WASHINGTON -- "The Great One" is ready to watch what he hopes will be a great series featuring two players he believes are some of the best of all time.
"This is going to be an unreal matchup," Wayne Gretzky said Thursday when asked about the Eastern Conference Second Round series between Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, facing each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Game 1 is Thursday at Verizon Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). It's the first time the Penguins and Capitals, with Crosby and Ovechkin, have met in the playoffs since their dramatic second round seven-game series won by the Penguins in 2009.
"Nobody saw Pittsburgh around January playing at the level they're playing at now, and they're playing at an elite level now," Gretzky said. "They're playing hard. They're playing strong. They're aggressive. This should be a remarkable series.
Gretzky talked more about the matchup in the following Q&A:
What do you think it means for the NHL, for hockey in general, to have the Crosby-Ovechkin, Penguins-Capitals rivalry back on center stage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
"Any time we can put our best teams and the best players on the marquee it's always a positive. Both guys love the microscope and love being under pressure, and both guys seem to elevate their game when they play against each other. But that's natural. Everybody has a lot of pride as an athlete and when you're an elite athlete and you play head to head against a guy who is your peer, there is more of a motivation factor. I anticipate both players raising their game to another level. But both guys will tell you and I'm sure you've heard it, they can contribute and they're part of it, but you win and lose as a group. Although they're going to raise their games to another level, the teams around both of those guys have to jump on that train too and get their games to another level. That's what elite players do, though. The players will see their work ethic and the level they get to and that pulls the rest of the guys in the group into it too.
Video: 2009 Round 2, Gm2: Ovechkin, Crosby double hat-tricks
"My advice to both guys, as John Muckler would say to me, is that it's not about how many goals or points you get in the series, because it's going to be tight checking and obviously Washington is going to watch Crosby and Pittsburgh is going to watch Ovechkin. But that big play, that big goal or key assist at a key time in the game, that's what you're looking for from those guys. That can be the difference maker in a game and the series."
How do you evaluate the changes or maturity in Alex Ovechkin and his game since they last played in 2009?
"First of all, he's an elite player. I think he's one of the great players we've ever had in our game. There's no question it's harder to score goals in this day and age, and for him to continuously get to the level of goals he gets to now is pretty remarkable. He's a different kind of player. I always say Mike Bossy was the purest goal scorer I ever saw. When Mike got into position and he got that opportunity, you might as well go back to center ice because he didn't miss. But Mike might have scored four goals in a game and had only five or six shots, where it seems like Alex, I don't know how he finds those open areas, but my goodness, this guy is getting 10, 11 or 12 opportunities a game. I still keep thinking, 'Why doesn't somebody cover that guy?' But when you go to the level he's at, he can find those open areas like Mike Bossy did.
"But I don't know if he's changed his game a whole lot. I think the team has changed. Barry Trotz has brought in a system that obviously is working for the entire team. I know this from playing for Glen [Sather] in Edmonton, he used to say all the time if I can get you and Mark [Messier] and Paul Coffey to play the system we want and need to be successful, I can convince the other guys to rally around that. I think that's what Barry has done with Alex. He hasn't taken anything away from his offensive abilities, but he's given him a responsibility to be more reliable defensively. The team sees that. Although he's still going to get his opportunities and chances, his backchecking and defensive zone play has been as good as ever. From a coach's point of view, it sure makes it easier telling the rest of the guys to cover the third guy high or cover the point guy in your own zone when you see maybe the premier offensive player in the League doing it. So the system is much better for him. And then I think they made some really good moves to give themselves an opportunity here to go to another level by adding Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie. I think these two young men have really stabilized that team and you can see the comfort level. Although [the series] was back to 3-2 against Philadelphia, they played really well in Game 6. Maybe in the past the team didn't have that same makeup. So when you get your team to buy in, that's really good coaching and Alex has bought into it. Alex has said all year long he wants to win a Stanley Cup. His actions are proving it and that's what the players are feeding off."
Video: WSH@PHI, Gm3: Ovechkin pots second goal of game
Do you think this is the best team Ovechkin has been on in Washington?
"I think their record would indicate that it's the best team he's been on, and not just by how many wins they've gotten over the year but by how they're winning. They're strong defensively. They play a physical game. [Braden Holtby] has had an exceptional year. So all the pieces seem to be more in place this time around than in 2009. But that only matters if you're successful. If they get past this round then people will say this is one of the best teams he's been on, but if they don't get past this round you go back to almost square one and say, 'What do we need to tinker with?' They've had an exceptional year and they've won the right way. It's not like they were lucky to win so many games. There are no easy games, no nights off in this League. And I really like the way they responded after Game 5 against the Flyers. I thought they played exceptionally well in Game 5, the goaltender stood on his head and they lost. You could see in their demeanor as a group going into Game 6 that although they were aware of what happened, it didn't seem to bother them. I thought they played one of their better games in Game 6. They responded really well and maybe in the past the Washington teams haven't responded that well."
Are you a believer that Ovechkin's legacy, what he is remembered for, hinges on winning the Stanley Cup?
"You know, when I broke into the NHL in 1979, we idolized guys like Jean Beliveau, Bobby Orr, Bobby Clarke and Guy Lafleur, and that was the slogan, 'You're a good player, but you're not a great player until you win the Stanley Cup.' Now the league was only 21 teams back then, and of course it was at 12 at one point and six at one point, so it's much more difficult to win the Stanley Cup now, especially in the era of the salary cap. But I really believe that it's another notch for an athlete if you're a champion. He's always going to go down as a great player and a Hall of Famer, there's no question about that, but it's an extra notch when you get your name on that Stanley Cup and get to lift it."
Video: PIT@NYR, Gm3: Crosby redirects a feed from Kessel
Is what we have seen from Crosby since Christmas, the way he rallied and returned to form after a slow start, one of the more impressive things we've seen from him in his 11 years in the NHL?
"Yes. October is October. There are four levels of the season; exhibition season, the regular season, the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final, and every one of those goes to another level. But a guy like Crosby coming off physical and mental issues in the past, his demeanor in October is not quite the same as other guys facing off against him that want to prove themselves against him. So, yeah, he had a tough start, but the sign of an elite athlete is a guy that battles through it. He didn't point any fingers, he just battled through it, and I don't think there is any question the last 40 or so games, he made a case for the MVP. He was that good. He went to another level. I don't think there is any question he is playing as good or better than he has ever played."