December 01, 2011
We can agree, some of us begrudgingly, that Sidney Crosby can be considered the best hockey player in the world when he's healthy. That he's accomplished more in the NHL and internationally than Ovechkin. That he's worked hard to add new material to his act, as Ovechkin's has become stale. That the Penguins are currently a better team than the Capitals, and a better bet for the Stanley Cup.
The Crosby vs. Ovechkin debate has raged since they both entered the League. It used to be fascinating to see them collect hardware, vie for championships and post tantalizing numbers that had us all projecting their place on all-time leaders lists.
But the question's been answered: Crosby is better than Ovechkin.
Until proven otherwise. And that proof might never arrive.
Some believe that Crosby clearly being the better of the two kills the rivalry. But it's not dead; it's just been diminished.
The debate used to be about what these players could become; instead in 2011, the focus has shifted to how Ovechkin has regressed. It's like seeing two marathon runners stride for stride until one kicks ahead and the other starts inexplicable sucking wind.
This year, and everybody has a theory as to what's wrong with Ovi. The league has figured him out. His team tried in vain to transform him. He rebelled against authority. He was out of shape. The Olympics knocked him off-stride. Some suspensions curbed his recklessness. He got the big money. He became too in love with himself. He cannot change. He will not change.
In other words, Ovechkin — once hockey's most open book, both on and off the ice — has become a variation on the sort of puzzle that other Russian players have become. The word 'enigma' can be a lazy one, indicative of communication and cultural issues as much as whether a player is truly a mystery, but Ovechkin now has a little bit of Alexei Kovalev in him, a little of his close friend and fellow Capitals disappointment, Alex Semin. The question has become not what he can accomplish, but why doesn't he accomplish it?
There are two different kinds of rivalries in the NHL: balanced and unbalanced.
The latter happens when an underdog is trying to take down an established winner. The Detroit Red Wings probably have a dozen "rivalries" around the NHL, but how many do they actually consider to be rivals?
The balanced rivalries are two teams that are well-matched and can claim a level playing field. The Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings have a balanced rivalry, for example.
Crosby and Ovechkin used to have a balanced rivalry. Their wins (12-9), assists (22-13) and points (35-28) in the series all favor Sid; Ovechkin leads in goals (15 to 13). Their 2009 playoff showdown was one of the few moments in recent NHL history in which two players eclipsed their respective teams for attention, and battled back and forth at the tops of their respective games. The double hat-trick game is the stuff of hockey legend.
But there's a sense today, whether it's perception from the playoff results or their recent stats, that Ovechkin needs to play himself back up to Crosby's level. Which is why Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review wondered if the rivalry was dead:
It can't be a legendary rivalry if only one of two participants is world-class elite, and Ovechkin hasn't been that since the 2009-10 season. I asked Crosby late last week what he made of Ovechkin's "struggles."
"I mean, I watch the highlights every morning, and they say (Ovechkin's struggling)," Crosby said. "By his standards, maybe, struggling. But a point a game or a goal every two games is probably not struggling by most people's standards. ... 'Struggling' can be pretty broad sometimes."
Fair enough. But this is no small sampling. Once the NHL's most feared goal scorer, Ovechkin has just 38 goals in his past 100 games. Chris Kunitz(notes) has 34 in the same span. What's more, Ovechkin's trademark intensity seems to come and go. His ice time sits at a career-low 18:41 per game. He is down more than a shot per game.
Starkey wrote that the "NHL needs Crosby-Ovechkin," which ignores the fact that it'll always have it.
Despite his offensive output commiserate to Chris Kunitz, Ovechkin vs. Crosby is on NHL Network tonight. It's heavily hyped by the League. They're on NBC in 2012. It's still going be treated with Magic vs. Bird reverence if not the hype to match.
Fact is, if the rivalry is somewhat diminished, it could actually be a healthy thing, so long as the NHL keeps it in perspective.
We've all had our moments of stomach-turning Sid-and-Ovi-kill in the last few years — the pre-Olympic documentary that portrayed Crosby as Wonder Bread and Ovechkin as a model-bagging party heathen was mine. The rivalry felt forced; even the Winter Classic matchup had backlash because fans were simply tired of seeing these two players over-marketed.
There's been a market correction since then, thanks to Crosby's injury rehab and Ovechkin's swoon and the fortunes of their respective teams. It doesn't feel artificially overhyped anymore. It just feels like another chapter in a book that started out like a classic and has settled into being a damn good page-turner with a more predictable ending. Said Crosby to the Trib:
"Whenever we play each other, it's always a little more intense and a little big," he said. "But when the time comes to play, that's when you're ready for it. I don't think it's something you circle on the calendar or anything like that."
Remember when it was?