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October 06, 2009

Howe, Yzerman Watching Ovechkin, Pronger Closely


Gordie Howe was in attendance
at the Wachovia Center on Tuesday as the the Flyers hosted the Washington Capitals. Naturally, everyone wanted to know what Howe thought about the Caps sensational superstar Alex Ovechkin.

"His strength, and he moves so well," Howe told NHL.com. "He doesn't mind taking a whack to get a shot. Sometimes there's guys that don't like that, they just dump it in. He can absorb a pretty good check to get a shot on net. Any guy that does that for a team is a pretty good man."

"If he got any better he'd be scary," he added.

Howe also liked the way Ovechkin met with Howe.

"There's 18 guys sitting down and he's the only one who jumped up to shake my hand," Howe said. "He shows respect for the older players."

You can bet another Detroit Red Wings great was closely watching the Caps-Flyers game too, with his eyes squarely on Ovechkin and the Flyers Chris Pronger. Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Canadian Olympic team, was closely watching the superstar matchup, as in many ways this game was an Olympic audition for Chris Pronger.

Pronger, once a Team Canada mainstay, is no longer a lock for international play. The 35 year old (as of Oct. 10th) had a poor 2006 Olympics. Yes, the veteran superstar is still one of the top defensemen in the NHL, but the plodding superstar was exposed as a liability in Turin due to his poor skating.

The 2010 Olympics will be played on NHL sized ice, perhaps mitigating concerns about Pronger's agility. That, combined with his big game reputation and familiarity with Canadian lock Scott Niedermayer, many believe Pronger will back with Team Canada.

Those chances will grow immensely if Pronger can establish strong play against Ovechkin. He is the only Eastern Conference shutdown defenseman likely to make the team. Western Conference defensemen may not have a lot of experience playing against Ovechkin.

With that in mind the curious Yzerman and his scouts were all watching the Flyers - Capitals game last night, the first of four meetings between the two clubs before the Olympics.

How did he do?

The Flyers, with home ice advantage and the last line change, opted to use Pronger and Matt Carle against the Ovechkin-Alexander Semin-Nicklas Backstrom line most of the night, although the Flyers did not flinch by any means if the mobile Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn ended up out there either. Timonen, a Finn, has traditionally played well against Ovechkin, although can be overpowered by the Russian.

Ovechkin was relatively quiet in the first period. In fact, Ovechkin's only dangerous shift came against Timonen and Coburn. I thought Pronger played well in the first against Ovie, holding the blue line smartly. Nicklas Backstrom surprised Pronger with a burst of speed early in the opening stanza, making the big man clumsily stumble although no scoring chance came from the play.

Period 2

In the second period Pronger drew an assist on the game's opening goal by Mike Richards. Pronger crossed the puck to Carle who made a brilliant slap-pass to Richards with the man advantage.

Ovechkin quickly responded thanks to a great coaching move by Washington's Bruce Boudreau.
He snuck Ovechkin out with the 4th line and against the Flyers third d-pairing of Danny Syvret and Ryan Parent. Syvret was used sparingly in this game, allowing for double shifting by Pronger, Timonen and Coburn.

The Flyers quickly found themselves back on the PP, only to have Pronger nullify by taking his own penalty due to his skating. He lost the puck at the Caps blueline, as both David Steckel (not a noted speedster) and Boyd Gordon exposed Pronger's weakness.

Half way through the period Ovechkin hurried Pronger with his intimidating forechecking, forcing Pronger to unwisely throw the puck up the middle of the ice. The result was a turnover in the zone, with Ovechkin getting the puck and scoring his second of the game. Pronger, who was too slow to get back into the play, could only smash his stick over the crossbar as the Caps celebrated.

On the next even-strength shift the Flyers put Timonen and Coburn out agains the top line, partly because Pronger and Carle had recently completed a power play shift. Alexander Semin, another lock on the Russian Olympic team, undressed Coburn in a brilliant solo effort to give the Caps a 3-2 lead. The Flyers went back to Pronger and Carle on the next even-strength shift.

One player who definitely would have caught Yzerman's eye on this night was Mike Richards.
In a similar goal to the game's opening tally, Mike Richards knotted the score at 3 thanks to another brilliant pass from Carle. Moments later Carle kept the puck in the zone and fired it on net, with an opportunistic Richards recording his hat trick goal. There are no doubts in my mind that Richards will be part of the Canadian Olympic team. Carle, with 4 assists on the night, improved his chances of playing with Team USA, too.

The Flyers power play was potent on this night. Washington took a lot of penalties which made Ovechkin's presence intermittent as he does not kill penalties.

Third period and OT

Unfortunately I did not get to see the third period with the same critical eye. I would love to see some time on ice breakdown against Ovechkin. Timonen and Coburn seemed to have their responsibilities increased as the game went on. They were on the ice for the Capitals 4th and 5th goals, but also scored the game tying (Coburn) and overtime game winning goal (Timonen).

Pronger continued to see ice time against Ovechkin as well, nicely foiling Ovie in OT. Ovechkin was guilty of trying to be a little too cute on that play. He would have been better advised to attempt an outright blow-by of Pronger and at least draw a penalty.

The Verdict?

All in all, I would have to say not a great night for Pronger. His slow feet were exposed by Ovechkin and by other Caps players a few times on this night. The only times Pronger seemed fully in control was when he slowed the game down to his own pace, an impressive feat he is famous for doing.

The question facing Team Canada must be if they want a player who can play at his own pace or at break-neck pace the Russians and other Olympic teams will throw at them?

If it were my decision I would say no to Chris Pronger on the Canadian Olympic team. I base this on his previous Olympics and watching him multiple times in the post-lockout NHL while he was on the west coast.

Slap Shots: Alex Ovechkin became the third player in NHL history to score at least three points in each of his team's first three games of a season when he scored two goals to go along with one assist in the Capitals' overtime loss at Philadelphia. The other players to start a season with three consecutive three-point games were Guy Lafleur (1975-76 Canadiens) and Peter Stastny (1982-83 Nordiques) - Elias Sports Bureau

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