Was this the way it sounded – the way it resounded – in the Forum and the Olympia back in the early '50s, when Maurice Richard
and the Canadiens were clashing with Gordie Howe
and the Red Wings for the first of their seven series in 10 years? Was this the way it looked – the way it glittered with entire buildings clad in red or white – back then, the last time the NHL's two clear-cut best in the game met in a playoff series?
Was this the way it might have felt -- the way it might have pulsed -- in Pittsburgh and Edmonton or Los Angeles had Gretzky and Lemieux ever met in the postseason? Or at either end of the New Jersey Turnpike if the arbitrator had sent Eric Lindros
to the Rangers in 1991, leaving the Flyers to keep Peter Forsberg
and those two to battle six to eight times each season and then a few more times in the playoffs?
Were these the fanciful thoughts that would have been stretching the imagination of the entire hockey world – and an ever-more-attentive majority of the greater sports world – had the timing been slightly different and the '79 Islanders met the '82 Oilers, with each clearly on the verge of their own dynastic greatness but not yet there?
One of the clichéd-but-true beauties of the ultimate reality show that is sport is this: Each time you go to a game, you really might see something you've never seen before. Sometimes to the good and occasionally to the ugly. But that usually applies in the micro sense -- to a particular deke or save, dunk or catch, wacky bounce or historic individual performance.
Over the last two weeks, Sidney Crosby
and the Pittsburgh Penguins
and Alex Ovechkin
and the Washington Capitals
staged something just as unique but exponentially larger. A playoff series that not only ranks among the greatest in NHL history for all it has produced on the ice, but which rates a classification all its own because of all it means in historical perspective. A playoff series that was slightly diminished but certainly not nullified by the anticlimax of Wednesday night.
With all due respect to those initial Richard-Howe series, the former already had established himself as The Rocket, the latter wasn't yet Mr. Hockey -- and their respective teams weren't just entering their competitive primes when they went at it. Which is to say: their meetings, though memorable, weren't seminal.
This series was.
And Wednesday night's absolute dud of a Game 7 didn't change that. Rather, it reaffirmed what Washington owner Ted Leonsis had declared before the series had even begun: that the Penguins were a bit further along on the team-building path to which both franchises committed. And that, no matter how precocious, even the game's all-time greats have to learn some painful playoff lessons before scaling the mountain.
Crosby and the Penguins lost in the first round two springs ago, made a run to the Final last season and on Wednesday drew upon all the big-game experience accrued along the way. Ovechkin and the Capitals lost in the first round last year, and the vast majority of them never had played in a second-round playoff series. That showed in Game 7.
Wednesday night was a painful experience the Caps had to endure. An experience that figures to eat at them until the next time they get a shot at the Penguins in the playoffs. Hockey fans should only hope that the next time comes close to matching this time, this fantastic series.
"This was Magic and Bird from back in the day," said Penguins veteran forward Bill Guerin
, who scored his fifth 2009 postseason goal Wednesday. "It was just a great series for the League and a great series for the game of hockey.
"I don't know if I've been involved in a series with as many ups and downs as this one. I'll never forget this one.
"Before the series started, we realized what it would be with the hype – Ovechkin vs. Crosby. But you know what? It's good for the game. It really is. Two of our brightest stars. And everybody should know who Sidney Crosby
and Alexander Ovechkin are. They're just great athletes."
Its buildup was gradual and then sudden – dating back to their appearances for Russia and Canada at the 2004 and 2005 World Junior Championships and their NHL debuts on the same day (Oct. 5, 2005), the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry escalated this regular season into a physical contest enhanced with a bit of trash talking.
Its happening was improbable – requiring the Caps to come back from 3-1 down against the Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes
to score twice in the final 1:20 of a Game 7 against the legendary Martin Brodeur
to send Pittsburgh to Washington rather than New Jersey.
Its timing was impeccable -- both coinciding with and accelerating a League-wide renaissance that includes the resurrection of the Chicago and Boston franchises, the inception and instant explosion of the Winter Classic as a New Year's Day phenomenon and the rules-changes-catalyzed blossoming of the game on the ice.
Of course, timing isn't everything in sports. Smothered by the burden of great expectations, rare are the stars, games and series that manage to justify their hype.
This series did. These stars did. Night after night, game after game, six scintillating times in a row until, in Game 7, one side finally broke.
It began with an immediate, giddy shock to the system like Springsteen opening with "Badlands." Crosby wired home a wrist shot 4:09 into the series. Ovechkin answered with a laser during a five-on-three 13 minutes later. Feeling out process? Leave that to the 30-somethings who had the good grace to pay their dues and wait at least until they were in the League five or six years before winning a Hart Trophy as MVP or a Ross Trophy as scoring champ.
Serving notice that this series was loaded with plenty of other young talents beside the 21-year-old Crosby and the 23-year-old Ovechkin, Washington's 21-year-old goaltender Simeon Varlamov made an astounding stop on Crosby to save the Caps' Game 1 victory. Silencing his springtime critics, 22-year-old Penguins stud Evgeni Malkin
– the guy who won the scoring title and is a finalist for the Hart Trophy along with Ovechkin and Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk
– played a monster Game 3 to lead Pittsburgh to its first of three straight victories.
Similar contributions and exhibitions of valor would follow, as they always do in playoff hockey, from players whose names would never make a marquee. Caps checking center Dave Steckel scored goals in Games 1 and 2 and the winner in overtime in Game 6. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang
appeared knocked out of the series in Game 2 but scored in OT to win Game 3.
Each team kept coming. Neither retreated. A total of 49 goals were scored, but the teams remarkably were within a goal of one another more than 90 percent of the time through the first six games. The final margin in five of those six games was one goal. Three went to overtime.
But this series always was going to be about Ovechkin and Crosby. And the way they performed, it always will be.
In Game 2, the two blasted off into another orbit. Crosby scored. Ovechkin answered. Crosby scored. Ovechkin answered. Ovechkin scored and all of the headwear in the nation's capital rained down upon the ice. Crosby answered – a lonely Pens cap plopped to the ice -- and kept flailing away until a buzzer finally stopped him, leaving the game's two transcendent stars in possession of same-game hat tricks and this signature series in possession of its signature game.
Crosby scored goals in Games 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 on his way to a 8-goal, 5-assist series. Ovechkin scored goals in Games 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 while piling up 8 goals and 6 assists for the series.
After the preposterous Game 2, Capitals defenseman Mike Green
observed: "It's everything the media has made it out to be, a battle of the two best players in hockey, and tonight they both carried their teams."
That observation would have been appropriate after each and every game.
Back in the spring of 1994 – has it already been 15 years? – John Giannone, now of the MSG Network, and I had the privilege of covering the epic Rangers-Devils semifinal for the New York Daily News. For the four games in the Garden, he sat in the now-gone press box in the 31st Street and Eighth Avenue corner while I was in the still-operating box in the Zamboni corner (33rd and Eighth).
Just about every half hour during those games, the tension somehow continuing to mount and the thrills somehow managing to top each other with each shift, one of us would pick up a phone, call the other and say: "How great is this?" Standard, blaze journalistic detachment simply was not an option.
Standing next to NHL VP of Officiating Stephen Walkom in the Verizon Center press box amid the ridiculous raucousness that was the third period of Game 2, I couldn't help but plagiarize myself (and Giannone). "How great is this?" I shouted to Walkom. As his vow of impartiality permitted it and simple common sense required it, Walkom replied: "Incredible."
Contact John Dellapina at email@example.com