Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Updated: January 15, 6:34 PM ET
Ovie wins latest grudge match vs. Pens
By Scott Burnside
PITTSBURGH -- And so the Battle of the Grudges goes -- emphatically, we might add -- to Alex, Alex and the Washington Capitals.
On a night shot through with drama and emotion, the lasting images of this entertaining midwinter tilt will be of Alex Ovechkin's throaty cheers of celebration and of Sidney Crosby hobbling to the dressing room with 2:16 left in a 6-3 Capitals victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Ovechkin, the subject of heavy hits (or attempted hits) by a number of Penguins, including archnemesis Evgeni Malkin, took it all and turned it back on the hometown Penguins, scoring twice and adding an assist on the winning goal in a performance that will do little to dissuade those who believe he is the best hockey player on the planet right now.
Then, just when he was about to cement his status as Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh, Ovechkin was seen tapping his stick on the boards in support of Crosby as the Pittsburgh captain went to the dressing room after getting tangled up with the Caps' David Steckel with a little more than four minutes to go in the game.
After being helped to the bench, favoring his left leg, Crosby waited a couple of minutes, then headed to the locker room.
Crosby, who had two assists on the night, wasn't limping noticeably when he met with reporters after the game and seemed at least guardedly optimistic that the damage to his left knee wasn't severe.
"I don't think it's too bad. I'll see tomorrow, but I think I'll be all right," Crosby said. "I haven't seen [the replay], but it felt pretty bad. Hopefully all goes well."
Although it ended badly for Crosby, nights like this make it easy to forget the financial mess in Phoenix or the problems in Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
With the NHL's top three point producers on the same sheet of ice -- Malkin, Crosby and Ovechkin, in descending order -- it would be a great surprise if the product weren't compelling. Throw in a healthy dash of dislike and percolating ill will and, well, it was a treat that left you wanting more. As in, how about a Battle of the Grudges, playoff style? Drama? Emotion? Think spontaneous combustion and you'd have a sense of what such a playoff meeting might yield.
One would have imagined the 87th straight sellout at Mellon Arena might have been a good omen for the struggling Penguins, and if you were looking for a harbinger of the night's outcome, the fact it was Malkin who scored the first goal of the game on the power play might have been it.
But each time the Penguins pushed, the Capitals pushed harder.
Twice Washington overcame a one-goal Pittsburgh lead. Then, after the Capitals had taken a 3-2 lead early in the third, it was the Penguins who showed their resilience when Ryan Whitney scored his first goal of the season.
Ultimately, with the game for the taking, it was the Southeast Division-leading Capitals who took the game from last season's Stanley Cup finalists.
The Penguins, already enduring a campaign rife with injuries to key personnel, lost tough defenseman Rob Scuderi for the night when he blocked a Mike Green shot with his forehead. Defenseman Kris Letang missed time in the third period after blocking a shot. Maxime Talbot also missed most of the third with an injury and, of course, there was the loss of Crosby after the game was out of reach.
"It was a tight game until we got to the third period, when they brought their game to the next level," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said.
It was a level the undermanned Penguins could not match.
It's never wise to place too much emphasis on a single game. There are, after all, 82 such contests that make up a team's body of work in the regular season. Still, it's similarly unwise not to take meaning from meaningful encounters, games that have the potential to make a statement or define a trend for a team.
The Capitals entered Wednesday's contest having lost three straight games, including a 5-2 laugher against the up-and-down Edmonton Oilers in Washington on Tuesday night.
At the same time, the Penguins, after a woeful stretch of play, were looking to build upon a hard-fought 4-2 road win over Philadelphia.
Wednesday's game, then, was meaningful on a number of fronts for both teams.
With fans booing Ovechkin and Alexander Semin every time they touched the puck and a lot of jostling of Ovechkin by the Pens, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said he was pleased his players kept their eyes on the prize.
"I think the focus of the game stayed on the game instead of on the individual," Boudreau said. "When you focus on the game, usually good things happen to the individuals, but a lot of times, it doesn't happen when it's the other way around."
Ovechkin, who had just one assist in his past four games, managed to collect all three of his points in the third period Wednesday night.
"That's what Alex does," Boudreau said. "He's a real emotional guy and he plays on that passion, and when he gets going, he's pretty hard to stop."
The loss was especially hard to take for the Penguins given their play in Philadelphia the night before. A team looking for traction instead found itself immobilized. Since going 7-0-1 to start the month of November, the Pens are 9-16-1. They have lost six of seven at home and have watched -- helplessly, as it turns out -- as they've fallen out of the playoff bracket and into 10th in the Eastern Conference.
A win Wednesday would have moved them back into a playoff spot. The loss, however, is a painful reminder that simply getting to the postseason, a given the past two seasons, will be a dogfight.
"Whether or not we realize it, it's been the most important game of the season [every night] for a while, and it will be from here on out," Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke said.
"Obviously, we are frustrated. I am frustrated. You are used to winning," added Petr Sykora, who had a number of chances Wednesday night but couldn't bury any of them. "Right now, we have no time to wait, we have to do it now. Teams are going ahead of us, and it's going to be tougher and tougher to catch them. We cannot be looking at any excuses. We have to start winning hockey games, and now."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.