Commentary

Hockey finally has meaningful matchup

Updated: May 2, 2009, 6:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- And so we wait for hockey's Halley's comet, eyes looking upward, arms outstretched, fingers pointing to the place where this event will streak across the game's skies.

What will happen?

What will it be like?

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Washington's Alex Ovechkin -- the rare intersection of the game's torchbearers, its seminal figures, all in their prime, in a playoff series with an Eastern Conference finals berth hanging in the balance.

"How rare is this? How special is this for the league?" former NHL GM Craig Button, now a national analyst, told ESPN.com this week. "You're talking about transcending the game. You're talking about players who have the ability to elevate the sport, to put it on the front burner. … I think you've got the essence of it right there. It's a national event. It's an event."

Button's one disappointment? "I'm disappointed we have to wait until Saturday."

He is not alone.

The Washington Capitals estimated that Thursday's media crowd at practice -- and, remember, this was still two days from Game 1 -- was the largest in memory, likely the largest since the Caps made their one and only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, with more expected to flood into Washington on Friday in advance of Saturday afternoon's opening game.

"This is not something that happens. A lot of people have been looking for this matchup," Crosby told ESPN.com in a telephone interview Thursday. "I look forward to the stage. And obviously it's the playoffs. There are a lot of eyes watching this. As a player, you look forward to these kinds of opportunities."

Pity the six other teams still vying for the Stanley Cup. They hardly qualify as an appetizer for the feast that many expect this Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins tilt to be.

From the moment the lockout ended in the summer of 2005 -- a summer that followed an unprecedented darkening of the NHL's arenas for an entire season -- the NHL and its players pledged to make it up to their fans. And from the moment the puck dropped in the fall of 2005, Ovechkin and Crosby have been the shining symbols of that pledge, followed closely by Malkin, Ovechkin's fellow Russian.

They were thrust into the role of saviors, not just of their teams but also of an entire league and sport; and if there were hushed questions about whether it was too much to ask of such young men, they have silenced the critics over and over again with their play.

Ovechkin edged out Crosby as rookie of the year in that first post-lockout season. The next season, it was Crosby who took the step forward, collecting the Hart Trophy as league MVP and Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader in his sophomore season. Ovechkin supplanted Crosby in 2007-08, also winning the Hart and the Art Ross. Malkin, the second pick in the 2004 draft, behind only Ovechkin, edged Ovie for his first scoring title this season, in which both Russian stars are Hart finalists.

The three stand alone in terms of their skills, personalities and demeanors.

Carefree Ovechkin might be the trio's Groucho Marx. He is deceptively wry, joking with reporters Thursday that Crosby is the league's "superstar" and he is normal. "Just like you guys," he said with only a trace of irony.

There is video of Ovechkin driving a cart at the Verizon Center with teammate Mike Green hanging on for dear life, suggesting the Russian's take on life. On the ice, he is a dervish of talent and possibilities, shooting in full stride from anywhere on the ice and going through, and around, opponents in a way that conjures up memories of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, namesake of the NHL's goal-scoring trophy, a trophy that will bear Ovechkin's name for a second straight season.

Malkin is Harpo to Ovechkin's Groucho -- silent, almost specterlike, hiding behind his (alleged) discomfort with the English language. No horn to announce his presence or his emotions, although those are evident in his superior ability to control the puck down low, to knock passes out of the air, to find teammates in a tiny space of ice.

Crosby, the Tom Mix of the trio, is unfailingly polite and has assumed the mantle of being the face and future of the league even if he never once asked for such responsibility.

If that were what this series was about, a relatively random collision of such talents in the playoffs, it would still be an alluring moment. But it's clearly much more than that because, if the stars do not exactly despise each other, there is, well, a very healthy competitive streak that runs through all three.

For some time, Malkin and Ovechkin have not been enamored with one another. There was a nasty bar fight in Moscow a couple of summers ago in which Ovechkin, according to multiple sources, beat up one of Malkin's Russian representatives. The two made up, at least publicly, at the All-Star Game in Montreal in January, but this series represents a clash that will put the warm, fuzzy relationship to the test.

