Penguins vs. Capitals Preview

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WASHINGTON D.C.(AP) - The HBO cameras will be rolling, and there will be a palpable buzz on the ice as the rivalry between hockey's two biggest superstars - and two apparent Eastern Conference contenders - is renewed.

The Winter Classic isn't until New Year's Day. But the same two points are up for grabs Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

Subjects of a documentary leading up to the NHL's signature spectacle, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals meet in the nation's capital to provide a sneak preview of the highly anticipated outdoor game.

According to NHL odds and oddsmakers from online sports book SBGGlobal.com have made the Capitals -135 money line favorites for Thursday's game against the Penguins. Current NHL Public Betting Information shows that 63% of more than 63 bets for this game have been placed on the Penguins +125.

Four points are all that separate Alex Ovechkin (568) from Sidney Crosby (564) atop the scoring charts since the two entered the NHL in 2005-06, so it was natural for two of the game's premier players to develop an individual rivalry.

That's certainly been the case, and that competition has carried over to their teammates. There have been ebbs and flows - Pittsburgh (23-10-2) won 10 of the first 12 regular-season meetings while Washington (20-12-4) has won seven of the last eight - but it was the Penguins' seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal victory over the Caps two seasons ago that really ignited a rivalry.

The NHL has done plenty to promote the Crosby-Ovechkin and Pens-Caps feuds, with this season's Winter Classic in Pittsburgh and accompanying HBO documentary perhaps the most-hyped elements yet.

But first, Washington looks for a fifth straight win in the series.

"It's a huge game," Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth said. "They might be the best team in the league right now, so we've got to bring our best."

Over the past six weeks, Neuvirth's assessment is correct. Pittsburgh beat Florida 5-2 at home on Wednesday to improve to 16-2-1 since Nov. 12, with those 33 points the most in the league during that stretch.

Crosby has led the way. He scored less than eight minutes in against the Panthers to extend his points streak to 22 games, during which he's amassed 22 goals and 21 assists.

The Penguins were outshot 29-17 over the final two periods Wednesday, but Crosby seemed to know why.

"We had the lead but we probably could have done a better job - I think partly because we're thinking about tomorrow,'' said Crosby, who leads the league with 58 points.

With a point Thursday - and he has one in 20 straight games, playoffs included, versus Washington (16 goals, 19 assists) - Crosby will own NHL's longest streak since Mats Sundin's 30-game run with Quebec to open the 1992-93 season.

The Capitals, meanwhile, hardly look like the same regular-season juggernaut. Washington had 18 more points than anyone in the East last season before flaming out in the first round of the playoffs, and an 18-6-2 start seemed to indicate little had changed.

But a seven-game losing streak began shortly before HBO began filming, and only in the last two games - a 3-2 win at Ottawa on Saturday and a 5-1 victory over New Jersey on Tuesday - have the Capitals snapped out of their funk.

"I think winning rejuvenates guys,'' said coach Bruce Boudreau, whose profanity-laced locker-room rants have become a focal point of the cable series. "It's a much happier locker room the last couple of games, so that's good.''

The next step is getting Ovechkin going. The two-time Hart Trophy winner hasn't scored in seven games and has just two goals in his last 17 contests. He has two power-play goals - none at home - after averaging 18.6 in his first five seasons.

Facing the Penguins has brought out Ovechkin's best recently. Including the playoff series, Ovechkin has 19 goals and 11 assists in his last 15 games versus Pittsburgh.

Boudreau knows Ovechkin and his teammates are looking forward to Thursday.

"I think we're looking forward to it because the build-up has been so big," Boudreau said. "They haven't stopped winning. They had a little blip on the radar. We're in like a mini-turnaround.

"We're not where we want to be, but it's better than going in 0-10."

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