NHL GAME OF THE WEEK
Originally Published: Feb 7, 2013

W2W4: Capitals at Penguins

Is the buzz still there for Caps-Pens?

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Where there was once a palpable, almost crackling buzz, there is now only a low humming similar to the sound your refrigerator makes when it's working hard to make more ice.

That is what comes to mind as the Washington Capitals limp into Pittsburgh to face the Penguins for the second time in four days on Thursday night.

Marquee rivalry? Hmmm. Or is that hummmmmm.

The Penguins have won four in a row, including a 6-3 victory over Washington on Super Bowl Sunday. The Capitals, meanwhile, are mired at the bottom of the NHL standings with a 2-7-1 record. They have a league-worst minus-13 goal differential.

While most of the attention has been focused on the trials and tribulations of star Alex Ovechkin, who has just two goals thus far, it's clear that some of the Caps' important supporting cast did not arrive at training camp ready to play NHL hockey. The goaltending has wavered between average and atrocious, as the team ranks 27th in goals allowed per game.

The disparate tracks charted early on in this lockout-shortened season add to the feeling that it was a long time ago that every meeting between these two teams was an event, something to be circled on the calendar at the start of each season.

Still, as the Penguins and the Capitals enter a different phase of their relationship, they remain inexorably linked because of the star power Ovechkin continues to command, and the star power of counterpart Sidney Crosby and countryman Evgeni Malkin.

Craig Laughlin played for the Washington Capitals in the days when the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry meant the buzz of playing against Mario Lemieux and epic playoff battles in the 1980s. He has been a broadcast analyst for the Capitals since 1990.

He insists that even though Ovechkin's offensive numbers are down, his stature continues to inject life into the long-standing emotion that exists between these two teams.

"Everyone wants to talk about him. He still carries the marquee tag in Washington, where he's beloved, and he's still Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh and their fans always want their two guys [Crosby and Malkin] to outshine him," Laughlin said Wednesday shortly after the Capitals arrived in Pittsburgh.

If Ovechkin scores three Thursday night, that's what people around hockey will be talking about, Laughlin said.

Former Cap Keith Jones, now a national analyst, believes Ovechkin has to be fully restored for the rivalry to be likewise fully restored.

"With Ovechkin's decline, the rivalry is diminishing," he said. "In the early '90s when I was in Washington, we had some really good playoff run-ins with the Pens. Unfortunately they had Mario and Jagr [Jaromir], and we would fall short. It really became an evenly matched rivalry when Ovi came to Washington, but it is going to be a thing of the past if the 'Great Eight' is just the 'Average Eight' that he's been showing."

Memory has a way of distorting things, so it's easy to forget that even though Crosby and Ovechkin arrived to much fanfare at the end of the previous lockout, there was not an immediate ignition to the Caps-Pens rivalry.

Early meetings between the two stars created almost zero buzz, especially in Washington, where fans had still not learned to fill the Verizon Center on a nightly basis.

The Pens were terrible that first post-lockout season (2005-06), and the Caps not much better.

But the buzz was coming.

Crosby and Ovechkin grew quickly to become dominant players, trading scoring titles and Hart trophies.

They dragged these two teams into a new landscape in terms of buzz and excitement.

By the spring of 2008, fans were already salivating at the prospect of Crosby and Ovechkin taking their intense battles to the grand stage of the postseason. It almost happened that spring. The Penguins had already dispatched Ottawa in five games in the first round of the playoffs and would face the winner of a Washington-Philadelphia series after the Caps had made a surprise run to the Southeast Division title under new coach Bruce Boudreau.

But veteran Sergei Fedorov turned away from a delicious fake shot-pass from Ovechkin that would have given the Caps the series, and Joffrey Lupul went on to score for the Flyers in overtime in Game 7 to delay the much-anticipated clash of the titans.

However, fans didn't have to wait long, as it turned out.

The following spring in the second round, the Penguins and Capitals would meet, a chance to showcase not just Crosby and Ovechkin -- although they were the rivalry ringmasters, to be sure -- but two teams that were seemingly built for the long haul.

There was Norris trophy nominee Mike Green, the superlative Nicklas Backstrom and the gritty Brooks Laich, while Crosby was buoyed by Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury in net.

The Stanley Cup playoffs never want for drama, but has there been a series in recent memory that drew the casual fans, the casual media observers in a way this series did?

"It was kind of like, OK, who's going to be the real leader. For each player it was kind of a crossroads," recalled Phil...

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