Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin and Penguins center Sidney Crosby will forever be intertwined.
First overall picks in consecutive drafts and charged with rebuilding proud Eastern Conference franchises upon their NHL debuts in 2005, Ovechkin and Crosby were immediately aligned against each other.
A stark contrast revealed itself when the two took the ice. Ovechkin, 28, an exuberant Russian, was as improvisational as Crosby, 26, a stoic Canadian, was deliberate.
The hope was that they would not only reignite one of the league’s most contentious rivalries, but also revive a hockey world left tattered by the loss of the 2004-05 season to labor strife.
“When I was growing up watching them, that was one of the biggest things when they were first coming into the league,” 22-year-old Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “It was something for people to grasp on to, the best players in the world going after each other.”
During the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, the rivalry’s principal players receded into the background: Crosby was on injured reserve while slowly overcoming the aftereffects of a concussion, and Ovechkin seemed to have lost his touch after consecutive career-low outputs. But both have regained their transcendent forms and are once again among the league’s statistical leaders. Entering Tuesday, Crosby was tied for first in the NHL in points, and Ovechkin was tied for the league lead in goals.
And now the rivalry has a new wrinkle: For the first time in two decades, the Capitals and the Penguins are divisional opponents. When they meet for their inaugural Metropolitan Division matchup tonight at the Verizon Center, first place will be at stake, as only one point separates Pittsburgh and Washington.
“It’s a really big match,” Ovechkin said after practice Tuesday. “It’s always fun to play against the great teams, against the great players. It’s pretty cool.”
For the most part, the Capitals on Tuesday downplayed the rivalry within the rivalry. Ovechkin did not go into great detail about Crosby, instead highlighting that he doesn’t think “it’s only two of us.”
Yet, what is just another regular-season game becomes so much more when the NHL’s most recognizable adversaries square off, as right wing Troy Brouwer pointed out.
“When you see those guys battling as hard as they do with the respect that they have for each other and the battles that they have against each other, we want to play more for Ovi to try and elevate him to make sure that he looks good and comes out on top,” he said.
Added Capitals coach Adam Oates: “You’ve got two of the best guys in the world playing against each other and it just makes for a little bit more electric game.
“Those two guys are [Wayne Gretzky] versus Mario [Lemieux]. They’re the superstars of the league.”