The Crosbys first beat the Ovechkins at a world junior tournament in North Dakota more than 12 years ago but that was just setting the stage for the adult stuff. The Crosbys have a couple of Stanley Cups and the Ovechkins have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. They’ve played in the Olympics in their respective states and the Crosbys have won gold home and away and the Ovechkins have ribbons for participation.
Maybe it all changes Wednesday night in Washington. Maybe it becomes a rivalry. Maybe the Ovechkins finally get one over the Crosbys. And if the Ovechkins prevail it will be strange, maybe less satisfying.
If the Washington Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 to move on to the Eastern Conference Final, it won’t really feel like the Ovechkins beating the Crosbys. Ovechkin and Crosby have been central to their respective teams and brands for more than a decade but never have they seemed so minor in the mix than they do right now.
Start with the Caps. They have been the better team in this series since coach Barry Trotz stopped looking for more from the franchise player and changed the mix. Washington’s best line this spring, in the opening-round win over Toronto and in the first two wins over Pittsburgh, has been Marcus Johansson–Evgeny Kuznetsov–Justin Williams.
In the win in Pittsburgh in Game 6, it was the reconstituted first line of, right to left, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and – in the spot long-occupied by Ovechkin – Andre Burakovsky. Ovechkin has been relegated — it’s really the only appropriate word — to skating beside Lars Eller and buzzsaw Tom Wilson. Trotz has been politic and tried to spin this as wealth redistribution, striking a new balance as it were. So much hooey. Ovechkin gets his run on the power play but other than that there’s less expected of him than anytime previous in his time in Washington.
On the other side are the Crosbys. At the start of this series, Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel-No. 87-Patric Hornqvist line was hockey’s best and the catalyst in a pair of wins in Washington. And then in Game 3 you were reminded of the fragility of hockey-playing flesh when Crosby was dropped by a loose knock from Ovechkin and a unconscionable cross-check from Matt Niskanen. After missing his team’s inspired — if improbable — win in Game 4, Crosby dressed for Washington’s wins in Games 5 and 6. Was he better than who would have filled in for him? Yeah, I guess. The same guy who’s a finalist for the Hart Trophy again? No.
You have to give credit to Crosby for will and bravery but that doesn’t put the puck in the net.
If Pittsburgh is going to win in Game 7, again, you’d presume that Crosby will have to be more effective than he was in the two losses that he started and finished in this series. Evgeni Malkin is entirely capable of winning a game on his own if you go by history, although that would be going by history seasons ago rather than history written a few days back. Marc-Andre Fleury might be able to steal another game in this series just like Game 4 but that’s a big ask.
No, if the Capitals win it looks an awful lot like they’ll win it for Ovechkin rather than Ovechkin winning it for them. Maybe he’ll torch a one-timer on a power play for a Game 7-winning goal but the team is very unlikely to be in a position to win Game 7 riding him right now.
After so many disappointments in seasons past, a lot of people said that if Washington didn’t get it done this spring it would never going to happen. And a lot of people said that the Capitals and Pens were the two best teams in the playoffs. I’m not sure if anyone is saying either of those things now. They shouldn’t.
You could look at this season and post-season and say that we’re seeing Ovechkin in decline. You could look at the same and say we’re seeing Ovechkin in a system of Barry Trotz’s design. Both might be true. He was a player who, at the top of his game, you built a franchise around. Now he’s the top-paid player on his team, basically so on past performance.
When I first saw these two square off in the final of the world juniors in ‘05 — it was absolutely electric. Ovechkin was the firestarter and lightning rod of the Russian team while Crosby, in his draft year, was just another shining talent on arguably the most dominant team in tournament history. Crosby took a helluva run at Ovechkin in that game, Canada got the rout on and a wounded Ovie watched a couple of periods on the bench.
When Crosby landed in Pittsburgh, you knew that there was every shot that, given good health, they would be the centrepieces of a rivalry that defined the era. Good health wasn’t always there for Crosby, not even in this series. And there’s no saying that Game 7 will be the last game in this rivalry but last chances and last dances are hard if not impossible to predict.
Down the line, someday, it will be the Capitals with Ovechkin versus the Penguins with Crosby, someday maybe Wednesday.