- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

Ryan Malone grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb and spent his youth watching numerous contests between his hometown Penguins and one of their biggest rivals, the Washington Capitals.

As the teams prepare to meet today for the 175th time during the regular season — the most against an opponent for the Caps — the Penguins find themselves in the middle of an off-ice battle that threatens the future of the rivalry.

The Penguins’ lease with Mellon Arena expires after this season, and the ownership group — which is led by Pittsburgh legend Mario Lemieux — may move the team if city and state officials do not come up with a deal for a new arena to their liking.

“Sometimes [members of the media] are like, ‘How does it feel?’ Obviously growing up that was all I knew was Penguin hockey, and right now I am just hoping that I will be a part of that,” said Malone, who now plays on the left wing of his hometown team’s top line. “It is a privilege to pull this sweater on and it is a dream come true. If the team does leave, it is really going to hurt the fans. Hopefully it won’t come down to that.”

The two teams have met seven times in the postseason since 1991, and Olie Kolzig has been in net for the Caps for many of those battles during the past decade. The Penguins have won six of those seven series, so some Caps fans may be happy to see them in Kansas City, Mo., or another city.

“No I am not a Pittsburgh fan and I’ll be the first to admit it,” Kolzig said. “There is a lot of history in that city. I am talking from a selfish point of view obviously with the [Caps] history with that organization.

“It is an organization that has won two Stanley Cups and it is a terrific sports town. I cannot understand how the city does not stand up and help them with the new arena. It just baffles me.”

The Penguins’ departure would cause a shock to the NHL system on many fronts. No team with a Stanley Cup championship banner in the rafters of its arena has ever moved after winning the championship.

There will be economic ramifications, and it’s hard to determine how the move would affect the Caps organization. Home games against Pittsburgh have traditionally been some of the most-attended. Last season the Caps had two home sellouts and one of them was with the Penguins in town.

But since the last NHL realignment the teams no longer are in the same division and only play four times a season and only twice at Verizon Center.

Players from other teams are paying attention to the situation because of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. The salary cap for each season is set based on league-wide revenues, so if there is more money to be made in Kansas City, then it could boost the cap and mean more money for player contracts.

“It is unfortunate when any city loses a team. At the end of the day you have to do what is best for the league,” Caps left wing Matt Pettinger said. “We’re a revenue-sharing league now, and if they can’t come to an agreement in Pittsburgh and have to move, it is for the betterment of the NHL.”

A move would mean Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby likely would see less of each other. The NHL has banked its future on the marketing of the two young mega-stars and the rivalry — even if both players say it is a friendly one — that is developing.

If the Penguins move west, there likely will be another realignment and the franchise would shift to the Western Conference. Caps fans only see each team from the West at Verizon once every three seasons with the current schedule model.

“I’ll tell you this — if Pittsburgh moves to the other conference, they [the league] will change the schedule so that Ovie and Crosby do end up playing twice a year,” Kolzig said. “They won’t let that happen. But there are so many other talented players in the league now.”

While the franchises haven’t faced each other in the playoffs since the 2000-01 season, both teams have taken a step forward this season and boast plenty of young talent. Should the Penguins stay in Pittsburgh, there could be many more playoff rendezvous in the near future. If the Penguins went west, it would have to happen in the Stanley Cup finals.

“They [the Penguins and Caps] have had some great battles and a lot of tradition there and it would be a shame if we left,” Malone said. “I guess there is a new crop of young guys on both sides, which makes it more exciting. It is kind of the next generation of the teams’ history.”

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