The stage — at least the modern-day version of it — was set in the 2009 playoffs, when the Penguins and Washington Capitals played a high-scoring, high-intensity series.
The NHL and TV partner NBC Sports Network are tapping into that stage, making tonight’s meeting between the teams at Verizon Center their “Wednesday Night Rivalry.”
The teams have history — playoff and otherwise — dating back decades, but things decidedly rekindled on the Penguins’ most recent run to the Stanley Cup.
“We know the past history, which is great, but the playoffs in ’09 really set the stage for this rivalry and these two teams and the players on these two teams,” coach Dan Bylsma said after the Penguins practiced at Consol Energy Center and readied to travel to Washington.
In particular, this is a matchup between Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Capitals right winger Alex Ovechkin.
“Those guys are more like Gretz vs. Mario. They’re the superstars of the league,” Washington coach Adam Oates told reporters after Capitals practice, using the familiar versions of Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux’s names.
Going into Tuesday’s games, Crosby was tied for the NHL lead with 26 points. Ovechkin was tied for the league lead with 17 goals and was just two points behind Crosby.
“Those two guys have been the face of the NHL,” said winger and Crosby linemate Chris Kunitz, who carved his initials on the rivalry by scoring four goals in the Penguins’ most recent visit to Verizon Center, a 6-3 win Feb. 3.
Kunitz understands that Ovechkin vs. Crosby is the marquee matchup in these games.
“It’s been promoted that way,” Kunitz said. “They’re both playing an extremely high level of hockey right now. Ovechkin, the way he’s been able to shoot the puck and score goals and help his team and lead his team — it’s the same with Sid and our team, being able to collect the points and do everything we need him to do.
“That helps the rivalry, but I think the history part of it [helps], too, playing each other in playoffs, big games.”
Crosby and Ovechkin shined in that 2009 second-round playoff series.
Crosby had eight goals, 13 points and Ovechkin eight goals, 14 points as the Penguins won in seven games.
In Game 2, each had a hat trick in a 4-3 Washington win.
“Intense,” Crosby said. “That was a tough series. It just felt like there wasn’t any lead that was safe. It seemed like every rush, even if it wasn’t an odd-man rush or didn’t seem like it was a good chance, somebody was capable of scoring.
“I think everyone was on the edge of their seat — players and fans.
“It was a fun series to be a part of. There were a lot of eyes on it, but definitely just a ton of scoring chances.”
There already was intrigue when the teams played because of Crosby, Ovechkin and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin — “Don’t forget Malkin … I don’t think it’s only two of us,” Ovechkin said — but since that playoff meeting, the rivalry is strong enough that certain circumstances don’t alter it.
This is the teams’ first meeting of the season after the Penguins swept all three games last season. It is their first game as divisional rivals in the new Metropolitan Division and it will be for first place.
The Penguins, with 26 points, sit one point ahead of second-place Washington.
The Penguins have had some difficulty scoring lately and have lost four of their past six games. The Capitals started 1-4 but are 11-4-1 since.
“Regardless of the record, the last couple of years, or where the teams have been at, it’s still got a lot of emotion and a lot of energy when it comes to these two teams playing,” Bylsma said.
And the big names have responded.
In the 25 games in which Crosby and Ovechkin have played, Crosby has 14 goals, 43 points, and Ovechkin has 17 goals, 32 points.
“[Ovechkin] always puts out his best when he goes against Crosby and vice versa,” Capitals winger Jason Chimera said. “They love to compete against each other.”
In the 22 games in which Malkin and Ovechkin (past and future Russian Olympic teammates) have played, Malkin has nine goals, 35 points, and Ovechkin has 15 goals, 29 points.
Malkin this season ranks second among Penguins players in scoring with 20 points, but he has just three goals and none in his past 14 games.
Perhaps Malkin will have a breakout night against Ovechkin and the Capitals. If not, there is still the Crosby-Ovechkin dynamic.
“I would hope as a fan you appreciate that,” Oates said. “You’ve got two of the best guys in the world playing against each other. It makes for an electric game.”
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.