By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entered the NHL in 2005-06, games between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have been touted as one of hockey's great rivalries by the league and the TV networks that have aired them.
In reality, though, the only rivalry on the ice has been between Ovechkin and Crosby (with apologies to Evgeni Malkin) since the Penguins have come out on top in 10 of the teams' 12 meetings over the past three seasons.
But that could be about to change.
When the teams open their season series tonight at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, the game figures to be as much about the Capitals and Penguins as it is about Ovechkin, 23, and Crosby, 21, the past two league MVPs. Pittsburgh won the Eastern Conference title last season; the Capitals expect to challenge for it this season.
"It's always a good challenge for us to play against a very good team, a team that last year was in the Stanley Cup finals," Ovechkin said after practice yesterday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "They were the second team in the league and we want to beat them."
As much as it probably pains Washington fans to admit it, the Capitals appear to be following a similar trajectory as the Penguins, just off by a season.
In 2005-06, the Capitals and Penguins finished 27th and 29th in the league, respectively. But Crosby, Malkin and a core of players drafted and developed by Pittsburgh broke through in 2006-07, ending a five-year postseason drought in Pittsburgh. Then last season, the Penguins were the surprise of the playoffs, advancing to the Stanley Cup finals. They were dispatched in six games by the Detroit Red Wings, but there no longer was any doubt: The Penguins had arrived.
The Capitals also took a significant step, albeit a smaller one than Pittsburgh's. With a 65-goal season from Ovechkin, the ahead-of-schedule maturation of players such as Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, and some shrewd moves at the trade deadline, Washington rallied from last place to capture the Southeast Division, earning the franchise's first playoff berth in five years.
With 18 of the 21 players who appeared in last season's playoffs back, what everyone is asking these days is whether the Capitals can be last year's Penguins. Pierre McGuire, an analyst for NBC and Versus, is among those who believe they might.
"I was bullish on Washington two years ago and people laughed at me," McGuire said yesterday. "I told them, 'You hold on, because it's coming.' Now this team is loaded. Washington is one of the few teams in the league that can rival Pittsburgh in the way of young star power."
Pittsburgh won seven of eight games between the two teams in 2005-06 and 2006-07, but Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said several of his players said they noticed the gap close in the final three meetings last season -- even if it wasn't obvious from the final scores.
The Penguins edged the Capitals 4-3 in overtime on Dec. 27 in a game in which Ovechkin missed much of the third period after his leg was sliced by a skate blade. The next month, the Capitals won, 6-5, in a shootout to earn their first win at Mellon Arena since 2002. Crosby, though, missed the game with an ankle sprain.
Crosby returned for the teams' final meeting of the regular season, a critical game for the Capitals, who were in pursuit of a playoff berth and had little margin for error. The Capitals outplayed the Penguins for most of the game, but then, 28 seconds from forcing overtime, Backstrom accidentally scored into his own net. Crosby was credited with the goal and the Penguins prevailed, 4-2.
"It's a big game for us because they are the Eastern Conference champions," Capitals captain Chris Clark said. "And they are someone that, when we get into the playoffs, that we'll have to get through at some point. So it's something we want to start [tonight]. We have to be better than them to get anywhere."
Capitals Notes: José Theodore is expected to start in goal. . . . Clark will replace Viktor Kozlov (sprained left knee) on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. . . . Enforcer Donald Brashear (hand) is questionable.