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Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry ready for a new level

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Fasten your Greatest Rivalries in Sports seat belts. We're about to enter warp speed with hockey's two biggest stars. The Sid vs. Ovie Showdown starts today at 1 p.m. ET (NBC, CBC, RDS).

Here's the best part: It's just the beginning.

Both the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin are signed to long-term deals. Their respective teams are powers in the NHL's Eastern Conference, with the Penguins perhaps a bit more accomplished but Washington coming up fast on the outside. You have to think today's Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be just the first of many postseason scrums.

That's because both stars are surrounded by a fistful of young, impressive teammates and skate for former minor-league coaches who appreciate superstars with a deep work ethic. Each franchise is built with solid player development plans that value fourth-line forwards and third-pair defensemen as much as the marquee players.

Plus, even the indelibly cranky Don Cherry concedes that both Sid and Ovie have become complete hockey players who can lead their clubs to the Cup. Take it on word: When long-time hockey men call a young star a "complete hockey player" that is high praise.

For the rest of us, what we see is high-definition contrast. There's the smooth, gliding, stick-magician Crosby who admits that is his playoff beard is, well, not strong or even scraggly.

Ovechkin, all arms and legs and bony angles when he skates, seems to be in permanent playoff facial hair mode.

No wonder NBC will dedicate two "iso-cams" to follow every move by both players in today's series opener. You can follow those iso-cams right here on NHL.com beginning at 1 p.m. ET.

Crosby took exception this week to an interviewer's suggestion that Ovechkin has more fun playing the game. Sid says he loves the sport as much as anyone, maybe more.

Well, OK, got it, but it sure seems like Ovechkin flashes that gap-tooth smile of his pretty much every time he gets a chance.

There's more. Crosby plays center, Ovechkin mans left wing, which is the European way but decidedly un-North American when you consider that the NHL's all-time scoring greats tilt to the right side. Ovechkin is three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, but Crosby has scored roughly twice as many points in twice as many playoff games, including a trip to last year's Stanley Cup Final.

Take that, Ovie.

The two superstars do have one uncanny thing in common: They both played their first NHL games on the same night -- Oct. 5, 2005. It was just months after Crosby was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, while Ovechkin earned the same top honor in the 2004 draft.

They have been on a collision course ever since.

NHL.com writer Dan Rosen described it earlier this week:

"Crosby is the Ivy League, scholarly center, while Ovechkin is the big-school, big-campus, fraternity-boy left wing. Crosby is a movie star; Ovechkin is a rock star.

"Crosby keeps his emotions in check; Ovechkin lets his pour out all over the rink.

"Oh, one more thing. They don't appear to like each other too much either. That's the special sauce of this rivalry.

"This is the moment we have all been waiting for…  Think Bird vs. Magic in the 1979 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game."

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau couldn't resist the Bird-Magic comparisons himself.

"[Sidney] Crosby is the Ivy League, scholarly center, while [Alex] Ovechkin is the big-school, big-campus, fraternity-boy left wing. Crosby is a movie star; Ovechkin is a rock star."
-- NHL.com's Dan Rosen

"I think media-wise it is (similar to Bird vs. Magic)," Boudreau said. "Any time it came on TV you saw a picture of Bird and you saw a picture of Magic and it wouldn't be the Lakers and Celtics, it would be them. Watching the first couple of days (of media coverage), I don't see it going Semin vs. Malkin, it's always Ovechkin vs. Crosby.

For his part, Ovechkin, to fracture an old phrase, has never met a spotlight he didn't stand under.

"Well, you know, it's a great series with great players playing against each other and good teams playing against each other," Ovie said in language that is endearingly fractured here and there. "If I was a fan of course I would watch this series. It's a big marketing for the NHL and lots of attention. It's pretty cool, I think."

"Of course I'm more excited (than the last round), but we don't have lots of time to practice or get some rest. Pittsburgh has because they've been finished earlier than us. They're more fresh. They're not tired. They feel pretty good."

Hockey fans everywhere have to feel good about watching Ovechkin take on Crosby in this series. Don Cherry apparently feels good and has stopped picking on Crosby about taking dives and complaining to officials. This is what he told the media during a broadcasters conference call on Friday: "To me, this is the best year that Crosby's ever had. Not in points and that, but he takes draws now, he's dynamite on draws, he's down low, he hits, he blocks shots, he's had two fights."

Capitals/Penguins Playoff Gear Penguins Gear Capitals Gear In the same call, Cherry likened Ovechkin to "the wild bull of the Pampas."

If you are tempted to think the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry is strictly hockey-centric, one more thing before the puck drops for Game 1. NBA superstar LeBron James express-mailed a signed blue No. 23 Cleveland Cavaliers jersey that Caps owner Ted Leonsis hand-delivered to Ovechkin in the home locker room on Friday.

James wrote this inscription: "To Alexander the Great: Keep up the good work. King James."

The jersey was a reciprocal gift for Ovechkin, who gave James a No. 8 Capitals jersey when the Cavaliers played at Washington last month. Funny thing, the NBA is still waiting on James to face Kobe Bryant is a postseason series.

The NHL and an entirely curious sports world don't have to wait on Sid and Ovie any longer.

Contact Bob Condor at bcondor@nhl.com








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