There is arguably no hotter debate in the game of hockey today than Crosby vs. Ovechkin. Before these two incredible athletes ever suited up for an NHL game hockey pundits around the world were speculating on which one would become a bigger hockey superstar. Even fate lent a hand in adding fuel to the fire of this match-up. The NHL lockout in 2004-05 season ended up having at least one beneficial side-effect. It delayed Ovechkin’s entry into the NHL by one year, setting up perhaps the greatest rookie rivalry in the history of the game, as he and Sidney Crosby became NHL freshmen in the 2005-06 season. The pair wasted no time establishing a game of one-upmanship, and the past four and a half seasons have no doubt only been a little taste of what we can expect of what is sure to be a career long rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin.

The 1972 Summit Series, the 1981 and 1987 Canada Cups, the 1975 New Year’s Eve game between the Soviet Red Army team and the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens – all of these classic hockey moments between Canadians and Russians helped to build an international rivalry that is among the greatest in sports. Each nation has had its moments of glory and its moments of bitter defeat, and proud patriotic fans have felt the elation and the heartbreak just as keenly as the players involved in the games themselves. Now Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin bring a new, exciting chapter to this storied rivalry, and once again Canadian and Russian fans are at odds over which one of their native sons deserves the title of world’s best hockey player.

Now, to be fair these two aren’t the only ones that deserve to be in the conversation of who is the best player in the NHL right now. Ovechkin’s countryman, Evgeni Malkin is the reigning Art Ross Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Crosby’s fellow Canadians Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla continue to put up impressive offensive stats while physically dominating their opposition. A healthy Marian Gaborik has been a one-man show with the New York Rangers, challenging for the league lead in goals and providing highlights nearly every time he touches the puck. And don’t forget Henrik Sedin, who at the time of this writing, is ahead of all of these stars in the race for the 2009-10 Art Ross Trophy. Any of these phenomenally talented players, and a few other besides could make strong arguments as the best player in the league. However, none of these stars have the sheer star power and the electrifying ability to pull fans out of their seats like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin do. It is these factors, combined with the fact that the two entered the league at the same time that makes the Ovechkin vs. Crosby debate such a hot topic among fans.

Crosby vs. Ovechkin – 2005-06 The Rookie Year – Round 1 – Winner: Ovechkin

The clash between these two young superstars in the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championships in Grand Forks, North Dakota really set the stage for a great rivalry leading into their rookie year. In the gold medal game Crosby and his junior teammates – arguably the greatest Canadian World Junior team ever assembled – ran Ovechkin right out of the rink, physically punishing him to the point where he couldn’t play anymore, en route to a dominating gold medal win over the Russians.

You can bet that heading into his inaugural NHL season that Ovechkin remembered that game, and used it as a motivational tool in his head to head match-up vs. Crosby. Over the course of the 2005-06 NHL season the two young stars played an incredibly entertaining game of “Anything you can do I can do better.” electrifying fans with highlight reel plays on a nightly basis. One of those highlight reel plays was an amazing goal by Ovechkin against the Phoenix Coyotes that many consider the most spectacular NHL goal of all time. Somehow miss that goal? Check out the video to see just how amazing it was.

Ovechkin had an indisputable advantage that season as he came into the league as a 20 year old, while Crosby was a fuzzy-cheeked 18-year-old. While those two years might make less difference now, at that age it was a wide gulf. Crosby acquitted himself well in the battle, but ultimately Ovechkin took round one of the battle, scoring 52 goals and 106 points (to Crosby’s 102) to capture the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.

The tight Calder race was the most entertaining in recent memory, and marked the first time in the history of the NHL that two rookies had scored 100+ points in the same year. Yes, the table was set for a career rivalry on par with Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux, or Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, and fans were excited to see just how good these two young men would become.

