- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Alex Ovechkin paused for a moment, contemplating the biggest change in his game since he and the Washington Capitals last faced Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“Maturity,” he finally said. “I’m 30 right now.”

It has been seven years since the two teams faced off in the Eastern Conference semifinals — a series punctuated by dueling hat tricks from Ovechkin and Crosby in Game 2. It seemed then, when the two budding superstars were in their early 20s, that their paths would cross every spring, perhaps even one-upping each other for a chance at lifting the Stanley Cup.

Instead, those looking for annual battles between Crosby and Ovechkin have had to whet their appetites with an otherwise bland barrage of regular-season contests. That is, until Thursday, when the long-awaited sequel arrives as the teams face off in Game 1 of a second-round playoff series.

“I think it brings out the best in both of us,” Crosby told reporters earlier this week, referring to his battles with Ovechkin. “I feel like in the past that’s been the case. I think there’s a lot made of it, but I think at the same time, we want to be at our best for our respective teams. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Ovechkin and Crosby arrived simultaneously as subsequent No. 1 overall picks in 2005, the year after an owners’ lockout wiped out an entire season, and were part of a marketing machine designed to refuel interest in hockey.

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Their individual performances didn’t disappoint — Crosby won the Hart Trophy in 2007, with Ovechkin claiming it the year later — even though their teams needed some time to rebuild. That process culminated in the first playoff meeting between the two teams following the 2008-09 season, with the two standouts making their presence known in the series’ second game.

After the Capitals captured the opener, Crosby helped the Penguins set the tone in Game 2 with a first-period power-play goal. Ovechkin scored early in the second period and added two goals in the third, prompting Crosby to ask officials to find a way to end the waves of hats being thrown onto the ice.

Crosby polished off his hat trick with an extra attacker in the final minute, though the Penguins lost, 4-3. He’d end up with the last laugh as the Penguins won the series in seven games en route to winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1992.

“I thought it was a pretty wild series,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said on Tuesday. “Two good teams playing good hockey.”

The tenor of that series, plus the attraction of Crosby and Ovechkin, caused the NHL to schedule the teams for its annual Winter Classic in Pittsburgh in 2011. That year, documentary crews followed the two teams and their stars for a multi-part series leading up to the game, a 3-1 victory by the Capitals that may be better remembered for the concussion sustained by Crosby that cost him a good number of games over the next two seasons.

His continued absences, plus the Capitals’ inability to advance deep into the playoffs, kept the two sides at arm’s length. That their showdown has been rekindled this year, when Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy and Pittsburgh won 14 of its final 16 regular-season games, is no surprise.

Maturity — if not mere age — has also altered the two players’ approach. Crosby, now 28, is on a short list of Hart Trophy candidates after scoring 36 goals with 49 assists, and Ovechkin reached the 50-goal mark for the seventh time.

Their performances could be a product of what Capitals coach Barry Trotz called “a sense of mortality.” Trotz used Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr as an example: Jagr, who won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992, likely had his most productive season in several years despite being 44 because he recognized his opportunities are winnowing.

“I think when you’re young, you think that it’s going to happen every year and so you’ve got lots of time,” Trotz said. “It’s almost like, not entitlement, but you think it’s going to happen all the time. As you get older, you realize how special these times are and how hard you have to work to get these opportunities.”

Ovechkin and Crosby each tried to downplay their intertwined existence this week, with Ovechkin succinctly noting, “It’s all about Caps and Penguins.” Trotz, too, said it was “actually quite disrespectful” to boil the series down to a meeting of the two superstars, given the quality of players on each team.

Alas, all eyes will be on both players for the next two weeks, much as has been the case since they arrived over a decade ago.

“It’s a little funny, but we’ve heard it since they both came in the league,” said T.J. Oshie, who joined the Capitals via trade last summer. “It’s been Sid versus Ovi the whole time. I think it just adds to the excitement, especially with the fans who are watching.”

• Zac Boyer can be reached at zboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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