Caps-Pens a rivalry that ought to thrive

| Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009

Suddenly, Capitals vs. Penguins is about much more than Alexander Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby or Ovechkin vs. Evgeni Malkin.

"There's a lot of tension between these two teams," Pens defenseman Hal Gill said after the latest installment, a 5-2 Capitals victory Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center.

That tension could be attributed to what was once perceived to be bad blood between Ovechkin and Malkin.

And it may have escalated after Capitals winger Alexander Semin was quoted early this season in an online translation wondering "what's so special about (Crosby)?"

Still, what really makes these games as tense as they are compelling is the young talent on both sides.

As justifiable as it remains to argue that Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin are the three best players in the world — the pecking order is subject to change from game to game — they're not the only headline-worthy combatants butting heads when the Pens and Caps get together.

Semin scored his 22nd goal and registered his 30th assist on Sunday against the Penguins.

Mike Green had just one point, an assist. But a stick he had used during his streak of scoring a goal in eight consecutive games from Jan. 27 to Feb. 14 — an NHL record for defensemen — made its way through the media room at the Verizon Center on its way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

And center Nicklas Backstrom had a pair of assists, which resulted in Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau offering the following critique: "He's gonna be great. I don't know if I'd throw him there yet. When he's 23, 24-years-old, he's going to be the whole package. He's a special player."

Backstrom is 21, Green and Ovechkin are 23 and Semin is about to turn 25.

On the Penguins side are Crosby (21), Malkin (22), goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (24), center Jordan Staal (20), defenseman Kris Letang (21) and defenseman Ryan Whitney (26).

Letang was scratched Sunday, Staal and Whitney were kept off the score sheet and Crosby and Malkin were held to an assist each. It was Malkin's career-high 60th assist of the season and his NHL-leading 87th point.

So Round 3 went to the Capitals, as had rounds 1 and 2 at Mellon Arena.

The final regular-season meeting is March 8, but the Capitals are already thinking beyond that one, which no doubt contributed to Sunday's tension, intensity and verbiage.

"We always want to beat those guys," winger Donald Brashear said. "We might face them down the road in the playoffs, so we want to put in their minds that they can't beat us."

Failing to beat the Caps on Sunday left the Pens with 64 points and significant work still to do before they can contemplate a postseason rendezvous with Washington.

But they ought to be aware by now that the tension, tenacity and apparent mutual contempt that characterizes these games is destined to maintain levels previously reserved for the likes of Philadelphia.

"It's good," Gill said of the developing Pens-Caps dynamic. "We have to rise up and be better with it."

Rivals tend to demand as much from one another, or else.

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