Alex Ovechkin checks fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin into the boards. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Tonight I’m going to sit on my couch with great anticipation and watch the Washington Capitals take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While I watch a dump-truck load of hockey anyway, this tilt is of special interest and for obvious reasons: the top three scorers in the league (Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin) are involved, not to mention a host of other offensive weapons. Both teams have so-so goaltending and a defense corps that can move the puck, but also turn it over.
Oh, and they also hate each other.
Ovechkin hates Malkin, Alexander Semin dissed Crosby in a widely-read interview and we’re at the point in the season where games for these teams begin to mean just a bit more. The Penguins, roughed up by injuries and at times, indifference, are life and death to even make the playoffs, while the Caps want to build that cushion atop the Southeast Division.
Now, I’ve been burnt by highly anticipated games this season. Detroit’s slaughter of San Jose was the most glaring example, but that Western showdown was nonetheless important in the grand scheme of things. On the ice, hockey is in a good place right now and even the apathetic American media is getting excited in certain key markets. The Winter Classic was obviously a huge success on that front and Chicago-Detroit is another one of those matchups that even neutral fans get up for. But as I pointed out in a previous blog, the Red Wings still own the Hawks and Sharks this year, so until that balance of power shifts, the games will be great only in name (or if they’re outdoors).
In the East, Boston-Montreal has once again been rekindled thanks to the Bruins’ recent ascension, not to mention the gutsy seven-game standoff the B’s mounted in the first round of last year’s playoffs. As it stands now, these teams likely wouldn’t meet until at least the second round of the playoffs, maybe further on – but how amazing would that series be with the stakes increased even more?
But Washington-Pittsburgh is where sexy happens for real. The biggest names on the marquee are there, the hatred is there, the end-to-end hockey is there. And like the Boston-Montreal rivalry, it can now be said that if the two teams met in the playoffs, no one could say for certain which way the series would go.
This is the first season where that is true. As entertaining as the Caps were against the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 of the playoffs last year, they were no match for the Penguins, who were 3-0-1 against Washington in the regular season and with Marian Hossa on board, the best team in the East.
True, Washington would be the favorite this season should Pittsburgh claw its way back into the post-season picture, but let’s not forget, that’s a Penguins team likely to be with the services of currently injured defenseman Sergei Gonchar. With the veteran blueliner in the lineup, the Pens’ power play all of a sudden isn’t 20th in the NHL, as it is now – it’s more likely top-five, as it was last season.
Sufficed to say, any preview we get of that potential series tonight will be a welcome one and hopefully, a harbinger of the future.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.