Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and his Washington Capitals counterpart Alex Ovechkin both are off to torrid starts this season. But the Olympics are only part of the reason they have been giving opponents trouble.
Sidney Crosby endured some difficult times this week.
The Pittsburgh Penguins captain scored a measly goal in his club's three consecutive losses to the Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday evening.
After his torrid start, and all the talk about a 150-point season, Sid the Kid has cooled somewhat. But the tough times this week haven't taken away from his tremendous start.
There is little doubt that in his ninth NHL season, the 26-year-old Crosby has played the best hockey of his career. The same case could be argued for the guy he is often compared to, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, even though he also was held without a goal in a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames.
Hockey Night in Canada viewers had a treat on Saturday with both Ovechkin and Crosby performing in Calgary and Toronto, respectively. Every evening in the NHL these days seems to have an Olympic undertone, and you have to wonder whether the Winter Games in Sochi have played a role as to why the two superstars have performed so well in the first four weeks of the 2013-14 NHL season.
Ovechkin seems more motivated by the approaching Olympics, which on Tuesday only will be 100 days away. The Winter Games are in his home country. He has talked about the importance of this tournament to Russian hockey and how excited he is about the Olympic Games taking place in his country.
He even travelled to Greece a few days before the start of the season to carry the Olympic torch. He was criticized for this, but returned to torch opponents for 10 goals in his first 11 games.
The Sochi Games, however, are not the only reason for Ovechkin's prowess. He is shooting more. He is skating well. He continues to improve under the tutelage of Capitals head coach Adam Oates.
Last season, Oates switched the right-shooting Ovechkin from left to right wing. He struggled with the change, scoring only five times in the first 16 games. But he now has scored a remarkable 37 goals in his last 43 games.
Crosby also is skating better than ever. He is healthy again after his spell with concussion problems. He said he has benefitted from a full training camp. He also is motivated after he was held without a point and the Boston Bruins' sweep of his Penguins in the East final last spring.
He worked out as diligent as usual this past summer. He obviously returned to action determined as ever, and so have a couple of Crosby's workout partners in Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene and rookie Nathan MacKinnon.
They both were along for the ride in training regiments alongside Crosby in different sessions in Halifax, Los Angeles and Denver. MacKinnon also worked out with Crosby at Brackley Beach on Prince Edward Island on Canada Day weekend.
Duchene has been one of the NHL's top performers so far and MacKinnon has been among the top rookies. As a result the Avalanche have been the league's top team in the early going at 9-1-0.
At the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in Calgary, Crosby remarked that he didn't necessarily work on anything specific in the summer to improve, but that his focus this season would be on his defensive play and the need to bury his offensive chances because in the playoffs scoring opportunities diminish.
Crosby's chances certainly diminished in the 4-1 loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday. He set up teammates like Penguins defenceman Kris Letang, who fired a shot wide from the slot on a perfect power-play setup in the second period, but nothing came easy in this game. Veteran Toronto forwards Dave Bolland and David Clarkson as well as the defence duo of captain Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson did a magnificent checking job on No. 87.
Crosby, who had scored 19 goals and 40 points in his previous 25 games against the Maple Leafs, was held to just three shots on goal in outing No. 26 versus Toronto.
Still, through 11 games Crosby is off to one of his best starts statistically and Ovechkin has emerged out of the gate with one of his best goal-scoring start through 11 games.
Tim WharnsbyTim's worked the sports beat at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Sun, specializing in Canada's one true sporting obsession - hockey. He knows the players, the coaches, the backroom boys and most importantly, the fans. That's what he brings to his stories. Knowledge, fairness and understanding are trademarks of a Wharnsby story. That's what you will get here as he writes for CBCSports.ca.