- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Regardless how badly Alex Ovechkin is hurt -- and his knee-on-knee collision with Carolina's Tim Gleason on Monday night looked plenty grisly -- one wonders whether this moment doesn't suggest a player at a crossroads.
Part of Ovechkin's charm, his raison d'être, if you will, has been his willingness to go through people as opposed to around them.
We recall being in Washington on a night when he scored four goals against Montreal and suffered a broken nose. It was a masterful performance made all the more impressive by the fact Ovechkin seemed as proud of the broken nose as of the four markers.
He is the rarest of blends, a marriage of world-class talent and world-class chutzpah that has made him the game's most dynamic player, a two-time MVP and goal-scoring machine.
But has Ovechkin finally gone too far? And, if he has, how does he come back?
On Monday night, Ovechkin came at Gleason like a freight train. Gleason moved, and Ovechkin turned ever so slightly with his knee jutting out slightly, sending both players sprawling on impact.
Although it was Ovechkin who took the brunt of the blow (he remained curled on the ice for several minutes before being helped to the dressing room and appeared unable to put any pressure on his right leg), on-ice officials assessed the Caps' star a major and game misconduct for kneeing.
No update was expected on Ovechkin's status until sometime Tuesday. At the same time, expect the NHL to come down with some severity on Ovechkin, who continues to build a troubling case file of reckless or dangerous play.
Just last week, Ovechkin was given a boarding major and game misconduct when he took Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta into the boards with a blind-side hit. There was no suspension or fine. In the second round of the playoffs this spring, Ovechkin took out fellow Russian and Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar with a similar knee-on-knee hit that also resulted from an aggressive forecheck. Gonchar was lost for several games, and Ovechkin seemed genuinely remorseful, although he was not sanctioned by the league with a fine or suspension.
There have been other brushes with the NHL's law, as he was fined $2,500 for slew-footing Atlanta's Rich Peverley earlier this season. This past January, there were calls for a suspension after Ovechkin rammed former teammate Jamie Heward of Tampa headfirst into the boards (Heward was taken off the ice on a stretcher and suffered a concussion).
Earlier this month, we saw the NHL's head disciplinarian, Colin Campbell, hand Georges Laraque a five-game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit that sent Detroit's fine blueliner Niklas Kronwall to the sideline for as long as two months. Now, in a harsh bit of irony, it is Ovechkin who looks as if he might be sidelined for the foreseeable future as a result of his own recklessness. Regardless, there will be intense pressure on Campbell to levy some sort of supplementary discipline on one of the game's biggest stars.
Ovechkin's injury status should have no bearing on how Campbell handles this situation. The body of evidence suggests that Ovechkin plays not only on the edge but over it. It is time to pay the piper, even if he ends up serving his time with an ice bag on his right knee.
Beyond that, though, what toll will Ovechkin's style of play take in the long term?
In January 2008, Ovechkin signed a 13-year contract extension. He is the catalyst in what has been a remarkable resurgence for the Capitals' franchise. He is one of the game's most recognizable faces, one of the few European stars who has the kind of personality that might make him a cross-sport star in North America. Yet, how can he expect to fulfill anywhere near the full extent of that contract if his style of play causes him to break down ahead of his time?
Although he has been remarkably durable in his young NHL career, missing just four games in his first four seasons, he already has missed six games this season with an upper-body strain. Now, he faces another potential stint on the shelf before the season is half over.
We have seen what happens to talented, physical players when they start to break down or try to change their styles in an effort to squeeze more life out of their bodies.
Eric Lindros was a shadow of his former self in the final years of his NHL career, a perimeter player with little impact, moments that might end up costing him a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Then there's Todd Bertuzzi, who hasn't been the same type of player since the Steve Moore incident.
Is it possible for Ovechkin to remain true to his nature yet alter his style to avoid these kinds of incidents? Or is this simply the way it is for the great Russian star, a kind of live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword mantra to which Ovechkin will adhere no matter the cost?
Soon, we will begin to see answers to these questions.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.