Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin makes use of his bubble gum Friday during a team photo at Heinz Field.
By Gene Collier Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No one can pretend to know exactly when they'll finally drop the puck for tonight/tomorrow's Winter Classic, but, when they do, I'm fairly confident it will be on TV.
For this is, first and foremost, fivemost and sixmost, essentially a TV show, even if it is a show that currently seems doomed to chase the Buffalo Ideal that accompanied its birth four years ago.
Buffalo never looked so good as it did on NBC Jan. 1, 2008, with its Orchard Park wonderland playing snow globe to Penguins-Sabres in a stunningly picturesque three hours that turned hockey's wintry heritage into an Andrew Wyeth hologram.
The Pittsburgh aesthetics, a paler shade of white, will have achieved reasonably success merely by preventing SlushFest 2011.
But, for all of NBC's support, and for all of HBO's consistent documentary excellence in the month-long ramp-up, this show can still be called The O.C.
That's Ovechkin vs. Crosby, which remains a raw and pure hockey topic at the dawn of 2011, as genuine today as when their head-to-head meetings and earnest NHL comparisons began in 2006.
In his white Capitals hoodie and red sweatpants, Alexander Ovechkin was found purchasing sportswear Friday at a merchandize table inside Heinz Field. He wanted four extra large somethings and three large something elses, and the Penscentric home audience Saturday surely hopes he wasn't ordering goals and assists for the weekend.
"A lot of the success he's had against us has been on the rush, coming down the wing, dancing on a defenseman and getting off that shot," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said when asked to describe the coaching antidote to all that. "The best thing is for our tracking forwards to come back, to establish a gap and snuff that kind of situation before it forms. It's a tall order, and not something one guy can do or even a shutdown pair can do.
"On the power play, it's a whole other issue because we've seen him work behind the net and we've seen him out front in the one-time position."
The one thing the Penguins haven't seen so much from Ovechkin this winter is the same thing the rest of the league has witnessed with dramatically less frequency --Ovechkin with his arms pumping, celebrating a goal.
In 39 games, Ovechkin has sent the puck across a goal line just once in the first period, twice on the power play, four times on the road, 14 times in all, a flaccid fraction of the muscled Muscovite's typical thumping production.
No one has more NHL goals (283) than Ovechkin since the moment he pulled on a Capitals sweater, but that typical 54-goal season appears to have been swiped from his repertoire. He is projecting for this 2010-11 season at 29.
Frankly, as we reach the point where we can see the other side of this mountain of hype, the point where we only need a coroner to declare officially that we've talked the Winter Classic to death, I'm left wishing that Ovechkin were having a better year.
Yeah, it's great that the NHL's showcase event matches two of its top four or five or six teams, and it's great that the Penguins and Capitals continue to just utterly despise each other, but wouldn't it be tastier to many NHL palates if Sidney Crosby had 32 goals and Ovechkin had 31, or 33? If instead of trailing Sid, 65 points to 42, Ovechkin were the league's second-leading scorer instead of No. 8?
No. 8 at No. 8? That eighnt right.
"The reason is all about me," Ovechkin told a late afternoon news conference Friday. "I've had chances to score goals and I haven't, so now people will say, you know, 'he's no good anymore,' and then I'll have a 10-, 15-game scoring streak, and that will all go away again.
"I'm not worried about it."
That would be the official organ-I-zational position as well, underlined by the supportable position that Ovechkin has not gotten gobs of help this season (Nicklas Backstrom has 11 goals and Alexander Semin, despite a team-high 18, has just one in the past 12 games).
"I think his scoring touch will come when our power play starts to click the way it's supposed to," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. "This time last year, we had about 25 power-play goals, and he must have had about 12 of those. Now, he has two. As that unit improves, his numbers will come right back up to what he's used to."
More urgently perhaps, the mere visage of the Penguins' logo generally brings us the best of Ovechkin, his plus-15 against Pittsburgh representing his best such figure against anyone.
So there's that, and the tidy fact that Crosby has spent the past month underlining the timely fact that he is the best player on the globe.
Thus, it's still quite delicious, this holiday collision.