You could feel it forming in the air the very moment Marcus Johansson’s overtime shot hit the back of the net in Game 6 of the series between the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin narrative. The Capitals were onto the next round, and that meant Ovechkin facing his old nemesis yet again. Even as the Capitals were still on the ice celebrating the end of the series, sportswriters were already posting tweets about the matchup. The NHL’s superstars, clashing against each other in the playoffs for the third time in 12 years. Of course it’s the focus. Who can say they’re surprised?
Then this morning, the NHL posted an article about the relationship between Crosby and Ovechkin, calling them “linked since the moment they entered the NHL.” They followed that up with a tweet about the matchup between the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins by saying it was a series with “two stars.”
Meanwhile, Evgeni Malkin lurks unnoticed in the background, leading the league with 11 points in five playoff games.
A History of Snubs
This certainly isn’t the first time Malkin has been snubbed by the NHL. Earlier this year, at the annual All-Star Game, he wasn’t named to the list of the top 100 players of all time. It was arguably the most notable snub of any active player. Crosby and Ovechkin, on the other hand, each made the list.
Malkin said in an interview today that he’s used to being left out of the Crosby vs. Ovechkin narrative. “They start the same year, play for the Calder Trophy and always the best two players in the league,” Malkin said. “But I try to show my best game. I like to be quiet. I just try not to be quiet on the ice.”
The league will continue to market the Crosby vs. Ovechkin story- but it’s important to look past that to see where the rivalry is really happening these playoffs.
Depth Highlighted by Playoffs
This isn’t to say Ovechkin and Crosby aren’t crucial parts of their team’s lineups, because they are. Ovechkin has a terrifying sniper shot. Crosby is one of the strongest puck protectors in the league. But in the playoffs, line matchups are such a crucial part of the game. They’re the reason home ice advantage is so important and part of the reason the Penguins have won their first three home games. This means that first lines, home to superstars like Ovechkin and Crosby, are sometimes essentially cancelled out by the other team putting their best players on the ice.
The real danger in a team comes with having depth past the first line. Having a player like Malkin on the second line is a huge advantage for the Penguins, and he’s proved that quite ably in the first round. He leads the team with 11 points and a plus-7 rating. His linemates are producing as well. Bryan Rust has four goals — more than both Crosby and Ovechkin. Phil Kessel is second on the team, and tied for second in the league, with eight points. So far in the playoffs, the three are combining for a rate of a whopping 7.20 goals per 60 minutes.
This second line was a deadly part of the Penguins’ production in the first round. And they’re a big part of the reason the Penguins have been able to maintain the highest goals per game rate in the league so far this postseason, with an average of 4.20 goals per game.
Looking Past the “Rivalry”
The NHL will continue to market this series as being a showdown between Ovechkin and Crosby. But the superstar lineup in this series deserves a new addition. Sure, the league says this matchup has two stars, but the stats says it has three. After all, Crosby ended the first round with seven points; Ovechkin ended it with three. Malkin finished it with more than both of them combined. Whatever the narrative says, he’s the one to watch going into the second round.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.