Wednesday, May 13, 2009

And Then There Was One

The Penguins-Capitals series is everything I thought it would be. Every game is a nail-biter. There are huge swings, emotional peaks and valleys in each game, not to mention the ebbs and flows throughout the series. Momentum is mercurial. Frankly, I don't think I can take anymore. During the epic Game 6 of the Penguins-Capitals series, I'm pretty sure my heart stopped. Just momentarily, but stopped nevertheless.

In the aftermath of six magnificent games, I intended penning something about the role players, the unsung contributors on each team. I was going to compose rhapsodies in honor of Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi, who has flat out robbed Ovechkin of golden opportunities again and again. (Ovie would have double the seven goals and 13 points he has in this series were it not for the unbelievable play of Scuds.) I planned to pen odes to the unexpected beauty of defenseman Mark Eaton's offensive skills. I was going to verily sing of the Capitals Brooks Laich and sing of Tom Poti. In my bed, in my head, I had half-composed a rant about Washington's Dave Steckel and the enormous pain he was causing to my Stanley Cup yearning Pittsburgh heart.

But then, that would be missing the forest for the trees. Or something like that. As great as the netminders have been, as wonderful as Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Malkin have been, with every passing period of hockey, I became more convinced that Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are without peer. They are better at what they do than any two athletes in any other sport, anywhere.

My pulmonary distress occurred when Ovie unleashed a 50 foot laser of a slapshot in overtime. I have no idea how Marc-Andre Fleury tracked and caught that. I was shocked that the puck didn't simply burn through the netting of Fleury's glove, torch through the goal net, flame through the Mellon Arena boards before finally ending it's trajectory by impaling some poor bastard seated behind the net. I haven't seen a faster shot. Ever. Though Ovechkin didn't score the tying goal in the third period (that was Brooks Laich), or get the go-ahead tally (that was Viktor Kozlov), he had assists on both and Ovechkin assists aren't "lucky" assists, the kind you get because somebody scores on your shift, as happens from time to time. His mere presence creates opportunities for his linemates. His aggressiveness is unparalleled. Ovechkin's offensive drive is almost feral, his desire to score goals is rapacious.

In many ways, Ovechkin reminds me of the NFL's Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers. When Campbell came into the league in 1978, he dominated every game the Oilers played. He was big, strong, elusive, and willing to dish out hits. He ran over, through and around everybody. For a while, he was nearly unstoppable. Then the hits, both those he absorbed and those he delivered, took their toll and his career just tailed off. But while he was at his best, he was mesmerizing.

So, too, is Ovechkin. The issue is that Ovie is occasionally too aggressive, always riding the thin edge between tough and dirty hockey. In the words of Pens play-by-play man Paul Steigerwald, there is a difference between playing to hurt and playing to injure. You can make a strong argument that he intends to injure, but I suspect that he is needlessly, selfishly and thoughtlessly reckless. Whatever the case, regardless of whether you think he's great or a punk, his talent is so prodigious, were he to play in a different era, he would be completely unrivaled.

But he plays now and Mr. Crosby has matched Alex the Great in every game, and particularly in Game 6. Simply, Sid left everything he had on the ice. Every bit of heart, soul, muscle memory, guts, determination and skill were out there, on the Mellon Arena ice in the third period as he frantically worked to tie the game, single-handedly dragging his team into overtime.

With about nine minutes left in the third period, and trailing by a point, Crosby was tireless and fearless. He came around from behind the net to try to create a scoring opportunity, if not for himself, then one of his teammates. As he tossed the puck toward net, there was a collision which he lunged headlong into. He saw it coming, but threw himself toward the crease anyway, the puck skittered wide with no Penguin there to try to grab a rebound, as Sid flew backward from the force of an unceremonious Capital elbow to the face. It didn't stop him.

Night after night, Crosby crashes in front of the net, inviting contact, willing the puck in. To tie Game 6, he batted the puck up and into Varlamov not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times, before directing the game-tying goal into the net, over Varlamov's left shoulder, with a little over four minutes left in regulation. The thing about that Crosby goal was, despite it's defiance of gravity and logic, it wasn't the most amazing thing he's done this post-season.

Both players are so great they make their teams greater. But while Ovechkin inspires through his brashness, Crosby's greatest strength may be his equanimity. His teammates know he'll always be there, steady, never quitting on play, on a game, on a series. In addition to his freakish level of skill, it marks him as a truly great, pantheon worthy player. I expect more of the same from both tonight.

1 comment:

  1. It's been a great series. Let's hope the Pens can do it again tonight. As always, a great column.