A Classic Showdown

Dec 15, 2010

The Winter Classic, which hit the ice running in the 2007-08 season and instantly became the league's marquee event, puts up ratings figures that have it mingling in viewership conversations with Stanley Cup finals games. It has drawn nearly universal acclaim for embracing the game's roots instead of, say, hyping a bunch of teams in tropical climates. There was no way the NHL was about to let its top franchise lose even an inch of relevance. It was time to bring in the big guns.

That artillery was not hard to find. Anyone with even a passing interest in hockey knew a Winter Classic showdown between Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals was inevitable. The two teams are the class of the NHL; the two players, the (wildly dissimilar) faces of it. Crosby and Ovechkin are alike in no way save for the fact that both former Hart Trophy winners have at one time been regarded as the best hockey player in the world. Dissecting the pair has become a daily routine for hockey writers and analysts, and that scrutiny is sure to increase as Sid and Ovi pilot their division-leading teams toward a roofless skirmish in Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on New Year's Day. It's just the type of high-profile, high-pressure situation that 24/7's lenses thrive in.

The divergent personalities of the quiet, hard-working Crosby and the dynamic, unpredictable Ovechkin have been well documented-and their grudging respect for each other has been well assumed-but the Penguins and Capitals rosters provide as much depth in characters as they do in talent. There are the sublimely talented but reticent right-hand men in Pens center Evgeni Malkin and Caps winger Alexander Semin. The media-savvy jokesters in Pittsbugh center Max Talbot and Washington hybrid-forward Brooks Laich. Skilled supporting stars like D.C. center Nicklas Backstrom, high-scoring Caps defenseman Mike Green and hard-nosed Pens blueliner Brooks Orpik ... hell, even the coaches provide a compelling contrast in characters, with the boisterous Bruce Boudreau manning the Caps bench while the, eh, less-emotive Dan Bylsma helms the Pens. The teams align perfectly. Almost everyone has a nemesis.

Even better, the clubs detest each other. Stationed in cities just 250 miles apart, the Penguins and Capitals were terrible at the same time, during the early aughts, and then, as top draft picks matured, ascended to the top of the standings together. As they did, they had to endure constant comparisons to the other, and between their two emerging stars. Things reached a fever pitch in the 2008-09 postseason, when the thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference semi-finals series between the teams actually managed to exceed already-lofty expectations. After six back-and-forth games, the Pens blew out the Caps in game seven en route to a Stanley Cup win. That the Caps aren't over the loss has been evident in every scrappy regular-season game they've played since-but in case it wasn't, 24/7's "Countdown Begins" made it fresh-ice clear. "They don't like us, and we don't like them," said Laich in the preview show. Responded Talbot, "I can't stand them."

But what no one could have anticipated was the burrito of good fortune and dumb luck this season has served up. Back on Nov. 10, when the aimless Pens were 7-8-1 and playing like a team lucky to have even that record, Classic organizers had to be worried. Then the Pens went on a 14-game tear during which they didn't lose, including one stretch of 12 straight wins. To keep that streak alive despite injuries to Malkin and Staal, the Pens needed to lean on Crosby, who responded by filling the box score in those 11 tilts with 14 goals and 8 assists, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who netminded for 10 of the 11 victories. While all this was unfolding in the Iron City, the district's squad kept playing at the same elite level that helped them win last year's President's Cup, given to the team with the best regular-season record. To date Washington is the only team in the league with three players who have tallied more than 30 points, and there is no indication that Ovechkin, Semin or Backstrom have any plans to relent.

In other words, if there was ever a time when you would want an armada of cameras aimed at two hockey teams almost around the clock, the past two months were it. The Pens-Caps 24/7 was already on the fast track toward being a landmark NHL event. That it's going to depict some of the best hockey to come from the NHL in a decade just makes it all the more can't-miss.

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