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Can Ovechkin catch Crosby in best-player race?

At its peak, one of the best things about the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin was that it wasn't manufactured. It felt real because it was. (Getty Images)

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At its peak, one of the best things about the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin was that it wasn't manufactured. It felt real because it was. (Getty Images)

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

At its peak, one of the best things about the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin was that it wasn't manufactured. It felt real because it was.

The last time Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby faced each other, it was New Year's Day. It was the Winter Classic, the NHL's annual outdoor game, and it was used to showcase supposedly the top two players in hockey.

HBO cameras followed Ovechkin's Washington Capitals and Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins for a first-of-its-kind, behind-the-scenes series culminating with the Classic. A TV commercial showed Ovechkin and Crosby standing face-to-face at Heinz Field, rain turning to snow, symbolizing a coming Cold War. Ovi and Sid literally were the faces of the game, their dueling images facing off on the side of the truck that carried the equipment that made the very ice.

By then, though, Crosby had clearly separated himself from Ovechkin and everyone else. He was streaking as his Penguins soared. Ovechkin was slumping as his Capitals struggled. And as they meet again Thursday night, the chasm is even greater – even though Crosby took a hit to the head in the Classic, took another one four days later and suffered concussion symptoms that sidelined him for 10-1/2 months.

Crosby had 32 goals in exactly half a season when he went down; Ovechkin finished with 32 goals last season playing only three games short of a full schedule. Crosby returned from a 61-game absence in dramatic fashion last Monday night with two goals and two assists; Ovechkin shouldered blame this Monday morning when the Capitals fired coach Bruce Boudreau.

It seems only a matter of time before Crosby catches Ovechkin statistically. With 11 points in five games, he's just seven behind the 18 Ovechkin has posted in 23 games. For Crosby, the question is if – or when – he will factor into the scoring race. The Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel leads the league with 32 points. At this pace, Crosby would catch him by the end of February.

For Ovechkin, the question is if he will catch back up to Crosby, if he will make the best-in-the-game debate a debate again. Ovechkin is only 26. He still has every ounce of the ability that once made him the Great Eight. He should be entering his prime, and he should stage a rivalry with the 24-year-old Crosby for years to come. But how does he become the player he used to be, and can he under new coach Dale Hunter?

"Everybody wants to win MVPs and scoring title, but again, right now, in this situation – especially when the team fire the coach – you don't have to think about you have to score 20 goals in two games," Ovechkin said. "You just have to play hard and show the coach we're going to fight for you. We just have to play for each other and for him, too."

What's wrong with Ovechkin? To the many theories – his lack of evolution, his sometimes subpar conditioning, his waning enthusiasm – let's add another: Part of the problem might be the question itself.

Ovechkin and the Capitals became a fun-loving, high-flying, elite team by playing one way, but because they failed in the playoffs, all they heard was that their way didn't work. They changed – and for valid reasons – but they got away from what made them great and got worse. Is it any wonder that they haven't been themselves since they tried to be something else?

Crosby's and Ovechkin's paths really diverged in the spring of 2010. Both Crosby's Penguins and Ovechkin's Capitals were upset in seven-game series by the same suffocating defensive team (the Montreal Canadiens) and the same hot goalie (Jaroslav Halak). Ovechkin put up better numbers against the Habs. He had five goals and 10 points. Crosby had one goal and five points.

The difference was that Crosby's Penguins lost in the second round and had won the Stanley Cup the year before. They had confidence that their way could win because it had won, and they had the benefit of the doubt from the public. They stuck to their plan. Rightfully so.

Ovechkin's Capitals lost in the first round – the top regular-season team falling to an eighth seed – blowing a two-game lead in a series early in the playoffs for the second straight year. Instead of patience, a feeling that they were close, there was panic, a feeling that there was a fatal flaw.

I sat down with Ovechkin one-on-one before last season. At that point, there was still a strong argument that Ovechkin was the best player in the NHL. Ovechkin and Crosby each had one scoring title, but after voting Crosby the league's most outstanding player in 2007, the players had chosen Ovechkin three years in a row. Ovechkin led Crosby in most individual categories: goals (269-183), points (529-506), goal-scoring titles (2-1) and MVP awards (2-1). But, of course, Crosby had a Cup and an Olympic gold, and he was being touted as the superior team player.

