On the Penguins: Capitals' Steckel a marked man?

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This will not be the first time something in Washington, D.C., has split people along partisan lines, and the rhetoric might get a bit overheated.

However, when the Penguins and Capitals collide today at 12:38 at the Verizon Center, the matter at hand will not be a piece of controversial legislation or a polarizing position staked out by some elected official, but the fallout from an incident in their previous meeting, a 3-1 Washington victory Jan. 1 at Heinz Field.

In the waning seconds of the second period that evening, Capitals forward David Steckel delivered a blow to the head of Penguins center Sidney Crosby.

Find someone sporting a Penguins sweater at the game today, and Steckel's hit likely will be characterized as being somewhere between dastardly and criminal.

Raise the same issue with a Capitals fan, and odds are the response will be equally firm, but completely different. Expect to hear that the contact between Steckel and Crosby was inadvertent and unavoidable and that league officials obviously agreed because Steckel was neither fined nor suspended.

The one thing that can't be disputed is that Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion. Whether his injury was caused by Steckel's hit or one four nights later when his head bounced off the glass after a hit by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman, apparently isn't known, and probably never will be.

Nonetheless, Steckel's hit shapes up as the major subplot today, even if Crosby's teammates won't necessarily approach it that way.

"I don't know that it's something we'll talk about," defenseman Brooks Orpik said, adding that he hasn't seen conclusive evidence that Steckel was guilty of anything malicious.

"After watching the replays, I don't know if you can tell whether he did it on purpose or not," Orpik said. "It's not like it's something where he was blatantly trying to ... I'm sure some people feel that it was [intentional], and others feel that it was a complete accident.

"I don't know where to [come down on that]. From playing against [Steckel], he's never stuck out to me as being dirty or overly physical."

Bottom line: While the Penguins likely won't pass on a chance to hit Steckel, seeking vengeance apparently won't be a priority.

"I think you just approach the game like any other game," Orpik said. "You always play hard against him, anyway."

A stranger in a strange land

Defenseman Zbynek Michalek admits he is, at best, a casual fan of the NFL.

That's not a shock, considering that he didn't grow up playing football -- the North American version, anyway -- and that there probably weren't a lot of, say, Falcons-Bengals games on TV back in his hometown of Jindrichuv Hradec in the Czech Republic.

So while Michalek volunteers that, "I know who's in the Super Bowl," he won't necessarily stake out a spot in front of his TV once the Penguins return from Washington late this afternoon.

Michalek understands that an awful lot of people in this region will, however, and said the sports fans here are the most passionate he has been around.

"In Pittsburgh, people are really crazy about their sports teams," he said. "You feel the support anywhere you go. It's really nice to see.

"Being a player, it's nice to have the fans behind you and supporting your team. I've never seen people wear as many sports jerseys as people in Pittsburgh every single day. That's something cool to see."

The Week Ahead

Today: at Washington. ... Afterthought or appetizer? Perhaps you've heard that a football game will be played in Dallas this evening, but Penguins-Capitals confrontations tend to be worth watching, too.

Tuesday: vs. Columbus. ... While there's no way of knowing if the Blue Jackets will be highly motivated to avenge a 7-2 loss to the Penguins Dec. 4, when Penguins fans pretty much took over Nationwide Arena, they certainly should be.

Thursday: vs. Los Angeles. ... Rob Scuderi -- who, in a neat twist, got a lot of attention for being largely unknown -- plays here for the first time since leaving as a free agent in 2009, a few weeks after helping the Penguins win a Stanley Cup. Here's hoping the crowd lets him know his contribution was appreciated.

Friday: at New York Islanders. ... New York coach Jack Capuano might want to consider starting Mike Tyson in goal, just in case Brent Johnson is feeling particularly feisty.

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published February 6, 2011 5:00 AM


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