The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals hit the ocean floor five years ago. The two proud franchises landed at the bottom of the NHL standings at the conclusion of the 2003-04 season. Gone were names like Lemieux, Jagr, Coffey, Francis, Carey, Hunter, Iafrate, Bondra.
The stars were gone and the rivalry grew stale. Pittsburgh defeated the Capitals, 4-3, in the final game of that bleak season. The Penguins finished with a 23-47-8-4-58 record, worst in the entire league. Washington didn’t fair much better with its 20-43-11-8-59 record, finishing with the fewest wins in the NHL. A season-long lockout followed, giving both clubs an entire year to evaluate how far they had fallen.
However, it took only two draft picks to change history forever. Washington won the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery, and with it the right to draft Alexander Ovechkin No. 1 overall. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound sniper had to wait a year before arriving in America’s capital. During that time, a young Nova Scotia native was awaiting his destination. Sidney Crosby
was the consensus No. 1 overall pick. Without a season, the entire draft order was subject to a lottery. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman revealed the winner of the Crosby sweepstakes, holding open a card displaying the Penguins logo.
Since that moment, both players have been linked together. The hype, the attention and the expectations catapulted Pittsburgh and Washington back into the national spotlight and ignited a personal competition between Crosby and Ovechkin, not to mention the incendiary rivalry of the Penguins and Capitals.
“There are always comparisons, there are always buildups when these teams play each other,” Crosby said. “That’s something I think we’ve learned to deal with. If there’s a little bit bigger stage hopefully that brings the best of everyone but I don’t think that changes the way you play.”
Crosby shouldn’t change anything about the way he plays Washington. In 11 games against the Capitals he’s compiled 19 points on seven goals and 12 assists. Ovechkin has also had success in the matchup, scoring six goals and nine assists for 15 points in 12 career games. Despite the media attention, Crosby underscored the personal competition with Ovechkin.
“I think we’re past that now,” Crosby said. “It’s a big game. We know that there’s a lot of attention. I think we’re both focused on our teams. With Washington, it’s developed into pretty intense games over the last few years. We’re more focused on the game itself, than me versus him.”
In the game itself, the Penguins have a decisive edge over Washington since both men entered the league, boasting a 10-1-1 record. Despite both men’s wishes, they may never be able to escape each other’s success and failures. They both won the Hart (League MVP), Lester B. Pearson (MVP as voted by the players) and Art Ross (scoring champion). They are the predominant scoring threat on their team. Crosby and Ovechkin are the consensus top two players in the league, no matter whom you rate higher.
“There’s always going to be that comparison,” head coach Michel Therrien said. “It’s still going to be there. There’s still going to be a rivalry between those two players. This is a little rivalry between star players. Every time you have young players facing each other, they’ve got a lot of pride. That’s one of the reasons why they are good players, because they’ve got pride. They want to make sure that they’re the best player on the ice that night.”
Most importantly to both men is how their respective team plays. Pittsburgh competed in last season’s Stanley Cup Final, while Washington won the Southeast Division. In five years, Pittsburgh and Washington went from the NHL’s basement to favorites to compete for the Cup.
The Pittsburgh-Washington rivalry is back in a big way. The grand names of the past are gone but they’ve been replaced with names like Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Green.
“We’re a good hockey club and they’re a good hockey club as well,” Therrien said. “Two years ago, the focus was only on players. Yes, the focus is still there. But the focus is on the Capitals and the Penguins too. These are two good hockey teams. It’s a challenge for us. In the meantime, it’s a challenge for them as well.”