And then there is Crosby.

People assume he and Ovechkin don't like each other, Crosby told ESPN.com. That's not necessarily the case. They don't know each other. They don't pal around. But from the moment the lockout ended, they have been pitted against each other, so they have been assumed to be hated adversaries.

"We're different, that's just the way it is," Crosby said.

That said, despite their divergent personalities, the three are united on one level, and that is a deep and unwavering hatred of losing. And if winning means going through the other team's best players, as it will in this series, then the victory will be all the sweeter for having traveled that path.

After the Penguins had erased a 3-0 Game 6 deficit in Philadelphia and gone on to eliminate the Flyers, Philadelphia coach John Stevens spoke admiringly of both Malkin and Crosby, as though they were one entity, and how they willed the Penguins to victory. Ovechkin is no less a force in Washington; he delivered seven points in the Caps' first playoff win since 1998.

One longtime NHL executive suggested this week that this series is reminiscent of Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe going toe to toe, elbow to elbow in the 1960s, when Chicago and Detroit regularly met in the postseason. Those were classic confrontations, yet they were more than 40 years ago, suggesting just how rare it has been in hockey for players of this caliber to meet on the playoff stage.

The one comparison frequently cited is Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and their playoff matchups that helped restore the NBA's place in the American sporting world.

Think Brett Favre and John Elway in Super Bowl XXXII.

Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw before them.

More recently? How about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in their AFC playoff meetings, each one a defining moment one way or another.

Hockey has, for whatever reason, missed this kind of clash.

The great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s, led by Guy Lafleur, never faced Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr in their prime in Boston. When Wayne Gretzky was the dominant face of the sport -- first with Edmonton, then in Los Angeles -- he never faced his chief rival, Mario Lemieux, other than in the regular season.

In the same way the NHL's Winter Classic outdoor game has been a major success the past two seasons, appealing to fans who don't live and breathe hockey, this series might be even more compelling for fans with only a passing interest in the game.

"You're going to pick up the important, elusive casual fan. There's a tremendous amount of star power in that Anaheim-Detroit series. It doesn't matter," former NHL netminder and national broadcast analyst Darren Eliot told ESPN.com on Thursday.

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau certainly isn't afraid of the attention and, like most in the hockey world, is expecting a series that might appeal to more than the hard-core fan.

"I hope it is. I mean we all love our game so much, I hope it draws tons of fans," Boudreau said. "I hope it is something that people want to watch on a national level because anything that's good for our game is great. We want to build it, and we want to show the people that don't know our game how great a game it can be."

Go back a minute to the notion of Lemieux and Gretzky.

There are many who believe the brief time the two spent as teammates at the 1987 Canada Cup is one of the game's finest moments. They never appeared opposite each other in a playoff series, so this became a defining moment of sorts, especially for Lemieux, who always existed somewhere within Gretzky's orbit -- not really his equal, but far more than a protégé or ward.

This series makes things infinitely more clear-cut: three contemporaries, a clear line of demarcation, winner/loser.

Can this series, then, say something more about these players, their greatness?

Both GMs, Pittsburgh's Ray Shero and Washington's George McPhee, told ESPN.com they think all three players are so young and will have such long careers that this series isn't going to have that kind of impact.

"It's going to be 10 days of a 15- or 20-year career. We know they're all great players. They're going to be great for a long time," McPhee said. "What happens in this series, I don't know if it's going to say that much."

Maybe it's not what this series says in and of itself but what it tells us about what might be possible over the course of those 15 or 20 years. Button, for one, thinks the players in this series, not to mention the fans, will talk in the future about how significant this series was. "I think it's a defining moment," he said.

Can there be too much hype? After all, it's just a playoff series, and the winner will have to defeat two other teams to win the Stanley Cup.

Boudreau doesn't think so.

"I don't know," he said. "The Super Bowl has an awful lot of hype, and I think the last couple of games have been pretty good. I think if the teams are focused, the hype shouldn't matter. We'll be in our zone, hopefully, and understanding what we have to do, and I think the guys are focused. As much hype as you guys want to bring on, bring on."

What he said. Bring it on.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.