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Crosby, Ovechkin Headline Marquee Matchup

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin square off for the first time this season at Mellon Arena on Thursday night.

Credit - Getty Images
Red Sox-Yankees. Colts-Patriots. Duke-North Carolina.

In sports, there are some rivalries which seem to supersede their particular sport. This can stem from the way each team’s fans feel about the other. Or it can be the result of the two combatants regularly battling each other with something big at stake. And sometimes the two are blessed with superstar talent which brings out the best in the other.

On Thursday night at Mellon Arena a rivalry which can place a check next to all of these descriptions resumes for the first time since the 2009 postseason.

Yes, finally, in game No. 52 of the season for the Penguins, they get to renew acquaintances with the Washington Capitals. It’s Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin vs. Alexander Semin. Simply put, the best rivalry in the NHL finally resumes for the first of four heavyweight tows between now and Apr. 6.

“I think these games are a little more intense with a little more emotion,” Crosby said. “That’s the way we look at it. I think we look at it as a challenge. It’s a good way for us to measure where we’re at.”

When these two squads were last seen on the same ice surface, it was the Penguins putting the end to Washington’s season with a 6-2 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at the Verizon Center on May 13. Pittsburgh went on to capture their third Stanley Cup championship in June while Washington’s offseason began sooner than they would have liked.

For the Penguins, the memories of last season only invoke positive images, even if, as the humble victors, they were loath to talk about the past following practice on Tuesday.

“It’s done with,” Crosby said. “It was great. Obviously, we came out on the right side of things.”

On the flip side, Washington is eager to get back at the Penguins for lifting the carpet from underneath them on the way to their dream.

“It was a tough loss but that’s life,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes somebody has to lose and somebody has to win. … It was pretty hard but I hope this year is going to be better for us. We don’t want to lose in the second (round) or third, we want to play for the Stanley Cup.”

“They stole something from us last year and it’s in the back of our minds,” Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. “For them to go on and win and for us to have the series we did and go to Game 7 and for them to move on instead of us is a tough one to swallow.

“There is definitely that in the back of our minds. We’re not going to prepare any differently playing these guys. We’re going to prepare the same and see what happens tomorrow.”

Pittsburgh might have ended last season with Lord Stanley’s prestigious hardware, but if they want a return date this season, they know they will once again have to go through the Capitals.

Heading into Wednesday’s games the Capitals’ 68 points have them in the pole position in the Eastern Conference. Their offense is the best in the NHL with 185 goals, 14 more than second-place San Jose.

Numbers like those might intimidate most, but not the Stanley Cup champions. Crosby and Co. revel in these types of showdowns.

“Everyone will show up for those big games, and it’s just natural,” Crosby said. “You want guys on your team who are going to see it that way. Both teams are very skilled and want to be successful, so that’s the result you get.”

Yes, both teams, from top to bottom, have more skill than most around the league.

Washington has 10 players who have already reached double-digits in goals, the top figure in the league. Three of those, Ovechkin (30), Semin (20) and Nicklas Backstrom (20), have already topped the 20-goal plateau.

This season the Capitals have been more than just their “Big-Three.” Youngsters Brooks Laich (13 goals), Tomas Fleishmann (16) and Eric Fehr (12) are all on their way to career years in goal scoring. Free agent additions Brendan Morrison (28 points) and Mike Knuble (13 goals in 37 games) have also helped diversify the attack.

Bottom-line forwards David Steckel, who scored the overtime winner in Game 6, and former Penguin Matt Bradley have continued to score big goals as well.

Crosby and the Penguins eliminated Ovechkin and the Capitals from the playoffs in the 2009 postseason.
Credit - Getty Images
“It’s great when different guys score big goals for us,” Ovechkin said. “Last time we played here in Pittsburgh, Stecks scored the OT goal. Everybody was happy because he scored and it was a big moment for us and for our team, and for him too. It’s very important for different guys to step up and show that they can play too.”

Green, who struggled to find his game against the Penguins in the postseason, has shown the hockey world what he can do as he leads all defensemen with 50 points (12G-38A). His 38 helpers are fifth most in the league – regardless of position.

“That’s his only negative thing is that he didn’t have a great playoffs,” Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He’s having a tremendous year. He’s got 50 points already. … He plays the most minutes, kills penalties, on the power play. I don’t know what else can be said about him.

“We’re in first place mainly because of Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin.”

We all know what the Penguins can do thanks to the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal, Bill Guerin, etc. If there is one team which can match Washington’s skill level, it’s the Penguins.

Despite all the big names on both sides, Pittsburgh and Washington still comes down to Crosby vs. Ovechkin. The two come into the contest playing as well as ever.

Over his past seven games Crosby has picked up eight goals and six assists to vault into second-place in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy. In that same time span, Ovechkin has posted 15 points (4G-11A).

Both players recognize the spot shadow surrounding their head-to-head meeting.

“Whenever we play each other, it’s always like that,” Crosby said. “I think both teams are probably used to that, and I think that’s why you see both teams – it really brings the best out of them.

“You’ve seen some really good games. Now with the playoff history between the two teams, too – that just adds to it. It’s still the same game. As a player, you look forward to it for sure.”

“I think the fans will see me and Sid play against each other, and you guys,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a pretty big moment for us when we play against each other. We want to improve and play better. … It’s a pretty big game for us, especially after last summer and the great series.”

No matter what happens on Thursday, Boudreau says the fans should appreciate the opportunity to watch two of the best players in the world matching wits on the same ice.

“There must have been something in the water for those couple of years,” Boudreau said. “Sidney and Alex are two special guys. Usually they come along in different generations. You don’t get too many players of the same ilk in the same generation. They’re both incredible talents.”

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