ARLINGTON, Va. - Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis walked into the locker-room Friday carrying a bag containing a blue No. 23 Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, signed by LeBron James with the inscription:
"To Alexander the Great: Keep up the good work. King James." On the eve of the NHL's version of Kobe versus LeBron, score one for Alex Ovechkin over Sidney Crosby.
The jersey was a reciprocal gift for Ovechkin, who gave James a No. 8 Capitals jersey when the Cavaliers played at Washington last month. Ovechkin was so star-struck at that cross-sport meeting of titans that he could hardly speak, while James was apologetic over not having a jersey to give in return.
"He was happy that LeBron remembered him and delivered on his promise," Leonsis wrote in an e-mail after giving Ovechkin the jersey. "He seemed like a little kid."
Even before Leonsis arrived, the meaning of star power was the big discussion point with the Capitals players. The NBA is still waiting on a possible Kobe Bryant-James matchup in its playoffs, but Ovechkin versus Crosby goes above the title when the Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"It's good marketing for the NHL," Ovechkin said.
That said, he and Crosby have been careful not to inflame their rivalry in the days leading up to the series. Crosby this week talked about the personality differences between the two, while Ovechkin flat out said: "Let's talk about Pittsburgh and the Capitals, not about me and Crosby. It's going to be a good rivalry, but it's only Capitals and Pittsburgh."
Crosby and Ovechkin have been billed as the league's rising stars since entering the NHL simultaneously in 2005. They seemed ready to come to blows at a Feb. 22 game in Washington, when Ovechkin got tired of Crosby's mouth and Crosby showed his disdain for Ovechkin's theatrics. Even the fact that Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin has had a better season - winning the league's scoring title - didn't deter reporters from asking every conceivable Crosby question to Ovechkin this week.
"He's superstar," Ovechkin said at one point.
"Me? Just like you guys," Ovechkin told a laughing media scrum.
Ovechkin is both right and wrong. Crosby's golden boy image makes him seem less accessible, while Ovechkin would look right at home as the surprise guest at a neighbourhood backyard barbecue. But Ovechkin stands out on the rink because of his exuberant goal celebrations and showmanship, irritating the game's purists.
"Some people like his style, some people like my style, it doesn't matter," Crosby said. "We're just different and that's why I think a lot of people find it interesting."
The Capitals won three of four meetings this season, but longtime fans in the U.S. capital associate the Penguins with post-season torment. Pittsburgh eliminated Washington from the playoffs no fewer than six times in an 11-season span from 1991-2001.
Both Crosby and Ovechkin dismissed the history as meaningless headed into this series. One of the few remaining links is Leonsis, who has seen the teams take similar rebuilding paths since the Penguins' six-game series win over the Capitals eight years ago.
"They are a magnificently crafted team that frankly you could look at and clock their development with ours," Leonsis said. "They blew their team up by trading Jaromir Jagr to us, and then a couple of years later we had to blow our team up by trading Jaromir Jagr and a bunch of players and rebuilding through the draft.
"They have some transcendent young talent, and I think we do, too. Even the story of the coach is a similar storyline, so we're mirror images of each other. I expected it would be a rivalry of Penguins 2.0 and Caps 2.0, and so it starts now."