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Starkey: Pattern forming for Crosby vs. Ovechkin

| Sunday, March 7, 2010

Maybe we've been using the wrong basketball analogy in discussing Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin the past five years.

The whole Larry Bird-Magic Johnson thing doesn't work, anyway. Crosby and Ovechkin aren't going to do for the NHL what Bird and Magic did for the NBA in the 1980s.

Save for a ratings-smashing Olympic game every millennium or so, the NHL simply doesn't sell in mainstream America. So get over it.

This analogy works better: Ovie and Sid as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, respectively (if those names don't ring a bell, be very ashamed and type "greatest NBA centers" into a Google search).

Granted, the sampling still is way too small and the players way too young — Crosby 22, Ovechkin 24 — to render anything resembling a final verdict. We might be a good 15 years from that.

But a pattern is developing: When defining moments present themselves, Crosby's teams rise up; Ovechkin's melt down.

Ovechkin is Chamberlain, a larger-than-life scoring machine who racks up so many individual awards that we begin to lose track by his mid-20s.

Crosby is Russell, the consummate winner, the guy who does a million little things (and some really big ones) to lead his team to championships.

A week ago today, Crosby's team left Vancouver with gold medals; Ovechkin's left in disgrace.

Crosby has helped his NHL team to seven playoff series wins, two appearances in the Cup final and one title. Ovechkin has helped his team to, ah, let me break out the calculator here ... one playoff series win.

Don't get me wrong. Ovechkin is the most physically gifted, most spectacular hockey player on the planet. And, yes, maybe Crosby has had the better teams (though, if I'm not mistaken, the Capitals finished ahead of the Penguins in last year's standings).

But what does it say that in the two highest-stakes games in which Crosby and Ovechkin faced each other, Crosby's teams won by a combined score of 13-5?

I'm talking about the Penguins' 6-2 Game 7 win at Washington last season and Canada's 7-3 humiliation of Russia in Vancouver.

Ovechkin's teams didn't just lose. They disintegrated.

Sorry, but when the who's-better question arises, that has to factor into my answer.

I was surprised when, during my radio show on "93.7 The Fan" last week, people called me a homer for saying Crosby is the best player in the world.

I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Anybody can fall in love in with Ovechkin's game — and for good reason. He is a highlight waiting to happen. He was plus-43 going into the weekend and led the scoring race by seven points.

Crosby's magic is far more subtle. Sometimes, only a player can appreciate all the little things he does.

I remember Crosby's first intrasquad scrimmage, five years ago, when it didn't look like he was doing anything special. Yet, broadcaster and ex-Penguins winger Bob Errey was raving about him. Errey saw the little things.

So did Jack Riley, the original Penguins general manager, as I sat next to him watching the Penguins-Sabres game on Tuesday.

As Crosby emerged from yet another board battle with the puck on his stick, Riley chuckled and said, "He wins all those battles."

Winning a small skirmish in the corner isn't as sexy as catapulting someone through the glass, but it can be just as effective — or more so — in the quest to win a game.

Crosby will drive the net and draw a defenseman, thus giving a teammate an open shot, as he did in the Olympics semifinal against Slovakia. He will win faceoffs. He will make the understated pass or the spectacular assist.

He will dig deep in the defensive end and backcheck like a demon. He will add to his game every season, this year turning himself into a perimeter threat.

In short, Crosby will size up a situation and determine what he needs to do in order to give his team its best chance to win. Then he'll do it.

In the playoffs last season, he determined he'd need to be a goal scorer if the Penguins were going to win the Cup. So he became one, leading the league in playoff goals.

A pivotal moment along the way came in Game 7 at Washington, when Ovechkin failed to cash in on an early breakaway.

Shortly after that, Crosby did not fail on his first chance.

Much later, Crosby hopped on an Ovechkin turnover and symbolically finished the scoring. And that was nothing compared to his historic goal last Sunday in Vancouver, the one that vanquished the Americans.

Ovechkin is a force of nature. Crosby is a hockey genius.

There is plenty of time for Ovechkin to figure things out and reverse the trend. It could even happen this spring.

You and I and Ovie all have a pretty good idea of who'll be blocking his path.

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