W2W4: Capitals at Penguins
Is the buzz still there for Caps-Pens?
PITTSBURGH -- Where there was once a palpable, almost crackling buzz, there is now only a low humming similar to the sound your refrigerator makes when it's working hard to make more ice.
That is what comes to mind as the Washington Capitals limp into Pittsburgh to face the Penguins for the second time in four days on Thursday night.
Marquee rivalry? Hmmm. Or is that hummmmmm.
The Penguins have won four in a row, including a 6-3 victory over Washington on Super Bowl Sunday. The Capitals, meanwhile, are mired at the bottom of the NHL standings with a 2-7-1 record. They have a league-worst minus-13 goal differential.
While most of the attention has been focused on the trials and tribulations of star Alex Ovechkin, who has just two goals thus far, it's clear that some of the Caps' important supporting cast did not arrive at training camp ready to play NHL hockey. The goaltending has wavered between average and atrocious, as the team ranks 27th in goals allowed per game.
The disparate tracks charted early on in this lockout-shortened season add to the feeling that it was a long time ago that every meeting between these two teams was an event, something to be circled on the calendar at the start of each season.
Still, as the Penguins and the Capitals enter a different phase of their relationship, they remain inexorably linked because of the star power Ovechkin continues to command, and the star power of counterpart Sidney Crosby and countryman Evgeni Malkin.
Craig Laughlin played for the Washington Capitals in the days when the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry meant the buzz of playing against Mario Lemieux and epic playoff battles in the 1980s. He has been a broadcast analyst for the Capitals since 1990.
He insists that even though Ovechkin's offensive numbers are down, his stature continues to inject life into the long-standing emotion that exists between these two teams.
"Everyone wants to talk about him. He still carries the marquee tag in Washington, where he's beloved, and he's still Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh and their fans always want their two guys [Crosby and Malkin] to outshine him," Laughlin said Wednesday shortly after the Capitals arrived in Pittsburgh.
If Ovechkin scores three Thursday night, that's what people around hockey will be talking about, Laughlin said.
Former Cap Keith Jones, now a national analyst, believes Ovechkin has to be fully restored for the rivalry to be likewise fully restored.
"With Ovechkin's decline, the rivalry is diminishing," he said. "In the early '90s when I was in Washington, we had some really good playoff run-ins with the Pens. Unfortunately they had Mario and Jagr [Jaromir], and we would fall short. It really became an evenly matched rivalry when Ovi came to Washington, but it is going to be a thing of the past if the 'Great Eight' is just the 'Average Eight' that he's been showing."
Memory has a way of distorting things, so it's easy to forget that even though Crosby and Ovechkin arrived to much fanfare at the end of the previous lockout, there was not an immediate ignition to the Caps-Pens rivalry.
Early meetings between the two stars created almost zero buzz, especially in Washington, where fans had still not learned to fill the Verizon Center on a nightly basis.
The Pens were terrible that first post-lockout season (2005-06), and the Caps not much better.
But the buzz was coming.
Crosby and Ovechkin grew quickly to become dominant players, trading scoring titles and Hart trophies.
They dragged these two teams into a new landscape in terms of buzz and excitement.
By the spring of 2008, fans were already salivating at the prospect of Crosby and Ovechkin taking their intense battles to the grand stage of the postseason. It almost happened that spring. The Penguins had already dispatched Ottawa in five games in the first round of the playoffs and would face the winner of a Washington-Philadelphia series after the Caps had made a surprise run to the Southeast Division title under new coach Bruce Boudreau.
But veteran Sergei Fedorov turned away from a delicious fake shot-pass from Ovechkin that would have given the Caps the series, and Joffrey Lupul went on to score for the Flyers in overtime in Game 7 to delay the much-anticipated clash of the titans.
However, fans didn't have to wait long, as it turned out.
The following spring in the second round, the Penguins and Capitals would meet, a chance to showcase not just Crosby and Ovechkin -- although they were the rivalry ringmasters, to be sure -- but two teams that were seemingly built for the long haul.
The Stanley Cup playoffs never want for drama, but has there been a series in recent memory that drew the casual fans, the casual media observers in a way this series did?