And that's what we talked about. That's all anyone talked about. Ovechkin said all the right things ("You have to win something to say, 'Yeah, I'm the greatest player in the world' "), and I think he meant them. But you could also tell he was worn down by the talk his greatness wasn't good enough, saying his friends kept asking him why the Caps had lost to the Habs ("I'm pretty tired to hear why. 'Why? Why? Why?' "). He repeated what he had been told so often ("It doesn't matter how good you play in the [regular] season"), and then, well, he played like it.

Yes, this is where mental toughness comes in – the stuff Boudreau said he didn't know quite how to teach the team just before he got canned. But it was more than that. Ovechkin's teammates struggled, too, and the coach changed his philosophy to buckle down defensively. Though Ovechkin looked like the Ovi of old late in the season and the Caps got hot, finishing first in the East, he finished with the worst regular-season numbers of his career and it didn't translate into playoff success. The Caps were swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The rest is history. Following orders from ownership and management, Boudreau tried to enforce accountability this season. He benched Ovechkin for one key shift Nov. 1 against the Anaheim Ducks, the cameras caught Ovechkin calling Boudreau a "fat [fellow]," and the snowball grew even bigger. Ovechkin and others stopped responding to Boudreau. Just as Crosby came back, with TV analysts showing iso shots of the returning hero streaking back into his own zone, Ovechkin stopped backchecking altogether. The captain helped his coach get fired.

So now what? Though Hunter has made adjustments to Boudreau's systems, his message isn't much different than Boudreau's was at the end – no run-and-gun hockey, be responsible defensively, play hard all the time. He said he will base ice time on merit, but he acknowledged that he likes to ride his star players if they earn it.

Maybe Ovechkin will never score like Crosby again. Remember that the Penguins were ahead of the Capitals in their development as a team when Crosby and Ovechkin arrived, and their lineup is even more stacked now. Meanwhile, Caps center Brooks Laich said it will take “months” to perfect Hunter's system, and Caps winger Mike Knuble said he expects a lot of low-scoring, tight games. We might have to recalibrate our expectations of Ovi.

But the Capitals wouldn't have made this change if they didn't think it would give them a greater return on their biggest asset – a guy signed through 2021 at an annual salary-cap hit of more than $9.5 million.

"I guess we'll see in the next couple weeks how it plays out," Knuble said. "He may feel a little bit fresher mentally … if the situation with Bruce was bogging him down for some reason. I don't know. Maybe it's a new lease on life for him. I don't know. But it's not going to get easier. I don't think he's going to have a free pass, either."

Maybe Hunter will motivate Ovechkin, instill more discipline in him, help him adjust so opponents don't key on his signature moves. Maybe the Capitals will find the right balance between offense and defense. Maybe the pucks will start going in for Ovi again, he'll earn more ice time and the joy, the leaping celebrations, will return.

Asked what kind of captain he wanted Ovechkin to be, Hunter said he needed to be a big part of the game every night.

"He's got to get everybody's confidence back," Hunter said.

Starting with his own.

FIRST PERIOD

As Puck Daddy put it so well, the Ducks' hiring of Boudreau to replace Randy Carlyle was "absolutely a genius hire."

The Capitals didn't fire Boudreau because he was a bad coach. He was the best coach they ever had – four straight division titles, a Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2008, a Presidents' Trophy as the league's top regular-season team in 2009-10, the fastest coach ever to 200 NHL victories. I wrote that owner Ted Leonsis' thank-you note read like a happy retirement send-off. I should have said it read like a recommendation letter.

The Ducks reportedly asked for permission to speak to Boudreau not long after he was let go Monday, and they hired him late Wednesday night. Boudreau can be the fresh voice for the Ducks' struggling stars that he couldn't be for the Capitals anymore. He can go to a team that needs a player's coach to replace a disciplinarian instead of the other way around. After trying to coax an offensive juggernaut to play defense, he can go back to doing what he does best and help talented offensive players score goals.

Whether he knew something or not – or whether he just knew Boudreau – St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was prophetic Tuesday night as he spoke before his team played in Washington.

"It wouldn't surprise me if in the next 72 hours Bruce is back in rinks again," Hitchcock said. "He's a lifer. He will bounce back the quickest of anybody because he loves the game so much. He loves the people in the game. … He's the guy for me I worry the least about because he's had to bounce back lots, and he knows how to do it. He'll mentally position himself very quickly here and get back in the saddle again."

