- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin — the stuff “24/7,” the Winter Classic and, let’s face it, the NHL is made of. For a while it was the biggest rivalry in the league, reinvigorating the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Washington Capitals as must-see TV and even more of a must-see in person.

But Crosby missed over 10 months with a concussion, and events this week, from the firing of Bruce Boudreau to the hiring of Dale Hunter (and then Boudreau’s move to Anaheim to replace Randy Carlyle) have seemingly made Sid vs. Ovi a side act.

“New coaching change, Hunter coming in — really only played one game under him. It’s tough to know what to expect totally from their team system-wise, but we know we’re playing a good team,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

The talk this week, at least in Washington, has centered on the regime change from Boudreau to Hunter and the adjustments that lie within. Players could be seen sprinting out of the locker room, one even falling over himself, to get to a team meeting after Thursday’s morning skate — believed to be the first time that has happened here in a while.

But to the principals involved in this rivalry, Crosby vs. Ovechkin is still worth talking about.

“It’s good for league for guys and good for everybody when he’s come back,” Ovechkin said. “You get more attention to the game — especially it’s back to the attention that it used to be. It’s going to be another game. You have to compete and you have to win the battles.”

Crosby has two goals and nine assists in just five games this season. Ovechkin has eight goals and 10 assists in 23 games.

But Ovechkin likes the “attention” and the spotlight that comes with facing the Penguins, especially with Crosby in the lineup.

“It’s always a challenge for any player,” Hunter said. “I know any player that wants to play and you’re going head-to-head with another great player … it brings the blood flowing and you’re going to be ready to play.”

Crosby is chugging along with points in four of his five games since returning from post-concussion symptoms. But even that might not be his ceiling.

“I think he’s played some awesome hockey,” Bylsma. “I think he’d tell you and he will tell you and he has told you that there’s more there. But I’m not surprised to see him be on the score sheet, make plays and guys around him benefiting and getting goals from him and the way he has been preparing and playing and practicing for two months.”

Crosby, who hasn’t shaved his mustache because of superstitious intentions, said he’s not “right there” and in a groove yet.

“I still think I can be better, timing and stuff like that. I think with each game it’s gotten better,” Crosby said. “I don’t expect to be there in five games. But I expect to get better with each game in certain areas. Some things have been like that; some other things take time. But I’m happy with the way I’ve felt for the most part.”

Whether a healthy Crosby means a more focused or productive Ovechkin remains to be seen.

“I think it’s a good rivalry for the teams,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “I know he seems to have good games against Pittsburgh, Ovi does. We’ll look for another good performance from him tonight.”

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