Wednesday March 24th, 2010

Fair to say that there are weightier games on the schedule Wednesday night than the third of four regular season meetings between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. Contests fraught with playoff implications like the Blues against the Red Wings or Rangers vs. Islanders. Real life and death stuff.

Hey, Precious may have been more critically acclaimed than The Hangover, but I know which one I'm tuning into 10 times out of 10.

Sure, Caps and Pens has turned into hockey's answer to the Red Sox and Yankees and, as a regular season event, the perceived importance of these games supersedes whatever real meaning they might have. And maybe the points up for grabs tonight won't affect the grand scheme. With 48 wins and 106 points already in the bank, the Capitals could blow two tires and still limp their way to the Presidents' Trophy. The Penguins have all but locked up home ice for the first round.

But in terms of sheer entertainment, it doesn't get any better than a showdown between the league's white and black hats -- Sunshine Sidney Crosby and Reckless Alexander Ovechkin -- supported by a surfeit of overshadowed but highly skilled stars.

The Caps won both prior meetings this year, 6-3 at the Igloo on Jan. 21 and 5-4 in an OT thriller on Feb. 7 in Washington. But the Pens still hold high ground by virtue of their Game 7 playoff win last spring. And it's that stunning finish, not the friction between the two superstars, that makes this budding rivalry so compelling.

Last year's champs and this season's favorites, both itching to measure themselves against the other with the postseason mere weeks away. Even if you're tired of being force-fed this matchup, you gotta watch.

Here are four elements I'll be keeping an eye on tonight.

1. The play of Jose Theodore. Washington's netminder won't win over his critics, including yours truly, with anything he does in the regular season. That said, the former spaghetti strainer turned modern-day Grant Fuhr sure is making it tough to remain a skeptic. Theo's on a 16-0-2 tear, the longest streak in franchise history without a regulation loss. The odds say he's due to lose soon, and probably in spectacular fashion, but will it be tonight? He's offered up some of his best hockey against the Pens, winning 17 of his 24 starts and going 6-0-1 in his last eight appearances. It's been a long time since it's been said that Theodore has gotten into an opponent's collective head, but another strong game against Pittsburgh and people might start talking.

2. Washington's supporting cast. Boasting a league-leading seven 20-goal scorers, these guys aren't exactly the Jordanaires. Nicklas Backstrom is closing in on the first 100-point season of his career (he's at 88 with 10 games to go) and there have been suggestions that he's deserving of MVP consideration. He has no chance of winning the hardware, but the sensational Swedish center deserves to be in the conversation. Brooks Laich has emerged as the prototype for the second line winger, contributing grit and goals (26 and counting). Even third-liner Eric Fehr has three goals in his last four games despite playing just 11 minutes a night. The Pens might corral a couple of them, but can they contain them all?

3. Pittsburgh with the man advantage. The power play has been wearing clown shoes all season long, but the Pens are finally starting to make a noise other than thud when they've got the extra man. Pittsburgh's moved all the way from 30th to 22nd in a matter of weeks by doing the simple things that their fans have screamed for all season long: driving the net, setting up screens, winning the battles for rebounds. It would have been easier to for this group to build confidence against the Washington penalty kill earlier in the season, but that maligned unit has become more effective of late with the addition of Eric Belanger.

4. The Rocket Richard race: The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry has tilted so heavily in Sid's favor of late that Ovie might need to darken the tint on his visor just to diminish the glare from The Kid's Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medal. And while both players are far more concerned with team success, no one is overlooking the significance of this individual battle that sees them enter the contest tied for the league lead with 45 goals...especially their teammates. If the eight goals the pair has contributed in their two previous meetings this season are any indication, both players should go hard to the net with their heads up and their sticks on the ice. Their buddies are looking out for them.

Pens vs. Caps tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern on The NHL Network.

And if you feel guilty, stick around after it's over and catch the highlights from the more important games that you missed.

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