Olympics will make friends of foes
Enemies become teammates and teammates become enemies in Sochi
Oh, you can pooh-pooh the fading luster of the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins if you like, as the promise of that one glorious playoff meeting in 2009 has never been repeated, but admit it, there's still something about the idea of the two great stars sharing space, any space, that continues to appeal on so many levels.
Wednesday night marked the 34th time the two luminaries have shared space in the NHL -- counting that seven-game, second-round series won by the Penguins in 2009 en route to a Stanley Cup championship. You can throw in that memorable quarterfinal game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver too, a game that has more relevance with the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament set to start in less than a month.
Watching these two stars -- along with Evgeni Malkin, a kind of third spoke in the wheel of greatness that Ovechkin and Crosby represent -- lead their respective squads in a dynamic back and forth tilt that the Penguins ultimately won 4-3 on Wednesday night, it was hard not to project a few weeks down the road and imagine the drama that might come with these two players.
Before the game, Ovechkin acknowledged that there had been discussion that he and Malkin would play on the same forward unit in Sochi.
"It's coach's decision who's going to play in the Olympic Games together," Ovechkin said. "But definitely if we're going to play together, it's going to be a good line."
Chemistry? You would think so, given the separate skill sets each brings to the table.
"Well, he's a great passer and [he has] great control the puck, he can control the puck well," Ovechkin said. "I'm kind of guy who likes to shoot the puck. I hope it's going to work."
After the game, a towel-clad Ovechkin waited patiently in the hallway between the two dressing rooms at Consol Energy Center to chat with Malkin, who was speaking with U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin.
Four years ago, the talk leading up to the Olympics was how Canada would fare under the crushing weight of a nation's expectations. Yet the signature event of the Vancouver Games ended with Canadian gold in hockey.
Although much of the discussion in recent weeks has been on the formation of the Canadian and U.S. Olympic teams, the pressure to not just perform but to win it all rests squarely on the shoulders of Ovechkin, Malkin et al. -- even if that pressure is less tangible on this side of the globe.
"Of course it's easy. Because mostly guys don't understand the pressure [that] we have back there in Russia," Ovechkin said. "The coaching staff, the players that are going to be on the Olympic team, playing for KHL, but right now I try [not to] think about it because of course you think about it little bit. You read the newspapers, you watch TV and everybody [is] talking about Sochi, what's [the] expectation. But [in] my mind, I just concentrate [on] this day, I don't concentrate on what's going to be in three weeks, who I'm going to play with, where I'm going to stay, where my parents [are] going to stay. It's little things but those little things have to be done before Olympics, like two or three days before."
And yes, of course it's weird to be talking about playing with a guy such as Malkin just hours before skating onto the ice in the hopes of stealing two points, points the up-and-down Caps cannot afford to be giving away.
"Of course, tonight, we're going to play for different teams," Ovechkin said, "but in three weeks we're going to be in the same team and we're going to fight against our own teammates. It is what it is and it's fun but it's tough too."
It will, indeed, be a strange dynamic as Ovechkin will be vying for gold against linemate Nicklas Backstrom, who is part of a strong Swedish club, and defenseman John Carlson, who was selected to the U.S. Olympic team.
Meanwhile, Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz will find themselves squaring off against Malkin, who was a force on Wednesday setting up the game-winning goal by Olli Maatta, who will also be in Sochi playing for Finland. Crosby might also find himself lining up against defensive teammates Brooks Orpik (U.S.), Paul Martin (U.S.) and Jussi Jokinen (Finland), not to mention Pens head coach Dan Bylsma, who will coach the U.S. squad in Sochi.
Other observations from another chapter in the Sid and Ovi Hockey Story:
• Lots of lusty boos for Ovechkin every time he touched the puck in Wednesday's tilt and none louder than when he snapped home the Caps' third goal with 11:25 left in the third period.
How great was the play?
Ovechkin had his stick chopped out of his hands. He first looked at the referee for a call but then picked up the stick just in time to take the pass in the slot and rifle it home for his league-leading 34th.
• While Ovechkin has historically held a slight edge in goals scored in the head-to-head matchup with Crosby during the regular season (18-15), it was Crosby who had the better of the chances sending, Chris Kunitz in on a partial break during the first period. Crosby has outpointed Ovechkin 46-33, including a terrific assist on the Penguins' first goal of the game by Kris Letang midway through the second period.
• The Caps, coming off a tough shootout loss to San Jose on home ice on Tuesday night, got on the board first with a shorthanded effort from Brooks Laich. The heart-and-soul forward has been plagued by injuries the past couple of seasons. The Caps' potential not just to secure a playoff berth but to exorcise significant playoff demons will hinge in large part on Laich's health and his presence in the Washington lineup.
The back-to-back games for Washington might have represented two of their best overall performances of the season, yet they came up with just a single point. On Wednesday, they held leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 but couldn't find a way to deny the Penguins the winner late in the third.
"Yeah, we played pretty good game but figured out a way to lose it tonight," head coach Adam Oates lamented after the game. The coach repeated the phrase "we blew it" several times in his postgame media scrum.
• The Penguins' win was their 13th straight at home, a franchise record. The feat is made more impressive by the fact the Penguins continue to be ravaged by injury. Martin remains out of the lineup, but is expected to return soon. Pascal Dupuis is gone for the balance of the regular season and James Neal missed Wednesday's game due to injury. The Penguins have used 36 different players this season.
"I think it says a lot about the guys who've come in, the job that they've done, the attitude and mindset of everybody here," Crosby said. "Just making sure that we find a way to be ready to play."
• The win was the sixth in a row for the Penguins over the Caps and seventh in their past eight meetings.
• Ovechkin described Malkin and Crosby as two of the top players in the NHL. He was asked where he thought he fit into that discussion.
"Top 15 maybe. Sixteen?" Ovechkin offered. Hard to know if he was kidding.
• Asked to rank the competition in Sochi, Ovechkin would not be pinned down.
"To be honest with you, it's a question when you can't say who is the best team out there," Ovechkin said. "You can see our roster, you can see U.S. roster, Canada roster. All the rosters are the best players out there. You can't say this team is going to win easily. It's going to be big battle for everybody. Even teams who you think like you're going to beat easily, it's going to be battle. Olympics is short tournament and you have to be ready 100 percent every game. The experience that I have, I have two Olympics already, that experience you can't be relaxed out there."
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