Battle of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby will be about winning, not individual stats

Surely, after all this time, we're past describing this as a schoolyard battle over which kid is toughest or coolest or best.

Surely, after all of the hardware and the successes and, yes, disappointments and nagging doubts, this second-round Stanley Cup playoffs series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins -- which starts at 8 p.m. ET Thursday at the Verizon Center in Washington -- is far richer than the simple narrative of who's better, Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.


"This is a big deal for the fans and media, but at this point in their careers it's not about who's better. It's about who wins," one NHL scout and former player told me.

Back in the day -- say, in 2009, when the two superstars met for the first and, until now, only time in the playoffs -- it might have been more about them, about their place on their teams, about their place in the pantheon of the game.

Maybe it might have mattered to the two faces of the league in that kind of comic book, mano a mano fashion.

But that was seven years ago, an eternity in the NHL. If an NHL career for a good-to-great player is 15 years, that was half a career ago. And as often as their careers have intersected, crossed and sometimes collided, in many ways Ovechkin and Crosby, apart from being very different players, have traveled very different paths.

In the aftermath of that seven-game victory by the Penguins in 2009, Crosby would a few weeks later hoist the Stanley Cup after the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings in another seven-game set. He would win a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver the following winter, scoring the overtime winner in the gold-medal game. Another gold medal would follow four years later in Sochi, Russia.

Crosby also would suffer a concussion against Ovechkin's Capitals on New Year's Day in 2011 and miss months of hockey.

Starting in the spring of 2010, Crosby's Penguins would lose five straight playoff series to teams that finished lower in the standings before squeaking into the playoffs last year as an eighth seed -- and then exiting after five games.

This season started slowly and people speculated that Sidney Crosby was done.

In the aftermath of that '09 series that saw Ovechkin and Crosby combine for an incredible 27 points, Ovechkin would win his second of three Hart trophies as league MVP. His Russian team would be dumped by Crosby's Canadian team in the quarterfinals at the 2010 Olympics. Four years later, the Ovechkin-led Russians would lose in yet another quarterfinal, to Finland, in front of a disappointed home crowd in Sochi.

Ovechkin would win four straight Rocket Richard trophies, including this season, making for six goal-scoring titles in all. He also would say goodbye to coaches Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates before saying hello to his current head coach, Barry Trotz.

He would be called a coach killer and then, when people were lining up to heap dirt on him, Ovechkin would suddenly be lauded for not being a coach killer, for being a great leader.

Such different players, such similar expectations.

Crosby, a center, told reporters in Pittsburgh this week that he'll never shoot like Ovechkin, a winger, and he's not going to start trying to. The Pittsburgh captain professed admiration for Ovechkin's consistency in finding the back of the net.

"It's pretty amazing what he's been able to do over the years," Crosby, 28, told reporters Monday.

Ovechkin told reporters in Washington that he isn't interested in dissecting that long-ago playoff series. "What was the past, it's over," said Ovechkin, 30.

If you'd guessed how many Stanley Cups the two stars and their teammates might have collected after that 2009 playoff year, would you have guessed zero? Not a chance.

But that's part of what makes this series so intriguing.

Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing.

And through it all, through the injuries and disappointments and second-guessing, we arrive at this second-round playoff series with both players at the peak of their powers. Ovechkin won the goal-scoring title on yet another second-half surge, hitting the 50-goal mark in the waning moments of the regular season. He was instrumental in the team's first-round victory, pounding the Philadelphia Flyers at every turn and then setting up the series-clinching goal in Game 6.

Crosby? After a five-point opening month of the season, he led all scorers from Dec. 12 on. He was a dynamo in the first round as the Penguins continued their torrid play, crushing the New York Rangers in five games. Crosby's eight points, five on the power play, led all Penguins.

"Ovechkin has established himself as the best goal-scoring power forward of this era, while Sid is one of the best two-way centers to ever play," the scout said. "To me, Ovi is hungry and Sid is focused. It's more about wanting to win a Cup for both guys. Sid can't keep Ovi from scoring and Ovi can't keep Sid from doing his thing. It's all about the support cast and results."

"It'll be an epic battle," another longtime NHL player and scout said.

He predicted any on-ice nastiness might instead involve countrymen Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, something history suggests is accurate. Malkin told reporters in Pittsburgh on Tuesday that the 2009 series was the hardest series in which he has ever played, but also the most fun he has ever had in a series.

"It's Sid against Ovi, lots of commercials," Malkin said, proving that even though it's difficult, if not impossible, to adequately compare Ovechkin and Crosby given their many dissimilarities, we are still drawn back to those two singular players.

"I do think both Ovi and Sid have things that they want to prove," the scout added. "Sid has been showing he is still the world's best in the second half of the season and now. So he's hungry and to prove some critics wrong, no doubt. Still lots left in his tank. Ovi is trying to answer his own critics that he can lead a team to victory in playoffs."

So, make no mistake. Much time has passed -- too much for hockey fans, one would opine -- between a matchup on this stage. But it doesn't mean time has mellowed either player or diminished the stakes that are on the line here.

Bragging rights? Sure. But the better prize for the one who emerges victorious is getting up to play another round of playoff hockey.

As it always will be when the best play each other.