Teams' fate will soon overshadow Ovie-Sid matchup

WASHINGTON -- Philosopher George Berkeley posed the ageless question: If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody's around, does it make a sound?

Berkeley must have been a hockey fan.

Indeed, he might have pondered what kind of noise results from the meeting of two of hockey's young titans in a sadly empty building.

Is it an echo or a whimper? Or is it a bang, regardless of how many empty seats there are?

With Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby meeting for the first time this season and with Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin's Washington Capitals both defying observers by staying in the playoff hunt, one would have imagined that the lure of such a spectacle would have been strong enough to give the Capitals their first sellout of the season.

Instead, great gaping rows of empty purple Verizon Center seats greeted the two young stars as they conspired to produce a compelling, seesaw tilt that saw the Penguins fall behind 4-0 before stealing a 5-4 shootout victory.

Compelling? My goodness yes, despite the announced crowd of 14,793.

Yes, it was a Monday night. Yes, the announced attendance routinely runs between 10,000 to 13,000 for such games here in America's capital. But this was Ovechkin and Crosby. Not to mention Evgeni Malkin and the Caps' own Alexander Semin. It was as compelling a quartet of the game's most skilled young players as fans are going to find anywhere in the league.

And so there was a feeling of disappointment, a feeling of an opportunity lost, especially as the game unfolded.

The Penguins were overwhelmed by the tenacious Caps early on, giving up goals 46 seconds apart early in the first period. Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien told his players it was the worst he'd ever seen them play. Still, they gave up two more goals before the second period was six minutes old.

By the end of the second, Therrien had moved natural centers Malkin and Crosby onto the same line and the Penguins caught fire, making it 4-3 on a Crosby goal with 1:17 left in the frame. They tied it early in the third on Malkin's 15th of the season, setting the stage for a furious finish that had hundreds of Penguins fans celebrating in the aisles of the nosebleed sections. After killing off a penalty that carried into overtime, a penalty that gave Ovechkin a number of glorious scoring chances, Penguins fans were sent into delirium with a nifty head-fake goal by Malkin to salt it away in the shootout.

"From our perspective, we hadn't done anything to know where we stood," Crosby said after the game. "I think we just tried to put our game on the ice and see where it brought us."

The tendency in games like this is to focus solely on the stars and declare a winner at the outcome. Crosby bests Ovechkin, or something like that.

Last season, that storyline was pretty much all these two sorry teams had when they met, given that by the end of the season they had combined to lose 113 games in regulation and overtime.

But this season, the stakes are higher all the way around.

Both teams are suddenly thinking beyond maturation and development and moral victories to a wholly unexpected playoff berth. Which of the super sophomores has a better game four times a season suddenly seems a bit parochial.

It's what explains the tenacity of a game that had terrific ebb and flow and palpable urgency in spite of the empty seats. With 6:13 left in the second period, the two squads managed to engage in a pretty good dust-up that resulted in a series of game misconducts. There were a handful of other minor scrums the followed, suggesting that those who believe the new NHL game is all curly-cues and pirouettes haven't spent much time watching the Caps play.

Although it didn't look like it in the Washington dressing room, both teams actually come away from this tilt a step closer to where they want to be (OK, maybe just a half step for the Caps).

With the victory, the Penguins finished a three-game road trip with five of a possible six points and climbed into a three-way tie for ninth place in the Eastern Conference and just two points out of the final playoff spot. Despite blowing a 4-0 lead, the point earned by Washington moved them into a tie for seventh place.

By the time these two teams play for the final time this season on March 27, it might be with a playoff berth on the line, and the Ovechkin and Crosby storyline will be a subplot, a sidebar.

The idea brings to mind comments made by Washington coach Glen Hanlon before the game on how these two teams have a long history of not being particularly friendly with each other, how the singular focus on Ovechkin and Crosby should be a window onto a rivalry that dates back close to two decades, when both teams were playoff regulars.

Hanlon, as bright a coach as there is in the NHL, dutifully answered question after question about Ovechkin and Crosby leading up to Monday's game, but acknowledged he was tired of it.

"I've had enough and Alexander's had enough," Hanlon said. "We have to separate what the fans want and what we want. We're not here to try and promote one of our players over one of their players."

At its best, Monday's type of game offers a snapshot on what will hopefully be dozens of such confrontations. Some nights will go Crosby's way; on other nights, Ovechkin will prevail. Some nights will have meaning that far exceeds the individual contributions. Others less so. But each night will be a reminder, at least on some level, of what it means to watch players who exist in the clouds.

On Monday, it was Ovechkin early on. He recorded two assists, including a patented Ovechkin point in which he whiffed on a shot, went to the net, had a shot on net and then knocked down Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik so that Caps captain Chris Clark could score the team's third goal.

Later, it was Crosby helping to rally the Penguins, scoring the team's third goal off a Malkin feed with just 1:17 left in the second.

In overtime, Ovechkin couldn't make good on the power-play opportunities, a missed chance he lamented after the game. But he did score in the shootout, his first in 10 all-time shootout attempts.

The best part of all?

By the end, the buzz in the Verizon Center was electric. As it should be when the game's elite gather and turn in a performance worthy of the term. Even if there were thousands of empty seats that didn't bear witness to the event.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.