WASHINGTON – One day after dropping his NHL coaching debut, Dale Hunter turned his attention to Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The rival Penguins lead the Eastern Conference with a 14-7-4 record and are seven points clear of the tenth-place Capitals, though Washington has played two fewer games.
Thursday’s game will be the Penguin’s first visit to Verizon Center since February, and it will also mark Sidney Crosby’s first game against the Caps since last season’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The 2007 NHL MVP returned to the Penguins lineup last Tuesday after being sidelined for ten months with a concussion.
Crosby hasn’t missed a beat since returning, recording two goals and 11 points in his first five games. The Penguins are 3-1-1 over that span, and Crosby was recognized by the NHL Monday as its First Star of the Week.
The Capitals are plenty familiar with Crosby, having faced the Penguins captain 29 times since 2005, and know what to expect come Thursday.
Hunter also knows a thing or two about coaching against Crosby, having done so in Canadian junior hockey at the 2005 Memorial Cup.
Hunter’s 2004-05 London Knights went 59-7-2 during the regular season before winning their first Ontario Hockey League championship in 40 years.
The Knights were laden with talent with future NHLers Corey Perry, Rob Schremp, Dave Bolland, Dan Girardi and Marc Methot.
After sweeping the round-robin portion of the Memorial Cup, including a 4-3 win over Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic, the only thing that stood in the Knights’ way of a national championship was a rematch with the Quebec champions and their 17-year-old phenom “Sid the Kid.”
It was billed as a championship game, pitting one of the best teams in Canadian junior hockey history against one of greatest players.
Crosby was dominant in his final year of junior hockey, recording 66 goals and 168 points in 62 games.
“He was special,” Hunter recalled Wednesday. “We had to put a checking line against him and [give him] special attention. He still scored points and goals but we limited them anyways. He was so strong on his skates at that age, too. He was 17 and to dominate junior like he did, and to play against an older team – we had a lot of 19 year old kids – right away you knew he was a special player.”
After Crosby collected a goal and an assist in their round-robin meeting, the Knights were able to shut him and the entire Oceanic roster down in a 4-0 London victory in the final.
Two months later, Crosby was selected first overall by the Penguins in the 2005 NHL entry draft.
“He’s a special player, just like Alex [Ovechkin] is,” Hunter said in response to what he expects from Crosby Thursday. “He’s the type of guy that you have to give special attention to just like Ovi gets too. So we have to be aware of him at all times on the ice.”
“He’s got a strong core and lower body so if you go too hard on him, he’ll spin on you and be gone. So you have to be smart, contain him and get help.”
Catch the Capitals and Penguins Thursday at 7:05. Coverage begins with Caps Pregame on Federal News Radio- WFED 1500AM and online.