With Sidney Crosby sidelined and Alex Ovechkin struggling to regain his MVP form, hockey has lost some of its thrill. (Bruce Bennett/GETTY IMAGES)

Maybe it was force of habit, but NBC Sports Network (which was Versus until two weeks ago) decided Wednesday that America’s hockey fans couldn’t live without seeing the eighth-place team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference take on the 10th-place team.

That was the matchup at Verizon Center: The eighth-place Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the 10th-place Washington Capitals. This is the rivalry formerly known as Ovi vs. Sid the Kid.

Both superstars were in the building Wednesday. Alex Ovechkin was wearing his familiar red sweater with the No. 8 stitched in white underneath his name. Sidney Crosby was wearing a very unfamiliar blue pinstripe suit and making small talk in the press box in the minutes leading up to faceoff.

Crosby has played in eight games this season because of lingering concussion symptoms that began a little more than a year ago after he took a hit from former Cap David Steckel during the Winter Classic. Neither the Penguins nor the NHL have been quite the same since. In the opening round of last spring’s playoffs, Pittsburgh blew a three-games-to-one lead and lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning — the same team that then swept the Capitals; the same team that Steven Stamkos, currently the league’s leading scorer, skates for right now.

One can almost see NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman looking out his office window and wondering how far he can take his league by promoting the ever-popular Stamkos-John Tavares rivalry. Both are talented young players, but neither is going to be mistaken for Crosby or Ovechkin anytime soon.

Perhaps the league realized that when it named Ovechkin to his fifth straight all-star team Thursday despite the fact he’s on pace for a career-low season offensively. Ovechkin was once in the same sentence with Crosby. To some, as evidenced by his back-to-back MVP awards in 2008 and 2009, his name should have come first.

That all changed on May 13, 2009, when the Caps and Penguins played Game 7 here in an Eastern Conference semifinal series. Crosby scored two goals, the second on a poke-check breakaway, and Pittsburgh cruised to a 6-2 victory. From there, the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Nine months later, it was deja vu: Crosby’s Team Canada routed Ovechkin’s Team Russia, 7-3, in the quarterfinals of the Vancouver Olympics en route to the gold medal — with Crosby, naturally, scoring the winning goal in overtime of the final against the United States.

Caps General Manager George McPhee recently called Russia’s loss to the Canadians a “double whammy” for Ovechkin: Not only did his country lose to Canada, but he lost to Crosby — again.

If Ovechkin didn’t begin to slide as a player at that exact moment, it wasn’t too long after that. Meantime, Crosby only got better. He had 66 points last season in the 41 games he managed to play, putting up the kind of numbers not seen in the NHL since Wayne Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr and Crosby’s mentor, Mario Lemieux, were at the peak of their powers.

Now, he is set to resume skating Friday when the Penguins are in Florida. Which means something, but no one is saying exactly what. “It means progress,” Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma said. “But we don’t know where that progress will lead.”

There is no timetable for Crosby’s return, which was the case when he got back on the ice this fall, although the Penguins seem to think he’ll able to play sooner this time than last time.

How Crosby, 24, feels right now is anybody’s guess because he wasn’t talking Wednesday night — at least not formally. He shook hands with those he knew and appeared relaxed but wasn’t answering any questions.

His teammates weren’t exactly eager to go over the well-worn “When will Sid return and what will it mean?” question yet again.

“Sid? Skating? I have no idea about that,” winger James Neal said in the rapidly emptying Penguins locker room. “We aren’t worried about Sid or thinking about Sid right now.” He stopped for a moment, clearly upset by the subject matter. “Look, Sid’s been an important part of this team, but right now no one in here’s worried about Sid. We need to worry about ourselves getting better.”

Defenseman Brooks Orpik was more diplomatic. “Yeah sure, it helps, I guess,” he said when asked if Crosby’s presence on practice ice would be a boost. “He’s nowhere close to coming back. You know, it could be next week, it could be next year. We know he wants to get back, but we can’t just wait and hope he’s the answer.”

The Caps’ mostly desultory 1-0 win Wednesday was the sixth loss in a row for the Penguins. It was a game most notable for its chippiness until Tomas Vokoun’s spectacular goaltending in the final minutes.

Certainly the Caps aren’t the least bit concerned about the Penguins’ troubles, although anyone who cares about hockey can’t be pleased at the notion of the sport without Crosby, either short term (this was the 14th straight game he has missed) or long term.

“I’d like to see him out there if all our guys were out there too,” McPhee said, standing a few feet from Crosby in the press box between periods. He paused for a moment. “Of course, it’s better for him to be down there playing. When he plays, eight [Ovechkin] plays better.”

When Crosby is healthy and Ovechkin is Ovechkin, the entire sport is better. Caps-Penguins and Crosby-Ovechkin were supposed to be the rivalries that carried the NHL into the 2020s or until the Staal brothers’ children are all ready to play in the league.

Without them, hockey is not the same. And it won’t be — can’t be — as thrilling as it was when they were trading goals and trading barbs while their teams traded wins and everyone held their breath waiting to see who would make the next spectacular play.

Now the sport simply holds its breath, hoping one will shed the pinstripe suit and the other will shed the invisible shackles he has been wearing. It can’t happen soon enough.

For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.
. For his previous columns for The Washington Post, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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