Capitals, Penguins set to renew heated rivalry

Sydney Crosby

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) – Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin will be the headline of most stories about the Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals playoff series.

The transcendent superstars of the NHL meeting in the playoffs for the first time in seven years and the second time in their careers will do that.

“Of course everyone look at it (as) Crosby-Ovi,” Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “It’s Pittsburgh against Washington, right?”

Shine the spotlight and train the cameras on Crosby and Ovechkin, but Kuznetsov is right: The two top teams in the Eastern Conference have so much talent that the series won’t be decided by just those two players.

Pittsburgh has fellow Russian star Evgeni Malkin, American sniper Phil Kessel and Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman Kris Letang, while Washington has Swedish sensation Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov and goaltender Braden Holtby, a front-runner for the Vezina Trophy.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz called it “disrespectful” to boil the series down to Crosby and Ovechkin.

“You can match up any names because so much offensive weapons on both teams,” he said. “But I think the team wins, not like individuals win.”

These teams win a lot.

The Capitals captured the Presidents’ Trophy with the most points in the NHL this season. The Penguins were the league’s best team after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach.

Malkin, the No. 2 pick behind Ovechkin in 2004, and the blossoming Kuznetsov are the X-factors in the series that begins with Game 1 tonight in Washington. Defenses will be so worried about stopping Crosby and Ovechkin that it will likely be up to those playmakers to take advantage.

“I think everyone takes a lot of pride and wants to win this time of year no matter who they’re playing against,” Crosby said. “Geno understands it’s an important time of year, and he wants to be playing his best.”

Malkin said the Capitals need to be careful against Kuznetsov, who struggled in the first round but promised to be better. Washington needs that because Pittsburgh’s depth jumps off the page.

Beyond the Penguins’ top trio of Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary, Malkin’s line can seemingly score at will. Kessel was a key in finishing off the New York Rangers in five games and fourth-liner Matt Cullen scored 17 goals during the regular season.

None of this is to say Crosby and Ovechkin can’t make major impacts, even if they don’t have dueling hat tricks like they did in Game 2 in 2009. Crosby led the Penguins with eight points in the first round, while Ovechkin had three goals and two assists against the Philadelphia Flyers.

“I’m not going to lie: I think both players get up for the game,” said Penguins forward Eric Fehr, who previously played for the Capitals. “It’s hard to argue it when (you) see how hard they play against each other and how into it the fans get for those games.”

Throw in all the other stars, and get your popcorn ready.

“It’s going to be cutthroat, intense hockey and fast,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “Fans are in for a treat. It’s going to be a heck of a series.”