Ovechkin vs. Crosby: The second season
They are often mentioned in the same sentence, indeed the same breath and thought.
The last matchup this season between young stars Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals took place Tuesday night in Washington. Here's how the two have fared against each other in two seasons:
As though they were one entity.
And on some levels, like the future of the NHL, the pair may as well be one great force of hockey expected to carry the game forward for years and years. But they are not, of course, one organism split in two nor twins separated at birth. They are as distinct as Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Ali and Frazier.
While it's true you could go a country mile before you will find consensus on what's failing the two sophomore sensations' games, there are a number of common themes when it comes to dissecting where the two stars are well into their second seasons.
ESPN.com spoke with pro scouts in the Atlantic and Southeast divisions, as well as analysts and coaches, about what makes the dynamic duo so special.
Both Crosby and Ovechkin skate extremely well. (Gee, there's a surprise.) But there are differences. Ovechkin has an explosive stride that allows him to change gears in an instant, or at least his high, chopping strides give that appearance. His now-patented move around defenders is based on that tremendous acceleration.
Crosby's speed is somehow sneakier, more deceptive. Penguins coach Michel Therrien said he is amazed at how much more speed Crosby is generating this season. "We believe he's quicker than last year, and even if he had a lot of speed last year, the capability to shift gear from fourth to fifth, I don't see many guys in the NHL who can do that," Therrien said. Part of that may be the result of Crosby's off-ice work on his lower body.
Although both are naturally well-built (Ovechkin stands at 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, while Crosby is 5-11, 193 pounds), Ovechkin is described by Caps assistant coach Dean Evason as "a specimen." Ovechkin possesses tremendous upper body strength. That comes in handy as he is blowing by defenders because he can afford to lean in on them without being taken off the puck. His work in the corners and his fearlessness when it comes to laying the big hit also stem from this upper body strength. "He's a big boy that's as solid as a rock," said former Philadelphia coach Bill Barber, now a scout for Tampa Bay. "He can play in the lanes of traffic."
Crosby has been described by some as having the best-built thighs in the game. Think Earl Campbell in his heyday, and you've got an idea why it's so difficult to knock Crosby off the puck. His low center of gravity and his incredible vision are big parts of Crosby's current standing as the league's No. 5 point scorer (39). "He's matured so well because there's a thickness about him," Barber said. "He's got such great balance because he's low to the ice."
Both have terrific shots, but Ovechkin's propensity to shoot from anywhere and to use a quick release to send pucks past defenders is dramatic. Because he is a center and often more in a playmaker role, Crosby has a deceptively good shot. For Crosby, it's not so much the velocity but the accuracy, a la Wayne Gretzky, that makes him so dangerous, especially in close. Both have such great presence of mind, they are frequently able to unleash shots as they are being pulled down (witness Crosby's spectacular 1-on-2 goal against the Rangers last week).
This may be the one area where there is a distinct difference between the two players in terms of their evolution. Ovechkin is a work in progress defensively.
"There's some subtle things in defensive-zone coverage or defensive-zone entries and reading the rush or just his percentage of executing the system that is a lot higher," Capitals coach Glen Hanlon said. "He has a lot better understanding, his stick positioning is much better. Alexander wants to do anything he can to win the Stanley Cup. He understands that for him to play better or to make those reads we'll put him on the ice in critical times. As he becomes better at the reads, he plays in more critical defensive situations.
"We're not trying to build a Selke winner here by any means."
"He's really bought into stopping in his own zone [as opposed to] blowing the zone early," Evason added.
Crosby, on the other hand, is being used in pretty much all situations, including the penalty kill.
Atlanta coach Bob Hartley figures Crosby, who is a very solid plus-9 after finishing last season at a minus-1 (which was pretty much a miracle on a bad Penguins team), is in the process of mastering virtually every element of his game.
"He doesn't have a bad defensive game. He finishes his checks. All the details of the game he applies himself in the right way," said Hartley, who predicts that Crosby will be "the best in the game."
"Defensively, he's one of the best guys in our own end," Therrien added. "He's the type of kid that he wants to be the best at everything, that's pretty simple. The way he's playing right now is just amazing."
Last season, Crosby was guilty of letting his emotions get the better of him, whether it was being goaded by opponents or carping to officials about calls. This season, Penguins coaches spoke to Crosby about channeling that emotion into a positive area. Veteran linemate Mark Recchi, among those who took issue with Crosby's behavior at times last season, said the results have been obvious. Instead of getting off his game, Recchi said Crosby is using it to fuel him. "He focuses his energy in the right direction," Recchi said.
"Sometimes last year, he took some penalties, and regarding discipline with referees, he's a lot better this year," Therrien said. "And in the meantime, he's got the respect from his peers and referees more than he got last year when he came in at 18 years old. But that's normal. He earned that respect from a lot of people."
When it comes to discipline for Ovechkin, he may have to be more cognizant of his physicality, having been warned by the league after a dangerous hit from behind on Sabres veteran Daniel Briere. Because he is so physical, Ovechkin is going to draw more penalty time (Ovechkin has drawn about one-third more penalty minutes than Crosby), but no one is going to ask Ovechkin to back down.
The Penguins and Capitals have surprised observers by staying in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, a fact that should answer any and all questions of leadership from both players.
Respective teammates and coaches marvel at the pair's dedication to the game. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief and easing off the pedal when it comes to preparation and focus, both players have gone forward.
Andre Savard, new to the Penguins' coaching staff, has played with Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur and other great players. He said Crosby is among that rare group in terms of his pride. "He has very high drive. He has incredibly high focus," Savard said.
And when teammates see that in a boy who's just 19, it makes it easier for the coach to get his message across, Savard said.
"There's no doubt he's a leader. The way he approaches the game, the way he plays the games, the way he's thinking the game the way that he wants to win every shift, he wants to win every game," Therrien said. "He's got great qualities about being a leader, his discipline on the ice, his discipline off the ice."
Evason said Ovechkin's trips to the back of the team charter to watch video and discuss plays and his enthusiasm to practice, let alone play, are a terrific tonic for a team that must work for every point it scrapes together.
What Needs Work
As mentioned, Ovechkin, who is two years older than Crosby, will continue to work on his defensive game, while Crosby has been working diligently to become a better faceoff man now that he's locked into his natural position at center. Barber likes to watch what they do without the puck.
Therrien agreed that some of the video work they do with Crosby is looking at positioning and where he's going.
One element of Ovechkin's game that has seen some adjustment has been the use of his teammates, Evason said. Earlier this season, teams would try to use a big defenseman on Ovechkin in the corner and then slide a second defender in to contain him. "He's really found a way to use other people," Evason said. "The great players know how to adjust their games."
Every day Ovechkin and Crosby come to the rink, they understand they will be the focus of at least one media scrum and they will more than likely be asked to do a network interview. Ovechkin, whose parents are living with him in the Washington, D.C., area, has embraced the celebrity status and continues to be a potential marketing marvel for a league starving for attention.
"It would be easy to get full of yourself," Evason said. "But he doesn't do that. He understands when he is in the game."
Crosby has been at this for years. It's as common for him as putting on his skates. And while he is less impulsive and more guarded than Ovechkin, the pair make perfect foils for each other.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.