WASHINGTON -- Yes, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are rivals. They have been for a while now, and probably will be for the rest of their careers.
They have competed mostly for individual honors and trophies so far. Someday -- maybe this season -- the stakes will be raised to a playoff berth. Perhaps to an Olympic gold medal in 2010. And, eventually, to a Stanley Cup.
And those two will battle every second of every shift, because neither has a non-competitive corpuscle in his body. Both are driven to be the best at what they do, and any differences between them to this point have been nothing more than subtle shadings in magnitudes of greatness.
So it's only natural that anytime Crosby and Ovechkin share a slab of ice, as will happen when the Penguins face Washington at 7:08 tonight at the Verizon Center, a lot of people pay attention.
Tickets sales and passions and TV ratings spike, as even casual fans are captivated by what these two extraordinary young talents can do, and how they compare.
But, for all the emotion and energy Crosby and Ovechkin bring to every one of their meetings, one thing is conspicuously absent: A genuine, deep-seated dislike of the other.
While they don't pal around -- Ovechkin didn't invite Crosby out for sushi in Georgetown last night -- they seem to have a true appreciation for what the other can do, and what he means to his team and the sport.
"We have an 'opponents' relationship,' " Crosby said. "It's not a relationship like [a player has] with a teammate or anything like that. I know him. He's a guy I say 'Hi' to. I respect him as a player, but it's nothing beyond that."
It's also nothing personal. Crosby and Ovechkin will go at it ferociously on the ice, but theirs is not a rivalry that will be settled with bare knuckles in a dressing-room hallway or switchblades in the parking lot.
"Some people might want that," Crosby said, smiling. "But it's just not there."
The game tonight will be the fifth time Crosby has faced Ovechkin since they entered the NHL in the fall of 2005. Crosby took their personal season series by outscoring Ovechkin, 9-6, while the Penguins won three of four games, but Ovechkin took the biggest prize by claiming the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
Tonight, though, will mark the first time a Crosby-Ovechkin confrontation will have any real significance in the standings. Going into last night, the Capitals were eighth in the Eastern Conference with 32 points, the Penguins 13th with 29.
"The Capitals and Penguins will meet this year, not Crosby and Ovechkin," Ovechkin said.
That, Washington coach Glen Hanlon said, should only enhance the evening.
"I think it's more enjoyable, because it's not just two guys," he said. "Knowing their personalities, they likely don't want any of it to be one person against another person.
"They want it to be their teams that are playing. It's two good young teams that are playing."
Two young teams that happen to feature the finest young players in the sport. Guys who were absolutely great as rookies -- and have gotten significantly better since.
Forget that Crosby was tied for fourth in the NHL scoring race before last night, even though he missed three games with a groin injury. Points are the one thing coach Michel Therrien doesn't even mention when discussing the evolution of Crosby's game.
"He's more mature," Therrien said. "He understands the game more. He's gotten better on faceoffs. We believe he's quicker than last year. He's able to shift gears from fourth to fifth; I don't see many guys in the NHL who can do that.
"Defensively, he's one of our best in our own end. He's the type of kid who wants to be the best at everything. It's pretty simple. Right now, the way he's playing is amazing."
Ovechkin, who scored 52 goals as a rookie and is tied for third in the league with 18 this season, is renowned for his ability to put the puck in the net, but Hanlon is most impressed by the way he has picked up on the details of other facets of the game, like defensive-zone coverages.
"Alexander wants to do anything he can to win the Stanley Cup," he said.
Yeah, well, that's at the top of Crosby's to-do list, too. And if, ultimately, that means breaking Ovechkin's heart in the process, well, so be it.
Still, Crosby allows himself to think what it would be like if he and Ovechkin end up as linemates in the All-Star game. About what a lethal combination such a gifted playmaker and lethal goal-scorer could be.
"It would be fun," he said. "When you have a guy who can shoot the puck like that and you know people are pulling for you to score goals together ... it's nice to have an event like that.
"We'll see how it goes. Who knows? We might not be good together. But it would be cool to be playing with someone like that."
Almost as cool as most other people think it is to watch them play against one another.Scott Cunningham and Chris McGrath, Getty Images
Left: Sidney Crosby leads the Penguins this season with 39 points.
Right: Alex Ovechkin is the Washington Capitals' scoring leader with 35 points.
Click photo for larger image.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .