Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin: Where Do the Winter Classic Rivals Stand?
With the fourth NHL Winter Classic less than two months away, the microscope continues to focus on the two participating rivals, the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and how they're faring thus far in the 2010-2011 season before meeting for their wintry New Years Day battle.
To the chagrin of many NHL fans, the comparisons between these two teams has been a major headline in hockey news since the drafting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. However, the history between the Caps and Pens digs further than any post-lockout happenings.
With this in mind, the NHL has matched the two teams against each other in Heinz Field for what is hoped to be their biggest clash yet with a national audience watching.
History alone will not dictate the intensity of the game, so now is a good time to check in with each team and see what they've been up to since the start of the season.
How are the teams performing as a whole? Are Crosby and Ovechkin producing? Are there any standouts on either team?
Here's what's going down...
Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins and a college writing intern for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments.
Washington Capitals Overview
The Caps are sitting pretty atop the NHL after a slow start to the season.
Losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals after leading the series 3-1 was a tough pill to swallow. The same could be said about losing to the Pens in a blowout Game 7 during the 2009 Semifinals and a Game 7 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008.
Notice the trend?
This is a hungry team.
Currently on a four-game winning streak, the Caps have picked up from last season by establishing themselves as a strong home team. They have take seven of eight games at home.
Their dominance at home is tinged by their away record (3-3), but don't expect an easy time if the Caps are in the game. They are 5-1 in one goal games and 5-0 in overtime. Allowing the first goal in the game isn't necessarily a detriment to the Caps either since they're 7-3 when the other team scores first.
As always, the Caps boast a much improved power play that's clicking at 20 percent, good for 10th in the league. This a vast improvement from the beginning of the season.
The numbers don't lie for the Cap; at this time, they're very close to midseason form. An interesting point is that many of the Caps star players had sluggish starts, but role players and young talents were able to carry the team load while others found their feet after their long summers.
As of right now, the Caps have few things to worry about because the team as a whole is contributing to their success.
Pittsburgh Penguins Overview
191 miles away, a gloomy cloud hovers over the Consol Energy Center.
A look in the recent past illustrates an incredibly gifted Pens team with a good balance of young, fresh talent and experienced leaders, both sharing a desire for victory fueled from seeing rough times.
Multiple high draft picks including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal back-stopped the Pens to back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Finals. Their last visit to the Finals resulted in ultimate victory.
Since then, the Pens as a team have borderlined average and poor play, bleeding especially into the 2010-2011 season.
Without the services of Selke Finalist Staal, the Pens crept to a slow and uninspired 1-4 start. Fleury's average play in net has given him an abysmal 1-6 record and the power play, sputtering along at 13.3 percent, is an ongoing frustration for the team.
Overall, things haven't been clicking for the Pens despite GM Ray Shero's efforts to bulk up the defense, arguably the Pens' biggest weakness since the loss of shutdown defensive pairing Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. Up front, only a handful of players have found their stride.
The 7-7-1 record pays tribute to that.
The Pens are currently sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference, but concerns remain low as players are still warming up to the season. However, it goes without saying that many aspects about the Pens' play need to change in order for them to get into any kind of groove.
All About Alex Ovechkin
It's frightening when a player's worst season numbers can often mirror many players' best season numbers, but with eight goals and 18 points, Ovechkin still wants more out of his game.
Looking at his past numbers, it makes perfect sense that Ovechkin expects more out of his game as not only the star of the team but the captain as well. His current pace places his final point totals over 100.
With that said, the entire first line could use a goal scoring boost and if Ovechkin can turn his game on, this can certainly happen. In order for that to happen, Ovechkin needs to find a way to solve the increasing pressure coming from the opposing defense.
What makes Ovechkin such a dominant player is his ability to keep up high point and goal numbers despite a team's strongest efforts to keep him contained. This becomes increasingly difficult as teams adapt to a player's style and habits on the ice which contributes to how teams have been able to find success over Ovechkin and the Caps in the playoffs. The Canadiens were able to neutralize him, among other players, and in doing so, were able to move on in the playoffs while the Caps went home.
However, Ovechkin has the tools to continue punishing teams on the scoreboard if he can slip into his groove.
