- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Washington Capitals fans wounded by the lack of representation of their club in the upcoming All-Star Game can consider Wednesday night’s matchup against the Penguins in Pittsburgh as the next best thing.

This game, in fact, might even be better. This is no exhibition. This game counts, and the stars on both teams will be pumped up to play for better reasons than All-Star pride.

“It is almost like an All-Star Game, with lots of good players and a great atmosphere,” Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin said.

You have the three best players in the league on the ice: Ovechkin, plus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins. You also have the All-Star snubs of the Capitals, particularly Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom.

“There probably could have been three from each team on the All-Star team,” Green said. “I could see how people could see this as an All-Star Game.”

“There are a lot of good players on both teams, but I think it is more because they are both good teams,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “And I don’t think it hurts that the top three players in the league in terms of getting attention - Malkin, Crosby and Ovechkin - [are] in the same game. It always makes for a good buildup and media.”

But not a manufactured buildup. There are no trinkets or schemes to market the outcome as meaningful.

This game means something for the trio of superstars battling for the reputation of the best pound-for-pound player in the NHL, and you can believe that brings more intensity to the ice than any other regular-season game, let alone an All-Star exhibition.

“Absolutely, players get up for the challenge,” Green said. “When two players meet who are considered in the same category, you want to be the best. You don’t want that other person to beat you. You do everything you can to be better than him, within the limits of the team.”

Ovechkin recognizes that challenge, and he welcomes it. “Of course,” he said. “You want to prove that you are the best.”

Beyond the individual matchups, you have two franchises that share a long and bitter rivalry and may be destined to meet in the playoffs for years to come - though they may face each other earlier than anticipated this postseason, given the Penguins’ performance.

The Capitals are one of the hottest teams in the league, but the Penguins are on a steep downward slide, losing seven of their past eight games. In fact, the Penguins (20-19-4) would not qualify for the playoffs if they began this week.

Finally, as if this game needed more hype, there is the Capitals’ other Alex.

Wednesday’s game marks the first time the teams have met since Alexander Semin’s public swipes at Crosby.

“What’s so special about [Crosby]?” Semin said two months ago in an interview with Sovetsky Sports that later was translated into English and circulated widely. “I don’t see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there’s nothing else.”

Semin said the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane was “a much more interesting player” and suggested that Crosby was a product of NHL marketing.

“I think that if you take any player, even if he is deadwood, and start promoting him, you’ll get a star,” he said. “Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill.”

The Capitals’ spin is that something was lost in translation.

“The way he said it in Russian is not the way it should be translated in English,” teammate Sergei Fedorov said. “He said it in a nice way. He said my preference is not necessarily for Crosby, even though he is an awesome player. I like a certain style, which in this case is Kane.

“People immediately saw it as a big slam against Crosby, and it was not in Russian at all. It is like, ‘I like spaghetti, you like meatball.’ It is just preferences.”

This, of course, opens up a whole new world for quote distancing. “Taken out of context” was the previous standard. Now it is “lost in translation.” I wonder when Terrell Owens will play that card.

Ovechkin, who already has a rivalry with Crosby and a feud with Malkin, downplayed his teammate’s comments.

“It was long time ago, so everybody probably going to forget,” he said.

Not likely. Nearly everything is memorable when the Capitals meet the Penguins. After all, this is no bland All-Star exhibition. It is the best against the best, with a lot of spice thrown in.

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