Today is the final of four Olympic hockey days, and a consensus among NHL folks with whom I’ve traded e-mails and texts during this break, Friday, Saturday and Sunday will represent the last three days of Olympic hockey involving NHL players for some time. The league is not pleased with U.S. television partner NBC’s decision to broadcast an overwhelming majority of games – including the round-robin USA-Canada tilt – on sister satellite networks USA Network, CNBC and MSNBC. I’m told there has been a lot of discussion among NHL executives as to the worth of a near three-weak break (and extension of the Stanley Cup Final into late June) simply to send its players to the Games, which would be held for the first time in Russia in 2014.
I’m torn on the issue for a myriad of reasons, but before I offer some Penguins-related observations today, please consider this question: How would a 2014 Winter Olympics without NHL players affect your interest in the men’s ice hockey competition at the next games?
Thoughts are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org – please include your FULL NAME and CURRENT HOMETOWN. Thanks.
ME VS CANDA, SID VS OVI
OK, so the worst-kept secret among the Pittsburgh sports media is my blind allegiance to Team USA in all Olympic events, but especially the hockey tournaments. Surely I will be forced to eat some crow from Canadian C SIDNEY CROSBY if his squad rallies from a disheartening loss Sunday to the USA and wins gold, which certainly looks like a possibility after Canada’s eye-opening pounding of Russia on Wednesday night. (By the way, did anybody else find it curious that Russia opted to scratch star RW ALEX OVECHKIN for that anticipated showdown with Canada?*)
Consider this exchange between Crosby and me after the Penguins’ final game before the Olympic break:
RR: Good luck in Vancouver, and try to enjoy it. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
SC: (Smiling) Thanks, but I don’t think you mean it.
RR: (Laughing) I don’t. Silver would look really good hanging around your neck. … Actually, I don’t mean that either.
Disclosure: I consider some of my best friends in this business to be Canadian, and I truly believe Canadians are in many ways the best people on this planet; but when it comes to hockey competition I will root against Canada at any cost. I’m American. Canadians are my country’s friendliest neighbors, but they are also my country’s hockey archrivals. I don’t want them to win anything in hockey – ever; and since I’m not at the Olympics, I have enjoyed spending the past two weeks as a fan, which is something sports reporters sacrifice by the objective nature of our jobs. So, U-S-A! U-S-A! And, Go Slovakia, Go!
My want for Canada not to win gold (or any medal) in the men’s hockey tournament is not something I’ve hid from any Canadian, including Crosby and his family. When asked by his father TROY CROSBY for whom I was rooting at the Olympics, I responded via text message that I was USA all the way. Papa Crosby responded that Sid would be happy to show me a gold medal upon his return to Pittsburgh from Vancouver.
“Well, I’m going with my country because I am American,” I wrote in response, “but I’ve learned that it is not wise to bet against your boy.”
It’s not wise, by the way, to bet against Sidney Crosby. I’ve seen him live up to expectations quite often over the last four years. I’ve been accused in these parts of being a cheerleader for him, so allow me to likely build that reputation with this observation as to what separates Crosby from Ovechkin:
In three elimination games they’ve played against one another over the past nine months Crosby’s clubs own a 2-1 advantage in wins, and Crosby’s squads have scored 17 goals to 10 by Ovechkin’s teams. Crosby has played a part in five goals to 4 by Ovechkin.
The argument against defining these stars by success of their teams against one another is that Crosby’s are perceived to have been better. That argument is weak. The Capitals were a No. 2 Eastern Conference seed last season, and good enough to take a 2-0 series lead against the fourth-seeded Penguins before losing four of five to drop the series. That Capitals squad deployed five 50-points scorers that played an entire season in Washington. The Penguins entered the playoffs last season with only two such players, Crosby and C EVGENI MALKIN.
A lot of the words coming from suddenly talkative Canadians today in the wake of Canada’s 7-3 win against Russia – funny how a lot of them went silent from Sunday night through Wednesday afternoon (ha) – is that Team Canada is the sleeping giant that has been awoken. However, at best, Canada was only a co-favorite to win this tournament, with Russia being the squad many considered as most talented. Russia’s impressive Olympic roster only adds to the failed argument that Crosby’s teams have been “better” than ones with Ovechkin, and therefore comparing these players based off team success is not fair.
Crosby’s teams have won more so they are considered “better,” but Ovechkin’s squads have entered these showdowns as either the favorite (last spring in the playoffs) or an even-bet co-favorite (Wednesday night at the Olympics).
Team success isn’t all that matters to individual rivalries, but it matters a lot. If that wasn’t true, why did MARIO LEMIEUX have to win a Cup before he could be considered the game’s best player during the prime of his career?
Ovechkin is the favorite to win a third consecutive Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and will probably win a second Art Ross Trophy this season as the league leading scorer. His personal rivalry with Crosby is the stuff the NHL is made of right now, and will be as long as both players are active in the league.
However, until Ovechkin can figure out a way to get his team – Russia on the international stage or the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup playoffs – past one with Crosby, he cannot pass Crosby in the race to become known as the best player of this hockey generation.
SAY WHAT: MATT COOKE
“It would be like… I’m trying to think. There’s not a comparison. Commercials in Canada are dedicated to letting people know that hockey is our game. That’s how people feel.”
…From my conversation with Cooke after Penguins practice on Wednesday. We were discussing the impossible-to-comprehend connection Canadians feel to the men’s hockey team’s pursuit of Olympic gold at a Games hosted by Canada.
C/RW MAX TALBOT, who has played in only 28 games this season because of left shoulder and groin injuries, said Wednesday he possibly could play Tuesday at home against Buffalo. Talbot, who has scored only one goal this season, has not played since Jan. 28.
I asked how close he is to the player who played such a pivotal playoff role last season.
“Pretty close,” he said. “Mentally it’s been tough this year with the two injuries. It’s been frustrating, but it’s been a good break.
“The shoulder is feeling way better. I was out with a groin the last three weeks to a month, and that has been given time to heal. My upper body feels 100 percent now and that makes a big difference.”
–BY ROB ROSSI