Friday, May 1, 2009

Two Russians, a Canadian, and More Animus Than a Hockey Venue Can Hold

Two Russians and a Canadian walk into a bar ... stop me if you've heard this one before.

It just so happens that those two Russians and Canadian are the three greatest hockey players on the planet and you don't have to hail from Magnitogorsk (pop. 418,000), Moscow (pop. 8.6 million), or even Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia (pop. 88,000, for folks who like symmetry) to know that Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are the greatest things on skates since Dorothy Hamill and the order in which you rank them probably depends on your zip code. The best part is that these guys are so great, you don't even have to be a puckhead to enjoy this playoff series, which has the potential to be the most exciting hockey series in decades. You know you want to see it. I know I do.

I have several friends who didn't want my Pittsburgh Penguins to have to face off against the Washington Capitals in the playoffs, perhaps hoping that somebody else would knock Alex and the DC kids out of the playoffs first. But not me. Bring it on. The skill level is astronomical, I can envision either team winning AND these guys hate each other. How great is that?

It all revolves around Ovechkin, a tremendous talent who loves the limelight as much as he likes scoring goals and who has tacitly asserted that Sid Crosby lacks, er, toughness. The result is pre-school aged children all over the metropolitan DC area asking their parents, "What's a 'pussy?'" at which the parents shudder in horror and drop their lattes while the young'ens explain that everybody (i.e., the Washington Caps) says that Sidney Crosby's a 'pussy.' I'd hazard a guess that Mr. Crosby, or should I say, Mr. Pussy, will have a few things to say about that starting on Saturday afternoon.

The bad blood started back in 2005-2006, when both Ovechkin and Crosby were rookies and Ovechkin took home the Calder Trophy (best rookie), a post-season slight that miffed Crosby at the time and probably still sticks in his craw to this day. They've been vying for post-season honors ever since: Crosby won the Hart (MVP) in 2006-2007, while Ovechkin won that same trophy last year. Of course, this year, Ovechkin and Crosby's teammate, Geno Malkin, are both finalists for the Hart (along with Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit). Ovechkin got the Art Ross Trophy (most points) for 2007-2008, meanwhile, Malkin won the Art Ross this season, an honor that the Penguins were clear they were aware of, checking the points race daily, making it a team mission to keep Malkin of Magnitogorsk in front of Ovechkin of Moscow.

Off the ice, Sid has suggested that Ovechkin has taken some "runs" at him and Malkin that border on boarding, cross the line from checking to charging. The beltway gang counters that Sid talks too much trash. I'm not a huge fan of trash talking before or after the game, but once the puck drops, gentlemen, start your vocabularies. Apparently, Sid has such a potty mouth that it offends the delicate ears of Alex the Great. Is that even possible? Really?

Hell, I love a good rivalry. Sometimes I watch sports just for the bad blood, but even I have to wonder: is Alex Ovechkin so emotionally delicate that Sid's yapping really gets under his skin and he feels compelled to disparage Crosby in order to assert his own greatness? I think Ovechkin is great and I say this as a total Pittsburgh homer, a person who hates Ovechkin, hates the Capitals and hates the Washington fans, all 79 of them, but flat out, Ovechkin's amazing. He's strong, he's got a wicked shot, he's fast, and he's surprisingly elusive. Is the bad-mouthing really necessary? I don't get it.

On the other hand, in Ovechkin's defense, he does seem to be preternaturally colorful and constitutionally suited for the role of pot-stirrer. Not to mention that it was his linemate, Alex Semin, who told Dmitry Chesnokov of Sovetsky Sport this:

"What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago ... [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb. I think that if you take any player, even if he is "dead wood," and start promoting him, you'll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let's say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals; everyone will say "Wow!" and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That's what they like here."

As my great-grandmother would say, okay for you Alex the Lesser.

So far we have (a) Ovechkin's apparent resentment of the media attention that Sid gets, (b) Semin horning in on that, and (c) Sid saying Ovechkin plays right up along the edges of cheap shotting.

I haven't even factored in the magnificence that is Geno Malkin, who himself would like to be known as the greatest Russian hockey player alive and doesn't like snaggle-toothed Alex muddying the waters. (Ovechkin is snaggled toothed. I have no comment on Semin's teeth.)

I expect this series to be lightning fast and give new meaning to the word physical. I'm literally bouncing off the walls in anticipation. I nearly hip-checked GearGal into the refrigerator this morning. I gave the cat a facewash. Is it time to put on the foil or am I peaking too soon?