SECOND PERIOD

It isn't unusual to see Jimmy Howard leading NHL goaltenders in victories, as he does now with 14. He has led the league in that category before, playing for the talented Detroit Red Wings, even when he hasn't had spectacular statistics.

But this is different. Howard ranks second in goals-against average at 1.87 – behind only the hugely surprising Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues, who is first at 1.31. Howard also has a .929 save percentage. That ranks 11th, but this has been a season of remarkably high save percentages.

The Wings have tightened up defensively, but Howard has been consistent overall and spectacular at times. He said he is being more patient in his third season as a starter – reading plays better, being aggressive at the right times instead of rushing out on every single shooter, seeing things out of the corners of his eyes and closing the back door. He has won six straight.

"The mental side of his game seems to have really come," said coach Mike Babcock. "He seems to be a good goaltender in the league, and I think we get excellent goaltending right now – as good as we've had since I've been here, for sure."

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Babcock won a Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a victory of repeating in 2009 with Chris Osgood behind the pipes. Osgood mentored Howard. He still works with the Wings' goaltenders now that he's retired, but he spends a lot of time working with the minor-leaguers. Howard is ready to fly on his own.

"He's always been calm and always been confident," said Wings center Henrik Zetterberg. "But now we know every time he will be good. Even if we make mistakes, he will save us. Just to have that in the back of your head, it is a good feeling to have."

THIRD PERIOD

The Philadelphia Flyers just aren't the same without their captain. They're 8-3-1 with Chris Pronger; 5-4-2 without him. They need the physical presence he provides on the back end. They need the accountability he demands in the dressing room. They even need his smirk and sarcastic wit.

So it's scary that the 37-year-old keeps getting hurt from head to toe – eye, hand, back, knee, the other knee, foot – and keeps having surgeries. It's especially scary that his latest surgery came Tuesday to fix a knee problem he can't pinpoint on any particular play, while he still has headaches and nausea that the Flyers are attributing to a mysterious virus. (And it will be a shame if he's less of a presence in HBO's upcoming "24/7" series while he's out for about four weeks.)

Pronger doesn't think he's falling apart.

"You look at the number of the injuries, and they would seem to be kind of fluky," Pronger said in a media conference call Thursday. "Three of them, I got hit with the puck or a stick. Are those everyday hockey occurrences? Yeah, it could happen to anybody. When you play the game hard and you play a lot of minutes, you're that much more inclined to have something happen to you because you're always out there."

The only positive is that this might help him be out there when it matters most.

"I think if it was the playoffs or the Stanley Cup final, I could play, but it was to the point where I wouldn't have played very well," Pronger said. "We can always say we can play. But at what level and at what detriment are you playing? At this stage in the season, not knowing the other side of it, it was prudent to get it done now so that if I'm able to return in four weeks, let's say, then I'm able to get three weeks in before the all-star break and then put the hammer down after that as we get into the playoff stretch."

POWER RANKINGS

TOP 6

Boston1. Boston Bruins: The defending Stanley Cup champions played 13 games in November and won all but one – and that lone loss was in overtime. They get another chance to beat up on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, then comes a great Monday night matchup at Pittsburgh.

New York Rangers2. New York Rangers: The Rangers were almost as good as the Bruins in November, going 9-2-0. Their excellence has been lost in the shuffle a bit, but that's about to change with the "24/7" coverage and the buildup to the Winter Classic.

Minnesota3. Minnesota Wild: This team continues to be the biggest surprise of the season. The Wild seems short on offense, which would lead you to believe the first goal would be critical. Yet the Wild has won nine games after allowing the first goal. Coach Mike Yeo has his guys playing the same way no matter the score.

Pittsburgh4. Pittsburgh Penguins: The scariest thing about Crosby's 11 points in five games is that he could have even more if his teammates had cashed in on some golden opportunities. It started with his first shift when Chris Kunitz hit a crossbar and hasn't stopped.

Detroit5. Detroit Red Wings: Told you that six-game losing streak was just a funk. The Red Wings have gone 10-2-0 since. They have won six straight and are back atop the Central Division.

