There may be scrums in this Penguins-Capitals series that make Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin look like they are tied at the hip, which is fitting. They can’t escape each other, on the ice or as conversation pieces. Sid and Ovi entered the league together in 2005. They are very different players and have had very different Hall of Fame careers, but in some ways they are inseparable.
Ovechkin has 1,122 career points; Crosby has 1,116.
Since they arrived in the league, Crosby’s Penguins have accumulated 1,273 points in the regular-season standings; Ovechkin’s Capitals have accumulated 1,253.
And yet, there is this one glaring difference, and of course you know what it is. Crosby has won the Stanley Cup three times with Pittsburgh. He is this hockey generation’s greatest winner, which makes him its best player. Ovechkin has never made it past the second round, and his Caps have never beaten the Pens in three tries.
It is tempting to blame the Capitals’ postseason failures all on Ovechkin (“he’s a loser!”) and tempting to absolve him completely. Both would be reductive and lazy. But there is a fundamental difference between Crosby and Ovechkin, and it has shown up in the spring.
Crosby is a hockey sponge. He watches games all the time. He stays after practice, at all times of the year, to turn his weaknesses into strengths—even when nobody else saw the weaknesses. He loves the game like a toddler loves his favorite toy. He takes it everywhere. He touches all parts of it. He cannot imagine a day without it.
Ovechkin is not like that. He is quite competitive on the ice but can seem indifferent off it. He has never been known as a great practice player. He often shows up to the Caps’ facility with no idea what happened in the league the night before.
Every time the Penguins take the ice, they know their captain has done everything. Crosby is not just the most complete player of his generation; he is the most complete player he could possibly be. He is his sport’s Tim Duncan, its Tom Brady. His attitude shapes his whole franchise.
Every time the Capitals take the ice, they know Ovechkin has not done everything. Now, they also know he is an unparalleled goal scorer, that he really wants to win, and that they are always much better off with him on their side. But they don’t get the confidence injection that comes when your best player is your best worker. They have to import leadership from other teams, with trades and free-agent signings, because their captain is not really a captain in the traditional sense. He is just their best player.
The Penguins fall in line behind Crosby. The Capitals have to fall in line around Ovechkin. This does not keep the Capitals from winning the Cup, but it makes it harder for them. In the playoffs, the margin between victory and defeat is so thin. An entire series can end on a shot off a rebound on a two-on-one that only happened because somebody finished a check and the puck squirted in the right direction, and even the winning team doesn’t know exactly why it won. But it sure helps to know you did everything you could leading up to that moment.
When a team loses repeatedly in the postseason, we often say—or imply—that they are chokers: the pressure got to them. Sometimes, that’s true, and the Capitals’ postseason history is filled with so many collapses that it is easy to label them chokers.
More often, though, there are other reasons for repeated postseason failures, across sports: Injuries, luck, a hot goalie, repeatedly running into a super-team. And sometimes, what seems like choking is actually a team getting exposed. This, as much as anything, is what has happened to Ovechkin and the Capitals. The Caps have been a lot like their star: good enough to dominate in the winter, but not complete enough to win in the spring.
And this brings us to this year’s Caps-Pens series. The Capitals are in a rare position: they have postseason experience and home-ice advantage but are still the underdog. Maybe that puts them in the right mental place to finally beat the Penguins. Maybe those other factors—injuries, luck, a hot goalie—are finally on their side. Maybe Ovechkin has changed, slightly, or maybe it won’t matter. Maybe the Capitals can make this their year. Many stranger things have happened, especially in the hockey playoffs. I’m sure Ovechkin’s team believes it can win. But Crosby’s team knows that it can.