PITTSBURGH -- Alex Ovechkin shifted away from his normal office on the power play and retreated to the point at the blue line awaiting the pass. When it came, he fired the one-timer at Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray.
Murray managed to get a pad on the puck, but the power behind the shot sent the rebound out to John Carlson who potted the puck before Murray could recover. Ovechkin collected an assist on the play for his 1,200th career point, pulling him into a tie for 48th all-time in NHL history.
Sitting one spot ahead of him at No. 47 with 1,206 points is Sidney Crosby who hit the 1,200-point mark exactly one week before.
After 14 NHL seasons, six points are all that separate the two rivals as both have put together careers that will cement them among the all-time greats.
“I'm just amazed at how consistent both of them have been near the top of the league in scoring,” said Matt Niskanen, who has been with the Caps since 2014 and who spent four seasons playing with Crosby in Pittsburgh. “Every year for over a decade, they've just produced and produced. It really is amazing just how lethal they've been for so long.”
Some rivalries are created by playoff matchups, others are born of bad blood stemming from a dirty play in a game. If you ask either Ovechkin or Crosby, they see the rivalry between as just an extension of the Capitals and Penguins rivalry. Neither player seems to enjoy talking about the other or about competing against one another.
“I don’t like turning it into me and him,” Crosby said to Josh Yohe of The Athletic.
That attitude is not surprising given how the competition between both players was thrust upon them.
The Ovechkin, Crosby rivalry was artificially created, the product of an attention-grabbing storyline of two generational players entering the league at the same time. Whether they want to admit it or not, however, that rivalry has grown into one of the all-time great rivalries of the NHL and perhaps in sports.
“It'll go down as the greatest one-on-one, player-on-player rivalry that we've had since Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky,” former player and current NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick said. “And that's even a little bit different too because Mario and Wayne were on opposite conferences, they didn't play each other as much as we've seen Sidney and Ovechkin. So I think it goes even on a bigger par, on a bigger status than maybe their two rivalries had during the '80s and '90s.”
Ovechkin first entered the NHL in 2004 when he was selected at No. 1 overall by Washington in the draft. He took the league by storm with two goals in his NHL debut. With 52 goals and 106 points in his rookie season, it was clear the Caps had received a generational talent. Washington has become a powerhouse franchise in the NHL with Ovechkin leading the way. He took over as team captain in 2010. The way he plays and the way he leads can often stand in stark contrast to the typically buttoned-down NHL.
“He shows up every night and brings a lot of energy to the table,” Carl Hagelin said. “He's loud, he's always excited. I think he gets you going. He's been great.”
Crosby was the No. 1 overall pick for Pittsburgh the year after Ovechkin in 2005. A native of Nova Scotia, Crosby’s career began with high expectations from a hockey crazy Canada. He quickly established himself as the next great player for a Penguins team that had struggled since the decline of Lemieux. Crosby was the next player to wear the C after Lemieux and has brought a new era of dominance to Pittsburgh.
“Just tireless worker,” Niskanen said. “Plays the game hard. Obviously has a ton of talent and all that, but his motor just never stops going. He's just always going. He's usually the best practice player, he has the most detail, constantly working on his game. He's pretty impressive that way.”
Though both the captains of their respective teams, they lead in completely different ways.
“They're different, but they both find a way to be successful,” said Brooks Orpik, who played with Crosby for nine seasons and who is now in his fifth season with the Caps. “I think if one guy tried the other guy's routine or path, it probably wouldn't result in success and that's just the way it is. It's hard to find many similarities.”
A lockout erased the 2004-05 season meaning that despite both being No. 1 overall picks, they both made their NHL debut in the same season in 2005.
From a media perspective, it was a match made in Heaven. Two franchise players entering the league in the same year on rival teams. The narrative took off and everyone ran with it.
From the players’ perspective, however, it felt forced.
Ovechkin was from Russia, Crosby from Canada. Both players had played against one another only once in the 2005 World Junior Championship gold medal game. To call the Caps and Penguins “rivals” at that point was also a stretch. Washington’s dislike for Pittsburgh stemmed from a 1-6 playoff record against the Penguins. In 2005, however, both teams were in different divisions and had not played a postseason series since 2001.
