Alex Ovechkin has a simple request as he awaits Thursday night’s start of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs: Please don’t make this Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby.
“It’s all about Caps and Penguins, all right?” Ovechkin said Tuesday when asked about facing Crosby in a playoff series for the first time since their dueling hat tricks in 2009.
“He’s absolutely right,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I think it’s actually quite disrespectful if it’s Crosby vs. Ovechkin. That’s a good story line for (the media) but in reality I think it’s quite disrespectful to every player in there because everybody in there has contributed a lot to the success of both teams. You don’t have success with one person; you have success as a group. To me it’s the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins going head to head and they have a lot of star power on both sides.”
True enough. While Crosby leads the Penguins in playoff scoring with eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) in five games, he is one of 11 different Penguins who have scored goals in the post-season. Evgeni Malkin (7 points), Phil Kessel (6), Nick Bonino (5). Kris Letang (5) and Patric Hornqvist (5) each averaged at least a point a game against the Rangers in Round 1 as the Pens outscored the Rangers 21-10.
Meanwhile, Ovechkin ranks fourth on the Caps in first-round playoff scoring with five points (3 goals, 2 assists), behind Nicklas Backstrom (2 goals, 5 assists), John Carlson (3 goals, 3 assists) and Marcus Johansson (1 goal, 5 assists).
But it’s hard not to talk Capitals-Penguins without discussing Ovechkin and Crosby, who came into the NHL as the league’s post-lockout torch bearers yet have met just once before in the playoffs and have produced just one Stanley Cup.
Capitals defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik have had the opportunity to call both Ovechkin and Crosby teammates.
“They’re almost different in every possible way, both on and off the ice, really,” Niskanen said. “They’re both fantastic on the ice the way they contribute to the game and their teams. Dynamic skills and different skill sets. It’s amazing the consistency of production they’ve had over the past 10 years, Just amazing to me.”
Indeed, in his 11 NHL seasons in Pittsburgh, Crosby, 28, has scored 338 and 600 assists for 938 points in 707 games.
Ovechkin, 30, has played in 132 more games (839) than Crosby, putting up 187 more goals (525) but 159 fewer assists (441) and 28 more points (966).
In the playoffs, Crosby holds a significant advantage with 126 points (46 goals, 80 assists) in 105 career games. Ovechkin has 75 points (39 goals, 36 assists) in 78 games.
“People are right when they say they’re polar opposites,” Orpik said. “Especially off the ice, they’re completely different guys. But how they go about it works well for the two of them. That competitive nature and trying to be the best every day is probably the biggest similarity they have.”
“Ovi likes to joke around more when we’re not playing,” Niskanen said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. He turns it off when he’s not at the rink. When he’s here, he’s working and he wants to be a difference maker and he’s the most competitive guy on our team when he’s really going. He showed that in the first round this year.”
Both players have clearly turned a corner under new coaches. While Ovechkin has worked diligently at becoming a better two-way player in two seasons under Barry Trotz (improving from minus-35 two years ago to plus-10 last season and plus-21 this season), Crosby has re-invented himself under new Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.
Before Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston behind the Penguins bench on Dec. 12, Crosby had just six goals and 19 points in 28 games. After Sullivan’s hiring, Crosby went on a tear, recording 30 goals and 66 points in 52 games.
“He plays the game the right way,” Sullivan said of Crosby after his captain scored the overtime game-winner against the Capitals on April 7. “He’s the ultimate competitor.”
“The big thing with Sid is that he’s always been a guy that carries himself very, very well representing the league,” Trotz said. “He’s so much stronger (than when he entered the league). I think he’s learned from his experiences. He’s had a terrific year after a slow start. He’s a fantastic player and a great ambassador for the game.”
Beginning Thursday, Crosby and Ovechkin will go at it again, this time with teams with legitimate aspirations to win the Stanley Cup.
“I think when you’re young you think it’s going to happen every year and you’ve got lots of time,” Trotz said. “As you get older you realize how special these times are and how hard you have to work to get these opportunities. When these opportunities go by I think you recognize there’s less and less opportunities to look forward to.”
Which brings us back to Ovechkin and his chance to quiet the critics who say he and the Caps cannot win the big one.
“I think it’s going to be a great series for everybody – the players, the fans for your guys,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a great rivalry. Two good teams playing against each other in the second round. It’s good for us and it’s good for everybody. I’m looking forward to it. They’re a great team with great players and it’s a challenge.”
Ovechkin declined to reminisce about 2009 and his dueling hat tricks with Crosby.
“It’s history,” he said. “I don’t like to look back, I look forward. What was in the past is over. This is a new challenge for us, a new moment in our life.
“… It will be a very interesting and a very important challenge for us. We’re ready to take a big step and we have to beat Pittsburgh and the Islanders or Tampa next. We’re gonna try our best. This team is ready and I think everybody can’t wait for when Game 1 starts.”