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Tonight’s not personal

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Alex Ovechkin refused to be nudged off his stance on tonight's game against Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh.

It's not a personal grudge match between two young stars, the Washington Capitals' star insisted yesterday. Instead, it's a game between two young teams that are fighting for points to earn a trip to the playoffs.

The Caps and Penguins meet tonight at Verizon Center in the first of their four encounters this season. Pittsburgh took three of the four last season. Each young star had three goals, but Crosby had six assists to Ovechkin's three.

This may actually be more of a Russian reunion, which appeared to be the case yesterday morning as the Caps were winding down their practice and the Penguins were arriving at Verizon Center. Former Caps defenseman Sergei Gonchar and center Evgeni Malkin, the current rookie pacesetter, came to the boards and were immediately greeted by Caps with Russian connections -- Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus and Alexander Semin.

All five knew one another and in some cases were teammates in Russia. But Ovechkin left no doubt that when the game starts, only NHL team loyalties matter.

"All game important to us because we want to go playoffs," Ovechkin said. "Every team want to go playoffs, so every point is important for us, so we try to win this game. So I meet Malkin again. I meet Crosby in D.C. Pittsburgh and Capitals meet again in D.C., not Crosby and Ovechkin."

The two were the talk of the hockey world a year ago as rookies, and the NHL has been trying to build this game into some kind of early season sideshow that it is not. The team that collects the two points from tonight might be important in April.

"I think it's more enjoyable [now] because it's not just the two guys," coach Glen Hanlon said. "Knowing their personalities, they likely don't want it to be one person against one person, they want their teams to be [in the spotlight]. It's two good young teams that are playing so that's kind of exciting."

Ovechkin was rookie of the year with 52 goals and 106 points. This season he's on pace for 51 goals and 99 points. Crosby was a distant second in the Calder Trophy balloting with 39 goals and 102 points. This season he projects to get 123 points.

Ovechkin probably never will be a dominant defensive forward, but he is concentrating on and making great strides toward improving his defense. But he often contributes a picture-perfect goal or two simply because of the way he plays the game -- at full speed.

Crosby is improving in many of the same ways as Ovechkin -- playing better defense, winning more faceoffs, maturing physically and mentally and still going all-out on every shift. One noticeable change is he no longer engages officials in verbal sparring matches.

Pittsburgh this season in some ways is going through what Washington went through last season, starting to shed aging free agents to make room for younger players. Veteran left wing John LeClair, with just two goals in 21 games, has been on waivers for more than a week with no takers.

Notes -- Former Caps player Peter Bondra, unemployed since the end of last season when Atlanta let him go, signed a one-year deal yesterday with injury-riddled Chicago. The right wing is two goals shy of 500 in his NHL career. He must pass a physical today but could play as soon as tomorrow in St. Louis. He will be paid a prorated base salary of $500,000 with incentives for goals, games-played and playoff goals that could bring his package to $1.5 million. ...

The forward who made the game-saving defensive play late in the Philadelphia game was misidentified in The Washington Times on Sunday. It was Matt Pettinger, not Ben Clymer.

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