ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin woke up in St. Petersburg, Russia the morning of June 13, 2009 only to hear from a friend that Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup while he was tucked away in his bed eight time zones away.
His heart sunk.
"I was like, 'Jesus,' " Ovechkin said Wednesday from Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "You know, maybe we could have been there, too. I was disappointed."
Ovechkin stopped watching hockey last season after the Penguins decisively eliminated the Capitals from the playoffs with a 6-2 whipping in Game 7 of the classic Eastern Conference Semifinal round series. He tried to relax, have fun, and not worry so much about the sport that pays him millions to put a puck in the net.
Eight months later, everything about that series and especially about his rivalry with the Penguins' captain, which got ramped up by about 1,000 notches or so after those seven games in May, is back and is again front and center.
The Capitals were on their way to Pittsburgh Wednesday for Thursday night's clash against the Penguins at Mellon Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, NHL Network-U.S.). It'll be the first time the two rivals have met since Game 7, a total of 253 days between games.
They will play each other four times in the next two and a half months, which should only pour more gasoline on what already may be the NHL's best team rivalry and is most definitely the League's foremost individual rivalry.
"It's the same with the Lakers and Cavaliers. Two players play against each other and the media say who is better and who deserves to win," Ovechkin said, referring to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. "It's the same in soccer, like when Real and Barcelona play. The top players play against each other and everybody says, 'Wow, this is going to be a sick game' and they can't wait for it. It's the same."
Ovechkin has 64 points in 41 games, including 15 in his last seven games. Crosby has 63 points in 50 games, including 14 in his last seven games.
Ovechkin had five points against Toronto last Friday. Crosby had six against the Islanders Tuesday night.
The Capitals lead the Eastern Conference with 68 points, but the Penguins could creep within three points of them with a win Thursday night.
"It's Larry-Magic, Dodgers-Yankees in World Series or Yankees-Red Sox," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "When we play Pittsburgh, it's all they talk about, Sid vs. Ovi. When the Red Sox play the Yankees, that's all they talk about is the greatest rivalry in all of sports. Individuals, the only one that comes to my mind right off the top is Magic and Bird. It's hard, growing up they were so far out there that it's hard to think that I'm sitting here comparing them to these guys, but that's what it reminds me of."
Comparisons aside for a moment, Ovechkin tried to use the old player cliché, saying Thursday's game, which will be aired on the NHL Network and will garner national print coverage from several outlets, is just another regular season game.
"For you guys (the media), it's huge," he said.
Why then, when he says he normally doesn't pay attention to Crosby's stats, did Ovechkin bring up the fact that he watched highlights of the Penguins' 6-4 win over the Islanders Tuesday night and then reeled off exactly what Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did?
"They beat Islanders and Malkin scored three and Sid had six points," Ovechkin said. "I'm not surprised (Crosby) make lots of points and Geno scored three goals."
If it is just another regular-season game, why did Ovechkin talk, quite emphatically in fact, about how Thursday's game is going to be much different than the last time the Penguins and Capitals met.
He normally tries not to look in the rearview mirror.
"I think we're going to be more concentrate on (Thursday's) game than last game because last game I think we played terrible all game," Ovechkin said. "(Thursday) is going to be a different game for us."
Ovechkin at least stopped short of comparing the stakes of Thursday's matchup, you know, just another one of those regular-season games, to what was on the line the last time Washington and Pittsburgh played.
"It's going to be the same atmosphere as last year," he said, "but it's not playoffs."
No, but this game is six months in the making and it's definitely not just another run of the mill, middle of the week game in January.
For one thing, Ovechkin hasn't yet seen the Stanley Cup championship banner that hangs above the ice inside Mellon Arena. Do you think he'll even look up?
"I just don't think about it," he said.
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