, the other guy will tend to dwell on it.

I will give some credit to Miller here. He rebounded from that loss, just his sixth of the season, with a 3-0 shutout of the Capitals on Wednesday night in Buffalo. "We all knew what was at stake," he said after that game. "You can't lose three in a row and call yourself a top team. ... We got back on our feet here."

They got their heads on straight as well.

A record number of you wrote regarding my column last week about Alex Ovechkin's recent suspension and what I argued was his sometimes reckless play. Rather than address individuals, many of whom were apparently reacting to comments that were Tweeted to them, I'll address the issues en mass.

For starters, I never wrote that I was at the game in which Ovechkin leveled then-Sabre Daniel Briere with a check from behind that drove him head-first into the boards. I said it during a radio interview with a Washington D.C.-based station, confusing it with the game in Buffalo where Briere retaliated with a rather nasty -- and sneaky -- spear to Ovechkin's midsection. I realized that I misspoke once the interview was over and acknowledged it to the Capitals PR department in a phone call that same day.

It was not a lie as many of you wrote. It was a misstatement that I acknowledged as soon as humanly possible.

Regarding my statement that Ovechkin appeared to be trying to put a shoulder to Tim Gleason's head, a miss that, in part, resulted in the knee-on-knee hit that earned him a two-game suspension: Look at the tape. I did, numerous times. If you hang around hockey long enough, you get to learn a few things, and one is that knee-on-knee hits are often the direct result of a player trying to do something else, something that leaves him in a position where, in trying to compensate for the miss, a knee-on-knee situation comes into play. It's not a lie. It's an observation made after more than 30 years of watching the game, and with the support of numerous coaches at all levels who see it on a regular basis.

I did say that as a result of Ovechkin's hit in the playoffs last spring, Sergei Gonchar did not return for the rest of the series. That was wrong and it was corrected in the column after the mistake was realized. Gonchar did miss two games after that hit, but returned for Game Seven wearing a brace to protect what was later said to be a torn MCL.

Regarding the charge that I left out some questionable plays by Gleason in that game: Guilty. But I also left out that Ovechkin regularly targeted Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin for hits away from the play right up until they apparently resolved some differences just prior to the 2009 All-Star Game. Hey, you can't get everything into one column.

Regarding the charge that Ovechkin's hit on Patrick Kaleta wasn't from behind and I shouldn't have said that it was. Again, go to the tape. Kaleta turns at the last second, but he's playing the puck and that's his right. Ovechkin had a choice. He could hit Kaleta and run him face-first into the glass, which he did -- and for that, he was thrown out of the game for boarding. Or he could hold up. Ovechkin made his choice and suffered the consequences.

To those of you who argue that Kaleta wouldn't have been cut had he not been wearing a shield, I'd say that's a possibility. But I would also argue that his shield wouldn't have cut him had he not been driven face-first into the boards with such force and reckless abandon that the officials saw fit to throw Ovechkin out of the game.

Several of you mentioned that Brad May was among a handful of players who, in a Canadian television station poll, said they didn't think Ovechkin was a reckless player. That's fine, and seven others supported May's contention. But seven other players did respond that they thought Ovechkin was both reckless and dirty.

It's okay to single out May's response: "Incidental contact! Remember, it's a physical game. People forget that. I have no issue with him. He's fast and aggressive and stuff happens." But take in the whole picture.

One could also point out that "stuff happens" to May as well, and he may have to testify in an Ontario court about a bounty being put on the head of Steve Moore, who suffered a broken neck when May's then-teammate, Todd Bertuzzi, drove him into the ice. I've known Brad May from before he came into the NHL (following his junior career in person a few times when he played in nearby Niagara Falls, Ont. and during his initial years in Buffalo). He is a fine man with a long career, but there's a side to his game that, in any given poll, might find him to be somewhat reckless as well. His stick to the face of Columbus forward Steve Heinze netted him a 20-game suspension in 2000, the fourth-longest sentence in NHL history.

One can also point out that until he changed his statement after Ovechkin was officially suspended, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau opened the door to the "reckless" tag. When speaking of Ovechkin to the Washington Times, Boudreau said: "He's pretty reckless. It is hard telling a guy who scores 60 goals a year to change the way he plays. At the same time, you don't want to see him getting hurt. Maybe he needs to pick his spots a little better."

It's hard to read "Ovie's all right with me" into a statement like that, and believe me, Bruce, as ridiculously ridiculous as it sounds, I read it several times and confirmed it before I commented on it.

To those of you who said I had no right to compare Ovechkin's hits to those of Bertuzzi, Marty McSorley, Chris Simon and other players who continually ran afoul of the NHL's Director of Hockey Operations, I say this: I didn't. I realize that whole columns don't Tweet well, but my point was when Ted Leonsis told Ovechkin "to thine own self be true", the Capitals owner was following the same path others had taken in enabling reckless play -- of varying styles and degrees -- that Bertuzzi, McSorley, Simon and others have employed over the years.

My argument on that point was with Mr. Leonsis. While we will no doubt continue to agree to disagree on some issues, my hope is that he, as one of the more enlightened owners in the NHL, will perhaps come to see the value of promoting a certain amount of respect among players, because if he or someone like him doesn't, the kind of carnage we are seeing on an almost nightly basis simply won't stop.

And imagine the number of letters I might receive if someone were to bulldog Ovechkin to the ice or crack him with a stick upside the head or nail him with a two-fisted smash to the face. Ovechkin is not Philadelphia's Danny Carcillo, not even close, but anyone who saw Carcillo's cowardly attack on Washington's Matt Bradley over the weekend could easily envision Carcillo doing the same to Ovechkin. Not because Ovechkin deserves it, but because he might well have been the closest player to Carcillo when Carcillo snapped.

There's a long history of players like that in the NHL. They are there because the owners allow them to be there, and until one or more owners stand up and say "enough," these players will carry on in ever-escalating fashion.

Letting players, even great ones like Ovechkin, cross over to the "reckless" side of the game simply enables the truly hopeless thugs like Carcillo to be even bolder while putting the greats at risk.

Hopefully, Alex Ovechkin, Ted Leonsis, the Capitals organization and their many fans will come to realize that's a reasonable opinion.

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