How are Capitals players preparing for the Penguins?
When they faced each other for the first time last season, Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin were playing on two very different levels.
Crosby was clearly the class of the NHL, leading the league in every offensive category. Ovechkin was struggling through the worst start of his career, trying to adapt to a new position under his third coach in two seasons.
“It’s probably not even fair to compare them,” NBC analyst Keith Jones said at the time. “In my opinion, they’re very far apart.”
On Wednesday night, the Capitals and Penguins will renew their rivalry at Verizon Center [8 p.m., NBCSN] and for the first time in a long time the NHL’s two most recognizable players are playing their best hockey at the same time.
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Ovechkin is coming off his third Hart Trophy, one which undoubtedly would have gone to Crosby if he didn’t miss the final 12 games with a broken jaw.
“Those guys are more like Gretz vs. Mario,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said, referencing the “Who’s better?” rivalry between Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. “They’re the superstars of the league.
“I would hope as a fan you appreciate that. You’ve got two of the best guys in the world playing against each other. It makes for an electric game.”
Through 21 games, Crosby is tied with St. Louis Blues center Thomas Steen for the NHL lead with 26 points. Ovechkin is two points behind them. In 19 games, Ovechkin is tied with Steen with a league-high 17 goals, seven more than Crosby.
It could make for vintage Ovechkin vs. Crosby.
“Those two guys have been the face of the NHL,” Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz told reporters Tuesday. “It’s been promoted that way. They’re both playing an extremely high level of hockey right now.
“Ovechkin, the way he’s been able to shoot the puck and score goals and help his team and lead his team. It’s the same with Sid and our team, being able to collect the points and do everything we need him to do.”
“Ovi always puts out his best when he goes against Crosby and vice-versa,” Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said. “They love to compete against each other.
“This year they both seem to be going on all cylinders, so it’s going to be fun.”
Wednesday night also represents the first time the Capitals and Penguins are facing each other as division rivals in 20 years. And the fact the Pens [13-8-0] are one point ahead of the Caps [12-8-1] in the Metropolitan Division standings makes the rivalry that much more meaningful.
“It’s a really big match,” said Ovechkin, who is coming off his fourth two-goal game of the season in the Caps’ 4-1 win over the Blues Sunday night. “I think everybody is going to be excited – the fans, the media – it’s going to be a fun night.
“It’s always fun to play against the great teams, against the great players. It’s pretty cool.
It’s always good for the league and for the players that everybody’s healthy, especially players like Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin. It’s fun to watch them. They make very good plays and for us it’s a big challenge.”
Through their first 21 games, the Caps have outscored opponents 69-59. The Penguins have outscored their opponents 59-48. The Caps are ranked second on the power play 24.4 percent] and third on the penalty kill [86.9 percent], while Pittsburgh ranks 12th on the power play [20.0] and eighth on the kill [84.2].
“Whenever you play a top team you’re always more excited,” said Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, who is quietly ranked second in the NHL with 19 assists and fourth in points with 24. “Obviously, we have a rivalry with each other. It’s a good test for us as well. We’ve been playing good hockey lately so we’re ready for it.”
Including their epic showdown in the 2009 playoffs, Ovechkin and Crosby have faced each other 32 times during their nine seasons in the NHL. The Penguins have won 20 of those meetings.
Perhaps the most memorable matchup between Ovechkin and Crosby occurred on May 4, 2009 when each player recorded a hat trick in the Caps’ 4-3 win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Intense,” Crosby told reporters Tuesday when asked about that playoff series. “That was a tough series. It just felt like there wasn’t any lead that was safe. It seemed like every rush, even if it wasn’t an odd-man rush or didn’t seem like it was a good chance, somebody was capable of scoring.
“I think everyone was on the edge of their seat – players and fans. It was a fun series to be a part of. There were a lot of eyes on it, but definitely just a ton of scoring chances.”
Chimera said he was as much a fan as he was a participant in that playoff series, the only one between Ovechkin and Crosby.
“Sometimes you’re on the bench just watching both of them play,” Chimera said. “Those kinds of things you remember for the rest of your life.”
Ovechkin said that while he enjoys playing against Crosby – “he’s a top player; he’s good” – there is more to the rivalry than just two players.
“Of course, it ‘s a challenge for me and for him, I think,” Ovechkin said. “But don’t forget Malkin and don’t forget Backy. I don’t think it’s only two of us.”
Malkin is second behind Crosby on the Penguins with 20 points, but he has just three goals in his first 21 games, one of them on the power play.
Crosby is expected to center a top line with Beau Bennett and Chris Kunitz, while Malkin is slated to play on a second line with wingers James Neal and Pascal Dupuis.
Oates was asked how much he’ll match his top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson against Crosby.
“It always depends on personnel, but over the course of the game both guys play so many minutes they’re going to see each other,” he said. “If he doesn’t see Crosby he’ll see Malkin. But more than anything the forwards match up against the D.”
Oates said he’s more interested to see how the Caps, who have won three in a row, fare against a team that is coming off a 3-1 win over Anaheim after losing four of five.
“They’re one of the teams in the league that are a measuring stick,” Oates said. “They’re a really, really good hockey team and you gotta view how you stand up against them.”