2005 world junior championship
The first time we saw Crosby and Ovechkin on the same ice was in the world junior championship during the 2004-05 holiday season in Grand Forks, N.D. There already was significant interest in how the two young stars would perform.
Ovechkin had been selected first in the 2004 NHL draft, while Crosby later ended up with the Penguins after Pittsburgh won the 30-team post-lockout draft lottery in 2005. Crosby played a minor role on a star-studded Canadian team but impressed with his handling of the media. Team Canada routed Ovechkin's Russian team in the gold-medal game. (Ovechkin, Team Russia's captain, suffered a shoulder injury during the game.)
The first NHL showdown
We also were in attendance in Pittsburgh on Nov. 22, 2005, for the first NHL meeting between the two stars. The Penguins were en route to a disastrous first post-lockout season; the Caps weren't much better. The two rookies were the show and didn't disappoint, combining for a goal and two assists as the Pens edged the Caps 5-4.
Then-Penguins coach Ed Olczyk was jokingly asked after the game whether he feared for the league, which was emerging from the shadow of the lockout that scuttled the 2004-05 season and seeing the two players on the same NHL ice for the first time. "No," he said. "I don't fear for the league with these two guys." Words to live by, even if Olczyk's short tenure as coach was nearing its end.
The two teams met three more times during the 2005-06 season. The Penguins won the first two games 8-1 and 6-3, with Crosby collecting six points in total, before the Caps finally broke through with a 6-3 win in which Ovechkin had a goal and two assists.
Ovi wins top rookie honors
Although Crosby's Penguins enjoyed early success against the Caps, it was Ovechkin who earned rookie of the year honors at the end of that first post-lockout season. Still, the 2006 NHL awards ceremony was something to see. Both players decked out in their tuxedos, posing for pictures and chatting amicably with each other in Vancouver was another reminder of the NHL's new age and a harbinger of things to come. They've taken turns at the podium come awards time: Crosby has one scoring title, one Hart Trophy and a Stanley Cup, while Ovechkin has two Rocket Richard Trophies (given to the season's leading goal scorer), back-to-back MVP awards (2008 and 2009) and a scoring title.
The second season
We were again in attendance for another clash, this time in Washington on Dec. 11, 2006. Crosby and Ovechkin put on another terrific performance as the Pens fell behind 4-0 only to roar back and defeat the Caps in a shootout. Looking back, the game is a reminder of just how far the Caps franchise has come. That Monday night, the nationally televised game drew just 14,793 and thousands in the upper bowl were Penguins fans. By the end of the next season, though, the Verizon Center was full, and "Rock the Red" became a rallying cry for the resurgent franchise.
On Feb. 3, 2007, Pittsburgh defeated Washington 2-0. It marked the only time in 15 regular-season meetings that both Ovechkin and Crosby were held off the score sheet. It also was the only time Crosby has failed to earn at least a point in 15 head-to-head clashes heading into Thursday's tilt.
The seminal season
On Oct. 16, 2008, the Capitals defeated the Penguins 4-3 in Pittsburgh to break a seven-game losing streak against the Pens when both Ovechkin and Crosby played. It was a seminal season for both teams. The Penguins struggled after a solid start to the season and fired coach Michel Therrien in February 2009 before going on to win their first Stanley Cup since 1992 (a journey that took them through Washington in a classic second-round matchup). The Caps, meanwhile, were en route to another Southeast Division title and their first playoff series victory (over the New York Rangers) since advancing to the 1998 Cup finals.
Competition and respect
We were in Pittsburgh on Jan. 14, 2009, when the Capitals outskated the Penguins en route to a 6-3 victory. This game was notable in that Crosby wrenched his knee late in the game after getting tangled up with the Caps' Dave Steckel. As Crosby was helped to the dressing room, Ovechkin was seen standing up at the Caps' bench, tapping his stick in encouragement on the boards. Whatever level of competition that exists between the two players -- and it is intense, to say the least -- the players admire each other equally.
The dream matchup
The regular-season meetings have been interesting, but when Crosby and Ovechkin met for the first time in the playoffs this past spring, the buzz factor was through the roof. And the most eagerly anticipated playoff series in a generation did not disappoint. In Game 1 of the second-round series on May 2, 2009, in Washington, it was a goal that Crosby didn't score that was the story. Rookie netminder Semyon Varlamov robbed Crosby of an easy goal with a stop that struck the heel of the goaltender's stick, and the Caps earned a 1-0 series lead with a 3-2 victory.
It was Game 2 of the series, however, that might have provided the greatest drama of all. Both Crosby and Ovechkin delivered virtuoso performances, each scoring three times as the Caps took a 2-0 series lead with a 4-3 victory.
"I think it's good for fans to see great players play against each other and two great teams play against each other. It's interesting time; it's interesting game," Ovechkin said in a classic understatement after the game.
What did he think fans would take away from the display? "Sick game. Sick goals by me and him," Ovechkin said.
A little controversy
In Game 4 on May 8, it was Crosby who scored the winner and added an assist as the Penguins evened the series at two at home. The game also was notable for Ovechkin's knee-on-knee hit on countryman Sergei Gonchar, a hit that sparked debate about whether Ovechkin should have been suspended. (He wasn't.)
Series builds up
In Game 5, Ovechkin tied the game late, but the Penguins won in overtime. In Game 6, it was Crosby who tied the game late before the Capitals went on to win in overtime to force a seventh game.
The not-so-grand finale
The series, correctly dubbed an instant classic, ended with the Penguins skating all over the Capitals by a 6-2 count in Game 7 in Washington. The two stars combined for 27 points in the series, but an early breakaway miss by Ovechkin may have been the defining moment. If Ovechkin had scored, who knows what might have happened? He didn't, and Crosby opened the scoring shortly after for the Pens as they went on to victory.
As the players lined up for the traditional post-series handshake, Ovechkin leaned in to Crosby, congratulated him and wished him well in winning the Cup. The game marks the last time the two stars have faced off before Thursday's game in Pittsburgh.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.