Reporting David Elfin
If Dale Hunter’s debut as Washington’s coach on Tuesday against St. Louis had all the emotion of a first game under a new bench boss after the dismissal of a popular predecessor, tonight’s followup could be just as full of drama.
After all, the visitor to Verizon Center is the Capitals’ archrival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. What’s more, the game will be first for Sidney Crosby against Washington since Pittsburgh’s superstar incurred the first of the concussion-like symptoms that sidelined him for almost a year from a hit courtesy of then-Caps forward David Steckel.
While Washington’s Alex Ovechkin continues to struggle to regain the form that made him a two-time Hart Trophy (MVP) winner, Crosby has been better than ever since he returned 10 days ago. In just five games, the NHL’s biggest superstar has 11 points and a plus-7 defensive rating.
That production is similar to Crosby’s usual excellence against the Caps. In 21 games against Washington, Sir Sidney has 13 goals and 22 assists. In 25 games against Pittsburgh, Ovechkin has 19 goals and 14 assists. And Ovi’s plus-15 rating is way better than Crosby’s plus-1 against Washington.
However, those numbers are all about the regular season. When it comes to crunch time, Crosby, 24, almost always delivers while the larger Ovechkin, 26, comes up small.
Crosby is despised in Washington, where he captained Pittsburgh to a second-round playoff triumph in 2009 after the Caps had won the first two games of the series. However, he’s respected in the rest of the States and worshipped in Canada, where he led the Olympic team to gold in 2010 less than a year after captaining the Penguins to the Stanley Cup that Ovechkin and Co. haven’t come close to hoisting.
In fact, the only time that Washington skated for Lord Stanley’s hardware was when Hunter, long one of the NHL’s best clutch players and author of the most memorable goal in Caps history (to stun the then-hated Philadelphia Flyers in the 1988 playoffs) was its 37-year-old captain in 1998. Fortunately for those Caps, they avoided the Penguins that postseason after facing them in five of the previous seven springs.
Of course, as Hunter, then one of Washington’s key players, remembers all too well, Pittsburgh won four of those five series, usually in agonizing fashion.
The Caps led the defending Cup champion Penguins 2-0 in 1992 before Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr et al came roaring back to win in seven games. Washington somehow beat Pittsburgh in 1994 under new coach Jim Schoenfeld, but blew a 3-1 lead in 1995 and a 2-0 advantage in 1996 against the guys in black and gold.
Oddly, after winning just two of 13 games against the Penguins from 2006-08, the Caps are 11-2 against them since including 3-0 while Crosby was sidelined.
So tonight in the Phone Booth on F Street, it’s Caps and Pens, Ovi vs. Crosby and Hunter’s second shot at his first victory as Washington’s coach. What more could a sports fan ask?
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.