From Hunter to Hunted

"Run, chase, hunt down, hit, whatever word you want to use that would be correct." - Ken Hitchcock on whether his team was targeting Alex Ovechkin on Sunday

As outraged as you might have convinced yourself you are at the "revelation" above, that opposing teams might enter a game against the Capitals with a strategic objective to engage the team's stars physically is hardly news. Recall Ranger defenseman Marc Staal prior to last spring's first round playoff series:

"I think if you get physical with [Ovechkin] - and also with guys like Semin and Backstrom - kind of get them frustrated and off their game a little bit, as much as we can, we have to do it. Maybe getting it in the back of his mind that he's going to get hit every time he shoots it or comes down the wing; that's what we want."

When we discussed the integrally-related topic of team toughness a week ago, we noted the following:

That the Caps aren't physically intimidating opponents is no surprise. George McPhee acknowledged this would be the case this past offseason when he said, "If people want to screw around, then you beat them up on your power play" - the Caps skill, theoretically, is their deterrent. The problem with that approach (putting aside the obvious issues the Caps are currently having with the extra man) is that it's only effective if the officials make the right calls... and if your skill players get up after they've been fouled. And Mike Green almost didn't on Saturday night.

In the season's first weeks the Rangers, Islanders and Flyers all ran the Capitals' top defenseman with more-or-less unanswered impunity. Now the best player on the planet is on the trainer's table. Sure, part of the story over the next couple of Ovechkin-less weeks is the team's ability to replace AO's offense, tightening up defensively, and so on. But the bigger-picture story is preventing - or at the very least combating - opponents from continuing to take runs at Ovechkin, Green and other Capitals.

George McPhee and his foot soldiers like to cite the Red Wings as an example of a team that has gotten by without needing any on-ice policemen, but even those Red Wings went out and signed Brad May this past off-season because, as Detroit GM Ken Holland noted, "in 82 games some nights you have to protect yourself. We usually protect ourselves with a good power play, but if things get out of hand, Brad can play on our fourth line and bang some people. He has a dimension we don't have right now with fisticuffs." Added Wings head coach Mike Babcock, "He provides a physical presence. We don't feel we have much of it.... Sometimes, it's a priority."

For this Caps team, a physical presence has become a priority. It has become, perhaps, the priority.

McPhee has expressed a willingness to acquire "that element" if it's needed. I'd say that need has been made clear. Painfully so.

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