Caps-Pens rematch? One can only hope

PITTSBURGH -- To bemoan the loss of Sidney Crosby when it comes to watching the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals is understandable, yet it underestimates the fierceness of the rivalry that exists between two of the NHL's marquee teams.

For the second time since David Steckel's controversial Winter Classic hit either caused or was a contributing factor in Crosby's concussion, the two teams met. And for the second time, the game was both intense and dynamic.

Different without Crosby? That goes without saying, just as it goes without saying the game in general is diminished by his continued and prolonged absence.

That said, Monday's 1-0 Washington victory was compelling nonetheless.

When we watched Alex Ovechkin stymied by a deft blocker move by Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury on a first-period breakaway, we couldn't help but think of Game 7 during the first playoff clash between these two rivals in 2009.

Ovechkin was denied on a similar breakaway early in Game 7 and the Pens went on to rout the home team and eventually won their first Stanley Cup championship since 1992.

That series might have been the high-water mark since the lockout both in terms of buzz surrounding the series and the actual competition on the ice.

And the moment the Penguins skated off the ice with a 6-2 win in Game 7, was there anyone in the game who did not wonder when it would happen again?

Well, we know there's a lot of hockey yet to be played this season, but not so much that you can't look at the standings and predict the likelihood of a first-round Pittsburgh/Washington matchup.

The Capitals trail Tampa for first place in the Southeast Division by a point, but the Bolts have two games in hand.

Pittsburgh is pretty much locked into second place in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia, which would suggest either the fourth or fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

"That could be a playoff matchup," Washington's Mike Knuble offered after Monday's game. "It's always competitive. They're fun hockey games."

Standing nearby was center Nicklas Backstrom, his left hand still smarting from a Kris Letang slash.

"I think everybody wants that matchup," he said. "There's so much emotion."

If the past two games played by these two teams are any indication, Crosby or no Crosby, a Part Deux this April would be dynamite.

Both teams are trying to put last season's disappointing playoff turns behind them.

The Caps, of course, were humbled by eighth seed Montreal in the first round, while the Penguins, wearied from two straight trips to the Cup finals, were shocked by the Canadiens in the second round.

Of course, the Capitals would relish a chance to avenge the 2009 playoff loss, but there would also be the added dynamic of the dramatic shift in how both teams approach the game.

A season ago, the Caps were running away with the Eastern Conference by outscoring teams by wide margins. Now, they grind out games and their defense, once the object of ridicule, ranks sixth in the NHL in goals allowed. Their penalty-killing unit is ranked fifth.

The Pens, meanwhile, have peeled back their flashy outer skin in the absence of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, gone with a knee injury for the balance of the season, to reveal a dedicated, hard-working team that ranks fifth in goals allowed per game and has the top-ranked penalty-killing unit in the NHL.

Bemoan the absence of offensive fireworks a new playoff matchup might represent, especially if Crosby is unable to return, but relish the chance to watch these two remade teams tangle in what we can only imagine would be another long series.

With both teams coming off road games Sunday afternoon, they combined for 63 shots but just one goal Monday night.

Ovechkin, after missing the early breakaway, ripped a high shot from the point on a power play to provide the only goal the Caps would need.

It was just Ovechkin's fifth power-play goal of the season, but Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said his star forward is starting to shoot the puck in a way he hadn't for the first half of the regular season. He was also blocking shots and bumping into Penguins bodies all night.

"He's been playing like that for the last two weeks and being a real leader," Boudreau said.

Both netminders, Fleury and Michal Neuvirth, were outstanding in the final regular-season meeting between these two rivals.

Brett Sterling, the AHL call-up who has moved into a top-line role because of the Pens' lengthy injury list, hit a goalpost early in the third period.

Jordan Staal, who played after taking a big Letang slap shot to the head late in Sunday's shootout loss to Chicago, was denied on a short-handed breakaway.

Washington's Matt Bradley delivered a big hit on Matt Cooke and ended up fighting Ryan Craig.

Washington defenseman John Carlson made a terrific defensive play to break up a Max Talbot breakaway.

On it went.

"Two tired teams," Knuble noted after.

But not too tired to put on a terrific show.

Just as we might imagine come mid-April.

"There might be only 12 guys for each team ready to play the next series," Boudreau mused about the possibility.

He might be right. And here's hoping we find out.