Penguins-Capitals series that make Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin look like they are tied at the hip, which is fitting. They can not escape each other, on the ice or as conversation pieces. Sid and Ovi have entered the league together in 2005.
Crosby's Penguins have accumulated 1.273 points in the regular-season stands; 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 his best player.
It's tempting to blame the Capitals' postseason failures on Ovechkin ("he's a loser!") And tempting to absolve him completely. Both would be reductive and lazy. Crosby is a hockey sponge.
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-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 can not imagine a day without it.
Ovechkin is not like that. He is quite competitive on the ice but can seagull indifferent off it. He has never been known as a great practice player.
Every time the Penguins take the ice, they know their captain has done everything. Crosby is not the most complete player of his generation; he is the most complete player he could possibly be. He is his sport's Tim Duncan, his Tom Brady. His attitude shapes his whole franchise.
Every time the Capitals take the ice, they know Ovechkin has not done everything. Now, they are all in an unparalleled goal scorer, that he really wants to win, and that they are always better off with him on their side. But that's 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 hold 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. The winning team does not know exactly why it won.
When a team loses repeatedly in the postseason, we often say-or imply-they're chokers: the pressure got to them. Sometimes, though, there are other reasons for repeated postseason failures, across sports: Injuries, luck, a hot goalie, running into a super team. And sometimes, what seems like choking is actually a team getting exposed. This, as much as anything, is what 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 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 will not 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.