Commentary

Crosby-Ovie conjures epic showdowns

Updated: May 1, 2009, 3:57 PM ET
By David Schoenfield | Page 2

Alex Ovechkin. Sidney Crosby. Hockey fans (and NHL executives) are getting their dream showdown as the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins face off in an Eastern Conference semifinal series that begins Saturday.

In NHL circles, having the two faces of the league meet is a scenario sure to provide added publicity, higher ratings and a hockey fan's full attention. Wayne Gretzky never played Mario Lemieux in a playoff series. The Islanders of the early 1980s and the Canadiens of the '70s won with depth and star talent, but had little competition. Bobby Orr? A man among boys. Perhaps not since Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull squared off in the '60s has the NHL seen a playoff series built around the star power of two rivals (no offense to MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin).

It got us thinking back to some other much-anticipated showdowns in team sports -- series or games that had to be seen, as much or more for the mano-a-mano battle as for the teams themselves:

2006 AFC Championship Game: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning and Tom Brady
Albert Dickson/TSN/ZUMA Press/Icon SMIPeyton Manning finally got the better of Tom Brady in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.
The anticipation: Brady's New England Patriots had defeated Manning's Indianapolis Colts in the 2003 and '04 playoffs. Brady had won three Super Bowls. Manning's reputation -- going back to his college days at Tennessee -- of being unable to win the big one loomed over the matchup and the rivalry. Adding intrigue was the fact the Colts had defeated the Patriots during the regular season, a game in which Brady threw four interceptions. Would this finally be Manning's year?

The game: It looked like another devastating loss for Manning when the Colts fell behind 21-3 in the second quarter, including an Asante Samuel touchdown on an interception return of a Manning pass. But in one of the craziest playoff games, the Colts scored 32 points in the second half, taking a 38-34 lead with a minute to go. When Marlin Jackson picked off Brady, Manning -- head down on the sideline -- could finally look up and celebrate.

2006 Rose Bowl: Reggie Bush vs. Vince Young

The anticipation: The talk heading into the BCS title game included discussion of USC's ranking among the greatest teams ever -- but also whether Young had been shafted in the Heisman voting (Bush won fairly easily, even though Young had thrown for more than 3,000 yards with 26 TDs and rushed for 1,050 yards). It was team versus team for the national championship, but Bush versus Young to settle the debate over the best player in college football.

The game: It was maybe the most exciting college football game ever played. Both teams rolled up more than 500 yards of offense. Young completed 30-of-40 passes and rushed for 200 yards and three TDs -- including the game-winning sprint on fourth down. Bush had 279 all-purpose yards and one score. In the end, Young won the battle … and the war: Texas 41, USC 38.

2001 Stanley Cup finals: Patrick Roy vs. Martin Brodeur

The anticipation: Hockey may be a team sport, but we all know a hot goalie can carry a team to the Cup. By 2001, Roy had already won three Cups and was nearing the end of his career; Brodeur had won two Cups, his New Jersey Devils were the defending champs and he had cemented himself as heir to Roy's throne as the best in the game.

The series: It would go the distance, only the third Cup finals to go seven games since 1971. Roy pitched shutouts in Games 1 and 6, and Brodeur held Colorado to four goals in winning Games 2, 4 and 5. It came down to Game 7. Roy and the Avalanche triumphed 3-1, as Roy made 25 saves and secured his third Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

1993 NBA Finals: Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan & Charles Barkley
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesCharles Barkley was the 1993 MVP, but Michael Jordan was the alpha dog in the Finals.
The anticipation: Sure, the Bulls were going for their third consecutive championship, but the real excitement centered around the two biggest names in basketball and how Jordan would respond after losing out to Sir Charles in the MVP voting that season. (Jordan had averaged 32.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Barkley had averaged 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists.)

The series: Jordan responded with perhaps the most emphatic Finals performance ever, averaging a record 41.0 points per game, including 55 in Chicago's Game 4 win. After that game, with the Bulls one win away from the championship, Barkley announced the Suns better win to "save the city!" -- a reference to potential riots in Chicago if the Bulls won. Phoenix did stave off elimination, but Chicago clinched with a Game 6 victory in Phoenix as Jordan scored 33 and John Paxson hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left.

1986 World Series 2: Dwight Gooden vs. Roger Clemens

The anticipation: As if Mets-Red Sox wasn't tasty enough, the Game 2 matchup between baseball's two top young pitchers was perhaps the most anticipated World Series duel since Bob Gibson and Denny McLain squared off 18 years earlier. Clemens, 24, had gone 24-4 in his first full season; Gooden, 21, had gone 17-6 after his own 24-4 season in 1985.

The game: A big, sweaty flop. Clemens gave up five hits, three runs and four walks and couldn't finish the fifth inning. Gooden gave up six runs in five innings. Boston won 9-3.

Super Bowl XIX: Dan Marino vs. Joe Montana

The anticipation: In just his second season, Marino compiled the most impressive statistical season for a quarterback in NFL history -- 5,084 yards (still a record), 48 TDs, 9.0 yards per attempt. Montana had thrown for 3,630 yards and 28 TDs in guiding the 49ers to a 15-1 record. They were the glamour boys of the NFL, two young star quarterbacks from western Pennsylvania.