“I know from those two guys perspective, it was always external,” Brooks Orpik said. “It was never me vs. that guy. It was always just this team vs. that team.”
But the rivalry tag would not go away.
Both players managed to live up to the impossibly high expectations starting in the 2005-06 season when both players tallied over 100 points and found themselves competing for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Ovechkin emerged victorious while Crosby finished second. Crosby would go on to win the Hart Trophy the following season as the league MVP. Not to be outdone, Ovechkin would win the Hart in each of the next two years.
For every individual accolade, every milestone one would reach, the other would seemingly respond.
“First couple years of course we was young, we was rookies and we want to prove to the team, to the fans who's better,” Ovechkin said.
But the great rivalries in sports, the games and storylines we remember the most, come from the playoffs. It was not until 2009 that the rivalry stopped being a media-driven narrative and turned into something more than that.
“Probably that first playoff series they played each other, that's where it turned into something real,” Niskanen said.
Sports can be fickle. The matchups we look forward to the most so rarely manage to live up to expectations, but this one did.
In their first postseason meeting, both Ovechkin and Crosby were absolutely brilliant. Ovechkin scored eight goals and 14 points while Crosby tallied eight goals and 13 points in seven games. Ultimately, Crosby and the Penguins prevailed and would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year. Though there could only be one winner, both players emerged as the faces of the league, two young superstars who had managed to live up to every expectation the league, the media and the fans had placed upon them when they were first drafted.
It took another seven years before the two would meet again in the postseason. Now they have played in each of the last three seasons in what has been inarguably one of the most important rivalries in league history. The winner of each series between the Caps and Penguins in the Ovechkin-Crosby era has gone on to win the Cup.
“It's a great rivalry and it's phenomenal for the game, for the growth of the game in both areas,” said Todd Reirden, who has coached both players. “Having lived in both places, you've seen the game grow largely because of those two superstars.”
A rivalry that was once branded as Ovechkin vs. Crosby and was measured by individual achievement shifted over the years. As Crosby continued leading Pittsburgh deep into the playoffs, Ovechkin and the Caps struggled to get past the second round. With every passing year, the number of goals, points and trophies mattered less and less. Suddenly the rivalry became all about one number: Zero.
In 2017, the Caps fell to the Penguins in the playoffs for the second consecutive season and for the third time in the Ovechkin-Crosby era. Ovechkin had yet to beat Crosby in the playoffs and had not won a championship.
When it comes to the all-time greats, players are judged by titles. Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Pavel Bure, Marcell Dionne, Eric Lindros were all great players in their respective sports, but they are all remembered with the caveat of being among the greatest players to never win a championship. Ovechkin was in danger of joining that list, but 2018 changed everything.
For the third straight season, the Caps faced the Penguins in the playoffs. Pittsburgh was the two-time defending champion and stood in the way of Washington’s Stanley Cup dreams. Ovechkin was brilliant again with seven points in six games. In overtime of Game 6, he sprung Evgeny Kuznetsov on a breakaway on the series-clinching goal. From there, Ovechkin and the Caps simply would not be denied.
The 2018 run to the Stanley Cup changed what was already a tremendous rivalry and made it an all-time great. Ovechkin finally had his championship and he had to go through Crosby to get it.
For his career, Ovechkin has earned three Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards as the MVP as voted by the NHLPA, seven Rocket Richard Trophies as the league’s leading goal scorer, one Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leader in points, one Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and one Stanley Cup. Crosby has two Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards, two Rocket Richard Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, two Conn Smythe Trophies and three Stanley Cups.
But for all their accomplishments, the legacy of both players will be forever linked. You cannot talk about the career of Ovechkin without talking about Crosby and vice versa. Now, however, the rivalry is not about what Ovechkin has not achieved. He finally earned his validation and with it, turned his rivalry with Crosby into one of the greatest ever. An all-time great vs. all-time great, champion vs. champion.
“You have arguably the best player over the last 12 years in Sidney Crosby and you have not arguably the best goal scorer in this generation in Ovechkin,” Roenick said. “Now that that Cup has been won by Ovechkin, there's always going to be that never-ending debate is who was the better player and it's one that I'm sure will be talked about way more than Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.”
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