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Passion? Yes! Staged celebrations? No!

by Phil Coffey
Passion, intensity and emotion are as important to hockey as skating, checking and scoring. Combining all these elements makes hockey the great game that we all love.

Which brings us to the latest discussion of how much celebration is OK and what pushes the envelope to excess. Alexander Ovechkin is, of course, at the center of the debate after he scored his 50th goal of the season in a game against Tampa Bay and then celebrated by dropping his stick and acting like it was too hot to handle.

While there may be truth to that concept, the execution was a little much.

Spontaneous celebrations, jumping into the glass and the like are fine in this corner because they represent the passion, emotion and intensity of the game. Remember, scoring a goal isn't an easy feat, so a bit of celebration is in order no matter the player.

When the line gets crossed, however, is when it comes to rehearsed theatrics. When the celebration becomes planned and calculated, it loses the elements of passion, emotion and intensity. Do we need some genuine emotion? You bet. Do we need teams forming a conga line after a goal? Hardly.

Ovechkin isn't apologizing for the hot-stick routine, and that's fine. He said it wasn't calculated to embarrass anyone and he certainly has built enough credibility to be believed.

"If you win the lottery -- a million dollars -- you go to the bar and drink a lot," Ovechkin told reporters. "I scored 50 goals and I just celebrated."

Ovechkin is a showman as well as a scorer and that's a good thing. He combines all the best elements of the sport, and combined with his obvious love of the game, he is a lot of fun to watch.

"It's good for our League, it's good for our fans," Ovechkin said. "Some players are just like robots. They score goals and it's like OK, no emotion, nothing, they basically go 'OK.' You have to show emotion if you're an emotional guy -- show it."
Let's just not plan it too much.

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau is an excellent custodian of the game, and I think we can rest assured he will chart the proper path between Ovechkin being an emotional catalyst and a bore.

"As Canadians, we tend to be conservative," Boudreau said. "Twenty-five years ago we got mad at the Russians for showing no emotion. Now they're showing emotion and we're mad at them again."

"It's a one-time incident. End of story," Boudreau said when the Caps were in Toronto earlier in the week. "I would like to see him score another goal and soon. But I don't think he's going to be taking out a pen and writing on his stick and handing it over to (Leafs coach) Ron (Wilson) after he scores. It's the first time he ever did that, so I think we have to cut him a little slack."

They've got the fever -- These are heady days in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets look like a team that is bound for a Stanley Cup Playoff berth for the first time.

According to coach Ken Hitchcock, the race to the postseason has been a boon to the team's fans.

"We have been in playoff fever for a month now, and fans have come out now in droves. I mean, the building is packed. We are into the standing-room situation," Hitchcock said. "The buzz in the city is unbelievable. It feels very much like any good Midwest city, whether it's Canadian or American, about sports here right now. It's the topic of conversation everywhere you go -- coffee shops, sporting goods places, restaurants. It's everything. It's engulfing and it's great to see from where we were at the start of the year to where we are now."

Buoyed by the success of nearby Ohio State University, Columbus fans are used to success, so the Blue Jackets' season -- 38-28-7 heading into play Thursday night -- has energized the base, as they like to say in political circles.

"This is a city that expects winners," Hitchcock said. "The background from the Ohio State football team resonates right through the city here. It's a city that expects a winning program. And I think regardless of what happens this year, the fans understand the plan, and the attitude that (GM) Scott (Howson) and his staff have put toward the short- and long-term plan of the organization. And I think that there's a trust that's being built back into the city here, and our fan base, and in general the sporting culture here, because of what Scott and his staff have done personnel-wise. They can see the way … they can see the disposition of the team on the ice. They can see the way we play, and I think the people in this city feel like there's an identity to this team that's not been here before."

A lot of that credit must go to Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup in Dallas and has more than 500 career wins.
"To me, everything for me is getting back to the dance," he said. "To me, playoffs are the best time of your life. They are the best time of the year, and that's the whole focus for me, is helping this team get back to the dance. … The players have put so much into this season. I want to see them get the reward of getting the chance to compete in a seven-game series, and we have got a lot of work to do to get there. Like I said, our division record is probably going to determine whether we get in or not, but I would like to see that for the players, because you know, they put a lot of work into this year becoming a real good team."

The backup plan -- Having a solid backup plan in place always comes in handy. And for Detroit Red Wings fans, they should know that General Manager Ken Holland isn't whistling past the graveyard when it comes to next season's team.

Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen are two key players who could depart via free agency July 1. Both sides would like to keep the relationships intact, but one never knows, does one?

"They've both indicated they want to stay, that their first choice is to stay," Holland told the Detroit Free Press. "I guess I can address it in June if I have to. They know the contract commitments. When they hear something that they like, we might have a deal. Obviously, the decision we've got to make is do we want to be top heavy and not have any depth -- that's the question. And that's why I'm not rushing into anything."

