In the age of parity, no team's expected to win consecutive Cups like the dynasty Oilers or Canadiens, but Sid and Ovi were supposed to be in a class of their own. After losing the 2004-05 season to lockout, the NHL hung its marketing hopes on these two bright rookies at the beginning of their careers.
They joined the NHL in the same year, and the rivalry evolved naturally. Ovechkin and Crosby lived up to their billing and duked it out for the rookie scoring title. In the end, Ovechkin tallied 52 goals and 106 points to Crosby's 39 goals and 102 points. Ovechkin was declared the winner of the 2006 Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.
Over the next few years, Ovechkin defied the stereotype of the somber Russian and became a media darling—effusive and open. Crosby took a serious, studied approach to the game and never seemed to let down his guard.
On the ice, each delivered in his own way. Ovechkin racked up personal achievements, including one Art Ross Trophy, two Rocket Richard Trophies, two Hart Trophies, and three Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay awards. But his team's playoff success was limited. Since Ovechkin's arrival, the Caps have never advanced past the second round.
Meanwhile, Crosby's Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Final twice, winning it all in 2009. Crosby also scored the "golden goal" in overtime to give Canada the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, elevating him to the status of national hero. Crosby has one Art Ross, one Rocket Richard, one Hart and one Lester B. Pearson award.
Who is more likely to regain his past greatness?
With Ovechkin and Crosby at the top of their games heading into the 2010-11 season, it made perfect sense to award the outdoor Winter Classic game to the Penguins and Capitals. For the first time, HBO was allowed behind the scenes to capture the action 24/7.
The HBO series was some of the best documentary hockey television ever, but the Winter Classic game itself marked the beginning of the end of the Ovi/Crosby Golden Age.
The game ended 3-1 for Washington on a pair of goals from Eric Fehr. The result was unexpected, as the 24/7 cameras had captured the Caps' struggles during the weeks leading up to the event.
Not only did the Penguins lose the game, they also lost Crosby when he was hit by David Steckel at the end of the second period. Crosby returned to play in the Penguins' next game against Tampa Bay, but he suffered another head hit, this time from Victor Hedman. With that, a new chapter began—Crosby became the face of hockey head injuries and the complexities of post-concussion syndrome.
Since then, Crosby has only returned to NHL action in two stints, for a total of 22 regular-season games and six playoff games. He has shown flashes of his old brilliance, but his on-ice demeanour seems to have changed. When interviewed by Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in Los Angeles, Crosby said that he's symptom-free and enjoying his first hard workouts in a couple of years. He's rumoured to be seeking a new 10-year deal, but from here on out, he'll be perceived as being one hit away from a career-ending injury.
Ovechkin's decline is a little harder to pinpoint. After logging 90-plus points in his first five seasons in the NHL, his point totals have dropped off in the last two years, with his production falling to just 65 points last year.
24/7 captured the early stages of this decline but since the cameras stopped rolling, things have gone from bad to worse. Head coach Bruce Boudreau was a casualty midway through last season. Had it not been for a solid two-round playoff run under Dale Hunter, more heads would have rolled.
The current situation is murky. Since Hunter stepped away after the playoff run, the team is searching again for a head coach who can inspire Ovechkin back to his past glories. Meanwhile, the Penguins are on shaky ground in their negotiations with Crosby, who might be uninsurable due to his medical history.
Crosby is just 24 and Ovechkin is 26. Normally, hockey players enter the prime of their careers at this stage. These two seem like they've already endured a lifetime's worth of highs and lows.
It remains to be seen if either Ovechkin or Crosby can return to their past levels of greatness. In the meantime, new faces will continue to rise to prominence and new NHL stars will be anointed.
They still play as the subjects of gossip and intrigue, but in terms of their on-ice performances and production, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are no longer the top dogs in today's NHL.