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Every once in a while, though very rarely, we are reminded that Connor McDavid is still a kid.

Between the video-game moves on the ice and the eerie poise off it, McDavid, 20, already seems like he's been around forever. Then he gets pounced on in an airport by an excited couple, and the resultant photo strips away the adult trappings.

McDavid is standing there in the security line looking rumpled, bug-eyed and deeply, deeply uncomfortable. His body is being crushed between two much smaller people. They're smiling. McDavid isn't.

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He's got his boarding pass in one hand, while the other is half-attempting a handshake. The gentleman has him around the back. The lady's hanging off his elbow. McDavid looks as if he's being dragged up the steps to the world's friendliest gallows.

"That picture was a little weird," McDavid said later. "I don't know how you're supposed to feel comfortable when they hold you like that. It was pretty much a death grip."

A more experienced fan interactor would have taken control of the situation – wrapped the couple up in his own arms when it was clear they were coming in for a tag-team takedown. But, like a small child being passed between relatives at a wedding reception, McDavid allowed himself to be gently manhandled. Then he was just as gently mocked on the Internet.

It was the first time this postseason that he looked out of his depth. It may also be the last time that happens in a long while.

After losing a Game 7 on Wednesday, McDavid is out of the playoffs. He's still the big winner.

At this point, he has only two players in his sights: Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

This isn't really about who is better. Over the course of the year, McDavid proved convincingly that, night in and night out, he is now the best hockey player in the world.

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This is about mantles being passed and who to. You're only the top man once you've achieved a general consensus that that's the case. In order to perform its proper mythological function, the crown must be regularly transferred in an orderly process.

For a while there, Crosby and Ovechkin shared it. Looking back on it from a few years' distance, we'll see them as the king and the pretender.

Their rivalry (if that's really what it was) peaked during a contrived event – HBO's reality series narrating the lead-up to a Penguins-Capitals game at the 2011 Winter Classic. That's a long time ago.

From that point on, the Russian declined, recovered slightly and then plateaued. He isn't even the finest player on his own team any more, but still retains the glamour of a generational best. It's just as much about his erratic personality and vivid foreignness as his level of play – and the fact no one else could manage to seem half as interesting.

Another playoff disappointment this year has finished off whatever remained of the Ovechkin aura. In the end, he was one of those players who are charismatic enough to catch the eye but never good enough to hold it when it matters. On his sixth or seventh try, Ovechkin has finally wasted his second chance.

Crosby is a different story. He's been great – as opposed to merely very good.

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He's done it so consistently that it has become difficult to remember a time when he wasn't the best of all. At a point in the middle of his career, people worked hard to anoint someone else for the sake of variety. It never took.

It's starting to now.

Crosby's Pittsburgh team is favoured to win again this year – his third Stanley Cup. But for Crosby personally, it hasn't been a glorious march toward history. Instead, the NHL has allowed Crosby to become a figure of concern. He was concussed in one game, returned quickly, then launched headfirst into the end boards like a cruise missile in a subsequent contest.

Owing to a bizarre peculiarity in the league's brain-trauma guidebook (boards are apparently down pillows compared with the unyielding concrete of the ice), Crosby was not put through the concussion protocol after that second impact – though he said he had been.

Crosby's bull-rushing, high-speed style invites this sort of contact. And his game-altering skill encourages opponents to take their cheapest shots whenever possible. It's a bad combo.

The usual cycle of Crosby's long history of head injuries has been to express concern, rage at the league, then marvel at how well he can absorb punishment and keep going. He is hockey's Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot.

Eventually, that will have to end – for the league's sake almost as much as Crosby's. There are only so many times the face of the NHL can be carted off the ice in a daze before it begins to get unseemly.

In any other sport, we'd have passed that point. But hockey has never quite acclimated itself to the idea that a first-rate entertainment isn't actually that much fun if its headlining star is beaten off the stage by the supporting cast on a regular basis. Every time Crosby goes down now, you think, "Is this it?" It's hard to be king when you are so vulnerable. He might've asserted himself by captaining Canada in Pyeongchang – with McDavid pushed back into the role of courtier – but that's off the table.

Crosby's still only 29, but you can sense the beginning of what one hopes will be a long, healthy ending.

By comparison, McDavid is the player no one can touch. He's Wayne Gretzky without the need of a Dave Semenko. He's where the league (if it has any sense, which I'm willing to concede it may not) wants to be headed.

What he needed to do in order to solidify that impression was win. He's done that. Perhaps not the whole way, but second to last in the standings to one goal short of a conference final is a hell of a 12-month leap.

Crosby may win another Cup in a few weeks' time, but he's already in the process of losing the belt. The crown hasn't passed yet, but for the first time in a decade, it's no longer firmly planted on any one head.

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