For 5½ seasons, it was the best individual rivalry in hockey, possibly in all of sports.
Even to the most casual fan, watching Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin go head-to-head was classic theatre – right up there with the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird showdowns of the 1980s.
“For me, the rivalry was the best when those two went head-to-head,” said Capitals center Mike Ribeiro, who will get another look at that rivalry tonight in Pittsburgh [7:30 p.m., CSN]. “If it helps those guys play better it’s good for the league.”
Heading into the 2011 Winter Classic between the Capitals and Penguins, Crosby had 215 goals and 356 assists for 571 points in 410 games. Ovechkin had 283 goals and 288 assists for 571 points in 435 games.
That cold, slick night in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field is when the comparisons ended.
Crosby suffered a concussion at the hands of David Steckel that night, and over the next two calendar years – from Jan 6, 2011 until Jan. 19, 2013 – Crosby played in exactly 23 regular season games.
Ironically, it was during Crosby’s time away from the game that Ovechkin’s production began to decline.
Since that 2011 Winter Classic showdown, Ovechkin has 67 goals and 64 assists for 131 points in 146 games. His point production per game, which was 1.3 before the 2011 Winter Classic, has dipped to .90 over the past 26 months.
And while Ovechkin has spent much of this season answering his critics, Crosby has experienced a resurgence that has fans wondering if he’s even better than he was prior to that 2011 Winter Classic, when he was averaging 1.39 points per game.
Through 30 games this season, Crosby is running away with the NHL scoring race with 13 goals, 35 assists and 48 points, putting him on an incredible 1.6 point per game pace.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told reporters on Sunday that it’s been Crosby’s consistency that has impressed him the most. He has recorded at least one point in 23 of the Penguins’ 30 games this season and has not gone more than two games in a row without a point.
“That’s the amazing part,” Bylsma said.
The challenge for Capitals coach Adam Oates is to convince Ovechkin that his game is evolving, not deteriorating, as many national pundits have suggested in recent weeks.
“My job is with Alex and really he should focus on the way I feel about him,” Oates said recently. “But [criticism] is part of the game when you’re one of the focal points of the league. That’s a fact.”
Oates took on quite a challenge this season when he became the Capitals’ third coach in a little over a year and asked Ovechkin to move from left wing to right wing during a lockout-shortened season.
Oates said it has been a challenge convincing Ovechkin that he brings more to the table than scoring goals and that he can have just as much of an impact on a game when he his crashing the net and plastering opposing defensemen against the boards.
“When he hits, I think it just puts him more emotionally into the game and he gets more chances out of it,” Ribeiro said. “Without [John] Erskine in the lineup some teams might think they’re stronger than they are and our captain stepped up like that [with a tussle with Buffalo’s Steve Ott]. That’s great for the team.”
“People forget that,” Oates said of Ovechkin’s physical presence. “That’s what people don’t see all the time. He makes mistakes in the neutral zone. Yeah, OK, it’s a mistake. But did anybody see the five hits that he separated guys off the puck? That’s something that, in our relationship, is important to me.”
For the record, Ovechkin has played 117 more games, has scored 114 more goals and has recorded 45 more points than Crosby since they entered the NHL in 2005-06.
But those won’t be the numbers brought up tonight when two of the NHL’s most popular players butt helmets at the CONSOL Energy Center.
Instead the storyline will be how at 25 Crosby is getting better with age and at 27 Ovechkin is simply aging.
Oates understands that. He just doesn’t want his captain getting too caught up in it.
“He thinks that if he doesn’t score that he’s letting us down and that’s not quite accurate,” Oates said. “I appreciate what he’s done and the process.”