"It was kind of like, OK, who's going to be the real leader. For each player it was kind of a crossroads," recalled Phil Bourque, who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1990s and is an analyst with the team now.
In Game 2, Ovechkin and Crosby traded hat tricks as the Caps took a 2-0 series lead. I recall writing a column anointing the Caps the new power in the Eastern Conference after that win.
The Pens won three in a row but dropped a potential series-clincher at home when David Steckel scored in overtime.
The lead-up to Game 7 in Washington was incredible, as sports writers descended on the nation's capital to chronicle this test of two superstars' mettle and their powerhouse teams.
The game was a bust, as Ovechkin was stymied by Fleury on an early breakaway, and the Pens went on to rout the Caps 6-2.
But even as the Penguins were preparing to face Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals en route to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1992, we were as Oliver Twist: Please, sir, can we have some more?
Surely we would be treated to more Crosby and Ovechkin, Pens and Caps battling for the right to raise yet another Cup? Surely this wasn't a one-off kind of thing?
But it was. Or it has been so far.
"I want the next chapter to read the same way," Bourque said of the thought of a second drama-fest Caps-Pens playoff matchup. "But it didn't."
The months and years since that epic clash in the spring of 2009 have represented a series of stutters and stops and disappointments for both teams.
Both have qualified for the playoffs in the three years since, but the Pens have won just one playoff round since their Cup win in the spring of 2009, twice being dispatched in the first round -- including last spring, when another archrival, Philadelphia, dismissed them in six games.
Crosby has battled concussion issues that began with the Winter Classic outdoor game against Washington on Jan. 1, 2011, in Pittsburgh and missed significant time, including the 2011 playoffs.
The Caps could not capitalize on a record-breaking regular season in 2009-10 and were beaten by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who went on to knock off the Pens that spring. The Caps were swept in the second round in 2011, and Boudreau was fired early last season before Dale Hunter guided them to an upset of favored Boston in the first round. They fell in seven games to the New York Rangers in the second round, and Hunter returned to his junior hockey empire in London.
Former Cap great and recent Hall of Fame inductee Adam Oates took over in the offseason, and it has been a struggle to say the least. He would love for Thursday's game to be more about the state of the two teams' rivalry than the state of his squad's record.
Around the NHL, fans are more curious about the ongoing Vancouver-Chicago skirmishes, which might be the league's best rivalry at the moment. Or Boston and Montreal, which never fail to get the competitive juices going. And if you've ever been in Philadelphia when Crosby and the Pens come to town, you get a sense of the combustible emotion that exists between those two teams.
On Thursday night, the Consol Energy Center will be full, as is always the case. The Penguins are riding a four-game winning streak and sit atop the Atlantic Division standings with high expectations for this team to return to its recent glory.
And when Crosby and Ovechkin, not to mention longtime Russian rival Malkin, are on the ice, the fans will no doubt edge a little closer in their seats.
"I think there's still a buzz there, but it's kind of a hum, it's not quite an electric buzz," Bourque said.
Said one NHL executive, the teams themselves don't give a hoot about the rivalries to which fans and the media attach themselves, especially in a 48-game season. The points are too important to become too emotionally invested in one set of games against a particular opponent, he said.
As for the Caps and Pens, "it's like any relationship, things ebb and flow," he said.
So is the rivalry dead? No, we wouldn't go that far.
In fact, remembering what a meeting of these two teams once represented while preparing for what will be Thursday night brings to mind the refrain from an old Tragically Hip song, "Little Bones": "There's nothing dead down here. It's just a little tired."
So, no, this once-marvelous Pens-Caps rivalry isn't necessarily dead. Just a little tired.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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W2W4: Capitals At Penguins
• Sidney Crosby is the active NHL leader in points per game (1.4) and fourth all-time.
• Alex Ovechkin has five career multi-goal games against Pittsburgh.
• Evgeni Malkin has eight goals in 21 games against Washington.
• Mike Green scored 14 goals the past three seasons; his 68 goals from 2008-10 are the most among defensemen.
• The Penguins are one of 10 franchises to win at least three Stanley Cups (last was in 2008-09).
• The Capitals have reached just one Stanley Cup final (1997-98).
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