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Crosby, Ovechkin close in many areas

Statistical analysis gives Pittsburgh captain slight edge

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have been front-and-center with the NHL since debuting in 2005. 

Now they'll meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time when the Capitals and Penguins play in the Eastern Conference Second Round. The first time they played, Crosby and the Penguins beat Ovechkin and the Capitals in seven games in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Some modern statistics can provide an interesting perspective on which of these two franchise players gives his team the greatest edge.


Crosby has been the stronger player offensively this season, especially after Mike Sullivan was named Pittsburgh's coach Dec. 12. From that point through the end of the regular season, Crosby was tied with Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks with 66 points, and his 30 goals were second to Ovechkin, who had 36 goals and 46 points.

Restricting the view to 5-on-5 play for the entire 2015-16 season, Crosby had 18 goals and 51 points in 1,209:47 of ice time, while Ovechkin had 27 goals and 40 points in 1,184:10 of ice time.

Video: 2009 Round 2, Gm2: Ovechkin, Crosby double hat-tricks

It may not be easy to compare goal scorers to playmakers, but even though Ovechkin scored 50 percent more goals, Crosby had more than 150 percent more assists. In terms of primary assists, Crosby is ahead 21-2. That suggests that Crosby set up far more shot attempts than Ovechkin, which is more than enough to make up the gap between them in goals scored.


It's difficult to statistically measure defensive play in the best of situations, and almost impossible when dealing with more offensive-minded players.

Crosby and Ovechkin's greatest defensive value is the scoring threat they represent to their opponents. In other words, it's hard for teams to score when they're focused on defending against what players like them can do. So the question is, whose offensive presence is being used to neutralize the most opposition scoring?

There are some modern statistics that help establish to what extent such players are being used in challenging, power-vs.-power matchups in both zones, as opposed to easier assignments in the offensive zone and against checking lines.

Video: PIT@NYR, Gm3: Crosby redirects a feed from Kessel

From this perspective, both players are used quite similarly. They are deployed in the offensive and defensive zones in a relatively balanced fashion, and against the same caliber of opponent. In fact, the 32:18 they spent facing each other at even-strength this season makes them each their fourth-most frequent opponent. There's no clear advantage here.


In the absence of a precise recording of how much time a team spends with the puck with certain players on the ice, the extent to which individuals drive puck possession is estimated using shot attempts. 

Again, the gap between Crosby and Ovechkin is almost too small to record. The Capitals outplayed their opponents 1,222 shot attempts to 1,074 when Ovechkin was on the ice, while the Penguins had a nearly identical edge of 1,290 to 1,077 with Crosby.

To put it in other terms, Washington's share of all shot attempts rose from 49.7 percent to 53.22 when Ovechkin was on the ice; Pittsburgh's increased from 51.9 percent to 54.50 percent with Crosby on the ice. In terms of puck possession, both players put their teams at a comparable advantage.


The Penguins and Capitals rode hot power plays to first-round series victories. The Penguins scored on eight of 21 power-play opportunities against the New York Rangers, and the Capitals scored on eight of 27 against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm3: Ovechkin pots second goal of game

Crosby is tied with teammates Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, and the Capitals' John Carlson, for the playoff lead with five power-play points. Ovechkin has three power-play points.

In the regular season Ovechkin and Crosby each had 24 power-play points. The only difference between them is that Ovechkin contributes by scoring, while Crosby sets them up.

As for shorthanded situations, don't expect either player to be deployed. Throughout their entire playoff careers, Crosby has averaged 11 seconds of penalty-killing time per game, and Ovechkin has averaged five.


Statistically, the only notable remaining difference between Crosby and Ovechkin is the more physical play from Ovechkin, whose 225 hits ranked second on the Capitals in the regular season, behind Tom Wilson's 253. Crosby had 90 hits, which ranked No. 8 on the Penguins. 

That extra grit my come at the cost of a few extra penalties, however. Each player drew 22 penalties, but Ovechkin took 25 of his own, compared to 21 for Crosby. 

As for the intangibles, Crosby has the more established big-game reputation, having won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and the gold medal at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. 

That, and his statistical advantage in the first of these five close categories, is enough to believe this classic debate tilts slightly in Crosby's direction.

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