Ovechkin Set to Return Against Penguins, Crosby

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Alex Ovechkin and Tom Poti returned to the ice yesterday and completed a strenuous practice with no setbacks. But only Ovechkin could say with certainty that he'll be in the lineup today when the Washington Capitals look for the franchise's first sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

While the status of Poti remains unclear, this much is not up for debate: The Capitals are in desperate need of a victory after three consecutive losses by a combined score of 13-5, all at home to opponents beneath them in the standings.

Like Florida, Carolina and Toronto, the surging Penguins also possess fewer points than Washington. Motivation, though, doesn't figure to be a problem against Pittsburgh, a team the Capitals despise almost as much as Philadelphia, and because of the feud between Ovechkin and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, whose simmering rivalry boiled over in the teams' most recent meeting.

"It's a big game for everybody -- for the league, for fans," Ovechkin said after confirming that he expects to play despite the bruised heel that sidelined him Thursday. "Everyone is excited. It's pretty big."

In a nationally televised game Feb. 22 at Verizon Center, the Capitals chased Marc-Andre Fleury from the net after the Penguins goaltender surrendered five goals on 20 shots en route to a 5-2 win. But the result was overshadowed by a run-in -- and the ensuing war of words -- between the NHL's past two MVPs.

Ovechkin and Crosby had a confrontation as they approached the bench for a line change. After the two exchanged shoves, Ovechkin ripped off Crosby's helmet before they were separated by a linesman. Then as they skated away, Ovechkin waved his gloved hand dismissively toward Crosby.

After the game, Ovechkin said Crosby "talks too much." The Penguins' star accused Ovechkin of pointing at the Pittsburgh bench, blamed him for instigating the second period dust-up and shot back, "I don't like it personally, but that's him."

Neither was apologetic yesterday.

"We're emotional guys, and we play hard, and when we have something on our mind and we want to say something, we say it," Ovechkin said. "I don't want to say he talks too much, but he's talking."

Crosby said: "A lot of things happen on the ice, and that's where they need to stay. But there's a certain point, too, a certain respect level. It comes down to respect. There's just things a little things you don't do. That was more frustrating than anything, the pointing."

The Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry has been trumped up since two broke into the league in 2005-06. But it's got more spice now. The rare row between a game's best players also provides a fascinating backdrop for a contest that probably would have been just as big without it.

The Penguins are fighting for their playoff lives and entered yesterday's games one point out of a tie for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They've won five in a row, are 7-1-1 since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien -- the one regulation loss was to the Capitals -- and have bolstered their lineup, adding veteran forwards Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, who are now the wingers on Crosby's line.

"If w e don't play with any passion or any enthusiasm against Pittsburgh, who's the hottest team in the NHL right now and feeling pretty good about themselves, then we're in trouble," said Boudreau, who is 4-1-1 against the Penguins, who had won seven of nine meetings before his arrival. "If anything can bring you out of [a slump], it's the fear of getting walloped."

Boudreau also said too much is being made of the Ovechkin-Croby rift. But he also conceded that he might have a different opinion if he were looking at it from the stands or his couch.

"When I'm watching football and they talk about Terrell Owens, I'm glued to the set," he said. "When Roger Clemens throws the bat at somebody, you don't think I'm watching the next game? I'm a fan, too. It makes for great entertainment."

Capitals Notes: The Capitals have never lost four in a row under Boudreau. . . . Defenseman Tyler Sloan was recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League yesterday and will play if Poti can't. Poti played seven seconds on Thursday because it allowed the Capitals to make an "emergency" recall that does not count against the maximum of four each team has after the trade deadline. . . . Veteran center Michael Nylander suffered an upper body injury on Thursday and will miss today's game, Boudreau said.

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