In a second-round playoff series that has the Art Ross Trophy and Maurice Richard Trophy winners, two finalists for the Hart Trophy and a finalist for the Norris Trophy, one clash of two stars stands out.
That's because Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin are considered to be on a short list of the world's best hockey players and have been the NHL's marquee attractions since they were rookies at the beginning of the post-lockout era.
And because of a rivalry between the two.
It's that last part that bothers Crosby. It's not that he and Ovechkin are best buddies, and he doesn't deny there's a rivalry. He just thinks their off-ice war of words has been overblown.
After the Penguins' first practice since learning they play the Capitals beginning tomorrow in Washington, Crosby yesterday wanted to clarify at least one aspect of the purported bad blood between him and Ovechkin.
It stems from a 5-2 Penguins loss Feb. 22 in Washington. Crosby and Ovechkin had a verbal confrontation with a bit of shoving in front of the Capitals bench in the third period, and Ovechkin gave Crosby a dismissive wave.
Afterward, Crosby said of Ovechkin: "Like it or lump it, that's what he does. Some people like it, some people don't. Personally, I don't like it."
Crosby believes those comments have been construed to include Ovechkin's overall persona, including his demonstrative scoring celebrations.
"I was asked about a situation where he and I got in a confrontation in front of the bench," Crosby said yesterday. "I didn't like the way he was using his hands or the gestures he was making. It didn't have anything to do with goal celebrations. That was a totally made-up story.
"The taunting was what I didn't like about that. It didn't have anything to do with goal-scoring celebration."
Ovechkin was low-key after the Capitals practice.
"It's always nice when top players play against each other in the playoffs," he told reporters. "It's great for the fans."
No doubt Crosby and Ovechkin will be evaluated closely during the series, and any interaction on the ice or comments toward each other off the ice will be dissected.
"Some people like his style; some people like my style. We're just different. That's why I think a lot of people find it interesting," said Crosby, who finished second to Ovechkin in league rookie of the year voting three years ago and won the NHL Art Ross (scoring title) and Hart (MVP) trophies the next season. Ovechkin won the latter two awards last year and is the Richard (goals) winner and a Hart finalist this year.
"Do I wake up hoping to see Ovechkin fail? No, I don't," Crosby said. "He's a guy I play against. He's a great player. We're competitive against each other, but there's an element there where the media puts us up against each other."
In addition to Crosby, the Penguins feature, among others, center Evgeni Malkin, who won the Art Ross as the league's leading scorer this season and is up for the Hart; Jordan Staal, a strong two-way center who probably would be on the top two lines with most teams; and veteran two-way defenseman and power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar.
Complementing Ovechkinare snipers Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, who led all defensemen in the regular season in goals (31) and points (73) and is a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
"Myself and Ovechkin, [Malkin], Semin, Backstrom, Staal, Green, Gonchar -- all these guys, a lot of guys, have made an impact on the league, and you've got two teams full of them," Crosby said.
Asked to pick one area the Penguins need to dominate to win the series, Malkin offered: "We need to play better [penalty killing] because Washington has a good power play. Three guys shoot [the] puck -- Semin, Ovechkin and Green, and they shoot right[-handed]. If we play PK better, we win."
The Capitals had the second-best power play in the league during the season with a success rate of 25.2 percent, although they were 6 of 33 (18.1 percent) in their seven-game win against the New York Rangers in the first round.
The Penguins' penalty-killing clicked at 86.7 percent in the first round against Philadelphia after coming on strong late in the regular season to finish eighth at 82.7 percent.
There's also an interesting matchup of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and Washington rookie Simeon Varlamov, and the question of line matchups.
"I anticipate whatever combinations are out there that we will do the right thing and, again, be successful," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said, noting he did not want to divulge much about his game plan.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma doesn't see the series hinging on Crosby vs. Ovechkin.
"We have to play a certain way," he said. "It's not going to come down to our star players playing better than their star players."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.