Originally published on http://www.thehockeywriters.com 

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NBC has pulled out all the stops to hype up ‘Rivalry Night’ for tonight’s Capitals Penguins clash – and with good reason.

Fresh off the back of a 48-game season when he picked up 32 goals and on pace for the career high 65 he scored in 2008, Alexander Ovechkin is back to his prolific best. With two goals against the St Louis Blues on Sunday, Ovechkin is tied with the remarkable Alex Steen at 17 goals and just two points shy of Sidney Crosby with 24.

Flash back to two years ago and it was a very different story. The relationship between Ovechkin and head coach Bruce Boudreau had seemingly deteriorated to the extent that Oveckin was caught on the bench muttering something none too pleasant under his breath after returning from a shift.

He then failed to see eye-to-eye with replacement Dale Hunter, whose defence-first philosophy style did not mix well with Ovechkin’s speed-and-power aggression. By the time Adam Oates arrived on the scene, the Russian was playing under his third coach in little more than a year as the organisation searched for a way to get their superstar back to his old self.

As the shortened 2012-13 season got underway, Ovechkin’s slow start even prompted suggestions that the Capitals might consider the previously unthinkable – a trade. But Oveckin adjusted to Oates’s new regime, made a home for himself on the right, and, with 23 goals in 23 games, picked up his third Rocket Richard trophy.

It’s to Ovechkin’s credit that he has been able to remould his game when his superstar status, and the goals that came with it, were both built on devastating footspeed, an impossibly quick wrist shot, and an almost kamikaze-esque habit of throwing his body at players. The drop in numbers two years ago indicated to some that opposing players and coaches had begun to work him out. His game, once so explosive it was unplayable, had become one-dimensional.

But with an acknowledgement that he didn’t know it all, and that a 28-year-old body perhaps didn’t have the invincibilty it did 10 years before, Ovechkin has brought a new maturity in his play that is finally beginning to pay dividends. Just imagine if the Capitals had pulled the plug.

It all makes for the most exciting meeting between these two teams since the explosive playoff series in 2009 when both players dominated the scoresheet over 7 games. Crosby and the Penguins emerged victorious on that occasion but as a club, the Capitals are now in a better place than they’ve been for quite some time.

Team rivalries are hyped, player rivalries are hyped. But what should make the battle between the two finest players in the world exciting for even the most media-cynical of hockey purists is watching how their different styles of play reap the same rewards for their respective teams.

Both clubs have had their fair share of ups and downs this season – there remains plenty of weaknesses in both teams. But for anyone who thought the  HBO 24/7-filmed games between the two clubs made for some compelling drama – be sure not to miss out on this one.

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