Thom Loverro: In this rivalry, defeats become more personal

Sidney Crosby is one game away from beating Alex Ovechkin in the first of what likely will be a series of drama-filled playoff battles between the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson of the NHL.

The Pittsburgh Penguins may have a 3-2 lead over the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals going into Monday night’s Game 6 in Pittsburgh. No matter who winds up winning the series, it will be remembered as the first time the two hockey superstars squared off in a playoff setting.

These are the games that count in the legacies of the great ones. Wilt Chamberlain won the scoring titles, but Bill Russell won the championships, and it is Russell who is remembered as the winner.

It is unfair. No one player wins or loses championships by himself. Russell had a better supporting cast on the Boston Celtics than Chamberlain did with those Philadelphia teams.

And there is far more to this playoff series than simply Ovechkin and Crosby. Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who got credit Saturday night for the winning goal in a 4-3 overtime victory at Verizon Center, is in the conversation as one of the best players in the game. But for whatever reasons that is not - and never will be - the legacy of this and every other playoff series the Caps and Penguins play for years to come.

Ovechkin, who has played like the one who should have his hand raised as champion at the end of the series, knows this is how he will be judged. It is him against Crosby, the darling of Canadian hockey. The two rivals will be forever linked.

If the Penguins win Monday night, Crosby is the victor. He is the one who will be the focus of attention as the Penguins move on to the Eastern Conference finals. Ovechkin will stay back in the District and wait for the NHL awards ceremony to see whether he wins another Hart Trophy.

It was a glorious time last year when Ovechkin won four awards. It was certainly enough to make everyone forget that it was Crosby who went to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Not this year. The individual honor will carry a bitter taste with it if rival Crosby is building a Stanley Cup legacy.

Again, not fair, but you can be sure that this burns inside him. We’ve all seen how Ovechkin recognizes that he will be measured throughout his career against Crosby and vice versa.

The thought of losing is something Ovechkin doesn’t even want to consider going into Monday night.

“If somebody thinks it’s over, it’s not over,” Ovechkin said. “We have opportunity to win the game, and we lost and we disappointed. But we’re going to come back here again Game 7. That’s our goal.

“This next game is the biggest game for us.”

Right now, it is for him.

It is not just losing this series that will hurt. It will be who Ovechkin loses it to.

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