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.