By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006
While surfing the Web for some sports news recently, Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin was annoyed by some of the hockey headlines he encountered.
"It was all, 'Ovechkin and Crosby meet again in D.C.,' " he said after yesterday's practice. "But this year it's 'Capitals and Penguins meet,' not 'Crosby and Ovechkin.' "
Ovechkin and Crosby, the NHL's brightest young stars, renew their rivalry tonight as the Capitals host the Penguins. The game will be broadcast nationally. One of the largest crowds of this season is expected to pack Verizon Center. Media outlets from across the continent -- and beyond -- will converge to record their every move.
Ovechkin, however, would prefer the spotlight shine on the rapidly improving teams in Pittsburgh and Washington, both of which hope to challenge for a playoff spot, rather than the two individuals.
"It's not me playing, it's my team," said Ovechkin, last season's rookie of the year. "It's very important we win the game. We want to go to playoffs. We don't look at our stats right now. We look at our team stats."
And when he does, the 21-year-old likes what he sees.
The Capitals have won five of their past six games and have posted a respectable record of 13-10-6, significantly better than the 9-17-2 record they had a year ago today. The Penguins have enjoyed similar improvement. They have four more wins and are just three standings points behind Washington.
"These are meaningful games now," Crosby said. "Last year, we were out of the playoff race pretty early. The first few times we played each other it was different because we had never played before. Now it's more regular."
More regular, maybe. But completely regular? Not any time soon. The NHL has centered much of its post-lockout marketing around its star players, namely Ovechkin and Crosby. Which is why tonight's game is likely the most-publicized contest of the season, having been hyped by the league and its cable television partner, Versus, for weeks.
In the teams' four meetings last season, Crosby had three goals and six assists, edging out Ovechkin, who recorded three goals and three assists. The Penguins won three times, twice at home and once in Washington.
Here's a refresher on what transpired:
· Nov. 22: Penguins won 5-4, with Crosby recording a goal and an assist at Mellon Arena. The game-winner came off the stick of Ziggy Palffy, who was set up by -- who else? -- Crosby. Ovechkin, meantime, finished with an assist.
· Jan. 25: Crosby had a goal and an assist for his first four-point game as the Penguins embarrassed the Capitals, 8-1, in Pittsburgh. Ovechkin had Washington's goal. He also got whacked between the legs by defenseman Ryan Whitney, who received a spearing major and a game misconduct.
· Feb. 11: Crosby had a goal and an assist and Ovechkin had another goal, but the Penguins once again proved to be too much for the Capitals and won, 6-3, in Washington.
· March 8: Ovechkin had a goal and an assist, breaking his franchise rookie record for consecutive games with a goal (seven), and the Capitals held on for 6-3 victory at Verizon Center. Crosby had only one assist after scoring a goal in each of the previous three meetings.
"It was important to have young, top players step in and become the face of their market and the league," said Eddie Olczyk, a commentator for Versus and former coach of the Penguins.
And Ovechkin and Crosby are only going to get better. Not only are both players are on pace to put up better numbers -- Crosby ranks fifth in the league in scoring with 13 goals and 39 points and Ovechkin is 12th with 18 goals and 35 points -- both have bolstered areas where they had been lacking. Ovechkin, for example, has improved his play in the defensive zone while Crosby has become better in the faceoff circle and had added a step to his already swift skating stride.
Tonight's game will feature another player who has designs on joining them.
"Evgeni Malkin is a nice little side dish to this matchup," said Olczyk. "Crosby and Ovechkin are number one and number one-a. And not too far behind is Malkin."
Olczyk was referring to the Penguins rookie, who is second behind Crosby on the Penguins with 14 goals and 28 points.
It will be the first meeting on NHL ice between Ovechkin and Malkin, longtime friends who have shared the international stage with Team Russia in the junior world championships, world championships and, most recently, the Olympics.
When Malkin arrived at Verizon Center for practice yesterday, he walked out to the visiting team's bench as the Capitals were wrapping up. Ovechkin immediately skated over and greeted him warmly.
The two later sat down later for a lengthy on-camera interview -- with Ovechkin translating for Malkin, who does not speak English -- that will air tonight.
Often overlooked in discussions about tonight's game is Alexander Semin, another young Russian who is making his mark this season. Semin, who returned to the Capitals after a two-year hiatus, trails only Ovechkin with 12 goals and 24 points.
"The game is more enjoyable because it's not just about two guys," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "It's about two good young teams that are playing and that's exciting. Now with the addition of Malkin and Semin, it's a neat story line."