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Ovechkin, Capitals to play Crosby, Penguins for first time this season

Washington forward, Pittsburgh center to face each other for 50th time

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are red hot, and the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins is about to heat up.

After watching each other from afar the past four months, Ovechkin and the Capitals will play Crosby and the Penguins for the first time this season at Capital One Arena on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC).

"It's always exciting games to be a part of and it seems to bring out the best in both teams if you look at over the years," Washington coach Todd Reirden said. "It's an afternoon game, NBC, and it will be our first of four in a short period of time, so our team is excited about it, as I'm sure theirs is, and it will be a good test of where our team's at."

Ovechkin, the Capitals captain, has climbed to eighth in in NHL history with 695 goals with 11 goals in his past five games, including two in a 5-3 win at the Ottawa Senators on Friday. That moved the 34-year-old forward one ahead of Mark Messier on the NHL goals list and put him five from becoming the eighth player to score 700.

Video: WSH@OTT: Ovechkin scores twice to pass Messier

Crosby, the Penguins captain, scored the winning goal and had two assists in a 4-3 overtime victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday. The 32-year-old center has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in six games since returning from a 28-game absence following core muscle surgery.

Each is doing this in his 15th season after they entered the NHL together in 2005-06.

"It's great for the game," Washington defenseman John Carlson said. "They've really revolutionized the way the game's played, I think, throughout those years and it's great to see they're still right at the top of the League with all the youngsters. A lot of us in hockey owe them a great deal of thanks." 

Ovechkin is seeking to join Wayne Gretzky (894 goals), Gordie Howe (801), Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717) and Mike Gartner (708) with 700 goals. With 37 goals this season, Ovechkin is tied with Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins for the NHL lead.

"Nothing's changed since he's come into the League as far as how he shoots the puck," Crosby said. "[He] has the ability to score goals. He's done it consistently since entering the League."

Crosby has had a tougher season as far dealing with injuries, but when he has been in the lineup, he has played at an elite level, with 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) in 23 games. Center Evgeni Malkin, who had a goal and two assists against the Flyers, missed 13 games this season because of injuries but leads Pittsburgh with 53 points (16 goals, 37 assists) in 38 games.

Video: PIT@DET: Crosby wins it in OT on Malkin's pass

Despite losing 213 man-games to injury, the Penguins (32-14-5) appear to have weathered the worst. They aren't at full strength with forwards Jake Guentzel (shoulder), Nick Bjugstad (lower body) and Dominik Kahun (concussion) and defenseman Brian Dumoulin (lower body) out, but that hasn't slowed them down. 

Pittsburgh, 18-5-1 in its past 24 games, has climbed to fourth in the NHL and second in the Metropolitan Division with 69 points, six behind Washington (35-12-5).

"They had Sid out for two months there and they kept winning," said Capitals forward Carl Hagelin, who played for the Penguins for four seasons and won the Stanley Cup with them in 2016 and 2017. "I think we know they're well-coached, they're a good team, and it's going to come down to determination, I think, and will."

Pittsburgh and Washington will play each other four times over the next seven weeks. Those games likely will have a big impact on the division race and seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"They're a real good team. They're having a great year," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "We believe we're a pretty good hockey team too. Just going to continue to try to get better. We're going try to win the game right in front of us. We'll see where it takes us."

Rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov, who has won his past 11 decisions, will start for the Capitals over veteran Braden Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner voted as the League's top goalie who helped Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018. The Penguins did not announce their starting goalie, but it's possible Tristan Jarry will play a third straight game. That would put Matt Murray, the goalie when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, on the bench.

But the spotlight, as always, will be on Ovechkin and Crosby, who will play against each other for the 50th time in the NHL regular season. Crosby and the Penguins are 30-17-2 against Ovechkin and the Capitals.

"When you go through that time when they both entered the League and the head-to-head rivalry, it doesn't go away," Reirden said. "There were maybe some years in the middle there where it kind of started to lose a little bit of its luster. But now I think it's back more than ever, especially with their success of winning those Cups recently and our ability to win our first Cup (in 2018) and now our desire to get back to doing that again.

"But it clearly triggers upon Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the main stars. There's lots of stories beneath that, but the rivalry is outstanding and it's amazing for hockey and I think will forever be remembered just like you talk about [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson in the NBA] or different rivalries that have gone on in sports." 

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