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Containing Ovechkin unique challenge for Canadiens

by Arpon Basu /

BROSSARD, Quebec -- When facing an elite scorer, a common last-gasp tactic is to hit him early, hit him hard, and hit him often.

Assuming you can catch him, the strategy should bear fruit as the star player will begin to wear down, and ultimately, or hopefully, become a little tentative to go to the areas of the ice where he can hurt you.

Alex Ovechkin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 29 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 45
SOG: 230 | +/-: 12
As the Montreal Canadiens prepare to face Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals at Bell Centre on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, SN), they know that is not an approach that will slow down the hottest goal scorer in the NHL.

The problem with hitting Ovechkin is not catching him; it's avoiding hurting yourself while doing it.

"I've lined up beside him a few times," Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher said after practice Friday. "I actually tried to hit him a couple of times. That didn't go well."

Next up, Canadiens center Lars Eller.

"Yeah, I've tried," he said. "He's hard as a rock. It's like hitting a wall."

How about you, Max Pacioretty?

"I tried to hit him once and you just can't," he said. "He's a monster."

Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu admits he can't remember whether he's tried to hit him in the few times he's faced Ovechkin, but he summed up the Capitals captain rather perfectly when asked what makes him a difficult opponent.

"He's just big, strong, fast and he's got a lethal shot," Beaulieu said. "Pretty much everything a forward needs, he has. You've got skilled guys that are usually smaller, and you've got power forwards. He's kind of like everything in one."

So if physically intimidating Ovechkin is not going to work, the Canadiens will have to find another way to keep him off the score sheet, starting with goaltender Carey Price continuing his current streak that matches Ovechkin's on the heat chart.

Over his past 15 starts, Price has a 12-2-1 record, a 1.53 goals against average and .949 save percentage.

Price's play is the biggest reason why prior to games Friday the Canadiens were the stingiest defensive team in the NHL, allowing an average of 2.28 goals per game. Over his past 13 games, Ovechkin has averaged nearly half that all by himself, scoring 13 goals in those games on 57 shots and accounting for 31 percent of the Capitals offense over that span.

So logic would dictate that if the Canadiens can stop Ovechkin, their chances of winning the game improve dramatically.

Good luck with that.

"The biggest thing for us is he's so big. He's a beast," Pacioretty said. "Down low it's tough to move him and obviously his shot is lethal. It seems like when he's on his game he's one of those guys that's almost unstoppable. He's on a mission and he's not going to stop until the puck's in the back of the net. Dealing with his size and strength I think is the biggest problem, but we've got guys on the back end who are big and can handle that."

Ovechkin will likely see a steady dose of the line of Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Dale Weise along with top defensive pairing Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban on Saturday.

Plekanec was quick to point out that if you only worry about Ovechkin, his center Nicklas Backstrom can torch you as well.

The Canadiens face a unique challenge in trying
to stop Alex Ovechkin; putting the body on him is
a scary proposition.

Photo: Getty Images (Click to enlarge)

"[Ovechkin] has one of the best shots and best one-timers in the League. He knows where he's shooting all the time and he doesn't need much time," Plekanec said. "But one of his strengths also is playing with Backstrom; he's such a good playmaker he can really find that play for him when he gets open. They have really good chemistry. So I'd say they're dangerous as a duo."

Plekanec has long played the role of shutdown center for the Canadiens, and Weise has been used in that role often over his career as a grinder who only recently was elevated to top-line status under Montreal coach Michel Therrien. But it is Pacioretty's evolution into a two-way force that has elevated him close to elite status among NHL scorers.

There are only four people who have scored more goals than Pacioretty's 61 since the beginning of last season: Ovechkin (80), Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks (66), Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars (65) and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks (62). On top of that production, Pacioretty has become one of Montreal's top penalty killers alongside Plekanec, and Therrien is no longer afraid to use him against opposing top lines.

"He's improved a lot as a hockey player on both sides of the ice, and I'm not afraid to go power against power," Therrien said. "That's a sign from the coaching staff that we've got confidence in his game. We don't want to hide him. He's got our trust because he earned it and because he got better as a hockey player playing both sides of the ice. He deserves all the credit for that."

Pacioretty likes the new responsibilities, but admits it's been an adjustment to get the right mindset to thrive in situations where he is matched up against a top offensive threat. In the Canadiens' past three games, Pacioretty's line was matched against Mike Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg and Colin Wilson of the Nashville Predators, Seguin and Jamie Benn of the Stars and Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Martin St Louis of the New York Rangers.

"I think I run into trouble when I do prepare differently and when I tell myself that I've got to shut them down," Pacioretty said. "I think it takes away from the offensive part of my game, and that happened in both the Nashville and Dallas games. I got a little too caught up in playing d-zone. It's obviously an area that our line wants to take pride in and wants to be good in, but at the end of the day the best defense is playing offense."

So the solution, it would seem, is that if you can't hit Ovechkin, at least make him try to hit you while you play with the puck.

Easier said than done.

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