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Malkin-Ovechkin feud festering

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Friday, Nov. 7, 2008
 

New event to spice up the tired old NHL All-Star Skills competition: Russian Roulette, featuring Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin.

It wouldn't be complicated. Malkin would stand by the end boards. Ovechkin would race at him 100 mph and try to put him through the glass.

You know, just like in the real games.

This has to be the most bizarre ongoing feud in sports. Every time the Penguins play the Washington Capitals, Ovechkin loses his mind. He locks in on Malkin about a half-dozen times and pretty much tries to break him in-half. It happened again in the teams' first meeting this season, Oct. 16 at Mellon Arena.

It's compelling stuff, for sure. It's also flat-out weird.

These two make Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant look like best friends.

None of the veteran hockey observers I've spoken with can remember seeing one superstar forward stalk another in such reckless fashion, with such obvious venom.

Weirder still: Nobody seems to know why it's happening.

One theory has it that something went awry in August of 2007 at a Moscow nightclub, where Ovechkin allegedly punched out Malkin's Russian agent, Gennady Ushakov.

Ovechkin has denied the story.

Two days ago, I asked Malkin -- who is no longer using a translator in interviews -- if Ovechkin punched Ushakov.

"Yes," he said. "Bad situation."

Might whatever have occurred that night be the reason for Ovechkin's obvious hostility?

"Maybe," Malkin said. "I don't know."

Malkin and Ovechkin were roommates with the Russian Olympic team in Turin, Italy, in 2006.

How'd that go?

"Good time, good friends, good talk," Malkin said. "Now, it's so-so."

It's so so-so that the two barely made eye contact at last year's NHL Awards Ceremony in Toronto, where they finished one-two in league MVP voting.

Malkin was second, of course, just as he was drafted second behind Ovechkin in 2004 and finished right behind you-know-who in the NHL scoring race last season.

Malkin doesn't like finishing second. He answered passionately when asked if he longs to out-do Ovechkin.

"Yes, I want to," he said. "I try. I want to try to be better. Maybe this year I'll be better."

Ovechkin repeatedly has denied he has it out for Malkin, but at the aforementioned Awards Ceremony, he didn't exactly squelch the notion that more of the same was in store this season.

"You'll see," Ovechkin said.

Malkin's North American agent, J.P. Barry, has not been punched by Ovechkin.

Not yet, anyway.

Barry's version of the Moscow club story: "I'm not going to comment. There are all kinds of things I hear from Russia that I'm not able to verify."

Malkin, understandably, doesn't want to sound as if Ovechkin's targeting of him is bothersome.

"Ovechkin is a good strong guy, a physical guy," Malkin said. "I'm OK."

That almost was not the case Jan. 21 of last season at Mellon Arena, where Ovechkin took a maniacal run at Malkin and nearly blind-sided him into oblivion. Malkin dipped his shoulder at the last instant and sent Ovechkin careening into the boards.

"Very dangerous hit," Barry said. "Had (Ovechkin) actually (landed the blow), it would been a disciplinary-type hit."

Maybe a season-ender, too.

Obviously, in exploring the nature of this grudge, the questions far outnumber the answers.

Let's take on three of them:

1. Does this feud supersede the massively hyped Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry?

Absolutely. Now, whether it'll beat Alex Semin-versus-Crosby is another matter. Semin, the Capitals' other star Russian forward, ripped Crosby in a recent interview with Yahoo.com, essentially saying he is overrated.

2. Is such a high-profile feud good for the NHL?

To a point, sure. And you have to believe commissioner Gary Bettman craves a Capitals-Penguins playoff series. However, as Barry put it, "(The rivalry is) healthy for the league, but you hope it doesn't go over the edge." In other words, it wouldn't really help the league if one of its marquee stars were beheaded.

3. What's going to happen Jan. 14 at Mellon Arena, the next time the teams meet?

Should be mighty interesting - and if the NHL doesn't tell Ovechkin to cool it, the Penguins need to make it very clear, very early, that his behavior will no longer be tolerated. Something tells me Colby Armstrong, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts or Ryan Malone would have made that point Oct. 16. Maybe the Penguins' new guys weren't aware of just how cold this Cold War was.

They are now.

Everyone is, even if nobody seems to know why it started.

 

 

 
 


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