Commentary

This time, Caps-Pens has different buzz

Updated: January 13, 2009, 6:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Sidney CrosbyDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesSidney Crosby and the Penguins currently sit 10th in the Eastern Conference.
PITTSBURGH -- Not so long ago, this game would have been about titillation.

This season's second of four meetings between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins scheduled for Wednesday at Mellon Arena would have been underscored by Alexander Semin's comments earlier this season questioning what all the buzz was about surrounding Sidney Crosby.

And there would have been the simmering animosity between Crosby's teammate Evgeni Malkin and Washington star Alex Ovechkin, a healthy dislike that dates back a couple of offseasons when, sources told ESPN.com, a dispute in a Russian bar left Malkin's advisor with a broken jaw that had to be wired shut for a month.

And of course, there would have been the simple buzz that all intersections of the league's two great young stars, Crosby and Ovechkin, seem destined to create for as long as they're in the league.

Not so long ago that would have been more than enough to drive the interest level of this mid-January midweek contest well beyond the normal.

Yet as the game approaches, those subplots pale in comparison to the larger stories and divergent paths of these two young teams.

As much as Crosby and Ovechkin have enjoyed a compelling match of tit for tat since coming into the league after the lockout, the teams themselves are following eerily similar patterns.

Ovechkin, of course, edged Crosby as rookie of the year in 2005-06, and the young stars' teams struggled: The Pens finished dead last in the Eastern Conference, and the Capitals only marginally better at 14th.

The Capitals struggled again during Ovechkin's sophomore season in 2006-07, once more finishing 14th in the conference. Crosby took a giant individual stride forward, winning the NHL scoring title and the Hart Trophy, while his Penguins surprised many by finishing with 105 points and qualifying for the playoffs a season or two ahead of expectations before bowing out to Ottawa in the first round.

Last season, it was Ovechkin's turn in the limelight. He duplicated Crosby's efforts by winning the scoring title and the Hart Trophy as the Capitals shook off a miserable start to win the Southeast Division on the final weekend of the regular season. The Capitals lost in the first round to Philadelphia, a Game 7 overtime thriller at a suddenly jam-packed Verizon Center in downtown Washington.

Crosby battled a high-ankle sprain that sidelined him for six weeks and kept him from challenging Ovechkin for the scoring title. But Crosby returned to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals and finished tied for the playoff scoring lead with 27 points.

And so it has gone for these iconic stars and their franchises: first one, then the other, stepping up and forward.

This season, it is the Capitals who seem poised to take that next Penguins-like stride forward. Although they had a nine-game home winning streak stopped last Friday by Columbus and then lost the following night in Montreal thanks to a last-minute goal, Washington entered this week on a 14-4 run and was firmly ensconced in first place in the Southeast.

The Capitals' East-best 18-2-1 home record has given them a good grasp on the second overall seed in the conference, the same position from which the Penguins launched their playoff run last spring.

As was the case last season when the Penguins ramped up their level of play in the second half, there is more than a little buzz surrounding the Capitals in a former hockey wasteland and what they might be capable of in the coming weeks and months.

Ovechkin has shaken off a slow start and is in hot pursuit of Malkin for the NHL scoring lead. Semin, despite being dogged by injury, has emerged as a significant foil to Ovechkin's greatness with 36 points and a plus-21 rating in 25 games. It's a performance that is mindful of the way Malkin came into his own when Crosby was hurt last season and finished second in NHL scoring to Ovechkin.

With a deep, speedy lineup that includes slick-skating defenseman Mike Green and top playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals are as dynamic a team as there is in the NHL, ranking sixth in goals per game and power-play proficiency.

Funny, that's exactly how the Penguins were described last season.

But on the eve of this latest matchup, those Penguins seem like a distant memory.

Battling injuries to key personnel, like defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney (who just returned to action), and trying to incorporate a handful of new players into their lineup, the air has gone out of the Penguins' balloon.

Heading into Tuesday's game in Philadelphia against the Atlantic Division-leading Flyers, the Penguins were 10th in the East and have won just five of their past 18 games.

In 2007-08, the Penguins were a dynamic force, not just because they could score from anywhere in the lineup (they were fifth in the conference in goals scored and fifth overall on the power play), but because they didn't rely solely on offense to succeed. Under coach Michel Therrien, the Pens were a surprisingly tight defensive unit, allowing the third-fewest goals in the conference behind New Jersey and the New York Rangers.

This season, the Pens rank 25th in goals allowed per game. The power play, even with Malkin and Crosby usually on the ice at the same time, ranks 20th. Last season, the Penguins had a plus-22 goal differential, tied for fourth in the NHL; this season, they are minus-5.

Not surprisingly, the dramatic decline in productivity has produced more than a little angst in Pittsburgh, and rumors that both GM Ray Shero and Therrien are on thin ice.

In some ways, the arc of both teams suggests there is a very small window for most teams to ascend and take advantage of that ascension. In the case of the Penguins, at least to date, the window can close without warning.

Had Philly's Joffrey Lupul not scored that overtime winner in Game 7 last spring and the Capitals prevailed, it would have set up a second-round series matchup against the Penguins. The prospect of Crosby, Ovechkin et al squaring off in the postseason is enough to make even the most jaded hockey scribe salivate.

Such a confrontation may yet be in the cards for these two teams, but only if the Penguins can somehow find the groove the Caps now find themselves happily occupying.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.