Thursday, March 13, 2008
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Legendary Steve Ott
This week, our hockey scribe waxes poetic in a paean to Steve Ott.
Welcome to the World of the Wakened, hockey fans! Last week I provided learned and informative responses to my largely-Nigerian Noble fan base (on that note, sorry Baron Frederick, for not getting to any of your emails... I don't want you to get the wrong idea, I am still very much interested in freeing up those royal funds in the Bank of East Nebraskistan. Your political enemies will rue the day they messed with the Cupcheck!!). I was planning on dedicating this week's column to my annual Pulitzer-winning series, 'Curtis Joseph: Hot or Not?' --but a certain plucky Stars forward committed what we true hockey fans call a Legendary Sequence, and got himself in a world of trouble with the league office as a result.
Of course, I'm talking about Brad Winchester, whose 13-goal performance last night against the Red Wings was so utterly embarrassing to the NHL's golden boys, that they had to black out the game, erased it from the record books and used their infernal Mind Meld Machines to wipe any trace of it from the minds of hockey fans everywhere. In fact, you could sense it was going to happen after Winchester's eighth goal, late in the first period, whe-- wait, you mean you didn't-- ahhhh..... nevermind.
This is why I keep my head wrapped in Astroturf soaked in fresh chihuahua blood at all times: when strangers on the street point and laugh, I just remind them that the reason they're impotent is because of the uncontrolled gamma radiation from the league's mind-altering rays -- after all, I had no problem whatsoever impregnating their wives/girlfriends/household pets. Then I get punched in the face or the crotch, or some unholy combination of the two: more on that later.
Fortunately, another plucky Stars forward had a Legendary Sequence of his own, against the hated, overrated, oft-masturbated-to NHL league office favorites, the Colorado Avalanche. Steve Ott, who had been a thorn in the side of the Western Conference for nearly half a decade now, decided to finish his check against Avs defenseman Jordan Leopold.
What happened after that is a matter of conjecture. According to attentive pairs of open eyeballs, it would seem that Ott checked Leopold into the boards, was attacked by Star-killer Ruslan Salei, and then beat Salei like an overstuffed pinata. Ott and Salei got five minutes apiece for fighting, Salei got a two-minute instigator, and Leopold got dizzy. Two referees and two linesmen watching saw no other penalty on the play, Stars fans got to see the kind of one-sided fight not seen since the days of Aaron Downey, and Avs fans turned their capslock on in order to write angry emails to GARY BUTTMAN and the NHL LEG ORIFICE about not getting preferential treatment from NHL referees in over 5 years.
The result? Ott gets a three-game suspension, two of which include games against the Red Wings and the Ducks, while the Avs possibly lose two defensemen, Leopold and Salei, due to vaginal bruising. To question whether or not this decision is "fair" it not the point --'fairness' has never had a place in the NHL's byzantine system of refereeing, which is based on a highly complex Hatfield-and-McCoy formula that rewards teams in the third period for blown calls in the first-- but it does, without question, solidify Steve Ott's place in the pantheon of Legendary Dallas Stars.
Ott came to the Stars amid much fanfare and hoopla, drafted 25th overall in 2000, and quickly began to produce insane offensive numbers with the Windsor Spitfires (great name for an Ott team) of the OHL: over two seasons playing largely with Jason Spezza as his linemate, Ott averaged nearly a goal a game, scoring 93 goals over 108 games before being called up by the Stars late in the season.
The goal-per-game stat, however, was bupkus compared to the legendary anecdotal stories coming down the Stars' minor league pipeline: the guy was averaging 3-4 penalty minutes per game. He stuck up for his teammates, especially Spezza. And most importantly, during at least one game and possibly several more, right before a faceoff Ott would skate between the centers and try and intimidate the other guy right to his face --naturally incurring another two-minute infraction-- but holy crap, what a mensch! It should tell you a lot about Stars fans, that they were more excited about the asteroid-sized cajones than about the goal-per-game clip.
When Ott came up, full of the passion and vigor of youth, he took numerous ill-chosen penalties, while his goal-scoring pretty much completely disappeared. Taking himself out of position to make checks, not taking advantage of prime scoring chances, putting him team on the kill one too many times: while that studly stuff slowly endears you to true hockey fans, for the casual fan Ott was starting to become the dreaded Waste of a First-Round Draft Pick, a fate worse than death in the NHL. After a few years of this --up to and including this season-- many Stars fans were angry at Ott, putting him on their Imaginary Trade Blocks, critizing Tippett for not sending him down to the minors permanently, and frequently associating his name with the term 'waivers'. For the shrinking minority of us who liked what he brought to the game, these were The Dark Times.
This season, however, Ott has turned things around with a wolverine-like ferocity. His once-amazing skating speed is back, after a series of injuries took it away in the past year. Ott chooses his fights far more carefully now --whereas three years ago the scrawny forward would be giving the evil eye to massive behemoths like Laraque and Chara, nowadays Ott gets in the grill of non-fighters like Sundin and Ignila. I cannot overstate how important this development is: getting into a fight with a guy like Andre Roy has only a slight consequence to the game overall, but getting a top-five point producer like Ignila mad enough to fight you, or check himself into the boards trying to run you, is pretty much the best thing you can possibly do for your d-men and goalies. Ignila and Ott, both in the box for five minutes apiece? Awesome.
Almost as surprising, Ott's old goal-scoring touch seems to be back. While many Nittering Nabobs of Negativism will undoubtedly call attention to all the prime scoring chances Ott continues to miss each and every game, Ott is on an upwards-trajectory in terms of goals this year, with more goals scored (10) this season than he had in his entire career before this. Yes, may of them were empty netters, but with one exception each of those empty-net goals came in the tense final moments of a one-goal game against a tough divisional rival: one each against Anaheim and San Jose, and another third-period insurance goal early in the season against the Sharks, not to mention the two game-winning goals out of that group. Those are important points that may ultimately decide the division winner when it all comes down to it.
Perhaps most surprisingly, however, is Ott's newfound defensive game, as he has taken a huge responsibility on the Stars' league-leading penalty kill: and with Jeff Halpern out, Ott's role on the PK is even more important. Long thought to be a defensive liability, Ott has turned his entire game around in a single season, and continually makes intelligent, hard-working plays up-ice on the kill, harassing opposing defensemen at the points and disrupting offensive flow, while winning crucial puck battles in the corners. Inexplicably, Ott is often compared to one-note cheapshot artist Sean Avery --but which NHL team would be stupid enough to put Avery at center on the 3-on-5? Not even the Rangers and Kings are that moronic.
When it all comes down to it, the Stars will be hurting these next three games without one of this season's most-improved players, and a unmistakably key cog in their team-first machine. Hopefully Ott can use the downtime to rest up for the final division title push, and his aim on 2-on-1 shorthanded breakaways. If he could nail those, he'd be putting up Hagman-esque numbers. After all, of all of the players selected before him in the 2000 NHL entry draft, a whopping 16 of them have scored as many or fewer than Ott's 20 career goals. That's 16 teams who probably look at the #25 selection and wistfully wonder about what could have been... sorry, Blackhawks fans. That's it for this week's Cupcheck. Tune in next week when I investigate the possible link between Peter Forsberg's Croc empire and Colin Campbell's new $180,000 Mercedes.
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