Monday, April 25, 2016

Capitals and Penguins open a new chapter in Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry


JAMES MIRTLE
April 24, 2016
Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin
Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, Getty Images

Every athlete has losses that burn, years – and even decades – afterward.
What makes Alex Ovechkin’s losses unique is so many of the worst moments of his career have been to the benefit of Sidney Crosby.
The 2005 world juniors, their first on-ice meeting, where Canada thumped Russia 6-1 and Ovechkin left early with a dislocated shoulder.
The epic second-round battle in the NHL in 2009, where Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins downed Ovie’s Washington Capitals – and eventually won a Stanley Cup – after the two piled up a combined 27 points in the seven-game series.
The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and Crosby’s first golden goal. Then, four years later, his second, in the heart of Russia, where Ovechkin had dreamed of matching Crosby’s heroics and delivering gold at home.
Crushing losses, all of them.
Here comes the rematch.
The Capitals finally took out the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon, holding on for a 1-0 series-ender in Game 6. Washington’s reward is a Round 2 matchup with the Penguins, their first postseason meeting since 2009, a series widely regarded as one of the best played in the past decade.
The Capitals enter this one as the NHL’s top team after a 120-point regular season. But the Penguins aren’t exactly underdogs, as they were the NHL’s top team to end the year with a 19-6 run in their final 25 games.
It should make for an even series and compelling theatre. But the headlines will all be Ovechkin versus Crosby.
It’s hard not to view this as Ovechkin’s chance to rewrite the narrative. He is 31 in September. He’s on the most complete team the Capitals franchise has ever had, with the expected V├ęzina Trophy-winning goaltender in net (Braden Holtby) and Jack Adams-winning coach behind the bench (Barry Trotz).
He has more support offensively – with one of the NHL’s leading scorers in Evgeny Kuznetsov on the second line – and in leadership roles, with recent Cup hoisters Justin Williams, Mike Richards and Brooks Orpik all airlifted into D.C. to win.
This is Ovechkin’s shot to finally get out of the second round, in his 11th year in the league. This is his shot – perhaps the best one he’ll ever get – at the Cup.
It’s fitting it goes through Crosby.
There are a lot of things wrong with the NHL’s new standings format – including the fact these two teams are meeting in Round 2 instead of the conference finals after they finished 1-2 in the East – but the league being gifted this matchup is a godsend.
With no Canadian teams in the playoffs, the ratings were guaranteed to be a problem north of the border, but if you look at the big TV markets that have been eliminated in recent days – Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and even Minnesota – drawing eyeballs was tracking to become a huge issue down south, too.
A Capitals-Penguins grudge match will save it. Perhaps even in Canada, where Pittsburgh continues to be the most-watched U.S. team thanks to Crosby.
What helps is what’s on the line. Whoever survives this series has a very good chance of winning it all. With the Kings gone and the Chicago Blackhawks on the brink, the long-held notion that the Cup winner is coming out of the West doesn’t appear to apply.
In the East, only the Tampa Bay Lightning look like a significant threat, and only then if Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman can return from injury and make an impact.
For Crosby, a second Stanley Cup would certainly cement his legacy – at 28 years old – as the defining player of his generation. After a brutal start had many questioning whether all of his injuries – and those to his head specifically – had caught up to him, Crosby has been the NHL’s best player since Christmas. Including the first round of the playoffs, he now has 71 points in his past 53 games – eight more than Chicago’s Patrick Kane in second spot. (Ovechkin, incidentally, has 46.)
Whatever questions Crosby still had to answer about being one of the best players in the world, he’s answered, and another championship would be a fitting end to those doubts.
An Ovechkin win would be different. Whether it’s fair or not, he needs more team success to win the traditionalists over and to end the never-ending nitpicking of his game. Even getting through this series with the Penguins, and to his first final four, would change some hearts and minds around the NHL – especially if he’s a difference maker. Eleven years is an awful long time to wait to go deep in the playoffs, and despite the fact it’s now a 30-team league, there’s still an expectation that superstars will at some point play for a Stanley Cup.
Nine times in the past 10 years, however, Ovechkin has instead been at the world championships, where he’s quietly won three gold, two silver and a bronze medal in that span.
Crosby? He has played in only two worlds, including last year, when he captained Canada past the Russians in a lopsided gold-medal game to become the 26th member of hockey’s Triple Gold Club.
In a tournament few in North America saw, Ovechkin was again on the losing end.
The good news is that his next chance to get the better of Crosby starts later this week. And it can’t go much worse than it has before.

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