- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

Be sure to drop thank-you notes to Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal. Because of their goals in the closing seconds of the Devils-Hurricanes series Tuesday night, which heisted Game 7 for Carolina, the Eastern Conference playoffs have been deliciously reshuffled. We now have - can it be? - Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals facing Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the NHL’s Elite Eight.

Let the Magic/Bird, Ali/Frazier and Rome/Carthage comparisons begin.

As the capital of the free world, Washington is used to getting lots of attention but not the kind this first playoff matchup between Ovechkin and Crosby will bring. For the next two weeks, D.C. will be one of the focal points of hockey - to an even greater extent, perhaps, than it was during the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.

After all, ‘98 had nowhere near the sizzle Ovie vs. Sid the Kid has. We’re talking about two breathtaking talents who, in the post-lockout NHL, have been designated the Future of Professional Hockey. Though Alex is only 23 and Sidney not quite 22, they’ve both already won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and Crosby has already been to the finals - last year, when the Red Wings cut down the Pens in six games.

Since they’re fortunate enough to play in the same conference, Ovechkin and Crosby could be running into each other in the postseason pretty regularly in the next decade or so. This is just Act I, folks. And what makes it even better is that Ovie might - in cartoon fashion - flatten Sid against the boards at some point (and vice versa). Can anybody remember any violent collisions between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, any overt physicality? Ovechkin-Crosby is a rivalry in the most primal sense.

Besides, Magic and Bird genuinely liked each other; with Alex and Sid there’s a bit of an edge. Back in February, Crosby muttered something about Ovechkin liking “to run around” taking shots at opponents, while Ovie sniffed that Sid “talks too much.” Around the same time, CBC blabbermouth Don Cherry came down on Alex for overemoting after goals, which, as we all know, Just Isn’t Canadian.

So this series isn’t merely a clash of the two biggest names in hockey, it’s a clash of personalities - a clash of cultures, even. On one side you have Canada, which invented ice; on the other, you have Russia, which invented… I dunno, the vodka you put the ice in?

Ever since Ovechkin and Crosby came into the league in 2005, people have been waiting for this moment, waiting for them to faceoff in the playoffs - commissioner Gary Bettman most of all. They would have crossed paths in the second round a year ago, you may recall, had the Capitals survived Game 7 against the Flyers. Now, with the help of Messrs. Jokinen and Staal, we’ll get to see what we missed out on last spring.

In fact, this series has even more going for it. Aside from the two Names Above the Title, we have the Pens’ Evgeni Malkin, a Hart Trophy finalist (and the league’s leading scorer), and the Caps’ Mike Green, who’s in the running for the Norris (and led defensemen with 31 goals). That’s more star power than you’ll find in any playoff matchup this season.

(And we haven’t even mentioned 21-year-old Simeon Varlamov, whose otherworldly off-the-bench goaltending for the Capitals was one of the biggest sensations of the first round.)

But beyond that, there’s the whole back story of Capitals-Penguins. Let’s face it, no franchise has brought Caps fans more grief than Pittsburgh. Year after playoff year - 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001 - the Pens tore out the Caps’ hearts… and sent them bleeding to the first tee. You know the details; I won’t pick off any scabs by recounting them. (And if you’re not old enough to remember, well, consider yourself lucky.)

But this Capitals club seems so unlike its predecessors (even if the Crosby-Malkin Penguins are scarily similar to the Mario Lemieux-Jaromir Jagr Penguins). For one thing, the Caps have never had so much ability to overcome their own mistakes - that is, to lollygag their way to a 3-1 series deficit and come back to win, as they did against the Rangers and almost did last season against the Flyers.

Indeed, you get the sense with these Capitals that the slate is clean, that they approach this first playoff meeting with the Penguins unburdened by the past. Any why shouldn’t they? There isn’t a single player on the roster who was with the team in ‘01, the last time the Pens broke the Caps’ hearts. No, a different history is waiting to be written - if Ovechkin and his mates can find it within themselves to do it.

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