Capitals vs. Penguins: A rivalry with a big missing piece in Sidney Crosby


“It’s changed a little bit,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said of the rivalry. “The main attraction for everybody outside of the two dressing rooms has been Ovechkin versus Crosby. So it has changed for a lot of fans watching it. It’s not the hot topic anymore.” (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 10, 2012

Not long ago, Ovi vs. Sid was appointment viewing for fans and the rivalry the NHL used to market its game to the masses.

But when the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins meet Wednesday at Verizon Center, anticipation will be low, relatively speaking. It’ll have more juice than, say, New Jersey at Edmonton, sure. But the feud no longer has the tension it once did, not with Sidney Crosby sidelined indefinitely with a concussion and Alex Ovechkin struggling to regain his MVP form.

Not for some fans.

Not for some players, either.

“As a season ticket holder, it’s probably the number one ticket you’re trying to find in your pack to make sure it’s there,” Capitals winger Mike Knuble said. “With Sid’s injury, it taints it a little bit, in my opinion. I remember those games, even before the Winter Classic, those were just great hockey games, with the league’s two top guys. The players around them wanted to play hard for them, make their superstar look the best.

“When one’s missing,” Knuble added, “it comes down a little bit.”

Asked how Crosby’s absence affects him, Ovechkin said he misses the challenge.

“It’s something the league is missing, the fans are missing,” the Capitals captain said. “He’s one of the best players in the league. It’s hard to see he’s not playing. . . . I enjoy playing against him.”

Crosby always brought out the best in Ovechkin, and vice versa. From the 2005-06 season through 2009-10, Crosby scored 12 goals in 19 regular season games against the Capitals. During the same span, Ovechkin registered 17 goals in 20 games.

But Crosby has been limited to three games against the Capitals the past two seasons. He has only one goal. Ovechkin, meantime, has suited up for all six games but has only two goals.

“Parts of the rivalry are still there,” Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma said in an interview after Monday’s practice at Consol Energy Center. “In recent years, it was built up as ‘The Matchup.’ It certainly took that shape in 2009. They were the two best players in the game.

“Some of the games recently haven’t had that same flavor because of either Ovi not being at the top of his game, or where he was, or Sid not being there,” he added. “It’s got a different flavor.”

Which is to say it’s been decidedly bland — a possibility that seemed unfathomable only three years ago.

Who could forget that February afternoon on F Street when the rivalry escalated to new heights on national television? Crosby shoved Ovechkin after the two bumped near the benches. Ovechkin responded by ripping off Crosby’s helmet and waving dismissively toward him as the two exchanged profanities.

Then, a month a half later in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the game’s brightest stars were again at the center of the hockey universe after they recorded dueling hat tricks. Ovechkin’s Capitals won the battle that night, 4-3. But Crosby’s Penguins won the war, advancing four games to three.

“The fun things about those games was watching Ovi and Sid going at it,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “That was so fun to watch and it was always on NBC.”

The rivalry became so marketable, in fact, that the NHL risked the wrath of the other 29 clubs and tapped the Penguins for the 2011 Winter Classic, just three years after they appeared in the inaugural outdoor game.

HBO couldn’t resist, either, documenting the buildup to the Winter Classic on its Emmy Award-winning program, “24/7.”

The Winter Classic should have been a high point in a rivalry that was only going to get better. As it turns out, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Crosby likely suffered his first concussion in a collision with former Capital David Steckel. Although he finished the game and played four nights later, Crosby has since suited up for only 11 of his team’s 75 regular season and playoff contests.

He made his return in December after more than 10 months out of the lineup, but that comeback lasted a mere eight games, including a quiet performance in the Penguins’ 2-1 win in Washington. There hasn’t been a public update on his status in a month.

Around the same time as the Winter Classic, Ovechkin began fielding pointed questions about a goal-scoring decline that now, some two years after it started, looks more like the new normal rather than a prolonged slump.

Although there have been flashes of the old Ovechkin in recent weeks, the numbers do not lie. Ovechkin’s 17 goals put him on pace for 34, two more than last season’s career low and 20 fewer than the 54 he averaged in his first five seasons. It’s also 11 behind the league-leading total of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos.

“It’s changed a little bit,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said of the rivalry. “The main attraction for everybody outside of the two dressing rooms has been Ovechkin versus Crosby. So it has changed for a lot of fans watching it. It’s not the hot topic anymore.”

Hot certainly would not be the word to describe the state of either the Capitals or the Penguins these days. Both teams are not only dealing with injuries to key players, they’re fighting to remain in the playoff picture.

Pittsburgh has lost five in a row after Tuesday’s 5-1 defeat against Ottawa and sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference; Washington returned from an 0-2-0 California trip and is in 10th place, two points behind the Penguins.

On Wednesday, the Capitals figure to be without leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom and top defenseman Mike Green. Backstrom hasn’t played since getting elbowed in the head by Calgary’s Rene Bourque last week; Green’s latest comeback from a persistent groin injury came to a premature end Friday in San Jose.

The Penguins might actually be in worse shape. In addition to Crosby, they are missing No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang (concussion) and alternate captain Jordan Staal (knee).

Just a year ago, the injury report and the teams’ spot in the standings would have been mere footnotes in the hours before the Capitals hosted the Penguins.

The conversation would have started and ended with Ovi vs. Sid.

Bylsma said he hasn’t given up hope on Ovechkin rediscovering his groove and Crosby returning to full health, particularly given their ages: 26 and 24, respectively.

“By year end, it might take two months, it might take who knows; we might have the same thing all over again,” Bylsma said. “You can only hope.”

Capitals note: The team is set to recall Tomas Kundratek from the AHL’s Hershey Bears. The defenseman is expected to be on the ice for the morning skate Wednesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Kundratek, 22, has six goals and two assists with a plus-2 rating in 21 games with the Bears this season.

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