For a decade, the NHL's premier offering was the head-to-head play of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Multiple times a season, and seemingly every playoffs, hockey's two pre-determined Hall of Fame shoe-ins put on a show.
It wasn't just a show for Penguins and Capitals fans. It wasn't just a marketing gimmick. It was the best two hockey players on the planet elevating their play and keeping the debate going over which generational talent was better.
A lot of that later discussion faded as Crosby added to his Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe collection, but also because there was fresh blood in the marketing water -- another kid named Connor McDavid.
Since McDavid joined the league, Crosby has won two Cups and Ovechkin one. The NHL finally got the run of play out of the two captains it had hoped for with all of that marketing in the pre-McDavid years.
But ... it's different now. When Crosby and Ovechkin line up to play, they don't look each other in the eye while waiting for the puck to drop. There isn't talk about which player is the better of the two. No, that stopped when the conversation shifted to whether McDavid or Crosby was the best of the best, of the best.
When Crosby and McDavid take the ice for the two anthems Saturday afternoon, they'll do so knowing that they will line up shield-to-shield for the first face off. They'll do so knowing that this one half of the pair's yearly duels will serve as a scouting report to the masses. And, whether they say it or not, they know they're the best two players the game has to offer.
"Take myself out of the coaching part of it and into the fan part — anytime you get to watch great players play against each other, it usually turns out to be a really good game," Oilers coach Dave Tippett told us after his team's practice.
"I remember as a kid, Bobby Orr used to come on Hockey Night in Canada and whether you're a Boston fan or not, you always wanted to watch Bobby Orr play," he recalled of his own experiences. "You get top players in a matinee and you're expecting to see a great game with top players competing against each other -- which makes it exciting.
It's the kind of night, or day in Saturday's case, that brings out hockey fans — no matter if they're at home with the family, coaching one star playing against another on your favorite team ... or if you're actually suiting up to play the game. I spoke with James Neal at his locker after practice, and wanted to talk to him about that part. He's been on the Penguins' side in those "Crosby vs. Ovechkin" games (and started to smile remembering them as soon as I brought it up), and now he's about to face the Penguins for the first time on the McDavid side.
"Two unbelievable players," Neal told me after his morning practice. "One a little younger and coming up here. I think both of them love to put on a show. And anytime you see two top guys go against each other, they want to get the better of it and they want their team to win. Just from watching from afar the last few years, they've definitely done that. I would expect some of the same tomorrow."
Being on the inside of a constructed rivalry that his own teammates have watched closely over the years doesn't seem to phase McDavid. In fact, he's the same cool and collect joint face of the NHL that No. 87 has been for his entire career -- to the point where they can both almost be a bit boring to talk to.
"It's fun," McDavid said in his near monotone post-practice voice. "A lot's been made about how he was probably the guy I followed the most growing up, playing hockey. It's always exciting to play against him."
McDavid was then asked if he still watches Crosby's game and his highlights to see if there are things he does that the younger captain can still borrow from his idol.
"Maybe a little bit," he responded before talking about how they're different styles of players but since Crosby has been so successful, there will probably always be things for him to learn from him.
It's not just Crosby and McDavid out there, although that's indeed how it's marketed. Evgeni Malkin has earned his own share of solo achievements to pair with the team ones he's won alongside Crosby. And, now, Leon Draisaitl is making a name for himself -- leading the league in goals and points -- and helping McDavid and the duo's Oilers to the top of the young season's Western Conference standings.
His emergence into what looks like a true complementary star for McDavid can start to take the attention away from Canada's two favorite captains.
"He's had a great start and he does so many things in a game that has an impact on it," Tippett spoke to Draisaitl's versatile game. "Our guys are younger than their guys, but they're both building their resumes. When all's said and done, if they can have resumes like those two guys on Pittsburgh -- with Cups and trophies and scoring titles, things like that -- it would be nice to see."
One of the aspects to Draisaitl's "versatile game" Tippett talked about was the way he's used the young star in penalty kill situations, having him go as the lone forward on a 5-on-3 kill in Columbus. When speaking on that specifically, he recalled a situation from his time in Pittsburgh that helped prepare him to make such a decision as a coach.
"It's funny, because that's a trait in a player I learned in Pittsburgh here a long time ago," Tippett told us. "Scotty Bowman was our coach. I was playing for Pittsburgh and we had Mario Lemieux and (Jaromir) Jagr and (Ron) Francis and I was a penalty killer at the bottom end of that. Through my whole career, I was one of those guys that killed penalties 5-on-3. I got here and Scotty Bowman used to use Mario Lemieux on it. He would say 'Mario, go play 5-on-3,' and I'm going 'Hey, that's my job, right?' Mario'd go out there with a long stick and just read all the situations and do a great job at it."
That wonderful story from Tippett's time in Pittsburgh is exactly how Draisaitl has found his way into the coach's mind when facing a two-man disadvantage.
"Since then, I've always thought the top players who read plays very well 5-on-3 are good picks there. Leon's one of those guys. He just figures things out."
Of course, Draisaitl defending or not, the Penguins -- particularly with Malkin activated from IR and, of course, practicing with the top power play unit -- would welcome a few 5-on-3 opportunities in a home matinee with the entire hockey world watching.
Speaking of Draisaitl ... and Lemieux, the kid did something in October that very, very few players have in the NHL. Draisaitl is among five players who posted 20 or more points in October this season, but his 25 landed him on a pretty unique list topped by Le Magnifique himself.
With Neal, a former Flame, and McDavid, a bonafide star dangler, in the house, I had to ask each about Matthew Tkachuk's goal last night in the Flames' comeback win over the Predators. If for no other reason than to back up the narrative that these guys watch it all (even when it's not Crosby vs. McDavid).
— Tim and Sid (@timandsid) November 1, 2019
McDavid: "It's pretty impressive. I've never seen a guy go through his legs that far out or on a one-timer in the NHL. It was pretty impressive."
Neal: "That was a nice goal. I saw it at 4-1 (Predators) and then I turned the TV off. Then I saw," Neal said as he paused to laugh about it. "I looked again and saw it and thought ... oh man, good for them."
I honestly expected a bit more, but the facial expressions told the real story of each Oilers' impression of the goal.
Neal played for those Flames last season but wasn't in the lineup when they faced the Penguins in Pittsburgh. He will be tomorrow, however, and sits third in the league in goals scored, just one behind teammate Draisaitl.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
To continue reading, log into your account: