By Mike Wise
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
The malice and force Alex Ovechkin struck that puck with last night with 7 minutes 7 seconds left was all you need to know about the difference between him and Sidney Crosby. The powerful blast that represented the winning goal became a one-shot referendum on why the Washington Capitals have the most electrifying player in the National Hockey League and the Pittsburgh Penguins do not.
Two games into the Eastern Conference semifinals, this has become a series about the beauty and the beast, the heartthrob and the hulk.
Because the beauty, technical superiority and all-around productivity of Sid the Kid cannot yet match the unbridled aggression and fury of Ovie the Beast, it's no wonder the team who has the guy with the front tooth missing and an unkempt mop is leading two games to zilch.
They both were stupendous in Game 2, scoring postseason hat tricks for the first time in their careers, incredibly finding nooks and crannies between the pads, sticks and gloves of Gumby-esque goalies.
Six goals between the best two players in the game spoiled everyone in attendance at Verizon Center, a building hosting a Stanley Cup playoff series the past three days as much as it is an NHL renaissance.
But it's also a window into why Washington has won two games it has been outplayed in for long stretches, why the steady, strong and consistent play of Crosby's Penguins have fallen victim to the crucial moments Ovechkin keeps seizing, slowly siphoning the confidence from a Penguins team that reached the Cup finals a year ago.
Ovechkin, in less than 24 minutes of ice time, had 12 shots and five hits, and his two perfectly timed goals in the third period illustrated his ability to capture the moment. Crosby, in more than 22 minutes, took five shots, blocked two and had exactly zero hits.
This isn't an indictment on Sid the Kid, because every time Ovechkin's numbers or production is put up against Crosby there is an instant backlash against anyone who takes either side. Let's be clear: They're both otherworldly players who possess so much more skill and savvy than most everyone they play with or against.
But it's how Ovechkin found the space and time at the right moment in Game 2, how he always seems to combine his desire and skill when his team is the most desperate, that separates him from Crosby at the moment. He simply understands the crucible of a tight game more than his contemporary at this point in their careers, and that makes him a more valuable player to his team.
Again, this is not to say Crosby is an inferior player. In fact, before Ovie is knighted let's not forget his countryman and the game's third star, Simeon Varlamov.
Sprawling, diving, his glove hand pawing instantly at a puck that should have beaten him, Gabby's golden child turned away 33 of the Pens' first 35 shots. The kid kept them in it so Ovie could win it.
Varlamov has won five straight games and six of eight since Bruce Boudreau had the intuition and smarts to insert him for José Theodore after Game 1 of the Rangers series, a decision that should lead to his first book -- a tale of heart, wit and the unbreakable bond between man and his trusted, loyal companion: "Varly and Me."
"He's done his job, hasn't he," Boudreau said, as if he wanted to pat Varlamov on his 21-year-old head.
But none of Varlamov's efforts result in a win if Ovechkin does not take over Game 2 before Crosby leads the Pens to victory.
"I think it's good for fans to see great players play against each other and two great teams play against each other," Ovechkin said afterward. "It's unbelievable when we played against great players and you win the game like this. It's not about me or him, it's about the whole team."
Part of that team was a legendary Russian line. No, it was not the famed KLM line of the Red Army -- Krutov, Larionov and Makarov. Or even its second line, Fedorov, Bure and Mogilny. It's the vaunted FOK Line of the Caps -- Fedorov, Ovechkin and Kozlov, who produced a pretty Ovie goal for the Caps' first score.
There would be two more, bullets that broke Pittsburgh's spirit in the final minutes of another heirloom featuring the game's best two young players. And there would be hats too, flung from the stands, dozens and dozens of them piling up on the ice after Ovie's third goal sent the arena into a tizzy.
"I'm sure it's entertaining for people to watch," Crosby said. "If I were to look at it from a fan's point of view, obviously that would be the case. As a player, seeing a guy like him get a hat trick is not a good sign. But at the same time I realize people are entertained by that."
"Sick game," Ovechkin said. "Three goals by me and him. If I was a Capitals fan, I'd be really happy right now."
If you're a fan of this game, watching the Great 8 and Sid the Kid play like they did, if you're Gary Bettman or anyone else who suffered through a lockout four years ago, you have to be happy about beauty vs. the beast right now.