For the second time in his career, Alex Ovechkin is trying to follow Sidney Crosby’s lead.
Ovechkin got the jump on Crosby in this superstar showdown, winning the Calder Trophy when both players were rookies in 2005-06. But Sid struck back, winning the Art Ross, Hart Trophies and Lester Pearson Award the following season as a sophomore.
At that point, Crosby was charging ahead as the NHL’s lead horse and it looked as though he would continue to separate himself from the field.
Then Ovie kicked it into high gear, scoring 65 goals last year, claiming the holy trinity of hockey trophies Crosby won the year before – plus the Rocket Richard – and held serve this season by once again leading the NHL in goals and making himself the odds-on-favorite MVP candidate.
Right now, Ovie wins more ‘Who would you take’ debates than Crosby: Too many goals, too much passion, too much of a Russian bull. But if Ovechkin wants to maintain his advantage in a rivalry the NHL needs and loves, he must follow Crosby’s precedent of pushing his team into the Stanley Cup final.
Ovechkin, like Crosby in 2007, lost out in the first round during his initial playoff appearance last spring. The Caps nearly fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat Philadelphia, but came up short in overtime of Game 7.
After being held without a goal from Game 2 through Game 5, Ovie produced in the crunch with two goals in Game 6 and a goal and an assist in the Game 7 loss. Still, going four games without a tally isn’t the way to get your team ahead.
Crosby, of course, was busy leading his Penguins to the Stanley Cup final. And leading is the appropriate term because every time the Pens needed him, Crosby was there, tying Henrik Zetterberg for the playoff scoring lead with 27 points in 20 games. When Pittsburgh failed to score a single goal against the vaunted Detroit defense in Games 1 and 2 of the final, Crosby kicked his game up, registering two goals and six points over the final four to make a series of it.
The biggest misconception in the Ovie-Sid debates is Ovechkin is a fountain of emotion, while Crosby is full of clichés and devoid of genuine personality. I don’t buy this for a minute. Certainly Ovechkin is the most charismatic player in the NHL. The guy has an aura about him that transcends language barriers and there’s a larger-than-life element to his makeup that can’t be ignored or fabricated.
Crosby’s occasional whining and frequent reliance on boring sports speak shouldn’t undermine the determined resolve with which he plays. When the battle heats up, I see Crosby’s eyes burn and his legs churn. He’s never going to match Ovie’s natural magnetism, but he can go toe-to-toe with anybody in terms of on-ice passion.
Ovie’s genetics align perfectly with what’s required to be a playoff superstar. There’s no doubt he’s capable of sparking a team to a deep post-season run; he just needs to go out and do it.
It will mean more than fighting through prickly playoff-time defenses – it’s about backchecking, shot-blocking, chipping pucks out and finding a way to restore the team’s confidence when it sags from a soft goal against.
Ovechkin has legitimate claim to the title of league’s best player. More than that, this year it became abundantly clear he’s a league-defining player; one who corrals new fans from all over with awe-inspiring talent and an infectious toothy grin.
But the awards and barstool accolades will mean less and less the longer he goes without leading his team past the Eastern Conference’s upper crust.
Just like Sid did last year.
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Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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