Maybe it was force of habit, but NBC Sports Network (which was Versus until two weeks ago) decided Wednesday that America’s hockey fans couldn’t live without seeing the eighth-place team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference take on the 10th-place team.
Both superstars were in the building Wednesday. Alex Ovechkin was wearing his familiar red sweater with the No. 8 stitched in white underneath his name. Sidney Crosby was wearing a very unfamiliar blue pinstripe suit and making small talk in the press box in the minutes leading up to faceoff.
Crosby has played in eight games this season because of lingering concussion symptoms that began a little more than a year ago after he took a hit from former Cap David Steckel during the Winter Classic. Neither the Penguins nor the NHL have been quite the same since. In the opening round of last spring’s playoffs, Pittsburgh blew a three-games-to-one lead and lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning — the same team that then swept the Capitals; the same team that Steven Stamkos, currently the league’s leading scorer, skates for right now.
One can almost see NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman looking out his office window and wondering how far he can take his league by promoting the ever-popular Stamkos-John Tavares rivalry. Both are talented young players, but neither is going to be mistaken for Crosby or Ovechkin anytime soon.
Perhaps the league realized that when it named Ovechkin to his fifth straight all-star team Thursday despite the fact he’s on pace for a career-low season offensively. Ovechkin was once in the same sentence with Crosby. To some, as evidenced by his back-to-back MVP awards in 2008 and 2009, his name should have come first.
That all changed on May 13, 2009, when the Caps and Penguins played Game 7 here in an Eastern Conference semifinal series. Crosby scored two goals, the second on a poke-check breakaway, and Pittsburgh cruised to a 6-2 victory. From there, the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Nine months later, it was deja vu: Crosby’s Team Canada routed Ovechkin’s Team Russia, 7-3, in the quarterfinals of the Vancouver Olympics en route to the gold medal — with Crosby, naturally, scoring the winning goal in overtime of the final against the United States.
Caps General Manager George McPhee recently called Russia’s loss to the Canadians a “double whammy” for Ovechkin: Not only did his country lose to Canada, but he lost to Crosby — again.
If Ovechkin didn’t begin to slide as a player at that exact moment, it wasn’t too long after that. Meantime, Crosby only got better. He had 66 points last season in the 41 games he managed to play, putting up the kind of numbers not seen in the NHL since Wayne Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr and Crosby’s mentor, Mario Lemieux, were at the peak of their powers.
Now, he is set to resume skating Friday when the Penguins are in Florida. Which means something, but no one is saying exactly what. “It means progress,” Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma said. “But we don’t know where that progress will lead.”