Sid vs. Ovie doesn't disappoint
Believe the hype — when the Pittsburgh Penguins and
Washington Capitals get together, it is something truly special.
And, yes, two of hockey’s most impressive young players might
have a little something to do with that.
“When the Red Sox play the Yankees, all they talk about is the greatest rivalry in sports. When we play Pittsburgh, it’s all the talk about Sid and Ovie,” said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, referring, of course, to the superstar captains of their respective teams, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
“The only individual [rivalry] that comes to my mind right off the top is Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird,” Boudreau said, invoking a basketball reference, fittingly, on a night that also featured a matchup between NBA superstars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. “Growing up, [Johnson and Bird] were so far out there that I can’t even believe I’m comparing them to these guys, but that’s who they remind me of.”
For the young superstars, though, it’s much less about the individual rivalry than it is about winning. The Caps bested the Pens in three of four regular season meetings last year, but that didn’t matter much in the end as the teams battled through a seven-game playoff series that was neck-in-neck throughout — until Game 7, that is, when the Pens skated off with a 6-2 blowout en route to their eventual Stanley Cup.
This year, it’s Washington that has emerged as the class of the Eastern Conference through the first half of the season, entering the game with 68 points to fourth-place Pittsburgh’s 63. That’s why, for the Penguins, this first meeting of the new season provided a sort of measuring stick.
“Is this game the whole season? No, but you look to these games as good tests, and you want to see how you respond,” Crosby said. “The most important thing is that, when you get to these big games, your team raises its level. As you keep going, the games get bigger and bigger, and you want to make sure everybody responds the right way.”
And respond they did. Though neither Crosby nor Ovechkin dazzled with a performance reminiscent of last year’s oft-magical playoff series, both provided solid contributions in a game that was, unsurprisingly, a tight, back-and-forth affair. Neither team led by more than a goal until the Caps blew open a 3-3 tie with two goals in a 53 second span at the start of the third period.
“Right from the start, the fan energy was really good; it had the feeling of a playoff game,” said Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I thought it was pretty competitive for the most part; the intensity was definitely there. It was just some breakdowns and bad bounces.”
That two-goal burst was all Washington would need, and Ovechkin iced the win with an empty net goal, his second of the night, for a 6-3 final score that belied how competitive the contest was.
“Sometimes when we get the lead, we just stop playing. But, today, it’s not that team,” Ovechkin said. “We just wanted to win this game and it didn’t matter how. I think all of this group was very [focused], and we deserved this win.”
Ovechkin and Crosby each led his team’s offensive charge, with eight and six shots on goal, respectively. In the head-to-head points contest, round one of this season series went to Ovechkin, with two goals and one assist to Crosby’s single goal. But — with both teams missing several key players due to injury — it was the supporting casts and special teams that decided this game.
Washington got its six goals from five different players, while the Penguins found success with a makeshift line of Evgeni Malkin, Ruslan Fedotenko and minor league call-up Nick Johnson. Johnson, playing in his first NHL game, netted his first NHL goal, while Malkin and Fedotenko set up all three of Pittsburgh’s tallies.
One key to the game was the Capitals’ ability to convert on timely power plays — they went 2-for-2 — while shutting down the Penguins’ opportunities with the man advantage. Pittsburgh’s woeful power play, which had been starting to show signs of life, was blanked by Washington’s penalty kill, going 0-for-4 with only six shots on goal.
“I think the players jumping over the boards know exactly how big each kill is, and it’s going to be a big part of the game every time you play the Capitals,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “Killing their two power plays off would’ve been a big factor in the game. We didn’t get that done, we lost the special teams battle, and we ended up on the wrong side of the scoresheet.”
From a fan perspective, these two offensive-minded teams — Washington had 55 total shot attempts, Pittsburgh 68 — are just plain fun to watch. And, watching them trade leads, chances and goals for most of this fast-skating, entertaining matchup, an observer couldn’t help but be left with the feeling that these two teams could be on a collision course to meet in another knock-down, drag-out, winner-take-all series this spring.
“If you look at last year [in the playoffs], that was fast hockey, and tonight was probably even a little faster-paced than a regular season game,” Crosby said. “Both teams like to go to the offense, and that’s what we expected, we don’t really expect to have a chess match out there.
“I don’t think we ever look too far ahead, but we always get excited when we have these big games. When it’s time to play [them again], hopefully it brings out the best in us.”
Just as it often brings out the best in these teams’ biggest stars, who seem to enjoy the rivalry so much that they don’t even mind the occasional outpouring of boos in the other team’s building.
“It’s great,” Ovechkin said. “I think the fans love me, and they just boo me because I’m not on their team.”