Watching the Flyers' 3-2 overtime victory last night provoked several thoughts that rattled through my brain: The Jeff Carter-Claude Giroux-James van Riemsdyk line is on fire, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn were putting on a clinic on how to shut down a superstar, Ville Leino has to be way smarter than to try to thread a pass in his own zone through two sticks with his team up two in the third period and that overtime winner was a thing of beauty, from Matt Carle's stick work and pass to Andrej Meszaros' shot to JVR's screen.
But the thing I couldn't help but think of more than anything else was just how much more I appreciate Sidney Crosby's game over Alexander Ovechkin's these days. I would have never said or at least admitted that just a few years ago. Don't get me wrong, Ovechkin is one of the greatest players in the entire world, a world-class goal-scorer and aggressive checker. But his game has holes. He's not great defensively. He doesn't kill penalties. And at times, like the first two periods of last night, he can be invisible. It's been something of a habit at times this season, part of the reason he's off to the slowest start of his career.
Ovechkin did turn it on in the third and wound up sending the game to overtime, but that made the difference in his game and Crosby's even more apparent to me.
Admittedly, I don't watch the Penguins as much as I probably should. But every time I do — and I do watch them plenty seeing as they're division rivals of the Flyers — I don't see Sidney Crosby suddenly turn it on and start to dominant at a certain point in the game. Nope. What I see is a player who plays his best, works his hardest and dominants from the opening faceoff to the final horn. He doesn't suddenly kick it into another gear the way Ovechkin did last night, because he plays the entire game in that gear. There is no on and off switch with Crosby. He's just always on.
He's willing to do all the little things that Ovechkin doesn't do, either by choice or by design. He plays in all situations, the main playmaker on Pittsburgh's power play and a sound, hardworking guy on the penalty kill. He can thread a pass as well as anyone, and also score goals at a rapid clip. Even with his current injury, Crosby leads the entire NHL in points and is second in goals. Then you add to that the work he does in the corner, how difficult he is to knock off the puck, how he makes his teammates better and works hard to improve his game every season, and I can't help but marvel at the guy.
Again, this is something I would have never said about Crosby when he first entered the league, when he was young and childish and heralded without necessarily earning it quite yet. And in a lot of ways, his career is beginning to resemble Kobe Bryant's to me. Let me try to explain.
Like any good Philadelphian, I learned to hate Kobe Bryant when he became a Los Angeles Laker, even more so when his Lakers took on his hometown Philadelphia 76ers. Bryant grew up in the Philadelphia area. His dad played for the Sixers. He was one of our own, and Philadelphia loves to root for its own … until you start acting a fool and cross us.
That's what Bryant did. It began with embracing a little too much the L.A. persona. Sure, Temple's Eddie Jones played for the Lakers, but he never embodied the L.A. guy. Kobe did almost from day one. In fact, his presence forced Jones out the door, and immediately Kobe became the Robin to Shaq's Batman. But that wouldn't last. Kobe and Shaq began to feud, and a rift was enveloping the team. To many outsiders, it was perceived to be Bryant's fault, him acting like an ungrateful, petulant child trying to push Shaq aside. That started to irk Philadelphians, the I'm-too-good-for-this attitude, and then came the tipping point: The 2001 NBA Finals.
Behind Allen Iverson's remarkable MVP season, the Sixers went all the way to Finals to take on the mighty Lakers. That's when Kobe, given the opportunity to pay homage to his hometown while going for a ring himself, spit right in our faces. He didn't even try to be humble or appreciative of the city he once called home. Instead, Bryant told the world he wanted to rip Philadelphia's heart out. Right then and there, Kobe was dead to us. All of us. He could do nothing right from that point on.
But a funny thing happened to me over the years. I started to really watch Kobe Bryant play, really began to study how hard he worked, really began to appreciate his play. And slowly, the hate began to fade. No, I'll never own a Kobe jersey or root for his Lakers to win, but I can't help but watch in awe as this man does every damn thing in his power to be great. He busts his ass on defense, has every shot and pass in the book, isn't afraid to bark at his teammates when necessary and encourage them too. And you know he kills himself to be the best. I can't help but admire that.
The same goes for Sidney Crosby, the man who has been public enemy number 1 in my home city since his first NHL shift.
In the beginning, the disdain was well-deserved. Crosby entered the league with what seemed like a silver spoon in his mouth. The NHL hyped him up so much that he felt entitled to calls. He made a habit of diving. And he never lacked for complaining. I hated him. I hated everything about him. Sure, he was ridiculously good even as a rookie, but he acted, much like Bryant did early his career, like a spoiled punk. And worst of all, he did it here in Philadelphia as a member of the rival Penguins.
I was content to call Crosby a pussy, praise Ovechkin as the game's best and propel the hate. But then a funny thing happened. I began to watch Crosby's game closely. Every year in the league, he got better, and every year, he toned down the theatrics. He entered the league as a poor faceoff man. Now he's one of the game's best. He was called more of a playmaker than a goalscorer. Now he's one of the two or three best (if not the best) goal scorer in hockey … all while still being the best playmaker on the planet. He's gotten stronger, smarter, better. He's won a Cup, earned respect, and does everything in his power to be the best. Just like Kobe Bryant. And I can't help but appreciate that.
I hate Pittsburgh, hate everything about it. But the more I watch Sidney Crosby play, the more I see him work and work and work to get better, the more I see him come back with something new to add to his game when he seemingly has it all already, the less I hate him. I won't ever root for him to win another thing in his life. In fact, I hope the Penguins lose every game for the rest of eternity. But I know that won't happen, because Sidney Crosby works too hard and is just too damn good to let that happen. And frankly, I just can't hate him for that.
Sometimes, you have to just set hate aside and appreciate greatness while you can.