By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Magic and Bird. Remember? That was going to be Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
They were going to lead the NHL into the mainstream and divvy up MVP awards like poker chips. Their seven-game epic in 2009 — the one in which they combined for 16 goals and 27 points — was going to be the beginning. Not the beginning of the end.
They were going to grow old together in greatness.
They might yet. But it can't happen if only one of them is great. The NHL's best (only?) individual rivalry is on life support because The Amazing Ovechkin executed his greatest trick of all a little more than a year ago: He made himself disappear.
The Great 8 has become The Great Ain't.
Crosby wasn't seen for nearly a full calendar year, either, but he had an excuse. He was injured — and was immediately great upon his return.
Crosby's 11 points make for the best five-game start of his career. Ovechkin has 18 points in 23 games, putting him 56th in the league and pitting him against Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf to see who can catch Pascal Dupuis first.
At this rate, Crosby could catch all of them tonight at Verizon Center, when he and Ovechkin share the same ice surface for the first time since Crosby's ill-fated Winter Classic.
It can't be a legendary rivalry if only one of two participants is world-class elite, and Ovechkin hasn't been that since the 2009-10 season.
I asked Crosby late last week what he made of Ovechkin's "struggles."
"I mean, I watch the highlights every morning, and they say (Ovechkin's struggling)," Crosby said. "By his standards, maybe, struggling. But a point a game or a goal every two games is probably not struggling by most people's standards.
"'Struggling' can be pretty broad sometimes."
Fair enough. But this is no small sampling. Once the NHL's most feared goal scorer, Ovechkin has just 38 goals in his past 100 games. Chris Kunitz has 34 in the same span.
What's more, Ovechkin's trademark intensity seems to come and go. His ice time sits at a career-low 18:41 per game. He is down more than a shot per game.
Theories abound as the reeling Capitals and new coach Dale Hunter seek solutions. Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, before voicing his opinion, emphasized that he has not personally witnessed a decline in Ovechkin's play.
"He always seems to rev it up against us," Orpik said.
Still, Orpik wonders if Ovechkin's brutally physical — some would say reckless — style has caught up with him at age 26.
"That's tough to do, 82 games with the energy level and physicality he plays with," Orpik said. "I mean, I don't care how young you are. That catches up to you with this kind of schedule."
Orpik laughed and added, "I'm not going to say he's having a down year and then go in there and have to play against him and have him light us up. He's a pretty competitive guy. I'm sure it's bugging him. He's so talented, I think it's only a matter of time before he breaks out of it."
I'm not so sure. Obviously, Ovechkin will still have big nights. He'll make people believe he has recaptured the form that netted him a $124 million contract. But as far as returning to top-five status, let alone top-two, I have my doubts.
I wonder if he wants it badly enough.
Which brings us back to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Crosby has emulated both in terms of consistently adding weapons to his arsenal. Ovechkin has added nothing.
The great ones never stop evolving. Crosby spends offseasons holed up at his Nova Scotia lake home, obsessively remodeling his game. He has turned faceoffs into a strength, perimeter scoring into a legitimate option and deflecting pucks into an art form.
The NHL needs Crosby-Ovechkin. There is no replacement rivalry on the horizon (Giroux-Kessel just doesn't have the same ring) and precious few stars who seem capable of commanding the public's attention.
I asked Crosby if the prospect of battling his Russian counterpart still gets him juiced.
"Whenever we play each other, it's always a little more intense and a little big," he said. "But when the time comes to play, that's when you're ready for it. I don't think it's something you circle on the calendar or anything like that."
Maybe not, but the rest of us used to.
Here's hoping we will again.