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“How do you describe it? It’s a rivalry - that’s what it is,” Crosby said. “It’s intense. We compete. … Usually when we play each other we try to raise our game, and that’s difficult. The goal is to win the series; it’s not about him.

“Do I wake up hoping to see Ovechkin fail? No, I don’t. He’s a guy I play against. He’s a great player, and we’re competitive against each other. There’s an element there when the media puts us up against each other, and that’s just the way it is.”

Said Ovechkin with a mischievous grin: “He is superstar. Me - just like you guys.”

If their careers were to be defined as a boxing match, Ovechkin took Round 1 by collecting the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2006. Round 2 went to Crosby; in 2007 at age 19, he won the Art Ross Trophy as league scoring champion and both league MVP awards.

Ovechkin surged back in Round 3, sweeping four individual awards (Richard, Ross, Hart and Pearson) and compiling one of the best regular seasons in a generation with 65 goals and 112 points last year. Still, the Russian dynamo was forced to watch as Crosby and the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Finals after his team was forced out in the first round.

Thanks to Carolina’s late rally against New Jersey in Game 7, Round 4 now awaits. Ovechkin had a better regular season, collecting a second straight Maurice Richard Trophy with a league-best 56 goals. Crosby finished behind both Ovechkin and teammate Evgeni Malkin in the scoring race.

But none of the personal achievements will matter after the next four to seven games. Casual sports fans don’t remember that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the 1985 NBA Finals MVP; they remember Magic’s Lakers beating Bird’s Celtics to avenge a loss in the championship series the previous year.

“If [Ovechkin] scores two goals but we lose the hockey game and Crosby has zero goals, we don’t win and [Ovechkin] doesn’t win,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “The determining factor is going to be what your team does and not what the individual does.”

One thing is for sure: Nearly everyone in the hockey community will be watching. This series is already being hyped as the biggest in the NHL in years. The media contingent at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for Washington’s practice Thursday was easily the largest of the season - and half the people reporting on this series were in Pittsburgh to watch the Penguins work out.

Once the teams come together, chaos could ensue. For the players, navigating the off-ice hysteria will be key to victory on the ice. But it is also a necessary evil for the future of the league.

That doesn’t make the saga any easier for the rest of the players to stomach.

“But it is awesome because it brings a lot of exposure to hockey and a lot of exposure to Washington and to Pittsburgh, which aren’t huge markets,” Caps captain Chris Clark said. “I enjoy answering the questions, but it does get long. Then again, if we didn’t have it, would we have the attention? I love it. It is two of the greatest guys going against each other.”

Added Caps defenseman Brian Pothier: “I think it is phenomenal for the league. … It will be our best players against their best players, and it will sort of be a dream matchup for the league and just hockey in general. All hockey fans are going to want to watch these games. If I was on a different team, I would definitely be tuning into this series.”