Rivalry between Penguins, Capitals waning

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

It has been four years since the Penguins and Washington Capitals met in their classic Stanley Cup second-round playoff series and two years since the Winter Classic was held at Heinz Field.

Time, it seems, has dulled the luster from what once was hockey's most publicized rivalry.

“The rivalry really has drifted,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was traded to Pittsburgh six weeks following the 2011 Winter Classic. “It's funny. You always used to hear about that rivalry and would see it on TV all the time. I thought it would be a bigger deal when I got here.”

Lack of playoff success is likely the biggest reason the rivalry has faded.

The Penguins have dropped three consecutive playoff series. The Capitals haven't advanced past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era.

In 2009, Ovechkin and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby combined for 27 points in a series that featured three overtime games.

“It's still a big deal when we play them,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But yeah, it probably isn't the same since that playoff series. Things are different now.”

No one is more different than Ovechkin.

The Capitals star is still productive but at 27 no longer ranks among the league's most dominant players. His numbers have steadily declined during the past three seasons.

No one can explain Ovechkin's decline, though Niskanen has a theory.

“Don't get me wrong. The guy is still a really good player,” Niskanen said. “But I think players have just adjusted to what he does well. If you know a player's tendencies, it obviously makes it easier to play against him. And I think the league knows what his tendencies are right now.”

The debate between Crosby and Ovechkin is long over. Through the first five seasons of their respective careers, the former No. 1 overall draft picks were comparable statistically and clearly possessed some respectful disdain for one another.

In the hours before the Penguins and Capitals battled, Ovechkin, who historically respected the Penguins' stars but never anointed them, meekly spoke of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without being asked.

“Everybody knows Crosby and Malkin are the two best players in the league right now,” Ovechkin said.

The closest anyone came to producing fighting words on the morning of the game was Capitals coach Adam Oates, who said of the Penguins: “They're very good and very cocky.”

There was a time when such a comment from the Capitals would have aggravated the Penguins. However, with one team at the top of the Eastern Conference standings and the other near the bottom, even mildly hostile words don't seem to create a nasty element.

“It's still a big deal, and there are still lots of great players when these teams meet,” said defenseman Mark Eaton, a veteran of the classic 2009 series. “But yeah, it might not be quite the same.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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