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Selling the Drama

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins and Capitals are loaded with young talent. Pittsburgh boasts Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, while Washington counters with Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Niklas Backstrom. Every game between the two clubs is filled with the type of excitement and hype normally reserved for the Stanley Cup Final.

As if the star-filled matchups needed any more intrigue, there is a growing competitiveness and drama between the teams. For starters, Crosby and Ovechkin have become the face of the NHL and will be compared throughout their careers - whether they like it or not. On top of that, there is a brewing - with unknown origin - of angst between Ovechkin and Malkin. Then Semin entered the fray with some remarks about Crosby that will surely fuel the rivalry to another level.

All these facets have transformed a competition for supremacy among star athletes into a volatile rivalry between Pittsburgh and Washington. Which means fans should be in store for a great game when the two teams meet Wednesday night at Mellon Arena at 7:30 p.m. But before the much anticipated game, let's take a look back at where it all began.

The Face of the NHL

The NHL dubbed Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the future of the league. They both became the face of the post-lockout NHL and are expected to carry the torch for years to come, leading the next generation of NHL superstars. As a result, Crosby and Ovechkin's careers will forever be linked and compared.

“There are always comparisons, there are always buildups when these teams play each other,” Crosby said in October. “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.”

There are always comparisons, there are always buildups when these teams play each other. 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. - Sidney Crosby
Ovechkin and Crosby were highly touted and hyped years before entering the NHL. Ovechkin, the first-overall selection in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, cracked the Dynamo Moscow lineup at just 16 years old and lit up the Russian Super League. Crosby, who was selected as the top pick in 2005, completely dominated the junior ranks in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The subsequent lockout delayed Ovechkin’s NHL debut for a year and the two men entered the league in the 2005-06 season. Even with all they hype, Crosby and Ovechkin did not disappoint. The two talents found instant success and were among the league’s top scorers despite their youthfulness.

Ovechkin, then 20, scored 52 goals and added 54 assists for a 106-point rookie campaign. Crosby, not to be outdone, tallied 39 goals and 63 assists for 102 points at just 18 years old. Ovechkin edged Crosby in a heated race for the Calder Trophy. Since that time, neither has been able to escape the other’s shadow.

“There’s always going to be that comparison,” Penguins 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.”

The following season, Crosby staked his claim as the most dominant player in the NHL. He won the Art Ross Trophy as league scoring champion, Hart Trophy as MVP and Lester B. Pearson Award as outstanding player as voted by his peers. Crosby became the youngest player to win the Pearson and Art Ross after posting 36 goals and an eye-popping 84 assists for 120 points.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin tallied 46 goals and 46 assists for 92 points in his productive sophomore campaign.

   Crosby vs. Ovechkin

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Crosby’s numbers dipped last season when he missed 29 games due to a high ankle sprain. The center still notched 24 goals and 48 assists for 72 points in only 53 games. With Crosby sidelined, Ovechkin established his own claim as the best player in the world. He scored 65 goals and added 47 assists for 112 points en route to becoming the first player in NHL history to sweep the Art Ross, Maurice Richard Trophy for most goals scored in the season, Hart and Pearson Award.

On the current campaign, the duo is neck-and-neck in scoring. Crosby has 17 goals and 40 assists for 57 points, while Ovechkin has recorded 27 goals and 27 assists for 54 points. But Crosby insists that both players are less concerned with individual accomplishment than with their respective team successes.

“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.”

“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.”

Here is a statistical comparison of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin at this juncture in their careers:

Crosby vs. NHL
257 games played, 116 goals, 235 assists, 351 points, 1.4 points per game

Ovechkin vs. NHL
287 games played, 190 goals, 174 assists, 364 points, 1.3 points per game

Crosby vs. Washington
12 games played, 7 goals, 14 assists, 21 points, 1.75 points per game

Ovechkin vs. Pittsburgh
13 games played, 6 goals, 9 assists, 15 points, 1.2 points per game

In the 12 games that Crosby and Ovechkin have played against each other, the Penguins hold a 10-2-0 advantage.

Russian Czar

As far as the individual rivalries between Washington and Pittsburgh, things took a turn last season when Sidney Crosby was sidelined with a high ankle sprain. With its captain and leader out of the lineup, the Penguins needed someone to step up. Enter: Evgeni Malkin.

Ovechkin stole all the headlines and attention when he was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. However, with the second pick that year Pittsburgh grabbed fellow Russian Malkin. In some circles, scouts actually thought Malkin was the better prospect and a more complete player.

Malkin had a spectacular rookie campaign in the NHL, winning the Calder Trophy as top rookie after tallying 33 goals and 52 assists for 85 points. But Malkin’s shy nature and struggles adapting to the English language kept him in the background. Crosby garnered most of the attention and Malkin was happy to concentrate on just playing hockey.

Everything changed when Crosby went down. Something inside Malkin clicked and the Magnitogorsk, Russia native put the Penguins on his back and carried them. He scored 47 goals and added 59 assists for 106 points. In the outbreak of Malkin’s success, he found himself in a heated competition with Ovechkin for the NHL scoring title.

