Crosby vs Ovechkin: What Happened To The Rivalry?

The fates of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have been intertwined ever since they were selected first overall in back-to-back drafts either side of the 2004-05 lost NHL season.
When the league returned for 2005-06 with a new set of rules aimed at opening the game up, Crosby and Ovechkin quickly became the faces of the ‘new NHL’. They were both electric offensive players and the more tightly called version of the NHL created the opportunity for an 18-year old and 19-year old to steal the show.
The two players quickly rose to stardom playing for a pair of franchises in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals that had drifted into mediocrity. It didn’t take either of Crosby or Ovechkin to establish themselves as premier players in the league – they both scored 100+ points in four of their first five seasons.
It helped that in many ways the two men were the antithesis of one another. Crosby is a playmaker, soft-handed, a determined physical competitor and a man who plays by the “Canadian code”.  In opposition, Ovechkin is an often brash, self-confident Russian with an unmatched desire to score.
It seemed inevitable that each would eventually lead their teams to a new era of success, including multiple Stanley Cups.
Those expectations seemed even more reasonable when Crosby led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2008 and the following year, the two teams were once again among the leagues most electric.
They would meet in one of the most exhilarating and exciting playoff series in recent memory. That series was decided in a Game 7 and was supposed to be just the first chapter in a rivalry between two exciting teams and two dynastic players – who didn’t like each other too much.
In the end, the rivalry has ended up mirroring Game 7 of that series rather than the fantastic drama that had preceded it. Pittsburgh and Crosby crushed Washington and Ovechkin 6-2 in what was an anti-climatic and disappointing finish that match-up.
The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup only a few weeks later and it seemed that the two franchises might be set to swap championships in a similar vein to the way that Crosby and Ovechkin have dominated the individual awards over the last 10 years winning more than a dozen between them.
Instead, the Conference Finals are once again starting without either teams’ participation. The Capitals are yet to reach the Conference Finals in the Ovechkin era, while Pittsburgh have made on appearance since winning the Cup, they were promptly swept by the Boston Bruins in 2013. Both teams made coaching changes last summer, but neither Mike Johnston (Pittsburgh) nor Barry Trotz (Washington) were able to generate a better performance out of their respective rosters and another offseason of inquiries looks to be the storyline for both franchises.
It’s difficult to understand or assess why the rivalry has struggled to live up to its potential. Neither play has really failed to live up to his potential. Crosby has 302 goals and 853 points in 627 regular season games, he has a further 43 goals and 118 points in 100 playoff games. It’s true that 2014-15 was one of Crosby’s least productive season offensively as he “only” had 28 goals 84 points in 77 games. He then managed four points from five postseason contests. It was still good for third in the league in scoring though and he would have won the scoring title had he played even just a couple of more games.
Ovechkin finished fourth in scoring in the season just passed with 81 points and he won’t yet another Richard Maurice Rocket Trophy leading the league with 53 goals. Ovechkin has 475 goals and 895 points in 760 regular season games. His teams have never made it past the second round, but he has still managed to score 36 goals and 70 points in 72 playoff contests. Ovechkin has 50+ goals in six of his 10 NHL seasons, one of those other seasons was the lockout shortened campaigjn where had 32 tallies in 48 games.
Perhaps the simplest reality is that the NHL has changed. Greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux would have been all-time greats regardless of the era that they played in, but in reality their remarkable numbers were at least not hindered by playing against poorly padded goaltenders and against teams that had little defensive structure.
Head coaches and video analysts have caught up. They won’t allow players like Crosby and Ovechkin to completely dominate proceedings with their individual talent and that becomes even more of a reality in the postseason.
Instead, the champions over the last five teams have been great teams. Chicago’s individual talent is unquestionable, but GM Stan Bowman’s efforts to bring depth at both ends of the ice have been crucial. Meanwhile, both the 2011 champion Boston Bruins and 2012 and 2014 champion LA Kings were built on defense-first systems and while each had talented offensive players, scoring by committee was as much the order of the day.
There’s something mind-numbingly uninspiring about an NBA where only a few teams have a realistic shot to win the championship in a league dominated almost entirely by its superstars. However, there’s also no arguing that the NHL has lost something with the spark of a potential great rivalry between two elite players slowly slipping away.
Pehraps the rivalry will never quite be the same, Ovechkin will have turned 30 before the start of the 2015-16 regular season, Crosby will be 28. There’s a resigned feeling around both franchises as they look for a way to compete. However, things can change quickly. The Penguins and Capitals in 2009 were boosted by the quantity of talented, young and cheap players that they were able to have on their rosters.