The game: The Dolphins scored first and led 10-7 after the first quarter, but Roger Craig scored two TDs and Montana ran in for a third in the second period as San Francisco took a 28-16 halftime lead. Marino couldn't muster any offense in the second half, and the Dolphins couldn't stop the Niners. Final score: 38-16, with Montana a coolly efficient 24-for-35 for 331 yards and Marino an ineffective 29-for-50 for 318 yards and two picks.

1984 NCAA championship: Akeem Olajuwon vs. Patrick Ewing

The anticipation: The matchup everyone wanted to see came to fruition after Houston and Georgetown won their semifinal games in Seattle. Two of college basketball's greatest big men, two future No. 1 overall picks, both looking for a championship after having lost the title game in '83 and '82 respectively. Georgetown entered at 33-3, Houston 32-4.

The game: A disappointment, as Olajuwon and Ewing both battled foul problems and Georgetown's superior depth (and maybe a little superior intimidation) proved too much for Houston. While the Cougars jumped to an early 14-6, the Hoyas then went on an 18-4 run and led 40-30 at halftime. When Olajuwon picked up his fourth foul 23 seconds into the second half, the script was over. Georgetown won 84-75, with Olajuwon scoring 15 and Ewing 11.

1980 World Series: Mike Schmidt vs. George Brett

The anticipation: Brett had spent the summer and early fall of 1980 chasing .400, sitting at the magic number as late as Sept. 19 before finishing at .390. Schmidt had terrorized NL pitchers to the tune of a league-leading 48 home runs and 121 RBIs. They were the best players in baseball (both would go on to win their league's MVP award), both third basemen, both trying to lead their franchises to their first World Series crown.

The series: Both stars excelled, with Schmidt winning Series MVP honors after hitting .381 with two homers and seven RBIs in the Phillies' six-game victory. Brett hit .375. But the real highlight? When Brett had to leave Game 1 after five innings due to, ahem, rear-end discomfort (he was suffering from hemorrhoids), Schmidt was kind enough to send Brett some ointment. Brett actually had surgery between Games 2 and 3.

1979 NCAA championship: Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson and Larry Bird
AP Photo/Jerome McLendonMagic vs. Bird drew amazing ratings, but the game itself didn't quite live up to the buzz.
The anticipation: Back before every college basketball game was televised, Magic and Bird had become national phenomenons the old-fashioned way: By word of mouth and newsprint. Bird and Indiana State were the underdog, the 33-0 squad that many viewers had never seen; Magic and Michigan State had the charismatic nickname and big-conference pedigree.

The game: With a Nielsen television rating of 24.1, it remains the highest-rated college basketball game of all time (the 2009 title game drew a 10.8 rating). Alas, the game itself was a bit of a dud, with Michigan State taking a nine-point lead at halftime and Bird shooting just 7-for-21 from the field as the Spartans won 75-64.

1968 World Series Game 1: Bob Gibson vs. Denny McLain

The anticipation: No, McLain is hardly an all-time great, but he had a season for the ages in 1968, winning 31 games; amazingly, it was perhaps passed by Gibson, who finished with a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts. In the Year of the Pitcher, Gibson and McLain met for Game 1 in St. Louis.

The game: Gibson delivered one of the most dominating performances in postseason history, striking out a World Series-record 17 batters that cemented his reputation as nasty and clutch. St. Louis won 4-0 with McLain yanked after five innings. The two didn't square off again, as McLain was brought back to start Game 3.

1968: Lew Alcindor vs. Elvin Hayes

The anticipation: UCLA had won the 1967 national title and was riding a 47-game win streak. The No. 1-ranked Bruins had the best player in the country in junior center Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Houston was ranked No. 2, undefeated since losing to UCLA in the '67 national semifinals, and featured the second-best player in the country in Elvin Hayes. The game was the first college basketball game televised nationally in prime time and was moved to the Astrodome where a crowd of 52,693 made it the largest ever to see a basketball game in the U.S. at the time.

The game: The Sports Illustrated cover said it all: "BIG EEEE OVER BIG LEW." Houston won 71-69 as Hayes scored 39 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while Alcindor (playing with a scratched eyeball that caused him to miss the previous two games) made just four of 18 shots. (UCLA would get revenge, beating Houston 101-69 in the Final Four.)

1967 NBA Eastern Division finals: Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain

The anticipation: The Boston Celtics, led by Russell in the middle, had won eight straight NBA titles. Chamberlain, despite scoring titles and individual dominance, had never won a title or defeated Russell in a playoff games. But Wilt's Philadelphia Sixers had gone 68-13 (with Wilt scoring a career-low 24.1 points per game), eight games better than the Celtics. Would this be the year Wilt shed the label as a selfish player who didn't make his teams better?

The series: It was no contest. Chamberlain had a triple-double in the opener with 24 points, 32 rebounds and 13 assists (plus an unofficial 12 blocks). Philly won in OT in Game 2 and Chamberlain's 41 rebounds led the Sixers to a 115-104 win in Game 3. The Celtics staved off elimination in Game 4, but Chamberlain's 29 points and 36 rebounds highlighted a Game 5 romp. When the Sixers beat the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals, Chamberlain finally had his championship.

David Schoenfield | email

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