Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled for the MLB’s home run title in the 90s. Basketball pitted Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the “Golden Age” of the NBA back in the 80s. These rivalries combined talented athletes with powerful teams looking to one-up the other for the ultimate goal.
The NHL has experienced its share of all-time greats facing each other. However, none have come close to the fanfare of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.
They’re arguably the two best forwards since entering the league in 2005. Ovechkin is an 11-time All-Star and collected three Hart trophies. Crosby has two Hart wins, six All-Star nominations, 1,027 career points and two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. Ovechkin’s 558 goals since 2005 are the best in the league, with Crosby right behind him at 382. Their superstardom sets the scene for their intense battles, but they don’t see it that way.
Rivalries occasionally have the connotation that bad blood between the players is crucial. Even though there was a mild spat in 2009, the two have expressed respect for one another. Ovechkin was more vocal of their relationship, saying at the 2017 All-Star Game that they aren’t “best friends.”
There is no strife between them. Instead, there’s an appropriate balance of respect and understanding that they are fierce competitors who are vying for the same goal. Some may argue Ovechkin and Crosby’s blasé attitude towards each other eliminates the notion of a rivalry. However, that’s not the reason why fans and the media hype it up.
The Capitals and Penguins have combined for 21 winning seasons since Crosby and Ovechkin joined the NHL. Both teams were under .500 in 2005-06, while Washington’s last losing season was the following year. The Capitals and Penguins are amongst the best in the NHL and play in the same division. It’s one of the top rivalries in all of hockey, and the two superstars make it that much more enticing.
It’s safe to say Crosby and the Penguins have the edge in the rivalry. Pittsburgh has won two Stanley Cups with Crosby, while Ovechkin has never seen his team reach the Conference Finals. In 2009 and 2016, the Penguins dispatched the Caps in the playoffs en route to those championships.
The Penguins have won 106 games against Washington compared to 95 for the Capitals against the Penguins. This can make the rivalry more one-sided towards the Penguins, but it’s not exactly a landslide either.
In the 217 games in the rivalry, the Penguins have scored just 15 more goals. For years, these games have been close, and that was apparent on Thursday when Ovechkin and Crosby squared off for the 14th time in the playoffs.
Since it’s appropriate there’s history being made, this year’s playoff meeting is the first time in the shootout era that the top two regular season teams are meeting in the postseason. Crosby did not disappoint in the second when he notched two goals in 52 seconds in the second period. Just as Pittsburgh started to gain ground with a 2-0 lead, Ovechkin answered with a wrist shot to make it 2-1. The Capitals came back to tie it before Nick Bonino tallied the game-winner in the third and the Penguins took Game 1.
No matter the result, Crosby and Ovechkin were sharp once more against each other. Ovechkin has 22 points against the Penguins in the playoffs, while Crosby has 17. The two are tremendous in the postseason, but they always step it up against each other under the brightest lights.
We’ve witnessed plenty of exciting individual matchups in the NHL throughout the years. Like Crosby and Ovechkin, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux contended for the pinnacle of hockey’s top player in the late 80s and early 90s. However, Gretzky was on the West Coast while Lemieux was with Pittsburgh. Despite entertaining games between the two, their matchups were too infrequent to establish a long-standing individual rivalry.
The Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry has what Gretzky/Lemieux missed and blends traits of the classic rivalries of other sports. It’s the race for dominance that McGwire and Sosa had, and the magnitude of the matchups like Bird and Johnson in the NBA Finals.
Thursday’s game was a microcosm of the Penguins and Capitals rivalry since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the NHL. Both players shine, but the Penguins end up ahead. Nonetheless, that game showed that these two have created a rivalry that has made their battles must-see hockey. It may not be a heated rivalry based on their indifferent thoughts of one another, but their play on the ice and their teams capture the essence of a legendary clash.
“From Our Haus to Yours”