Another notable concerning Ovechkin's game is the physical aspect. His numbers remain high—eighth overall in the NHL—but Ovechkin seems to be passing up on hits he would normal take in the past. This could be a reaction to his two suspensions from last season or he feels that his talents are better served in other parts of the game.
Ovechkin may not be completely on his game, but his recent play shows signs that the unstoppable Ovechkin may be around the corner.
All About Sidney Crosby
Offensively, Crosby seems to be doing it all. He leads the Pens with nine goals and 19 points, numbers that rank him second in points and tied for third in goals.
Defensively, he's had some fine moments of pure desperation to keep the Pens in some games.
Continuing his dominating 57.5 percent faceoff conversion numbers, Crosby has been a shining light thus far in the season, but he can be much better. His consistency of play hasn't been as consistent as his point numbers. Especially on the power play, Crosby has been guilty of some poor giveaways and overall sloppy play at certain points.
Poor execution on the power play could be a result of the team's overall frustration and a reason why Crosby, among many other players, aren't doing their job on the man advantage so holding it against Crosby would be unfair. However, as captain and leader of the team, Crosby needs to find that leadership and apply it even more so to his on-ice play.
Any negatives aside, analysts have claimed that Crosby would be unable to repeat his 51-goal campaign from last season. If his current pace on an struggling Pens team sets him up for 49 goals, then I can only imagine what can be done if the Pens can pick up their game.
What's been most impressive about Crosby's game is how much he has dedicated to his defensive play. Head Coach Dan Bylsma has utilized Crosby on the penalty kill and he's amassed almost nine total minutes. He also boasts seven blocked shots.
Crosby has started this season admirably, but fans can definitely expect more from him if the Pens, as a team, can find their motivation and put forth consistent efforts every night.
The Caps' Pleasant Surprises
John Carlson: The defenseman, best known for his overtime gold medal-clinching goal against Team Canada in the 2010 World Junior Championships, has been pretty impressive in his rookie season with the Caps. He leads the defense in total ice time and sees time on both the power play and penalty kill. He also registers an admirable two goals and eight points in 14 games.
With that in mind, Carlson is still a rookie and has made his rookie mistakes. As always, picking up the defensive position is difficult in the NHL and Carlson is simply going through the motions as he learns his ways on defense.
On a team that needs serious help defensively, Carlson can very well develop into a star defenseman but it's going to take some time. Hopes are very high for this young player and his past has illustrated that he's up for the challenge.
Michal Neuvirth: Things weren't looking good when goalie Semyon Varlamov went down with a groin injury. Many anticipated that 2009 playoff hero Varlamov would obtain the starting position once the Caps let go of Jose Theordore, but Neuvirth has made a case why he deserves to be the number one starter.
He has posted an 8-3 start with a 2.41 goals against average, emphasizing his overall solid play in net. Along with the defensive problems, the Caps have had their fair share of goalie issues and Neuvirth is stacking up to be a young star in the making.
Varlamov will be returning from his injury soon and that's when the battle of the goalies will commence.
The Pens' Pleasant Surprises
Brent Johnson: With Fleury's mediocre start, it's a good thing that veteran goalie Johnson has been able to answer the call or the Pens would be in a lot of trouble.
Johnson has always been considered a solid back up, but back ups typically don't put up a .943 save percentage and 1.63 goals against average. Simply put, Johnson has been there when the Pens have needed him the most and that's all that can be asked of a back up.
Young defense: I'm talking about Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy. All of these players had something against their game, be it a previous poor season or the fact that this was their first season in the NHL.
The way they have responded to the added pressure after Sergei Gonchar left the team is nothing short of impressive. Letang and Goligoski have dramatically improved their play from last season and rookies Engelland and Lovejoy have shown solid play on the blue line after injuries called for both of their services. Of course, Engelland's fights against heavy weights demonstrates his courage and willingness to fight for his team.
Mark Letestu: The biggest surprise of them all has been Letestu whose workhouse style has rewarded him with more ice time overall and on the power play. Letestu grasps an intelligence of the game that is not often seen in rookies, but he is able to act accordingly with maximum effort and a cool mind.
Letestu is third on the Pens in scoring, behind only Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and is heavily depended on to take faceoffs which he claims a 51.9 percent average. The amount of faith this team has in Letestu is a testament to his hard work and dedication to being the best player every time he jumps over the boards.