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Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Updated: April 3, 9:36 PM ET
We shouldn't nitpick Crosby's, Ovechkin's play

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

The entry for the 2005 winner of the Calder Trophy in the NHL's official guide and record book forever will remain blank, one of many historic holes created by the ugly lockout most in the industry would prefer to forget.

In the case of the Calder, it is as though missing a year has created an added layer of energy behind the race for rookie of the year honors this season.

None of the other major trophies -- Vezina (top goalie), Hart (MVP), Norris (top defenseman) or Jack Adams (top coach) -- has created nearly the heated debate as has the race for the Calder, a competition that has focused primarily on two explosive young attackers, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

If not for the lockout, of course, this intriguing battle might never have materialized.

Ovechkin, the first pick of the 2004 entry draft, might well have been a Washington Capital that fall, thus avoiding a Calder comparison with Crosby, the first selection of the '05 draft, by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Since September, the debate over which player is better, or more deserving of the Calder, has become superheated, all but freezing out other more-than-worthy candidates, such as New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

But Ovechkin and Crosby came into this season with such a hurricane of hype behind them, it would have taken a truly sensational individual performance to have nudged one or both out of contention.

As of Wednesday, Ovechkin was closing in on 50 goals and 100 points while sitting third in league scoring. Crosby was 10th.

The Russian scoring whiz seems to have the edge in Calder consideration, but the vote is expected to be close, making this year's rookie race one of the most memorable between two sensational scorers. Only the 2002 race, in which Dany Heatley topped Ilya Kovalchuk, and the 1958 rookie competition, in which Frank Mahovlich emerged as the winner over Bobby Hull, offer reasonable comparisons to the Ovechkin-Crosby arm wrestle for the coveted silverware.

Along with the attention and the praise, however, gradually has come a sense that as the NHL season grinds on, both young men are finding themselves victims of overexposure or revealing warts that previously might not have been detected.

In Ovechkin's case, the most negative moment of his sparkling season came in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on March 20, when he was benched 14 minutes, the last three minutes of the second period and first 11 of the third.

The reason? Coach Glen Hanlon was biting his tongue afterward, but close observers believed Hanlon had finally had enough of Ovechkin's penchant for taking overly long shifts. In that game, the explosive rookie averaged 58 seconds for each of his 20 shifts, too long in a league in which 45 seconds is considered a long outing.

The next game against Florida, Ovechkin played 35 shifts and cut his average sortie down to 47 seconds. But by the next match, against Tampa Bay, he was back up to 1:04, perhaps a not-so-subtle message from a burgeoning star to the coach of a team with a losing record.

Crosby, meanwhile, attracted negative attention for what was perceived as being a crybaby, in complaining either to officials about unpunished fouls against him or to opponents determined to slow his scoring exploits.

Daniel Alfredsson, captain of the Ottawa Senators, spoke about this perception of Crosby when asked to compare the two uber-rookies.

Alfredsson made it clear he prefers Ovechkin.

"I haven't seen a rookie like him in I don't know how long," Alfredsson told the Ottawa Sun. "Kovalchuk was good, but [Ovechkin] is another step ahead of him, just because he adds another dimension of being physical.

"He doesn't get frustrated if he gets hit, either. He gets up and keeps playing. Not like [Crosby], who starts crying. I think there's a big difference in the attitude."

Two weeks later, the debate increased after a game between the Senators and Penguins in which Crosby was hit in the knee with a low-bridge hit by Ottawa rookie defenseman Andrej Meszaros. (The Pens signed enforcer Andre Roy in the offseason, and have since added Eric Cairns, ostensibly as muscle to protect Crosby.)

"[Meszaros] tried to take Sid's knee out," said Roy, who was thrown out of the game for protesting the hit. "To do that to a franchise player is not right."

The perception of Crosby as a whiner initially was created earlier this season when, after a series of clashes with Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher in which Crosby had two teeth broken and was penalized for complaining to officials, it was a featured discussion on Coach's Corner with Don Cherry, a popular segment of "Hockey Night in Canada."

Some veteran NHLers suggest the problem goes beyond what other teams think of the Pittsburgh star.

"I don't think his own teammates like it very much," one veteran NHLer said.

Of course, more than a few NHL stars have been pilloried as complainers over the years, not the least of them The Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Phil Esposito, meanwhile, would stay out longer than two minutes at a time in the heyday of the Big, Bad Bruins in the 1970s, a time when shifts generally were much longer than they are now.

Clearly, the alleged shortcomings in the games of Crosby and Ovechkin amount to nothing more, really, than nitpicking.

For their age -- Ovechkin is 20, Crosby doesn't turn 19 until August -- they are remarkably mature, in their professional demeanors and their on-ice play. Ovechkin was a force for his country at the 2006 Winter Olympics, scoring the winning goal in a highly emotional victory over Canada, and Crosby has been one of the few consistent factors for the Pens as a season of high hopes turned into another year lounging in the bottom levels of the NHL.

Indeed, although some -- including this writer -- would argue that Phaneuf or Lundqvist has been as good as, if not better than, the two young snipers, both of those players have found their freshman seasons eased somewhat by being part of winning teams.

Neither Crosby nor Ovechkin has enjoyed a winning environment. In Pittsburgh, it had been hoped Crosby would have at least one season's full apprenticeship under Mario Lemieux, but the two shared the ice for only 26 games before Lemieux was forced into retirement by heart problems.

Ovechkin, meanwhile, is surrounded by few veterans, although Lithuanian veteran Dainius Zubrus has become a mentor of sorts. Zubrus has centered Ovechkin most of the season and has chipped in with 17 goals, matching a career high. Still, Hanlon said the influence of Russian-speaking Zubrus goes beyond goals and assists.

"[Zubrus] is firm with him, very, very firm, getting him to do the right thing on the ice," Hanlon told The Washington Times. "I don't think there could have been anybody here this year better for Alexander than Dainius."

Both rookies have been godsends for franchises with very murky futures in their current locations. If they've started to show a fault or two along the way in their first exposure to the hot, white lights of NHL competition, it probably serves only as a future indication as to how good both might be when they reach their primes and conquer their worst instincts.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.