On Sunday, two premiere gunslingers will go head-to-head on national television. In a highly anticipated game, a jump-out-of-your-seat video game player comes to life to take one of most cerebral playmakers ever to play his sport. For the first time this season, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins will matchup on NBC at 12:30 PM.
“They have star players,” Capitals head coach Todd Reirden, a former Penguins assistant coach, said Saturday after Washington’s practice. “We have star players.”
Both players entered the NHL in 2005 and have played 15 seasons, though Crosby has been limited by injuries and missed 13 games earlier this season. Still, the Caps and Pens have produced some epic playoff series, even if the rivalry has been somewhat overhyped by the media. This season the Capitals, with the league’s best record, sit 6 points ahead of the Penguins for the Metropolitan Division lead.
“It’s great for the game,” Caps d-man John Carlson said of the animosity between the squads led by Ovechkin and Crosby. “They’ve really revolutionized the way the game’s played throughout those years. It’s great to see they’re still right at the top of the league with all the youngsters. A lot of us in hockey owe them a great deal of thanks.”
Those youngsters include the Caps’ 22-year-old Russian goaltender Ilya Samsonov who will start the big game Sunday in his rookie season. Samsonov is being tapped for his second start in a row and appears to have taken the starting gig from Braden Holtby, who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender in 2016 and led the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup victory in 2018. However, Holtby has struggled this season, the last one of his current contract.
But Samsonov, from a drab industrial city in the Ural Mountains, has been a revelation for Washington. Going into Sunday’s game, Samsonov led the league in goals-against average (2.12) and was tied for sixth in the NHL in save percentage (.925). Those are astounding numbers for a guy who never played in North America until last season.
Samsonov is just the fourth goaltender in NHL history to win 14 of his first 20 games. He has won 11 games in a row, one of only three other rookies to accomplish the feat.
Still, Ovechkin and Crosby are the blockbuster draws.
“When you go through that time when they both entered the league and the head-to-head rivalry, it doesn’t go away,” Reirden said 24 hours before the game. “The rivalry is outstanding, and it’s amazing for hockey. I think it will forever be remembered just like you talk about Bird and Magic or different rivalries that have gone on in sports.”