Last week, when word spread across the NHL that Sidney Crosby was returning to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion last January, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner was asked if he might shy away from hitting Crosby when the Capitals and Penguins went head-to-head.
"I wouldn't want all of Canada to hate me," Alzner said with a chuckle.
Thursday night at the Verizon Center Crosby will face the Capitals for the first time since the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, where former Capitals forward David Steckel delivered the hit that would alter Crosby's next 10 months. Crosby played four days later and took a second blow to the head that sidelined him the remainder of last season and the first seven weeks of this season with a concussion.
So how will the Capitals react when presented with the opportunity to hit Crosby Thursday night? Will there be hesitation? Aggression?
"Sid was out a while, but he wouldn't come back unless he was 100 percent," Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "When you're trying to hit someone, you're not trying to hit him in the head. No matter who it is and no matter what the concussion history is you're never trying to hit someone in the head. You're trying to go shoulder-to-shoulder."
The problem with playing physical against Crosby, Wideman points out, is actually hitting him.
"He's a guy that you want to be physical with but it's not that easy," he said. "If you try to take a run at him he's probably going to go around you and get a goal."
Alex Ovechkin, who has had to deal with comparisons to Crosby since the two players arrived in the NHL in 2005, said NHL referees might also be out to protect the league's star player.
"I think right now the league looks at him all the time and if someone gets a hit against him, it's probably going to be two minutes right away," Ovechkin said.
Through his first five games since returning to the Penguins lineup, Crosby has two goals and seven assists but, curiously, has delivered just six hits while taking four minor penalties.
Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik said that if there is one player he would be reluctant to hit it would be Crosby.
"I have so much respect for the guy," he said. "He's one of the best players in the league. I'm not going to try to run over him. I'm not the kind of guy to go and hit in the head. I would have to be really ticked off. You don't want to see the best player get hurt again, but it's a tough sport and it could happen to anybody."
So if Hamrlik has a clean shot at Crosby on Thursday?
"I would think twice," he said. "You want to play tough against everybody, but I would think twice before I hit him."