Five years ago, the NHL had no matchup more dynamic than Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals vs. Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins. The dueling superstars finished in the top three of the league’s point standings in 2008-09 and 2009-10, each recording more than 100 points both years.
In May 2009, when the two teams faced off in the Eastern Conference semifinals — pitting Ovechkin against Crosby for the first and only time in the postseason — the results were memorable. They were never more simultaneously explosive than when they went toe-to-toe in Game 2, both recording hat tricks in one of the most incredible playoff games in the NHL’s modern era.
Ever since those two seasons that bookended the playoff series, the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry hasn’t had quite the same zing, as Washington’s winger struggled to maintain his offensive production and Pittsburgh’s center was sidelined because of a concussion and other injuries.
But when the Capitals and Penguins meet Wednesday night at Verizon Center as division rivals for the first time in 20 years, with first place in the Metropolitan Division on the line, they will do so with Ovechkin and Crosby both at the top of their games and the NHL leader board in goals and points, respectively.
“Getting Crosby back healthy into the game is great, and Ovi’s been playing extremely well so when both guys are playing well, it’s going to be exciting,” said rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt, 22, who grew up watching the two stars square off. “I just want to see them go against each other line for line, and see what it’s like in person.”
Since the high point of their opposition, Ovechkin’s offensive production dipped for two consecutive seasons beginning in 2010-11 as he struggled to revitalize his game after becoming a predictable puzzle for opposing defenses to solve. Over those same two years, Crosby missed 121 regular season games because of a concussion he suffered when the Capitals and Penguins met in the 2011 Winter Classic.
Pittsburgh swept the three games between the two teams in last year’s lockout-shortened season, when the Capitals had yet to find their footing under Coach Adam Oates and Ovechkin had yet to grow comfortable on right wing.
While it’s been some time since they were both in a groove, Ovechkin and Crosby always find ways to raise each other’s level of play. In 32 games in which the two have gone head-to-head, including the playoffs, Ovechkin has recorded 25 goals and 21 assists, while Crosby posted 22 goals and 34 assists.
“I think that regardless of where we are, I think that everybody always watches these games. There’s a lot of eyes on them. We know that it brings out the best in both teams, and, I think, both players,” Crosby told the Canadian Press. “I think that we get up for these ones and, as a player, it’s just kind of a natural thing when you know the stage is a little bit bigger, you get up for it.”
Said Ovechkin, who is tied for the league lead in goals with 17: “It’s always fun to play against a great team, against great players. And right now we’re going to meet them often. It’s going to be pretty cool.”
The Capitals and Penguins aren’t the only ones who benefit from their captains playing at elite levels.
“Those two guys are more Gretz versus Mario. They’re the superstars of the league,” Capitals Coach Adam Oates said. “I would hope that as a fan, you do appreciate that. You’ve got two of the best guys in the world playing against each other; it just makes for a little bit more of an electric game.”
Ovechkin’s resurgence and Crosby’s return to health puts hockey’s two most transcendent talents back in the center of the spotlight, which is a boon for the NHL. The league has yet to find any other players with as much mass appeal and unparalleled talent as Ovechkin and Crosby.
“It’s so good for the game. It was pretty crappy when Crosby was out and things weren’t going as good as Ovi wanted them to be,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. That was a bad time for the NHL. This is fun for everyone.”
Capitals notes: Defenseman Mike Green skated through a full practice with teammates for the first time since suffering a lower-body contusion on Nov. 12 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Green can be activated off injured reserve beginning Wednesday, but it’s uncertain whether he will face the Penguins.