Penguins vs. Capitals: Realignment helps rivalry feel less forced

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Penguins vs. Capitals. Ovechkin vs. Crosby. The hatred felt sort of manufactured before, but realignment helps this rivalry feel more real.

When the NHL pushed realignment last year, it was the hope the new format would help foster and rekindle some of the league's best rivalries.

The Capitals and Penguins certainly seem to be two of the teams the league had in mind, as the two meet as divisional rivals for the first time in 20 years Wednesday night at Verizon Center, which didn't even exist the last time they shared space in a division.

While the two teams were both in the old Patrick Division until 1993 when the two teams were split up in realignment, they haven't played together in the same division until the Metropolitan Division formed this past summer. The two have a lengthy playoff history -- they have met eight times in springs past, including five times in a six-year stretch in the early 1990s -- but there has only been one playoff series since 2001 between the two. The 2009 second-round meeting, however, was one of the best series in recent Stanley Cup Playoffs history.

The two met in the much-hyped 2011 Winter Classic, of course, but with at least five years between playoff meetings, the league has stacked the deck for a playoff rematch at some point between the two teams. And now that they share the same division, there will be more regular-season meetings on the line as well.

The core identities of the two clubs are much different than they were when they last shared a divsion. Back in the early 1990s, the Capitals were built on defense and had to try and slow down the offensive juggernaut of Mario Lemieux and company, who weren't terrific defensively but didn't have to be in that era before the neutral-zone trap came into vogue.

The modern versions of the two clubs are similar, with some high-end offensive talent looking to power the clubs, and the two teams have three players combined in the NHL's Top 10 in scoring. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is second overall with 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists), while Alex Ovechkin is fourth overall in points with 17 goals -- tied for the league lead -- and Nicklas Backstrom is seventh in points along with the league's second-best total of 19 assists.

After injuries have slowed down Crosby -- and Ovechkin's production dipped after a more defensive style was implemented in Washington following the meeting in the 2011 Winter Classic -- arguably two of the NHL's biggest stars are also playing near their peaks again.

With the two playing well, the timing of the realignment is good for the league, like the last time the teams' paths crossed in the 2009 playoffs. Crosby is back playing well this season after missing the last quarter of a stellar 2012-13 season with injury, and Ovechkin on a tear of his own this year with 17 goals in 19 games so far after capturing the Hart Trophy last year

"[Adam Oates] talked about how I have to stay more in the middle of the ice in the offensive zone because lots of pucks go there and I can find the rebound there," Ovechkin told SBN after Washington's 4-1 win over St. Louis Sunday. "It's working."

The league's new playoff format is highly based on divisional play, and the two teams will be meeting more often in the playoffs as a result. The league has been looking for a rematch of the two clubs since that incredible 2009 series, but upsets and injuries have kept that from happening.

While the Metropolitan has overall been a disappointing collection of underachieving teams or ones with glaring weaknesses, the Penguins and Capitals so far have been the class of the bunch. They are the only two teams above .500 in the eight-team grouping. Pittsburgh and Washington have significant weaknesses of their own -- the Penguins' goaltending and the Capitals' thin defensive corps might eventually be their undoings -- but the new playoff format should certainly help at least one of these teams with a deep playoff run.

Pittsburgh started out the year 7-1 and looked like they might run away with the division, but Washington has gone 11-4-1 since stumbling out of the gate to briefly take the division lead. But the two seem to be the best of a bad bunch, and could end up fighting each other for the top seed in the division.

Both have played very well at times so far, and in part, fueled by strong performances by their top players, look poised to be on a collision course in the playoffs at some point in the near future. The suits of the NHL certainly wouldn't mind.

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