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Ovechkin vs. Crosby: Olympic preview?

- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2010

Despite up to three feet of snow falling around the Washington area over the weekend, the NHL pushed hard to ensure Sunday afternoon's Capitals-Penguins took place as scheduled.

Showcasing on national television before the Super Bowl two of the league's brightest stars -- one of them playing for a team riding the longest win streak in nearly 27 years and the other skating for the defending Stanley Cup champions -- the league wanted the NBC broadcast without a hitch -- particularly with Washington and Pittsburgh digging out from a powerful winter storm and looking for some diversion on TV.

If that meant taking the unusual step of flying the visitors from a Saturday afternoon game in Montreal down to Newark, N.J., and have them take buses from there down to Washington -- well, then that's what it meant. The Pens left Quebec in the early evening and didn't pull into the capital until around 2 a.m. Sunday morning.

The end result?

The game provided some great theater for the captive audience and the fans who were able to reach the snowbound Verizon Center, as NBC got a chance to tease its upcoming Olympic coverage with both Washington's Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby putting on quite a show. The two stars combined for five goals and an assist in a wild 5-4 Capitals overtime win that keeps their win streak alive at 14 games and counting.

The last time the Penguins skated on the Capitals' home ice nine months ago, they jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, beating the Capitals soundly in the deciding Game 7 of their second-round playoff series and going on to claim the franchise's third Stanley Cup.

Once the puck dropped Sunday, it looked like deja vu, as Crosby potted two goals before the game was even 10 minutes old and thanks to two more tallies by Eric Staal, Pittsburgh eventually built up a 4-1 lead heading into the latter stages of the second period, putting Washington's win streak in serious jeopardy with less than 27 minutes left in regulation.

But after Eric Fehr helped the Caps pull within two and a good penalty-killing effort sandwiched around the second intermission, Ovechkin took over, scoring two goals in the third period and then setting up Mike Knuble's overtime winner to send the last NHL crowd in Washington until March home happy.

Its always nice to win, especially when you are a little bit frustrated in the first [period]," Ovechkin said afterwards. "[The] game [didn't] go well for us right away. Its nice to come back and win in OT especially.

With the NHL season set to break in a week to let its players take part in the Vancouver Olympics, Crosby is the face of the gold-medal favorite Canadians. The Penguins star is currently gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated north of the border and is widely expected above the 49th parallel to lead the host nation to its second Olympic gold in men's hockey in eight years.

Crosby, fresh off a Stanley Cup run in Pittsburgh last spring, will now have the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders, as the Canadian fans expect him to repeat his postseason heroics in the compressed format of the Olympic tournament.

But as the Penguins' primary threat to win their third straight Eastern Conference title seem to be Ovechkin's Capitals, so too the primary stumbling block for Crosby's Canadian club will be Ovechkin and the Russian squad. The Russians can nearly match Canada's offensive firepower and with a talented group led by the Capitals' captain, in a single-game elimination format, they are capable of grabbing the first gold medal for the nation since it competed as the post-Soviet Unified team in 1992.

On this Sunday with the two stars still wearing their NHL colors, the game was a perfect showcase for the network and the upcoming tournament, with both stars performing well and producing a game featuring a memorable rally and a dramatic finish.

"It's always intense," Crosby told reporters afterwards. "I think everyone always expects an emotional and intense game when these two teams play each other It felt like a playoff atmosphere to me. Everyone wants to win these games. These two teams have quite the rivalry now. I think everyone tries to bring out their best here.

Of course, Capitals fans are getting used to having to deal with some sizeable adversity during Washington's 14-game win streak, the longest in the NHL since Pittsburgh won a record 17 in a row in the spring of 1993 and now tied for the third-longest streak since the NHL was founded in 1917.

In those 14 games, the Capitals now have trailed in eight of those games, including now having erased a pair of three-goal deficits in that streak - the first game of the streak back on Jan. 13 in Florida and now Sunday's win over their biggest nemesis. While the Capitals had every chance to wilt on Sunday as they did in Game 7 last spring, they were able to kill off what could have been a disastrous 5-on-3 disadvantage late in the second period and then scored twice in the third to force overtime. Then, Ovechkin rang a shot off post that was poked in by Knuble with 2:11 left in the extra session for the game-winner.

When asked on what helped fuel the Caps' comeback, Ovechkin credited those who braved snow-clogged roads and a limited Metro system to head to Chinatown.

"I think it's the weather," the captain said. "The crowd wasn't getting in during the first period. You can see the crowd pushing us in the third period and we just keep going, keep going and its pretty sick.

Now, the last question Washington faces before the league breaks for the Olympics is if they can pull even with the NHL record. Already having extended the franchise record with 14 overall wins and also setting a new mark of 11 straight home wins on Sunday, the Caps now embark on a three-game road trip before they head into the into the break. Washington will be heading to Montreal, Ottawa and then St. Louis potentially having a chance to reach 17 in a row before splitting up until early March.

For NHL fans, it was an appetizer before the Olympic tournament kicks off in nine days, and for Capitals fans, a last chance for awhile to watch the hottest NHL team in a generation in person.

And, for one, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was happy the game went off as scheduled.

"I am pretty excited and I am really excited for hockey that that game was put on TV today," he told reporters afterwards. "That's what people pay to see; when superstars shine and there's tension and excitement and there's physical play, you can see the passion on both sides. That's what hockey's all about."