His numbers are down a bit, his team won't make the playoffs and the rival he'll likely spend his entire career being compared to has risen to greater heights. So why is it that nothing seems to be bothering Alexander Ovechkin these days?
"You know it's been tough because we didn't win, but it happens," said the young Washington Capitals superstar. "We didn't have much luck, but I think we're going to move forward. I'm happy about that."
|'It's not difficult to watch Crosby now, it's life,' Ovechkin says. (Getty Images)|
Ovechkin, who is 23 months older than Crosby, won the Rookie of the Year award last season for scoring 52 goals and 106 points, while Crosby had a late run to finish with 102. This season, Ovechkin has 43 goals -- the NHL's fourth-highest total -- but the Penguins teenager has exploded and will win the scoring title going away while leading Pittsburgh to a surprise playoff spot. And Ovechkin is taking it all in stride.
"It's not difficult to watch Crosby now, it's life," Ovechkin said when asked about a potential envy factor. "That changes every time. Next season our bosses will do something for the team. We need some experienced guys, and we will be better.
"You know, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and right now, Crosby wins and Pittsburgh wins because they're in the playoffs. But the future can be different. This is just a moment."
Albeit one that seems to have created a little separation in the perception of the two young superstars because one has lifted his team to the next level while the other remains on the outside looking in. Still, those around the Caps say that's unfair because Ovechkin is playing as well or better than he did as a rookie.
"He's still getting the same opportunities, driving the net, shooting the puck a ton, everything he was doing last year," said Craig Laughlin, a former NHL player who has broadcast Caps games for 16 years. "He just hasn't scored quite as many goals, but Alex is one of the most consistent athletes I've ever seen. He competes every night, and he gets his chances every night."
The bigger change in Ovechkin this year, says Laughlin and others, is the stepped-up role he is taking in the dressing room. So much so that he caught people off guard early in March when he expressed his frustration to a Toronto newspaper about Washington's talent level.
"It was a little surprising considering he's only in his second year in the league and he's 21 and still learning English, but it's good to see a kid really care about winning and the organization succeeding," said veteran goaltender Olaf Kolzig. "He's still the same energetic, enthusiastic kid who comes to the rink every day, he's just a little frustrated right now. We all are."
No doubt that's because the Capitals actually looked like they had a shot at making the playoffs. It wasn't supposed to be that way, but some hard work and the combination of Ovechkin and another young Russian talent named Alexander Semin helped get Washington off to a decent start. The team was four games over .500 and holding down the eighth and final East playoff seed at Christmas when a rash of injuries hit.
Without much organizational depth to keep things going, the Caps began fading quickly. They effectively threw in the towel at the trade deadline by sending away veterans Richard Zednik and Dainius Zubrus, who had been Ovechkin's mentor and linemate since he arrived in Washington. It didn't sit all that well with Ovechkin, who spoke up about the roster a few days later.
"He was a good friend, a good teammate and a good player for our team," Ovechkin said. "But that's the NHL you know."
And since it comes complete with a new salary-capped world, things can change quickly. The Capitals have less than $20 million in committed salaries for next season, which is below the mid-point of the limit, and GM George McPhee has already said he intends to be aggressive in pursuing free agents. And Ovechkin said that was his point in speaking up.
"You look at all the attention he gets, but I think he'd really like to see it go more toward the organization and for positive reasons," Kolzig said. "There's always an asterisk besides a player who has success on an unsuccessful team. He knows that, and he wants to win."