- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

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.

Years from now, few other than Caps fans will remember that it was a puck off Tom Poti’s stick that gave the Penguins the game-winning goal Saturday night.

They will talk about Ovechkin and Crosby like they do Bird and Magic.

The pain of losing will be twofold for him, more than any of his teammates. His team will have lost a real opportunity to be where Crosby was last year - the Stanley Cup Finals - if they went on to win the Eastern Conference championship. But he will have lost to Crosby.

He will have lost to Don Cherry’s boy.

This is what Cherry told the Canadian Press in January about Crosby: “To me, he’s the most complete player in the NHL. This year, he’s playing for the team 100 percent.”

One month later, Cherry ripped Ovechkin for his so-called flaming stick celebration of his 50th goal.

Of course, we are probably watching the first of many postseason battles between Ovechkin and Crosby. Unlike Bird and Magic, we won’t have to wait until the finals for the opportunities to build this rivalry, since the Caps and the Penguins play in the same conference. And years from now, the first time Crosby beat Ovechkin in the Stanley Cup playoffs may be a footnote in what turns out to be a legacy of dominance by Ovechkin.

But right now, Ovechkin doesn’t want to spend a summer down 1-0 in the best-of-their-time rivalry to Crosby.

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