NEW YORK --
The Pittsburgh Penguins
and Washington Capitals
resume their contentious rivalry Thursday when they face off at Verizon Center in Washington -- the teams' first meeting of the 2010-11 season and a preview of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, when the teams will play again at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Thursday's game will be broadcast to a national audience in the United States on NHL Network and in the local markets by FSN Pittsburgh and CSN Washington, respectively, beginning at 7 p.m., ET.
With HBO Sports camera crews also in the building, capturing exclusive behind-the-scenes and on-ice footage, Thursday's contest will be a central event in the Dec. 29 installment of HBO's 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic. The final three episodes of the acclaimed four-part series will premiere Wednesday nights, on Dec. 22, Dec. 29 and Jan. 5, respectively.
Thursday's game will mark the clubs' 190th regular-season meeting since 1974-75, the Capitals' inaugural season. They were division rivals for the first 19 years of their NHL co-existence through 1992-93 and have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs eight times, including five encounters in a six-year stretch from 1991 through 1996. Outside the 'Original Six' clubs, only the Dallas Stars
and St. Louis Blues
(12 playoff series) have met in the postseason more often.
The rivalry was at an ebb when Alex Ovechkin
and Sidney Crosby
arrived on the NHL scene in 2005-06. Both No. 1 overall draft choices (Ovechkin by Washington in 2004 and Crosby by Pittsburgh in 2005), they already had met in high stakes competition at the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Crosby's Team Canada defeated Ovechkin's Russian club, 6-1 in the gold medal final, with Ovechkin leaving the game in the second period with a shoulder injury after big hits by Crosby, Dion Phaneuf
, Mike Richards
and Patrice Bergeron
Once in the NHL, it did not take long for each to make his mark as a superstar:
In 2005-06, Ovechkin scored 52 goals as a rookie and was a runaway winner in Calder Trophy balloting while Crosby, at 18, became the youngest player to tally 100 points in a season.
In 2006-07, Crosby became the youngest scoring champion in major pro sports history, captured the Hart Trophy as League MVP and led his club to a playoff berth for the first time since 2001, while Ovechkin became the first player in more than a half century to garner First All-Star Team honors in each of his first two seasons.
In 2007-08, Ovechkin stoked the Capitals' remarkable turnaround by leading the League in goals (65) and points (112) in capturing his first Hart Trophy. Crosby answered by tying for the playoff scoring lead as the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Final.
2008-09: Rivalry Catches Fire
In 2008-09, the simmering feud between the clubs and their leading stars reached full boil in the third meeting of the season, a 5-2 Washington victory on Feb. 22. Crosby and Ovechkin exchanged shoves in a scrum by the benches late in the second period and didn't mince words after the game.
"He is a good player, but he talks too much," Ovechkin said. "I play hard. If he wants to do something like hit me again, try to hit me again - and I'll talk to you guys (about) who plays dirty. That's my game. It's not cheap shots, it's a game moment. But he doesn't like it, it's his problem."
""Like it or lump it, that's what he does," Crosby said when asked about Ovechkin's showmanship. "Some people like it, some people don't. Personally, I don't like it."
It all set the stage for the clubs' latest playoff meeting, an epic Eastern Conference Semifinal series in May, 2009.
In Game 2, Ovechkin and Crosby each recorded a hat trick and produced six of the seven goals in Washington's 4-3 victory. Each of Crosby's first two goals gave the Penguins a lead. Ovechkin evened the score 1-1 and notched a pair of goals 2:29 apart in the third that gave Washington a 4-2 cushion. Crosby's third of the game with 31 seconds remaining in regulation closed the gap to 4-3. The game marked the fourth time in NHL history and the first time in 13 years that players on opposing clubs had tallied hat tricks in the same playoff game.
"It's everything the media has made it out to be, a battle of the two best players in hockey, and tonight they both carried their teams," Capitals defenseman Mike Green
said. "We were fortunate that Alex was at the top of his game."
In the end, the Penguins captured the series in seven games. Five games were decided by one goal, including three in overtime. Ovechkin tallied 14 points in the series (eight goals, six assists), Crosby had 13 (eight goals, five assists). The Penguins went on to win their third Stanley Cup in franchise history and first since 1992.
Although the Penguins and Capitals did not provide a playoff encore in 2009-10, they did play one of the most memorable games of the regular season. On Feb. 7, Ovechkin tallied a hat trick and assisted on Mike Knuble
's overtime winner in a 5-4 Washington victory at Verizon Center in front of a national NBC audience and 15,000 fans who braved the aftermath of a blizzard that had blanketed the National Capitol region with more than two feet of snow. The Penguins, who had difficulty reaching Washington and arrived there in the early morning hours ahead of a noon, ET start, built a 4-1 lead thanks to two goals each from Crosby and Jordan Staal
. The Capitals tied it thanks to a pair of Ovechkin strikes in the third period. The win extended the Capitals' winning streak to 14 games, tied for third-longest in NHL history.
"I am really excited for hockey that the game was put on [national] TV today," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
said. "This is what people pay to see. The superstars shined and there is tension and excitement and physical play. You could see the passion on both sides. This is what hockey is all about."