Friday, December 02, 2011

Can Ovechkin catch Crosby in best-player race?

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

Dec 1, 2:33 pm EST

The last time Alex Ovechkin(notes) and Sidney Crosby(notes) faced each other, it was New Year’s Day. It was the Winter Classic, the NHL’s annual outdoor game, and it was used to showcase supposedly the top two players in hockey.

HBO cameras followed Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals and Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins for a first-of-its-kind, behind-the-scenes series culminating with the Classic. A TV commercial showed Ovechkin and Crosby standing face-to-face at Heinz Field, rain turning to snow, symbolizing a coming Cold War. Ovi and Sid literally were the faces of the game, their dueling images facing off on the side of the truck that carried the equipment that made the very ice.

By then, though, Crosby had clearly separated himself from Ovechkin and everyone else. He was streaking as his Penguins soared. Ovechkin was slumping as his Capitals struggled. And as they meet again Thursday night, the chasm is even greater – even though Crosby took a hit to the head in the Classic, took another one four days later and suffered concussion symptoms that sidelined him for 10-1/2 months.

Crosby had 32 goals in exactly half a season when he went down; Ovechkin finished with 32 goals last season playing only three games short of a full schedule. Crosby returned from a 61-game absence in dramatic fashion last Monday night with two goals and two assists; Ovechkin shouldered blame this Monday morning when the Capitals fired coach Bruce Boudreau.

It seems only a matter of time before Crosby catches Ovechkin statistically. With 11 points in five games, he’s just seven behind the 18 Ovechkin has posted in 23 games. For Crosby, the question is if – or when – he will factor into the scoring race. The Toronto Maple LeafsPhil Kessel(notes) leads the league with 32 points. At this pace, Crosby would catch him by the end of February.

For Ovechkin, the question is if he will catch back up to Crosby, if he will make the best-in-the-game debate a debate again. Ovechkin is only 26. He still has every ounce of the ability that once made him the Great Eight. He should be entering his prime, and he should stage a rivalry with the 24-year-old Crosby for years to come. But how does he become the player he used to be, and can he under new coach Dale Hunter?

“Everybody wants to win MVPs and scoring title, but again, right now, in this situation – especially when the team fire the coach – you don’t have to think about you have to score 20 goals in two games,” Ovechkin said. “You just have to play hard and show the coach we’re going to fight for you. We just have to play for each other and for him, too.”

What’s wrong with Ovechkin? To the many theories – his lack of evolution, his sometimes subpar conditioning, his waning enthusiasm – let’s add another: Part of the problem might be the question itself.

Ovechkin and the Capitals became a fun-loving, high-flying, elite team by playing one way, but because they failed in the playoffs, all they heard was that their way didn’t work. They changed – and for valid reasons – but they got away from what made them great and got worse. Is it any wonder that they haven’t been themselves since they tried to be something else?

Crosby’s and Ovechkin’s paths really diverged in the spring of 2010. Both Crosby’s Penguins and Ovechkin’s Capitals were upset in seven-game series by the same suffocating defensive team (the Montreal Canadiens) and the same hot goalie (Jaroslav Halak(notes)). 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 Stanley Cup the year before. They had confidence that their way could win because it had won, and they had the benefit of the doubt from the public. They stuck to their plan. Rightfully so.

Ovechkin’s Capitals lost in the first round – the top regular-season team falling to an eighth seed – blowing a two-game lead in a series early in the playoffs for the second straight year. Instead of patience, a feeling that they were close, there was panic, a feeling that there was a fatal flaw.

I sat down with Ovechkin one-on-one before last season. At that point, there was still a strong argument that Ovechkin was the best player in the NHL. Ovechkin and Crosby each had one scoring title, but after voting Crosby the league’s most outstanding player in 2007, the players had chosen Ovechkin three years in a row. Ovechkin led Crosby in most individual categories: goals (269-183), points (529-506), goal-scoring titles (2-1) and MVP awards (2-1). But, of course, Crosby had a Cup and an Olympic gold, and he was being touted as the superior team player.

And that’s what we talked about. That’s all anyone talked about. Ovechkin said all the right things (“You have to win something to say, ‘Yeah, I’m the greatest player in the world’ “), and I think he meant them. But you could also tell he was worn down by the talk his greatness wasn’t good enough, saying his friends kept asking him why the Caps had lost to the Habs (“I’m pretty tired to hear why. ‘Why? Why? Why?’ “). He repeated what he had been told so often (“It doesn’t matter how good you play in the [regular] season”), and then, well, he played like it.

Yes, this is where mental toughness comes in – the stuff Boudreau said he didn’t know quite how to teach the team just before he got canned. But it was more than that. Ovechkin’s teammates struggled, too, and the coach changed his philosophy to buckle down defensively. Though Ovechkin looked like the Ovi of old late in the season and the Caps got hot, finishing first in the East, he finished with the worst regular-season numbers of his career and it didn’t translate into playoff success. The Caps were swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The rest is history. Following orders from ownership and management, Boudreau tried to enforce accountability this season. He benched Ovechkin for one key shift Nov. 1 against the Anaheim Ducks, the cameras caught Ovechkin calling Boudreau a “fat [fellow],” and the snowball grew even bigger. Ovechkin and others stopped responding to Boudreau. Just as Crosby came back, with TV analysts showing iso shots of the returning hero streaking back into his own zone, Ovechkin stopped backchecking altogether. The captain helped his coach get fired.

So now what? Though Hunter has made adjustments to Boudreau’s systems, his message isn’t much different than Boudreau’s was at the end – no run-and-gun hockey, be responsible defensively, play hard all the time. He said he will base ice time on merit, but he acknowledged that he likes to ride his star players if they earn it.

Maybe Ovechkin will never score like Crosby again. Remember that the Penguins were ahead of the Capitals in their development as a team when Crosby and Ovechkin arrived, and their lineup is even more stacked now. Meanwhile, Caps center Brooks Laich(notes) said it will take “months” to perfect Hunter’s system, and Caps winger Mike Knuble(notes) said he expects a lot of low-scoring, tight games. We might have to recalibrate our expectations of Ovi.

But the Capitals wouldn’t have made this change if they didn’t think it would give them a greater return on their biggest asset – a guy signed through 2021 at an annual salary-cap hit of more than $9.5 million.

“I guess we’ll see in the next couple weeks how it plays out,” Knuble said. “He may feel a little bit fresher mentally … if the situation with Bruce was bogging him down for some reason. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a new lease on life for him. I don’t know. But it’s not going to get easier. I don’t think he’s going to have a free pass, either.”

Maybe Hunter will motivate Ovechkin, instill more discipline in him, help him adjust so opponents don’t key on his signature moves. Maybe the Capitals will find the right balance between offense and defense. Maybe the pucks will start going in for Ovi again, he’ll earn more ice time and the joy, the leaping celebrations, will return.

Asked what kind of captain he wanted Ovechkin to be, Hunter said he needed to be a big part of the game every night.

“He’s got to get everybody’s confidence back,” Hunter said.

Starting with his own.

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