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Alex Ovechkin's Spin on the Wheel of Justice

Catch-22 n. A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules.

There’s always plenty of talk about the inconsistencies of the NHL’s disciplinary system – and it usually seems to be justified. The mere fact that one player can get a six-game suspension for saying something mildly offensive about an ex while another player gets nothing for a ridiculously dangerous hit just demonstrates how inconsistent the League can be.

And yet every so often they are put in the near-impossible situation of having whatever call they make be the wrong one.

This was the case after Wednesday’s Capitals-Sabres game. When Alex Ovechkin hit Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta into the boards, drawing a bloody nose for Kaleta – and a five-minute major and game misconduct for Ovechkin – it created one of those lose-lose situations for Colin Campbell and friends.

Not moments after the hit took place, there were many advocating a suspension or predicting that the NHL's so-called "double standard" would take effect, while defenders of #8 who offered their own rebuttals were largely shouted down. It became the talk of the hockey world on the eve of Thanksgiving as we all awaited the league’s final word, overshadowing what was ultimately a great team win by the Capitals.

The verdict? No suspension.

So naturally the fact that the league once again "ignored" one of Ovechkin’s hits meant that they were letting him get away with murder simply because of who he is. If things had been reversed, the detractors said, Kaleta would’ve gotten five games. Ten games. Hell, they’d have drummed him out of the league for daring to bloody the nose of the great Alex Ovechkin. The league’s preferential treatment of its superstars continues on...and abandon all hope, ye who have the misfortune of getting pummeled by them.

And yet if the League had actually taken disciplinary action against Ovechkin, had wielded the hammer of justice and sat him for a game or two, it would have been equally bad – because it would have been the wrong call.

Fans around the NHL were treated to just one replay of the hit, the one provided by MSG (home of the Buffalo Sabres) for inclusion in the highlight package for that evening’s game. They watched the hit just as Rick Jeanneret’s voice, apoplectic as always, was informing them in no uncertain terms that this was a horrific, dirty, bloodying hit from behind. The visual and the audio just do not match – but it’s the impassioned squealing of Jeanneret that likely makes some think it was worse than it was. Take a look and a listen:


Watching it on mute gives the full story, without the assistance of Jeanneret and his noted homerism, without the aid of the Comcast crew and their much more forgiving audio.

Kaleta has the puck. He’s positioned just about a foot away from the boards, when he glances up and to the left. We can’t see him at home, but there’s no way Kaleta misses Ovechkin barreling toward him. And instead of getting rid of the puck quickly and moving away…he turns. He stupidly puts himself in a vulnerable position, and yet Ovechkin still manages to catch him with a shoulder – no hit from behind, no elbow to the head. Just speed, power, two inches and 53 pounds on Kaleta that propel him into the boards.

It’s maybe - maybe - a two-minute minor for boarding. We can't be so blind in our loyalty as to ignore the fact that Ovechkin often straddles the line between legal and illegal checks, and this was right in that gray area. Even giving Ovechkin a five-minute major for the hit is somewhat understandable (albeit wrong) given the fact that the referees had a split second to make the call, that there’s been increased pressure to crack down on borderline hits, and that Kaleta was injured on the play.

Worthy of a suspension, though? Not even close.

At some point we as fans have to stop taking everything as an all or nothing scenario. Whether or not the league legitimately uses restraint against superstars isn’t the question here - at least not one we can answer with any certainty. Its always seemed like more of an inconsistency than a bias towards or against any one group of players.

Even if there is that restraint, the league has never been afraid to at least levy a fine on Ovechkin when they thought he crossed the line - and they didn't do that here. We've seen worse hits get less, from superstars and fourth-liners alike; we've seen suspensions much too harsh on plays that were milder than this, as well.

And just as Ovechkin isn’t automatically innocent because he’s Ovechkin, he isn’t automatically guilty because of it, either.