Getting to know Sid, Geno and Ovie
WASHINGTON -- As the Big Three matchups kick off Saturday, here's an overview of the Pittsburgh and Washington stars:
The skinny: If it's possible to have a quiet 103-point campaign, Crosby managed it this season, finishing third in NHL scoring. His low center of gravity makes him especially difficult to dislodge from the puck, and his ability to see the game two or three plays ahead (à la Wayne Gretzky) make him a rare talent.
He remains one of the hardest workers, dictating the tone and tenor for the rest of the Penguins' locker room. This season, for instance, Crosby finished seventh in faceoffs won and leads the playoffs by a wide margin with a 63.5 percent success rate on the draw.
Said former NHL netminder and national broadcast analyst Darren Eliot: "I say this with the most admiration, but he's the most gifted grinder in the game. He's willing to do it."
Against the Capitals: The Capitals will be paying special attention to both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and how they approach the game in their preparation for this series.
Defenseman Mike Green, nominated for the Norris Trophy for his stellar season on the Caps' blue line, said their game starts between their respective ears.
"You can't give them any time and space to create plays, and if you do, they're going to capitalize," Green said. "As long as we play solid against those guys, we should be OK.
"They're just all-around good players," he added. "They're not just offensively good, they're good defensively, too. Malkin likes to carry the puck, and Crosby likes to make plays around the net."
The skinny: Malkin is surrounded by more than a hint of the unknown relating to his ability to avoid dealing with the media, something Ovechkin has embraced and Crosby has accepted as his duty. On the ice, though, Malkin has, in a very short period of time, become one of the game's best players.
He led the NHL in takeaways during the regular season and is practically unstoppable along the goal line and in the offensive corners when he gains control of the puck. He will shoot when the opportunity is there, but his 78 assists, best in the NHL, suggest he also has vision few defenders can control.
A perfect example of Malkin's evolving game was in Game 6 in the first round against Philadelphia. The Penguins were trailing 3-0 in the second period when Malkin roared down the right side, changing his pace and driving the puck to the front of the net. Ruslan Fedotenko poked home the rebound, and the Penguins' comeback had been launched.
With his 6-foot-3 frame, Malkin has developed a more physical edge to his game, and while he's never going to be considered a ruffian, he is in the thick of it in all three zones of the ice. He led all skaters with nine points in six games through the first round. Last season, as the playoffs progressed, Malkin tired, and by the time the Cup finals rolled around, he was a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the postseason. His regular season and early playoff performance this spring suggests more maturity and stamina, which makes the Penguins a dangerous team.
Against the Capitals: In the Penguins' dressing room, the belief is the Caps will have to stop both their stars to get past them.
"Everybody talks about Sid and Alex [Ovechkin], but Geno [Malkin] is the leading scorer in the league, probably going to win the Hart," Pittsburgh forward Maxime Talbot said. "I hope so, obviously. I hope what happens is [Crosby and Ovechkin] battle like crazy and Geno comes in and goes over the top, because that would be good for our team."
"The Great 8," as he is sometimes called, has scored 121 goals over the past two NHL seasons, and in a league chock-a-block with engaging young stars, Ovechkin remains the king of dynamism.
"Raw power" is how Eliot describes him. Ovechkin launches shots on goal from everywhere and from every angle. His ability to generate terrific velocity on his shots, even from bad angles or off his back foot or off balance, is uncanny and unparalleled.
"He's got that good release, and it's very accurate," Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury said Thursday. "You know he's going to shoot a lot. People say he's not looking to pass it, but he will, and he can pass the puck, so you've got to be aware."
Against the Penguins: Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said Ovechkin represents a special threat because he is dynamic both with the puck and without it. Is there a downside to his game? Ovechkin led all forwards with an average of 23 minutes of ice time per night, perhaps suggesting his shift length is too long, but if there's one guy you want overstaying his shift, it's Ovechkin. Still, knowing your limitations is important.
Eliot said Ovechkin tried to do too much early in the first round against the Rangers, "and it almost backfired."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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THE SHOWDOWN: CAPITALS VS. PENGUINS
Crosby. Malkin. Ovechkin. The NHL's three biggest stars on the same playoff stage with a conference finals berth on the line: