- - Thursday, May 4, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION

I guess Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are really joined at the hip.

Since Crosby, his rival superstar, had to sit out game four Wednesday night due to the concussion he suffered at the hands of Matt Niskanen in Game 3, Ovechkin apparently had a sympathy game, sitting out as well.

In fact, until Ovechkin’s offensive zone penalty in the third period during a Washington power play, it was hard to notice if Ovechkin — the Capitals team captain — was on the ice at PPG Paints Arena in Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Penguins.

The loss gives Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 Saturday night at the Verizon Center.

Washington doesn’t do well when they have a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals, so the prospects of coming back when they’re down 3-1 to win three straight against this Penguins team seems delusional, if not impossible.

“I didn’t play my game at all tonight,” Ovechkin told reporters.

“I think, me personally, I have to play much better. I think I didn’t control the puck well. You know, I make stupid decisions. Unfortunately, it happened, and we have to forget it and we have to move forward. Every game right now for us is [a Game 7], so we have to win three to move forward. I’m pretty sure we’re ready for that.”

What in Alex Ovechkin’s past would make him think that he — and his teammates — are “ready for that?”

Here is the phrase that should define this Capitals-Penguins series — “compete level.” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan repeatedly uses it to describe his team.

“I thought it was a gutsy, gritty, scrappy game for our group,” Sullivan told reporters after the Game 4 win. “Those guys personify that. They were not perfect by any stretch, but I love our compete level.”

He said it again after his team lost Game 3 by the score of  3-2, after Crosby went down with the blow to the head by Niskanen.

“We just play the game,” Sullivan said. “We played the game hard. Thought our guys competed extremely hard tonight. I loved our compete level.”

Compete level – it defines this series.

Who sets the standard for that compete level?

Compare Sullivan’s comments in their loss to what Washington coach Barry Trotz said after Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss.

“Our top guys tonight, I thought, weren’t as good as they needed to be,” Trotz said. “I didn’t think our top guys really stepped up today, which was very unfortunate for us.”

You don’t need a scorecard to figure out who Trotz is talking about here.

Crosby didn’t even play, yet he had more of an impact on Game 4 than Ovechkin.

“He’s (Crosby‘s) our leader, he’s a guy that is the face of the organization,” Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz told reporters. “When a guy like that goes down, everybody wants to do it for him, because he obviously puts it on the line every single night for us and usually carries us to victory the way he plays. So if we can get out there and try to win for Sid, that’s how we did it tonight.”

This issue of leadership came up in the press conferences after games one and two.

Trotz was asked how he would describe Ovechkin’s style of leadership in the Capitals locker room? “Good,” Trotz said. “I think he tries to lead by example. I think he’s grown. All leaders are caring, and he is a very caring guy when it comes to his teammates and all that. The thing about leadership is that you care about everybody else first, and I think that’s where Alex has grown a lot probably from his early years. I wasn’t here. But I think he understands that culturally, the NHL is a great teacher of leaders, and I think he has learned from some really great teachers who have come through this organization and I think he’s learned internationally, on a big stage, he gets all that.”

He’s “good.” He’s “grown.”

Now what Sullivan said about Crosby and leadership.

“I can’t say enough about Sid’s leadership,” Sullivan said. “His play speaks for itself, but I think his leadership to this team both through his example on a daily basis and the influence he has on our young players and the rest of our group, I can’t say enough for. I’ve gained so much respect for him as a person in the time I’ve been coaching him. You don’t really gain appreciation for a guy unless you get to see him on a daily basis. Everyone knows how good a player he is. I just think he is a terrific leader as well.”

We saw Crosby’s leadership by his absence Wednesday night — just as we saw Ovechkin’s by his presence.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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