Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan proudly talked about his locker room after a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals in Game 2 of the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“This is a game where things don’t always go your way out there, and it’s important as individuals and as a group that you respond the right way when things don’t go your way,” he said.
“Just play the game the right way and not let circumstances affect our mindset,” Sullivan said. “Our leadership group gets a lot of credit. They take the lead for that, starting with our captains. These guys have handled situations the right way.”
Uh oh. Words are popping up in this series like “leadership” and “captains.”
If the Penguins go on to win this series, you can pretty much write the rest of this story — leadership and captains.
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
There were a lot of words devoted to the return of the Crosby-Ovechkin playoff showdown going into the series. The two hadn’t met in the playoffs since 2009, when the Penguins won in a seventh-game demolition of the Capitals in the second round and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Washington coach Barry Trotz did what he could to change the narrative of a Crosby-Ovechkin rematch, calling it “disrespectful” to make this series just about those two players.
“You can match up any names because so much offensive weapons on both teams,” Trotz said before the series began. “But I think the team wins, not like individuals win.”
Eric Fehr, Ovechkin’s former teammate, who scored the winning goal for the Penguins on Saturday night, knows the story. It’s Crosby and Ovechkin.
He said both players know it as well.
“I’m not going to lie,” Fehr said. “I think both players get up for the game. It’s hard to argue it when [you] see how hard they play against each other and how into it the fans get for those games.”
It may not be fair for either Ovechkin or Crosby. It may be disrespectful for the other players on both teams.
But these two stars have been compared and criticized since they both came into the league — and the criticisms about Ovechkin have been about those two words that Sullivan used Saturday night: leadership and captains.
Crosby has earned the reputation of having those intangibles that are valued in the locker room. He was actually honored for those qualities as the winner of the Mark Messier Leadership Award in 2010.
Ovechkin? Two years ago, there were calls for the Capitals to strip him of his captaincy.
He’s not that same player now, though. After clashing with his previous coaches, Ovechkin has flourished under Trotz. He is a candidate for a fourth Hart Trophy for the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, and became the third player in league history to have seven or more 50-goal seasons. He has contributed more than numbers: His play in the first round against the Philadelphia Fluers was praised by coach Dave Hakstol for his physical play, beyond the goal scoring.
“I feel like he played a hell of a series,” Hakstol said. “He was physical, two-way player. He affected every game, whether or not it was offensively.”
In his own way, Ovechkin has become a leader, but now the discussion begins about who affects the locker room in games before they step on the ice.
That’s where Washington lost Game 2 on Saturday night.
“We have good leadership in our room, and they’ll get it sorted out,” Trotz said after the loss.
The good leadership Trotz refers to is the “leadership council” — the group the coach has designated to get things like Saturday night’s woeful offensive effort in the first two periods sorted out.
Ovechkin is part of that council — but so are newcomers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and Williams has been singled out as the imported leadership that the locker room needed for moments like these.
If it could be Ovechkin who “gets things sorted out” for Game 3 on Monday night in Pittsburgh and beyond, words like “leadership” will be a legacy he will then share with his rival.