Phoenix6. Phoenix Coyotes: One of the games of the year on Thursday night: The Coyotes return to their ancestral home of Winnipeg, where they will face the team that bears the name they once did. It is even more remarkable that the Coyotes' future is still uncertain. Could the original Jets have taken off from The 'Peg, only to connect in Phoenix on their way to Quebec City?

BOTTOM 6

Calgary25. Calgary Flames: Wouldn't it be great if Jarome Iginla really were part of the solution? People want players to be loyal – until those players can be traded to upgrade the roster. Iginla is an icon in Calgary. He knows it. He values it. It doesn't mean he doesn't want to win; it means he wants to win there.

Winnipeg26. Winnipeg Jets: The atmosphere ought to be great for the return of the Coyotes. The emotion of the MTS Centre has made a little bit of a difference this season, but not an overly dramatic one. The Jets are 5-4-0 at home and 4-7-4 on the road.

New York Islanders27. New York Islanders: John Tavares is tied for the team lead in goals with eight, even though he hasn't scored in 11 consecutive games.

Carolina28. Carolina Hurricanes: Replacing Paul Maurice with Kirk Muller looks like a great move. Muller needs to instill some confidence in slumping captain Eric Staal, but he'll really prove his coaching ability if he can get anything out of Tomas Kaberle – no goals, five assists, minus-12.

Anaheim29. Anaheim Ducks: It was one thing to let Carlyle coach Wednesday night. It was another to let him walk out and speak to reporters after a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens snapped a seven-game losing streak. He looked relieved, not knowing he was going to be fired. Not a classy move.

Columbus30. Columbus Blue Jackets: Curtis Sanford is a great story amid the misery. He told the Columbus Dispatch he considered quitting as recently as last month after toiling in the minors and suffering injuries. Now he's 3-2-2 – with a .939 save percentage – for a team that couldn't win.

PLUS/MINUS

PLUS: The Red Wings are reportedly in deep discussions with the NHL about hosting the Winter Classic in 2013 or '14. Owner Mike Ilitch might want it at Comerica Park, home of his Detroit Tigers. But as someone who was part of the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game – and, for full disclosure, as a Michigan alum – here's pushing for the Big House. Wings-Leafs. More than 113,000 fans. Another world record. Make it happen.

MINUS: Left winger Michael Frolik had a chance to snag a top-six role with the Chicago Blackhawks, playing on the top line with Jonathan Toews at one point, on the second unit with Patrick Kane at another. But he didn't seize the opportunity, and now he's on the fourth line.

PLUS: Ottawa Senators fans might be stuffing the ballot box with the All-Star Game coming to their city, but one player who is deserving is defenseman Erik Karlsson. He leads the league in assists (21) and defensemen in points (22), and he ranks second overall in the voting.

MINUS: Ilya Kovalchuk scored Wednesday night. But that gave him only five goals this season, and he was minus-4 in the New Jersey Devils' 6-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. He has slipped to minus-8 on the season. Zach Parise has only six goals and is minus-8, too.

PLUS: Boudreau and Maurice couldn't have been classier after their firings. Boudreau said he should have been fired after trying every trick in the book, and Maurice left Muller a good-luck message on the whiteboard in the Hurricanes dressing room calling the players a "great bunch of guys" and the staff "A-1." That's A-1.

MINUS: People are already talking about Crosby making a run at the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. But the Penguins went 37-19-8 without him, and they rank first in the East even though he has played only five games. I have gushed over his remarkable comeback and written that he makes a good team great, and he might deserve the Hart in the end. But the fact remains that the Pens were a good team already, and we're talking about the most valuable player, not the best player. Would the Leafs be where they are without Kessel? Just sayin'.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

“Oh, Roberto Luongo. If he supports Cory Schneider, he looks weak. But if he didn't support him, how would he look then?”

Luongo can't win. (No, I don't mean that literally.) Backup Cory Schneider is hot, allowing only five goals over five straight victories for the Vancouver Canucks. Luongo is saying all the right things, most notably that they're both No. 1 goaltenders, but it's coming out wrong because he's the one in the second year of a 12-year, $64-million contract.

Look, Schneider always defended Luongo strongly – even when Luongo was at his lowest moments, even though Schneider seems ready to be a starter in the NHL and must feel he could do the job in Vancouver. Luongo is just returning the favor.


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