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Green up for Penguins' challenge

by John McGourty

"(Sidney) Crosby, you know, he's very decisive, and it's hard to tell when he's going to take a step on you or whatnot. He passes the puck so well that you have to be careful. But with (Evgeni) Malkin, he gets in the 'gray areas' to score goals. He's got a lot of skills and he'll make you look silly, so you've got to be careful with both of those guys."
-- Mike Green

When the NBC schedulers chose the Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals game this Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET, the main attraction was the rivalry between Capitals right wing Alexander Ovechkin, the 2008 Hart Trophy winner, and Penguins center Sidney Crosby, the 2007 Hart Trophy winner.

The matchup of the NHL's last two regular-season MVPs is a considerable draw that usually brings out the best in both players. But this isn't Oksana Baiul vs. Nancy Kerrigan -- hockey is a team sport and Crosby and Ovechkin both lead strong supporting casts.

In fact, Crosby, who two years ago became the youngest player in the four major sports to lead his league in scoring, is the No. 2 scorer on his team this season, trailing NHL leader Evgeni Malkin, his sometimes linemate and otherwise second-line center. Malkin has 26 goals and a League-leading 58 assists.

Ovechkin is next with an NHL-leading 42 goals and 33 assists, second-highest in the NHL. Crosby is third with 21 goals and 53 assists.

But the Capitals also boast Mike Green, the highest-scoring NHL defenseman with 22 goals and 29 assists. Green is tied for second among NHL defensemen with a team-leading plus-28.

The Penguins will be playing their fourth game since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as Penguins coach last Sunday. The Penguins dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to the Islanders on Long Island Monday, then beat the Montreal Canadiens Thursday and face the Flyers on Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia.

The Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings a year ago in the Stanley Cup Final and have struggled this season. They are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference, six points behind the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres in the race for one of the eight Eastern Conference playoff spots. The Carolina Hurricanes are in ninth place, a point ahead of Pittsburgh.

The Capitals, on the other hand, are the runaway leaders in the Southeast Division, 13 points ahead of the Florida Panthers. Their 23-4-1 home record is second-best in the NHL. Pittsburgh is 12-13-4 on the road.

Green, 23, recently set an NHL record for defensemen by scoring in eight-straight games, breaking a record set by Boston Bruins defenseman Mike O'Connell in the 1983-84 season. Green had two, two-goal games in the run from Jan. 27 against the Boston Bruins through Feb. 14 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also had 7 assists for 17 points in the eight games.

Green downplayed the record, saying he's focused on winning a Stanley Cup. Besides, he likes playing hockey more than reading its history.

"I don't know much about the history ... obviously, a little bit growing up playing hockey in Canada, but records and stats and whatnot, I'm not a big follower on. I was aware of the record about two days before New York (the game in which he tied O'Connell's record) and I obviously wanted to reach it.

"I didn't really get too worked up about it or try to do it. I think if I would have tried to do it, it wouldn't have worked out the way it did. I'm pretty happy with what happened."

The Capitals have won twice at Pittsburgh this season, 4-3 on Oct. 26 and 6-3 on Jan. 14. They play again in Washington on Sunday, March 8, another potential NBC game.

Green has too much respect for the Penguins to claim his team has gotten the upper hand in what is one of the NHL's best inter-division rivalries.

"I wouldn't say we're a better team. We have both had some success lately," he said. "They're a great team. They went to the Stanley Cup Final last year, so we can't say that we're a better team.

"Obviously, this year we've had the upper hand, but come Sunday we don't expect them to play not up to the level that they're capable of. I think they're going to be excited to play us. We always get excited to play each other, so it should be a great game."

Green said Crosby and Malkin give him different "looks," which makes it difficult to play against them.

"Crosby, you know, he's very decisive, and it's hard to tell when he's going to take a step on you or whatnot," Green said. "He passes the puck so well that you have to be careful.

"But with Malkin, he gets in the 'gray areas' to score goals. He's got a lot of skills and he'll make you look silly, so you've got to be careful with both of those guys."

Green, a Calgary native, was the 29th pick in the 2004 Entry Draft after four productive seasons with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL. He split the next season between the AHL Hershey Bears, coached by Bruce Boudreau, and the Capitals. He had 1 goal and 2 assists in 22 games with Washington in 2005-06 and was minus-8. He had 2 goals and 10 assists in 70 games the next year and was minus-10.

Green had a breakout season last year with 18 goals and 38 assists for 56 points and was plus-6, becoming one of the team leaders in the Capitals' late-season rush to secure a Stanley Cup Playoff spot. They lost to Philadelphia in the first round.

Green credits the team's success over the past two years to Boudreau, who became coach on Nov. 22, 2007. Green was a member of the Hershey Bears' 2006 Calder Cup championship team, under Boudreau, who also won an ECHL championship in 1999. The Capitals won their first Southeast Division title in seven years last year under Boudreau.

"When Bruce came here, our team became a completely different team, and he was the reason why," Green said. "It's not like we changed any players. We just got a new coach. We had a bit of guidance that led us to be successful.

"If Bruce would have been here from the start last year, we would have been where we are now. I think just the difference between this year and last year is that we had a full season to get our points, and that's why we're up there.

"I've known Bruce now for three, four years, and, you know, he's one of the best coaches I've ever been coached by. It's hard to say I'll ever have a better coach than him."
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