Russia’s Time to Shine at the Winter Classic


(courtesy of http://ovechkin.tumblr.com/)

There’s beating a dead horse and then there is the Alex Ovechkin vs Sidney Crosby rivalry. The NHL’s two biggest stars, rivals on the ice yadda yadda yadda. The league received much criticism when it awarded this year’s Winter Classic (tonight at 8pm NBC) to Washington and Pittsburgh with the Crosby led Pens appearing in their second Classic in the event’s short four year existence.

While the league is doing what’s best to generate interest and revenue by pitting their poster boys against one another outdoors in front of what’s expected to be 67,000 fans it leaves many who have been fans before this new rivalry feeling slightly cheated.

While it’s rare that two teams from different divisions can generate much buzz when they face each other, this year’s Winter Classic isn’t all too far removed from the 2009-2010 playoffs which saw the Pens beat the Caps in 7 games en route to their first Stanley Cup in 16 years in a series where both Crosby and Ovechkin scored hat-tricks in one game.

The cameras of HBO got involved by producing the NHL’s first uncensored television mini-series following the two teams ahead of the New Year’s day match-up to bring more attention and hype to a game which is seen by fans of old as way to draw ratings for a league that fails to compete with the other big three.

This year’s edition, played at Heinz Field, will tie an all-time high of four Russians as Washington’s Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Semyon Varlamov square off against Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins. Back in 2008, Malkin and then teammate Sergei Gonchar took on Maxim Afinogenov and Dmitri Kalinin as the Penguins defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shootout.

This year’s rosters feature arguably three of the best Russian forwards in the league with the future of Russian net minding in Semyon Varlamov between the pipes. Varly is just the second Russian goalie to feature in a Winter Classic (first to start) as Nikolai Khabibulin relieved Cristobal Huet in 2007 in Chicago stopping all 13 saves in relief.

While the league hopes the casual fans get hooked by seeing the likes of Crosby and say Mike Green there is nothing stopping them from falling in love with the game and character of Ovechkin or Malkin who have great personalities off-the ice thanks mostly to their young sense of humor. You don’t hear many American or Canadian players crack jokes at the expense of themselves or their teammates regularly as you do with the Russians.

While the language barrier is still a slight issue with Semin and Varlamov even when they speak in Russian they intend to give more memorable answers in hopes of it getting it translated the correct way. Malkin has opened up since grasping English whether it be in front of a horde of reporters or a simple pre-game chat with a color commentator.

Then there’s Alex Ovechkin. Simply known as Ovi, the superstar is everything to the league that Crosby is not. Booming checks, ridiculous goals, the playboy lifestyle off-the ice, endless hilarity at various media gatherings and so on. To many the Gr8 ‘8’ is the face of the NHL while Crosby is favored more by the officials, the league, Don Cherry and just about anything that is related to the NHL’s secret love affair with the Canadian.

Ovechkin’s horseplay during the family skate yesterday summed up exactly the type of marketable character that Ovechkin provides to the NHL and why he is more likable than his counterpart. Ovechkin’s fellow comrade on the Caps albeit more serious is having a strong year leading the team in goals with 18 amidst a contract year and is our pick to step-up later tonight.

As fans from around the world tune in to watch the NHL’s 21st century Pens-Caps rivalry pay close attention to number 1, 8, and 23 in white and number 71 in blue because you might just have a new favorite player not named Crosby.

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