Few personal rivalries have persisted in the hockey world’s collective consciousness as long as Sid vs. Ovi — the one pitting the reserved, by-the-book Canadian centreman against the eccentric, fun-loving Russian winger. It’s been at times a fair narrative and at others an overblown one, but for the past three years, it’s been unavoidable.
For two straight seasons, Sidney Crosby‘s Penguins ousted Alex Ovechkin‘s Capitals en route to a Stanley Cup win — the second and third time the bracket shook out that way, after a similar result back in 2009. That trend was upended earlier this month, though, when the Capitals finally climbed out from the Penguins’ shadow and sent the birds home, defeating their long-time rival in Game 6 of this post-season’s second round.
Much has been made of the evolution of Crosby and Ovechkin’s relationship over the past decade, and particularly over this past trio of playoff runs. While those outside the locker room can make their best guesses, there might be no one who understands that dynamic better than Brooks Orpik, who suited up alongside No. 87 for the first nine years of the Nova Scotian’s career, before switching sides and playing out the past four seasons alongside No. 8 in Washington.
The veteran defender shed some light on the two future Hall of Famers in a piece published in The Players’ Tribune on Friday.
“When I played with Sid in Pittsburgh, what stood out the most was how incredibly focused and disciplined he was. Ovi is not like Sid,” Orpik says in the piece. “There’s a conventional way to do things, but [Ovechkin’s] never really subscribed to it. Contrary to Sid, I think the best word to actually describe Ovi is reckless — on and off the ice. I know all the old-school hockey guys will be saying, ‘Reckless? What do you mean reckless?’ But I honestly mean it in the best way possible.
“He plays the game with this level of freedom and imagination that allows him to try things other people won’t — and pull them off just about every night. Of course, it’s plain to see how his talent level has elevated this organization for so many years, but it’s his general joy in playing the game that makes him an incredible teammate.”
That comparison holds true to what we see on the ice, of course — Crosby darting in and out, calculating, batting pucks out of the air, Ovechkin swinging through the zone like a wrecking ball, whipping wild wristers into the back of the cage.
There’s no accurate or complete way of comparing the two in terms of what they mean to their respective clubs, despite Crosby’s side having consistently gotten the better of Ovechkin’s up until now. That repeated success wasn’t necessarily an indication of Crosby’s dominance over his high-flying counterpart as much as it was his club narrowly coming out on the right side of an absurdly close matchup.
That’s where Ovechkin finds himself now as his Caps take on Tampa Bay in Round 3 while the Penguins watch from home.
“Of all the Pens-Caps series I’ve been involved in — on both sides — I’d say this year’s was probably the closest,” Orpik says. “Just look at overtime of Game 6. Tom Kühnhackl hits the far post with a laser. We avoided going to another Game 7 by basically an inch. When you win, you usually forget about those little things that happened to go your way. They don’t seem as important.
“But when you lose, it’s those moments that torture you. Those are the plays that pop into your head at random times during the off-season and make you feel sick to your stomach.”
The 37-year-old knows that feeling well after two off-seasons of stomach-churning disappointment.
“After last year’s loss to the Pens, we were completely shattered. What I couldn’t get over, and might never get over, was what a missed opportunity it was,” says Orpik in the piece. “We had such a great team — a complete team — and even then, it hadn’t been enough. I think losing like that so many times in a row would have been enough to crater some teams from the inside. … Our biggest boost has come from those players who are completely unattached to our past failures. I can understand why it might be hard for some of our young guys to imagine that a lot of great players can go their whole careers without making it this far in the playoffs.
“They probably don’t fully understand what it means for an entire city to wait more than 7,000 days to be in a position like this.”