A three-game losing streak and a four-game goal-scoring drought would seem to be enough to put Alex Ovechkin in a foul mood.
Then again, simply seeing Evgeni Malkin on the ice seems to do the same these days.
Once close friends but now increasingly bitter foes, the young Russian stars face each other for the second time this season on Wednesday night when Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals visit Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 23-year-old Ovechkin and Malkin, 22, are two of the NHL’s brightest young stars. Ovechkin tallied 65 goals and 112 points - both league highs - to win league MVP honors in 2007-08. This season, Malkin’s 49 assists and 66 points easily lead the league.
Ovechkin and Malkin roomed together at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, but their relationship has since grown frosty for unknown reasons. In both the final meeting of last season and the first matchup of 2008-09 between these clubs, Ovechkin appeared to go out of his way to attempt hard hits on Malkin.
“Ovechkin is a great player, but every time he hits me - I don’t know why,” Malkin said.
In Washington’s 4-2 home loss on March 9, Malkin ducked Ovechkin to narrowly avoid a hard drive into the boards. During a 4-3 Capitals win in Washington on Oct. 16, Ovechkin also seemed to target Malkin.
Malkin’s teammate Sidney Crosby indicated the Penguins will keep close tabs on Ovechkin.
“We’ll stick up (for Malkin), like you would for any teammate,” Crosby said. “They’re intense, physical games and as long as that’s the way they stay, that’s safe. But if there’s deliberate intent to hurt someone, you kind of step outside the line a bit, you have to make sure you stick up for your teammate.”
The Capitals (27-14-3) were as hot as any team in the league until last week, putting together a 12-1-0 stretch and a season-high seven-game winning streak from Dec. 23-Jan. 6. Ovechkin had 13 goals and five assists during the 13-game hot streak.
But the team and its star winger have suddenly cooled. Ovechkin has failed to score a goal in his last four games, and Washington lost its third straight on Tuesday, falling 5-2 at home to Edmonton. It marked the fourth time in five games that the Caps scored two goals or fewer.
“When it gets to the point where everyone wants to be the scorer and nobody wants to be the mucker, you are not going to do anything,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Everybody’s waiting and when you put a skilled lineup together, … everybody needs to do the grunt job.
“Until we get that happening, we’re not going to score a lot of goals.”
The Capitals also lost three straight from Nov. 20-24, but have not dropped four in a row since a five-game skid from Nov. 10-21, 2007.
Pittsburgh (21-19-4) had also been slumping, with seven of eight, but at least temporarily righted itself on Tuesday with a 4-2 victory in Philadelphia. Malkin scored a goal and Crosby had two assists for the Penguins, who will now try for their first consecutive wins since a season-best six-game streak Nov. 1-15.
“It’s been a long time (since) we’ve played such a solid game,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “We were solid when we had the puck, we were solid when we didn’t have the puck, and we got a commitment from everyone.”
Malkin’s goal moved him within three of 100 for his career.
This contest kicks off a five-game homestand for the Penguins, although home ice hasn’t given them any advantage. They are 9-9-2 at Mellon Arena this season compared with a 12-10-2 mark on the road.