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Friday, December 31, 2010
Capitals report: Classic will show identity

By Pierre LeBrun


PITTSBURGH -- Why is it that it feels like a win Saturday night in the Winter Classic would mean so much more to the Washington Capitals?

People have begun to describe the Winter Classic, as an event, as the Super Bowl for the NHL. And Saturday night's game, for the Caps, might just be their early Stanley Cup.

Consider the road they've traveled over the past year. From their shocking first-round collapse to the Montreal Canadiens this past spring, to their well-documented swoon/crisis in December, to their recent turnaround, the Winter Classic is like a patient getting off his shrink's couch after his last session and seeing whether he's ready to cope.

What's made it all the more compelling, of course, is the constant documentation from HBO, which gave the hockey world a front-row seat to Washington's therapy sessions, juxtaposed to Pittsburgh's well-oiled machine.

"You throw the whole HBO microscope thing in there, I mean, those first few episodes were tough for us. It's true," veteran Caps winger Mike Knuble said Friday after practice at Heinz Field. "We had lost six or seven in a row, and they had won 12 in a row; the teams were night and day. But we weren't that far off. The bottom line is that we were still a good team but we were going through something. The last 10 days we've been better. We've tweaked a couple of things, and I think that's helped us.

"But you know there's extra people watching tomorrow night and you want to put on a good show. We want to have a great game."

The Caps have followed that dreadful eight-game winless streak by taking nine of a possible 10 points. They look good again. But that one measly point missing went to the rival Penguins in a thrilling Dec. 23 shootout loss. Yes, those damn Penguins.

Imagine for a moment the shrink telling the Caps, "You can beat the Penguins, you can beat the Penguins ... "

"It'll definitely be great to get a win tomorrow night," Caps forward Eric Fehr said. "Not only for the fact it's the Winter Classic; it's a team we're trying to catch in the standings. But with what it feels like the whole world watching, it'll be great to show them who's the better team."

Of course, it's not ever just about the Caps and Penguins. There's also the nuts of the rivalry, Alex Ovechkin versus Sidney Crosby. Always will be that way, no matter how much people might not like it.

And let's consider that little rivalry right now, going back to this past February, when Crosby's Team Canada routed Ovechkin's Russian squad in the Olympic quarterfinals and then capped it off with the OT winning goal in the gold-medal game, the biggest goal in Canadian hockey since Paul Henderson in 1972. Fast forward to the first half of this season, Crosby entering the Winter Classic 23 points ahead of Ovechkin in the scoring race. Yes, 23 bleeping points.

As such, consider Saturday night one of those marquee moments in which the great ones make their mark. And maybe this is a shot in the dark, but we see Ovechkin not wasting this opportunity to reaffirm his superstar status and using a giant performance as a springboard to a dynamite second half. We could be wrong, but we just feel Ovechkin has that grasp of the moment.

If he needs added motivation, he just needs to be told of Mario Lemieux's comments Friday morning, when he raised eyebrows in saying Crosby's season is more impressive than anything Super Mario himself ever did.

You don't think that will drive Ovechkin?

"Oh yeah, I'm sure it does, for sure," Knuble said. "Sidney, the last 18 months have been unbelievable for him. He's a great player and he's playing great right now."

The question is, why has Ovechkin not been up to his normal standards so far this season?

"The reasons, it's all about me," Ovechkin told reporters Friday. "I have a chance to score goals, I have to score it. If I didn't score it, people are going to say, 'OK, he's not scoring. He's not that good anymore.' And if I start scoring again like that, I'm going to make a point streak like 10 games, everything's going to be back and I'm not worried about it."

What we do know for sure is that once the Winter Classic is over, HBO's cameras finally will be gone. Ovechkin and his teammates will be able to breathe again.

"The fact that we're on national TV all the time definitely made it tougher," Fehr said of HBO's presence during the team's winless streak. "I think it made it tougher for the coaches to coach the way they wanted and for the players to get on each other if things aren't going well. It's stuff you can't necessarily do in front of cameras, and I think that made it tougher."

To a man, however, from GM George McPhee reiterating this sentiment to ESPN.com on Friday all the way down to the players, they feel the winless streak and the HBO spotlight will have just made them stronger in the long run. It's a bout of adversity they needed to forge a different identity come playoff time.

"After that first episode on HBO, it was a bit of a shock," Caps blueliner Mike Green said Friday. "We had never really been in that situation before. I think it looked a lot worse than it was. I think people have to admire and respect what we've gone through and how to pull through it. It shows the character we have in this dressing room. Any time you're faced with adversity, you build your character. So here we are."

Here they are indeed. Drop the puck, and let's see who they really are.