Still, Washington was only one win away from a Conference Finals appearance this spring, and the Penguins will undoubtedly start next season among the favourites once again. Perhaps there’s still a chance for the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry to have closing chapters fitting of its explosive beginning.

Bruce Boudreau’s Toughest Challenge

There’s no denying that Bruce Boudreau is an excellent NHL head coach. It doesn’t matter how good his players have been, Boudreau’s record speaks for itself. Nevertheless, true greatness is judged by what you do when it counts. It is judged by how you perform in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Perhaps 2015 is the year that Boudreau scratches the “black mark” of playoff failure from his name.
The upcoming Western Conference Finals series against the Chicago Blackhawks might just be the toughest and most pivotal challenge of Boudreau’s eight-year head coaching career.
Boudreau entered the NHL in 2007-08 as the head coach of a young, raw Washington Capitals squad led by the superstar Alexander Ovechkin. He was an instantaneous success leading the Capitals to the postseason for the first time since 2002-03.
A loaded, run and gun and exciting to watch Capitals led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green stormed to a Game 7 in the second round of the postseason one season later against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were edged out in one of the most exciting postseason series in recent memory.
When Washington was finally swept aside 6-2 by a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup that June, it felt like the Capitals were on the precipice of breaking out as a potential dynasty.
Boudreau and his passionate coaching style were at the core of the identity of that team – he was most of all considered to be a great player’s coach.
That wasn’t to be the story though. Washington would win the President’s Trophy with the best regular season record in 2009-10 and the Eastern conference in 2010-11, but each time they performed poorly in the playoffs. They were shocked in the first round in 2010, before getting swept by division rivals Tampa Bay in 2011.
During that time Boudreau’s strategic qualities and flexibility was questioned. There were calls for him to adopt a less “gun-ho” attacking approach and to insist on his superstars committing at both ends of the ice. Above all, it was often insinuated and sometimes outright stated that Boudreau’s approach didn’t work in the postseason.
Just 22 games into the 2011-12 season Boudreau was fired and replaced by Dale Hunter.
It appears that Washington’s problems ran deeper than Boudreau. The Capitals have won just two playoff series in four seasons since his departure. They couldn’t get it done this season despite taking a 3-1 second round series lead against the New York Rangers.
Some of Washington’s players have even regressed in their postseason performances without Boudreau, the most notable of which is Alex Ovechkin. “The Great 8” has 25 goals and 50 points in 37 playoff games under Boudreau (and scored at more than one point per game in all four runs), but has managed just 11 goals and 20 points in 35 postseason contests since.
Boudreau didn’t have to wait long for his next job; the Anaheim Ducks almost immediately hired him as Randy Carlyle’s replacement. The situation with the Ducks wasn’t so dissimilar to the one Boudreau inherited in Anaheim. A team with lots of talent led by superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but one that was set to miss the playoffs and was struggling to hit its potential.
He wasn’t able to prevent the Ducks from missing the 2012 playoffs, but since then Anaheim have won three straight Pacific division titles posting impressive offensive numbers and developing into one of the league’s star-studded line-ups.
After losing in the first round in 2012-13, the Ducks were engaged in a Penguins-Capitals 2009 like series with California rivals LA, eventually losing 4-3 in what was arguably the Kings’ toughest series en route to a second Stanley Cup triumph in three years.
It was always the case that 2014-15 would be a defining season for these Ducks and Boudreau. They once again stormed to a Pacific division title taking the top seed in the Western conference.
In the first two rounds of the 2015 playoffs they’ve taken their opportunities losing just one game while beating Winnipeg and Calgary, both teams with little postseason experience.
The challenge in front of them in the Conference Finals is a different matter. The Chicago Blackhawks already have two Stanley Cups in the last five years and it feels like a core led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook might just be primed for a title number three.
Boudreau has probably done enough for Ducks fans and management to forgive him a series defeat to Chicago – at least in terms of staying employed. However, this is a real opportunity for the Ducks and their head coach to break through. There are some playoff-tested players leading this group and they are benefitting from some bargains salary cap wise. Windows of opportunity don’t stay open for too long in the salary cap era.
For Boudreau, his 363-167-69 regular season record speaks for itself. He’s won seven division titles in eight seasons and has never failed to make the playoffs outside of the year split between Washington and Anaheim.
His one blemish is a 5-6 record in postseason series (3-6 before 2015). Boudreau’s window of opportunity to erase that blemish from his record comes against the NHL’s modern dynasty.
If Boudreau’s team loses this series, they risk becoming a footnote to a period dominated by Chicago and LA. Win it and they could be building their own legacy.

