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Cherry heaps praise on Crosby, Ovechkin

Friday, 05.01.2009 / 3:45 PM / 2009 Playoffs Conference Semifinals

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

Legendary Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Don Cherry, never one to shy away from giving an opinion, has criticized both Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin during their careers. According to Cherry, Crosby dives and whines. Ovechkin's celebrations are over the top and his antics on the ice aren't good for the game.

But during a conference call Friday, Cherry was effusive in his praise of the pair, saying he's seen improvements in both.

"When Crosby started out, he was still just a kid. I tried to warn him about yapping at the referees, taking dives, and slamming the head back and jumping on the glass," Cherry said during a conference call that featured fellow broadcasters Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire. "If you look now, he's a complete hockey player. He takes draws, he drops the gloves, he blocks shots, he hits, he doesn’t whine to the referees anymore, he doesn't jump on the glass. He’s a complete hockey player. To me, I think he's the best complete hockey player in the League.

"To me, this is the best year Crosby has ever had. Maybe not in points and all that. ... He’s the most complete hockey player in the NHL. He’s playing for the team 100 percent."

Milbury echoed Cherry's sentiments toward Crosby.

"He finished third in scoring, handled the coaching change seamlessly. I think he’s had a spectacular year," Milbury said. "He’s much more responsible defensively. And he’s killing penalties now."

Cherry jumped all over Ovechkin after he celebrated his 50th goal this season against the Lightning by dropping his stick, pretending it was too hot to hold. That's all in the past now.

"Ovechkin is like a wild bull. He's exciting to watch," Cherry said. "I was very upset with him when he did that to Tampa ... letting on his stick was too hot," Cherry said. "If you notice now, his celebrations are normal. ... But he’s straightened out now. Gary Bettman couldn’t have asked for anything more."

Just because there is no longer any animosity involving Cherry and the game's two biggest stars, it doesn't mean there isn't any friction between Ovechkin and Crosby.

In the third meeting of the regular season between the Caps and Pens on Feb. 22, the perennial Hart Trophy candidates mixed it up. Some pushing and shoving near the benches ended with a linesman having to restrain Crosby while Ovechkin gave the Penguins' captain a playful wave. McGuire was between the benches for that game, and he got a first-hand look at the anger boiling over after simmering for nearly five years.

"This has been building for a long time," McGuire said. "This is a carryover from the 2004 World Junior in Helsinki when Ovechkin was playing for Russia and Crosby was playing for Canada. And it carried over to the next year in Grand Forks, N.D., where it was a steady array of physical pounding that actually knocked Alex Ovechkin out of that tournament, and Crosby was one of the guys who distributed a gigantic hit on Ovechkin which eventually led to a shoulder problem.

"This has been carrying on for a long time. And the reason why there's such a great amount of animosity between the two is because they're always compared to one another. And Ovechkin thinks he's the best and Crosby thinks he's the best and they're not afraid to tell one another. And that's basically what led into that incident in February."

When the Penguins and Capitals meet in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series Saturday (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS), all eyes will be on Ovechkin and Crosby. In terms of the talent this series has to offer, that's only the tip of the iceberg.

The Penguins feature Evgeni Malkin, who led the League in scoring, and Sergei Gonchar, among the best at bringing offense from the blue line. The Capitals boast Mike Green, the League's top offensive defenseman and a Norris Trophy candidate, Alexander Semin, a point-per-game player, and Nicklas Backstrom, who is one of the top play-making centers in the game.

The biggest question mark on either side of this series could be Capitals rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov. Sure, he was outstanding after replacing Jose Theodore after the Capitals lost Game 1 of their first-round series against the Rangers, but the Penguins' arsenal make other teams look like they're firing cap guns. Is Varlamov up for the challenge?

"It’ll be interesting to see how Varlamov handles the intensity of the playoffs," Milbury said. "He was cool as a cucumber after taking over for Theodore in the first round. But as you know things get a little bit warmer when you advance to the next round."

One thing is for certain -- there's plenty of intrigue and star power to go around in this series.

Contact Dave Lozo at dlozo@nhl.com
Quote of the Day

It's always a little bit weird, but it moves on. They've got a good team, and they played well tonight. I think that's just part of it.

— Peter Laviolette on facing his former team (Flyers) for the first time since his departure