Commentary

Ovechkin, Crosby ... a rivalry resumes

Updated: January 21, 2010, 5:43 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- The NHL doesn't need Fenway Park or Wrigley Field to dress this baby up.

The best rivalry in hockey resumes Thursday night at Mellon Arena, a passionate clash of NHL superstar players and powerhouse franchises that doesn't need one iota of marketing to sell.

Take this past May's seven magical playoff games between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, bottle them up, drop them on Mars and see the alien ticket base instantly mushroom.

These two teams don't like each other, and neither do their two superstar captains, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. It's real, it's raw, it's when the game is at its best.

"It's two good teams playing each other and everyone wants to show who is the best team at that moment," Ovechkin said Wednesday night.

Is there genuine hatred between the two generals, Ovi and Sid the Kid? Well, that might be a little strong.

"It's a rivalry; that's the way it's kind of developed," Crosby said Wednesday after practice. "I don't think it started like that. I think it started as more like two guys being happy-go-lucky and happy to be in the NHL and wanted to do whatever they could. That's probably changed just because of time and because of things that have happened."

It started largely as a media-driven storyline and, perhaps, a league dream. Ovechkin and Crosby could be the NHL's modern-day version of what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did for the NBA three decades ago.

At first, the two kids played along, but we knew deep down as a hockey writer that they weren't really buying in yet. They were, as Crosby said, just happy to be in the NHL as teenagers.

But over time, a rivalry was truly born.

"To say that we absolutely hate each other, I don't think so," Crosby said. "But we're competitive guys, and that's the result of everything and the way it's kind of built up. When you look at Canada-Russia [the players' native countries], I mean, the list goes on and on. It's made to be that way. We're two different people. But you know what, I think he's an amazing hockey player and I have a lot of respect for what he does out there for sure. I don't think there's any lack of respect there at all. We're just different in a lot of ways."

And you, Alex?

[+] EnlargeSidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesSidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin had 13 and 14 points, respectively, in last season's second-round showdown.

"I respect him like a player, like a person, but when I step on the ice, I respect only my teammates," a jovial Ovechkin said at the team's hotel in Pittsburgh. "Off the ice, I can shake hands and say hi like normal people, but on the ice, you don't have friends.

"But I respect him as a player. He's one of the best players in the league and he's probably going to be even more unbelievable. But right now on the ice, he's on my rival, just like everybody."

Just so we're all on the same page, Sid and Alex aren't hanging out together in their down time. Ever.

"I think with the way things have gone the last few years with this rivalry, that's like asking me if I'm going to be best friends with five guys on the Flyers," Crosby said. "It's probably not going to happen. That's just the way it works out. It's hard when you play that hard against each other to make too close a friendship."

When we last saw both of them on the same ice, they were shaking hands after the Penguins polished off the Caps 6-2 in Washington in Game 7 of their second-round series. It was a stunning end, somewhat anticlimactic, but certainly hard to digest for the players wearing red. Watching the Penguins go on to capture their first Cup under Crosby was even harder for the D.C. boys to take.

"They stole something from us last year," star Caps blueliner Mike Green said Wednesday night. "It's in the back of our minds. For them to go on and win ... for them to move on instead of us, it's a tough one to swallow. There's definitely that in the back of our minds."

Ovechkin, standing beside Green in front of reporters after the team arrived from Washington, downplayed last spring's crushing loss.

"It was pretty hard, but I hope this year will be better for us and we'll play for the Stanley Cup this year," Ovechkin said.

On Thursday night, Crosby and Ovechkin will be reunited, but just how different are they? The Penguins captain is scoring more goals, already seven away from matching his career high of 39. So much for the theory he couldn't score goals like the best of them.

And Ovechkin? He is as dynamite as ever on the ice and would be the runaway scoring leader if not for an injury earlier this season. He's also added the captaincy to his docket, matching Crosby in that regard. But he's going to have to show he can truly match the maturity and leadership demonstrated by No. 87. This is where the difference still lies between the two players. Until Ovechkin carries his team over the hump come spring time, he'll be a notch below his nemesis. He is going to have to win in June to join Crosby on the most important pedestal.

Crosby I think with the way things have gone the last few years with this rivalry, that's like asking me if I'm going to be best friends with five guys on the Flyers. It's probably not going to happen. ... It's hard when you play that hard against each other to make too close a friendship.

-- Sidney Crosby on whether he'd have an off-ice friendship with Alex Ovechkin

Unfair? Perhaps, but it's the ultimate standard in sports. Just ask Peyton Manning or Alex Rodriguez. Winning it all changed the way people viewed them. In Ovechkin's case, he's also going to have to live down the criticism of reckless play that's been directed his way after his suspension earlier this season. Personally, we have no issue with it. Take away that passion, and you don't have the same player.

"If we were to win 30 games in a row, they'd find something negative to say about him," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who was in a feisty mood, said Wednesday night. "But who tries harder? Every night, he goes out and does what you need to do to win, whether we're winning 5-1 or losing 5-1. He's the guy we follow, and I know the teammates follow him."

Boudreau challenges anyone to question the team's decision to give the captaincy to Ovechkin.

"You know the guy is going to be captain when he says to you, 'Yes, I accept the position, but only if my teammates would accept me as the captain.' I mean, that's leadership right there," Boudreau said. "I asked a dozen guys or so, and they said, 'Yes, he's our leader, he's our guy.' And they were emphatic about it."

Green, for one, didn't flinch when asked about his new captain.

"It was only a matter of time before he had it on his jersey," Green said. "In our eyes, he's kind of always been our leader and now it's just official."

Now, two superstar captains line up Thursday night. It's uncanny how Crosby and Ovechkin have a sense for timing. The rivalry just happens to resume when both players are on fire -- one point apart near the top of the NHL's scoring leaders, Crosby coming off a six-point effort and Ovechkin less than a week removed from a five-spot. They've warmed up for the big game, the first of four between the two teams over the next two-plus months.

"It's a pretty big moment for us when we play each other," Ovechkin said. "It's a pretty big game for us, especially after last year and the great series we had."

What transpired last May still resonates around the hockey world. Penguins winger Matt Cooke was asked what moment he remembered the most. He began with Marc-Andre Fleury's breakaway save on Ovechkin from early in Game 7. But then Cooke couldn't stop.

"There were so many things that went on in that series," Cooke said. "The game where both guys, Ovechkin and Crosby, each get hat tricks. It's a bold statement, but I don't think it'll be done for a very long time. The physicality of the series, [Semyon] Varlamov standing on his head for a couple of games, [Kris] Letang's overtime goal, [David] Steckel's overtime goal; there's just so many different memories."

Interestingly, Crosby cited none of the above when asked the same question by Hall of Fame reporter Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"If anything, I just remember Game 7 and us being up 5-1 at one point, but to me it felt like 2-1," Crosby said. "I'll always kind of remember that. We were just so focused and playing such good hockey that we had no reason to think they would get back into it; but at the same time, you don't want to give an inch. I just remember guys blocking shots, fighting for those 2 feet to get the puck out; that's something that sticks out in my mind -- the fact that we were playing that way despite the score. That will always stick out in my mind. We finished it off."

Heading into that Game 7, players on both teams downplayed it, but it was apparent to everyone else the series was being played on a Stanley Cup finals level, in terms of hype and drama.

"The scale of the series, now looking back, could have easily been for the Cup itself," Cooke said. "Just with the intensity and the way the game was played every night.

"I'm sure that was the most entertaining series the NHL has seen in a very long time, as far as pace, style, goals, goaltending, puck movement -- everything."

Is it too much to ask for more on Thursday?

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.