by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

Ever since Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin simultaneously spectacularly burst onto the NHL scene in 2005-06, hockey fans have been divided over the question: who is better? For the past five years the two superstars have been dominant, racking up numerous individual awards, scoring tremendous highlight reel goals, and becoming the faces of their respective franchises. Discussions have often been spirited and passionate, whether on SCF’s Hockey Chat forum, pubs, or the water cooler. It is the Gretzky vs. Lemieux debate for a new generation.

Alex Ovechkin...

The numbers on Ovechkin and Crosby tell a story of two amazing players competing at the highest level at the top of their games. It is an amazing fact that as of January 1, 2011, Ovechkin and Crosby have exactly the same number of points, with 571 each. Ovechkin has more goals, with 283 to Crosby’s 215. Both have won the Maurice Richard Trophy for leading the NHL in regular season goals, Ovechkin twice to Crosby’s once. Both have won the Art Ross Trophy for leading the NHL in regular season points, Crosby in 2007 and Ovechkin in 2008. Both have won the Hart Trophy and the Lester Pearson Awards as the NHL’s most valuable player, the former selected by the media and the latter by their peers. They are recognized universally as the best two players in the game.

...or Sidney Crosby?

Crosby and Ovechkin are very different players. Ovechkin is commonly referred to as a “beast” on the ice, a purely offensive player with not only tremendous skills but also one that is not afraid to take a run at opponents and play recklessly, if not dangerously. Crosby is a complete player that excels in all three zones, relying on his amazing talents more often than not, but he too will show an edge when the circumstances call for it. The raw, unbridled dynamo that is Alex Ovechkin often rubs people the wrong way, and his style has indeed run afoul of NHL head disciplinarian Colin Campbell on a number of occasions. Crosby’s tendency to complain to NHL officials can be equally off-putting, and many fans around the League point to that seeming immaturity as evidence that he can dish it out but not take it – a claim that many people once said about Gretzky.

Their off-ice demeanour is equally different. Crosby is all business, all the time, and Penguins owner Mario Lemieux has said of his superstar, “He thinks about hockey 24 hours a day, even in his sleep it seems like.” Ovechkin is more of a wild child, who has often been seen partying and whose pre-game rituals occasionally include racing around the bowels of the Verizon Centre in a motorized cart. Some would argue that the level of preparation and seriousness is what sets Crosby apart from Ovechkin, the difference between a champion and a great player.

However, to truly settle the debate over who is the better player, you have to look at more than just the numbers, the attitudes, and the individual accomplishments. You have to look at these accomplishments within the simple fact that hockey is a team game. To what extent have their individual successes, and on what stages, propelled their teams to overall success and glory?

The Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal of any NHL player and team. Any young man that laces up a pair of skates has dreamt of holding Lord Stanley’s chalice high in the air in triumph. In both victory and defeat, Sidney Crosby is clearly superior to Alex Ovechkin during the rigorous Stanley Cup playoffs. Crosby has played in 62 playoffs games, more than doubling Ovechkin’s 28. Only once have Ovechkin’s Capitals made it to the second round, while Crosby has led the Penguins to two Cup Finals appearances and one Championship. In the Penguins’ Cup-winning 2008-09 run, Crosby led all scorers with 15 goals in 24 games. 3 of those goals came in the famous second game of the series against the Captials, in which both Crosby and Ovechkin picked up hat tricks. The difference, however, was in Game 7, when Crosby scored twice to help pace the Penguins to a 6-2 victory that sent the Capitals home. While Ovechkin notched 14 points in the series to Crosby’s 13, he was not the difference-maker that Crosby was. Crosby scored key goals and set up others that were central to his team’s overall success.

In the 2010 playoffs, the Capitals were heavily favoured to win the Stanley Cup. They finished the regular season first overall with 121 points, a country mile ahead of their first round opponents, the Montreal Canadiens. So bold were some prognosticators in their belief in Washington’s chances that they predicted “Caps in three.” Yet the brash Capitals were defeated in seven games, blowing a 3-1 series lead. Ovechkin was held off the score sheet in the final two games. While Crosby’s Penguins would meet a similar fate against the Canadiens in the second round, the perception that the Captials were too much a group of individuals was sharpened, with Ovechkin a primary focus. The Capitals’ best player was clearly frustrated by the hard checking of the Canadiens and the wall put up by Jaroslav Halak, failing to score on 18 shots in Games 6 and 7. On a personal level, Ovechkin continued on to the World Championships, where Russia would lose to the Czech Republic in the Gold Medal game.

That loss was the culmination of a horrid first half of 2010 for Alex Ovechkin. Team Russia was heavily favoured to win gold at the Vancouver Olympics, but was unceremoniously bounced from the tournament in the quarterfinals by Team Canada in a 7-3 rout. And then, in one of the most famous moments in hockey history:

Chris Cuthbert: “Crosby scores! Sidney Crosby! The Golden Goal!”

And in that moment, Crosby joined the ranks of Paul Henderson and Mario Lemieux as Canadian national treasures that scored championship-winning goals for their country. The goal also propelled Crosby to an incredible 2010. The playoffs disappointment notwithstanding, Crosby went on to win the Richard Trophy, the Mark Messier Leadership Award, The Sporting News’ Top Under-25 Athlete award, and the Canadian Press Male Athlete of the Year.

Back on the ice for the 2010-11 season, the gap between Crosby and Ovechkin has never been more stark. While Ovechkin’s Capitals were mired in an 8-game losing streak, Crosby was putting together a scoring streak that would ultimately finish just before year’s end at an amazing 25 games. There have been nights this year where it looks like everybody other than Crosby have been playing in slow motion; he is simply on a level all his own. The streak was a major influence on a run that saw the Penguins go on a 12-game winning streak that propelled them to the top of the NHL standings. Crosby’s 32 goals and 65 points lead the NHL, and he is comfortably ahead of Ovechkin’s 14 goals and 42 points.

The best player in the world

It is clear, then, that the question of who is the best player in the NHL has been answered, and that answer is Sidney Crosby.