Monday, May 4, 2009

The Greats Come to Play in the Nation's Capital

This was the series the NHL was waiting for.


Since both players were drafted and started their careers after the lockout. Since Sidney Crosby was hailed the savior scored 100 points in his rookie year. Since Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals, took home the Calder and got everyone's attention in a night in Phoenix. Since Sid the Kid won the Art Ross and the Hart in 2007, leading his young Pens to the playoffs. Since Alex the Great scored 65 goals, won the Art Ross and the Hart in 2008, leading his young Caps to the playoffs. Since Crosby took the Pens to the Stanley Cup finals last year as well. And most importantly, since Crosby and Ovechkin had a war of words back after a tough game in February.

Before the Feb 22nd showdown, both players were clearly the biggest stars in the league and certainly we wanted to see them play against one another in a playoff series. But, there wasn't an indication of hostility from our perspective as fans. For the Caps and Pens, the personal rivalry seemed to be Alex Semin and Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin. After that game and the fact that Crosby invented the phrase "like it or lump it", the battle lines were drawn, sides needed to be chosen and an matchup everyone wanted to see became a matchup everyone needs to see.

That's the best thing about sports, whenever the two best players matchup, it's always better if you're forced to take sides. During the Ali-Frazier trilogy, you rooted either for Muhammad Ali or you rooted for Joe Frazier. When Magic Johnson and the Lakers played Larry Bird and the Celtics, you rooted for either the Lakers or the Celtics. Same goes for the Pats with Tom Beady and the Colts with Peyton Manning. There was no middle ground when they played/fought one another. And that's the compelling part, which is missing in my opinion when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play, and would never happen in golf because a golf gallery doesn't root against anyone. So not only do Crosby and Ovechkin play different ways (Crosby more distributor/playmaker, Ovechkin straight shooter), but the snarl added in make rooting for both sacrilege.

So when Marty Brodeur gave up two goals in the last 80 seconds of Game 7 against the Hurricanes made me happy as a Rangers fan to see the Devils choke their series worse than the Rangers did, I'm positive the NHL was even more happy and excited as that would lead to this series between the two faces of the league and a battle to see who is the best. The non-hockey fan would come aboard for the series (provided they have Versus on their cable/satellite system) and everyone would want to know a) who would have the better series, Crosby or Ovechkin and b) would they get into a fight during the series.

Through two games, these are the many ways that this series is exceeding the hype. First, Simeon Varlamov has continued his great play that he had against the Rangers, and stepped it up a notch against Pittsburgh. His save in Game 1 is legendary already after two days, with bonus points from the magnificent call by Doc Emrick. Also, we have a choker factor as Geno Malkin (despite two assists through two games) we all agree has not shown up in Washington, and took a very costly penalty in the third period tonight. Now, we will be hearing and reading stories about when will Malkin show up which is a bad thing if you're a Penguins fan, but a great thing if you have no allegiance since it's a buzzworthy story to keep the series on the front-burner.

Of course, the main reason the series is exceeding the hype is the mano-a-mano battle going on between Ovie and Sid. The fact that the two stars of this series have stepped their game up in a way non-hockey fans notice is the most important aspect of the first two games. Hockey fans can tell when someone is playing well and don't need it to be in the box score to be so. The best example is Blair Betts of the Rangers who, despite 10 points in the regular season, was one of their top 5 indispensible players, thus a huge loss when knocked out by Donald Brasheur. And every team has one of those guys and hockey fans know instinctively to look beyond the box score for a gauge on how well they play. The non-hockey fan or causal fan doesn't view things like that. They look at who scored to see who the best is.

So what do we get from Ovechkin and Crosby? Game 1 both men score and it would be a Tomas Fleischmann goal to win it for Washington. In Game 2 tonight, as I'm sure everyone reading has watched SportsCenter saw both men got hat tricks. This is akin to Kobe and LeBron going for 40 in the same game when they play in the NBA Finals. Ovechkin in particular using the Malkin penalty and scored four seconds into the power play with a shot Matthew Barnaby claimed was harder than any one of Manny Pacquiao's punches of Ricky Hatton last weekend. He followed that up with another laser while using the defenseman as a shield. Crosby though, wouldn't be outdone as he would clean up the messes for his hat trick, the third one with 30 seconds left he hit in the air, as good hand-eye coordination as any baseball player. Now I know this will upset some people, and even I don't like what I'm about to write, but, I've been impressed with Crosby in this series. He has shown up, hasn't whined as much as usual, and makes an impact for the Penguins and they wouldn't have played as close as they have been playing. However, Ovechkin has put his mark on this series and most importantly, has the two wins in the Phone Booth.

Now the series will move on to the Igloo in Pittsburgh. As I wrote before, this series has already exceeded the hype, at least in the first two games. We never saw Gretzky and Mario faceoff in the playoffs, Bobby Orr didn't have a comparable rival and Original Six would devalue any uniqueness of watching Gordie Howe against Rocket Richard or Bobby Hull. This is the NHL's first true glamour series. But now that the Caps lead 2-0, the Pens need to come up with some wins on home ice. If they don't, regardless what we've seen, this series will ultimately be remembered for falling short and ending too soon. But if the Pens take their home two and go back to Washington tied, then we have potential of one of the best playoff series ever.

And perhaps no right answer to a new age old question: Crosby or Ovechkin?

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