By Mike Wise
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The good people of Halifax -- the Great White North, in general -- can breathe easy this morning. Their no-frills golden child -- the savior of Canadian hockey, the cutting rebuttal to all the new-fangled showmanship Alex Ovechkin has suddenly corrupted their sport with -- is moving on.
Sid the Kid's sublime two-goal, three-point performance, especially that breakaway score to ensure a Game 7 rout early in the third period, brought so many knowing grins of satisfaction to the gatekeepers of puck purity. But not as much as seeing a look-at-me Russian showboat in bright red lose and go home. To Moscow -- or Mexico, for all they care.
Queen's Land 6, KGB 2.
Penguins-Capitals was never merely about a tremendous Stanley Cup series showcasing the NHL's brightest stars going the distance, one full of riveting theater until an abject dud of a Game 7.
No, to the hard-core traditionalists who view most uber-skilled players from overseas as little more than Euro trash, this was about validating their xenophobia.
Sidney Crosby, the quiet farm boy from Nova Scotia, won; his Pittsburgh team is going back to the Eastern Conference finals. Ovechkin, the YouTube demigod who once pretended his stick was on fire after a goal, got his just dessert.
Just as Julius Erving vs. Larry Bird, or Bird-Magic, penetrated socially deeper than basketball, to disturbing levels of racial and civic pride, so too does the first postseason chapter of Crosby-Ovechkin encompass larger issues, places where no one wants to go.
After two top-flight organizations and the last two league MVPs dueled the past 10 days, inoculating Gary Bettman's product from any lingering post-lockout concerns over interest in this bang-bang, fast and furious sport that is so enrapturing in person, a good number of extremists on both sides won't let go of their positions or their misguided feelings about Crosby and Ovechkin.
They get their keyboard courage up and fire off ugly screeds into the Internet ether, saying why they feel Ovechkin should just take a run at Crosby and hurt him permanently or why Crosby represents all that is right and good about hockey and Ovie, in the sentiment expressed by a reckless 17-year-old last week, should just die.
Look, they play hockey; they don't extort pensions or send kids to war in faraway places. Crosby got the better of Ovechkin in the decisive game of an ultra-compelling series. That's it.
In the handshake line after such an anticlimactic end to a six-month thrill ride, Ovechkin found Sergei Gonchar, the Penguin with whom he violently collided with earlier in the series, and spoke with him for a long while, letting him know how sorry he was for hurting him.
And Crosby and Ovechkin eventually found each other at center ice, Crosby having not just gotten the better of his rival in a deciding game but taking charge like only a young captain and clutch player can.
That's right, clutch. After Game 2, it was written here that Ovie was a much better player under pressure, his speed and power superior to anything the more calculating Crosby could muster.
But having watched him up close for seven games, seeing his economy of movement outside the crease, his feistiness in the corners and his uncanny knack for delivering the puck perfectly for an on-rushing teammate, he gets the nod as a more important player in a seminal game at this juncture of his career.
A mea culpa is in order. No matter how good Ovechkin was the past week and a half, he wasn't as complete and versatile as Crosby was with the season in the balance. Sid the Kid has won seven playoff series and will soon play in his second Eastern Conference finals and possibly second Stanley Cup finals.
The Great Eight is awesome and the most original, organic and exciting player in the game. But in 21 riveting playoff games, his team is 1-2 in Game 7s, and last night the Capitals were at least a year away from their first Cup finals in the Ovechkin era.
That isn't some grand statement about what's better for the game -- old-school, roughhouse North Americans who grew up on frozen ponds or big-hitting, goal-scoring sensations from abroad.
It's just the truth after the most thorough, seize-the-moment night in Crosby's young, brilliant beginning. Ovechkin was a supernova in this series, but Sid the Kid was better.
They combined for an ungodly 27 points -- 16 goals and 11 assists -- in seven games. They went three overtimes and played five, scintillating one-goal games, going back and forth with haymakers, combining for a historic hat trick apiece in Game 2. Like children locked in a free-swinging pillow fight, the deal was one of them would have to drop before they quit.
When Ovie and the Capitals went down hard on the last night of their season to Crosby and a more playoff-hardened group of skaters and scorers, Sid the Kid had decisively won round one of hopefully many playoff scrums to come.
"Just being around him today, the look in his eyes, you could tell," said Eddie Johnston, 73, the former Penguins coach and now senior adviser for hockey operations. "It was game time."
Eddie of course said he would start a team with Crosby before anyone. It was hard to disagree after Game 7.
Simeon Varlamov, the Capitals' 21-year-old goalie, told Russian writers afterward he was surprised Crosby said, "Great series" to him in the handshake line, "considering he probably scored more goals against me than anyone in the playoffs. . . . For what he did in this series, they should build a monument for him."
Maybe the greatest praise came from Bruce Boudreau, the Washington coach and Ontario's own, who has seen a good Canadian player or two in his day:
"I always thought he was a great player, but I didn't know how great a player," said Boudreau, who had earlier in the series called Crosby the second-best player in hockey. "He's always on. He doesn't take time off."
Surely not last night in Washington, where Crosby essentially tucked the nation that invented the sport safely into bed. For the moment, their game was safe from that emotional interloper, celebrating his grand success in such an unCanadian way.