-- The anticipation for the first Stanley Cup Playoff showdown between Alex Ovechkin
and Sidney Crosby
began years ago, when they squared off at the junior-hockey level.
It began to swell when the two hockey supernovas were drafted by franchises with plenty of postseason history already in place. As they rose to the top of their profession and brought their respective teams with them, the expectations for that first meeting seemed almost impossible to meet.
Then it finally happened and for two weeks during the spring of 2009, the Washington Capitals
and Pittsburgh Penguins
collided in one of the greatest playoff series in NHL history that didn't involve awarding the Stanley Cup at the end. If it was possible, the expectations not only were met but exceeded.
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"It was a whirlwind, just crazy -- probably the most back-and-forth series I've ever been a part of," Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke
said. "There was no momentum -- even in games, really. There was a chance at one and then a chance at the other. There was great goaltending, great individual performances. There were gutsy wins -- our overtime wins and their overtime win (in Pittsburgh) in Game 6. I think it was a perfect storm for a playoff series, and despite it only being the Eastern Conference semifinals, people pretty much thought that was the Cup Final. That level of play helped us moving into the next round against Carolina, because we had to play at such a high level in that series to beat Washington."
"It was really great," said Capitals defenseman Mike Green
. "Leading up to it, knowing we were going to be playing them -- it was exciting. The whole series was emotional and intense. You were anxious and excited to get out there, and at the same time your nerves were running the whole time because of the amplified excitement surrounding it."
Given the construction of the two rosters, the two franchises were expected to meet again and again in the postseason for years to come. Just as there had been in the 1990s and early part of the 2000s, there would be Pittsburgh-Washington postseason clashes -- only this time, both teams would be loaded with world-class players and for two weeks they would represent the center of the hockey universe, just as they did in 2009.
Two postseasons have come and gone, though, and things haven't gone according to plan for either club. Round 2 of what has become the most publicized rivalry in the sport has yet to materialize.
Part of the problem has been unfulfilled expectations, whether because of poor postseason performances, major injuries or a combination of the two. Another big role has been played by the other top teams in the Eastern Conference -- Philadelphia and Boston have become consistent powers during the Crosby-Ovechkin era, while other upstarts, like Montreal two seasons ago and Tampa Bay last season, have been able to topple both franchises in the same postseason.
Another issue is the logistics of the current NHL postseason format. If Pittsburgh and Washington win their respective divisions, there is a high likelihood that both teams will need to reach the conference finals to meet.
"The tough part is we're always pretty close to each other in the standings and you don't get that opportunity sometimes if you don't make it to the third round, and we haven't been doing that lately," Washington defenseman Karl Alzner
said. "Eventually, it is going to get there again and it is going to boil over and just be awesome.
"It was really great. Leading up to it, knowing we were going to be playing them -- it was exciting. The whole series was emotional and intense. You were anxious and excited to get out there, and at the same time your nerves were running the whole time because of the amplified excitement surrounding it." -- Mike Green
"It is such a hard League and it is tough to get to that point. I don't think it is ever going to happen where we're the No. 1 (seed) and they are eighth. It is probably going to be 1-2, 2-3, so it is tough to get a matchup against each other, but we'd like it."
Prior to the current playoff format, when the Pens and Caps were in the same division, it was guaranteed they would meet in the first two rounds. Now there is much more chance involved.
There have been two recent near-misses. They would have met in the second round of the 2008 playoffs had Washington defeated Philadelphia in Game 7 of the opening round at Verizon Center. The situation would have been the same last season had Pittsburgh been able to solve Dwayne Roloson
in Game 7 against Tampa Bay at Consol Energy Center.
Both clubs are poised to be near the top of the Eastern Conference again this season, and both are off to fast starts. The first meeting Thursday was another reminder of how entertaining and intense the battles between these two teams can be.
The Penguins and Capitals haven't met in the playoff since a memorable seven-game series in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals - Pittsburgh won, and went on to win the Cup. (Photo: Getty Images)
There remain other teams in the East that could derail one or both. Boston and Philadelphia look like contenders yet again, and high preseason expectations in Buffalo appear warranted after two dominating efforts against quality teams in Europe.
Should the Capitals continue their recent run of fantastic regular seasons, and should Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
return to good health and form, these two rivals likely will be among the top handful of clubs in the East, and the anticipation for another postseason showdown will build as the Stanley Cup Playoffs approach.
"Something about them -- they're always considered one of the top dogs in the East and we're up there, as well," Alzner said. "They won the Cup, and we thought maybe we had a chance to win it. I think it is just that … there is always going to be a little bitterness. There is obviously the Ovechkin and Crosby thing, but there are a lot of other little rivalries to go along with the big rivalry. That's what gets everybody so fired up in here to play them, and it is nice to have something like that to look forward to."
Cooke is sure a future postseason meeting will happen.
"I'm sure that we will (play again)," he said. "You can only stay away from each other for so long -- especially with the way the two teams are built and the strength of both teams. Obviously there are going to times when both teams are going to have to win a couple rounds to get to each other, especially if we are high in the standings, but I think both teams are ready to be in that group, for sure."