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FOE-TO-FOE

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Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin don't have much in common—on or off the ice—but when they go head-to-head, the hockey world can't help but watch this generation's defining rivalry

THIS SPRING THE NHL'S most-talked-about rivalry landed in an unusual place: the ice. For the last 11 seasons, Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin was more of a barstool argument than an athletic competition. They don't play the same position, they have very different skill sets, they play different roles on their teams, and before this year's second round they had only faced each other once in the playoffs, in 2009. Still, the story of this Penguins-Capitals series was always going to be, as the league screamed on its official Instagram account: SID VS OVI.

The Penguins won three of the first four games, and the dominant image of the Caps' captain was of him standing unhappily in the home dressing room with a red towel over his shoulders after Game 1, chastising himself for not scoring on breakaways: "I just made stupid plays."

The Capitals had won the game, but Ovechkin felt he could have won it earlier. And when his team, on the verge of elimination, needed him to play like the all-time great he is, he did, in Game 5. Split from usual center Nicklas Backstrom (and therefore avoiding the head-to-head matchup against Crosby's line), he drew a hooking penalty early in the first period and scored eight seconds into the ensuing power play. In the second he fired a bullet on goal, setting up T.J. Oshie to score on the rebound. Ovechkin was the best player on the ice, as he always expects to be.

"They feel like every game, they have to try to outplay the other team's best players," Pittsburgh forward Eric Fehr, who played for Washington for most of the last decade, says of Sid and Ovi. "It's never spoken about, but I think it's just what happens. They want to be the best."

They are the best—the two premier players of their era, No. 1 (Ovechkin) and No. 2 (Crosby) in scoring since 2005--06, winners of five of the last nine Hart trophies as league MVP. But through five games they had not been their usual dominant selves, possibly because they spent so much time facing each other's lines. Over the first four games Ovechkin was on the ice for 56.4% of Crosby's even-strength ice time.

Crosby and Ovechkin debuted on the same night in October 2005, but even before that, NHL executives were describing them as hockey's Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The difference is that the Bird-Magic phenomenon happened organically, after they became established stars. Crosby and Ovechkin were asked to be the faces of the league before they even played in it.

It took four years before they met in a game with playoff consequences, but when they did, in 2009, it was epic. They each scored hat tricks in Game 2, and defenseman Brooks Orpik (then of the Pens, now of the Caps), says he can still recap every game. There were hopes that the series would be the first installment of regular playoff programming, but the league discovered that getting the Pens and the Caps together was not as easy as putting pens and caps together.

The seven-year wait for another meeting was not what the league wanted, but it may have been good for both players. They do not enjoy being defined by the rivalry. They accept it as part of their jobs.

From the start, Crosby and Ovechkin were supposed to be co-saviors (reviving the league from the 2004--05 lockout) and rivals. Friendship was never part of the mandate. For years their relationship seemed so frosty, you needed a Zamboni to clear it. Even Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, says he wondered, "Are they ever going to have a relationship?"

ON NEW YEAR'S DAY 2011, the NHL held its fourth Winter Classic. It had already become a marquee event, but the league wanted to ramp up the promotion. The NHL signed an agreement with HBO to air a 24/7 documentary series on the two teams leading up to the game, and NHL chief marketing officer Brian Jennings says there was "no doubt" about what lured the cable network: Crosby vs. Ovechkin.

To further hype the game, the league staged a commercial: Crosby walks into Pittsburgh's empty Heinz Field in a Penguins windbreaker, then spots Ovechkin in a red sweatshirt. They glare at each other. A downpour ensues. They keep glaring.

But Crosby and Ovechkin were not really in the stadium together; due to a scheduling conflict, Ovechkin filmed his part in front of a green screen in Washington, D.C.

For all the discussion about their shared ice time, Ovechkin and Crosby have not shared much off-ice time. And that, as much as anything, explains the dynamic. "When they compete against the other best [player], they don't like the other guy," Brisson says. "They just train their brains: I have to be better than that guy, so I shouldn't like him. It was not personal."

Compare them with their peers in other sports, and the rivalry is easier to understand. Magic and Bird are good friends now—but that only happened after they taped a Converse commercial together well into their careers. These days, text messages, email and social media can keep a relationship going but are unlikely to start a meaningful one.

If Ovechkin and Crosby are supposed to be hockey's Magic and Bird, then the Nationals' Bryce Harper and the Angels' Mike Trout are baseball's Ovechkin and Crosby. Harper will take that compliment—he loves hockey—and like most of us, he is more likely to tune in when the best scorers are playing.

But if Harper can understand the draw of the Sid-Ovi rivalry, he cannot relate to the frostiness. He knew Trout before the nation knew either of them: They played together in the Arizona Fall League, and Harper says the publicly reserved Trout is "one of the funniest guys I've ever met."

For years Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson had a rivalry similar to Ovechkin and Crosby's. There was a lot of media hype, a limited number of head-to-head showdowns and hints of genuine distaste for each other. Tiger-Phil relations thawed over table-tennis matches at the 2004 Ryder Cup, eight years into Tiger's reign.

