PITTSBURGH -- Contrary to the common perception, Sidney Crosby doesn't spend much time thinking about his relationship with his main rival, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin.
In fact, Crosby says Ovechkin and he don't really have a relationship -- other than as the on-ice foils that have dominated the sport for the past half-decade in much the same way as Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky did in a previous generation.
Despite occasionally bumping into the outgoing Russian at various League functions since each burst onto the scene after the work stoppage, Crosby says the two superstars have not exchanged more than a smattering of small talk.
"With the way things have gone with the rivalry, that's like asking me if I'm going to be best friends with five guys from the Philadelphia Flyers. It's probably not going to happen." Crosby said after Wednesday's practice at Mellon Arena, a practice designed to prepare the Penguins for the arrival of Ovi and his Washington Capitals in Thursday's nationally televised contest (NHLN-US, 7:30 p.m.). "I think that is just the way it works out. It's hard when you play that hard against each to really make too close a friendship."
And, make no mistake; these two giants not only play hard against each other, but harder than they do against other opponents -- no matter how often they deny it.
"(Crosby)'s pretty competitive every night, but I think out on the ice, you can really tell he wants it, you know, maybe a little bit more (against Washington)," Pittsburgh forward Jordan Staal told NHL.com. "He's a player that is always up for big games and he has come up big for us a lot of times."
Crosby was never bigger than in the epochal 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, a seven-game series win against the Capitals that proved to be the perfect jumping-off point for Pittsburgh's first Stanley Cup triumph since 1992.
Crosby scored 8 goals in that seven-game series, the same number as Ovechkin. Every time Ovechkin gave the Capitals a lifeline, Crosby cruelly yanked it away. Ovechkin scored a hat trick in a Game 2 win, but Crosby scored all of his team's goals in that 4-3 loss, blunting much of Washington's momentum. In the deciding Game 7, Crosby had a pair of goals in a 6-2 victory to send Pittsburgh on and sent the Capitals home.
"Even after when they both had hat tricks; you look back at it now and it is an amazing accomplishment," Staal said, sitting in his locker and shaking his head slightly as he revisited the moment. "Those two were going at it harder than I have ever seen. They are both such great competitors, it makes for some great hockey."
Thursday marks the first time the two teams have met since Ovechkin's 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs ended on May 13. And, both players are at the top of their games as the revisit their rivalry.
Crosby had 6 points here Tuesday night in a 6-4 win against the Islanders. His 2 goals in that game give him 32, just 7 short of the career-high he posted in his rookie season. Ovechkin, meanwhile is second in the League in scoring with 65 points, 2 ahead of Crosby and 2 behind Vancouver's Henrik Sedin. He has 3 goals and 8 assists in his past 5 games.
Those dominating performances, more than any thing else, are what the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry is about, says Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. It's not about the relationship, or lack thereof, off the ice that the players share. It is not about the war of words in the press. It is not about the occasional one-on-one battles in the heat of passion during the game. Those are all manifestations of a rivalry borne out of talent.
It is, or should be, about what two of the game's most gifted athletes do on the ice and how they seem, by their very presence, to bring out the best in each other, says Bylsma.
"When they snarl at each other or look at each other, you guys want to make something out of it, but (the rivalry) is based on how good they are as players; the competitors that they are and the fact that they are too good teams that seem to be butting heads at pivotal times in the season," Bylsma said.
In fact, Crosby and Ovechkin have met 15 times in the regular season and each has managed 8 goals, although Crosby has outpointed Ovechkin by a 26-18 margin and, more importantly, won 11 of the 15 games. Both players, though, are averaging better than a point per game when the other is on the opposing bench. It was just as telling in last season's playoff matchup. Ovechkin had 14 points in seven games and Crosby finished with 13.
Wednesday, Crosby said he has not spent much time thinking about his celebrated showdown with Ovechkin in last year's playoffs. He is more interested in looking ahead and he knows that "it's not going to be difficult now every time we play them because we beat them in seven games."
But Crosby paid just enough attention to that series that he understands that the theater he and Ovechkin -- who, by the way, could butt heads again in the Olympics when Crosby's Canada takes on Ovechkin's Russian -- put together last spring is the essence of what makes the game great.
That -- more than any other part of their rivalry -- should be the focus, Crosby says, again harkening back to the rivalry between Gretzky and Lemieux that defined hockey more than 20 years ago.
"I think when you look at Mario and Wayne; the way I have kind of interpreted it was that it was more celebrating the fact that they were playing against each other and it wasn't about who was going to go after who and who was going to hit the other guy," Crosby told NHL.com. "It was let's see 3 and 3 (goals) from these guys tonight; let's see them put on a show.
"I think early on, I think that is the way it was with Ovechkin and myself; but I don't know if that is the case now. That is the way I used to look at those games -- (Steve) Yzerman playing against whoever. I look at those games and hoped they put 3 in each and stole the show. That was the way I looked at it."
And, if Crosby and Ovechkin continue along their present paths, the "show" may soon be the dominating facet of their own entertaining and evolving rivalry.