|By IRA PODELL|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 07 March 2008 19:04|
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are set to renew their budding rivalry Sunday when the Washington Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But make no mistake about it, this season has belonged to Ovechkin - the latest version of the ``Russian Rocket.''
Ovechkin hit the 50-goal mark in style this week, scoring three times in the first period Monday and setting up two other goals in the Capitals' 10-2 rout of the Boston Bruins.
In his back-and-forth rivalry with Crosby, give this round to Ovechkin. A pattern seems to be developing.
When both were rookies in the season following the lockout, Ovechkin edged Crosby for the Calder Trophy as the top first-year player. Crosby answered that last season by winning the scoring title and capturing NHL MVP honors.
Those could go to Ovechkin this season, especially if the Capitals rally and get into the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Ovechkin also took over the lead in the scoring race, passing countryman Evgeni Malkin, Crosby's teammate.
Malkin had surged to the top during Crosby's extended absence due to a high ankle sprain. The emergence of Malkin adds even more spice to the Capitals-Penguins rivalry.
Ovechkin reached the 50-goal mark for the second time in his three NHL seasons. He got there this time in 67 games, the quickest anyone has done it since Penguins teammates Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux did it in the 59th game in 1996, and Buffalo's Alexander Mogilny followed in the 63rd game of that season.
Wayne Gretzky is the only other player to hit 50 in a game in which he recorded a hat trick. Gretzky scored five goals in the Edmonton Oilers' 39th game on Dec. 30, 1981.
Now Ovechkin can set his sights on scoring 60, and beyond. No one has done that since Lemieux and Jagr had 69 and 62, respectively 12 years ago.
``If I score a goal and we win, I will be happy,'' he said. ``Right now it's all about winning. If I score 60 and we go to playoffs, I will be very happy.
``Personally, of course, you know, when you score lots of goals, when you have lots of points, it's good. But it's not good for the team. Maybe some fans will think, 'Oh, he's selfish, he just wants to score goals, he don't want to win. I don't want to look like selfish, you know.''
DIFFERENT DIPIETRO: Make no mistake, Rick DiPietro is still a brash and confident goalie, but after a tumultuous week on and off the ice, mature might be an apt adjective, too.
DiPietro carried himself with swagger ever since 2000 when he became the first goalie ever chosen No. 1 in the NHL draft. His rise with the New York Islanders and his subsequent landmark 15-year contract with the team did nothing to change that.
He reached the All-Star game for the first time this season and was working to get the Islanders back into the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
That task has grown tougher, and the Islanders turned elsewhere this week for a crucial home-and-home series against the rival New York Rangers.
DiPietro left the team after last Saturday's loss to Philadelphia due to the death of his grandmother. He missed Sunday's game because of the wake and then attended the funeral in New England on Monday.
He was all set to rejoin the Islanders for Tuesday's game against the Rangers, but was persuaded to stay away for another day by general manager Garth Snow. Reluctantly, DiPietro did.
``We were close,'' DiPietro said of his grandmother upon his return Wednesday. ``I don't think I got an opportunity to spend as much time as I would've liked with her. At the end of the day when someone passes away that is kind of what you reflect on, all the good times you had together but all those opportunities you missed too to spend time with that person.''
That reflective side is one the 26-year-old DiPietro hasn't often shown during his six NHL seasons. And that was only part of the story this week.
When DiPietro came back to practice Wednesday, all signs suggested that coach Ted Nolan would turn again to backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz for the rematch Thursday when the Rangers visited Long Island.
DiPietro didn't sulk, didn't complain, didn't question the decision, and didn't flash the security of his long contract around in wondering why he was being passed over.
Confident, yes. A malcontent, no.
``Whatever I have to do to support the team, it's a good opportunity to sit back and watch from the bench and just be with the boys,'' DiPietro said. ``Whenever I don't play, it's disappointing. I don't like to do too much sitting on the bench. But under the circumstances at this time with a death in the family, I had to go back and support my dad and family. It's tough sitting out any game, but the Rangers games are especially difficult.''
The Islanders split the two-game series against the Rangers with Dubielewicz in goal, taking the opener in a shootout. DiPietro practiced with the team on Wednesday and Friday and was expected to reclaim his No. 1 status when the Islanders embarked on a four-game trip.
``He'll run with it from here on in,'' Nolan said.
With about a dozen games left, New York is in a desperate situation to reach the postseason.
``Ricky was fine with it, he was great,'' Islanders captain Bill Guerin said. ``We don't have time for hurt feelings and things like that or to worry about who's playing here or who's playing there. We've got to worry about 20 guys on this team and what is best for everybody.''
STRIKING OIL: Lost in the hype around young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton's Sam Gagner is having quite an impressive rookie season, too.
Gagner posted three goals and 10 assists in 12 games in February to take top rookie honors for the month.
Gagner had points in 10 games, including a nine-game point streak from Feb. 4-24. He posted multipoint games against Calgary on Feb. 4, Chicago on Feb. 6, and Nashville on Feb. 19.
Entering the weekend, the center was fourth on the Oilers with 35 points - including 28 assists in 64 games.
At 18, Gagner is the youngest player in the NHL. He was born nine months after Kane.
WELL-TESTED: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stood strongly behind the NHL's drug-testing program days after appearing on Capitol Hill in front of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The plan was put in place following the NHL lockout that ended three years ago.
Our players have a history in international competition of being tested over the last decade and a half. I think only two players have resulted in discipline.
``One player was before we had our program. The other was for taking Propecia.''
Bettman said that the game of hockey doesn't naturally lend to the use of steroids for skill players. He contended that such substances wouldn't help enhance that type of performance.
``Having said that, we want our fans to know that we treat this seriously,'' he said before a Chicago Blackhawks home game this week. ``We treat it seriously. We don't think we have a problem. And we're looking to see if we can improve it.''
That likely won't include offseason testing of NHL players. Logistically, with so many players coming from Europe and otherwise scattered around North America, such testing would prove to be quite difficult.
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.