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Ovechkin, Capitals a measuring stick for Calgary

The Flames are ready to face Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

CALGARY, AB -- Poking the bear, says Mikael Backlund, is not always a bad thing.

 Dangerous, surely, but sometimes beneficial nonetheless. 

"Sure he's a big, physical guy but he can take stupid penalties. In the World Cup, he took one against me,'' recalled the Calgary Flames' Swedish centreman of the Tre Kroner's 2-1 tournament-opening win at Air Canada Centre against Ovechkin and Russia on Sept. 18th.

"I just pushed him in front of the bench, he got mad and he two-handed me. Just whacked me.

"So he can get frustrated. Sure it might fire him up but he gets running around, too, gets out of position, and that's to our advantage."

The spectre of the Great Eight, Alex Ovechkin, dominates any lead-in to a fixture against the defending President's Trophy-capturing Washington Capitals.

Ovechkin is off to another strong start - four goals and five points over the opening seven games. And he's feasted on Flames in the past, scoring nine goals and adding 10 assists in only a dozen career skates against Calgary.

Defenceman Deryk Engelland, of course, got a snoot-full or two of the runway Russian freight train during his days in Pittsburgh.

"I can't really remember him exploding on me, but one time I was chasing down an icing and we were both reaching for the puck. I got to the puck first but his forearm kinda buried my head.

"He's going to finish his checks. You've gotta keep your head up when he's on the ice, know when he's out there because if your head's down, he's going to blow you up pretty good."

Video: The Flames blueliner talks about taking on Washington

The debate rages on whether a poke-prod-and-punish approach to handling Ovechkin either A) awakens him; he feeds off it, making him even more dangerous or B) it ticks him off; throws him off plot.

One thing is for certain, when in top gear, the man's practically unstoppable.

"Once he's coming down on you, with speed,'' says Engelland, "if you don't have a good gap he can make you look pretty silly. Quick.

"On the flip side, if you're playing him tight and don't give him that room to get going, that's your best chance. Limit the offensive zone time and play in their end is our best weapon."

With the Caps, Flames' coach Glen Gulutzan isn't shy in admitting he considers this a litmus test, a polygraph, for his young group.

In the morning, for a bit of inspiration, he showed the Flames a video of the New England Patriots.,

"We watched a little Bill Belichek talking about emotion and energy and a little bit of how they get ready."

Does this mean the Flames might deflate the pucks?

"We might,'' admitted Gulutzan, smiling. "We just might make 'em a little softer, with Ovie shooting."

Clearly, though, in terms of assessing progress level, the coach relishes putting a three-game win streak on the line against a team as formidable as the Caps.

"We talked about a measuring stick,'' said Gulutzan. "This is where your leadership needs to step up.

"It's a real man's game tonight against a real good hockey club.

"It's a really good game for us at this point. We talked about digging in and getting everything stabilized here and now we've got a team that we can grow from.

"They're a highly-evolved team that won the President's Trophy last year and did it with realize ease."

One of the deepest of all NHL outfits, chock-a-block with skilled, impact players - Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen - the Capitals test an opponent's nerve and its discipline.

Discipline, of course is an area that Gulutzan is demanding his team clean up.

"We talked about that. We talked about emotion and having it. We're going to be tested as a team, the discipline within that emotion in the game, playing within those boundaries.

"This is a growth game for us. We're going to get more out of this game, if we play the way we want to, than Washington will.

"That's why we're talking about taking a bite out of them today. It's a growth game for our team."

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