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This Time, It's Personal

It's star vs. star in the NHL playoffs. Is this hockey or the NBA?

Sometime in the next week, when the Penguins and the Capitals finish their second-round playoff series, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the Jen and Angelina of the hockey set, will get in the traditional lineup, shake with their right hands and fight the temptation to hold their noses with their left. There is a laudable degree of antipathy between the stars, a dislike bred of stylistic and personal differences that manifested itself this season with an on-ice pushing match, a headlock and a dismissive wave from Ovechkin, and some media-conveyed repartee that might not qualify for Bartlett's but by hockey standards was cutting. (Ovechkin: "He's a good player, but he talks too much." Crosby, referring to Ovechkin's taunting of him: "Like it or lump it, that's what he does.... Personally, I don't like it.")

The frostiness between the boisterous Ovechkin and the self-contained Crosby is guaranteed to linger at least another year: One will move on to the Eastern Conference finals, the other will go home. But if the stars are gritting their teeth through the series, the rest of the hockey world is licking its chops. This smackdown is exactly what the NHL has been waiting for since 2005, when Crosby and Ovechkin entered the league together with a degree of anticipation approximating Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's arrival in the NBA in 1979. Adding their personality clash to the first playoff meeting between the league's last two MVPs makes the story line even spicier.

Have you noticed when you say "Sidney and Ovy," it vaguely rhymes with "LeBron and Kobe"? Penguins-Capitals is the NHL's most heralded playoff series since the 1994 final between the Rangers and the Canucks, and Crosby and Ovechkin have been dutifully elevated above their teams' names on the figurative marquee. On the eve of the series, the NHL issued a press release trumpeting their "Rivalry Renewed." During Washington's 3--2 Game 1 win last Saturday, NBC devoted two of its 15 cameras—dubbed Star Cams—to the celebrated antagonists. As Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said when the matchup was set, "Welcome to the circus."

The cult of one-on-one is a basketball staple—when asked what he thought when the Cavaliers play the Lakers, Ovechkin said, "Of course you say LeBron and Bryant"—but this kind of individual focus is an anomaly in the all-for-one, one-for-all NHL. A playoff series featuring Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux might have touched off something similar in the late 1980s, but they never faced each other in springtime. When Original Six rival right wings Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard met, it was never about Mr. Hockey and the Rocket, but simply the Red Wings playing the Canadiens. "Times change," says 38-year-old Penguins right wing Bill Guerin. "Kids now follow individuals as much as teams because players move around so much. The NHL needs a face. Or a couple of faces."

In theory, promoting a player who is hip like Ovechkin and hop like Crosby is sound business. In practice, it's an uncomfortable fit. The hockey paradigm is different. LeBron and Kobe might be on the court for nearly 40 minutes of a 48-minute game and have the ball in their hands every trip down court. Ovechkin and Crosby typically play a little more than a third of a 60-minute match and might not touch the puck on some shifts. In Washington's Game 1 win, Crosby played a hefty 24:12 and Ovechkin 21:13. But they were on the ice simultaneously for only 5:36. The headlines say they are going mano a mano, but they played just three full shifts opposite the other. "The stars are great," Boudreau said afterward, "but unless you have 12 forwards and six defensemen going, you're not going to win the big prize."

Sid and Ovy each scored a goal on Saturday, but the play of the game was produced by rookie Capitals goalie Simeon Varlamov, who is so anonymous that last week he tweaked journalists for mispronouncing his name. (He is, he announced, sim-YOHN var-LAH-mov.) The player who was named later launched himself across the crease to sweep a Crosby shot off the goal line with the heel of his stick late in the second period of a tie game, a save Ovechkin ranked as "top 10."

If he derived any additional frisson of joy from the play because it robbed his marketing counterweight of a goal, Ovechkin did not let on. Last week both players strictly adhered to hockey's team-first ethos and played down the importance of their individual showdown. The myth of a Crosby-Ovechkin duel is even more powerful than the facts. The overnight rating for NBC's broadcast of Game 1 was 1.4, 40% higher than the Colorado-Detroit second-round opener the network had last year. "I don't know if it's sustainable just because somebody in Arkansas who otherwise would be watching his favorite fishing show is watching the game," Boudreau said. "But the curiosity-seekers might want to watch a little longer. Maybe they end up getting hooked."

Such is the lure of Sid and Ovy.

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A CROSBY-OVECHKIN SMACKDOWN is exactly what the NHL was waiting for.