Future Stars Finally Cross
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
When Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins was named the NHL's rookie of the month for October, members of the Washington Capitals' front office grumbled quietly. Capitals fans posted angry messages on the team's Web site. Newspaper columnists in other cities wrote that Crosby won because he's the NHL's designated Golden Boy.
Ordinarily, the rookie of the month award is greeted with a collective shrug, sometimes even by the player who wins it.
But Crosby, the first overall draft pick in July, and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, the No. 1 choice in 2004, are no ordinary rookies. The two are widely considered the best players in a generation, prolific scorers charged with resuscitating their respective franchises and repairing the league's image, which was tarnished by the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
Tonight, the budding rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin leaps onto the ice, when they meet for the first time as NHL players at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
"We're very lucky to have these two great rookies come into the league at the same time after what the game just went through," said Barry Melrose, an ESPN hockey analyst and former NHL coach. "The NBA got LeBron [James]. We got Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. It's going to be an exciting rivalry for years to come."
New York Islanders General Manager Mike Milbury agreed.
"Having players of their caliber to hype is a great thing, particularly at such an important time for the league," Milbury said.
Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis repeatedly has said he hopes Crosby and Ovechkin do for the NHL what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did for the NBA in the 1980s. It's a lot to ask of players not two months into their first seasons, and Crosby and Ovechkin did their best to play down the game's significance in interviews yesterday.
"I can't speak for both of us," Crosby said. "But for me, I've played  games in the NHL. I think I have a long ways to go before I can compare myself to guys like that. I'm sure he thinks the same way. We're having fun playing in the NHL, but we have a long ways to go before we get to a matchup like that."
Ovechkin said: "It's just a game, but everybody is speaking about me and Sidney and like comparisons of me and him. I think that we must play hard, me and him, and play as a team and win the game."
Milbury and Melrose, like many hockey insiders, were hesitant to say which player is better, for two reasons: The season only is a quarter complete, and Crosby's and Ovechkin's styles of play are so different.
Crosby is an 18-year-old playmaking center who can set up teammates with slick, cross-ice passes or put the puck in the net himself. Ovechkin, a 20-year-old goal-scoring winger, is as comfortable crunching an opposing defenseman with a body check as he is skating the puck end-to-end and finishing with a spectacular goal.