Crosby. Vs. Ovechkin 2006-07 – Round 2 – Winner: Crosby

Crosby, ever the ambassador for his team, and with a maturity belying his tender years, always puts the team first before his individual accomplishments, but you have to know that it burned him to lose the Calder to his arch-nemesis. In the 2006-07 campaign he came out on a mission to prove that he was the best player in the game, and that he wasn’t going to take his round one defeat lying down.

Crosby was an assist machine that year, showing incredible vision on the ice and making uncanny tape to tape passes that had many comparing him to Wayne Gretzky – pretty heady stuff for a 19 year old. By the time the dust settled on the season he had 84 helpers, averaging better than an assist per game. He added 36 goals for good measure, giving him a total of 120 points; good enough to capture the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer. His great season also landed him both the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, as well as the Lester B. Pearson, a trophy awarded him by his fellow NHL players as the best player in the league.

Ovechkin, for his part was having an off year. Hard to believe that 46 goals and 92 points could be considered an off year, but considering what the Great 8 has done since the 2006-07 season can be categorized as a classic sophomore slump. Even more salt in the wound for Ovechkin was having to watch Crosby make it to the Stanley Cup playoffs while he sat on the sidelines, his Washington Capitals having failed to qualify.

Crosby vs. Ovechkin 2007-08 – Round 3 – Winner: Ovechkin

Despite his disappointing 2006-07 campaign Ovechkin was far from willing to throw in the towel and concede the title of NHL’s best player to Crosby. He came back with a vengeance in the 2007-08 campaign, and enjoyed his most statistically prolific season to date, netting a whopping 65 goals and totaling 112 points. He trumped Crosby’s Art Ross, Hart, and Pearson trophy hat trick of the year before, snatching up all three trophies, plus the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer for good measure.

However, as impressive as his individual performance was that season, it was a playoff berth that Ovechkin was really after. He led his Caps to the top of the Southeast division, helping them grab a 3rd place seed in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.

Ovechkin didn’t disappoint in his first taste of playoff hockey, scoring 4 goals and 9 points in just 7 games. However, his Stanley Cup dream would end quickly, when Joffrey Lupul scored in overtime to help the Philadelphia Flyers eliminate Ovie’s Caps in a grueling, yet ultimately heart-breaking 7 game series.

Crosby’s season was nearly the complete opposite of Ovechkin’s. Hampered by injuries, Crosby only suited up for 53 of his club’s games, and as a result never really threatened Ovechkin in the Art Ross race, netting a career low 72 points that year.

However, in the playoffs the young Penguins captain would make his mark. He put up 27 points that playoff year, helping his Pens easily dispatch the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers en route to a match up with the powerful Detroit Red Wings with the Stanley Cup itself on the line.

Ultimately the combination of the Wings skill, grit and experience were too much for the young Penguins, and Crosby would skate away empty handed that year. But knowing how close he had come only to fail had left Sidney Crosby with a gnawing hunger to hoist the Stanley Cup, and he entered the 2008-09 campaign with a determination frightening in its intensity.

Crosby vs. Ovechkin 2008-09 – Round 4 – Winner: Crosby

2008-09 was another tight race in the Crosby/Ovechkin debate. Both players enjoyed healthy, prolific seasons, and like their rookie year, both players eclipsed the 100 point plateau. Ovechkin’s season was statistically superior, as he netted 56 goals and 110 points – the third time in four seasons he had broken both the 50 goal and 100 point barriers in the same season. His stats earned him the Richard, Pearson and Hart Trophies for a second consecutive year.

Crosby finished with 33 goals and 103 points, good enough for 3rd place in league scoring, behind only Ovechkin (2nd) and teammate Evgeni Malkin, who surprised everyone, scoring 113 points to capture the Art Ross that year. Despite the contributions of the team’s two superstars the Penguins struggled mightily through the first half of the season, and at times were in danger of missing the playoffs entirely. It took the firing of coach Michel Therrien and the subsequent hiring of Dan Bylsma to right the ship, and the Pens turned their season around in a hurry, surging up the standings to ultimately finish 4th in the Eastern Conference.