Malkin has the early edge this season. He currently leads the NHL with 66 points on 17 goals and a league-best 49 assists. Ovechkin currently has 54 points (27G-27A).

This new mini-rivalry between Malkin and Ovechkin has supplanted the Ovechkin-Crosby version in the intrigue department. Every time the two players step on the ice, they are trying their best to upstage each other.

“I’m not quite sure what happened between those two,” Therrien said. “This is something that’s pretty unique. You don’t see it often regarding two star players like this.”

Malkin and Ovechkin were once friends. They were teammates for Russian at the World Junior Championships and for the Russian Olympic team in Turin, Italy, in 2006. In fact, they were roommates while in Italy.

“Good time, good friends, good talk,” Malkin told Joe Starky of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of their relationship at the Olympics. “Now, it’s so-so.”

Now, they’re on a mission to outdo each other. Ovechkin has taken the intensity to another level in the team’s previous game Oct. 16. Ovechkin checked Malkin numerous times and even seemed to go out of his way to hit his fellow countryman.

“I think Ovechkin is one of the best players, obviously, in the league,” Therrien said. “There were some vicious hits on Geno. Certainly you don’t want to see any player get hurt. Anytime if there’s a vicious hit, there might be consequences. Players have to stick up for themselves and stick up for their team.”

Crosby said the Penguins will have to protect Malkin as they would any other Penguin.

“It’s like you’d stick up for any other teammate,” Crosby said. “They’re intense, physical games and as long as that’s the way they stay, that’s part of hockey. If there’s a deliberate attempt to hurt someone then you’re stepping outside the lines a bit. You have to make sure you step up for your teammate. That doesn’t change. Guys on our team have to make sure we stick together or (Malkin) has to make sure he sticks up for himself.”

(Malkin has) got to worry about playing. He doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s gotten run a couple times. The game here I think (Ovechkin) made a few runs at Geno and Geno handled it the right way. He’s focused on playing. He shouldn’t get caught up with that. - Sidney Crosby
“He’s got to worry about playing,” Crosby said. “He doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s gotten run a couple times. The game here I think (Ovechkin) made a few runs at Geno and Geno handled it the right way. He’s focused on playing. He shouldn’t get caught up with that.”

Despite being a target, Malkin managed to shrug off the incidents and score a goal and add two assists for a three-point night. Ovechkin was held pointless but the Capitals prevailed with a 4-3 victory after trailing 3-0. Pittsburgh will try to ignore the individual distractions in the game and concentrate on getting a much needed win.

“We did a good job last time; we didn’t get caught up in that,” Crosby said. “We were up 3-0 and lost the lead. It was a tough one that way but our focus was there. As long as we have that same focus, that’s fine no matter if it’s that game or any other game. We stick together and focus on what you have to do.”

As for how the Malkin-Ovechkin rivalry will play out…only time will tell.

The New Cold War

Gifted forward Alexander Semin unexpectedly added a new twist to the rivalry with some incendiary comments about Sidney Crosby earlier this season.

In late October, Semin was quoted by Yahoo! Sports as saying:

“What’s so special about (Crosby)? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else.

"I think that if you take any player, even if he is dead wood, and start promoting him, you'll get a star, especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let's say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals - everyone will say, 'Wow!' and then hand him a $10-million per year contract. That's what they like here.”

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told that “something was lost in translation” during the interview. Semin, who is Russian, answered questions through a translator with Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports.

"I believe he wanted to say that there are many world-class athletes in the NHL and that if one is marketed over the other - then they are regarded as super special," Leonsis wrote in an e-mail to "We all have high regard for Sidney Crosby - he is a historic and world-class player. And he is certainly one of the best players in the world."

The Capitals cancelled their morning skate on Wednesday and Semin wasn’t made available to the media. However, Therrien did address the issue...somewhat.

I’m not going to comment on Semin’s comments. As far as I’m concerned, that was pretty ridiculous. - Michel Therrien
“I’m not going to comment on Semin’s comments,” the Penguins coach said. “As far as I’m concerned, that was pretty ridiculous.”

Therrien did have this to say earlier in the year regarding the issue:

“Is he talking about the youngest guy to get 100 points in the history of the National Hockey League? Is he talking about the youngest guy to win the Hart Trophy and lead the league in scoring? Is he talking about the youngest captain in the National Hockey League to bring his team to the Stanley Cup Final? That’s all I have to say.”

As for Crosby, he shrugged off the comments when asked about them earlier in the year.

“I would be better off keeping my opinion to myself, I think,” Crosby said. “He is free to say what he wants. I’ll keep mine to myself about him."

Whether it was all a big misunderstanding or not, it will defninitely add a little more drama to an already intense rivalry.

“It’s not like I need a reason to be motivated," Crosby said. "I feel like I’m a pretty motivated person anyways. I don’t feel like that kind of stuff changes the way I play. I’ve been criticized before. It’s one of those things I have to deal with. I don’t read into it a whole lot.”

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