There were a lot of people who were happy to see Alex Ovechkin score his 500th NHL goal on Sunday afternoon. His parents were two of them. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis seemed quite delighted. Ovechkin’s teammates and the 18,003 people in attendance at the Verizon Center seemed to be having a good time, too.
But one guy who probably cheering from a distance was Ovechkin’s once and former rival, Sidney Crosby. For no other reason than the fact that a lot of the same questions that are being asked about Crosby these days are the same ones that were being posed about Ovechkin three years ago. There is little doubt Crosby is at the nadir of his career, being passed over for the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. Crosby’s play has inspired more questions than answers, as in, “What’s wrong with Sidney Crosby?” or “Are we seeing the beginning of the demise of Sidney Crosby?”
Sound familiar? It should, because those queries, word-for-word, are the same ones we where hearing about Ovechkin in the 2012-13 season. But here he is, leading a Stanley Cup contender offensively, on pace to record his third straight 50-goal season and playing as well as he ever has. The redemption is complete.
Which brings us back to Crosby. Is there a chance Sid the Kid can resurrect his career and rejoin Ovechkin in the conversation about the best players on the planet? The fact that he’s 28 years old, which is typically the tail end of the most productive years for an NHL player, suggests that it might be tough. But Crosby’s mental makeup, his character and his sense of pride should tell the hockey world in capitals letters and a bold font not to count Crosby out. Crosby won the scoring title two years ago and almost won it last season. This season he's tied for 38th. That won't last.
Early in his career, Crosby had two very significant flaws in his game. The first was that he couldn’t win faceoffs and the second was that he wasn’t selfish enough and passed up too many shots. Well, all Crosby did was become one of the best faceoff men in the league and scored 50 goals. Elite athletes are very good at tuning out all the negativity around them, but even Crosby has to be aware of what people are saying. No doubt he has analyzed his game every which way and will continue to do so until it gets back on track.
And there are already indications that is happening under the guidance of new Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. Not only has Crosby maintained a point-per-game pace since Sullivan stepped behind the Penguins bench (6-6-12 in 12 games), he’s playing more, shooting more and his possession numbers are far superior. All of that suggests the second half of the season should be far more productive for Crosby than the first half was. And after a summer to take stock of what worked and what didn’t, Crosby will work his tail off in an effort to come back next season as good as he has ever been.
Crosby has a career shooting percentage of more than 14 percent, but is way below that this season. His shooting percentage has always been higher than Ovechkin’s, who has never had a shooting percentage better than 14.6 with a low of 8.7, but where Ovechkin gets him in is sheer volume. Crosby is on pace to take 241 shots this season, just 30 more than Ovechkin has taken already to this point.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of Crosby getting back to his more selfish ways. Of course, that depends on going to the shooting areas and having people on the ice with you who can get you the puck, but logic would suggest that if his possession numbers are better, the number of shots he takes will rise.
Crosby recently said he started feeling his game come around in November and that the change in coaches had little to do with his resurgence this season. That might be true, but both the numbers and the eyes suggest that he’s been better under a new coach. With Ovechkin, it took a year under Adam Oates and a position change that has since been reversed, but it’s clear he’s a far better player under the likes of Oates and Barry Trotz than he ever would have been under Dale Hunter.
So if you’re looking for a player to make a big rebound, you might want to put your money on Crosby. The fluctuations for star players are far more pronounced and there’s a chance Crosby is going through a down time before a tick back up in the other direction. And if he’s looking for inspiration, he has to look no further than the player with whom he once shared the mantle of best player in the world.