The most compelling matchup since the 2004-05 lockout season looms as some of the NHL’s brightest young talent gets ready to test one another in the second round of the playoffs.
On one side you’ve got the Pittsburgh Penguins, with 100-point men Sidney Crosby and Evegni Malkin, and on the other you have the Washington Capitals, who feature Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.
The NHL has saved the feature series of the conference semifinals for last, with Game 1 set for Saturday (1 p.m. ET) in Washington, after the other three series have already begun.
Even the coaches, Dan Bylsma for Pittsburgh and Bruce Boudreau for Washington, are excited about the display of high-paced skill that awaits.
“It’s amazing to have the ability to market the game like this, to have a clash between two up and coming organizations and players that we both have,” Bylsma said on a conference call on Thursday. “At a time when we’re trying to grow our game, we have a lot of special young players and to get them going head-to-head against each other is amazing.
“They have great personalities and faces we can recognize, but they’re also fantastic hockey talents. And the teams play a high speed, high energy game. It makes for great entertainment.”
It adds to the drama that the mischievous Ovechkin seems to delight in provoking the thin-skinned Crosby, and that Ovechkin and Malkin don’t always get along.
“Yes, it’s a rivalry … but I don’t know how you want to describe it,” Crosby told reporters Thursday. “What’s a rivalry? It’s intense. We compete and we’re competitive, and usually when we play each other we both try to raise our games.”
Crosby, 21, won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in 2007 for his 120-point sophomore season. The 23-year-old Ovechkin took it last season when he scored 65 goals and had 112 points.
Ovechkin is a candidate to win it again this year along with Datsyuk and 22-year-old Malkin, who led the league with 113 points, three more than Ovechkin, although the Caps star led with 56 goals.
The Caps also bring the crafty Semin, 25, and the gifted Backstrom, 21.
In their prime, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux never got to play against one another in a playoff series, so this could be the biggest best-on-best battle for many years. It is sure to be closely watched, particularly the Ovechkin-Crosby sideshow.
“Anything they say is going to be picked up and magnified,” said Boudreau. “I watch the Alexes (Ovechkin and Semin) here and there’s no animosity or vindictiveness in anything they say, but anything they say will be made top news in the series.
“But I don’t want them to change the way they are. Alex (Ovechkin) is a fun-loving guy who says what’s on his mind. He doesn’t seem to worry about it. But he is smart enough that I don’t think he’s going to say anything silly.”
Bylsma also is not worried about the rivalry becoming a distraction, as Crosby has been living in the spotlight since he played junior hockey in Rimouski.
“As far as the gamesmanship, this is not the first time our guys have had to deal with it,” he said. “Crosby’s been pestered by Philadelphia and taunted by the crowd and had to deal with quality players they have, like Mike Richards.
“Certainly, they understand what’s going to happen – the media attention, scrutiny, but these guys are pretty experienced in dealing with that situation, even though they’re young.”
Ovechkin skipped practice in Washington on Thursday to work with his strength and conditioning coach, although the Caps insist there is nothing wrong with him. He was in a good mood later when asked the inevitable questions about Crosby.
“He’s a superstar. Me, I’m just like you guys,” he told reporters, before adding that the series was between two teams and not two individuals.
“Do I wake up hoping to see Ovechkin fail? No, I don’t,” Crosby added. “He’s a guy I play against and he’s a great player and we’re competitive against each other but, you know what? There’s an element there where the media puts us up against each other, and that’s just the way it is. We’re not best friends, but a lot of that is made up.”
They all may take a back seat to another 21-year-old – Caps goaltender Simeon Varlamov.
He took over for a shaky Jose Theodore for Game 2 of the opening round against the New York Rangers and, two shutouts later, helped them to a seven-game series win after trailing 3-1 in games.
“We’d only seen him play in six games, but we had a lot of faith in him,” said Boudreau. “The reason we did it was, we thought we could always come back to Theodore, but if we’d waited until Game 3, it would have been too much pressure for him to start in New York down 2-0, so we thought we’d see him in Game 2 and we could decide after that.
“He’s so quiet, I don’t know if it’s affecting him. I’m sure that, like any one of us, he’s got a good poker face but his stomach is churning. I could only imagine if I was there. But he seems very calm. Quite frankly, I haven’t talked to him since Game 1. I let our goalie coach (Dave Prior) talk to him and make sure he’s OK.”
The Penguins have certainly taken note that the Capitals, who entered the playoffs with suspect goaltending, now have one of the hottest in the league. In six games, Varlamov allowed only seven goals for a sterling 1.17 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.
“Our goalie coach Gilles Meloche has spent the last two days looking at the tape – the shots, how he comes out and makes saves, where other teams have scored on him, where other teams got second chances from,” said Bylsma. “We’ll put together a tape for our players so they’ll know what to expect.
“It’s part of any series, but in this series in particular, with a young and relatively inexperienced goaltender, it’s certainly a focus. We want to make it as difficult as we can on him.”
-With files from the Associated Press.