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Crosby vs. Ovechkin: An ice-cold rivalry

| Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011

For all the words written about this Winter Classic, today's outdoor game at Heinz Field really comes down to three: Sid and Ovi. If the annual outdoor game has become the NHL's signature event, the fourth version features the league's signature rivalry.

Respective captains of their clubs, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals are in their sixth seasons. Their combined efforts have produced three MVPs, two scoring titles, 498 regular-season goals — and Crosby's Stanley Cup, won in 2009 by besting Ovechkin along that playoff run.

Perhaps nobody knows both players better than Crosby's Penguins teammate and Ovechkin's Russian Olympic teammate, Evgeni Malkin. His view of hockey's hottest individual rivalry: "If Sid scores a goal, Alex gets mad and plays harder. If Alex scores next, Sid goes harder. That is how it's done."

keeping crosby close

Washington Capitals rookie defenseman Karl Alzner thought he had Sidney Crosby defended perfectly on the first shift of the third period Dec. 23 at Verizon Center.

Alzner positioned himself between the NHL's leading scorer and his own net and managed to dislodge one of Crosby's hands from his stick. Seconds later the puck was in the Washington net, and the Penguins had a one-goal lead.

"You do everything that you can, and sometimes it still doesn't work," Alzner said with a sigh of resignation.

Crosby had a goal and an assist against the Capitals in that meeting. He has caused fits for Washington from the first time he faced the franchise, collecting 13 goals and 35 points in 20 regular-season games while adding eight markers and 13 points in an epic seven-game series in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Regardless of what strategies the Capitals have employed, Crosby typically has found a way to succeed and will try to do so again in the Winter Classic today at Heinz Field.

"You just have to try and get in his way and not let him have any time," defenseman Tom Poti said. "You give him that extra foot or extra couple inches of space, and he's going to do some damage with it. The guy can stickhandle in a phone booth. The best way to defend him is try and not let him touch the puck. You have to stay so close to him that it deters other guys from giving him the puck."

Crosby scored against the Capitals last week on a play that has become commonplace for the Pittsburgh captain. He set up a few feet to the right of the Washington net and redirected a Kris Letang shot behind goaltender Michal Neuvirth.

He terrorized the Capitals defense in the 2009 playoffs by hanging around the net and absorbing punishment to finish scoring chances.

"You don't want to lose track of him down low," Alzner said. "He uses the net and he gets lost for a couple seconds and sure enough he's back door, and they've got enough good players to find him."

Added Capitals center David Steckel: "He's very gifted, and he has a nose for the net. It's not going to the net like a Mike Knuble as much as it is lingering around the net like a Danny Briere and just finding openings and spots."

At the beginning of his career, Crosby became a star because of his playmaking ability, but the Capitals have tried to adapt as Crosby has evolved.

"It seems like the last couple years he's been shooting the puck a lot more than he did in the past," Poti said. "He was always a deadly passer, and now he's a deadly shooter. He's added that element to his game."

— Corey Masisak, for the Tribune-Review

defending ovechkin: constant pressure

After the Penguins eliminated the Washington Capitals from the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2009, former defenseman Rob Scuderi revealed the formula for their success.

"He wasn't going to score enough to beat us by himself," Scuderi said, referring to Capitals star Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin scored eight goals in that seven-game series but only three over the final four games — three of which the Capitals lost.

The Penguins didn't make "a whole lot of adjustments" as that series went on, Scuderi said.

His former teammates haven't made many against Ovechkin since. They haven't needed to, apparently.

"I don't see him doing any details on the ice differently," said Kris Letang, who with his defensive partner Brooks Orpik worked against Ovechkin's line in a win at Washington on Dec. 23.

Added Orpik: "When I watch him play he's still similar. He's got a great one-timer, and he loves playing that off side. ... He can beat you a lot of ways. I don't think, and it's just my opinion, he's changed much."

The Letang-Orpik pairing will draw the Ovechkin assignment again today at Heinz Field for the Winter Classic, and each player is well studied in how Ovechkin has scored 25 goals in 28 games (including playoffs) against the Penguins.

"He tries to beat you one-on-one all the time," Orpik said. "I don't know if you can invite it, that's just the way he plays. (New Jersey's Ilya) Kovalchuk does the same thing. They get their legs going through the neutral zone, and it seems like they just want to beat one guy."

Ovechkin's tendency to challenge a defenseman is known around the league, Orpik said. That is the reason most teams have mirrored the Penguins' strategy of a tight backcheck designed to keep him near the boards.

Not that pinning Ovechkin to the outside is easy.

"You try to play close to him, just stay close and try to pressure every time," center Evgeni Malkin said. "It's good to do because sometimes he shoots, but always he tries to beat you one-on-one. That pressure he puts on himself, so you backcheck and try to make him do it near the defensemen."

Of course, video highlights are plentiful showing Ovechkin bursting beyond a backchecking forward and past or around a defenseman. His consistency at getting shots has forced Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to alter his approach.

"I get ready a little quicker when he's coming down," he said. "You don't want to be too wild because then you've got to recover. You've got to be out there but not overplay him."

Ovechkin has scored 14 goals this season, on pace for 29. His single-season low is 46, and he has posted at least 50 markers every other NHL season.

Despite the sentiments of Letang and Orpik, there is a growing opinion among the hockey community that Ovechkin is adapting his game. His pace for 58 assists would place him one off his career high established last season.

Penguins defenseman Paul Martin subscribes to that theory, describing Ovechkin as "more two-dimensional."

"He's more of a passer now," he said. "When he was younger he'd just get it and go. He's good at changing his stick angle to get his shot off, and now with him passing more too it makes him tougher to defend."

Said Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, "I've seen him get a great shot off from his knees. He needs to be recognized every time he's on the ice."

— Rob Rossi, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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