Minutes after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game Monday night, NBCSN began hyping their next game – against the Washington Capitals, on “Wednesday Night Rivalry,” the latest episode of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.
“Who’s better?” the host asked the analysts.
The answer meant less than the question itself.
Just two years ago, we were wondering whether Crosby could come back from concussion symptoms. Just nine months ago, we were wondering if Ovechkin could recapture his form. And now, for the first time in a long time, the rivalry or the debate or whatever you want to call it has some legitimacy, and it has the potential to become big again.
Crosby was the runaway favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player last season. But he suffered a broken jaw with a quarter of the lockout-shortened schedule to go, and he settled for the Ted Lindsay Award, which goes to the most outstanding player as voted by the NHL Players’ Association.
To whom did the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association give the Hart instead? Ovechkin.
Crosby and Ovechkin are neck-and-neck among the scoring leaders this season – with Crosby tied for the NHL lead in points with 26 and Ovechkin tied for the league lead in goals with 17.
Their teams are in the same division thanks to realignment. They’re fighting for first place Wednesday night and should have a better chance of facing each other in the playoffs, when rivalries are really forged. Their nations are about to face off at the Olympics, too. Bovada has Canada and Russia as the co-favorites at 11/5 odds.
“I think some people really thought that was contrived when it first started to happen, the Magic-and-Bird analogy and everything else,” said Capitals GM George McPhee. “But it was really intense there for a while, and maybe we’re coming back to it, which is healthy for both franchises and the league.
“I think the rivalry’s real. There’s a real competition there between the two of them.”
Some of the rivalry has been forced, starting with the simple fact that Crosby is a centerman, Ovechkin is a winger and this is a team game in which stars have less influence than in, say, basketball. Apple and Orange might be more apt than Magic and Bird.
“Crosby you see every shift because he plays in the middle, Ovechkin you don’t see him and then he buries it,” said Detroit Red Wings and Team Canada coach Mike Babcock. “The guy playing in the middle gets way more touches than the guy on the wall. The guy on the wall’s counting on the guy in the middle to get him the puck.”
How much have Crosby and Ovechkin ever really looked at each other as rivals?
“When people start saying it’s a rivalry, I don’t think it’s a rivalry,” Ovechkin told Yahoo Sports in September 2010. “We just, I think, enjoy playing against each other.”
Still, there is no question Crosby and Ovechkin helped sell the NHL the way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird once sold the NBA. Crosby and Ovechkin broke into the league after a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season. Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year; Crosby was the runner-up. Crosby won the Hart the next year; Ovechkin won the Hart the next two years after that.
They met in the playoffs in 2009, and it was everything it was supposed to be – back and forth, seven games, Magic and Bird, Sid and Ovi. Crosby had eight goals and 13 points in the series. Ovechkin had eight goals and 14 points.
“For a few years there, that was one of the biggest things people were looking forward to watching – two of the best players in the world going head-to-head – and the results that they put up while going head-to-head was pretty fun to watch,” said Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber. “I’m sure people are going to enjoy it if it gets back to the way it was.”
Crosby went on to win the Cup in 2009; Ovechkin didn’t. You can say their paths diverged there. Crosby went on to win gold in Vancouver in 2010; Ovechkin didn’t. You can say their paths diverged there. While Ovechkin had more individual awards, Crosby had more team accomplishments.
But their paths really diverged in the 2010 playoffs. Both the Penguins and the Capitals were upset in seven-game series by the same suffocating defensive team (the Montreal Canadiens) and the same hot goalie (Jaroslav Halak). Ovechkin put up better numbers against the Habs. He had five goals and 10 points. Crosby had one goal and five points.
The difference was that Crosby's Penguins lost in the second round and had won the Cup the year before, while Ovechkin's Capitals lost in the first round – the top regular-season team falling to an eighth seed – blowing a two-game series lead early in the playoffs for the second straight year. The Penguins stuck with their plan; the Capitals ended up changing theirs.
Crosby separated himself from his peers – Ovechkin and otherwise – during the first half of the 2010-11 season. Meanwhile, the Capitals struggled and decided to switch from a high-flying offensive team to a more conservative defensive team, all while HBO cameras rolled for a new behind-the-scenes show leading up to a Caps-Pens Winter Classic.
Just as the rivalry reached the peak of its hype – with Crosby and Ovechkin featured in TV commercials, with their faces on the side of the truck that made the outdoor ice – the rivalry stopped living up to the hype. Crosby took a hit to the head in the Winter Classic, the genesis of his concussion problems. Ovechkin’s production declined under the Caps’ new approach, first under Bruce Boudreau, then under Dale Hunter in 2011-12.
Crosby and Ovechkin have played only four times since Jan. 1, 2011. That’s it, because of Crosby’s injuries and a lockout. How can you have a rivalry when you don’t play each other?
But after another lockout came Crosby and Ovechkin again, Crosby looking like the Crosby of old, Ovechkin looking like the Ovechkin of old – at least after he adjusted to his latest new coach, Adam Oates, who shifted him from left wing to right wing and let him focus on what he does best. Ovechkin scored like crazy and carried the Capitals into the playoffs.
“It was almost like a breath of fresh air for Alex that, ‘Hey, I’m going to get back to where I was before,’ ” said Predators forward Matt Hendricks, a former Capital. “The way Ovi’s being coached, with Oates trying to do anything he can to get Ovi the puck in scoring situations, you’re just going to see that rivalry blossom even more.”
The NHL doesn’t necessarily need Magic and Bird the way it did. The league survived – no, thrived – while Crosby was concussed and Ovechkin was scoring 30-something goals instead of 60-something. It has more players to market and more ways to market them than ever before. Many feel Crosby is the best player in the world and Ovechkin is not No. 2, even as the reigning Hart winner.
But make no mistake: Fans connect to stars. Stars are harder to market in hockey, because top forwards play little more than a third of the game. And when it comes to merchandising and sponsorships – from skates to shoes to sports drinks – Crosby and Ovechkin remain the faces of the game to the mass audience.
“They are no doubt the most marketable players,” said Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief marketing officer. “I don’t think there’s anybody else that’s even close to those guys.”
Some are sick of the Sid-Ovi thing, of the NHL’s promotion of them, of sponsors’ selling of them, of the media’s coverage of them. But the truth is, no one attracts more interest than they do. Why do you think NBCSN puts the Penguins on TV all the time? Because Pierre McGuire used to be a Pens assistant coach? If Crosby turned people off, people would turn off their TVs. They don’t tune out. They tune in.
“It’s not a question if we think we do too much with it,” Jennings said. “We want to do even more with it. It’s not diminishing what we want to do with the other athletes. We think when you look at ‘Q’ ratings – likeability, awareness, stuff like that – we have a ways to go. As a marketer, I want our guys to continue to go farther, and the two best horses that we have in the race to do that are Sid and Alex, and we’re going to pull everybody else as well.”
The two best horses are back on track together.
“It’s what we all want,” McPhee said. “We want our best players playing as well as they can.”
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