Legacies on the line in this latest Penguins-Capitals Game 7 clash

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WASHINGTON -- The first mention is always about the save. Especially if you're talking to someone from the Penguins' side of the equation.

The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals squared off in a Game 7, it was in 2009, and the win spring-boarded the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship.

It's no stretch to say that the winner of Wednesday's Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET) between the Penguins and Capitals will have the same lasting impact.

But the save -- that's the play that stands out all these years later. Three minutes into that Game 7, superstar winger Alex Ovechkin sped down the left side, with only goalie Marc-Andre Fleury between him and an early goal that might have shifted the entire game and maybe even the destiny of these two teams.

"Here was their best player coming in for a breakaway," St. Louis Blues coach Mike Yeo, a young assistant coach on the Penguins bench that night, said during a Tuesday phone conversation. "I just remember Alex Ovechkin on the breakaway and that save by Marc-Andre Fleury."

That got everything going.

"That's the one particular moment we all remember," said New Jersey Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, another one of then-coach Dan Bylsma's young assistants that night. "There was the Ovechkin breakaway that Flower stopped and then -- bang, bang, bang -- it was 3-0."

That was the game. That was the series. That's when the Penguins truly realized they could win a Stanley Cup.

"Those are stressful moments and tough games to win," Fleury said after practice Tuesday. "Once you do [win those games], you start believing in your team and yourself."

This Game 7 has the potential to have that kind of profound effect. It isn't just advancement to the conference finals against the Ottawa Senators that is on the line for these two teams. It's a chapter in the legacy of the two most important players of their generation, Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin. Today, Ovechkin's shot on the breakaway that was stopped by Fleury's glove is the indelible image of him in a Game 7 against a rival, not necessarily the three goals he has scored in nine career Game 7s.

As Ovechkin enters a phase in his career when he isn't quite the dominant player he was then, he has a chance to tell a different story, a story of how he accepted his move to the third line with grace and dignity, how he put the team first and, in doing so, helped it reach new heights.

It's all right there for the telling.

"He just wants to win with that group," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said on a Tuesday conference call. "And that's a strong message. That's one of the strongest messages a captain can make."

Meanwhile, Crosby has found himself in the center of controversy, as some wondered why he was allowed to continue to play after he crashed headfirst into the boards Monday, soon after suffering a concussion in Game 3. What better way to put all that behind him than by dominating to lift his team to a victory in Game 7?

Those who have seen him in such moments before expect nothing less.

"I'll never bet against Sidney Crosby," Fitzgerald said. "He's the biggest gamer I've ever encountered in my playing career and coaching him in that small time. He shows up for every big moment. Why wouldn't he show up [for Game 7]?"

The message Penguins coach Mike Sullivan presented to his team Tuesday, even as the Capitals have pushed back in such a dominant fashion that you have to give them an edge going into Game 7, is that this is a huge opportunity. These are the games in which they live to play. He believes experience in these big situations will serve his team well; he has seen that his group has a knack for seizing the opportunities in front of it.

Trotz's group believes it has developed a resiliency and calm that previous incarnations of the Capitals did not have. The Caps get the biggest possible stage besides Stanley Cup finals to prove it. We might look back and suggest that this was, in its own way, a prelude to the Cup.

Eight years ago, Ovechkin and Crosby had their entire careers ahead of them. We thought that Game 7 was a preview of more of these moments to come. The reality is that we had to wait. And now the hockey world is watching because we know that you can't just assume it's going to happen again.

"I was just talking about it last night: Is this not the best rivalry in the game right now?" Yeo said. "You don't have your Colorados and Detroits anymore with the physical play."

Instead, you have Crosby vs. Ovechkin. The reigning champions vs. a team desperate to win its own. A surging Capitals team hitting its stride vs. a Penguins team looking to dig deep for one more win and see what happens from there.

"I think it's so awesome for the game," Yeo said.