We don’t ask much of Sidney Crosby. No, not much, just that he rescue hockey from the doldrums, return to the sensational form he was in at the time of his concussion nearly 11 months ago and, oh, would he mind waking up Alexander Ovechkin while he’s at it?
There is the sense in hockey that when Crosby was first struck down on Jan. 1, oddly enough in a much-hyped Winter Classic game against Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, that Crosby took Ovechkin with him.
Whether there is any real connection between Crosby’s absence and Ovechkin’s stark decline is probably more hopeful than logical. Hockey people are wondering if Ovechkin hasn’t flamed out like a brilliant shooting star on a limited flight path, not to be seen again in the same form.
And with Crosby just one dubious hit away from who knows what — the unthinkable, really — what remains of the Sid vs. Ovie rivalry? Is it over so soon, or will it resume in force after this lengthy pause, as one might expect of two players still just 24 and 26 years of age?
Ovechkin looked more like 36 than 26 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, only occasionally a threat, more often the picture of frustration, a minus three while running his pointless streak to four games, all Washington losses. Oh, to have been behind the scenes with Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau for a new episode of 24/7 after that ugly game.
Who can blame Gabby for blowing a gasket, given how his recalcitrant winger is performing, week in week out. My heart goes out to those who took the Great 8 first overall in the fantasy draft with Sidney on the sidelines. If only Ovie might catch the likes of Joffrey Lupul.
With seven goals, Ovechkin ranked 36th in that category heading into Monday’s game against Phoenix. His seven assists placed him 113th, and with 14 points he stood 62nd.
We could chalk it up to a slow start, for Ovie is hardly the only laggard at the moment. But instead of the first 18 games of this season, look instead at the longer term and the pattern shows a player that may have peaked as a 22-year-old — reaching a pinnacle in 2007-08 of 65 goals and 112 points, before dipping to 56 goals, 50 goals, and last season, 32 goals and 85 points.
Now Ovie is a victim of his own high standard — on pace for 32 goals and 64 points this season, decent numbers for a lot of first or second line players, but not a superstar paid the equivalent of the GDP of a small developing nation.
More alarming than Ovie’s goals and points are his shot totals. In 2008-09, Ovechkin pumped 528 shots at enemy goaltenders, more than six per game on average, a virtual shooting machine. This season he is getting away about three shots per game, illustrating how difficult it is for him to break free and get into the shooting zones he used to occupy.
Ovechkin blames bad luck, not bad form.
“Every game I’ve had chances and I’m happy about that,” Ovechkin told CSNWashington.com. “Sometimes I shoot the puck from the blue line and it goes in and sometimes I shoot the puck at an empty net and it misses the net. That can happen. Right now I’m shooting pucks from everywhere and they’re not going in.”
I’d be less inclined to believe we may have seen the best of Ovechkin if he were a different kind of player, a more fluid skater or a master tactician. The man is a bull, using his size and strength to run through, over and around opponents. Is he too predictable? At times, it seems the league may have figured him out.
Checkers have pursued Crosby just as vigilantly, but by being more elusive, and more of a puck distributor than Ovechkin, Crosby can make opponents pay by setting up linemates.
On Monday, the game held its breath for Crosby’s made-for-TV return to action on against the New York Islanders, as we all shared Crosby’s jitters.
“Anyone who’s gone through this would be lying if they didn’t say they were a little anxious to get those first couple of hits in,” Crosby told the waves of reporters that flocked to his dressing room stall. “After that, things should be pretty normal in trying to adjust.
“I just expect to be ready. I don’t know at what level but as far as what I need to do out there and create things, I expect a lot.”
Fans came to expect a lot of Crosby and Ovechkin as they dominated the NHL awards between 2007-09, with the expectation the battle would rage for a decade or more.
Let’s hope it does, because for all the great young talent in the game, no one is ready to be that next big name even non-hockey fans recognize, or the next great pair after Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.