- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Capitals winger Brooks Laich remembers the game well.

It was eight years ago almost to the day – Nov. 22, 2005 – when Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the two marquee stars of this generation of NHL players, met for the first time at the old Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.

Laich scored a goal, which is part of why that night still stands out in his mind. But Crosby had one of his own and an assist. Ovechkin assisted on a goal by Matt Pettinger before the Penguins won 5-4. It was the beginning of a longstanding rivalry that still leaves both men uneasy even as it helps their sport attract outside attention.

“I think that regardless of where we are, I think that everybody always watches these games,” Crosby told the Canadian Press in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of eyes on them. We know that it brings out the best in both teams, and, I think, both players.”

Washington and Pittsburgh resume their rivalry on Wednesday night at Verizon Center with first place on the line in the new Metropolitan Division. With the NHL moving back to a four-division setup, the two teams find themselves in the same division for the first time since the 1992-93 season.

“Of course, it’s challenge for me and for [Crosby], I think,” Ovechkin said. “But don’t forget [Penguins forward Evgeni] Malkin and don’t forget [Caps forward Nicklas Backstrom]. I don’t think it’s only two of us, right now.”

That’s always been how Crosby and Ovechkin have approached the media storm that inevitably precedes one of their games. The rivalry reached its high point during their epic 2009 second-round playoff series, a seven-game classic that showcased the sport at its best. In Game 2, both players finished with hat tricks in a 4-3 Washington victory.

They have played each other in a Winter Classic and multiple times on Super Bowl Sundays, including the infamous Blizzard game at Verizon Center in 2010. But those games have always been as much about the teams put around Crosby and Ovechkin as the stars themselves.

“I really, honestly, don’t care about the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry,” Laich said. “I love our guy. I think our guy is a fantastic player. I think he’s a world-class player. And I’m sure every guy on their team is gonna say the same about [Crosby]. But when we play that game, it’s us against Pittsburgh…. We want to be a better team than what they are and that’s the only way it’s ever been.”

It’s not an unfair assessment. Ovechkin chuckled softly on Tuesday when asked about Crosby as a player. He’s heard some version of that question multiple times every year since they first met that November night in 2005. Generational talents taken No 1 overall in consecutive drafts, they have been measured against each other since before their NHL careers even began.

Crosby has a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2010. Ovechkin’s resume in the team category is slight. The Caps have never made it past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs during his time. But he does have three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player.

“Those two guys have been the face of the NHL and been promoted that way. They’re both playing (an) extremely high level of hockey right now,” Penguins winger Chris Kunitz told reporters in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “Ovechkin always being able to shoot the puck and score goals and help his team and lead his team. It’s the same for our team with Sid being able to collect the points and do everything that we need him to do. I think that obviously helps the rivalry, but I think the history is part of it too: Playing each other in playoffs, having some big games.”

It’s only November so players on both sides did their best to downplay the significance of Wednesday’s contest. The Penguins and Caps will still meet three more times. But so far they have been the class of a disappointing Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh is 13-8-0 with 26 points and is alone in first place. Washington is 12-8-1 with 25 points, but is playing much better hockey after a slow start. The Caps are 11-4-1 over their last 15 games.

It might not be 2009 anymore. But Crosby, 26, is finally in a stretch of sustained good health after battling concussion symptoms that wrecked his 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. He entered Tuesday tied for the NHL lead in points (26). And Ovechkin, 28, who found his game last season and earned that third Hart Trophy, was tied for the league lead with 17 goals and fourth in points (24).

“It’s good for the NHL because they’re both faces of the NHL, they’re both superstars in this league and they both sell the game extremely well,” Washington winger Troy Brouwer said. “Any time you can have a faceoff with those two big names in one game playing against each other, it’s gonna sell tickets and it’s gonna create a lot more buzz.”