Peter Laviolette was previously restricted to observing and admiring those battles between the Pittsburgh Penguins center and Washington Capitals forward from afar. So the new Washington coach is looking forward to his first up-close look at the rivalry when Crosby and the Penguins host Ovechkin and the Capitals at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday (noon ET; NBC, SN).
It will be the first of eight games between Washington and Pittsburgh in the MassMutual East Division this season and the 78th time Ovechkin and Crosby will play each other in the NHL, including the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“For so long when these two teams, Pittsburgh and Washington, have squared off, it made noise and it made noise because of these guys,” Laviolette said. “They’ve been elite for a long time, and I think that always makes for good hockey. It makes for a good story.”
Part of the story this time is the Penguins are desperate for a win after opening the season with two losses to the Philadelphia Flyers. Crosby scored a goal in each of those defeats.
The Capitals are seeking their first 3-0-0 start since 2011-12 after winning two games against the Buffalo Sabres. Ovechkin has not scored a goal but has two assists.
With 706 NHL goals, Ovechkin is three from passing Mike Gartner for eighth place.
Since they entered the NHL in 2005-06, Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, is first with 1,280 points (706 goals, 574 assists) in 1,154 games; Crosby, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, is second with 1,265 points (464 goals, 801 assists) in 986 games.
“They’re two of very best players of not only their generation, but they’re two of the very best players all-time,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “And I think the fact that they both play in the same division, and both teams have established the rivalries that they’ve had over such a long period of time, creates a certain level of excitement around not only that rivalry in and of itself but the League as a whole.”
NBC Sports analyst Eddie Olczyk, a former NHL forward who coached the Penguins from 2003-05, remembers well the hype leading up to the first NHL meeting between Crosby and Ovechkin at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh on Nov. 22, 2005. Each was not only expected to turn around his team’s fortunes but also help revive interest in the NHL after a labor dispute led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
They gave everyone a taste of what was to come in the Penguins’ 5-4 win. Crosby scored to help Pittsburgh build a 4-0 lead and had an assist on their fifth goal. Ovechkin had an assist as part of Washington’s comeback that fell short.
“The excitement level that year was off the charts because of the hype and the rivalry between the two cities and then the rivalry between Sid and Ovi,” Olczyk said. “It was just great, and it hasn’t disappointed.”
In the 52 regular-season games between them, Crosby has scored 74 points (26 goals, 48 assists) and Ovechkin has scored 51 (30 goals, 21 assists). In their 25 playoff games, Ovechkin has scored 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) and Crosby has scored 30 (13 goals, 17 assists).
Over the years, they’ve had a way of pushing each other and their teams to a higher level, such as when they each had a hat trick in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Ovechkin scored the winning goal in a 4-3 Washington victory, but Pittsburgh won the series in seven games and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Crosby and the Penguins also eliminated Ovechkin and the Capitals in the playoffs on their way to winning the Cup in 2016 and 2017, with Crosby winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs each season.
Ovechkin and the Capitals finally broke through to defeat Crosby and the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round in 2018 and went on to win the Cup for the first time. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy that season.
“They’ve put Pittsburgh and Washington, respectively, on the map,” said Capitals forward Conor Sheary, who won the Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017. “I think they’re two generational talents that gave this league life.”
Crosby led the NHL in points in 2006-07 and 2013-14, led the NHL in goals in 2009-10 and 2016-17, and and won the Hart Trophy voted as the NHL most valuable player in 2006-07 and 2013-14. Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals a record nine times, led the NHL in points in 2007-08, won the Calder Trophy voted as the NHL rookie of the year in 2005-06, and the Hart Trophy in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2012-13.
Each was selected to the list of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in 2017.
“When you have two generational talents playing within the same division and building the legacies that they have as far as winning is concerned, I just think it speaks volumes to those two individuals and how good of players they are and how they help their teams,” Sullivan said. “But it also has heightened the image of the League and, has brought the League to a whole other level just from a fan standpoint.”
That remains true with Ovechkin, 35, and Crosby, 33, each beginning his 16th NHL season. Olczyk said he imagines watching them square off must be what it was like to watch Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings and Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens go head-to-head in the 1950s and 1960s.
“You sit there and think, ‘Wow, that must have been incredible,'” Olczyk said. “This is one of those marquee matchups we’ve been able to watch for 15, 16 years, and it’s not always going to be here.”
That’s why Olczyk said we should especially appreciate these eight games between Crosby and Ovechkin this season, and maybe hope for more than that.
“They’ll probably end up meeting in the first round of the playoffs,” he said. “So why not? We’ll have it 15 times.”