Tonight will mark the fifth time that Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid have gone head-to-head in the NHL. The first four meetings between the NHL’s two most recognizable superstars have provided something of a microcosm of their careers.
In terms of individual performances, it’s not even close. McDavid has notched at least a point in each of the four games and has two goals and seven points against the Penguins. Crosby, on the other hand, has just one assist, with both players having a shootout goal. But when it comes to the team record, the Penguins have won all four games against Edmonton, with two of those wins coming in extra time (one overtime, one shootout).
There’s no doubt that if any GM in the league were starting a team from scratch, each one would pick McDavid over Crosby right here and right now. But in the time that McDavid has been in the NHL, Crosby has won two of his three career Stanley Cups and became only the third player in league history to win back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVP. And as long as that massive gap exists between the two players in terms of team success, Crosby will have the upper hand on McDavid.
As Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock put it when Crosby played his team last week: “One guy’s got two gold medals and three Stanley Cups. How old is Sid? He’s 31, he’s a pretty young guy. I thought Nick (Lidstrom) was the best defenseman in the game at 40. The game has changed quite a bit, but (Crosby) can just flat-out fly so I don’t think he plans on giving anything away. When you’re the best player on the best team, to me that’s totally different than being the best player on a team that’s not as good. To me, it’s not even close.”
People talk about the window for a Stanley Cup closing on the Penguins, but aside from getting to the second round of the playoffs two years ago, it hasn’t even cracked open for the Oilers yet. And with the way this team is constructed, who knows when that is going to happen? They sure seem a long way from being a Stanley Cup contender. As for the Penguins, there are probably two or three teams in this league that can flip a switch and the Penguins are definitely one of them. They have come to realize how to pace themselves, especially early in the season. But they’ve also showed that when they’re engaged and challenged – as they were last week in facing Auston Matthews and John Tavares in Toronto – they are a formidable opponent. Count them out at your own peril.
Crosby can certainly appreciate the scrutiny under which Matthews and McDavid find themselves, both playing for Canadian teams and all. He cheers for those players to succeed, but he says truthfully that the same way the Penguins get everyone’s best game, it gives his game a little extra juice to play against the best young stars in the league. The difference now is that there seem to be players like that on every team in the league.
“You look at our road trip,” Crosby said. “You go to Toronto and you’re playing against Matthews, (Mitch) Marner, Tavares. Then you go to Edmonton and you’re playing McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl and then you go to Calgary and it’s (Johnny) Gaudreau. There are all these young players, so there’s no shortage of competitiveness. It’s having to do it every single night and I think that’s the biggest challenge you learn. It’s not doing it for 30 games out of 80, it’s doing it every single night.”
Going back to the Stanley Cup window, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan does not buy for a second that it’s moving in a downward direction at the moment. And after watching a healthy Matt Murray play the way he did in his first game back and how his team played a patient and disciplined game against one of the best teams in the league in Toronto, he might be on to something.
“We certainly don’t feel (the window is closing),” Sullivan said. “We don’t feel that way within our organization, within our dressing room. Our coaching staff certainly doesn’t feel that way. We believe in this group. This is as good a core group of players as I’ve ever been around and they can still play and they know how to win.”
And that’s one thing the young bucks in the NHL haven’t learned how to do yet.