W2W4: Penguins at Capitals
Time can't dampen Pens-Caps rivalry
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The foundation of a rivalry is equal parts history, personalities and anticipation.
It does not mean rivalries do not evolve and change, and wax and wane.
But make no mistake, the downturn in Alex Ovechkin's offensive production and the long-term absence (and now dramatic return) of Sidney Crosby have done little to blunt what is as good a rivalry as there is in the National Hockey League.
It is a rivalry that dates back decades to when the Penguins regularly ate the Capitals' lunch in the playoffs -- something new Caps coach Dale Hunter remembers vividly, if with little nostalgia. Since the lockout, the rivalry has taken on a different tenor with the arrival of twin superstars Ovechkin and Crosby and driven up the emotional meter on the moments when the two teams cross paths.
The rivalry is different now, but no less enthralling.
The drama of a slumping Caps team and its decision to fire Bruce Boudreau on Monday and replace him with Hunter certainly adds an element of urgency to Thursday's clash, at least from Washington's side of the equation.
"Any time you get a new coach, I think everyone's trying to impress them and earn their ice. I think that's pretty common no matter what team it is," Crosby said after Thursday's morning skate. "I would expect no different from them. I don't think they need any extra motivation. It's always a big game [between the two teams]."
For the Pens, the game marks the first time Crosby has faced Washington since the 2011 Winter Classic on Jan. 1, when he was hit by then-Caps forward David Steckel late in the second period. Crosby played one more game on Jan. 5 and took another hard hit (that time by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman) before being sidelined with a concussion until his Nov. 21 return. But Crosby said those memories are not front and center.
"I haven't thought about that at all, more just looking forward to playing against them," Crosby said. "It's always an intense game. They've got a new coach, they should be fired up and ready to go. I think both teams bring out the best in one another, and it should be another good one."
The talented center has enjoyed a remarkable return from his layoff with 11 points in five games, and the Penguins are 3-1-1 over that span.
"I still think I can be better, timing and stuff like that," Crosby said. "I think with each game, it's gotten better. Am I right there? No. I don't expect to be there in five games, but I expect to get better with each game in certain areas. Some things have been like that, some other things take time. But I'm happy with the way I've felt for the most part."
The interesting part of the clashes between the two teams is while the Penguins are the team that has enjoyed greater successes in the playoffs, the Capitals have owned the Penguins during the regular season (since 2008, Washington is 12-1-2 against Pittsburgh). Ovechkin has collected 33 points in 25 career games against Pittsburgh, although Crosby has outdueled Ovechkin in points (35-28 in 21 games) in head-to-head competition.
"Thank you, thank you, by the way," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma joked when reminded of his team's regular-season struggles against the Caps. "I wish it was better. I wish it was different. I know three or four of those are overtime games; I know there are shootouts in there. Our win is a shootout. It's been worse on home ice for us against the Capitals. That's not a good thing.
"We know we're playing a great team, and they've given us problems. They have been hard-fought games. That's what we're anticipating again. There's nothing more I'd like to do than to start changing that record around right here tonight with a win."
What off-sets the regular season imbalance is the classic seven-game playoff series the two teams had in the spring of 2009. The Caps won the first two games but were blown out in Game 7 at Verizon Center as the Penguins went on to win their first Cup since 1992. The series reinforced the natural dislike between the two teams, GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com on Thursday.
"Our fans hate them, their fans hate us," Shero said.
Part of the rivalry's foundation comes from the fact that both teams have gone through difficult times. The Penguins nearly moved until owner Mario Lemieux was able to secure a new building. The Caps, meanwhile, struggled to carve out a niche in the local sporting landscape until Ovechkin and a group of dynamic young players the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green et al helped spur the team into exalted status. Downtown Washington is vibrant on game nights, and the Verizon Center is as lively a place as any in the NHL during the postseason.
"They've got a brand going here. It's an exciting building to play in," Shero said.
The Capitals' struggles in the playoffs while the Penguins went to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009 have only heightened the emotional charge between the two teams. The franchise-wide feelings, kind of like jealous siblings, are also played out on the individual stage between Ovechkin and Crosby. Ovechkin has won two Hart Trophies to Crosby's one, but Crosby owns the Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal.
Thursday's clash comes at a time when Ovechkin's stock is at an all-time low and, with Crosby surging back into the lineup, offers a chance at some redemption. Or depending on the outcome, another illustration of the growing gap between the two players.
"Certainly we'll see some replays and highlights. We'll see them if they bump into each other by the benches like they did two years ago. We'll see that over and over again," Bylsma said. "Two of the more dynamic players in the game. Two very good teams going together. There's going to be an aspect of this that you're going to enjoy.
"But for us, it's always a test against a great team and one we measure ourselves with and always look at. Regardless of the situation here right now, we're seeing it as that coming into this game."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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Stats & Information
Points to watch for in Thursday's game:
• This is Sidney Crosby's first game against the Capitals since he was hit by former Washington player David Steckel during the 2011 Winter Classic.
• Crosby has 11 points in five games since his return.
• Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin is riding a five-game points streak (four goals and five assists over that span).
• The Capitals are 11-0-2 in their past 13 regular-season games versus the Penguins.
• The Capitals, who lost in Dale Hunter's coaching debut Tuesday, have dropped three straight games and are 5-10-1 since their 7-0-0 start to the season.
• The Penguins are 1-4-0 in their past five road games.
• Alex Ovechkin has one goal in 12 home games this season.