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Crosby battles to stay in rookie race Penguins phenom has big weekend but is matched by heralded Ovechkin

Penguins phenom has big weekend but is matched by heralded Ovechkin

PITTSBURGH

Martin Brodeur is one of the most qualified men in the National Hockey League to offer an opinion on who is the season's best rookie: Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin?

By season's end, Mr. Brodeur's New Jersey Devils will have faced the Pittsburgh Penguins eight times and the Washington Capitals four. The goaltender also just came off a weekend of consecutive nights battling each player.

On Friday, he stopped Mr. Ovechkin cold during an overtime shootout and turned back his lone shot during regulation. On Saturday, Mr. Brodeur surrendered two goals to Mr. Crosby, the first coming 42 seconds into the game through a sliver-sized opening in the goaltender's pads.

Mr. Crosby and Mr. Ovechkin each have fewer than 20 games remaining as the race for the league's rookie-of-the-year award, the Calder Trophy, heats up, providing passionate bar-stool debate among even casual fans.

Who is better? The gritty, 18-year-old Canadian playmaker who has put even his most offensively challenged teammates on the scoresheet with jaw-dropping passes, or the Russian sniper two years his senior who moves like a freight train and doesn't seem to need anyone's help?

Mr. Brodeur, a future Hall of Famer who was the NHL's top rookie in 1994, says the teenager from Nova Scotia is the better, "more complete" player.

"He's a very different player -- not just a goal scorer," Mr. Brodeur said. "He's tough to key on compared to the type who just controls the puck. He skates, he backchecks and he does a lot of different things than other superstars are doing. You never know what he is going to do.

"Sidney is a complete player. He's going to make people around him a lot better than maybe Ovechkin will. Ovechkin is a one-man show. He loves to do the one-on-one and score a lot of spectacular goals, and he'll score a lot of them and carry the load that way."

Mr. Ovechkin helped his cause last night against the Buffalo Sabres, adding a highlight-reel goal and three points to give him 43 goals and 39 assists for 82 points on the season.

Mr. Crosby trailed with 31 goals and 43 assists for 74 points. Mr. Ovechkin, who has played one fewer game, was rookie of the month and the NHL's top offensive player in January; Mr. Crosby earned top rookie honours in October, his first month in the league. Mr. Ovechkin has scored 23 per cent of his team's goals, Mr. Crosby 17 per cent. The Canadian dominated three of their four head-to-head meetings this season.

The race is far from over and anything can happen. Mr. Crosby has rallied, having put up five points in his past two games. He is on pace to put up 94 points, the highest tally by an 18-year-old in NHL history.

Mr. Crosby entered the season as the NHL's new darling and odds-on favourite to win the Calder Trophy. More recently, however, Mr. Ovechkin has been seen as a lock, not only because he leads in points but also because he has scored the most memorable goal of the season.

Ottawa Senators general manager John Muckler, who won five Stanley Cups as a coach with the Edmonton Oilers in the 80s, has watched both rookies closely all season and believes Mr. Ovechkin will win.

"He's an outstanding player. To me, he's probably the rookie of the year," Mr. Muckler said. "If Sidney's not the rookie of the year, he'll be a very close second.

"Alex, he's showbiz. Right now, watching both their careers early on, he's got a little more flair to him."

Flair is a word that comes up with Mr. Muckler time and again when he talks about the Russian rookie. Flair is the reason he has stuck in people's consciousness. For all Mr. Crosby's craftiness and vision on the ice, Mr. Ovechkin plays like he's unstoppable.

In January, against the Phoenix Coyotes, he scored the most eye-popping goal of the season so far and maybe one of the best of all time. After being knocked down, while sliding on his back away from the net, he turned and twisted to pull the puck over his head and whipped it behind the goaltender, leaving veteran hockey men who thought they'd seen it all in shock.

Afterward, Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said: "That was pretty sweet."

"They are two completely different types of players, and it depends what you like," Mr. Muckler said. "Sidney is all power. He's big and strong. The other guy maybe is a little quicker and an exceptional goal scorer, not that Crosby isn't, but he's a different type of goal scorer.

"Sidney goes to the net well. He's big and strong and can pick up a lot of garbage in front of the net. The puck seems to follow him. The other guy will grab the puck and go from end to end. He has a little more flair at this particular time."

The arguments about who is better might go on forever, just as they do about Mr. Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard and, more recently, Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg. Of those, only Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Forsberg won the Calder -- proof the trophy is no guarantee of future success or failure.

When Mr. Brodeur won the Calder, his competition was Jason Arnott of the Oilers (33 goals, 35 assists, 68 points) and Alexei Yashin of the Senators (30 goals, 49 assists, 79 points). The goaltender had a 27-11-8 regular-season record, but he carried the Devils into the playoffs.

"When you're on teams that won't make the playoffs like Crosby and Ovechkin, playing important games and making a difference comes into it," Mr. Brodeur said. "It's not just stats that should be considered, it's also impact -- the rookie that makes the most difference to his team."

In that regard, it would be wise not to forget New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the 24-year-old Swede who will help his team into the playoffs. He leads the league with a 2.07 goals-against average and is third best in save percentage at .927, but the netminder shares the spotlight with Jagr.

Mr. Crosby and Mr. Ovechkin are the best players on their teams.

No matter who is crowned best rookie, Mr. Muckler said there is no doubt Mr. Crosby faced tougher hurdles, including the Philadelphia Flyers' accusations of diving and Don Cherry's support of the sentiment that took on a life of its own.

"Sure it was unfair, he's just an 18-year-old kid," Mr. Muckler said.

"Everyone expected him to be perfect. He had to go through a learning process and there are a lot of people in this game who didn't want to give him the opportunity. They wanted him to be an instant success and act like a 10-year pro. But he doesn't know how to do that.

"It's just the expectations you put on a person that has that great talent he has. It was put on Lemieux and Gretzky. Sidney's done a great job. . . . Alex was a guy with no expectations on him at all, and he's had an easier road to travel."

All season, Mr. Crosby has said he's not worried about winning the Calder. "I'd love to have the opportunity to win, but I've played hockey enough to know that when you start thinking about those things, you're not worrying about doing your job."

Mr. Ovechkin is cheekier. "I want to win rookie of the year," he said the other night in Washington after beating the Penguins. "I want to win all titles."

Mr. Brodeur, who turned back Mr. Crosby's first career NHL shot and then gave him his stick after the game as a souvenir, said winning the Calder was a highlight among many in his career.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime," he said. "You have one crack at it. For me it was really exciting. I had a lot of competition but nothing like this year is going to be."

ROOKIE PHENOMS

1. TEEMU SELANNE, Winnipeg, 132 points; age 22 (1993 Calder Trophy winner)

2. PETER STASTNY, Quebec, 109 points; age 24 (1981 winner)

3. DALE HAWERCHUK, Winnipeg, 103 points; age 19 (1982 winner)

4. JOE JUNEAU, Boston, 102 points; age 25 (1993 runner-up)

5. MARIO LEMIEUX, Pittsburgh, 100 points; age 19 (1985 winner)

6. JOE NIEUWENDYK, Calgary, 92 points; age 21 (1988 winner)

7. MIKE BOSSY, New York Islanders, 91 points; age 21 (1978 winner)

PROJECTED 2006 FINISH

ALEXANDER OVECHKIN, Washington, 101 points; age 20

SIDNEY CROSBEY, Pittsburgh, 94 points; age 18*

*Would be highest point total by an 18-year-old in National Hockey League history

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