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Matt Bradley did Alex Ovechkin no favor, plus more notes

Matt Bradley is being hailed around the capital as a hero for cutting in on an impending knuckle-duster between Steve Downie and national treasure Alexander Ovechkin.

He shouldn't be.

If anything, the fourth-line banger's impetuous intervention embarrassed the team's newly-minted captain and set him up for a potentially more dangerous confrontation down the road.

The incident occurred late in Tampa Bay's 7-4 blowout of the Caps, in the aftermath of an earlier altercation that saw Ovechkin appear to stick out his leg to impede the streaking Downie. It was yet another hit on a resume that could be interpreted as crossing the line between cheap and dirty. A minor confrontation followed and both players were penalized. When they exited the box, hostilities resumed. It was at that point that Bradley decided Ovechkin couldn't, or shouldn't, defend himself and took it upon himself to attack the player who'd originally been wronged.

Yeah, that makes sense.

We all know why Bradley felt the need to take action. Do the Caps want to see their franchise sidelined by a broken hand, separated shoulder or any other injury that has a remote chance of occurring any time two players square off?

Of course not. But that's hardly the point, is it?

This, like so much else in this game, is about accountability.

I'm not divulging any secret recipes by suggesting that Ovechkin's game has a little spice to it. Take your pick of adjectives: Physical. Edgy. Reckless. Dangerous. Doesn't matter on which side of the scale you come down, you have to recognize that aggressive play, by nature, eventually demands a reaction. That, after all, is part of what makes this game so entertaining.

Ovechkin's willingness to initiate contact is a sizable part of what makes him great. But that's not a one-way street, especially considering the way he sometimes makes his presence felt. If you don't think there are a lot of players out there who've tucked away his number for just the right moment, well you haven't been paying close attention to the carnage left in his wake.

This isn't a knock on Ovechkin. He's not taking his shots and then ducking for cover behind some skating slab of beef. It's duly noted that when he and Downie exited the box, Ovechkin was ready to answer the bell. In fact, he dropped the gloves and dumped his bucket before the more battle-tested Bolt did. Good for him.

But when Bradley came flying in to take the bullet Roberta Muldoon-style, he wasn't doing his captain a service. Instead, he simply delayed the inevitable by breaking up a very winnable bout (no disrespect to the scrappy Downie, but he gave up two inches and maybe 40 pounds to Ovechkin and should have been easy pickin's).

Fact is, Ovechkin's long overdue -- about three years now -- to back up his predilection for questionable hits. Sooner or later, he has to man up.

The Caps may not want Ovechkin fighting all his own battles. But if he intends to keep playing the way he does, then he needs to fight at least one.

Could the DirecTV/Versus debacle be resolved in time for the NHL playoffs? SI's mixed martial arts maven Josh Gross suggested as much this week, reporting that a source told him an accord was expected by March. I'm hopeful he's right, but not optimistic. As one Versus source told me earlier this month, "I know [talks are ongoing], but it's pretty quiet. I don't think anyone at DirecTV is losing any sleep over this." . . .

Recently-acquired winger Zack Kassian made a good first impression in his debut with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. The second impression, however, calls into question when he'll get another chance to suit up for his hometown team.

Kassian, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2008, opened the scoring in Windsor's 4-2 loss to Barrie on Thursday, showing some of the polish that often goes overlooked when fans focus on his bruising, physical presence. But six minutes into the second period, he unloaded a vicious hit on Matt Kennedy that left the Colts player crumpled at center ice. Kassian didn't appear to leave his feet until the moment of contact, but Kennedy's defenselessness made this hit much more reckless, albeit less damaging, than the one that earned Erie's Mike Liambias a season-ending suspension earlier this season.

OHL commissioner Dave Branch has spoken repeatedly about the lower standard of tolerance practiced by his league. Given the nature of the hit, and Kassian's status as a repeat offender, Branch wasn't likely to feel an urge for leniency. No surprise that Kassian will sit indefinitely. . . .

It's a little early for Chris Drury to think about removing the albatross from around his neck, but New York's high-dollar, low-production center is playing a significantly better brand of hockey since being embarrassed by a demotion to the fourth line a couple weeks back. The captain has been particularly effective in the faceoff circle, where he went 19 of 24 in Thursday's 2-0 loss to Ottawa. Drury has gone 77 for 122 in the dots over his last six games, a stat that suggests Brian Burke wasn't completely out of his mind when selecting the pivot for Team USA. . . .

The only thing that's prevented the Stars from sending deer-in-the-headlights defender Matt Niskanen to the minors is the fear of losing him on waivers. The former first-rounder, so promising as a rookie when paired with Sergei Zubov back in 2007-08, continues to regress at an alarming pace. The latest example of his decline came midway through the second period of Thursday night's 5-3 loss in Montreal when Niskanen took the puck at the half boards. Instead of simply banging it off the wall and out, he inexplicably backhanded the puck into the slot, where it was picked off by Benoit Pouliot and buried behind Marty Turco.

It was just another in a lengthy series of mistakes that has observers wondering if it's more a matter of hockey sense than a loss of confidence plaguing Niskanen's game.

It's no secret that the floundering Stars (0-7-2 in their last nine road games) need some sort of shake-up if they're going to salvage this season, and Niskanen clearly would benefit from a change of scenery. So now it's up to Joe Nieuwendyk. Does Dallas' freshman GM have the stones to build his first trade around a player who could yet find his footing and regain his rookie form for another team? It would be a bold move, but this team will continue to sink into irrelevance as long as it relies on half measures. . . .

Canadians haven't yet figured out how to make a decent drama, but they've long since unlocked the secret to creating great hockey commercials. Alright, so Jarome Iginla's Scotiabank spot needs to be shelved, but the new Nike "Force Fate" series offers one moment of genius after another. If there's ever been a better line than "I dumped my last boyfriend for being a sieve," I need to hear it.

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