By Stu Hackel
They'll be linked forever, it seems, as this generation's Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux or, in an earlier time, Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. The Siamese twins of the New NHL's image machinery, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, have once again skated to the forefront of our minds.
Since the lockout ended, Sid and Ovie have been the twin faces of the game through scoring races, in playoff matchups, in debates over who is better, in books, in TV commercials...
...in a mini-series...
...and in more casual moments...
Tonight, Crosby will dress for the Penguins against the Islanders, happy as a kid to play again after concussion symptoms laid him low for nearly 11 months. Ovechkin, who is stuck in the muck of the worst stretch in his career, will try once again to get his groove back against the Coyotes, a team known for not making life easy for its opponents.
Sidney's travails have been well-documented. Every step of his rehabilitation was pored over and questioned, with some people believing he'd never see this day, that his career was over. Wild rumors had his parents urging him to retire, and some observers have theorized that he would never be the same player again, a strange evaluation considering that he had yet to even return.
Crosby is hardly the first NHLer to lose an extended period to concussion. Other players in the post-lockout era of rising head injuries have suffered as much -- and we're thinking about Pierre-Marc Bouchard, David Perron, Francis Bouillion. Derek Boogaard, Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, Peter Mueller, Ian Laperierre, Brian Pothier, David Booth, Matthew Lombardi, Bryce Salvador and Paul Kariya -- some of whom never made it back, Boogaard most tragically. (My SI colleague Michael Farber spoke to Bergeron today about his long recovery process and the bond he's developed with Crosby.)
But because he's perhaps the game's best player, Crosby became the poster boy for concussion awareness. Had he not been sidelined since early January, would the NHL's improved concussion protocols and the stronger rules on head hits, which went into effect this season, have even been proposed?
Until he's played some games, it's impossible to know what sort of player Crosby will be now. It's rather unlikely -- but not impossible -- that he'll come right out of the chute and be the exceptional talent he was during the first half of last season when he threw together an amazing 26-game run of 26 goals and 24 assists. He'll likely have some rust to skate off, even though he's probably in excellent shape. But really, who can say?
It's also impossible to know how other teams will react to him. Will he again be targeted by opposition tough guys who are trying to get him off his game? Even though he's now fully recovered, will Crosby be more vulnerable to head trauma, having suffered it before? Will he be a more hesitant player because of it and avoid high traffic areas? That's highly doubtful. The guess here is that he'll be the same sort of physical player he was before his injury.
One thing about a thoroughbred like Crosby: He only knows how to run one way -- full speed and to win. He should never be counted out.
We all thought the same was true of Ovechkin, given how he had played his entire career. He was not just the greatest goal scorer in the NHL -- an average of almost 54 per season during his first five years -- he won a scoring title and two Hart trophies. He joyously mesmerized the hockey world -- and beyond -- with his flashy skills and ebullient celebrations. He played with unbounded energy both with and without the puck. He'd crash into foes like an indestructible armored tank.
As of today, Ovechkin has scored only seven goals in his first 18 games and is tied with P.A. Parenteau for 64th in the league scoring race (14 points). He's also minus-6.
Anyone who tuned in Saturday night to watch the Ovie and Capitals saw them play miserably in losing 6-2 to the banged-up Maple Leafs and had to be struck by a few things: First, how much room the Caps defenders gave Toronto on rush after rush, conceding the blue line and allowing the Leafs to flood their zone nearly uncontested. Second, how poorly the Caps handled the puck. The thoughtless turnovers. The blind passes that got picked off. Not what you'd expect from a team that's often considered the most electric puck movers in the game.
And right behind the team's failures was the performance of its captain, who was so disinterested that he often rendered himself invisible. This from the guy who was once the most conspicuous skater in any game he played.
He was weak defensively, and we're probably being kind with that assessment. On Matt Frattin's goal, Ovie swoops in as the second man on the forecheck (it's unclear if he was supposed to be that aggressive on it ), taking a strange route and he seems to collide with Cody Franson. As you can see in the replay, Ovechkin falls in the offensive zone.
If Frattin was his guy to check, then Ovie was on his butt 100 feet away. Bruce Boudreau looks mighty unhappy. That miscue gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead. When it was 3-1 and the Caps were pushing back, Ovechkin made a terrible play in the defensive zone, again swooping in and skating right past Joffrey Lupul, who sets up Phil Kessel for the goal. You can see Ovechkin muttering to himself after that one.
A couple of years ago, Ovie would have skated right through Lupul and sent him flying. Time and again, Ovechkin drifted out of the picture into the neutral zone looking for a quick strike pass that never came. The Caps were pinned in their own end and he wasn't there to help out.
We've written about Ovechkin's decline before (starting with the Caps' early troubles last season and more recently), but haven't joined the speculation on what has happened to him. There have been popular notions that he was chastened two years ago when the NHL suspended him two games for a knee-on-knee hit with Carolina's Tim Gleason (video). "I'm not going to change," Ovie vowed at the time, but he certainly has.
Other causes for his shriveling presence have been offered, included his feuding with Bruce Boudreau to his fat, long-term contract to his sensitivity to the criticism that came after he showboating rubbed the rest of the NHL the wrong way. It's also be seen said that he should never have been made captain in the first place. That last point perhaps merits some examination.
After getting off to a 7-0 start, Washington is 3-7-1, and 1-5-1 in its last seven. The Caps just lost three straight on the road, but started the trip well in Nashville, playing a taut game they led 1-0 on a late third-period goal. Shortly afterward, the Predators entered Washington's zone and the Caps who were on the ice - including Ovechkin's line -- thought the play was offside and stopped skating. Shea Weber drifted in unchecked and tied the score. Nashville added two more in the final minutes.
It was a soft play mentally -- you play to the whistle -- and it upset the Caps so much that they played a stinker in Winnipeg and followed that up with a worse game in Toronto. This is obviously a fragile team at the moment and their captain's response hasn't inspired them.
Of all the explanations, perhaps the one that Don Cherry advanced during the 2009 playoffs makes the most sense. Cherry shows how Ovie was playing back then -- full-out, all the time, hitting everything that moved -- and remarks (among other things) that he just can't continue to play that way.
Maybe Cherry is right and Ovie has emptied the tank prematurely. "This is, at age 26, the time when most hockey players grow into the greatest player they will be, but there is evidence indicating we’ve already seen the best of Ovechkin — and that may have been some time ago," Steven Simmons wrote in The Toronto Sun over the weekend, adding, "The hockey Crosby was playing just prior to his injury last January was at a level beyond where he had been before. When did Ovechkin last dazzle or look like an absolute superstar for a prolonged period of time?"
It's been a while.
That's not going to stop fans from wishing otherwise, even as a joke. The Globe and Mail's David Shoalts tweeted on Sunday that he noticed a comment on NHL.com he liked, "Now that Sid's coming back, maybe Ovechkin will, too." Maybe it was mean to be sardonic, but maybe not by all who retweeted it. It was retweeted 19 times. Who wouldn't want to see them both return to greatness?
It's hard to say whether these old rivals will again battle to be hockey's top player, but at least they're together on the ice again. That's a start.
Emmylou Harris has performed that live for years.
Here's the original, by the composer, Buck Owens.
He and the Buckaroos did a terrific live version, too.