The Pens would put that home ice advantage to good use, dispatching their Pennsylvania rivals – the Philadelphia Flyers – in 6 games and setting up a dream second round match-up against Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, who, with 108 points, had finished second in the East, and thus enjoyed home ice advantage in the series.

The two teams fought tooth and nail through all seven games, and Crosby and Ovechkin put on a show for the ages, both of them scoring seemingly at will. Fans were breathless watching game two of the series, where both Ovechkin and Crosby netted hat tricks as they tried to out-duel one another. All in all 5 of the games in the 7 game series were decided by one goal, including 3 consecutive OT decisions in games 4,5, and 6.

Ultimately the crushing letdown of the game 6 overtime loss was too much for the Capitals’ team psyche and Ovechkin’s bag was empty of tricks as his Caps fell 6-2 in the 7th and deciding game to the Penguins.

The loss was made even more agonizing as Crosby’s Penguins rolled over the Carolina Hurricanes and into their second straight Stanley Cup Finals where they again encountered the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. This time Crosby wouldn’t be denied his dream, and he and his Penguin teammates clawed their way to a bitterly contested 7 game series win to take home the silver chalice. Crosby didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP – that honor went to teammate Evgeni Malkin – but his 15 goals and 31 points were a huge factor in the team’s success, and when he accepted the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman he became the youngest captain in NHL history ever to do so.

Crosby vs. Ovechkin 2009-10 – Round 5 – Winner: ?

It is too early to declare a winner in this years Crosby/Ovechkin battle. Again, both players are making great cases, though at the time of this writing Ovechkin probably has the edge.

Despite missing some games at the beginning of the season due to injury and a suspension Ovie is currently sitting in 2nd in league scoring, just a single point behind Henrik Sedin, and his 1.6 points per game average is the highest in the NHL by a healthy margin. He is also in the hunt for his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy, his 36 goals putting him just one behind the leaders in that category as well.

Ovechkin has clearly matured this season as well. Though his great passion for the game is still very much in evidence, gone are the hotdog celebrations, and the extremely long shifts he has become known for are fewer and further between. Ovechkin’s personal growth has not gone unnoticed by team management and when former captain Chris Clark was traded earlier this season Ovechkin was given the ‘C’.

The move has proven to be a good one as Ovechkin’s individual play hasn’t suffered a whit, and the team has been firing on all cylinders. Ovechkin’s most impressive stat this season isn’t his goals or points, but rather his league-leading +36 rating. His commitment on both sides of the puck has helped his Caps to an incredible 11 game winning streak that has vaulted them to the top of the NHL standings with 82 points in just 56 games. At this point they have to be considered one of the favorites to win the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Crosby, on the other hand, seems to have completely reinvented his game. Known predominantly as a slick playmaker in previous years, Sid the Kid has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he knows how to shoot as well. He drives the net hard on a regular basis and no longer passes up golden shot opportunities in favor of a pass. As a result he has netted 37 goals to this point and is tied with San Jose’s Patrick Marleau for the league lead in that category. His 71 points put him in 3rd in the Art Ross race, and with his ability to string together multi-point games he is certainly far from out of the hunt to capture his second scoring title.

His team has been stumbling as of late, but teammate Evgeni Malkin, who in the first half of the season was only a pale shadow of his 2008-09 self , has started to come to life, and with his help Crosby should have no problem getting the Pens well situated for another run at the Stanley Cup this spring.

Who will win round 5 of the Crosby vs. Ovechkin debate? Ultimately, it may well be the Stanley Cup that will decide the outcome. Can Crosby lead his Pens to their second straight cup, or is it finally Ovie and the Caps year?

Whatever the outcome the debate will rage on for years to come over who is the best. In the end the ultimate winner is really the hockey fan who gets the privilege of watching these two great superstars play.

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Still can’t decide? Check out the video below to help you make up your mind: