On hockey: Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins rivalry continues, with a new feel

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post - The Capitals are no match for the Penguins on Wednesday night at Verizon Center.

There was the one exchange, almost exactly at the game’s midpoint, when you could feel it. Alex Ovechkin found himself on the left wing, like old times, and just barreled in. He touched the puck to himself, power and grace and skill and force all rolled into one. His shot screamed wide of the net, and Ovechkin slid into it. The play was simultaneously harmless and captivating.

As the Pittsburgh Penguins took that puck and raced up ice, there was Ovechkin’s nemesis – an easy label, if not an entirely accurate one – waiting. Verizon Center is packed most nights, sold out 193 times in a row for the Washington Capitals, but Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are still the opponents who are supposed to make the boos more venomous, the horn’s blare more intense.

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That Penguins’ rush ended with Crosby, right on Braden Holtby’s front porch. He didn’t score, not then, but in a 30-second span, there was everything we came to see, the two stars playing their roles, making it impossible to look away.

And that was basically it. In what was easy to label a statement game, the Penguins did all the talking, delivering a 4-0 beating to the Capitals that kept them atop the Metropolitan Division – disappointing as it might be – and made Verizon Center feel like, at times, the Florida Panthers or the Columbus Blue Jackets were in town, not the rival Penguins.

It is November, not even Thanksgiving. The Capitals, who had gone 7-1-1 to be within a point of first place, do not have a healthy defensive corps. There are 60 games to play. The two points that they could get Friday night against Montreal count the same as the two points they lost Wednesday night. Nothing is sorted out.

Yet on a night when the NHL turned to watch Crosby and Ovechkin – and, yes, their teams – measure themselves against each other, the ice felt slanted against the Capitals, the building in a lull. Through two periods, they had 14 shots – less than half that of the Penguins’ total. Early in the third, a fan in the upper deck called out, “Where’s the energy?!” The question, quite legitimate, almost certainly could have been heard at ice level.

Where, then, is this rivalry? Ovechkin and Crosby remain the centerpieces, regardless of what Brooks Laich and others might think. (Laich, on Tuesday: “We don’t care what they or you guys describe them as, ‘Big Dog’ and such or whatever,” and a lot of words along those lines.)

“They’re subplots,” Capitals General Manager George McPhee said Wednesday night.

Those subplots, though, are the reason Wednesday’s game was televised nationally, why the spotlight fell on Pierre McGuire in between the benches before the puck dropped. Those two, virtually at the exclusion of all others, are the reason there’s a thread dating back eight years – almost to the day – in the Pittsburgh-Washington narrative, back to when Crosby and Ovechkin met for the first time in the NHL, Nov. 22, 2005.

There are two other linchpin meetings since then, the first being Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2009. On that May night at Verizon Center, Ovechkin failed to bury an early breakaway, Crosby scored to put the Penguins up, and Pittsburgh finished off what had been an incredibly tense series – three overtime games, two others decided by one goal – with a 6-2 dismantling. Crosby’s Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin’s Capitals have – altogether now – still not advanced past the second round.

That series, and the stars’ performance in it– each scored eight times, and they matched hat tricks in a riveting Game 2 that has to go down as one of Verizon Center’s all-time top events – directly led to the Winter Classic, Jan. 1, 2011 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. Without Crosby, without Ovechkin, there’d be no “24/7” documentary series on HBO, no game.

But of the Capitals who dressed for both the seventh game of that 2009 playoff series and the Winter Classic, only three were on the ice Wednesday night: Nicklas Backstrom, Laich and Ovechkin. (Yes, Mike Green would count, too, if he wasn’t currently injured, and Eric Fehr, the hero of the Winter Classic, was a healthy scratch Wednesday.) Seven Penguins can make the same claim, a group led by stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but including Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, in some ways pieces that are as essential to this era of Pittsburgh hockey, the glue.

Since they suffered that playoff loss, the Capitals have churned through so many players who brought different levels of hope, all with advancing in the playoffs – further than the Penguins – in mind. From Mike Knuble to Mike Ribeiro, from Tom Poti to Tom Wilson, the search goes on.

“Every game is big,” McPhee said before the puck dropped, simultaneously assessing and dismissing the importance of the rivalry. “In this league now, it’s so tight. You don’t know from game to game if you’re going to win 4-0 or lose 4-0.”

At the end of the second period, with Washington down a man for having too many men on the ice, the Penguins dictated which way Wednesday’s 4-0 result would go. Malkin found Kunitz, who one-touched it to James Neal down low, who seamlessly found Crosby across the crease. Crosby buried the shot, and the Penguins buried the Capitals. By midway through the third period, chunks of seats in the lower bowl sat empty. The centerpieces are still stars, the goals for the teams remain the same. But for one night, this rivalry didn’t feel like anything of the sort.

 
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