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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins vs. Capitals.

Crosby vs. Ovechkin.

Here we go again.

The two rookies’ paths cross Wednesday as Sidney Crosby’s Penguins welcome Alexander Ovechkin’s Capitals to Mellon Arena.                                                                                                  

Crosby took Round 1 on Nov. 22 as the Penguins posted a 5-4 triumph over Washington in front of a sell-out crowd at Mellon Arena. And, if this one is anything like the first encounter – get ready for some great hockey.

“It’s a thrill to watch great players,” Penguins radio play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald said. “It’s awesome.”

From an individual standpoint, Crosby won the first battle with Ovechkin. Crosby had a goal and an assist on Nov. 22, while Ovechkin was limited to an assist.

 “It was a pretty fun game. To come out with a win –                                                
that’s why you play, to come out with a win.It was an exciting game,” Crosby said. “After the last one,  there was so much excitement with the way it went  that it’s just going to lead into this one. There will be  high intensity and a lot of emotion this time, I am sure.”                               
Since their first encounter, however, Ovechkin has outscored Crosby, 38-26, and grabbed the rookie scoring lead with 60 points (33+27) through 45 games to Crosby’s 53 points (23+30) through 47 games.

“The way Ovechkin has played lately and the way he’s elevated his play – I know Sidney downplays it a bit and keeps everything in perspective, but I think that’s a challenge,” said Penguins radio color commentator Phil Bourque, a former Penguin. “Now that Ovechkin has taken his game up a notch, I think that will only naturally elevate Sidney’s game. As anticipated as the first matchup was, I think even more people now, not only in Pittsburgh but throughout the league, are going to have their eyes on how these two young players match up.”

Crosby knows the hoopla will be big for this encounter with Ovechkin and the Capitals. He expects it to remain that way for many more years to come. However, he won’t turn these meetings into individual battles.

                                                  “I think there’s always build-up for those games. For me, I just  try    to go out there and approach it the same way. With the excitement and the extra motivation, I just try to use that to play better,” he said. “By no means am I out there watching him the whole time or worrying about an individual. I think it’s important to worry about playing the way I can, but at the same time, you just try to use the energy of that game to help you.”

Likewise, Ovechkin claims he is not focused on any personal battles.

“I’m not tired of [all the comparisons], because I don’t think about it,” Ovechkin wrote in an online chat. “He’s a great player, but we’re very different. All I think about is how we can win games in Washington. I don’t think about how many goals I must score or winning Rookie of the Year.”

Nevertheless, the game should provide some extra motivation for both players.

“I think what makes it great is Sid seems to thrive on certain challenges being put in front of him,” Steigerwald said. “I think even though he’ll probably downplay it and say it’s not a battle between the two – I heard that from Wayne Gretzky for years, but every time he came in this building, he played at a higher level because he knew Mario Lemieux was on the other side.

“I think there will be a certain level of intensity that will be palpable when you see Sidney on the ice that night. I am sure the same goes for Alexander Ovechkin,” he continued. “Those two play as hard as they can every night. But, I think there is a certain fire that’s also lit in those great players and I expect that to be the case when they meet again.”                                                     

Their rivalry can be traced to Junior hockey when Crosby and Team Canada beat Ovechkin’s Russian squad in the 2005 World Junior Championship title game. Since a work stoppage wiped out the NHL schedule last season, Ovechkin, the 2004 first-overall pick, and Crosby, the 2005 first-overall selection, are starting their NHL careers at the same time.

“You don’t see it too often – it’s a very rare occasion when two players of their stature are in the same year,” Bourque said. “You always talk about how these great players only come around about once every 10 years or even 20 years, but to have them both in the league at the same time in their first year is great for the league.”                                                                                                                                                                              

However, Ovechkin has a significant physical advantage – he is two years older than Crosby. The 20-year-old Ovechkin was born on Sept. 17, 1985, while Crosby was born on Aug. 7, 1987.

“Let’s not forget that Ovechkin has a couple of years on Sidney – a couple years of physical maturity in front of Sidney,” Bourque said. “As far as the level of talent that these guys have, I think everybody throughout the league – players and fans and media people like myself – have on many occasions watched a highlight of Sidney or Ovechkin and shaken our heads in disbelief about how they do that. That’s been the common phrase you hear quite often when you see some of the plays these guys make.”

While Ovechkin and Crosby draw many comparisons, their styles of play differ. Crosby, a 5-foot-11, 193-pound center is a playmaker, whereas Ovechkin, a 6-2, 216-pound left winger, is more of a pure goal scorer.

“I am sure these two players are going to be compared against each other for years and years,” Steigerwald said. “Sidney is a different kind of player. Sidney’s numbers are going to come from his ability to distribute the puck. He is going to make players around him better, but he is also going to need great players around him to finish the plays that he starts.

“Whereas, I think Ovechkin probably could play on a team that’s less-talented and still put up huge numbers because he’s more of a one-on-one guy and an individually dynamic player,” he continued. “That’s the difference, also, between a center and a winger. Sidney’s a center and Ovechkin is a winger. Ovechkin is a scorer and Sidney’s a playmaker. Sidney can score, obviously, but you’re seeing right now that Ovechkin is a guy who can put the puck in the net at an alarming rate.”

Indeed. Through his first 45 NHL games, Ovechkin ranks second in the NHL with 33 goals. That puts him on pace for 60 goals, which would be the second-highest rookie single-season total in NHL history. Teemu Selanne set the record with 76 goals in 84   games in the 1992-93 season.

  Few players in the history of the game at [Ovechkin’s]can put it in the net like he does,” Steigerwald said. “He’s like another Teemu Selanne.”

Additionally, Ovechkin, who is called “Ovie” or “Ovi-Wan” by his teammates, is on pace to finish the season with 109 points. That would tie him for second all-time among rookies with Quebec’s Peter Stastny, who racked up 109 points in 77 games in the 1980-81 season.

Meanwhile, Crosby is on pace to score 40 goals, which would tie him for 10th all-time among rookies. He is on pace for 93 points, which would be the eighth-best rookie total in NHL history.

Many compare the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry to that of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Here’s how those two hockey icons fared in their rookie seasons: Pittsburgh’s Lemieux scored exactly 100 points (43+57) in 1984-85, while Edmonton’s Gretzky had 137 points (51+86) in 1979-80.



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