CRANBERRY, TWP., Pa. -- Two games into this dramatic second-round playoff series, it's easy enough to look at the ongoing clash between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby as a kind of standoff.
Some might view the fact that they have one point between them -- an assist by Ovechkin in the Washington Capitals' opening-game victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime -- as an indication that they are not meeting expectations.
That would be wrong.
The play of both captains in this back-and-forth series -- which is tied at one game each after the Penguins' gritty 2-1 in Game 2 Saturday night -- has been and will continue to be important elements in this series, regardless of their actual points totals.
Of course, both teams would be happy if their respective superstars lit it up in Game 3 Monday night, now that the series has shifted to Pittsburgh for the next two games.
But their place in the series is more textured, a kind of complex puzzle.
Through most of the two games, the two stars have spent a lot of time on the ice playing against each other.
Crosby and linemates Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary were minus-3 in Game 1, on the ice for all three T.J. Oshie goals in the Capitals' 4-3 overtime win. Crosby had one shot on goal and seven shot attempts in Game 1. Ovechkin was much the same in Game 1, with eight attempts, drawing his lone assist on the second Oshie goal.
Game 2 favored Crosby and the Penguins much more significantly, even though the score was again close. Crosby spent more than half of his even-strength time on the ice playing against the Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Oshie trio as the Penguins enjoyed a massive edge in puck-possession time.
"I think that helps us win, so even though [Crosby] hasn't ended up on the score sheet the first two games, I think he's made significant contributions in helping us win," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said Sunday after an optional skate at the team's practice facility.
The deployment of the two big stars brings to mind other power-versus-power matchups from recent years.
As Sullivan reminds us, Crosby is very comfortable in these kinds of situations and there is the ripple effect of his strong play, especially when it comes to controlling the puck in the offensive zone.
"What I really like about it is for a guy that's an elite player like Sid, is he's really good underneath the hash marks," Sullivan said. "He forces other teams' top players to have to expend energy defending and they spend time in their end zone."
So, what happens now that the series has moved to Pittsburgh, where Sullivan will have last change and can adjust the matchups?
If the Ovechkin/Crosby units continue to negate each other, it seems to benefit the Penguins, who have had control of the puck for much greater periods of time through the first two games and who are getting depth scoring that the Capitals are not.
Former Penguin and New Jersey Devils forward Mike Rupp, now a national broadcast analyst, agreed that the Ovechkin-Crosby matchup is probably different from what people envisioned, especially given that in 2009 during their only other playoff meeting, the two combined for 27 points in seven games.
Rupp said he expected a pushback from the Capitals after a disappointing turn in Game 2 that saw them get outshot 28-10 through the first two periods.
"The best is yet to come with these two," Rupp said.
He did wonder if Ovechkin was ailing.
"I haven't heard anything, but visibly doesn't quite look himself," Rupp said.
He predicted that Sullivan will continue to use the Crosby line against the Ovechkin line as long as they continue to control the play, especially as they did in Game 2.
"If that changes, he needs to get away from it," Rupp said.
For both Sullivan and Capitals coach Barry Trotz, this has to be about the long view because both teams possess lineups that can benefit from a standoff between two of the game's biggest stars.
Not that anyone is expecting the standoff to continue for much longer.