Mike Halford

‘It’s always been the talk, the matchup the league wants’ — Ovechkin versus Crosby is back

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The two faces most responsible for bringing the NHL full-throttle into the 21st century are inextricably linked. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin get it, even if they’d rather not talk about it.

Their simultaneous arrival following the 2004-05 lockout served as the league’s version of a winning lottery ticket. Yin and yang on skates. Crosby the ever-polite Canadian with the otherworldly skills drafted by Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and brought to Pittsburgh to help rescue a franchise in tatters. Ovechkin all snarling id, a hard-hitting, hard-shooting Russian born in Moscow near the tail end of the Cold War and brought to the U.S. to work a few blocks from the center of the free world.

“Sid and Ovi were perfect for the game to take off and appeal to a younger demographic,” Penguins forward Beau Bennett said.

Yet the rivalry that has simmered around them, the one that will pick up on Thursday when Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals host Crosby and the Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, has been largely relegated to jersey sales and scoring titles. They’ve only met with so much on the line once in 11 seasons: a brilliant showdown in the conference semifinals in 2009, the one that ended with the Penguins shaking hands and moving on after a Game 7 blowout in Washington on their way to the Stanley Cup.

At the time, it seemed as if seeing Crosby’s blurring No. 87 across the ice from Ovechkin’s bullish No. 8 would become an annual rite of spring, a patchy playoff bearded version of Brady vs. Manning. Crosby was 21 back then. Ovechkin only 23, their primes still in the offing.

It didn’t quite work out that way. When the puck drops Thursday night, it will be 2,542 days since Crosby’s first-period goal ignited a 6-2 rout in the decider that provided an oddly anticlimactic end to an electrifying 12-day stretch that included hockey’s biggest stars trading hat tricks in Game 2 and a trio of overtime finishes. The memory still resonates in Pittsburgh nearly as much as the Penguins’ eventual triumph over Detroit in the Cup finals.

In Washington, not so much.

“It’s history,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t like to look back. I’m looking forward. What was the past, it’s over. Right now, it’s a new challenge and a new moment in our life.”

Even though maybe it’s only fitting that they meet now rather than at some other point in the interim, with both back at the peak of their considerable powers.

Crosby spent the better part of two seasons recovering from concussion-like symptoms that began with a blindside hit from Washington’s David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic, which drew 68,000 to Heinz Field and the largest TV audience (4.57 million) to watch an NHL regular-season game in 36 years.

Ovechkin’s path has been healthier but no less pockmarked after clashes with a string of coaches while developing a reputation for petulance that former Washington teammate Chris Clark – the captain on the 2009 team – feels is no longer deserved.

“He’s been a lot more accountable,” Clark said. “I think he gets a bum rap that way. He plays so much, but I think his defense and his accountability and his leadership I think has been the biggest change.”

Having a supporting cast and head coaches who have found a way to empower their occasionally mercurial leaders certainly helps. Crosby took off around the time Mike Sullivan arrived in mid-December. Freed by Sullivan to go and do his thing, Crosby averaged 1.31 points over Pittsburgh’s final 44 games, a surge that coincided with the Penguins returning to their usual perch as one of the league’s most explosive teams.

It’s much the same for Ovechkin, who clashed with Dale Hunter and couldn’t seem to find any sort of real rhythm under Adam Oates even as the goals continued to pile up. Barry Trotz, however, seems to have broken through. Ovechkin’s 50 goals led the league for the fourth straight year but also came in a season in which the Capitals posted the league’s best record and he posted his best plus/minus ratio (plus-21) in five years.

The “C” on Ovechkin’s jersey no longer seems ceremonial. Ditto Crosby. Though he never shied away from the obligation, “Sid the Kid” has become something decidedly more grown up. Crosby took aside Bennett recently and talked about the need to not be affected by the way the game is being called, a marked departure from earlier in his career. When Crosby took issue with the officials early in a Game 5 win over the New York Rangers last Saturday, he politely pleaded his case to the crew while skating off the ice at the end of the first period rather show them up.

“He said that he was just crazy when he was younger, just screaming about every call,” Bennett said. “He’s pretty mild out there, never too high, never too low.”

