Future shines bright with Crosby, Ovechkin at helm

PITTSBURGH -- If the future of the NHL is a coin, one side bears the face of Sidney Crosby, and the other bears the likeness of Alexander Ovechkin.

And a shiny coin it is, tossed for the first time before the NHL world Tuesday night.

That it came up Crosby as the Penguins edged Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals 5-4, will ultimately be more trivia fodder than defining moment for either player. But in terms of a taste of what lies ahead, the first NHL meeting between the rookie titans exceeded the considerable hype that preceded it.

And how often does that happen?

"It's exciting considering where we've been in the NHL," said Pittsburgh head coach Ed Olczyk, referring to last year's lockout. "It's something that was real special and a lot of people were talking about it."

Someone jokingly asked whether Olczyk feared for the league after watching the two first-round draft picks take turns dictating the ebb and flow of the game.

"No. I don't fear for the future with these two guys," Olczyk said.

In the Penguins' dressing room, Crosby was swallowed by a phalanx of television cameras and reporters. Still in his skates, Penguins baseball cap turned backwards on his head, it must seem to Crosby that he has lived half his life in such scrums.

As usual, he was patient, if not predictable.

Although he was the single-most dominant player on the ice with a goal and an assist and legitimate chances at five more points, Crosby praised Ovechkin's skill while admitting that perhaps the buildup to the game had heightened the emotion of the evening.

"You want to be ready for a challenge, obviously, the way it was built up," he said.

On the other side of Mellon Arena, Ovechkin, who chipped in an assist as the Capitals fought back from an early 4-0 deficit to within one, rode a stationary bike by himself, an ice pack on his shoulder after an early encounter with veteran Mark Recchi.

Twice Ovechkin thought he scored, raising his arms after first a rising slapshot somehow missed the open half of the Penguins' net and then, after a sparkling move in which he dragged the puck behind him and through his skates while racing around a Penguin defender, was denied by netminder Sebastien Caron.

"I thought I scored," a disappointed Ovechkin said. "But it was a good save. Tomorrow we play Tampa and we must forget this game. And play tomorrow hard."

The tendency is to examine a game like this in terms of player vs. player as though it was a prize fight and not a test of 38 men. But does anyone remember who won more games when Gretzky and Lemieux faced off over the span of their two careers?

No. People celebrated instead the chance to watch the intersection of rare talents, talents that manifested themselves in completely different ways.

If Tuesday's matchup is a harbinger of things to come, it will be so with Ovechkin and Crosby.

On this night, both players were the best players on the ice, as they have been on many nights in this NHL season. As the game seesawed from what looked to be a Penguins blowout to a nail-biting, one-goal game, the two took turns impressing with an array of skilled moves and gritty determination.

"They both played great," said Washington goaltender Olie Kolzig. "This is the first time I've seen Crosby play live and he's something special. But we've got something special over here, too. They are going to face each other a ton more times in their careers. It's going to be fun to watch, that's for sure."

What is appealing about the two is that they represent different backgrounds, different personalities and different styles.

There is Ovechkin, brash and buoyant, gamely answering all interview requests. The first pick in the 2004 entry draft insisted on having a North American roommate so he could learn the language. Even in his not quite comfortable English, Ovechkin's joie de vivre is apparent. He has joked about learning that he can't pay off police officers when speeding in America as might be the case in Russia. Asked about his darker-than-normal visor that gives him a slight Star Wars look, Ovechkin is candid.

"I think it's my style. I don't know. I don't want to be like everybody. Me, it's me," Ovechkin said.

Asked recently who his favorite player is, Ovechkin quickly answered, "Me."

If Crosby is smooth as silk, Ovechkin is made of fabric slightly more course but no less stylish.

On his first shift, Ovechkin got under the skin of Recchi, the two jawing and pestering each other the length of the ice before Recchi gave Ovechkin a gentle poke in the visor in a brief scrum at the end of the play.

This physicality is one of the most glaring differences between the first overall picks in the last two entry drafts.

"Well, my job is to score goals not fight," Ovechkin said prior to Tuesday's game. Still, he admitted, "it's not a big deal to fight somebody. You play hard. If you have a chance to fight, why not?"

While playing in the Russian elite league last season, Ovechkin made news when he delivered a devastating open-ice hit on Sergei Gonchar that hospitalized Gonchar briefly with a mild concussion. The legend is that when asked about the hit Ovechkin responded with, "Welcome to the Russian super league, Sergei."

But Gonchar, a Penguins defenseman, said Ovechkin and his family visited the hospital immediately to ensure he was OK.

"I didn't see him coming at all," Gonchar said of the hit. "But there's no hard feelings. He was calling every day at the hospital. He's a nice kid."

Crosby isn't afraid to go into traffic but he is like Gretzky, hard to pin down, elusive, a low center of gravity making it difficult to dislodge him from the puck. Midway through the first period, at the end of a shift that saw the two rookies on the ice at the same time, Crosby set up rookie linemate Erik Christensen in front of the Washington net but Christensen steered the puck just wide.

On his next shift, Crosby took a pass from Ziggy Palffy just inside the Washington blue line, flipped the puck past the two defenders and danced between them into the clear before freezing Kolzig with a fake and lifting a backhand under the crossbar to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead.

It was Crosby's 11th goal of the season and team-leading 26th point. He leads all rookie scorers.

Crosby's most memorable moment turned out to be the most crucial. Although being brought down by a check to Kolzig's right, Crosby, with one knee on the ice, still managed to whip a backhand pass across the front of the Caps' net to a wide open Palffy who potted his second of the night to make the score 5-2.

It would stand as the winning goal, in part because of Ovechkin's efforts.

After averaging seven minutes of ice-time through the first two periods, Ovechkin was often double-shifted in the third period, playing 11 minutes and 13 seconds of the final frame as the Caps very nearly tied the game. Early in the third, Ovechkin took a hit along the boards but still managed to free Matt Pettinger with a nifty pass, who scored to make the score 5-3.

The differences between the two players underscore fundamental similarities.

Both have exceeded expectations both in terms of their deportment and their contributions to their teams.

Both are the best players on their respective teams, a fact that is more impressive for Crosby, given that he counts among his teammates talented players like Recchi, Lemieux, Palffy, John LeClair and Gonchar.

In Ovechkin's case, he is a shining gem in a field of rubble as the Capitals attempt to rebuild around the Moscow native. Ovechkin's 15 goals are 11 more than the next-closest player on the Caps' roster.

"The pressure hasn't gotten to him," said Brian Willsie, who rooms with Ovechkin on the road. "He's really humble and just a great kid to be around."

"He's like everybody. He dreamed of being in the NHL and now he's there and he's enjoying it. I don't know how much he pays attention to the hype of him and Sidney Crosby."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.