By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; D04
In Puckville and beyond, Capitals-Penguins is must-see hockey. No one needed to be at Mellon Arena on Tuesday night for Washington's 6-3 victory over Pittsburgh to prove there is nothing moving the needle more in the NHL at the moment than Ovie vs. Sid the Kid.
Passion. Power. Panache. Scuffling supernovas on the ice, playing leapfrog with each other's legacy.
Leading a team to the Presidents' Trophy is a tremendous accomplishment. And if the pre-playoff psyche game means anything, it was nice of Ovie to awake from his post-Olympic scoring slumber with two goals in the last game of a 4-0 regular-season sweep of the Pens.
The problem for rockin'-the-red Washington at the moment is, Sidney Crosby is at least two leaps ahead in the perception game. If Alex Ovechkin doesn't play into June soon, he starts down the road of Wilt Chamberlain admiring Bill Russell's bejeweled fingers.
You know the history: One guy loads up on the numbers, scoring titles and MVPs (Wilt), while the other (Russell) points to the scoreboard and collects titles. Wilt retires a freak of nature, the greatest offensive force in the game. Russell retires the sport's greatest champion and teammate, 11 titles to Wilt's two. (One makes cheesy movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and dies way too young, while the other is treated as this wizened, salt-and-pepper sage, trotted out at every NBA happening as if Yoda had grown to 6-foot-10. But you get the point.)
"I've went back and forth on this," ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose began when asked recently to say which player he would start an NHL team with, "and I think I would go with Crosby because of his body of work and two things he's done that Alex hasn't done. Meaning the Stanley Cup he's won and the gold medal he won for Canada. Plus, his passing just makes people around him better.
"Now, Ovie is such a great scorer, fierce hitter and tough player that I could see people going that way. Bottom line is, we'll be arguing who the better player is for the next 10 years."
Well, yes -- after the Great Eight's name is engraved on the silver chalice like Crosby's. Once Ovechkin can close the deal and hoist Lord Stanley, the real arms race is on. But comparing anything except contrasting personalities and styles until then is not a fair fight. Sidney has the hardware Alex really wants.
One guy, Ovie, is a thrill-seeking human projectile, challenging the game's boundaries and, soon, its all-time records. He has won the NHL's last two MVP awards and captains the most exciting and productive team in the NHL this season, your Washington Capitals.
The other, Sid the Kid, has won everything that matters, including a Cup for the true-grit people of Pittsburgh who expect such things, and a gold medal for his birth country on home ice in about the most scintillating finish NBC could imagine. (Before the dream-sequence overtime goal beat Team USA, people forget Crosby beat Switzerland with a shootout goal in the preliminary round.) He pulled off this amazing two-fer in seven magical months, and can probably best be described as hockey's most consummate playmaker -- whether he's shooting, passing, scoring or clogging up real estate in the crease.
Because their styles, personalities and backgrounds are so different (Ovie is the playful Russian showman; Sid the lunch-pail, old-hockey soul from Nova Scotia), because they don't particularly like each other, all the ingredients are there for a decade's worth of good old sporting animosity.
"They both have goals, they're both driven and they're both very cognizant of the conversation about, 'Who's the best player in the world?' " Melrose said. "If these guys are going at it like that and there's some ill will, that's good for our sport."
Between the fan popularity generated from the YouTube hits and the most breathtaking goals anyone has seen since The Great One and Super Mario, Ovechkin was an early leader for the unofficial title of hockey's No. 1 player.
But five years after they made their NHL debuts, Sid the Kid is starting to pull away in the only measuring stick used in this sport: winning when it matters. He's been to the last two Stanley Cup finals and won one Cup. To do so, his Penguins topped Ovie's Caps in the lone playoff series between the two, an heirloom that went to Game 7 in the second round.
Ovechkin has two Hart trophies to Crosby's one MVP. With Pittsburgh faltering as a team at the moment and the two stars tied in goals scored this season at 48 (despite Ovechkin having played in eight fewer games), Ovie is making a major push for his third straight NHL MVP award.
But with all due respect, who cares about another Hart Trophy? The reason Magic Johnson and Larry Bird have a memorable documentary showing on HBO is because they traded the ultimate prize for eight of their first nine seasons. (The Lakers won five NBA titles to Boston's three.)
Both playing in the East, it's impossible for Crosby and Ovechkin to meet in the Stanley Cup finals. And it's highly provocative and a tad unfair to link iconic basketball players who have the ball in their hands all the time to hockey stars who see much less playing time and therefore are less directly responsible for their team's fortunes.
In Puckville, they know this. But in idiot sports world, they don't. They just see Sidney piling up titles and medals. And they see Ovie's two suspensions this season -- the last a two-game hit for boarding Chicago's Brian Campbell, which led to a broken clavicle -- and think the Caps star is gradually becoming less spectacular and more sinister, Darth Vader with blades on his feet.
"Look, they're both unbelievable players," Melrose said. "But Ovechkin doesn't yet have the body of work that Sidney has. One area Sidney is farther ahead than Ovechkin is the end result. He's not just a part of those teams, he's in the middle of it like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were in the middle of it."
Crosby is in the thick of it like Ovechkin wants to be in the middle of a Stanley Cup or Olympic gold-medal game. Until that happens, until the most dynamic player in the game and his team wrest the Eastern Conference championship from the Penguins and play for the grail, Crosby will have the edge.
That's not very popular to say around here, but it's the hard truth.