ARLINGTON, Va. -- During a holiday skate Alex Ovechkin hosted for the Fort Dupont Cannons Ice Hockey Club in December, one of the youth players approached the Washington Capitals captain with an intriguing question.
"Are you and Sidney Crosby friends?" the youth player asked.
"Best friends," Ovechkin said with a grin. "A couple times he stayed at my house. We go out."
Ovechkin was having a little fun, playfully deflecting the query about one of his biggest on-ice rivals. But it's safe to say Crosby won't be staying at Ovechkin's house when the Pittsburgh Penguins are in Washington to take on the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Second Round, beginning with Game 1 of the best-of-7 series at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).
It will be the third Stanley Cup Playoff series between Ovechkin and Crosby in the 12 seasons since they entered the NHL together in 2005-06. Crosby and the Penguins defeated Ovechkin and the Capitals in the second round in 2009 and again last season, and went on to win the Stanley Cup each time.
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The Capitals have a more complete team now than a year ago, so this might be Ovechkin's best chance to get past Crosby and win the Stanley Cup.
"We respect each other," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "That battle between me and him, it's great. I think me and him enjoy it, [the media] enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it's not about me and him. It's about [the Capitals] and Penguins."
Ovechkin is correct. There is much more to the Capitals and the Penguins than Ovechkin and Crosby.
But the spotlight always shines the brightest on the two of them whenever they go head to head. It's occasionally gotten heated, such as when a scuffle broke out during a game at Verizon Center on Feb. 22, 2009, ending with Ovechkin waving off Crosby and later saying, "He's a good player but he talks too much."
That was more than eight years ago. Ovechkin is 31, Crosby is 29 and their rivalry appears to have mellowed.
They're not "best friends," the tongue-in-cheek claim Ovechkin repeated after he and Crosby played together at the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Staples Center on Jan 29. But it was evident watching them that weekend in Los Angeles that there is a bond between them as respected adversaries who are among the best to have played the game.
"We're not buddies, we're not friends, but if we have a chance to talk and hang out, yeah, I think every player is good especially at [the] All-Star Game because [the] All-Star Game is fun," Ovechkin said. "You just have a new relationship with someone."
As Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, Ovechkin and Crosby come from different worlds. Ovechkin is Russian. Crosby is Canadian.
Ovechkin and Crosby's teammate, Evgeni Malkin, played for Russia while growing up so they have a connection Ovechkin and Crosby never can have. But Ovechkin and Crosby have been linked from the moment they entered the NHL and no two players have been more important since then in selling the game in their respective markets, throughout the League and internationally.
"They come from different social backgrounds and different countries and all that, but what you find is they recognize their importance to the game and their franchises," said Trotz, who worked with Crosby as an assistant for Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. "I see that in how they carry themselves for those franchises and for their countries. They're very proud of both. That's one thing I can tell that I learned with [Crosby]. … He's a true pro. He cares about people, cares about winning, cares about his country. Those are the same things I say about [Ovechkin].
"So sometimes the perception is that they're totally opposite, but there's a lot of similarities to them. That's why they're both great."
Backstage at the NHL100 presented by GEICO at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, Ovechkin and Crosby chatted and took photos with others who made the list of the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian. More interesting than the photo they took with Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer, was the one they posed for with Ovechkin's father, Misha, who said the picture would be front-page news in Russia.
After Crosby and Ovechkin helped the Metropolitan Division win the All-Star Game two days later, they exchanged sticks and parted ways knowing that, with the final regular-season game between the Capitals and Penguins already behind them, if they met again this season it would be it the playoffs.
"I think it was a great time for us to hang out just to know a little bit more than we used to," Ovechkin said. "But he has his own life, I have my life. Nothing changes."
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Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who played with Crosby in Pittsburgh before signing with Washington in 2014, said Ovechkin and Crosby are opposites in the way they operate and has a hard time envisioning a scenario where they would be friends.
"Maybe if they played on the same team," Orpik said. "They're just different guys. They're both awesome players and they're just completely different guys and personalities. I think maybe they admire that about each other, that they can both achieve that kind of success and be completely different."
With that mutual admiration, is it so crazy to think they could become closer at some point? When they started in the NHL they were billed by some as the League's version of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who helped sell the NBA as rivals on the court and became good friends off it.
Maybe it won't happen for Ovechkin and Crosby while they're playing, but could that part of the analogy carry over in retirement?
"Of course. Why not?" Ovechkin said. "We respect each other big time. We will see."