The rivalry between two of the National Hockey League's best players, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals counterpart Alexander Ovechkin, is about to heat up the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Reigning champion Pittsburgh will face season points leader Washington starting Thursday in a second-round showdown between the NHL's two victory leaders of the campaign, the winner emerging as a clear favorite for the crown.
"We're all looking forward for this series to get started," said Penguins' Swedish right wing Patric Hornqvist.
Crosby led the NHL with 44 goals this season, only the second time in his career he set the pace, while six-time NHL goals champion Ovechkin had 33, his fewest in a full campaign since 2010-11.
The Penguins seek a ninth victory in 10 overall playoff meetings with the Capitals, who have not advanced past the second round since reaching the 1998 NHL Finals.
"That's the narrative until we change it," said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen.
It will be the third playoff meeting between center Crosby's Penguins and left wing Ovechkin's Capitals, with Pittsburgh winning in the second round in 2009 and last year, each time on the way to capturing the title.
"We're going to play the Stanley Cup champions," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "We know how good they are. They knocked us out last year, so we get a chance to go back at them."
The winner will face either the New York Rangers or Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference final, while the Western Conference best-of-seven second round series send Nashville against St. Louis and Anaheim against Edmonton.
- 'Going to be tight' -
But the spotlight will be on the Penguins, who have a week off since eliminating Columbus, and the Capitals, who went to overtime in five of six games before ousting Toronto on Sunday.
"You can use it as rest and you can use it as time to prepare," Crosby said. "I think it's big. We've had some guys that have been injured and banged up. To get a couple of days to rest and get ready, that'll help us."
Crosby also blocked Ovechkin's path to Olympic gold, his Canada team ousting Ovechkin's Russia in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and taking gold on Crosby's overtime goal in the final.
Pittsburgh and Washington split four games this season.
"We're ready. We're excited. We can't wait to get going," Capitals left wing Johansson said. "We've worked all year to get back into this position and now we're here.
"This is the playoffs. It's going to be tight. It's never going to be an easy ride. You have to work hard for it and battle for it."
Braden Holtby, last season's Vezina Trophy winner as top goaltender, is a finalist again this year and will be crucial in shutting down the Penguins as he was in avoiding a seven-game fight with Toronto.
"Any rest is good," Holtby said. "It's good to get a little recovery and make sure we're prepared for game one."
- 'More confidence' -
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin missed 13 late-season games with a shoulder injury but led playoff point producers with two goals and nine assists, the Russian star matching his best-ever playoff series total.
"I was a little nervous when I came back," Malkin said. "Now I feel so much better. Every game I have more confidence."
Crosby netted only two goals but linemate Jake Guentzel scored five and Bryan Rust had four. Ryan Kessel had two goals with six assists and sparkled with Crosby and Malkin on the power play.
"He's the most dangerous guy on our power play because he has great hands," Malkin said of Kessel. "He can shoot. He can pass to me or (Crosby). He's our guy."
The Capitals had thee first-round goals each from Ovechkin and fellow wingers Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson.