Crosby-Ovechkin matchup more meaningful

| Monday, Dec. 11, 2006

WASHINGTON - For the last week the NHL has been trumpeting tonight's game as the first prime-time, nationally televised game on Versus between the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin.

But there's something different about the Crosby-Ovechkin matchup this year compared to last season. Then, Crosby and Ovechkin were the NHL's two heralded rookie stars, in the thick of a Calder Trophy race that was hotly debated over the course of the season.

And with both the Penguins and the Capitals out of the playoff picture early last year, Crosby versus Ovechkin was essentially the only compelling storyline to follow in the matchups that fell after the first of the year.

Now, the Penguins and Capitals are on the rebound in the standings and have become two of the more exciting young teams in the league.

"I don't think (the game) means more, but I think it's more enjoyable because it's not just two guys," Capitals coach Glen Hanlon said on Sunday after practice at the Verizon Center. "I'm not speaking on their behalf, but knowing their personalities, I don't think they want any of it to be one person against another person. I think they want their teams to be playing. And it's two good, young teams that are playing, so that's exciting."

At this time last year, the Penguins had eight wins and eventually finished last in the Eastern Conference with 58 points. The Capitals had nine wins and finished next-to-last with 70 points.

Going into tonight's game, the Capitals are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 13 wins and 32 points. The Penguins are in 13th place with 12 wins and 29 points.

And while the teams play different styles, there are comparisons to be made between the two.

"We're very similar; I think it's easy to say that," Crosby said. "We have a lot of youth and so do they, and you look at our seasons and we've both had similar ups and downs. I think we're both pretty similar teams."

All of that isn't to say that the Crosby-Ovechkin head-to-head matchup is no longer entertaining or relevant.

Crosby and Ovechkin will probably be compared for as long as they both are in the league. Drafted first overall a year apart, Ovechkin in 2004 and Crosby in 2005, they led one of the more talented rookie classes ever last season.

They both scored 100 points, becoming two of only seven players in the history of the NHL to score 100 points in their rookie years: Ovechkin as a 20-year-old, and Crosby at 18. It was only the second time in history that two rookies scored 100 points in the same year. Ovechkin went on to win the Calder Trophy in a landslide vote, with Crosby coming in second.

This year, Crosby is the fourth-leading scorer in the league with 13 goals and 26 assists for 39 points, four behind leader Jaromir Jagr. Ovechkin trails Crosby by four points (18 goals, 17 assists).

But it isn't their own points but their respective teams' that Crosby and Ovechkin are following this year, as both try for their first playoff berth in three seasons for the Capitals, five for the Penguins.

"I think with all the buildup it probably motivates both of us a little more to try to play well, but there is more importance in trying to get the win and get your two points," Crosby said. "I think the first couple games last year (were meaningful), but we were both out of the playoff race early on.

"I'd expect this to be more intense. They're playing good hockey right now and we've played a few good games lately, so hopefully that's the way it turns out."

Ovechkin agreed.

"I go to the Internet and it says, 'Crosby and Ovechkin meet again in D.C.,' " Ovechkin said yesterday. "I think the Capitals and Pittsburgh meet again in D.C., not Crosby and Ovechkin."

Budding rivalry

Here's a look at the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin matchup, courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau:

• Crosby had three goals and six assists for nine points in four games against the Capitals last year, while Ovechkin had three goals and three assists. They each scored points in each of the games and scored a goal in the same game twice. The Penguins won three of the four games.

• Ovechkin played his 100th NHL game on Nov. 17, while Crosby played his on Nov. 20. Crosby's 132 points (49 goals, 82 assists) in his first 100 games was the second-highest total for any active NHL player. Ovechkin, with 128 points, was fourth.

• Mario Lemieux had 60 goals and 87 assists for 147 points in his first 100 games, while Wayne Gretzky had 61 goals and 112 assists for 173 points in his first 100 games.

• In 2005-06, the only NHL players to either score or assist on at least 40 percent of their team's goals were Jaromir Jagr (49.2 percent), Ovechkin (46.1 percent) and Crosby (42 percent).

• NHL points leaders since the start of the 2005-06 season: Jaromir Jagr (166), Joe Thornton (157), Sidney Crosby (141), Alex Ovechkin (141).

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