Brent Johnson wasn't the first, best, winningest, or most recognizable mutual teammate of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. The retired NHL goalie was never the primary starter for Ovechkin's Washington Capitals or Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins, and he didn't backstop either player to a Stanley Cup. But he was around for the start of their rise. It shaped his thoughts on what makes them amazing.
During the 2005-06 season, the NHL's first after a yearlong lockout, Johnson backed up Olaf Kolzig for a rebuilding Capitals team that had little going for it but a sensational young Russian winger. Nowadays, expecting Washington and Pittsburgh to compete for titles is common sense; the same goes for Ovechkin and Crosby lighting up opposing goalies. They debuted in the league together as top picks from consecutive drafts, and Johnson had front-row access to their rookie breakouts. Ovechkin bagged 52 goals, and both players eclipsed 100 points, instantly validating enormous hype.
"From early ages, people around the hockey world have known about their greatness. They've known about their abilities. Maybe Alex went a little bit more under the radar, just because he wasn't in North America early. We all heard about Sidney Crosby as the next coming," said Johnson, who's now a Capitals studio analyst for NBC Sports Washington.
"They're able to perform at such a high level despite the pressure that's being put on them. Some players who aren't really (great), I think, would fold a bit under pressure. They never seem to. They never seem to fold. They never seem to falter."
The observation is as relevant as ever entering 2020-21, Crosby and Ovechkin's 16th season battling head-on for team and personal superiority. Their overlap has defined a hockey generation, and the rivalry is about to intensify. Starting Sunday in Pittsburgh, eight Penguins-Capitals games beckon in the realigned, hypercompetitive East Division - eight clashes between fading yet hopeful contenders long conditioned to dislike and irk each other.
Hockey's emphasis on team sometimes compels players to downplay individual battles. Penguins versus Capitals is what matters on the scoreboard, not Sid versus Ovi. But it's obvious why plenty of fans and talking heads, plus the occasional out-of-town writer, gravitate toward the latter framing.