Should the grass be greener elsewhere, Holland is confident he has the players in place to keep the Wings among the League's elite. As the Free Press speculated, the possible departures of Hossa or Franzen would enable Holland to re-sign Jiri Hudler. In addition, a number of young players appear ready to make the jump, including Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader.

"We've got some kids coming that we think are ready to play in the NHL next year in a support role," Holland said. "They're not ready for prime time, but they're ready to step in and be in a support role. It's much like how we let Robert Lang go and Brendan Shanahan left and you know what, you wake up two years later and Dan Cleary's gotten an opportunity and Mikael Samuelsson had an opportunity and Johan Franzen had an opportunity, and with the opportunity, their careers took a step forward."

Mutual admiration society -- You won't hear veteran goalie Curtis Joseph criticizing Alex Ovechkin. Nor will Ovechkin say a discouraging word about Cujo.

Tuesday night, Cujo bested Ovechkin during the shootout in a 3-2 Leafs win.

"You try to be patient and make yourself big and force him to do something he doesn't want to do, maybe," Joseph said of facing Ovechkin. "He's definitely the greatest player in the game right now, but I've played against the likes of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, so hopefully that experience helped me."

"What can I say about him?" Ovechkin said. "He's a great goalie, an experienced guy. He made a very good save in overtime. It saved the point for them and it killed us."

Waving the 'White' flag -- The Stanley Cup Playoffs will not include the Atlanta Thrashers this season, so Todd White will not be suitably rewarded for what has been an excellent season.

Through 74 games this season, White has 20 goals and 46 assists, with 33 of his points coming on the power play.

As we typed this Thursday morning, White's 66 points tied him with a host of players, including Detroit's Marian Hossa, Carolina's Eric Staal and Ottawa's Dany Heatley, and put him ahead Martin Havlat, Shane Doan, Jason Spezza and Patrick Kane. That's none too shabby.

What's the secret to his success?

"I try to anticipate," White told Mike Knobler of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "I'm not skilled enough to beat guys one-on-one. There're not many guys in the League that are. I try to work little give and goes. ... (I) try and use smarts to get around the ice rather than pure speed and pure one-on-one ability."

"He doesn't try," teammate Colby Armstrong told Knobler. "He just does it."

Rallying 'round Ruff -- Lindy Ruff has been coaching the Buffalo Sabres since the 1997-98 season. In terms of coaching longevity, that is an eternity.

With the Sabres outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference at the moment, there have been some calls that it's time for Ruff to go -- you know, the old "the message is getting stale" routine.

Interestingly enough, none of those calls are coming from the players.

"We all hear the same things, whether it's coming from a writer or a TV station or a radio station," defenseman Craig Rivet told Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News. "Any time a team isn't having success, you immediately look at the coach. Let me tell you, this has nothing to do with the coach. It has to do with the players performing, being better and being accountable for your play."

"It comes with the territory," Ruff said after practice Monday. "When you're not going well, they'll point to the coach. I think it's fair. We've had some players who haven't performed to where we want, and that's my responsibility. I don't think there's any ducking that."

"Everyone is the problem," forward Thomas Vanek said. "It's everyone together. It's easy for fans to say it's his (Ruff's) fault or (the players). It's one team. The players are the ones on the ice. We have to do our jobs better."

Ruff told Gleason that he mishandled a few situations during the season. Most recently, he criticized several players, notably Derek Roy, for underachieving when they were trying to overcome a nasty flu bug that raced through the team. Looking back, he would not have pushed as hard.

Diamond in the rough -- Joel Ward is one of those undrafted gems teams love to find. A free agent initially signed by the Minnesota Wild in 2005, Ward has become a very solid player with the Nashville Predators this season, totaling 15 goals and 15 assists in 70 games. And in a salary cap world, getting that kind of production makes a general manager like David Poile a very happy man.

"It's a story that every team is hoping to have every year," Poile told John Glennon of The Tennessean. "This is the speech that every NHL manager gives to his scouting staff -- 'Go and find that diamond in the rough, that player that needs to be given a second or third chance with a new organization, somebody that can fit into our team that maybe didn't fit with another team.'

"I ask that of our scouts every year because it's the type of thing that in a lot of cases kind of gets you over the hump -- finding a new player."

For his part, Ward said using his 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame to his advantage in front of the net has paid off in terms of offense.

"I guess I know I could do it given a good opportunity, which I'm getting," Ward said. "I know it's my first (full) year, but I've played a fair bit of hockey and I've learned a lot."

"It sort of amazes me that more guys don't want to stand in front of the net," coach Barry Trotz said. "You get four or five goals that go off the top of your hip or shin-pad or your butt and go in the net ... that's money in the bank. It's a real easy way to make a good living if you can get good at it."

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