The two faces most responsible for bringing the NHL full-throttle into the 21st century are inextricably linked. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin get it, even if they’d rather not talk about it.
Their simultaneous arrival following the 2004-05 lockout served as the league’s version of a winning lottery ticket. Yin and yang on skates. Crosby the ever-polite Canadian with the otherworldly skills drafted by Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and brought to Pittsburgh to help rescue a franchise in tatters. Ovechkin all snarling id, a hard-hitting, hard-shooting Russian born in Moscow near the tail end of the Cold War and brought to the U.S. to work a few blocks from the center of the free world.
“Sid and Ovi were perfect for the game to take off and appeal to a younger demographic,” Penguins forward Beau Bennett said.
Yet the rivalry that has simmered around them, the one that will pick up on Thursday when Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals host Crosby and the Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, has been largely relegated to jersey sales and scoring titles. They’ve only met with so much on the line once in 11 seasons: a brilliant showdown in the conference semifinals in 2009, the one that ended with the Penguins shaking hands and moving on after a Game 7 blowout in Washington on their way to the Stanley Cup.
At the time, it seemed as if seeing Crosby’s blurring No. 87 across the ice from Ovechkin’s bullish No. 8 would become an annual rite of spring, a patchy playoff bearded version of Brady vs. Manning. Crosby was 21 back then. Ovechkin only 23, their primes still in the offing.
It didn’t quite work out that way. When the puck drops Thursday night, it will be 2,542 days since Crosby’s first-period goal ignited a 6-2 rout in the decider that provided an oddly anticlimactic end to an electrifying 12-day stretch that included hockey’s biggest stars trading hat tricks in Game 2 and a trio of overtime finishes. The memory still resonates in Pittsburgh nearly as much as the Penguins’ eventual triumph over Detroit in the Cup finals.
In Washington, not so much.
“It’s history,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t like to look back. I’m looking forward. What was the past, it’s over. Right now, it’s a new challenge and a new moment in our life.”
Even though maybe it’s only fitting that they meet now rather than at some other point in the interim, with both back at the peak of their considerable powers.
Crosby spent the better part of two seasons recovering from concussion-like symptoms that began with a blindside hit from Washington’s David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic, which drew 68,000 to Heinz Field and the largest TV audience (4.57 million) to watch an NHL game in 36 years.
Ovechkin’s path has been healthier but no less pockmarked after clashes with a string of coaches while developing a reputation for petulance that former Washington teammate Chris Clark — the captain on the 2009 team — feels is no longer deserved.
“He’s been a lot more accountable,” Clark said. “I think he gets a bum rap that way. He plays so much, but I think his defense and his accountability and his leadership I think has been the biggest change.”
Having a supporting cast and head coaches who have found a way to empower their occasionally mercurial leaders certainly helps. Crosby took off around the time Mike Sullivan arrived in mid-December. Freed by Sullivan to go and do his thing, Crosby averaged 1.31 points over Pittsburgh’s final 44 games, a surge that coincided with the Penguins returning to their usual perch as one of the league’s most explosive teams.
It’s much the same for Ovechkin, who clashed with Dale Hunter and couldn’t seem to find any sort of real rhythm under Adam Oates even as the goals continued to pile up. Barry Trotz, however, seems to have broken through. Ovechkin’s 50 goals led the league for the fourth straight year but also came in a season in which the Capitals posted the league’s best record and he posted his best plus/minus ratio (plus-21) in five years.
The “C” on Ovechkin’s jersey no longer seems ceremonial. Ditto Crosby. Though he never shied away from the obligation, “Sid the Kid” has become something decidedly more grown up. Crosby took aside Bennett recently and talked about the need to not be affected by the way the game is being called, a marked departure from earlier in his career. When Crosby took issue with the officials early in a Game 5 win over the New York Rangers last Saturday, he politely pleaded his case to the crew while skating off the ice at the end of the first period rather show them up.
“He said that he was just crazy when he was younger, just screaming about every call,” Bennett said. “He’s pretty mild out there, never too high, never too low.”
While Ovechkin remains more of an open book both on and off the ice — providing peeks into his private life via his Instagram and Twitter accounts, social media outlets the more guarded Crosby may never embrace — he’s comfortable doing his share of backchecking and speaking up when something needs to be said.
It’s one of the few ways Ovechkin and Crosby may be alike. It’s their differences, however, that make them so compelling. While they may downplay the importance of their roles, their teammates understand the presence of two opposite but equal forces give the series juice unlike any other.
“It’s always been the talk, the matchup the league wants,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said. “Sid against Ovi.”
“I think it brings out the best in both of us,” Crosby said. “I feel like in the past that’s been the case. I think there’s a lot made of it but I think at the same time we want to be at our best for our respective teams. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Neither does hockey.