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Crosby is head and shoulders above the competition

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) follows through on a shot during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York, Monday, Nov. 29, 2010. The Penguins won 3-1.

Paul J. Bereswill

In Vanity Fair's January, 2011, issue (now on the newsstands, as they like to say), there is a story spotlighting what they determine is hockey's epic rivalry: Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin. The photo essay was handled in New York, just before NHL training camps opened. The two are there, dressed in identical white shirts, Ovechkin laughing his maniacal laugh, Crosby smiling as if he got the joke but didn't think it was all that funny and was just trying to be polite.

The headline is Ready For Their Face-Off and is mostly a reference to the Jan. 1 Outdoor Classic at Heinz Field, featuring Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin's Washington Capitals, the signature event of the NHL regular season, far outstripping in terms of importance and reach the all-star game that will follow later in January down in Raleigh.

The thrust of the story is that the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry is unique and approaching the level of Bird versus Magic, or Ali versus Frazier.

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But is it really?

The problem with preparing a story in September for publication in December is that sometimes events outstrip the commonly held view - and this is one time when it is happening, as Crosby's peers and adversaries watch in awe of his eye-popping play.

Not so long ago, Crosby and Ovechkin finished the 2009-10 season with identical 109-point totals, and Ovechkin's numbers were actually more impressive considering he played nine fewer games. But this year, Crosby is making a mockery of their rivalry with Wayne Gretzky-like emphasis, distancing himself from Ovechkin and the rest of the NHL pack these past few weeks in the same way Gretzky did back in the 1980s.

Heading into Monday's date with the New Jersey Devils, Crosby was putting up points like it was 1986 - 31 in his past 15 games, or more than two per outing - and what made his achievement so extraordinary was that the Penguins, of late, have been chugging along without their next best forwards, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.

So for Saturday's 7-2 rout of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the other forwards on the Penguins' roster consisted of Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Mark Letestu, Tyler Kennedy, Max Talbot, Arron Asham, Michael Rupp, Craig Adams, Chris Conner, Eric Godard … well you get the picture.

It was reminiscent of the days when Gretzky played with Brett Callighen and B.J. Macdonald, before Jari Kurri arrived on the scene and Gretzky's stats went through the stratosphere.

That was the thing about Gretzky in the early days - nobody really knew what to expect from him, or what heights he might climb to. Everybody understood there was a big upside to his game, but that was the NHL of Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy - star players in their own rights, who weren't about to cede their lofty positions in the game without a fight.

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Gretzky was a much-discussed phenomenon - a slightly built, exceedingly skilled curiosity, but these were the big leagues, not so far removed from the Broad Street Bullies era, and he was just a wisp of a fellow.

Gretzky tied Dionne for the NHL scoring title in his first year, but lost on a technicality (Dionne had 53 goals, Gretzky just 51). The next year, Gretzky beat Dionne by 29 points and for the next six years after that, it wasn't even close. Gretzky won his scoring titles by 65, 72, 79, 73, 74 and 85 points, respectively, until the 1987-88 season when Mario Lemieux started making it a contest again.

Two decades later, Crosby and Ovechkin arrived on the NHL scene postlockout and were top-10 scorers in their first seasons. With the exception of 2007-08, when Crosby missed 29 games with a high ankle sprain, both have been contenders for the NHL scoring title ever since, conference rivals whose regular-season production has mostly mirrored one another's through their first five seasons.

But now, two months into season six, it looks as though Crosby is doing what Gretzky did to the competition - and rapidly pulling away from the pack.

Can it last? Maybe not. Maybe Ovechkin is planning a counterpunch. Maybe Tampa's Steven Stamkos will snap out of his mild goal-scoring funk. But one thing to remember is that a great rivalry requires two players constantly engaged in a head-to-head, "anything you can do, I can do better" sort of dance.

In the past little while, maybe even going back to the 2010 Olympics, Crosby has just kept upping the ante. It will be interesting to see what response, if any, Ovechkin may have in store.

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