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Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (R) and Edmonton Oilers' Sheldon Souray follow the loose puck during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Edmonton January 14, 2010. REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber


Sidney Crosby was reminding us all this past week that the state of his rivalry with Alexander Ovechkin hasn't advanced much since last year's playoffs, largely because they haven't played against each other yet this season.

All that changes Thursday when Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins face Ovechkin's Washington Capitals, a meeting between two of the Eastern Conference's nominal powerhouses, both of whom are facing unexpected questions in goal. Of late, the Capitals have been relying on youngster Michal Neuvirth while Semyon Varlamov's been out, and after a good start, Neuvirth had a couple of shaky outings and was replaced in goal by José Théodore.

The Penguins, meanwhile, used two rookies - John Curry and Alexander Pechursky - in Saturday's lopsided loss to the Vancouver Canucks which Marc-André Fleury missed with a broken finger. Pechursky is from Magnitogorsk, the same hometown as the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, and it will be Malkin's play against Ovechkin, his future Russian Olympic teammate, that may bear the most scrutiny.

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In the past, the two have had an uneasy off-ice relationship that sometimes spills into the action on the ice. Any unresolved conflicts could potentially spill into the Russian Olympic dressing room, although the thinking is that the two are unlikely to see the ice together anyway. Ovechkin will anchor the top line with Alex Semin, a current Caps teammate, and Viktor Kozlov, a former Caps teammate, now playing in Russia. Hard to believe that any game involving the New York Islanders in January has playoff implications, but last year's NHL cellar dwellers are an impressive 8-2-1 in their past 11; have edged into playoff contention and will get a more accurate read on their progress by twice facing the East's top team, the New Jersey Devils, at home this week - today and again on Saturday. The Devils will likely be without Patrik Elias, who was taken from the ice on a stretcher after a shoulder hit by Ryan Wilson in Saturday's loss to the Colorado Avalanche and could be out a while.

Just when it appeared as if the Anaheim Ducks were making their expected second-half surge, they lost both Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne within days of each other and then discovered that Joffrey Lupul's comeback from mid-December back surgery has been set back by an infection. The common thread: The three were projected as Anaheim's second line at the start of the year.

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