For all of his success and for everything he has accomplished. Bruce Boudreau is about to take on his toughest challenge yet as he aims to engrave his name in the history of the sport. 

The Future Is Bright For The Flames

           After overcoming a blown call by the zebras in Game 3 to win the contest and bring their series to 2-1 against the Anaheim Ducks, it appeared the Calgary Flames may indeed be a team of destiny. Johnny Gaudreau snapped a wrist shot over the glove of Frederick Andersen late in the third period to tie that contest, despite the fact the Flames had technically tied it just a few minutes earlier if not for the aforementioned blown call. Mikael Backlund then scored on a seeing-eye shot a few minutes into the first overtime period. Unfortunately for Calgary, the victory would be the only one the team would claim in the series as the Ducks’ Corey Perry scored in overtime last night to give the Ducks 4-1 series win.
           The loss was definitely disappointing for the Flames and their fans, especially considering the team filled with young guns had a chance to do something no Flames team had done since 2008… win a game in Anaheim. Still though, the future does look bright in Calgary. The team made the playoffs when nobody expected to and coach Bob Hartley instilled a sense of belief in the team’s young core group of players that seemed to carry the squad all the way through to the second round.
           And perhaps the most exciting aspect of the team’s run is that Norris Trophy caliber defenseman Mark Giordano missed the latter part of the regular season and all of the playoffs with an injury. The fact that he was out of the lineup allowed teammates Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and others to step up their game and fill the gaps. The commitment to doing whatever it takes to win was evident throughout the end of the regular season and it spoke volumes as to the potential the Flames’ organization has moving forward.
          Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in particular produced way more than perhaps anybody would’ve thought coming into the season and the team also found a way to make it work between the pipes with former Duck Jonas Hiller playing extremely well early in the season giving his teammates added confidence in front of him. Even when Hiller struggled against his former team in Round 2, backup Karri Ramo Relieved him and showed up in top form giving the Flames every opportunity possible to claim victory against an Anaheim team who although will face its toughest test against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals, appears to be a juggernaut in its own right.

           So all in all there’s a lot to be grateful for and hopeful about now that the Flames are headed back to Calgary to clean out their lockers for the summer. It was a fun ride while it lasted and the team demonstrated that the future is indeed bright in Alberta, and not just because the rival Edmonton Oilers have their sights set on Connor McDavid.

Can Lightning Strike 4 Straight Times?

          Not for a knee injury to goaltender Carey Price during last year’s playoff run, the Montreal Canadiens may have found themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. Despite the fact that’s not how things played out, the Habs came into this season with high hopes of surpassing last year’s results in competing for hockey’s ultimate prize this time around. While the team may have been dying a rematch with the New York Rangers in the Conference Finals, the present order of business is to take care of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
           If Montreal was taking Tampa Bay lightly, they now have cause for concern as the Lightning are now taking the series back to the state of Florida with a 2-0 lead, handily winning both games at the Bell Centre. To make matters worse, the team’s superstar Steven Stamkos appears to have finally awoken from his slumber. The sniper finally scored his first goal of the playoffs on Sunday night, forcing the Habs’ Hart Trophy candidate to do the splits in the crease to no avail as Stamkos deked around him and slid the puck in the net.
           And yet as much as experts around the NHL would gladly contend that Stamkos should be Montreal’s number one concern defensively throughout the series given the fact that a player of his caliber is bound to breakout sooner or later, it’s not Stamkos leading the charge early in the series for Tampa Bay.
          Thus far it’s actually been Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov who have caused the most damage. Kucherov scored twice in the team’s Game 2 win on Sunday, and Johnson leads the team in scoring in these playoffs with 7 goals and 3 assists. That’s 10 points in 8 games, and a lot of those points have come in key situations that led the team to victory, as is usually the case when it comes to offensive production in the postseason.
          Add to Tampa’s scoring a solid and healthy Ben Bishop in goal, and Montreal’s Brandon Prust publicly calling out the refereeing after Game 2, which will surely give the team trouble as the series moves forward and it appears there’s no stopping the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s especially true considering the Lightning won every single game of the regular season series between the two clubs as well.
           The question now is not only whether Montreal can make a comeback in the series and keep it respectable, but whether the Tampa Bay Lightning actually have a realistic shot at sweeping the Habs. Conventional wisdom might say no just because Montreal is one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup this year, but it appears that the Lightning are the hottest team in hockey outside of the Anaheim Ducks and no matter who has home ice advantage in the series, at the end of the day, it’s about who is playing better in the moment. And the Tampa Bay Lightning are definitely playing better right now.
          Without question, the end result of Game 3, scheduled for Wednesday in Tampa Bay will go a long way towards determining whether or not the Lightning can indeed achieve the improbable and sweep Montreal, not only from a practical standpoint given that they would obviously need a 3-0 lead to put themselves in position to sweep, but also from a morale of standpoint. A win on Wednesday gives the Lightning an opportunity to strike fear in all of the remaining teams in the playoffs and continue to build their confidence as they pursue bringing the Stanley Cup back to Tampa Bay for the first time since the franchise won its first ever title back in 2004 over the Calgary Flames.