While Ovechkin remains more of an open book both on and off the ice – providing peeks into his private life via his Instagram and Twitter accounts, social media outlets the more guarded Crosby may never embrace – he’s comfortable doing his share of backchecking and speaking up when something needs to be said.

It’s one of the few ways Ovechkin and Crosby may be alike. It’s their differences, however, that make them so compelling. While they may downplay the importance of their roles, their teammates understand the presence of two opposite but equal forces give the series juice unlike any other.

“It’s always been the talk, the matchup the league wants,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said. “Sid against Ovi.”

Again. Finally.

“I think it brings out the best in both of us,” Crosby said. “I feel like in the past that’s been the case. I think there’s a lot made of it but I think at the same time we want to be at our best for our respective teams. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Neither does hockey.

AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

Pens sign coveted Swedish d-man Bengtsson

Jim Rutherford
AP
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Pittsburgh has agreed to terms with undrafted Swedish blueliner Lukas Bengtsson on a two-year deal, per ESPN.

Bengtsson, 22, is a smallish d-man (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) with quality skating ability and good offensive instincts. He had seven goals and 14 points in 30 games for SHL outfit Frolunda this season, and another seven poits in 12 playoff games.

Bengtsson was believed to be in high demand, with reports of various NHL teams interested in bringing him aboard. The Rangers had him at their prospect development camp last summer.

This is a nice get for the Penguins, who don’t have a ton of quality defensive prospects in their system. Since taking Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Pittsburgh hasn’t chosen a defenseman higher than the fourth round.

 

Here’s video of Dan Boyle’s profanity-laced rant

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This morning, we wrote about Dan Boyle going nuclear on the Rangers media — specifically New York Post scribe Larry Brooks, who Boyle wanted out of his scrum during Tuesday’s end-of-year interview.

Well, now there’s video.

Boyle unloads on Brooks — and fellow Post reporter Brett Cyrgalis, who wasn’t actually in attendance — and accuses the veteran writer of “burying” players, while unleashing a string of profanities.

Brooks has yet to respond.

It’s safe to assume the 39-year-old veteran was referring to a series of Post articles that criticized him for his play this season (like this or this or this.)

After this incident, Boyle resumed regular Q&A protocol and told reporters he was likely going to retire.

Prized draft prospect Laine wins Finnish playoff MVP

Patrik Laine of Finland celebrates scoring against Russia during the 2016 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship final match between Finland and Russia in Helsinki, Finland, Tuesday Jan. 5, 2016. (Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva via AP) FINLAND OUT
AP
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As we draw closer to the draft, there’s only one player that’s come close to challenging Auston Matthews as the No. 1 overall pick — Finnish forward Patrik Laine.

On Tuesday, Laine crept up on Matthews even more.

The 18-year-old capped off a banner SM-liiga campaign by helping Tappara capture the Finnish league title, on the strength of 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games. Laine was awarded the Jarri Kurri trophy as the league’s playoff MVP.

At 6-foot-4, 209 pounds and armed with a dynamic shot, Laine’s had scouts drooling for quite some time. After a scintillating World Juniors — in which he helped Finland capture gold with 13 points in seven games — Laine went on to have a terrific SM-liiga regular season, posting 33 points in 46 games.

Of course, I could write and write and write about Laine’s exploits. Or I could post a video:

Laine is expected to be selected to Team Finland for the upcoming World Hockey Championships in Russia.

 

 

 

Plekanec to captain Czechs at Worlds

Tampa Bay Lightning v Montreal Canadiens - Game One
Getty Images

Montreal center Tomas Plekanec will captain his native Czech Republic at the upcoming World Hockey Championships, the club announced on Tuesday.

Plekanec, 33, has a wealth of international experience, and previously captained the Czechs at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Worlds are a chance for Plekanec to end his year on a high note, after what was — by all accounts — a difficult season in Montreal.

Despite the team’s struggles, Plekanec did manage to produce well this season. His 40 assists were the second-most of his career, and his highest total since racking up 45 during the ’09-10 campaign.

As for the Worlds, Plekanec has enjoyed past success with the Czechs at this tournament. He won a silver medal in 2006, and back-to-back bronzes in 2011 and 2012.