It's difficult to envision an opportunity for Ovechkin and Crosby to have a similar bonding session. They've only played on the same All-Star team once, in 2007. In international competitions they are never on the same team. Even if they did play table tennis, they surely wouldn't play it with the same intensity.

"We used to always joke when I was in Pittsburgh—Ping-Pong, basketball, whatever—it was best-of-until-Sid-won," says Orpik, who spent 11 years with the Penguins. "It could start off best of three, and if Sid didn't win best of three, it was best of five, best of seven...."

Ovechkin is just not as competitive: "On the ice he is," Orpik says. "But off the ice, away from hockey, he's not." Says Fehr, "They couldn't be more polar opposite."

It is common for Ovechkin to show up at the rink not knowing what happened around the league the night before. Crosby always knows. This is not surprising if you watch Crosby, because his greatness is in his completeness.

"Sid's got a little OCD in him, I think," Orpik says, laughing. "But the preparation and the work that he puts in day-in and day-out is what makes him who he is. There are probably guys that have better shots than him or more skills than him, but he passes those guys with his competitiveness."

Ovechkin is one of the purest scorers ever. Since 2005--06, there have been 20 50-goal seasons in the NHL. Ovechkin has had seven of them. "He definitely doesn't go as hard in practice as he does in games," Orpik says, "[but] that's good for the rest of us because we'd have a lot of injuries." By far the heaviest Capital, at 239 pounds, Ovechkin needs to be selective about when he throws that weight around.

THAT 2011 Winter Classic garnered higher TV ratings than any before or since. But it is remembered mostly for Capitals center David Steckel's blind-side hit on Crosby, which gave the Penguins star a concussion. He would be sidelined for almost a year.

While Crosby and Ovechkin don't cross paths as often as fans would like, it is curious that when one of them has a defining moment, the other has often been in the neighborhood. Crosby's concussion came against Washington. That 2009 playoff series spurred the Penguins' only Stanley Cup of the Crosby era. When Canada won Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, Crosby's team eliminated Ovechkin and Russia 7--3 in the quarterfinals. In 2014, Crosby won another gold medal—in Sochi, where Ovechkin was the home country's biggest star.

Still, the obsession with Sid and Ovi is ours, not theirs. Orpik and Fehr say neither star has ever grilled them on the other.

Jennings says, "To sell the game of hockey and market the sport, they have said, 'We get it. We know we have to be the face of the game.'" But while they sell the game in a larger sense, they have always insisted that a game is never just about them.

This series reinforced that belief. Ovechkin's first goal didn't come until the third period of Game 3, when his team was trailing 3--0. If the Capitals lose this series after winning the Presidents' Trophy, critics will likely blame Ovechkin. But Crosby demonstrates how deceiving such judgments can be. The Penguins took a 3--2 series lead without much scoring help from their captain, who had just two assists. And when Crosby lifted the Cup, in 2009, he was injured in Game 7 of the finals. Teammate Evgeni Malkin won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP.

For fans, the answer to "Sid or Ovi?" comes down to personal preference more than numbers. Ovechkin fans think Crosby whines too much; Crosby supporters think Ovechkin doesn't win enough. The argument sometimes overshadows the fact that these are two all-time greats who carried the sport out of a dark place.

Brisson says, "It never developed into a relationship. That's my observation." But by relationship, he means a modern superstar friendship, like the one Tom Brady and Peyton Manning share, with occasional teasing text messages and shared meals when they are in the same city. Crosby and Ovechkin may never get there, but Brisson says, "From what I understand, they're friendly to each other. They have mutual respect for each other. It's more of a mature confrontation [than before]."

Even the mutual respect took time. In February 2009 the two got into a scuffle in front of Washington's bench. Ovechkin mocked Crosby by flapping his arms like a chicken. Crosby took issue with Ovechkin's celebrations: "Personally, I don't like it." Ovechkin said Crosby talks too much.

Late in Game 4 of this year's series, Ovechkin slashed the Penguins' star, sending him to the dressing room. Crosby smashed his stick against a wall on the way but later said he was simply frustrated because he might be injured. Crosby insisted he was not mad at Ovechkin: "I don't think there was any intention." Forget the hype and relationship speculation: Alex Ovechkin is just a superstar trying to help his team win the Stanley Cup. After all these years, Sidney Crosby understands.

"THEY JUST TRAIN THEIR BRAINS: I HAVE TO BE BETTER THAN THAT GUY," BRISSON SAYS.

SAYS FEHR, "THEY COULDN'T BE MORE POLAR OPPOSITE."

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Photograph by Al Tielemans

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JOE GIZA/REUTERS

SHARED HISTORY Since its early days in 2006 (top left), the Rivalry has always been memorable—in (from left) the 2011 Winter Classic, the '10 Olympics and the '09 playoffs.

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BRIAN BABINEAU/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES

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MATT SLOCUM/AP

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MITCHELL LAYTON/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES

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Photographs by Al Tielemans

STAR PARTY Ovechkin (above left) and the Capitals took Game 1, but Crosby's Penguins answered by winning the next three.