Ten years ago, Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Ovechkin made their NHL debuts. Both were credited with helping to save the NHL following a season-killing lockout, introducing fans to a new wave of exciting stars.
Having made an instant impact upon the NHL, it was inevitable that there would be a rivalry between the two, or at least, one concocted by the fans and media and played up by the league. Being the brightest stars of the post-lockout era, their rivalry sparked comparisons to that of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux a generation before.
Of course, Crosby vs Ovechkin doesn’t compare at all with Gretzky vs Lemieux. The latter two had their heyday at a different time, when scoring was king, parity among teams was non-existent and players weren’t as well-conditioned or skilled compared to today’s athletes.
In personality and playing style, they couldn’t be more different. Crosby is the polite, quiet Canadian playmaker, while Ovechkin is the flashy, outgoing Russian goal scorer. Both, however, share a burning intensity to succeed.
Crosby and Ovechkin are unquestionably this generation’s most dominant players. While several of their peers have attained stardom and respect in their own right (Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, Montreal’s Carey Price and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, to name but a few), Crosby and Ovechkin remain the twin faces of the National Hockey League.
Following their impressive rookie campaigns of 2005-06, plenty of ink and pixels were expended projecting how many records the duo could break, the individual honors they’d receive and the championships they’d win.
The pair have set their share of NHL records. Crosby became the youngest player to be named to the NHL’s First All-Star team, to reach 200 career points, to record consecutive 100-point seasons and to win the Art Ross and Pearson (now the Lindsay) awards. He’s the youngest rookie to reach 100 points, as well as the first rookie to reach 100 points and 100 PIMs. Crosby is also the youngest player to captain an NHL team to a Stanley Cup title.
Ovechkin is the first player to win the Art Ross, Hart, Richard and Pearson trophies in one season, and the only player named to five straight First All-Star teams in his first five seasons. He also tallied the most goals in one season (65) by a left wing and is the first player in NHL history to be named to the First- and Second All-Star teams in one season.
Both have won numerous individual awards, with Ovechkin holding a big edge. He’s won the Richard Trophy five times and the Hart Trophy and Pearson/Lindsay award three times. He also won the Art Ross Trophy in 2008 as the league’s scoring leader, and beat out Crosby for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year in 2006. Ovechkin’s also been named to the First All-Star team seven times.
Crosby, meanwhile, won the Pearson/Lindsay award three times and the Hart and Art Ross trophies twice. He was also named to the First All-Star team three times and won the Richard Trophy in 2008. However, it can be argued that career-threatening concussions between 2010-11 to 2012-13 limited Crosby’s contention for more individual awards. It should be noted that he’s only a year removed from his latest Hart, Lindsay and Art Ross wins.
It’s in the playoffs, however, where Crosby has the advantage. He led the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, winning the Cup in ’09. He has 118 points in 100 playoff games and never finished lower than third among Penguins scorers in each of his postseason appearances. Ovechkin’s Capitals, meanwhile, were beaten by Crosby’s Penguins in the only playoff series (2009) to date in which they faced each other. The Capitals never advanced past the second round, leaving Ovechkin with 70 points in 72 playoff games.
On the international stage, Ovechkin’s played on three World Championship-winning teams for Russia while Crosby’s skated with only one for Canada. However, Crosby’s played on two Olympic gold-medal teams for Canada, scoring the “golden goal” in the 2010 Olympics and the insurance goal in the 2014 gold-medal game. Ovechkin has yet to win an Olympic medal.
Both players have also faced their share of adversity and criticism. For Crosby, it was the concussion injuries, while critics accused him of being a whining, borderline dirty player. For Ovechkin, his numbers suffered Capitals management went through several coaches seeking a championship-winning system. He was also accused of sacrificing team play in pursuit of goals. While there were concerns that Crosby’s career might be finished, Ovechkin faced speculation that his 50-goal days were behind him. At various times, their leadership abilities came under fire.
Through it all, however, “Sid and Ovie” remain the NHL’s unchallenged poster boys. Fans around the NHL turn out to watch them, hoping to see something special from the game’s most dazzling stars.
Entering the 2015-16 campaign, Crosby is now 28 while Ovechkin recently turned 30. They’re no longer the fresh-faced kids leading that new wave of promising talent, but veteran superstars entering the second half of their NHL careers. Their rivalry can still be a hot topic of debate among hockey fans. For some, however, it’s no longer as intense as it was several years ago.
Maybe it’s because we’ve now grown so used to Crosby and Ovechkin that their achievements no longer seem as dazzling as they once were. Perhaps it’s because they’ve only faced each other once on the playoff stage. Maybe it’s because they haven’t led the NHL to a new golden age of high-scoring games, or carried their clubs to multiple championships.
And now, ten years after Crosby and Ovechkin made their debuts, two more promising youngsters labelled as potential superstars are entering the league. Like Crosby and Ovechkin before them, Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Buffalo Sabres pivot Jack Eichel are being looked upon to reverse the fortunes of two moribund teams. There’s anticipation McDavid and Eichel could become bigger stars than Crosby and Ovechkin, leading the next generation of NHL superstars.
Crosby and Ovechkin, meanwhile, play on. They’re certainly the best players of their generation and rank among the NHL’s all-time greats. Even as their skills and production inevitably decline over the next decade, even if McDavid and Eichel succeed them as the NHL’s top stars, their respective legacies appear secure.
Crosby and Ovechkin haven’t achieved all that was expected of them. Given the often lofty expectations laid upon them early in their careers, it’s impressive that they accomplished as much as they have. Considering their exploits came during a decade in which attempts to open up the game were stymied by coaching systems, in a league with more parity than at any time in its history, against better-trained and better-skilled opponents, it’s hard not to be astonished by their achievements. For young NHL fans who grew up during this era, Crosby and Ovechkin will be the benchmark for NHL greatness.
It now remains to be seen what Crosby and Ovechkin can accomplish in the second half of their NHL careers. Can Crosby lead the Penguins to another championship? Can Ovechkin finally carry the Capitals to the promised land? Are there more individual awards to come? More league records to break?
If we haven’t already seen the best of Crosby and Ovechkin, we are likely close to that tipping point in their respective careers. While retirement is likely a decade away for both players, NHL fans would be wise to savor their performances now, while they remain at the peak of their playing prime. All too quickly, their era will be over, and their achievements will be left to reminiscence and “best of” video clips on YouTube and sports shows.