By KATE HEDLIN
(AP) -- Sidney Crosby's absence did little to diminish the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, but his return certainly increases the excitement - and could shine more of a spotlight on struggling Alex Ovechkin.
Crosby and the Penguins visit Ovechkin and the Capitals on Thursday night as Pittsburgh tries to end a four-game skid in the series.
Two of the NHL's biggest stars will face off for the first time since last season's Winter Classic on Jan. 1. Pittsburgh's 3-1 loss would end up being more costly than originally thought after Crosby took a hard hit to the head. He would play one more game that season before being sidelined with a concussion that kept him out until late November.
Pittsburgh (14-7-4) lost its next three games against Washington, including a 3-2 overtime defeat Oct. 13, but the Penguins are far more formidable with Crosby in the lineup. He had two goals and two assists in his season debut Nov. 21, and has picked up seven assists in his past three games.
"I feel as good as I can for missing this amount of time, but there are still a lot of areas to improve on," Crosby said after setting up a pair of goals in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers on Tuesday.
Crosby's appearance isn't the only story of this meeting as Dale Hunter looks for his first win as a head coach of the Capitals after replacing Bruce Boudreau, who was fired Monday. Washington (12-10-1) lost 2-1 to St. Louis on Tuesday for its third straight defeat and sixth in eight games.
While Boudreau downplayed a rift with Ovechkin, who was a minus-4 in the former coach's final game, Washington is trying to reinvigorate its struggling captain, who has eight goals and 18 points this season to rank as the league's 53rd-leading scorer.
Ovechkin, who has just one goal in 12 home games, played his second-fewest minutes of the season in the loss to the Blues and didn't register a shot on goal until the third period.
Hunter said it's going to take the players time to learn the system.
"Definitely (confusion) happens with transition. They don't got it down pat yet but I think they got better as it went on. They competed real hard and that's what you need to win," Hunter said.
He was pleased to see a better effort defensively. Washington's last five losses were by a combined score of 25-7 and opponents were 6 for 19 on the power play in those games. The Capitals killed off all four power plays Tuesday.
However, Hunter knows it will be much harder to slow down Crosby, who was held pointless in the Winter Classic, snapping his 14-game point streak in the series.
Hunter coached against Crosby in the juniors while with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights.
"He's a special player, just like Alex," Hunter said. "He's the type of guy you've got to give special attention to.
"He was so strong on his skates at that age, too," he said of his time coaching against Crosby. "He was 17 and to dominate junior like he did ... right away you knew you had a special player."
Washington will also have to contend with Evgeni Malkin, who has goals in each of the last three games while recording points in five straight contests. He has 26 points in 17 career games against the Capitals.
Ovechkin has 19 goals and 33 points in 25 games against the Penguins. For a second straight game, Pittsburgh will be without defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Kris Letang - both of whom are dealing with concussion-like symptoms - but on Thursday morning it called up top prospect Simon Despres from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
The Capitals are 11-0-2 in the last 13 regular-season meetings against the Penguins.
Updated December 1, 2011