           Whether or not Tampa Bay wins four games in a row however, it’s obvious the franchise is a force to be reckoned with and that’s a scary thought given that the team’ leading scorer just now decided to show up to the party, a party that could have the state of Florida preparing for a Stanley Cup parade by the middle of next month.

Saying Goodbye To Nassau Coliseum

It’s time to say “goodbye” to Nassau Coliseum. From afar, it might be difficult to feel anything for a rickety old stadium that was no longer fit for purpose in the National Hockey League. However, it’s worth remembering the history, tradition and loss of one of the league’s truly unique rinks.
While the movement of the New York Islanders from Long Island to Brooklyn is not being highlighted or discussed as a major movement of a franchise, for the residents and hockey fans living in Nassau County and Long Island, it is a big deal.
There’s nothing quite like attending a hockey game. It is more enclosed than football or baseball and has a higher intensity level than basketball. The cool crispness of the ice and the sharp scraping of skate on ice is contrasted with the heated intensity of the game action and the deepness of the crashing physicality.
Since 1972, fans have streamed into the Nassau Coliseum and they have seen some wonderful teams and some wonderful games. In 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983 the Stanley Cup came to Long Island. That Islanders team to this day is one of the NHL’s least heralded dynasties – a dominance where you win four consecutive championships in any major sport is virtually unheard of. Perhaps it’s because they were followed by the Wayne Gretzky led Edmonton Oilers who won five Stanley Cups in seven seasons.
Al Arbour’s team had one of the finest lines in NHL history with Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, not to mention Bob Nystrom, Billy Smith and Denis Potvin. The Islanders had a deep, complete and simply unbeatable hockey team for four seasons.
Maybe moving to the better facilities of the Barclays Center is for the best for this franchise in the long-term, but the memories of those Stanley Cup runs will remain in Nassau. The 1980 team was also the very first NHL team to win a Stanley Cup with European players on their roster with Stefan Persson and Anders Kallur in the line-up of that team. Considering how much the league has changed over the last few decades, it’s hard to imagine a league where European players didn’t play a significant role.
It was fitting that after a period of mediocrity, the New York Islanders produced one of their finest seasons to date. They were a genuine contender in the Eastern conference. They dominated the Washington Capitals in what would be the final NHL playoff game at the Coliseum winning the game 3-1. Though they eventually fell in a tight Game 7, there’s a feeling that this franchise, led by one of the game’s elite players in John Tavares, is headed firmly in the right direction.
In many ways, Jack Capuano has coached this team to play the “Islanders way” over the last few seasons. They skate well, score goals and play with an edge and a little bit of nastiness.
It hasn’t all been rosy for this franchise. In fact, many of the final days of Nassau Coliseum have been a struggle with owner Charles Wang battling to keep the team where it was and speculation over its future.
The Islanders will proudly march into their relatively new and sparkling arena next September, but they were dragged there after commissioner Gary Bettman seemingly finally put his foot down and demanded something better than Nassau.
Neither should it be forgotten that Nassau Coliseum, for all its charm and for all the history that exists there, is a relic. Famously poorly maintained, leaking from the ceiling and in danger of falling down altogether. It is no longer fit to hold 15,000 screaming hockey fans two or three times per week. It was arguably becoming increasingly unsafe.
Wang’s attempts to develop the area around Nassau and to make the hockey arena the hub of a thriving district ultimately never came to fruition. Instead, the arena is one of the most difficult to get to in terms of transportation and feels “out of the way”. That won’t be a problem for the Islanders new home, which is located in downtown Brooklyn.
Still, hockey will not be the same in the Barclays Center. The arena is less intimate and the giant electronic scoreboard will reportedly make hockey viewing less than ideal. It wasn’t designed for hockey viewing.
Times will change and little lasts forever. The history made at Nassau Coliseum will be taken with the Islanders to Brooklyn, and new history will be made. The franchise’s time playing on Long Island and at the quirky arena has shaped its identity, and that will never change.

Nassau Coliseum will be missed. It’s easy to understand why there is so much rejoicing and celebrating that the franchise will be moving to a new home, and importantly for the fan base now has a secure future in New York. However, one of the NHL’s most characterful and special arenas in its long history.