ARLINGTON, Va. --
A playful Alex Ovechkin
teased the media and did what he could to avoid controversy regarding his rivalry with Pittsburgh Penguins
center Sidney Crosby
following Thursday's practice, which he skipped in favor of a training session with his private strength and conditioning coach.
Crosby's Penguins and Ovechkin's Capitals will meet Saturday afternoon in Washington's Verizon Center in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup Playoff Eastern Conference Semifinal series (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS). The Penguins eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers
Saturday in six games, while the Capitals closed out the New York Rangers
Tuesday in Game 7.
All eyes are on the matchup between Crosby and Ovechkin after Crosby joined the midseason criticism of Ovechkin's goal celebrations. Ovechkin's increasingly exuberant celebrations also drew criticism from CBC broadcaster Don Cherry
. Following a planned celebration of a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning
, in which a couple of teammates made a late decision not to join Ovechkin, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
held a private meeting with his superstar and Ovechkin announced he would tone down his post-goal antics. The celebrations were simple over-exuberance by the 23-year-old and he listened to his coach.
That's not the only reason for the rivalry. Crosby won the 2007 Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player and Ovechkin succeeded him last year. Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 56 goals, is again a Hart finalist, as is Crosby's teammate, Evgeni Malkin
and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk
"I was happy, especially me, Malkin and Datsyuk, three Russian guys," Ovechkin said. "It's important for our country and important for young (Russian) players that want to come here. They see Russian players playing well."
A reporter told Ovechkin the NHL had marketed Crosby as its superstar, but that Ovechkin had superseded Crosby in the past two seasons. Ovechkin demurred.
"He's a superstar," Ovechkin said, laughing, and then when asked, described himself. "Me? I'm just like you guys."
Giving it another try, the reported asked if this was a "clash of the titans?"
Ovechkin had had enough parrying.
"No, it's between the Penguins and the Capitals," he said, adding that he expected it would be tougher to play Pittsburgh than the Rangers. "Pittsburgh has more experience than the Rangers in the playoffs. Last year, Pittsburgh was in the Final. They have pretty much the same team. They lost a couple of guys, but, still, they have a group of young guys that got experience playing in the Stanley Cup Final.
Boudreau backed up Ovechkin in his press conference.
"They've almost been forced into saying negative things about each other," Boudreau said. "There's not a lot of it going around. The last time they were here, there was a little confrontation and (Sidney Crosby
) said, 'I don't like what he does.' Then, all of a sudden, boom, it was built up into way more than it is. (They are) two superior athletes who go at it because superior athletes want to win and they're overly competitive. And those guys both are."
Ovechkin was told that a generation ago, Wayne Gretzky
and Mario Lemieux
were the NHL's top stars but they never met in a playoff. Ovechkin said he didn't blame fans and the media for being excited about the matchup.
"It's always nice when top players play against each other in the playoffs," Ovechkin said. "It's great for the fans. Fans want to see great players and know what's going on, how they're going to play against each other."
Boudreau chuckled when he was asked if he subscribed to the "theory" that this is the NHL's most important playoff series in a long time.
"I don't know. Whose theory is that?" Boudreau asked. "I hope it is. We all love our game so much, I hope we draw tons of fans. I hope it is something that fans want to watch on a national level. Anything that is good for our game is great. We want to build it and show the people that don't know our game how great a game it can be."
Ovechkin said he thought the added rest will benefit the Penguins.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us," Ovechkin said. "Right now, they're in a better position. They've had more days off and they have more experience than us. They've been able to go home and relax. They're in good shape and ready to go."